Sunday, May 17, 2015

A book recommendation and the persistence of an idea

I'm not sure why since I came back from California I've been captivated by dining rooms, but many a time I've sat in mine in the early morning sun, black dog at my feet, leafing through books searching for rooms I like. I found many of the formal kind, fewer of the less so, and not a few that were nothing more than showing off. Stylists rule, I guess. I came across old favorites, other rooms I'd forgotten about, influences and, two days ago at an evening event at my favorite furniture store, a book about a Spanish decorator, the Marquis of Azpeztequia, who died in January this year – a fact that surprisingly made hardly a ripple in the design social media here. 

I first knew of the Marquis of Azpeztequia, better known to the English-speaking world as Jaime Parladé, from the pages of The World of Interiors during the 1980s, with photographs of a house for a couple from Bilbao (I learn from the book it is no longer standing), which at the time made both of us fell in love with pink-lined linen sheers and cream-colored crewel upholstered furniture. Seeing those rooms again brings it all back and I would like to write about them in the future to see if I can recapture the magic – for magic it was and Señor Parladé was no trickster. These two dining rooms in Spain are by him, the first with walls of toile de jouy and the second of cordovan painted leather, and illustrate what I realize now I was searching for all those mornings and had to go out of the house to find – atmosphere. 

Nowadays there are many who decorate or, as my old prof would put it, desecrate – it all depends on your point of view –  but few create atmosphere. It could be argued that atmosphere is a combination of stylist, lens, photographer and lighting and I tend to agree, for one has only to see realtors' photographs of once famously atmospheric rooms to recognize that the skill of a good photographer is paramount when working with rooms of any subtlety. It is the combination of the two professionals – the two artists, if you will – that create the intangible that lifts off the page. 

Jaime Parladé
  Ricardo Labougle, Joaquín Corté, Derry Moore, photographers
This is the third of three books about decorators I have felt worth buying this year

The Formal Dining Room
"More than any other room in the house, the dining room is a place for old traditions, a scene of ritual use where we can indulge in memories of the way our parents and grandparents did things in days gone by. We can put to use objects we have inherited from previous generations without their seeming like irrelevant artifacts. Many otherwise modern people when using their dining rooms actually enjoy returning to the vanished world of manners commonly thought to have been more gentle and refined than our own."

Mark Hampton
Fort Worth, Texas

Almost thirty years ago, Mark Hampton wrote about the essential nostalgia and costly exhibitionism of dining rooms. His essay, The Integrity of Dining Rooms, written at a time of resurgence of an idea first established, allegedly, during the eighteenth-century – that of a room dedicated to dining, not communally in the medieval manner, but socially for members of le beau monde. So well-written and apparently personal is it, it is easy to forget that Mr Hampton's essay, written at the height of the trickle-down economy, should be seen as precisely what it was, a piece of marketing for the magazine in which it appeared, the long-ago defunct House and Garden, and his own flourishing business working for those who had created that economy. 

David Hicks
Oval dining room, Britwell Salome

David Mlinaric
The Salon Rouge, British Embassy, Paris

Geoffrey Bennison
Lord Weidenfeld's dining room 

Exquisite but unattributed from Instagram

An eighteenth-century dessert setting 
 A recreation of the French manner at Waddesdon

Formal dining rooms persist in this modern age – when for most people, I should think, beyond the seasonal reenactments of Rockwellesque family gatherings that are a powerful tool for selling the idea of family to families – the actual need for a room solely dedicated to dining, is rare. Essentially a room of ceremony and parade, the formal dining room co-exists with the "great room" – that combination of kitchen, living room and dining space so useful to the modern family – and unless the family is given to much entertaining at table, is a status symbol as vestigial as the human tail. Belonging as it does to the "public" part of a dwelling where the inhabitants are characterized by what they display in terms of possessions and behavior, an inordinate amount of money may be spent on it. And so the dining room goes on, generation after generation, lugged around as Coleridge said in another context:  

Ah ! well a-day ! what evil looks
Had I from old and young !
Instead of the cross, the Albatross
About my neck was hung

The Happiness and Heartache
Christmas Eve
Carl Larsson

His First Birthday
Frederick Morgan

The Health of the Bride
Stanhope Forbes

Mariage de Convenance 
Sir William Quiller Orchardson

Two night ago, beneath a beautiful Venetian chandelier, seven of us dined on gumbo, salad and bread pudding and I thought then however grand the room, atmosphere also comes from the mood of people with whom one sits, not from dimmed lighting so beloved of restaurateurs and which has begun now to sap the joy from residential dining spaces. We were a crowd international in origin – Mexican, British, Spanish, Texan and Chinese – and a jolly one, despite three of us being very serious architects. We ended the evening, skirting the hiphop-throbbing frat houses of Georgia Tech, with a viewing of the College of Architecture's adaptive reuse of the Hinman Research Building. It's the kind of thing one does, at midnight after a good dinner with architects,

A most magnificent space, an erstwhile machine shop, likened too easily to a cathedral as are many older industrial spaces (the present-day Tate Modern, for example) and not shown to advantage by my iPhone photographs, hence this link to official Geogia Tech images.

Personal Preferences
Melvyn Dwork
New York

Joseph Braswell

William Hodgkins

Tino Zervudachi

"Atmosphere" is where I begin my search for images of rooms that could give me ideas for our sparsely furnished dining room. More alcove than room, we use it every day and at the weekends we breakfast there too. Facing full east, it's the ideal place for weekend relaxing over a second cup with iPads, especially when the the plumbago is in bloom, the hummingbirds squabble and dart about, and the clouds build.

Some of the best times have been spent at that table listening to the Jeweler, such a rare friend and a superb raconteur much given to elliptical digressions and occasional jaw-dropping transgressions that can cause tear-inducing and cathartic belly laughs. His partner, the Celt's much valued friend, is of a quieter bent – though occasionally disposed to slipping off dining chairs onto dogs – and typically looks on in wide-eyed, if speechless mellowness. The rest of us try not to simultaneously inhale and chew, and end the evening with a feeling of magnificent well-being that has nothing to do with bourbon and everything to do with companionship and laughter.

Drama we don't need – gawd knows the world provides enough of that – but good lighting is an absolute. Since my eyes have deteriorated, I cannot clearly see who is at the other side of the table but the whorls of fingerprint left by the maid on the silver is completely identifiable and as to the number of angels dancing on the head of a pin, I can be precise. Candlelight is wonderful for smoothing out wrinkles; Botox better, I hear, but until the mooncalf look becomes acceptable for everyone, I'll keep the beeswax burning. Candlelit dining tables are divinely romantic but I do worry once in a while, when surrounded by acquaintances caressing their newly Botox-injected faces to see if they still have them, that these candle flames, by some mischance, a stray breeze and the clouds of fragrance with a superabundance of sillage, might become the final conflagration that takes down the whole universe.

Atlanta, Georgia
Early morning coffee with one of my peeps 
Beyond, a view to the dining table

The Health of the Bride, Stanhope Forbes from Paradise Lost, Christopher Wood, Trafalgar Square Publishing, 1988

Mariage de ConvenanceSir William Quiller Orchardson, from Victorian Painting, Christopher Wood,  Bulfinch Press, Little, Brown and Company, 1999

His First Birthday, Frederick Morgan, from Victorian Painting, Christopher Wood,  Bulfinch Press, Little, Brown and Company, 1999

Christmas Eve, from The World of Carl Larsson, The Green Tiger Press, La Jolla, 1982

Recreation of an eighteenth-century dessert setting in the French manner at Waddesdon from Flora Domestica: A History of British Flower Arranging 1500-1930, Mary Rose Blacker, photography by Andreas von Eisiedel, The National Trust, Harry N. Abrams Inc.

Photograph of dining banquette by Melvyn Dwork from Manhattan Style, John Esten with Rose Bennett Gilbert, Photographs by Chinsee, Little, Brown and Company, 1990

Photograph of kitchen dining table from Tino Zervudachi: A Portfolio, Natasha Fraser-Cavassoni, Pointed Leaf Press, LLC, 2012

Photograph of Joseph Braswell's dining banquette by Peter Vitale from Architectural Digest, April 1977

Photograph of William Hodgkin dining table and chairs by Peter Vitale for Architectural Digest, May 1983

Photograph of Lord Weidenfeld's dining room by Geoffrey Bennison from Geoffrey Bennison: Master Decorator Hardcover,  Gillian Newberry, Rizzoli, 2015

Photograph of the Salon Rouge from Mlinaric on Decorating, Mirabel Cecil,  Francis Lincoln Limited, 2008

Photograph of the oval dining room, Britwell Salome from David Hicks: A Life of Design, Ashley Hicks, Rizzoli, 2009

Photograph of Mark Hampton's Fort Worth dining room from Mark Hampton: An American Decorator, Duane Hampton, Rizzoli, 2010

Monday, May 4, 2015

Ginger-ale and croutons

This afternoon I'm sitting on a terrace high on a bluff overlooking the ocean reading James Lees-Milne's Diaries from 1984 to 1997 and came across this entry for Thursday, 19th September 1984. 

“Last night after dinner David Hicks telephoned to say Rory had died at 7.30. A[lvilde]pretended she knew already – so odd of her. She adored Rory and cherished the knowledge that she had known him years before David and other grand and rich friends. This morning, poor Gilbert telephoned from Ménèrbes, saying that he had spent the whole night with Rory on his bed, unable to believe he was dead.”

"Rory," of course, is Roderick Cameron, about whom I've written a number of times before. In some ways it's good to have an end to that story because he was much more to his friends than the creator of the so-called tablescape (according to Hicks) and talented arranger of beautiful rooms that many have aspired to emulate. But, more about Mr Cameron at another date when I return to my erstwhile theme of what a friend called my "dead decorators." 

I am, perhaps, finding Mr Lees-Milne a tad depressing for such a sunny day, harping as he does on loss, death and ruined architecture. Nonetheless, his diaries are fascinating; he knew everyone and has absolutely nothing to do with anything or the fact I'm in California. 

Ginger-ale and croutons based on a sentence in JL-M diaries and suggested my lunch in hotel bar. 

Thursday, April 30, 2015

Clandon Park damaged by fire yesterday, left "essentially a shell"

Clandon Park
18th-century Palladian mansion West Clandon, Surrey, England
A National Trust property since 1956

"On the afternoon of 29 April 2015, a fire started in the house's basement, and quickly spread to the roof. At 16:09 Surrey Fire and Rescue Service received an emergency call, and the fire was subsequently attended by a total of 16 fire engines and more than 80 personnel. While fire fighters tackled the blaze National Trust volunteers were joined by conservators in recovering items from the house. Items were first stored on the lawns then placed in bubble wrap and sent to a local storage unit.Surrey Fire and Rescue Service remained at the property until the fire was fully extinguished and then began an investigation into the cause of the fire.

A significant number of items were salvaged, but the house was left "essentially a shell" according to Dame Helen Ghosh, director general of the National Trust with the roof, ceilings and floors having fallen into the basement, leaving only one room intact." 

From Wikipedia

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.