Friday, July 16, 2010

Chic happens

A while before I posted about Billy Baldwin's blue salon at La Fiorentina, and before I went searching in my old copies of The World of Interiors for Roderick Cameron's last house in Ménerbes I found an article written by Cameron a couple of years before he died about a house he decorated for an American client, Mr X, and his wife.

I did not set out to write this week about Roderick Cameron but, as you know, one thing leads to another and here I am cogitating a particularly rich aesthetic - rich not in any sense of being overbearing or displeasing in its showiness, but one that at first glance seems a little underwhelming and sometimes, mystifyingly, is described as chic.

Chic is a word that gets bandied about a lot - in a modish way, you might say. Chic, is ... well, to be chic is to be classy, but not quite in the way, if you'll pardon the slang, those old Hollywood broads were classy. A platinum blonde, totin' a piece, marking some big lug on her way to the big house might have been a classy broad, but she certainly was not chic.

So, what is chic and, as an extension of that, what is taste? Chic is a word destined or even intended to make any tyro quake in his aesthetic boots. Chic really does just mean classy or if classy ain't classy enough then chose a synonym: elegant, exclusive or dashing. In that word exclusive lies the nub, as it were, of the usage of the word chic and in a déclassé use of the word classy. Describing something a being chic is a classy way of showing that classy is as classy does!

But classy, like the word classic in classical music, or classic in the sense of time-honored is derived not from the Classical World (Ancient Greece and Rome) but from the word class - as in upper-class.

If chic, then, means being elegant and sophisticated and if, as many taste-makers proclaim, it is beyond fashion, what are they really saying? What we must remember is that language is a signifier of status, of background, of intelligence, of wealth, of culture, and perhaps more than all those, the ability to create a persona of persuasion. And so it is with interior design: words are class signifiers and the language of the upper class of the profession, the so-called Deans of Design, the Mavens, the Connoisseurs - or to put in an un-chic way, the Fixers and the Tastemakers.

Turning to Mr Cameron again... "Owing to the scale of the house, the colors had to be on the quiet side; many of the walls were to remain white, or just broken with a suggestion of green or yellow. The materials also had to be small-patterned and light. Basically it was to be a house that the family came to in the spring or early summer, and I wanted it to reflect this mood. The small sitting room has a white linen sofa, a clear Perspex coffee table in front of it, and armless comfortable chairs - the material covering them a very simple green-and-yellow patterned chintz. There wasn't room for real armchairs. The drinks table came from David Hicks and is white sycamore with a sand-colored marble top. The stone floor we partly covered with raffia matting made by Les Tapis de Cogalin near St. Tropez. The only hints of real luxury in the room are a handsome painting on silk of a white dog by Castiglione, the Jesuit father working for Emperor Ch'ien-lung in Peking during the eighteenth century, a faded blue-washed gouache of a Chinese Buddha, and a touching print found at Malletts in London of a girl offering a magnolia bloom to a fawn. An endearing early-nineteenth-century wooden owl from Austria presides over the drinks table set with old, rectangular, cut-glass decanters, and a handsome famille-verte vase made into a lamp stands on a low draped table by the sofa. This small room sets the mood of the whole house - great simplicity mixed with a touch of exoticism.

"The dining room was so narrow we furnished its length with two round tables covered in an attractive pale-yellow-and-white chintz from Colefax and Fowler. The eight chairs surrounding them are of unpainted wood with rush seats. A series of Hodges's engravings of India hang on the wall and an intricately carved marble plaque of the Mughal period hands over the fireplace. It was found in Lucca, where two young dealers, one Italian and one Siamese, having started a remarkable shop specializing in Oriental art. It is named the Galleria Craag after Carl Craag, the Siamese partner, and it comes as a delicious surprise for anyone interested in the Orient. I had the plaque framed in molded plexiglass, and it has become one of my favorite objects. The house if full of things I would have bought for myself and I feel this is the only way to work for someone else if one is allowed the luxury of choosing.

"Mr X consulted Gilbert Occelli, a talented young French designer. Gardening in Provence is not easy; the soil in most places is poor and the climate rude, too cold in winter and too hot and dry in the summer. One has to be well-versed as to which plants will or will not thrive. The top of a fairly exposed plateau with no great depth of soil did nothing to help matters and imposed its own restrictions. Mr Occelli found 40 old olive trees and planted them at the approach to the house, starting his garden plan from there. Two raised platforms to one side of the house, one divided into four and planted with herbs and the other spread with gravel and arranged with pots, formed one element. To the right of the approach, Mr X had been obliged sink a huge reservoir for his water, which is pumped up from a 120-meter-deep well. This gave Mr Occelli about fifty centimeters of soil, a problem he solved by making a little formal parterre with box and gravel paths centered around two large terra-cotta pots planted with clipped box. Two variegated hollies marked the entrance. The result is decorative and puts one in mind of gardens one has seen in seventeenth-century Dutch paintings.

"The swimming pool, blasted out of solid rock, lies below this and is reached by a descent massed with lavender which is kept clipped into tight balls when not in bloom. The garden, like the house, has been very simply treated and is very much in keeping with its wild surroundings. It's a place of utter enchantment, redolent with tangy smells and alive with butterflies, scuttling lizards, and a buzzing of bees, the whole bathed in the clear beautiful Provençal light."

To my mind, few things better pin down the wil-o-the-wisp concept of chic than these elegant, spare rooms, and Rory Cameron's deceptively simple descriptions.

Photographs by Jacques Dirand to accompany text written by Roderick Cameron for House and Garden, December 1983.


  1. Is this a small house living inside a big house? Certainly no fussy. I'm stuck on the first exterior picture. I want to walk up to the arches and in but I'm not sure I'd be welcome.

  2. I have a new ambition, to have 'a persona of persuasion' in your memorable phrase. I think you have pinned down the notion of chic but
    I can't give Cameron ten out of ten for this house. I guess it was of its time, but that draped dining table looks tres clunky in that image. I find the general creaminess of the place not to my liking, but what do I know about trying to decorate provencal houses?

  3. Okay, Reggie will be a dissenter to the other comments he's read so far...this looks to be in "move in" condition to me. I'd take it (and love it), no I'd more than take it, if I were to be so astonishingly fortunate to find myself there (alone, and it were mine) I'd run around like a wild child, laughing hysterically, consumed with glee, overcome with joy. The simplicity is perfection, and what better place to be on a hot Provencal day than within its magical, stripped down, broom swept clean rooms, or its sun-burnished, elemental grounds. Fabulous post, and please do keep exploring what it means to be chic, you handle it so well. Reggie

  4. Reggie, I totally agree with you - this is the most beautiful of houses. I cannot disagree with Rose about the skirted table - frills are really not my taste - but it is of its time and fits the aesthetic of the decorator. There's something ineffable about the combination of glazed cloth, a frill or two (a fichu, no less) the soft arises of the plaster, the stone, the glass doors and the light. I just wish the editing of the photos had been better - all too vignetted to my taste.

  5. Oh, you have my head spinning on a hot afternoon. Not just with the essay on "chic, or not too chic" ~ but with the house as well. I think I could pass out on that sisal rug right about now.

  6. Janet, thank you. I must admit that bare feet on a seagrass mat on a cooled floor is pretty wonderful in weather such as this - 101 on the freeway yesterday afternoon.