Wednesday, June 16, 2010

A rash of lace

A couple of months ago a number of Atlanta bloggers were asked by the editor of Atlanta Homes and Lifestyles to write a paragraph or two on the subject of "What's Modern Now?" for the June issue. I posted my contribution last Saturday and I find, having made my statement, I'm still thinking about it and the cliches that hover around the subject.

Coincidentally, I've been reading the charming and insightful Good Taste Costs No More, written by Richard Gump and published in 1951. The book is of its time – beautifully so –especially in its idioms, anecdotes, admonishments, bons mots, and slightly heavy-handed jocularity. The author does a good job of skewering pretension, both traditional and modern.

"If a friend dropped over one evening wearing knee breeches and a rash of lace at the throat and cuffs, we would hasten to summon the happy wagon. 'Poor old Jim,' we'd say, 'slipped his trolley.' But if he invites us into a room dressed entirely in the same period, no one raises an eyebrow. The detailed period habitat is no more wacky today that wearing the habit. It's playing Napoleon with the environment."

"Someone else may declare, 'I only like modern. Antiques, you can have 'em.' And we pay little attention. But if he said, 'When I travel, I only go to Oslo,' we'd think he was a little soft in the filbert. Yet entirely modern interiors reflect the same sort of limited viewpoint."

"The unyielding sticklers for the modern and functional are as pretentious and ridiculous as someone with a one-track period complex who is Queen Anne queer. Those who insist that everything before the Bauhaus is bunk, in getting back to what they call "fundamentals," would ignore or toss out three quarters of the beauty of the past. Their enemies, a fence apart, who are no less sure that design stopped with the Biedermeier, would pooh-pooh the progress and development of the world of wonderful things. Small-pasture jackasses, both of them."

So, in a round-about way I come to Frank Lloyd Wright - an architect whose glamour I've never really understood or whose buildings – and I have been in quite a few – have never struck me as the most comfortable to inhabit. Oh, I know the stuff about compression and release but seeing that formula in action in the house, Kentuck Knob, seen below, led me to wonder, as I have over the years, how much of what we read and hear is really The Emperor's New Clothes Redux.

That perhaps is a discussion for another day but I can say that the house we visited after Kentuck Knob, Fallingwater, began to change my perceptions of Frank Lloyd Wright - so much so, I realized many of my ideas about him had just been prejudice. I too had been a victim, if that is the word, of the FLW industry... but in the sense that it had put me off.

Kentuck Knob is beautifully situated in a forest planted, in the main, by the Hagans, friends of the Kaufmanns of Fallingwater, who commissioned the house from Wright. The day we were there the exterior of the house was raked with dappled light through trees that marched right up to the walls and overhung the roof. The motor court, because of that dappled shade, though humid and hot was the perfect place to listen to the introductory spiel from a balletic and breathless docent, to muse and sop views of the radiant and fully-leafed forest. America the beautiful, indeed!

Photographing the surprisingly diminutive and cramped interior wasn't permitted, which is a shame, for the house felt as if it were still lived in - bric-a-brac, photos of the late Princess of Wales and of the present owners, Lord and Lady Palumbo, helped to strengthen that impression, though that apparently is not the case. What I did see, to my delight, was a collection of what I think was Bernard Leach pottery. In my youth I once visited Leach's home in Cornwall overlooking the sea and just down the road from Barbara Hepworth's studio. I digress.

Coming back to what modern is today. When I mention the Frank Lloyd Wright industry I'm really talking about how celebrity, advertising and aspiration create our perceptions of what our world, our modern world, is like - in other words, what's modern today.

Within the two broad categories of traditional and contemporary, many attitudes in the name of style are struck - think of minimal, white walled contemporary architecture furnished with low-lying furniture bereft of curve and color, and consider too of the other end of the continuum, a draped, shadowy, befringed and buttoned evocation of the Second Empire. What lies in between, a varied mix of contemporary and traditional, high and low, is where the majority of the population live.

Modern, then, is what one is persuaded to need, nothing more.

These romantic steps off one of the paths weaving through the sculpture garden led to yet another sculpture and what I named Frankie's barbie.

Photographs courtesy my iPhone.


  1. I think I share your pre Damascene view of FLW. But like Charles Rennie Mackintosh in Scotland, many of our perceptions of their talent are somewhat skewed by the vast overpromotion of anything they did. If I never saw anything from either of them again I don't think my life would be that much poorer.

  2. Yes, it is a small house. I was just entranced by all of lord palumbo's collections. What an interesting guy! Did you see the Mies van der Rohe sketches of the farnsworth in the living room (previously owned by palumbo?). I loved that long terrace and surprisingly roomy living room -but agree the bedrooms and hallways can be a bit claustrophobic in any FLW interior.

  3. I read this with interest because I value your opinion and I have never been, nor will I ever be, a FLW fan. I appreciated your conversations with the "ghosts", (loved small-pasture jackasses) and have to agree that decorating can have its own True Believer moments. I think the best rooms are those that fit a person's needs, moods, and if one is lucky, dreams. And, as AD mentioned, the sparks in a room come from one's travels and one's passions that give rise to collections, totems of memory.

    p.s. Which Big 0 bday is on the horizon? I passed the 6-0 last year and am still amazed by the fact this boomer is now twice the age our generation said never to trust.

  4. As a full sized guy 6'2" and weight proportionate, I have always started gasping for breath when in a Wright house----all that damned horizontality, those tight passages---give me air! Of course, I would spend the rest of my life on my knees just to live in Fallingwater, nevertheless. Both houses so gorgeously conposed. Just don't make me spend too much time inside. Arts & Crafts often has the same effect on me....makes me running for something by Mies.

    Loved your last sentence. Exactly!

  5. PS, since other than some of the dreariest and most earnest handcrafted excesses of the arts & crafts, I've never met a style that I didn't like, I'm always amazed by those who consider their favored style to be the only true religion, and all others not worthy. So boring, so narrow, not to appreciate the whole continuum, right up to tomorrow.

  6. I hope to see a real FLW house some day. I did see one by a disciple. It seemed right according to the FLW pictures, videos, and readings. The house was a diva. It tried to make me a better person and I hate that. I did not want to be there, stay there, or go back. But I will try another if I get the chance.

    When I'm an optimist and I do hope "Good Taste Costs No More."

  7. I have to admit that when it comes to FLW, Kentuck Knob is one of my favorites (the bedrooms excepted). Perhaps it has a lot to do with Palumbo's eclectic collection, which rotates on a regular basis. But I also love the proportions of the living room. I could really LIVE in there. Plus I really want to go through all the stuff on Palumbo's desk.

  8. Columnist, Architect, Dilettante, Home, Terry, Janet, thank you all. Have little time to write a considered response to y'all so please don't be offended by my brevity.

    Columnist, I agree about C R Macintosh. I've never been to Hill House, but have visited the School of Art and walked through rooms elsewhere (no idea where) and it all leaves me unimpressed. I recognize his and his wife's importance in the history of architecture and interior design and that's about it.

    Dilettante - I too am quite promiscuous when it comes to styles. I've said this before but the one I really cannot abide is Art Nouveau and that detestation has never left me. I'm short, 5'8" and I found some of those ceilings a bit low and have never like narrow passages. To this day I cannot watch people caving or going into narrow tunnels. Makes me panic to even think about it. Claustrophobia, I suppose.

    Janet, other people's desks are always so interesting as are their bookshelves. Mine, luckily, is cleared away each day which in a way has something to say about me, I suppose. For me it's never the letters they write but the small personal objects like a comb, a twist of twine, or a coin, that can speak of the person. Taste in art is telling too, but that might be more telling about the seller than the buyer.

    Architect, I did like the living room at Kentuck Knob - it is a very humane room - and yes that terrace is particularly beautiful - in the Fall it must be heartbreakingly beautiful! I think I saw the Farnsworth sketches. I think!

    Terry, next time Auldbrass is opened to the public go and see it. It is beautiful. Auldbrass is the nearest to Atlanta, I think and the countryside around it is very pretty.

    Home, if a room ain't personal why bother with it? Totems of memory - a lovely phrase. By the way, it's a five not a nought.

    Now to sleep, perchance to dream.

  9. If I knew of anyone who actually enjoyed living in a Wright house, I might be more sympathetic to the notion that he was anything other than (pace Mussolini) a displaced fascist architect.

    I say this as someone who, as a child, thought Wright a great architect, a genius, a visionary, etc. (In other words, once upon a time I swallowed the whole ball of wax.)

    P.S. By "enjoy", I mean his clients, rather than people who have, for whatever reason, subsequently bought his houses.

  10. Twenty years or so ago, the Museum of Science & Industry in Chicago reconstructed at full scale one of FLW's Usonian houses of the early 5Os--designed for a generic 'regular' American family, rather than for a specific (and well-to-do) client, as most of his greatest houses were--and what was just as interesting as the house itself was the reaction of the people who went through it.

    Unlike the Wright groupies (and detractors) & the smug, know-it-all architecture buffs that you always see at the big FLW landmark structures, most of the visitors to the museum's house were ordinary families who just happened to be visiting the museum that day, and whose visit to the Usonian house fell in between a five-minute trip in a simulated Space Shuttle & a visit to the baby chick incubator. If there was a short educational film as an introduction--I don't remember--they probably didn't bother to watch it.

    But here's the thing: people loved the house. All you had to do was look at their faces to see how moved they were. Compared to the sprawling, over-gabled, volume-ceilinged monstrosities that dot our suburbs today, the place was tiny, the bedrooms even tinier, and the beige-&-green decor was as far as you could get from the jewel-toned faux marble, swags & tassels that were popular at the time, but those things must not have mattered, because couples stood around the rooms, arm-in-arm while their kids bounced on the banquettes that lined the broad windows of the living room, saying "We want to live here!" Those responses to Wright's subliminal--and therefore, very effective--design cues didn't come from having taken Art Appreciation classes or watching some PBS special about Modern architecture.

    Sure, Wright's roofs might have leaked & his pompous persona might have turned off a lot of people, but, watching the reactions of the people who came through that house--and I watched a lot of them, because, after I toured the house, I sat down in the living room to do just that--well, you couldn't have asked for a clearer proof of Wright's ability to speak at a very deep level to people's hearts & dreams. It was like mass hypnosis, and I never saw anything like it.

  11. Good morning, Magnaverde, and thank you. One day, years ago driving around Maryland and Virginia, I came across Woodlawn Plantation and to my surprise found a Usonian house, the Pope-Leighey house. Whatever else I saw that day I cannot remember but what I do remember is sitting on my own listening to the docent and thinking how much I would like to have one of these houses. It was, I think, to do with scale and woodiness and honestly the first positive reaction I'd ever had to a FLW building. As I said in my post, it has taken me a while to realize that what I suffered from, if that is the correct way to put it, was prejudice. It was Kentuck Knob and Falling water and now the Pope-Leighey house that have made me reassess.

  12. I had to come back to this; you gave me a lot to think about. Not about FLW, but about the jocular Gump. I thought he was very effective in getting across his idea with his ‘rash of lace at the throat and cuffs.’   Why can we accept period interiors and not period dress? Fashion is ephemeral and Furnishings to some point, imply heritage, even if bought or borrowed. Modern is a style from the beginning 20th century, but it is a also a lifestyle and a term used right ant left, as vague as ‘bourgeois.’ Then again, Modern is the spirit of now. Still, since fashion no longer reflects society but dominates our way of life with constant change and seduction, maybe this attitude is touching furnishing more and more. I don’t think I am the end of this yet, but I welcome your future posts on the subject!!!

  13. It's intriguing to think about what's modern now given our finite resources. I think JCB put it best, years ago, when she looked around our house and remarked that nearly everything had previously been used by someone else.

    Wonderful post...and thought provoking.