In his autobiography, Billy Baldwin tells of the occasion when, before lunch with the Spencer family, he sat next to Amelia Nettleship, the not-quite-yet step-grandmother of the-not-quite yet Princess of Wales, and the author of a seemingly unending series of bodice-rippers. Never having read one of her novels, I remember her more as a gaudily beruffled and brocaded television personality wheeled in front of the camera whenever an opinion was required to further deepen the class divide.
Mr Baldwin relates his conversation with this lady, the writer of this book of etiquette - here quoted in part.
"You are what?" she said.
"I am a decorator."
"Well," she said, "I've just come from your California, and I hope to God you're not a decorator from California, are you?"
I said "I have done some work there."
"Well, you'd better go back again," she said. "God knows they need some taste. Another thing you might do while you are at it is to tell the airlines to have a little manners. When I travel on this side of the Atlantic I've been accustomed to having at least two full seats because I am not a young lady and I get tired and it is very necessary for me to stretch out. So, naturally, out of politeness and courtesy, I am given at least two seats and sometimes three. To my great disgust, the last time I came back from your country, on your airlines they wouldn't let me have two seats, and I wanted three."
Arthur Smith, Baldwin's associate, and the decorator of the rooms below, was with him on the visit to the Spencers and clearly had a better time of it for he sat next to "an absolutely charming, very pretty girl called Lady Diana, who was full of charm, full of wit, and full of humor."
One of the reasons why I like looking backwards is I can see so much of what I miss in modern decorating - color. The modern pallid palette, a range of bloodless tones that began to have currency in the late 1980s still holds sway and though this is an opportunity to rail against the way color is not taught in design schools, at least judging by what I see in the magazines, I shall resist that temptation.
Recently I renewed my department's subscription to Architectural Digest - for home I subscribe to Elle Decor and The World of Interiors. I hesitated about renewing Architectural Digest but I can use it as a teaching aid about celebrity, marketing, and aspiration. What strikes me about both Architectural Digest and Elle Decor is, in the editorial sections at least, how boringly lacking in color they are.
Elle Decor is a magazine with which I've had a difficult relationship over the years - I find the editorial emphasis on bedraggled and rather wan interiors increasingly disappointing - and am probably not renewing the subscription. When I think that I have kept up a subscription to The World of Interiors since 1983 it is clear that the magazine has far more to offer me than any other on the market. It may be invidious to compare other magazines to The World of Interiors, because the writing, photography, printing, paper – what insiders call its "production values" – are so high, and it remains consistently inventive. But the fact remains, these magazines are all competing, for both my dollars and my attention, so comparison is inevitable.
Photos by Peter Vitale, accompanying two short paragraphs of text written by Elaine Green for Architectural Digest, October 1983.