Monday, June 21, 2010

God knows they need some taste

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.


  1. I look forward to seeing how architectural digest will change, as it inevitably will, under the new readership. As you say, it has gotten increasingly enamored with celebrity and less with interesting design work.

  2. "Bloodless" indeed. None of this wishy-washiness pastel - color drenched rooms and stat!

    May be repeating myself - but a Brit friend of mine told me that the matching of Charles and Di resulted from the plotting of Babs Cartland and Acid Raine, BFFs. Out of a romance novel indeed, but one that went more Country Western than Jackie Collins...

  3. Architect, thank you. My partner and I were discussing AD at the weekend and he wondered if it would survive. To some extent the demise of the magazine is unimaginable but I wonder how typical I am in my distaste for what AD has become - a interior design version of People magazine. The recent articles about Michael Jackson and Gerard Butler were the low points for me.

    EEE, thank you. Her Pinkness, as the Daily Mail called Cartland, was in her own memsahibish way a colorful character left over from the days of Empire and not to my taste at all! I remember when the engagement between the Prince of Wales and Lady Diana was announced Cartland issued a bulletin, stating she would not be going to the wedding as weddings for young people. It struck me she knew beforehand she would not be invited and this was her way of saving face.

    Acid Raine - I'd forgotten, so thank you for the reminder.

  4. I do hope for a renewed AD, and am excited about its prospects. Elle Decor has waned over the last year or two, going through back issues one sees a much livelier magazine. It is interesting the celebrity homes feature was started by Diana Vreeland and all the Horst photographs are perfect, timeless. Interiors have become increasingly either just plain bad, boring, or banal-maybe the celebrities have too? pgt

  5. little augury, thank you. I'm mildly curious about a renewed AD if being renewed is what happens. I wonder which niche market it will be aimed and if it will just get a facelift and continue churning out the same old same old. I think your adjectives, bad, boring and banal perfectly fitting for what one sees in the magazine world.

  6. This is where I come for my color transfusions.

  7. Thanks for the fun Billy Baldwin excerpt. I too am very eager to see what happens next with AD. Personally, I actually think we are at a very interesting inflection point in design and decorating. Many things are changing, and not just because of the recession. Many older established firms are either stagnating or having to change how they do business and of course our trade publications have undergone a real shake-up. I hope AD uses this opportunity to really re-invent them self, but that would take a lot of vision and depend heavily on who is selected. Regardless, I think we may see some exciting things as our "industry dust" settles down. Thanks for the post!

  8. Little Augury's post on the Australian mag and an encore performance by our dearly loved and much missed AAL's heads up to a Canadian mag, and le style's former comments about French/English mags not flying at half mast makes me wonder why in the world are US design mags so in the ditch? Great Britain is having its pound of woes, but design mags seems not to flail/fail. If AD doesn't hire MItchell Owens and give him free reign, I'll be deeply disappointed. May have to continue my trend of reading Sports Illustrated vs AD at my dentist's office (remember I'm in the middle of basketball mania here).

  9. Freddy Victoria, thank you. I agree that when the dust settles there'll be a different landscape and perhaps AD will be part of it. I wonder, in my cynical way, if the owners will continue along the same path for, as I see it, the celebrity industry has not diminished one jot. Where is there for AD to go, I wonder? What can be done that is not already being done?

    home before dark, I don't know what is happening to English interior design magazines, but I will find out. It could be that there the market is so small there is little room for the numbers we had here. The only two British magazines I read are WoI and House and Garden - for different reasons, though both of them keep me connected and occasionally seduce me into homesickness (after 30 years of not living there!).

    You imply a whole new interpretation as to why Aesthete's Lament stopped blogging. Hadn't thought of that one!

  10. Blue-I would love your opin on the revamped Vogue Living AU. It is a bit- 2 page style trend but the features are excellent-the Paris apt., a Montauk retreat, etc. I am especially taken with the Rose Anne de Pampelonne interior! I still hope to get to ATlanta, likely the hottest part of the season- late July! pgt

  11. My complaint with "Elle Decor" is that it has such low standards for the articles that feature homes of those connected with the fashion industry. Those that are not just plain awful are completely styled/staged for the shoot. And as much as "Architectural Digest" has had going for it in the past, maybe it is time for it to be put out of its misery! Recent issues have been really bad and totally uninspiring.

  12. Little Augury, I shall buy Australian Vogue Living today and I'll let you know.

    JT, I noticed the same about the editorial predilection for fashion industry folks and have not been impressed once. The assumption, I suppose, is that if someone is in fashion it follows their home must be fabulous - not a connection I would make. I wonder if I've just become jaded for leafing through design magazines as I sometimes do in the bookstores is like being presented with the same bowl of oatmeal month after month.

  13. Color is my life and even in the new "Belgian" decor rage,it must be infused with vibrant abstract art or pops of color to attract my attention.

    I do hope that the shelter magazines that survive listen to the esteemed writers here!

    By the way the conversation Mr Baldwin experienced made my day!

    Art by Karena

  14. The Belgian stuff is drab and depressing. I was lucky enough to work for Irvine and Fleming, so RED is a reality in my little world. As for magazines, I do not know why they are so slow to accept the new reality and embrace the Lonny format, and expand upon it. This is what should have happened with Domino. And yes, The World of Interiors has always been the bomb. They go for pure inspiration, and do not limit themselves to preaching a certain style. They give weight to history and pure creativity (dash without cash) as well as the beautiful designer interior. And they do not limit themselves geographically. I had a friend who worked at American Vogue in the 80's when the magazine was fat with ads. We used to laugh that this was keeping World of Interiors going! It is a world treasure.

  15. JT's comment re "completely styled/staged for the shoot" re Elle Decor's coverage of "homes of those connected with the fashion industry" is absolutely incorrect, I can assure you.

  16. Re EEE's comment on the matchmaking by Barbara Cartland and Raine Spencer, I think this is a little bit wide of the mark. The story goes that the matchmaking was made by Queen Elizabeth and Lady Fermoy - maternal grandmothers to Charles and Diana. Lady Fermoy denies it, but she would wouldn't she?

    Raine Spencer is the daughter of the late Barbara Cartland, and as Diana's stepmother they rarely enjoyed happy realtionships.

  17. I agree Elle Decor isn't that special. I think it can sometimes be a bit overrated and inconsistent.
    I find myself picking up these magazines less and less. With the web and so many great blog sites like this one out there I rarely even read Architectural Digest. There's just not enough time.
    Thanks for the post