Monday, September 15, 2014

In anticipation of a book

The photographs below are from a post I wrote about Geoffrey Bennison nearly five years ago. In the Topics list in the side bar I find I wrote about Mr Bennison ten times, making him one of my favorites. Were there any doubt that he should be one of the most esteemed decorators of the twentieth-century, the publication of this book early next year should leave no doubt at all. 

The author is Gillian Newberry and Sir John Richardson has written a Foreword. Of all the books in the publishing lists for the coming months this is the only one with any interest for me. Gillian Newberry who had worked as Bennison's assistant founded Bennison Fabrics together with her husband in 1985 after Geoffrey Bennison's death. 

Published forty years ago these rooms remain to my eye remarkably undated. Greenery in baskets, even a plant in the summer fireplace date the photographs to the 1970s. That era's equivalent of today's clump of white phalaenopsis, ferns, ficus, etc, always looked a little self-conscious, as well they might given their role as swank purchases from the newly-established fancy garden centres. They didn't last long of course, those tropical parvenues, for the decidedly chilly air of social decline soon saw them off, their places cleared for the amaranthine qualities of silk plants and flowers. Even silk as a designation in this context has declined, I fear, for now we must say permanent. As a nomenclature permanent can cover a multitude of sins – from what once may even have been silk at its genesis, to what might well be its very worrisome end, resin. 

And that brings me in a very roundabout way to the subject of my next post but one – something that has been worrying at me for a while. This link to one of my favorite websites will give you a clue. 

Photography by Derry Moore from Architectural Digest November/December 1976

The book will be published by Rizzoli on March 24th 2015 – a long time to wait, I know, but I'm like a kid waiting for Christmas morning.  

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Good advice for shelving books from 1929, a return to a theme, a painter and a coda

Lunch with my old prof is a weekly pleasure and frequently by the time we leave the restaurant she's said "come in when you take me back, I've got things to show you." A small woman of strong education and deep culture who graduated from the University of Illinois the year I was born, whose house, as all repositories of long lives must be, is a reflection of her mind – its walls and shelves filled with books and pictures, its cupboards and drawers filled with accretions of half-forgotten, once-interesting things ready to be brought out when she thinks someone might have use or need. And so it was last Friday – not that I knew it at the time – when she loaned me two brochures about Robert Allerton Park at the University of Illinois – she handed me a hitherto unknown paragraph in my Connections series about gay men, decorators, their clients and friends, men long dead and whose work is now, in the scramble for attention amid ever-irrelevant history, almost completely forgotten. 

I had intended to write again about books because I'd found a downloadable copy of Harriet and Vetta Goldstein's excellent Art in Everyday Life where the two sisters (my old prof's mentors – she was their last graduate assistant before their retirement) gave good advice which I quote at the end of this post about how to arrange books on shelves. And so it was when I saw Robert Allerton's library in one of the booklets I thought it perfect, and perfect for my purposes – my all-too delayed return to my theme. (The fact that his sofas resemble mine exactly has nothing to do with it).

Allerton's main library above, one of three in the house, converted from the music room, was designed by John Gregg, the man with whom, after the stock market crash of 1929, Allerton was to spend the rest of his life. In fact, in 1959, after a change in Illinois law, Allerton adopted Gregg as his son. According to Wikipedia they were one of the most prominent same-sex couples of their time.

The "butternut" library, paneled in lumber cut on the farm, 
was considered by Robert Allerton as the "family" library

The stable, no longer needed after the gift of an automobile,
was converted into the "barn" library with a garage underneath

It might be that I am the only person left in this country who did not know about Robert Allerton and John Gregg but in case there is anyone else as ignorant as I of a moment of gay history I shall continue with a paragraph or two more. Assuming, that is, in a time when, arguably, homosexuality did not exist simply because no-one talked about it, two men living together as companions, with one eventually adopting the other, could lead one to believe there might just be something more than sharing expenses to their relationship.

Glyn Warren Philpot

 "The Man in Black"
Robert Allerton by Glyn Philpot

I am struggling with facts that might be already well-known to many but it comes as a surprise to me that Glyn Philpot first visited Robert Allerton in 1913 when he painted a portrait of Allerton for which the latter then declined to pay. The portrait, "The Man in Black" now hangs in the Tate Gallery. This portrait was one of Glyn Philpot's works that earned him the designation of RA at the young age of thirty. 

Clearly I need to find and read a biography of Philpot before I take this idea of connection much further - despite the fact that this artist recently has been on my mind. Philpot painted the murals that once accompanied this fireplace that I found, forlorn, in a Victoria and Albert Museum corridor this past July – though considering the fate of the murals I'm glad it was bought by the museum. But, that's a whole other post. 

So, back to where I began – with books and advice. It really is very good advice and if you think of the date, 1929, it is rooted in the Arts and Crafts Movement.

"So simple a thing as the arrangement of books will add to or detract from the beauty of a room. The very plainest books can make a beautiful effect in a room if they are grouped according to size and color. To do this so that the result may practical as well as beautiful, divide the books according to their subject-matter, and then within these groups arrange the colors and the light and dark books so that they will present the appearance of well balance groups rather than a light book here and there, an occasional dark one, and bright ones scattered all about. Keeping the lighter books near the top and around the center line, for well placed emphasis will help to complete an interesting color pattern.

"Books and magazines which are easily accessible will do more than anything else to make the living room seem home-like. Books are always more inviting if they are placed on open shelves instead of being shut off behind glass doors. They should be placed so they are convenient for use, and if there are interesting books and magazines on small tables in the room, in addition to the generous shelves, it will add immeasurably to the enjoyment of the room."

After all the discussion of vignetting, I thought you might like this. It's the tail end of a catalogue that dropped in the mailbox this week.

"The Man in Black" from the Tate Gallery
The Philpot self-portrait from Wikipedia
Philpot Murals from "London Interiors" John Cornforth, Aurum Press, 2000
Libraries photographs from brochure about Robert Allerton Park, published by the Univerity of Illinois. 1951

Monday, September 8, 2014

Rumored to be for sale

Asking  price: about $525 million
Link here, thanks to Ted

The last three photographs from here

Thursday, September 4, 2014

As twinkle is to the twig

I said at the end of last week that I had a little more to say about vignetting in decorating but wandering around in the world of Ms Jen Teal and her play-date buddies is exhausting, so hollowly gracious is it. Frankly, I can't be arsed (as my scientist sister-in-law in her finer moments would put it) with a group that coos about styled shelves and crushes on scented-candles, monogrammed sheets, napkin rings, wineglass charms, wine swirling husbands, and cosmetic propriety.

Yesterday I came across this page in the book Decorate Fearlessly: Using Whimsy, Confidence, and a Dash of Surprise to Create Deeply Personal Spaces. I photographed it because it seemed to me to sum up all that is wrong with decoration as is frequently portrayed in blogs and books – the room, the shelving unit especially, has been created for the camera alone. It is as meaningful as the decoration of a Christmas tree and as ephemeral and relevant as twinkle is to the twig. 

At the very least, a design for a room must have some basis – a conception that it will be used, not just gaped at. Decoration is not just about embellishment, whatever the proliferation of sub-Hicksian colors and graphic patterns might suggest. Neither is simulation innovation, however celebrated the source of "inspiration" or "homage" as we say nowadays. 

This is where a room begins, on paper with a pencil in hand, brain in gear and client requirements fully appreciated. It does not begin on the shelves of what once was book storage.

In conclusion, this note:

The profession of 'decorator' is is not legally defined. Here is what ASID states about decorators, and it's as barebones and self-serving a definition as one can get. 

A decorator works only with surface decoration – paint, fabric, furnishings, lighting and other materials. Because no license is required, upholsterers, housepainters, and other tradespeople also claim the title “decorator.

According to ASID, the difference between a decorator and an interior designer is as follows. 

Interior designers are professionally trained in space planning. In 18 states, they must pass a strict exam and be licensed. While both designers and decorators are concerned with aesthetics, style and mood, interior designers have comprehensive training and command skills that may include an understanding of:

flame spread ratings, smoke, toxicity and fire rating classifications and materials
space planning for public and private facilities
national, state and local building codes
standards regarding the needs of disabled or elderly persons and other special needs groups
lighting quality and quantity
acoustics and sound transmission

All images other than my own photograph and Mr Mark Hampton's floor plan* found on Tumblr sites. 
*Mark Hampton on Decorating

Sunday, August 31, 2014

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Vignettes in decorating

The first time I was confronted by vignetting in decorating was thirty years ago with an article in The World of Interiors and I did not react well. Living in Amsterdam at the time, these photographs reminded me of nothing more than the Metz & Co furniture showrooms diagonally across the Keizersgracht from our house and, still, all these years later, I find it hard to let go the idea of showroom vignetting – ironic, perhaps, given what I quote below from the original magazine text. I still wonder where those people actually lived.

"With all the architectural details, including the floor, painted white, the drawing-room becomes an intriguing limbo for a graphic collection of furniture. The colours are limited to black, bright red and a small amount of pale grey, so with this visual discipline the choice of objects in the room has to be precise and unerring. Some people might imagine that this is a very elemental solution to the problem of decoration and against the drama of a plain white background almost any object will be enhanced. In fact the reverse is true. Any flaw in design or proportion will show up immediately. The great pitfall to be avoided when placing things in a space like this is temptation to make small 'groups'. Although charming in themselves, if unrelated they give that restless showroom-like atmosphere, with every precious object pleading to be looked at. It is far more difficult to compose a balanced room so that the gaze can move about unmolested, taking in everything. Selecting the right pieces and putting them in just the right place to achieve this takes a great deal of skill." 

Undeniably beautiful, and equally beyond doubt designed to be photographed, these rooms have such an intense cerebral quality that makes one think they may well be haunted by the ghosts of brainstorms past.  Indeed, it is precisely that cerebral vignetted quality that pervades the rest of the oevre of the husband and wife team René and Barbara Stoeltie – where their own residences are concerned, that is. Shortly after this article was published the Stoelties took control of their own image, as it were, and she wrote the text to his photographs. For years I have disliked everything they have done even to the point of not buying books on which they have collaborated – so strong has been my prejudice (I can call it nothing else).

Having said that, yesterday afternoon I watched a video on youtube in which Barbara and René Stoeltie were interviewed and I began to understand not only their point of view but something I thought I already knew – the quicksands lying in wait for us all within our own language.  The video is in Dutch but for those you who might be able to understand the link is below. The Stoelties are not unsympathetic people and I was both glad and nonplussed to find that.

I'm not beyond appreciating a decent vignette or two but, nonetheless, given what I see in the blogs et al, I feel we are on a downward slope – like once-chic macarons on sale in a cart at the mall,  vignetting has become a tool for anyone with a rainy afternoon, a pile of junk, some books, an iPhone and internet access to hand.

Previous generations deforested whole continents, captured Sabines, established cities on hills, conquered a colony or two, swaggered across oceans and planted vines in new lands ... but what do we do? We arrange our books according to color, we style our shelves, arrange pretty objects on tabletops, and then, not knowing our arses from our elbows meanders from our Chinese frets, we write whole blogs about them. There's civilization for you!

More of that next week.

I've said it before, and I'll say it again, democracy is a good thing but it ain't for everyone.

Quotation from text by John Vaughan and photographs by same, The World of Interiors, June 1984.

Friday, August 22, 2014

There's probably a reason why Friedrich Nietzsche didn't build houses

After a visit to the supermarket where, in one of those futile greetings exchanges, the manager informed me he was "blessed" I, humbled as I was to have been in the presence of one of the chosen and wondering if there was a national dress code for supermarket managers – pleated trousers, heavily starched shirt, co-ordinating tie, and Italian loafers – I set off for the bookstore.

I could say I'm not sure what I saw there says about interior design publishing but, frankly, I am sure – it's mostly dross and, in my local Barnes and Noble (the only bookstore within the perimeter as far as I know) there is shelf after shelf and table after table to prove it.

There's probably a reason why philosophers don't, generally speaking, build houses and there is likely a good reason why decorators shouldn't philosophize. Architects, on the other hand, are almost impossible to prevent from doing so, such is their training. Gobbledygook rules, etc. 

The following quotations from one of the books above, each a sentence a page, suggest tenets brought down from the mountain top yet the suspicion that the burning bush was merely a hollowgram cannot be dismissed. 

We want to be released from the invisible barriers that separate us from the natural world, but we also crave a comfortable place from which to do this – a pillow of moss or a warm rock behind our backs.

Returning home from expeditions, we bring back souvenirs – talismans endowed with nature's power to ground us with the knowledge that wealth comes not from wares, but from what lies around us.

Worldly goods have found their way to this house in the woods where they rub shoulders with finds from nature.

This house has no wanderlust. It knows where it is and is satisfied to be there.

Sentiments, to my mind, worthy of Pseuds Corner. However, the quotations above do fall into a major design category – vignettes. They are typographical vignettes in a book filled with photographic vignettes. 

Are vignettes a major design category? From the point of view that vignettes are heavily used in book publishing and on decorator sites – as if every vase, chair or table, Mr DeMille, is finally ready for its closeup – then vignettes are a category. They are, in my opinion, something more than filler, for in the blogging world vignettes allow enthusiasts to appear as professionals – so common have they become in the visual language of design. I wonder sometimes if by focussing this way the big picture is lost. 

Vignette as design is a theme I want to explore in the coming weeks.