Saturday, April 18, 2015

There are times when I wish she had never taken the boat

Nonetheless, take the boat she did, and after arriving in England in 1927, Mrs Ronald Tree began to create the mythic Englishness at the heart of sappy Virginian Decoration in England – a style now known on this side of the pond as "English" or a tad less mystifyingly as "English Country House."

It was, one might suppose, one of history's happier coincidences – if less earth-shattering than some might have one believe given the amount of twaddle written about them – the eventual partnership of Tree, or Nancy Lancaster as she became, and John Fowler, and given its success, inevitably, the association led to many imitators. After years of maudlin chintzes being pitchforked across battalions of bergeres, tables, sofas and windows, this so-called English style has been reduced to a wretched formula, leading to rooms that are prosaic and analgesic, where elements are constant, whoever the decorator, from magazine to blog to Pinterest to Instagram and back again. Some decorators strive to convince us it's a snappy American style and, arguably, given with whom it began, they're not wrong but my point remains, English or American, it's still the same stuff all the time.

Where's the originality, I wonder? Who has the ability to look at a space and not want to recreate what everyone has published in magazines, books, and online for the past umpteen years: be it a Fifth Avenue version of a salon from Chateau de Ferrieres; a dining room from Pavlosk; Nancy Lancaster's Brook Street yellow room; everything by no-lady Mendl; the same white room by Syrie Maugham;  badly-drawn cabbage roses, black-and-white-stripes and big baroque moulding by Dorothy Draper; nothing I can remember of demimondaine Rose Cumming's outré offerings, and far too much by Cecil Beeton. The list is longer but I'll draw the line here.

Mentioning Cecil Beeton does bring to mind an idea I occasionally have – that there might be a difference between gay and straight decorating. Not that I am suggesting that Mr Beeton was homosexual – heaven forfend! – but if he were, would it be possible to infer that there was a certain gayness in his work and his houses, theatrical as one might say they were. BUT, I digress …

Perhaps I'm wrong in hoping for originality and individuality from decorators when I suspect what clients mostly want is to conform to a perception of monied propriety. Respectability, like virtue and good manners, is a concept created in copywriters lairs, so why would a client want to stand out when conforming and being told one is unique is merely a matter of image creation by publicist, photographer, stylist and copywriter?

Consider the undoubtedly beautiful room above – and to be clear, I really do find it beautiful but, to my point, it's more of the same. I have not read about the room in Elle Decor (which I do not take) but to my eye it conforms to mainstream expectations of social background and economic status, and it projects a strong image to the world about the inhabitant's status against that background. In other words, it is a room of parade – not quite a State Room but nearly so.

By contrast, the room above, by a decorator in England, has some of the same elements as the room above, but the objective is different – here I don't have to rely on deductions based on a photograph but can read a text. A quotation will be illustrative.

"To accommodate the owner's preference for contemporary art, a balance had to be struck between the majestic interior and the contents planned for it. Chester achieved this by buying a huge painting by Mimmo Paladino, which is even larger than the room's dominant central wall panel, and by placing below it a 3-metre (10-foot) banquette fronted by a massive coffee table. The style may be entirely different, but the scale and weight of these elements are so compatible with the room's architecture that the problem is resolved. The rest of the room is a mixture of contemporary art, modern furniture, tribal artefacts, and appropriately scaled antiques." [Italics mine]

I added the italics because the sentence is not about decoration but about design – note the words "the problem is resolved." So much of modern interior decoration, especially by the devotees of mid-century-anything, seems a lemming-like rush to publicity with a consequent dumbing-down of expectations by everyone concerned. I read yesterday of a designer without design education dancing her way into fame and product lines in fabric houses and wondered if her experience was not untypical. I have no idea how many of the media darlings have any design education but I wonder if it matters for with fame and fortune comes image creation by publicist, photographer, stylist and copywriter. Quite where education fits in any longer is hard to say.

This room with its George I paneling I find one of the best examples of twenty-first-century traditional interior design. I have scored through the word "traditional" because I feel this room shows exactly how a cultured and literate decorator can span the demarcations we normally think of in decoration.  Besides that highfalutin' stuff, this is a room one would enjoy walking into, sitting down with drink to hand, reading one's iPad (rediscovering Georgette Heyer in my case), listening to sublime music (Missa Papae Marcelli) – if one is not napping on the sofa – or simply waiting peacefully for dinner to be ready. What better in such a room?

First photograph from Instagram but I think originally from here.
Second and third photographs also from Instagram but originally from here.

Thursday, April 9, 2015

A man rarely mentioned

A man rarely thought of nowadays, except perhaps by design students in thesis research, Herman Muthesius, a German architect, author and diplomat, is best known outside Germany for three volumes published in 1904 and 1905 as Das englische Haus (The English House) and for promoting the tenets of the English Arts and Crafts movement in Germany after his return home after a sojourn in England – a championing that eventually influenced the founders of Modernism such as the Bauhaus.*

That's a pretty strong statement to make about a man – "a championing that eventually influenced the founders of Modernism" – even when one has known about him for years, but especially if all one has "known" is that he was German, that he wrote a book titled The English House that allegedly influenced the beginnings of Modernism, and that one has never read it. Such a statement could be considered the essence of foolishness, academically speaking. 

I had set off looking for inglenooks, still finding the photograph (above) from the modern house in Germany intriguing and, in my professorish way, thinking about tropes for shelter and retreat (yawn) when, in one of my books, I found a late nineteenth-century English house Muthesius had actually known and written about. Something new and much more fun than tropes, I thought.  

"Built in 1898-1900 as a holiday home for the Manchester brewer Sir Edward Holt, Blackwell is a masterpiece of great subtlety and artistic imagination by the Arts and Crafts architect H. M. Baillie Scott. Herman Muthesius described it in Das englische Haus (1905) as 'one of the most attractive creations that the new movement in house-building has produced,' and it is regarded as a pivotal work in the architect's career. There are references to C. F. A. Voysey in some of the vernacular detail; much of the internal decoration belongs to a late flowering of the Art Nouveau style, while the clean, unadorned lines of the exterior and the play with abstract space look forward to modernism."

"Blackwell signifies an important moment in European domestic building, when architects began to reconsider the way houses were used. The flowing open plan revolves around a large, double-height hall, a place where the family could congregate at the heart of the house, with an inglenook hearth and adjoining window seat representing warmth, solidity, and comfort. This emphasis on the hearth, with the inglenook fireplace as a theme running through the house, reflects the influence of Norman Shaw, as does the 'Old English'-style half-timbering on the wall of a small room above the inglenook. There is a certain complexity about the way the hall is compartmentalised, with areas of lower ceiling representing different functions within a single space. The billiard room occupies one end, doing away with the Victorian tradition of segregating the male domain. The dining room is a separate room beyond. Everywhere light, space, colour, and texture are carefully orchestrated to create a sense of drama. The climax comes in moving from the warm, oak-wainscoted hall into the brilliantly lit White Drawing Room, one of Baillie Scott's finest interiors and an intensely feminine room. Here, capitals, frieze, ceiling, and stained glass flow with naturalistic decoration in a delicate Art Nouveau style. The room has a great feeling of modernity and exemplifies Muthesius's claim that Baillie Scott was 'the first to have realised as an autonomous work of art.' "

Odd to think, at first glance, a house such as this, even remotely, having an influence on those who founded modernism, but some, reading the quotation, will recognize similarities with Lloyd Wright's work and would also certainly know that during those years, there was for the first time a two-way exchange of ideas about architecture, art and society, across the Atlantic, as America took its place in the world. 

Muthesius's books (plural) are, in fact, a survey of British nineteenth-century domestic architecture, predominantly by Arts and Crafts architects; H M Baillie Scott, C R Mackintosh, William Morris, Norman Shaw, C A Voysey, William Lethaby, and Philip Webb.** 

When he left England in 1903, Herman Muthesius continued to write about architecture and design and returned to his architectural career, concentrating on houses. For many, if not all, in the English Arts and Crafts movement, industry was rejected in favor of handcraft; in America, in the Craftsman movement, not so; and in Germany there was debate about the old way and the new (I am of necessity simplifying here, hard as it is to reduce a movement to a few words) – a debate of which Muthesius was part. During a lecture in Berlin in 1907 he extolled new construction methods and materials, things so commonplace to us nowadays – steel and reinforced concrete, the very the innards of modernism – that he was vilified by the Association for the Economic Interests of the Arts and Crafts for being perfidious about German products. Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose you may well be thinking at this point – if you're still with me, that is. The fuss, also known as the "Muthesius Affair," led to Muthesius's supporters leaving the Association and founding the Deutscher Werkbund which led eventually to the creation of the Bauhaus and thence… but that's for another day. 

Most of us work in, and many of us live in (like it or not) a Modernist world. And yet, madmen that we are, many of us prefer to romanticize it, quietly ignoring the fact that mid-century "modern" is now, at 60 years and counting, as historicist as is decorating with Art Nouveau or Craftsman.

*Based on Wikipedia's entry on Herman Muthesius. 

** Wikipedia's entry on The English House is more extensive than I could ever cover but explains      the content of Muthesius's work very well.

Quotation from text of Chapter Blackwell of The English Country House: From the Archives of Country Life, by Mary Miers, Rizzoli, 2009. 

Photographs are from the book and are by Country Life photographers. 

Saturday, April 4, 2015

The Book of Kells, Complexity and Ramification and the Death of a President

"Have I ever told you about the first time I saw the Book of Kells? The flight last year to Ireland … my ancient age … I shall not travel again but, I can tell you, I'm so grateful I was able to travel as much as I did when I was younger … places you daren't go anymore. Some places are no longer even there to go to! It was all different … Etruscan sites you trudged to through fields and the farmer let you in … you've been to the Villa Julia in Rome of course … that lovely reclining couple. " So began another Friday lunchtime conversation with my old prof. 

"The first time I saw the Book of Kells it was covered with a glass box and, other than the librarian, I was the only person there and I paid nothing. It still is covered by a glass box and the place now is full of people, there are informative displays all beautifully done and it costs $18 to get in. You've seen it, of course."

"Actually not," I said, "I have never been to Ireland and I haven't ever wanted to go." As surprised as she was she listened as I began my tale.

Kate knew I had lived in London during the 1970s but had never connected that with the IRA (Irish Republican Army) beginning its terrorist operations there. The history of those ten years is complex and not unhappy (after all, towards the end of them, I met the Celt) but I remember the fear and the uncertainty caused by the terrorists (they considered themselves military and people like me as civilians) – I remember twice turning corners in the West End and hearing and feeling bombs explode behind me; I remember sitting with friends above Bond Street and, on opening the window after realizing how quiet it was outside, being screamed at by a policeman behind a barricade to get out of the building and away from the isolated car parked but yards away down on the street; I remember too, a bomb detonated at a bus stop outside Green Park tube station, killing a twenty-three-year old man … just standing at a bloody bus stop, for God's sake … and injuring many other people including children; and … and… etc. I remember a lot and have, thankfully, forgotten much.

Forgotten, maybe, yet this story, such as it could be over lunch, made me angry and I wanted to stop talking about it, which I found hard to do, so resentful was I about those years.  I did say though I wasn't in any way comparing IRA terrorism with the Holocaust, to some extent I understood why my old friend, a Jew, would not visit Germany, and that I still couldn't hear the word Boston without remembering where much financial support for the IRA came from.

Visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation, indeed.

Every Friday we lunch, my old prof and I, and that day we ended with how she'd been in Cork when John Kennedy drove by in a big American automobile that must have been specially imported for him. One year later the President was dead and, if you are given reading the entrails, so began civilization's tumble down the rabbit hole. 

Monday, March 30, 2015

A retreat to spaces and places where the past is loved and knowledge was a quest ...

"As for the condition of the world which is devolving in front of our eyes faster than the speed of light, one simply has to sigh, retreat to spaces and places where the past is loved and knowledge was a quest rather than a google"

So wrote "home before dark" a sometimes and always pithy commenter on this blog, in response to the first post about Geoffrey Bennison.  As usual, her comments gave me much to think about and coincided with my finding the photographs you see here and having the idea I express below. 

The idea of retreat is so commonplace nowadays especially in bedroom and bathroom design – so mainstream, in fact, I wonder whether using the term is more reflex than conscious choice. Serenity and retreat are words that so often go together in copywriter's puffs that the eye glazes over. I feel rather they should be banned from any blogger's writings in the same way no-one ever should write or say "to the next level." But, Regina Grammatica-mode, notwithstanding, I shall shut up about it now and come back to that at a later date.

So, let me say again, I'm not overly-impressed with the state of interior decorating and, rather than continue to bleet, I want to investigate within the limits of my own aesthetic education and social values what and I think is of real significance. In other words, I want to clear away the dross and get down to architecture, the Maslowian instinct to decorate, the balance between commercial and aesthetic pressures and, maybe, just enjoy myself. If I occasionally lapse into professor mode, I hope you will forgive me.

The two photographs are by Thomas Heimman and are from Dezeen here – one of the most interesting and occasionally irritating blogs about design.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

A last chapter, a fresh take on artful, modern classics and Tumblr, OMG, Ah'm Luvn' This

Fittingly, Gillian Newberry's excellent book about Geoffrey Bennison closes with a chapter touching on the interiors he began for Isobel Goldsmith. Bennison was halfway through this work when he died of a stroke, leaving his team of craftsmen to create what they, from long experience, knew he wanted to achieve. And, judging by these photographs of the library, they succeeded superbly.

Occasionally, I mention misgivings I have, (beliefs or prejudices, depending on your point of view) about the ability for the modern generation to deal with complexity in design, beyond what, risibly, is called layering. Buying specially-made trinkets usually dignified with the name Home Decor by famous personages whose seasonal "new arrivals" purportedly are "fresh takes of artful, modern classics" and scattering them – oh, excuse me! punctuating an interior with them – ain't layering a room any more than draping codswallop across a chandelier would be. But, let me not get carried away, for I have my prejudices.

Complexity in the way that Geoffrey Bennison dealt with it, for me, and I hesitate to use this analogy, is like the complexity of a well-made fruitcake. For those of you who only know the commercial variety, or only know of it, and merely subscribe to the perennial joke about fruitcake, the real thing made from the best ingredients, following a recipe from the early twentieth-century, well-matured, offering multiple yet unified layers of texture, color, and flavor, should come as a very pleasant surprise – much, in fact, as Bennison's rooms should after the celebrity-ridden, undiscerning mid-century-fetishism, and disagreeable flash of the last few years.

I am by no means advocating a return to late-ninetheenth century eclecticism, even if Bennison's style were such – there's enough last-century historicism being peddled right now, with more to come, without that – but what I will say is that I question whether anyone knows anything any longer or, worse, cares to. Where are the people who will write the next generation of scholarship? Where are the Israel Sacks of this generation? The Margaret Jourdains; the Geoffrey Beards; the John Cornforths or the Peter Thorntons? Where, as important, are those that will read the books yet to be published? These aren't rhetorical questions, at least not to me, because I have a distinct and sinking feeling that no longer is it true, culturally speaking, that no man is an island.

A strange idea, that residential design teaching is at a low point, given the number of so-called design schools there are in this country but, based on my experience as Chair of a CIDA-accredited interior design department at the time undergoing an, ultimately successful, reaccreditation process, and what I have subsequently heard about local schools, I am sure that residential design teaching is at its lowest standing ever. Surprising, or not, given what one sees in the magazines and most of the so-called designer monographs. I'll return to this.

The more Tumblr takes over from the OMG, Ah'm Luvn' This blogs (the literary kind) the more saturated and bored one becomes for, seemingly, everybody is "reblogging" from each other. It is as if posting a reblogged image alone is sufficient and obviates the need for further commentary. The really good thing is that one can see how bad the state of the industry is and how good of the really bad stuff is thought to be.

Did I just write "The really good thing is … "? OMG*

*OMG According to Scott, no-one over fifty should be using OMG when texting. Emojis are still allowed. Phew!

Photos are from the book which I stress is really worth having in your library, on your coffee table and in your hands to read.

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

The magic that was Geoffrey Bennison

I'm very glad to finally have this book but what struck me is how slim it is compared to many a designer monograph about people still living and who are much younger now than Geoffrey Bennison was when he died thirty-one years ago. The book's slimness does rather belie the excellent quality of its contents. The problem, of course, is that Geoffrey Bennison died relatively young (sixty-three years old) and his oeuvre is small – yet Gillian Newberry did not subtitle her book about Bennison Master Decorator for nothing, so full of treasures is it.

I have written a number of times about Bennison (see sidebar Labels) including him as a member of the Lost Generation though his name was not forgotten, as are the names of many. The author of this book, with others, kept the Bennison name in front of the public through his fabric designs and now, splendidly, with this book. 

In the introduction, John Richardson, calls his friend Geoffrey Bennison "England's best decorator" and this book goes a long way to proving his point. Bennison, however camp he might have been in his humor and way of commenting at life, was no satin britches, powder and patch kind of decorator.

I'll keep my opinion to myself as to whether or not he was the best but see how many times I have written about him. I sought photographs of the Lord Weidenfeld rooms above for a long time, having glimpsed them once but never found them, and here they are in all their literary splendor. Some of my favorite Bennison rooms.

A 19th-century automaton of a seated pasha 
which smokes a hookah and raises a coffee cup to its lips
In Bennison's living room

This is a book entirely worth having. Believe me, you will pore over it and go back to it time after time. It is a treasure.  

I'm making this recommendation purely for the pleasure of doing so – my only recompense. Oh, and I bought my copy here

Friday, March 13, 2015

Well, as I was saying ...

"Gentlemen, it's by the man who designed your dining chairs and the building is the same color, bronze."

Bronze Brno, and a Chinese Crested Powderpuff
taking a Chance on love

Three dapper dudes dashing along Park Avenue intent on buying Belgian loafers are not easily turned by a suggestion from the fourth member of the troupe to detour for a building but, major pout notwithstanding, we walked the extra couple of blocks to gaze at the most elegant International Style building in the city. Ludwig Mies van der Rohe didn't figure much in our conversation thereafter but the Four Seasons restaurant, Philip Johnson's lunchtime habits, the Mark Rothko commission, and a fancy for shoes with epicene little bows occupied the three-minute trek to the Waldorf-Astoria for the cocktails I'd promised to stop 'em bleating about the cold.

Three dapper dudes

To see and be seen one of the blandishments offered by the blurb writer of Peacock Alley Bar for,  looking back, that day two women, classical in inspiration if not origin, occupied my mind. The first, her back to me when I took my chair, turned to look as I sat and as she stared, I thought, as one does when a gorgon-gaze alights, quos deus vult perdere, prius dementat. There she sat, bringing to mind nothing less than a bridge-and-tunnel Fury, hair a perfect ice storm immobile as she chewed gum, sipped wine and turned her head towards her slack-bellied Perseus, planning her next pursuit. In reality, possibly, as kind a granny as one might wish but that image did not fit my sense of being found wanting, so sinking my thoughts into the sunny land of Blurberry, I sipped a "hand-crafted cocktail," and ruminated on the inventiveness of today's innovative cocktail culture. "There you go," I said, "thinking like a blurb, yourself now!"

As the three dapper dudes blathered I read that "Bar mixologist Frank Caiafa pour (sic) premium shelf, rare and house-infused spirits, classic cocktails and has invented a series of contemporary and exclusive libations" and wished for the days when mixologists were still barmen and barmaids (I know, I know ...) premium shelf was just top shelf, and we all believed what we tippled was made in a factory somewhere in New Jersey and, frankly, cared less.

Helen Mirren, the second woman of that day, is a marvel to more than me, I know. I had never seen her live as it were, and I'm loathe to say even after seeing The Audience she is one of the great actresses of our time – such a Vanity Fairish superlative, I feel – but she impressed the hell out of me that night. Who else at the age of sixty-nine could convincingly inhabit, however briefly, the role of of a twenty-something, grieving young woman and, further, have the emotional range (without the gothic histrionics expected from most actresses of the day) to portray not only a woman aging, but a monarch maturing, over a reign of sixty years during which she has to deal with twelve Prime Ministers who govern in her name. A "stellar" performance indeed and the supporting cast was equally brilliant - the actress playing Margaret Thatcher almost had me raging in my seat so much did I, and still do, despise the original. Harold Wilson, always my favourite PM was a joy to watch, and the actor playing Churchill played the great man right. It's real professionalism to do this every day, and it's real magic to make one forget the actor or actress and just see the character. Helen Mirren has both.

I hadn't meant this to be a theatre review but I found The Audience so wonderful and perfect for a cold night in Manhattan and as a celebration of old friends' new lives in the city – with or without Belgian Loafers. In case you are interested, I do not own a pair and am not ever likely to.

When I stopped blogging three months ago I received many kind comments most of which expressed a wish that I would eventually reconsider. When I announced a few days ago I wanted to begin again I immediately began to receive comments welcoming me back. I was so moved and still am.

Someday I will write about a journey with a black dog (one that so many share) and if you want to see where my awareness of that journey began look for the gypsy caravan.