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'mLuvn' 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.
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.
"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.
I'm getting rid of a lot of books about interiors ... not so much books about design, rather books about decorating and decorators I hadn't looked at from one year's end to the next. I thought one day as I went to get a book from the shelves, that the differences between the decorators are mostly superficial – this one uses color, that one does not, etc – and that all of them, be they "traditional" or "contemporary" decorators, work within the narrow confines of Romanticism. Nostalgia for an apocryphal society and worship of a counterfeit glitterati has led, finally, to nothing more than a fool's paradise of branding by tastemakers who, seemingly, do not need any talent beyond self-aggrandizement.
It really is quite remarkable how little there is to differentiate these decorators, despite protestations to the contrary on covers and in blurbs, one from the other. Two wine shipping boxes full of these books are now gone into the hands of someone who may learn from them.
I'm co-opting Richard Hamilton's 1956 collage title as my own because it is the perfect question to ask about today's homes: just what is it that makes today's homes so different and so appealing?
For me, and I do realise I'm on the verge of becoming a crosspatch about decorating, there's very little that makes today's homes either so different or so appealing. It's thanks to interior designers like Chester Jones, Tino Zervudachi, the late David Collins, Terry Hunziker, and, in his own quiet way, David Kleinberg, that I don't feel totally discouraged by the mediocrity that has taken over the industry, the salesrooms, the auction houses, the publishing houses and the blogosphere. I'm almost there; total discouragement, that is.
What troubles me the most is the way design has been supplanted by branding. Look at the following quotation from the Aerin Lauder dissertation on the Lee Jofa website – Lee Jofa being one of a number of companies in interior design that have used celebrity as a marketing tool. I think the quotation explains clearly the modern process of creating a "designer collection."
"Developed through a combination of original design and interpretation of Lee Jofa’s extensive archives, several pieces in the collection demonstrate Lauder’s love for natural elements, from birds to florals. The classic, yet modern, color range includes rich, vibrant reds, soothing forest greens, beautiful blues, and strong, timeless neutrals."
I make no comment on Lauder, her products, or those of any other "designer" but when an industry in its entirety gives itself into the hands of brand creators, fashion marketers and licensers then a fundamental break with the history of design has been made. Quite why I should be so unamused by all this is inexplicable, for it isn't as if this is a new process: it was in the 1960s that the French couturier began a system of licenses that he applied to fashion, and it was he that first displayed a logo on clothing.
I think this might well be my last post. I have had a good long run and met some good people along the way and have never met with negativity. Thank you, Ladies and Gentlemen.
It was the way it was: our friends, hitherto as softly focused as Lucille Ball in Mame, complaining I kept the dining table too bright, and I going around my own house turning all the dimmers to screeching max. Then I went the eye doctor about what might, in some quarters, have been considered a miracle – I did not need reading glasses any longer and, to cut a long story short, thirteen months and three prescriptions for distance glasses later, not only are our friends in sharp, if Botoxed, focus (even across the dining table) but I can see everything on my plate – if they leave the damned dimmers alone, that is.
I do not understand the need for so-called romantic lighting – Rex Whistler's scenario from my copy of The Konigsmark Drawings apart – but to me all lighting is task lighting, even if that task is creating a mood. It is my distinct opinion, and one I want to have chiseled into every restaurant designer's black heart, that romance does not equate with blindness. Overall, so formulaically dim is restaurant lighting in this city, and so little relation does it seem to have to the physical spaces (the metaphysical I shall leave out of the argument) I've begun to wonder if "design," beyond the necessary calculations, is even part of the equation.
Oddly enough, restaurant lighting is only peripheral to my thoughts today, for what I'm most concerned about is not just lighting what I'm reading but, increasingly, where I find it easier to read. My iPad, easy to read wherever I am, is not part of this because it makes its own light. The two books here and the one I recommended a few weeks ago, The Interiors of Chester Jones, (still a book occupying my thoughts) are not easy to read in either of the ways I have until recently preferred – flat on my back on the sofa or with the book on my lap as I sit. What I have found is that our dining table is becoming my preferred place to read large books. In the morning, the rising sun floods the table, making any book and a cup of coffee a splendid way to begin the day and thanks to the Celt's refusal to have a chandelier blocking the view of his favorite art, there are downlighters that illuminate the pages if the day is dark.
Houghton Hall: Portrait of an English Country House by David Cholmondeley and Andrew Moore is an excellent read. Beautifully photographed, in the main by Derry Moore, and fluently written, it is a substantive (to use a dear friend's favorite adjective) book worth buying and reading. Guaranteed to make any expatriate homesick for a visit to the old homestead or a toddle down the lane in the rain. It is a magnificent house beautifully cared for, and it is wonderful that finally there is a book worthy of it. There's a beautiful photograph towards the end of the book of the owner, his wife and their whippet, in warm shades of gray. Super.
A friend who'd visited with the subject of the book loaned me her copy of One Man's Folly: The Exceptional Houses of Furlow Gatewood by Julia Reed with a Foreword and Afterword by Bunny Williams. It is a very pleasant book and I'm glad I didn't buy it.
An interior design history enthusiast, an occasional decorator, and, in my own way, a chronicler of those I call the Lost Generation - those men, some of them gay and many of whom died of AIDS in the 1980s and 1990s, and who are to a great degree forgotten.