Thursday, January 21, 2010

How is history written?

Looking back in the old issues of Architectural Design, House and Garden, etc., it quickly becomes apparent that some designers were more prominent than others. Conceivably, the prominence they enjoyed went hand in hand with being prolific, or they or their PR people were good pals with the editor, or maybe had high-profile, even notorious, clients who needed exposure, but whatever the reason these decorators were extensively promoted.

Nothing stands still; in interior design especially, change is inevitable. And most homes are only seen by a select few. So for the most part, the published account becomes the historical record. Editorial decisions of yesteryear – who gets printed and who does not – become our picture of the design world of their times. Thus one could think that the history of late 20th century decorating lies in the work of a few people - that revered group of Hadley, Hampton, Parrish, Fowler, Taylor, Lancaster, Baldwin, Douquette, et al whose work and names are constantly before us. It's when we get the Best Decorators of All Time nonsense, that fears are raised that interior design history has a gloomy future.

This week I have discussed three decorators who left the scene early and whose work is scarcely remembered except by a remnant of their generation. There are others who should be remembered, Billy Gaylord for one, Kalef Alton, another, was frequently published in the 1980s. One of the most published at that time, Robert Metzger, is not someone whose work I would ever have called well-mannered - ostentatious being the adjective that comes to mind - so it was surprising to find these rooms that could only be described as congenial and urbane - the total antithesis of what his later work became.

So, how is history written? Is it simply that he who is remembered best is he who gets published more?

Photos by Marie Consindas, from Architectural Digest, November-December, 1974.


  1. Ah, it was about time someone asked that question. I guess there are many inexcusable reasons why people get written either in or out of history. I think your point about the PR people is pretty relevant. On the wider stage, now, think how many talented people are being ignored in favour of celebrity. People will go down in history for 'that dress' or that brazen behaviour on a reality show. Oh dear.

  2. Good point indeed. I think it is a question of who gets promoted most. Look at House & Garden. The same group of very few people are featured at their Christmas party, along with several of the editor herself, (Susan Crewe), who has even written an article on her own house, which was less than inspiring. I think it's abit incestuous actually, and I think there is much more talent out there, but editors and good PR do have undue influence on whom they showcase. In reading House & Garden you would think William Yeoward, David Linley, Nina Campbell and one or two others were the only interior designers in Britain, (and the first two are essentially involved in other businesses). One could argue that the art of being a successful interior designer is cosying up to the editors, and having the best PR, but if that's true it's a rather sad indictment of the state of this industry.

  3. Columnist - you must be rising as I am retiring. The cult of celebrity suffuses all we do so it shouldn't surprise us that to be successful as a designer one has either to pall up with editors and PR people. It is an indictment of what we have become when spin is what matters. Sad, but there it is. I think that contract side of the business might be different as it does not overly rely on print media to further its aims, but as I am writing that I know that is not the case. It's all bollocks, really. To bed, to bed, perchance to ...

  4. Rose - success and talent do not necessarily go hand-in-hand. Look at most of late 20th century art. Look at who are being touted in our field as the great talents of the Noughts. It can be argued that talent has become irrelevant now that marketing and PR are all that is necessary for success.

    It's a very sorry retelling of The Emperor's New Clothes. And as I said to Columnist, a load of bollocks!

    I really must go to bed, its a school night.

  5. History has taught us that the plum of writing the history goes to the victor—on whatever battlefield that has been fought. While we are seeing the death and decline of magazines, we are also seeing the rise and foment of the internet. Your interest is in rescuing the forgotten designers who died too young. Soodie Beasley's interest is in rescuing almost anonymous women designers who never caught on. Both of these stories deserve to be researched and told. Hopefully in a book, which all of here still treasure. I do hope all of the readers who come to your blog will take a minute to reflect on the people in their past—known personally or simply admired—and respond to your request on your sidebar.

    This search for a more complete history of design couldn't come at a better time. Thank you Al Gore! And thank you Blue and Soodie for the passion, intelligence, interest and persistence in writing and honoring those of our past.

  6. I think Columnist and Blue are very off about the kissing up to editors... sorry but sounds a bit bitter and jealous. I mean no offense, but it is a fact that in the magazine business be it fashion or decor there has always (since the dawn of Country Life- hello mr. luytens) been a kind of inner circle. There is nothing new going on, at all! Why this happens is much more an example of talent, personality, society and often location then anything to do with "PR" or "cozying up". I was an editor for many years and I assure you that all magazines are thrilled beyond the beyond to find new talent.

  7. Anonymous - No offense taken and none intended on my part either – healthy discourse is what this is all about!

    Not being an insider – and being a bit of a cynic, I confess! – I was merely speculating on how such selections get made. My view was fueled in part by AD’s recent 100 Best Designers list which, as widely discussed on this and other blogs, included a number of names that were surprising to many, and omitted others who clearly were deserving of consideration. That publication, at least, has a reputation – whether deserved or not, I cannot say – for playing favorites with designers.

    It is refreshing to hear that not all editors work this way. Thank you for providing the insider’s viewpoint.

    I’d love to hear more about the editorial process. How do editors – how did you – go about finding designers to feature? I assume there are many, many designers clamoring to be included. How did you make your selections?

  8. Editorial selection-

    First of all thank you Blue for so graciously accepting my biting response to the notion that the editorial process in decorating magazines (AD not included) is highly biassed.

    I must admit I dont have the skills to tell the whole story in this forum about how editors choose locations. But I will say this, if you've tried everything in your power to get published and you cant get any magazine anywhere to shoot one of your interiors then your work is probably not appropriate for a Magazine editorial shoot. This is why one does not get published, not whether or not you have a good PR person or you cozy up to editors. Make all efforts, magazines will never turn down great looking rooms.

  9. Bobby Metzger had an agreement with Paige Rense of "Architectural Digest" to supply several exclusive project for publication each year in the 80s, as did others such as Tom Britt. She and the editorial staff favored those glossy no-natural-light and seemingly staged interiors that Metzger could provide and rewarded him with praise; you can be the judge if it was justified or not. That procedure still occurs in a revised sense at "AD", which is why designers like Albert Hadley were not recognized in the recent list. It is really just bitchy. Why wouldn't you just say "here are some great designers that have provided joy and inspiration for us" and show all you could cram cover to cover? Advertising is clearly down and I cannot help but think this latest stunt has hurt subscriptions.

  10. I think it is he who is published most gets remembered most. I haven't figured out why it works that way, but it does. That said, I think that there are certainly places, artworks, novels, etc. that are simply wonderful and rightly take their place in the canon of time. Others, simply through overexposure.