Thursday, December 31, 2009

Without being mawkish ...

... let me mark the end of a decade in which, globally speaking, man's inhumanity to man increased and much suffering in the name of God was inflicted on the world. A world where teenagers in Iran are hanged because they are gay; a world where gay men and women are disenfranchised, criminalized, persecuted, and written out of history. A world where women are mutilated and murdered because they are women. A world in which the word inappropriate denies the voice that still crieth in the wilderness; where warfare is accomplished; where a highway is made straight in the desert, but not for our God; where the hungry are not satisfied and where no mercy is obtained.

What is tolerance? It is the consequence of humanity. We are all formed of frailty and error; let us pardon reciprocally each other's folly - that is the first law of nature.


Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Oligarch trash ...

... is the kind of remark that, however inconsequentially meant or softly spoken, encroaches so intrusively into those moments when one is collecting oneself, reading a menu, looking at the decor, could totally ruin the appreciation of a pre-lunch Manhattan. It's uncanny how remarks, galvanizing as they are, arrive precisely at the moment when one is either taking a sip or swallowing, presenting a body, as the mind wheels, with a quandary - to snort, gasp or expel liquid from all available orifices, ears included it seems. That I did none of these was a blessing as I too was gazing at the newly-arrived and just remarked-upon company at the table in front of us - a perfectly respectable, well-dress group quietly asking for another table.

However, there we sat, recovering from the remark and the drenching we'd had walking across Columbus Circle from the hotel to Jean Georges, and steaming in both senses of the word. A horizontal driving rain had beset the city that morning, clearing away the snow and keeping most sensible folks from the streets. Not us, thus. I had demanded a taxi and was smartly told to pull myself together for it was only a drop of rain and we could share an umbrella (only a Brit could characterize such a downpour as a drop of rain), we set off for the lunch we'd booked weeks before.

I must tell you that the experience of Jean Georges, the food, the staff, the decor, was a real treat. The food was superb: fois gras brulee accompanied by pineapple and meyer lemon jam, succeeded by slowly-cooked cod atop black beans aromatized with sake, cilantro and ginger. I cannot tell you what my other half ate as my brain and taste buds were totally occupied elsewhere. Apparently I offered to share but I have no memory of it. Perhaps the novelty of that has driven it from my mind. Instead of dessert I chose a Pedro Ximenez sherry, warmly black as old lacquer, viscous and oozing the essence of raisin. I've drunk this sherry before as an accompaniment to plum pudding - a combination hard to beat. The Celt had lemony things for dessert which brought on a bout of purring. Chocolates and quarter-sized macaroons came with the coffee and made-in-house marshmallows cut into perfect cubes at the table, accompanied the check, sweetening the deal.

My Christmas present, below, found in Barney's is a real addition to the library. Oddly enough, over the years I have not seen much of Messel's work and the book is proving to be an eye-opener. Of course, I've known of him, who he is related to and all that, but had been underwhelmed by what I had seen. That is changing as I go through this book. I'm not sure at this moment if I find his work effete or as camp as a row of tents. That is probably not my final judgement.

We found another book at a different store, this time a novel illustrated by Rex Whistler, and were very tempted until we saw the price. My other half checked on Amazon from his iPhone as we stood there in front of the book display and found many versions of the same at nearly one thirtieth the price.

Caveat emptor, indeed.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

MoMA Bonus

Went to MoMA this morning. The Celt very interested in Tim Burton exhibit, I less so because of crowds and excessive heat. Also took in the Bauhaus exhibition - none of it new, but a superb overview so interesting nonetheless.
This view turned out to be a bonus - seen it before, of course, but it still delighted. It's all there - 19th and 20th century architecture in one lovely vista.
Now in the Algonquin Hotel lobby which one feels is trading on its Round Table days of yesteryear. Manhattans not too bad though.

Friday, December 25, 2009

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Kicking off ...

... Christmas Eve with preprandial cocktails and edamame in the hotel
(6 Columbus). Prandial update to follow.

I'm not bitter ...

... but these greens are and make a wonderful combination with garlic, crab meat, olive oil and perfectly al dente spaghetti which I'm eating at Fred's, the restaurant at Barney's New York. Flintstones lovers will appreciate the reference.

Yabba, dabba, doo!

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

I'm gonna wash that man ...

Here I am waiting for the show to begin. Outside it's bloody freezing
but in here it's the South Pacific. Love New York at Christmas!

Some enchanted evening

The Christmas vacation begins here.

Original 1949 Broadway cast album cover for South Pacific. Source:

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Monday, December 21, 2009

Oh frabjous day!

Callooh! Callay!
He chortled in his joy.

The Metropolitan Museum's annual Christmas tree with its 18th century nativity scene, angels, cherubs, Magi and other characters is an annual pilgrimage for two people who are not actually that religious. Go figure.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Friday, December 18, 2009


On a cold, wet day when twilight arrived at dawn, in our library the grey light has leeched the warmth from the cream-painted woodwork and the off-white curtains, and the blue upholstery fades softly into the shadows. In the deepest shade, that of the bookshelves, gilt book titles gleam bringing to mind how, when the world was lit by fire, our ancestors varnished and gilded leather wall panels, flashed the cornices, architraves and door cases with pellucid color and coruscating gold, dangled silvered mirrors and sparkling crystal from ceilings and walls, all to catch the light and restore it to the room.

Now we use electricity and our rooms are much brighter than previous times but how many of us design rooms in such a way that surfaces, objects and textiles collaborate with light? We shade lamps, glaze walls, burnish metals and woods, hang huge expanses of mirror, polish floors, yet I wonder how many understand the reciprocal relationship between luminosity and luster. Photography and the need for clear portraits of rooms has done away with atmosphere and much is lost. The past is indeed another country, they did things differently there.

I began with the photo above of a room designed by yesterday's designer, David Mlinaric - a living room in London. When I chose that photo my train of thought was different to the one expressed above; more about how discretely contemporary the room is, has neither the inconsequence of minimalism nor the modish use of early or mid-century modern, and is vivacious and serene at the same time.

So, in a way, my theme is light and warmth, for here is a room that would not be drained of life even on the darkest of days - the colour is a light yellow that sits well with the glowing orange of the curtains and the friendly warmth of wood and silk. One could sit in this amiable room, awaiting friends, contemplating the evening ahead, with a glass of vin chaud in hand, comfortable and relaxed.

Vin Chaud

1 bottle robust red wine
4 cinnamon sticks
1 x 5" curl orange zest
1/3 cup sugar
1 star anise
5 whole cloves
1/3 cup cognac

Put all into pan and heat but do not let it boil and simmer for a few minutes. Simmering is when a bubble two rises to the surface but there is no turbulence on the surface.

Photo by Derry Moore, copyright Conde Nast Publications, from Mlinaric on Decorating by Mirabel Cecil and David Mlinaric, 2008.

Recipe from Nigella Lawson's Nigella Christmas, Hyperion, 2009.

Phrase "when the world was lit by fire" suggested by William Manchester's A World Lit Only by Fire, Little, Brown & Co., 1992.

Thursday, December 17, 2009


Simplicity is probably the quality I value most in interiors. I don't mean the cooler-than-thou chastity of minimalism but more a modesty in the relationship between architecture, furnishings, location. light, and the implied insouciance of life.

One of the most impressive decorators alive today is David Mlinaric part of whose pied-a-terre on the Chelsea Embankment is pictured here. If you look carefully you will see that there's an almost unholy amount of curl in these two rooms - everything atwirl like the branches outside the window. Yet these are serene spaces, caused to be so by the space allowed to each object, the warm palette, and the quality of the light reflected off the river.

The red twig table by bed is Garouste and Bonetti, the other bedside table is a 1950s prototype table made by Angus McBean for the long defunct Pavilion Restaurant at the Academy Cinema in London. The sofa is a 19th century velvet covered chesterfield, the Verner Panton Amoeba chairs flanked by 1960s storage tables are from the 1970s, a coffee table, enamel on steel by Roland Mellan, and the glass and steel table in the embrasure is by Grillo Demo of the Argentine.

As subtle and simple as this flat is it must be a pleasure to inhabit even if the light, grey and leaden, lurks in the windows rather than spills all over the place. But, in decorating the sun always shines.

Photos by Derry Moore, copyright Conde Nast Publications Ltd., from Mlinaric on Decoration by Mirable Cecil and David Mlinaric, 2008.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Happy Holiday Wishes from Our Family to Yours

Mr Coward rehearsing his broadcast. London, 1937

Today I received an email from Brooks Brothers that in its subject line said Happy Holiday Wishes from Our Family to Yours. Well, thank you, guys! Two days ago I said I was over Christmas already because of the commercialism but yesterday it worked its way, uninvited, into my post so clearly Christmas is not done with me.

I've been looking for images of Christmas and mid-winter that mean something to me. I'm from a place where in mid-winter the daylight, if one can call it such, fails just before four in the afternoon so trees and tinsel glinting in the bright sunshine of the South has little resonance with me. But, we all celebrate our festivals in our own ways and so should it be. We, both of us from cold and frequently dark places, usually celebrate Christmas in New York (the weather fits) and have Christmas dinner with friends in New Jersey who go so far back to my childhood they have become a second family to us. Waiting in the hotel lobby then being driven across the Hudson, all the way catching up with the year gone by, has become such a pleasurable part of Christmas - almost Dickensian in its sentimentality and warmth.

The drawing above is one of a series called The Anglo Files done for World of Interiors in 1999 by the French illustrator Floc'h. These drawings are set in legendary times, the Thirties, Forties and Fifties - legendary, at least, for those who look back at the era with nostalgia. It's a Wodehousian view that takes no account of the Great Depression yet lovingly illustrates the so-called eccentricity of upper-crust Britons and the quirky bravery of the Blitz.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

A favorite ...

... the latest in a series.

I got to thinking about what type of rooms I would consider winter rooms and though this clearly is in a place, Provence, that most of us would consider a summer destination, it would be marvelous lit by burning logs and candles whilst the mistral, the regional wind of Provence, was howling outside.

Normally I would consider books essential to a winter room and though there is what looks like small bookcase by the fireplace, it is not a book-room as such. This is a room not for solitude and contemplation but for conversation and games maybe before the gros souper that ends with thirteen desserts, eaten before midnight mass on Christmas Eve. Les treize desserts de Noël, thirteen desserts representing Christ and the Apostles, are set out on Christmas Eve and remain three days in the dining room.

I had intended not to mention Christmas again but .... !

Designer, Chester Jones. Photos, Fritz von der Schulenberg, from World of Interiors, October 2005.

Monday, December 14, 2009

The scent of hyacinths,

narcissus, lilies, and guttering candles are for me the dominant smells of the season and about right now, with eleven days to go to the actual day, I've had enough of them. I'm done with Christmas. I don't want to see another rosy-cheeked Santa, hear any more melismatic warbling, be suffocated by cinnamon fumes, watch another poor wailing child being dragged through the mall, walk into a tinsel-clad red-nosed plastic reindeer ... well, you get the point.

A short rant.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Friday, December 11, 2009

Letter to the Editor

Dear Ms Rense,

I cannot tell you in the manner of your usual correspondents in AD Letters that I really value your magazine. If it were not for the fact that it is delivered to my office each month, the subscription predating me, I would not give it the time of day.

However, I must say that the cover of the January 2010 issue really caught my eye. The headline The World's 20 Greatest Designers of All Time led me to wonder how you arrived at this conclusion and if your statement did not even for one second bring to mind the classic definition of hubris?

Nonetheless, let me say how edifying I find it that you have allowed three Europeans on the list but the strangeness, as I see it, of your choices led me to wonder if your list was limited to twenty members of your stable of designers and if your gaze did not range wider than that. Strangely America-centric choices, Ms Rense, for a magazine that styles itself as The International Magazine of Design.

Where are John Fowler, Stephane Boudin, David Mlinaric, Albert Pinto, Billy Baldwin et al? Strange choices, Ms Rense, strange choices! That you included Geoffrey Bennison, Kalef Alaton and Mark Hampton serves you well, and I am glad to see Arthur Elrod, virtually unknown today, on the list. Were there no Asians or Antipodeans that could have been considered? Did you not consider any designers who are still living?

Having said all that, let me tell you that the design of the cover is a classic piece of beautiful graphic design.



Thursday, December 10, 2009

Tonight, tonight

at the Atlanta History Center, Nigella Lawson, talking and signing copies of her new book which is included in the ticket price. I shall be there trying not to be a complete prat but I shall have my book signed if its the last thing I do.

However, go here for information about the AHC Lecture - its an absolute must!

Don't be late.

Tonight, tonight
It all began tonight
I saw you and the world went away

Tonight, tonight
There's only you tonight
What you are, what you do, what you say

I don't need to tell you where this quote is from, right?

Update: I cannot express fully how pleased I am to have heard Nigella (as she is known to us Brits - none of that last name nonsense) speak tonight. We, together with Peak of Chic, went along to the Atlanta History Center and I for one thoroughly enjoyed it. That such a beautiful woman, voluptuous both in form and language should talk about the quotidian nature of cooking was quite illuminating.

Cooks, those of us that cook at home, are not chefs and it is both pretentious and time wasting to pretend we are: we cook for ourselves, family and friends, not for display. We serve ham with mac n' cheese rather than eggplant and philo stack; serve trifle or bread pudding rather than some rarified sorbet made from fruit plucked from the left-hand side of the Himalayas by a one-handed monk in saffron robes. In other words, daily cooking - and that is what it is, cooking not chefism, is what we do.

So simple and so beautifully expressed by a woman who read Classics at Oxford, needed to work at home whilst raising children and her husband was dying - a woman whose humanity and joie de vivre was palpable; who only makes a television program every two years so her children are not too negatively impacted; and by extension such a person are we when we cook for friends and family rather than buy into the pretense of trying to reproduce restaurant food.

Both of us have a copy of Nigella's latest cookery book, signed, and treasured. One will likely go to our beloved sister-in-law as a Christmas present.

Another interesting point that Nigella brought up about Christmas is that, despite her being Jewish "of the blood pure" as she says in her book Feast, for her as a Brit Christmas represents that mid-winter, non-denominational, non-religious festival of lights that bravely battles the dark of winter with a promise that spring, and rebirth is not too far away.

Allelujah to that!

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Where I'd rather be

stretched out with a book, but sixty-five miles away from here is a seemingly insurmountable pile of grading to be dealt with. However, it's the end of the semester and tomorrow night we're going here and thereafter to a party

i-Phone photograph taken one gray morning of a 300 lb gorilla aka our supremely comfortable, mohair-clad sofa. Note, sofa not couch.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

A Northern Christmas

Christmas Day on Fox Island

It is mild; the ground is almost bare and a warm rain falls. First, the Christmas tree all dripping wet is brought into the house and set upon its feet. It is nine feet and a half high and just touches the peak of the cabin. There it stands and dries its leaves while Rockwell and I prepare the feast.

Both stoves are kept burning and the open door lets in the cool air. Everything goes beautifully; the wood burns as it should, the oven heats, the kettle boils, the beans stew, the bread browns in the oven just right, and the new pudding sauce foams up as rich and delicious as though instead of the first it were the hundredth time I'd made it. And now everything is ready. The clock stands at a quarter to three. Night has about fallen and lamp light is in the cabin.

"Run, Rockwell, out-of-doors and play awhile." Quickly I stow the presents about the tree, hang sticks of candy from it, and light the candles.

Rockwell runs for Mr. Olsen, and just as they approach the cabin the door opens and fairyland is revealed to them. It is wonderful. The interior of the cabin is illuminated as never before, as perhaps no cabin interior ever was among these wild mountains. Then all amazed and wondering those two children come in. Who knows which is the more entranced?

From A Northern Christmas by Rockwell Kent, Random House 1983.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Let me recommend

a small book I got from Father Christmas last year. If, like me, your Christmas begins on Christmas Eve and you like to prepare then I suggest this book will be good bedside reading for the coming days. In the meantime try this:

Old Testament Cake

4 1/2 cups 1 Kings IV 22
1 1/2 lb of Judges V 25
2 cups Jeremiah VI 20
2 cups Samuel XXX 12
2 cups of Numbers XVII 8
2 cups Nahum III 12
2 teaspoons of 1 Samuel XIV 25
Season to taste with 2 Chronicles IX 9
Six Jeremiah XVII 11
1 1/2 cups of Judges IV 19
2 teaspoons of Amos IV 5
A pinch of Leviticus II 13
Directions Proverbs XXIII 24

Bake 1 - 2 hours

It's a slow day and there's no news from the decorating front worth reporting. Oh, and by the way, you might need to drastically reduce the amount of Jeremiah VI 20.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Making the winter doldrums fun

Tonight, the first party.

Y'all might have seen this so many times so bear with me.

Friday, December 4, 2009

Yesterday ... always on my mind

Yesterday at an end-of-semester exhibition of faculty, student and alumni work, a gift fare of sorts, I bought the painting you see above. Its a tiny thing, two and a half inches by five and half inches, painted on wood, but it called to me across a crowded room (I shall resist that opportunity). The work of an alumnus Seth Fitts, it is titled Ritual Tree and will either go on the coffee table or, more likely, be grouped on the nightstand with a Meiji period bronze crab and a 19th century watercolor of a woman reading by lamplight.

Today, having worked seven days in a row and still have a gallery opening to go to before I head out for my sixty-five mile drive home, I really feel the need of a pick-me-up which I shall not get till I reach home.

So, this week's pick-me-up in honor of my own Ol' Blue Eyes - you're always on my mind.

Ol' Blue Eyes
1 ounce of gin,
1/2 ounce orange curacao
1/2 ounce blue curacao
Squeeze lemon juice

Thursday, December 3, 2009

The view from my sofa

The panels are from a 1940s Thibaut wallpaper mural, the clock is Directoire, the lamp 1970s, the cabinet last week, glass bowls Murano, tea bowl Japanese, the candlesticks 18th century rococo, and the lilies are dying.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

1974 - the latest in a series about walls

The old 1970s magazines besides being a mine of interiors photography are also a great resource of advertising such as this Van Luit & Co advertisement for one of a series of murals.

Processional, described as "a spectacular decorative accent for the home, office or important commercial interior. Taken from an old, Chinese rubbing and available in four distinct colorways."

A while ago I began this series about walls and each time something catches my eye I wonder why we no longer appreciate wall decoration such as this. I know that fashion plays a role and it could be that a point was reached when the collective eye at the end of the 1970s became overwhelmed with pattern and color and sought refuge in neutrality.

Admittedly, many of the 1970s murals and wall decorations were full of bombast and pomp, rich in allusion and exoticism, as are the murals and wall decorations in places such as, for example, the Brighton Pavilion and we find those attractive, beautiful even. Is it because we are influenced by the fact that the paper or mural has been deemed worthy of collection and conservation?

I think part of the answer lies in the now dead but long-lasting fad for faux finishes - paint effects that swamped interiors for the best part of a decade. There are people still working with faux finishes, craftsmen who can imitate marble and wood, painters who prefer to work on walls, yet we see so little of them in present-day decorating. Hand-painted Chinese wallpaper panels are pretty much all we see.

Some of you might look at the photo above and shudder, thinking perhaps that you're never likely to see the likes again. But remember this: you probably said the same about purple, dark brown and aqua, but look how those colors are being used today. Personally, I would not like to see a return to the indiscriminate use of faux- or distressed-finishes, but I would love to see some drama spread over the bland walls of the early 21st century. The telling of stories in this form is gone and a great pity it is.

Monday, November 30, 2009

On the shoulders of giants

I didn't immediately associate one of my favorite designers with this interior when I first saw the photos but I was pleased to see Melvin Dwork named as designer, together with James Maguire. The two worked together as Dwork-Magquire for two years only.

Mr Dwork who began work as a designer in 1970, has long been a favorite of mine, and in his eighties is working away. There was always something muscular in his work that appealed to me; there was none of the 70s and 80s (a period I associate his name with more than the 70s) flash and thunder - just simple form, brave juxtaposition and rather reticent color. I remember a room, his own I think, where he paired Baroque chairs with simple upholstery and an old wooden pallet doing duty as a cocktail table.

And so it was that I did not, as I say, associate his name with this interior done for Anna Moffo and her husband Robert Sarnoff, a former RCA board chairman, and it is not clear from the text where Mr Dwork's input lay. However, the point really is not who did what but when it was all done.

1979 is the date of publication and for me, though there undoubtedly are others I have not seen, this interior forms a visual bridge with the coming decade. Gone is the thicket, not entirely but well pruned; gone are the overheated colors which are replaced with ivories, creams, whites and inexplicably, purple - well cordoned off behind close doors; also gone is the elephantine upholstery; even the obvious textures of the early 70s play no role here, though there is mention of satin.

I'm not quite ready to leave the seventies yet - they're proving to be a gold mine of information for me and I hope for you too. I like rooting around the origins, the margins, the half-hidden and this decade has proved to be a clearing house of sorts. Many of the designers prominent during the 1980s and well into the 1990s began their careers in the seventies.

A lot of them, as mentioned in another post, did not survive the eighties and this profession lost a whole generation of talent. Luckily, or perhaps sadly, we are not given to marking our loss with symbols of mourning such as draped urns, broken obelisks, et al, but many of continue to find inspiration in the work of those who have gone before - itself a memorial.

Mr Dwork continues to work and long may he do so.

Photos by Jaime Ardiles-Arce from Architectural Digest, July/August 1979.

Friday, November 27, 2009

"There was a time ...

... when I wanted to get rid of everything that had gone before. Now I simply want to add something - to explore unfamiliar possibilities."

So said William Gaylord of his new flat in an 1870 house on Russian Hill with views of the Bay and the Golden Gate Bridge, an 1800 square foot space he gutted and remodeled, leaving nothing of the 1870 interior. He was then thirty years old and this flat shows a development, but not away, from his previous Knob Hill apartment that made his name when he was twenty-five.

"I like to think of myself as an engineer as well as an artist. I like to build, to build rooms - to build the furniture, the carpet, the walls, rather than just gathering things together to fill a room."

What's remarkable about this space is how it feels, thirty-two years after it was published, as contemporary as anything being done today. Of course, there are dateable elements such as the travertine coffee tables, floating chrome-clad fireplaces, a chrome and glass soffit above the entry and the bench at the foot of the bed, but none of these are in any way conspicuously unusable today. In fact, after thirty years and dusted off by time, these elements have charm.

Gone is the suffocating thicket of tropical plants so prevalent in these years, replaced by a couple of Australian bottle trees, a bromeliad or two, and on the dining table a fabulous bunch of the flowers that swamped the 1980s, stargazer lilies. A pretty cyclamen sits in a basket on the travertine, unexpectedly diminutive and subtle.

Mr Gaylord achieved drama in this color-neutral interior through lighting -the lampless look again - using library lights, pin spots and ceiling cans. Apparently there were nineteen dimmers in the living room. In the bedroom small lights were built in - "I read in bed, so I installed little bullet lights hidden behind the draped curtains. You push a button, and they hit the book - not your head or your face or your knees. Designers so often overlook comfort because they don't study how individuals like to live."

The furniture is classic: Louis XVI, reproduction and signed original; slipper chairs and sofa designed by the decorator and covered in pale leather to contrast with the dark leather of the 18th century chairs; M5 chairs surrounding a marble slab (supported on steel plates hidden in the chrome base and anchored in the specially strengthened floor). The bed, at first glance a tester bed, with its curtains of ribbed silk hanging from the ceiling, stood in a room upholstered in suede.

"The only reason I have French chairs is that I've never sat in a chair more comfortable."

"I like order and control in design, but just form and function are not enough. A room has to have comfort; it has to have a little intrigue; it has to have fantasy. The unexpected in a room is the vital element."

"If I build closets like that for someone, they have to adjust to them. They have to adjust to putting their shirts in order. But when they do, it enriches their lives with a quality of living that no one had every made available to them before."

This is probably the last post about William Gaylord if only from the point of view I have nothing more in my hoard of 1970s magazines. I have access to 1980s issues of Architectural Digest and perhaps I shall find something there. I hope so, for it is interesting to see in his work, and that of others I have mentioned already and intend to discuss in the following weeks, the foundations of Noughties contemporary design - that is, until it was highjacked by the purveyors of mid-century modern.

Photos by Russell MacMasters from Architectural Digest, May/June 1977.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

For what we are about to receive ....


Image by Allan Cracknell from First Slice Your Cookbook by Arabella Boxer, 1966.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

The pits

As in conversation pits, that is: architectural elements that first appeared in the 1960s. A conversation pit is a sunken area of floor, frequently in front of or surrounding a fireplace where people got together to talk. Sometimes it is hard to understand the enthusiasms of a previous generation but the conversation pit is beginning to look very attractive again, at least to me. However, conversation pits are of their time and it'll be the brave architectural student who suggests resurrecting them. They really are one of the curiosities of 1960s interior design.

Other than the date on a magazine cover and some poor quality printing, what makes a decorating scheme seem of its time? I mentioned the delving of conversation pits (this house was built in 1961), thickets of tropical plants indicate the 1970s, as does feverishly strong color. Texture plaguing every surface especially of textiles was common during that decade, as was an elephantine swelling of upholstery forms. The migration of mirror from frame to wall to ceiling was a 1970s phenomenon - as ceilings became increasingly an area for elaboration. The integration of technology and lighting into architectural and decorative schemes was a developing and clearly exciting area for designers - in fact, a new profession, that of lighting designer, began during these years.

Drama as a decorative quality was seemingly much sought after by the designers of the 1970s, and that some residential interiors share that quality with hotels of the period can be no accident.

Admittedly this is an 18,000 square foot house, with at least six separate areas for entertaining, but look at the two photos below. Described as a library, this space with its own conversation pit facing the television and wine collection, under-lighted furniture and up-lighted planting could equally be perceived as part of an large hotel lobby, hushed and softly glowing.

The bedroom with its own foyer, dressing area, bath lounge with ocean view, sunken whirlpool bath, and console from which everything electrical - draperies, television, music, even the outdoor jacuzzi - could be controlled.

The short description of the decorator, Stephen Chase, gives a peek at the fashions of the time:

"Richly tanned and wearing a quasi military outfit with green and scarlet epaulets. Mr Chase appears more like a young Field Marshal Alexander of Tunis than an interior designer. His tan, it must be noted, is not from Palm Springs or Los Angeles but from the tropical sun of Hawaii."

Photos by Fritz Taggart from Architectural Digest, July/August 1974.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Ask Albert

Occasionally, in the helter-skelter of 1970s design there are moments of calm, reticent but not diffident rooms in civilized colors, outward looking, and by very good decorators. A number of last week's posts showed some of them and here is another - a real oh, boy moment - a room by Albert Hadley of Parish-Hadley, Associates.

This room came as a surprise - I was ready to pass on without looking at who did the quite serviceable and pretty interior that was badly served in the main by too-small images of the important spaces. The dining room was light, colorful and within the bounds of traditional design, quite spare, but it was when I turned to the last page that I realized here was a room that had stood the test of time. Perhaps so had the rest, it was just hard to see it.

The suburban Washington D.C. house enlarged by Mr Hadley to hold the Washington elite for dinner dances and informal evenings was decorated with comfortable upholstery, geometric carpets, needlepoint and Moroccan rugs, floral chintzes, primitive animal paintings, a Regency clock and pagoda cabinet, a Louis XV bureau plat, a Renoir lithograph, mezzo sopranos, senators, ambassadors and live Yorkshire terriers.

"It is a house without tricks. But is does have a quality of fantasy about it."

"We try to make it as attractive as possible, and what happens inside the house must be a clear reflection."

"I tried to create a house appropriate to the location. A country house, but not a primitive one."

"I cannot impose my style on you. You have to tell me whether you want to live in empty rooms with steel furniture or in a greenhouse with simple rustic furniture."

"It's like producing a play with the right cast of characters."

The real oh, boy moment was realizing this room really is timeless - made in 1975 but as up-to-date as 2009.

Photos by Richard Champion for Architectural Digest, March/April 1975.

Monday, November 23, 2009

You wear it well

Searching through 1970s issues of Architectural Digest has proved to be both illuminating and suffocating. Let me explain.

It has been illuminating because I have seen good work by people I knew nothing of, people who developed even further during the following decade and beyond, in some cases. Enlightening also to see, in contrast to modern times, a fearsome use of color and texture and a mixture of styles of architecture and furniture. Not that a mix of styles was anything new in the 70s for the mix of modernism and historical style goes back to William Pahlmann at least.

Suffocating in the sense that there is a late 19th century aspect to 1970s decorating - much of it unquietly laden with bloated form, layered with strongly contrasting pattern, textured to extreme and claustrophobically colored.

Beyond this, two things strike me: one, the use of exotic plant forms in interiors and, two, there was an inward-looking quality to design with windows frequently obliterated under layers of shades and curtains. I'm sure there's significance to be found in these observations but I'm not going to bore you or me with any of that. After all, this blog is about interior design and not about reactions to societal changes of the time: Kent State, Watergate, the fall of Saigon, energy crisis, raging inflation, etc. The idea that interior design might be seen in a wider context with sociological significance? Just not going to go there.

So, I begin this week where I left off last - with Mr William Gaylord, a discovery if ever there was one. This house, situated on an acre of land, and strikingly different to his San Francisco apartment, was Gaylord's weekend retreat at Carmel - a wood and glass house hidden by trees on a street without street numbers, and to the designer's eye, at one with the trees.

Being at one with the trees, with nature, was the idea behind the use of plants in the house though to my eye, and here I do wonder if a photographer's assistant brought in more, there are too many. The plants simply get in the way, add visual clutter and destroy the clarity of what must have been a discriminating mix of style, material, and color fitted to the cool climate of Northern California. The author of the original article used the adjective eclectic suggesting a lack of discrimination on the part of the decorator.

It is not easy to judge these interiors for a variety of reasons: the rooms were not supply photographed; there's an emphasis on vignetting; angles are skewed, both by photographer and designer; views are marred by the planting; and, overall, there's a lot of clutter - something lacking in his city apartment - obscuring the forms of the furniture. It is not possible from these photos to get a clear impression of a whole room.

"Design should never be tricky. Something good lasts forever. For example, all that boldness of pattern on pattern can be exciting - at first. But it isn't something you can live with over the years."

"To me, the blending is what makes it all work. The total effect should be very smooth without individual pieces competing for attention. It's the same with color ... it should all flow together in one tone as a background. People should stand out, not colors."

The blend he talked about is certainly here: Chippendale chairs; a Regence chair; an Austrian birdcage filled with finches; Aubusson panels; Flemish tapestry; a Dufy painting; a Roualt watercolor; steel Napoleonic campaign daybed; a suede covered sofa; steel and glass coffee table; redwood walls; quarry tiles under Oriental rugs. It is the antithesis of the city apartment and maybe therein lies the aspect of retreat - a flight from the stage to the dressing room.

It's been an interesting trawl through the 1970s but I awoke this morning mawkishly thinking about my rakish youth spent in Greenwich Village, friends long gone, and .... well, enough already.

So, from the same year as these photos, and sung frequently on the way to work as a duet between Mr Stewart and me.

Wake up Maggie, I think I've got something to say to you
It's late September and I really should be back at school
I know I keep you amused
But I feel I'm being used
Oh Maggie, I couldn't have tried any more
You led me away from home
Just to save you from being alone
You stole my heart and that's what really hurts

Photographed by Charles Ashley for Architectural Digest, May/June 1972.