Friday, November 13, 2009

By the waters of ....

... Babylon - well, the East River - I sat down and smiled.

Joseph Braswell's own apartment overlooking Sutton Place in Manhattan photographed in April 1974 for Architectural Digest is very different from what I expected, though that says more about me than Mr Braswell, for if you remember he was the designer of the Helena Rubinstein richly colored and immensely stylish corporate offices shown in Wednesday's post.

I realized, and this is the smile of the title, is that not only could I in a figurative sense have lived in this apartment with very few changes, details really, and what I really like about 1970s interior design I still seek today - the combination of clean-lined modern architecture, logical floor plans, historical reference, color, comfort, meaningful chotchkes, if any, securely corralled.

Mr Braswell's interior is all of this except that it is completely neutral in palette, "non-colors" as the designer said "In our work at Braswell-Willoughby we are steeped in strong patterns and colors all day, and it's easy to become surfeited. Here at home I wanted to restore myself in a tranquil palette of earth tones."

Color, such that it is, is intrinsic to the materials: sisal, rattan, lacquer, chrome, leather, suede, hopsack, mirror. This is 1977 and those materials in intrinsic colors and textures have never really gone out of fashion since. Emphasis has changed somewhat over the years: sisal had its heyday during the 1980s, but it's still around and been joined by seagrass; hopsacking is still in use as an upholstery material now called "Belgian" linen; suede, whether from the tanner or the oil refinery, comes and goes ; mirror, antiqued or not, a couple of years ago was applied to every unsuitable piece of furniture within reach and now its permissible again to clad walls with it; chrome momentarily was supplanted by nickel; lacquer, the real thing, is as fashionable as ever but that other lacquer comprising four coats high-gloss paint is beginning to be considered bad for the environment. Rattan? Least said the better.

The palm frond console in the foyer is 1930s Serge Roche for Emilio Terry. The paper sculpture (you cannot imagine the throb of nostalgia I felt at reading those words) above the desk is by Nancy Miller. Printed fabrics by Allen Campbell, I think.

Photographs by Peter Vitale from Architectural Digest, April 1977.

Title of post refers to By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept by Elizabeth Smart and by extension to Psalm 137.


  1. The first photo is completely current-Love Alan Campbell, and it is "as If" Kelly Wearstler had come up with something NEW! I have read before that some designers prefer that Calm sense of Neutral after a day of Clients with COLOR CRAZINESS, for me I have always been able to relax when closing the shutters at day's end. GT

  2. I love the you are delving into the 1970s archives. Very bold sir!

  3. You might also have interest in the work of William "Bill" Turner, an accountant-turned-decorator former employee of Joe Braswell. Flush with the proceeds of a palimony settlement (not from Braswell), he bought a townhouse in Greenwich Village and a house in Palm Beach, in addition to building a new house on Fire Island to his own design. All the residences showcased his decorating talent, a direct design tribute to Braswell. Turner wrote a book on the business of interior design, and was a partner in a company that provided decorative covers for folding chairs, Turner-Wyse. Failing health led to the close of Turner-Miller, his collaboration with architect
    Dennis Miller who went on to open a to-the-trade furniture showroom.

  4. I have never gone for earth tones myself but agree with you that they work perfectly here. Oh that gorgeous white console table with a mirror behind! A slight shame that the weird chair in front detracts from it. The more you examine those rooms, the more intriguing and satisfying they become.

  5. Rosie, at first I agreed about that weird chair but it grew on me once I realized the curves of the arms echo the lines of the console - in fact, it's actually quite clever. Anything that throws one is food for thought and that chair threw me.

  6. George Thomas WilsonDecember 10, 2011 at 12:59 PM

    I was Joe's assistant for the last few years of his New York adventure (he moved to Pensacola about 2004, and died there about the time this was first posted in 2009). It is a real shame, but you cannot get the real thrust of the foyer area in the first photo unless you can see the "chandelier" which Joe designed and patented in 1959 or so. It dominated the entrance and he called it "Telstar" after the satellite. If you look VERY INTENTLY through the drapes of the photo and into the mirror reflection through and above the white of the callas, you can make out about half of it. It was very much ahead of it's time and the first known use of "fiber optics". It consists of a chrome ball about 5" in diameter in the center with lucite dowel rods extending about 15" from the center in all directions to make a spherical fixture about 30" in diameter. I believe he took it with him to Pensacola. It SHOULD BE in a design collection somewhere. I'll bet his family has it.

  7. Mr Wilson, thank you and my apologies for the late reply. I found the pendant in the photograph - I had assumed it was a form of appliqué on a wall beyond. When I'm back from Europe I shall see if I can find more about it. So far, I've found nothing.

    If you have time, I'd like to hear more about Mr Braswell and his work - your work too! You can contact me, if you wish, through my blogger profile's email -

    Again, thank you.

  8. Joe Braswell was a dear friend of mine. I don't know how many people knew how spiritual he was, but I met him at a spiritual workshop in Manhattan and he was always interested in and curious about spiritual matters. Joe saw the relationship between interior design and spiritual consciousness - that the interior of a home was the projection and reflection of one's own interior life and one's aspirations.

    Joe was a kind man. When he learned I was to rent a railroad flat in Soho, he designed it for me - at no cost - and did not charge me a commission fee for the wholesale cost of the furniture he acquired for me in the showrooms.

    The apartment was beautiful, and he painted it in soothing blues and greens, as he knew I had suffered the loss of my dear sister, and that I needed a sanctuary to recover from my grief.

    Joe loved to laugh, and he was also a great raconteur. He enjoyed telling stories and listening to stories. He had an aristocratic air, but he never talked down to anyone; and often liked to strike conversations with doormen, bus drivers, for he saw in the "common man" an authenticity he appreciated.

    I miss Joe. God bless his soul.

    Mike Schwager

    1. Mr Schwager, thank you! I have more to publish about Mr Braswell - one of my favorites from that time. If you don't mind, I shall base an essay on your comment.

  9. I was just stating my own air conditioning company in 1971 when i met Joe and at the time I refered to him as Mr. Braswell. I had the Great Fortune of working for him. I'm still in business and owe much of my success to him. Before starting a job we would meet at the sight and he would ask me what my thoughts were in air conditioning the space.( What decorator does that?) A gifted gentleman through and through.

    1. Anonymous, thank you! I'm very glad to hear you are still in business – congratulations. Mr Braswell was one of the best and I've heard good things about him from other people who, like you, knew him. A gentleman, as you say.