Thursday, November 19, 2009

Between traditional and modern

At least, in 1977 that was the assessment Jay Spectre made of his design for a New York residence.

"Integrity - now there's the keystone. If you simply respect the innateness of places and objects, you can hardly go wrong. Let's take this project. The ground rules were simple enough. It was to be a New York residence for Californian clients, Mr and Mrs H. R .... v of Beverly Hills. The building has much to recommend it: a Fifth Avenue location, Stanford White as architect and that indefinable patina of age."

"Now I challenge you to place this room geographically. Isn't this the sort of ultimate metropolitan space? It could be in any capital: Paris, London or New York."

"Do you know, I feel a little self-conscious talking about this apartment. It all seems so simple. I mean, I really wasn't attempting any sensational statement. What I was really trying to create here is an honestly luxurious, but unostentatious, way of life. Of course, it is carefully detailed, but in a very real way the luxury is taken for granted."

So far this week I've been interested in that area "between traditional and modern" or, rather, the combination of both, as perceived by 1970s decorators. This marriage of hard-edged contemporary design grafted onto a late 19th century neoclassical building is interesting to say the least. In fact, it has echoes of the previous decade's English modernist architects, usually young, who took great pride in the elimination of all period details in classical architecture and replacing it with proto-minimalist interiors.

Besides displaying its roots in the 1960s this design by Jay Spectre prefigures the of much of the succeeding decade's interior design. During the 1980s, the counterpoint to the mania for English country house decorating, was a brittle and heart-stoppingly chilly and gleaming form of marble-floored modernism, austerely furnished with iconic furniture, usually Biedermeier, and with all the atmosphere and ostentation of the tomb.

The designer, in a naughty-boy way, referred to the powder room (below) as "a moment of madness." In this case his aim was not uncertain.

The apartment shown here is definitely of its time: dramatic, virtually lampless, luxurious, curated, showy and probably awe-inspiring to its owners. Spectre's mature design from the 1980s is very interesting and the pity of it is, he is another of that wonderful generation of designers lost to the plague. So many of them were gone so quickly and in many cases these were the men who worked for the very people who denied the existence of the plague and displayed not on speck of interest in helping save that generation or the one that came after.

An aspect of design I find fascinating, and this is why on occasion I like the designers to speak for themselves, is the language of interior design, the gobbledygook, the jargon, call it what you will, in actuality the language of branding.

Photography by Jaime Ardiles-Arce from Architectural Digest, September 1977.


  1. the Spectre interior here seems so heavy.Does this stand up today? The dining area looks like a great private club. It all represents the Bonfire of the era. These Blue posts of the era having been thought provoking and enlightening with lamps! GT

  2. t's a moment in time and in my opinion there are many comparisons and similarities with what is happening in interior design today. The whole mid-century craze had not started then, Charles Eames had not become sine qua non and there was a feeling of experimentation that was invigorating. The similarities with today? Aspiration, status, ostentation, luxury, glamour - all the eternal verities. Is contemporary interior design as invigorating as it was in the 1970s? If today's shelter magazines are anything to go by, it certainly is not. Regurgitation is the name of the contemporary game.

    Always good to hear from you, LA.

  3. This is the best setting for ethnic art and artefacts I have ever seen!
    I am working backwards from the top of your posts and love that feeling of being hit between the eyes. After decades of shabby English country smugness, heritage good taste, scandinavian cool and hollywood luxe, we could do with this high-octane fantasy. Or am I talking tosh? probably. I'm invigorated at any rate.

  4. Talking tosh? I don't think so, Rose. Sometimes a bit of naf in decorating is a good thing.

  5. The decor doesnt go that well in this type of apartment.The building is 998 Fifth Avenue, one of NYC's most grand and storied apartment houses.