Friday, July 23, 2010

Tone deaf

I've just listened on YouTube to what for years I've thought of as the only piece of jazz I could ever tolerate - Dave Brubeck's Big Noise from Winnetka. But it seems at this point I have to concede that my level of tolerance has sunk even further - jazz, both traditional and modern, remains one of the most irritating noises I could ever try not to listen to - nails on a chalkboard, that sort of thing! Sadly, merely stating that I cannot abide the stuff typically raises many a hackle – or many a look of pity.

Let me say, before I raise more hackles, that noise to me is one of the biggest polluters of modern life and I am one of those people who cannot zone it out. The Celt, on the other hand, could sleep on the orchestra conductor's baton during the cannon fire and pealing of bells celebrating the retreat from Moscow.

None of which has anything to do with this photo except that it is of the living room of a Winnetka, Illinois house, decorated by Stanley Falconer - a house purporting to reflect "a late-eighteenth-century French country house."

One wonders why in 1990s Winetka, Illinois, or anywhere else on this continent for that matter, there was a need to reflect another century, style or place. The other day I commented in response to F P Victoria's post in part about discrimination or the lack thereof, and about what he hesitated to call knock-offs by saying that we all notice phrases such as "inspired by...." "in the manner of ..." and "an homage to ..." being used in shelter magazines and trade publications. I went on to say that anyone who has even a rudimentary knowledge of decorative arts cannot but be aware of the many familial resemblances in popular catalogues, mall furniture stores, to authenticated designs.

So it is with this house - the evocation of another time, place and lifestyle - enshrined in the language of display. Over the years there has been a predilection for evoking other lands, past times and in many cases long-dead designers as if giving credence to the decorator's or architect's own work. Look back through 1980s and 1990s Architectural Digest, for example, and you will see a constant conjuration of some golden back-when whether it be eighteenth-century French palace or province, the Paris of Napoleon III, the country houses of the English aristocracy, or 1930s Wyoming. However, such imitation-evocation is almost entirely restricted to interior design. I'm pretty certain the inhabitants of these homes did not totter about in Marie-Antoinette flounces, wear the likes of Prinny's knee-breeches, or creak around in chaps and spurs at cocktail parties - except, perhaps at a fête costumée. To do so would look anachronistic and ridiculous. Yet acres of rooms, staged at vast expense, milk those times and places, and nobody bats an eyelid.

Authenticity is almost as slippery a notion as chic – and to my mind all the more interesting in a society where designs of furniture cannot be copyrighted – a concept I shall enjoy exploring more in a later post. In the meantime, do please enjoy the undeniable beauty of Mr. Falconer's facsimile.

Photos by Tony Soluri to accompany text by Jeffrey Simpson about a house designed by Thomas H. Beeby, decorated by Stanley Falconer of Sybil Colefax and John Fowler and published by Architectural Digest August 1998.


  1. You have encapsulated well what I have thought, said and written many times - reproductions of period houses are just plain silly, unless you're the curator of a museum. Ditto trying to live like an Edwardian in the C21st, (I know at least one), is faintly ridiculous. Take the best of everything and make it work together; that is artistic.

    I'm sorry you don't enjoy Jazz!

  2. This comment was made yesterday but the correspondent's full name at was at the head which I removed just in case that was not the intention.

    "I believe this is the home of former neighbors of mine (I left - they are still there). I had never been invited in (nor had anyone else in the neighborhood to my knowledge). George and Laura and even Lady Di had been to visit on more than one occasion, causing barricades to go up and lots of hoopla. The gardens are generously opened to the public during the Garden Conservancy's Open Days but Mr. and Mrs. never make an appearance. Their uniformed staff serves lemonade in the garden.

    Years ago they attempted to get a demolition permit for the original house that existed on the property. It was previously known as the Kuppenheimer Estate and David Adler was the original architect. A family who lived across the street rescued the Adler house and had it moved on to their property where they attempted a renovation. All sorts of conflicts arose between the family who moved the Adler house and historic preservationists, lawsuits ensued. I lost track. In all fairness to the family who wanted to demolish the Adler house -- they had a child with severe physical limitations and wanted to create a home (and garden) that was completely accessible to their child -- now a young adult.

    What they were really purchasing (in their eyes) was the property and not the Adler house. They claimed they couldn't make the Adler house work for their special needs child. Mr. Beebee created a house in the French style. The garden is the work of Debra Nevins and has been extensively published.

    Such a strange coincidence to see this "big noise from Winnetka" appear today. After 23 years in Winnetka, I'm moving to Evanston on Wednesday!"

  3. Maybe it's because it's tomorrow already, but perhaps you lost me there with your argument . However, I dwelt with pleasure on Falconer's room. How well that raspberry silk chair sets off the crepuscular colours and all pinned down by that fabulous blue.

    I ldid like the comment about authenticity being slippery. Remember how we all laughed at Columnist's Gothic Horror house by Ronnie Woods. Except I didn't because the man's a rock star and this was a rock star's house. Much of it was ghastly (occasionally it was glorious) but it was genuine in its exuberance and risk-taking. Incidentally would you agree with me on the difference between Kitsch and Naff in that Kitsch tends to be naively pleasurable whereas Naff has the dead hand of aspiration and lack of imagination on it.

    Oh oh, Big Noise from Winnetka. Love it. But didn't you like Brubeck's Take Five? The idea of most jazz I find pretty alarming.

  4. Elton's a rockstar but his houses don't look like Woods'. The difference maybe a decorator's hand in one and not the other. I liked Woods' house if not the contents. I couldn't even use a naff comment as in - Oh, like, that's, like, sooo subversive! (Gallery speak, you understand.)

    Kitch and naff are no easily defined but you know 'em when you see them. I cannot forget Maggie Smith's expression when told what necrophilia was and her only comment was "Oh, that's naff."

    Kitch to me is only applied to objects - those naught seaside postcards, for example. Naff can be applied to kitch thereby showing one's aspirational tendencies and aesthetic insecurity. Beyond that, naff has a moral aspect that kitch does not - though explain that to many a minimalist interior designer or architect. To me the interesting thing is that naff as a word came into general use after I left England.

    Take Five was the definitive nails on a blackboard for me. I'm not good with jazz as it's just noise, and repetitive noise at that. Akker Bilk or Dave Brubeck - all the same to me.

    Too early to be anything but sour this morning and have just burnt a pan of porridge.