Monday, August 16, 2010

My man, wassup?


Errm... ? is not the politest response to such a question but it does indicate how mystified I feel when I'm greeted in such a way. I have a similar response when asked who my favorite decorator is. I know its a way of beginning what the questioner hopes will be an interesting conversation, but every time I'm asked it stops me in my tracks. Do I just take a swig of my cocktail and forge ahead with a name, any name, or do I sedately discuss the idea that there cannot be one favorite?  In either case, eyes will glaze over and panic set in, and not necessarily on the part of the listener.

Who our favorite decorators are is a question we're all asked at some point in our careers. In my case, often, it is students who are looking for direction or even something to disparage - either is good, for it means a discussion can ensue. Limiting certainly, depending on the context, but it does concentrate the mind as to which decorators - and it has to be plural rather than singular - I think have had some real significance. Yes, I have favorites, but not quite in the way the questioner usually means: for those that I find to my taste, generally speaking, are long gone and not the usual names that get bandied about.

The weak point in any discussion of taste, which is really what is behind such a question, is personal predilection. Snares are many on the journey of taste from seventeenth century France, where it began, to today's romantic historicism. I'm promiscuous when it comes to style and I'm drawn to blue - from where I sit there is blue in various quantities around me - the sky (well, bits of it), the stripe lining a ladder-back Provençal kitchen chair, the kitchen cabinets themselves, the plumbago on the terrace, the tulip vase by my left hand, the silk at the windows, an armchair in the living room... even a dog in a garden below, blue in the face, no doubt, from the yapping it has been doing for the last hour - and because my predilection is so strong I have to be wary. It is, after all, just my taste. But not all that is blue is to my taste.

In matters of taste, designers are often accused of being original which is a pretty sobering accusation - one that can lead to tweeting between the Fates and the Furies, and in the rarest of cases, hubris. In reality original as a concept is pretty nebulous, if not downright bearing of false witness. And in contemporary use, original in its simplest just means recast and at its most rare, transfigured

With today's designer, Arthur E Smith, taste and transfiguration are happy companions. Thirty years ago, when I first saw this house, Smith's own on Long Island, it was I who was transfigured, with this man's taste. Smith, definitely a favorite of mine - one of the band of designers who took over when the old guard such as Billy Baldwin retired - is not unknown today, but the longer the remove between the end of his career and the careers of those practicing today, the greater the danger he and his like fade from memory.  

All that serious stuff aside, isn't this dining room delicious? Delicious, certainly, but original? Who cares? The room, as are the other rooms, is a superbly beautiful, urbane, comfortable, classic and as bang up-to-date as it was when published in 1989. Originality has nothing to do with it - but taste has everything to do with it.

Photos by Peter Vitale to accompany text of an interview with Arthur E Smith, written by Patricia Warner for Architectural Digest and published in July 1989.


  1. This design has a definite appeal for those of us who learned to write with pen and ink. I was never caned, but we did have to genuflect at our Episcopal service.

  2. My pagan side tips her hat to the Fates and the Furies. Blue is not my first turn for inspiration. Unless, of course, it is you. Shakespeare (whoever he really was) was not original. He simply stole from the best and left the rest. Taste is such a slippery slope,no?

  3. I am certain I have seen that dining room before...or one inspired by, by someone with similar taste, it was the blue I loved...and the chairs.

  4. Spot on, Blue. There is really very little that is original in design today, and that's perfectly fine by me. But yes, taste is the important factor, and unfortunately, there seems to be little of that today as well.

    The dining room is indeed delicious. And please don't tell me that it was MY dog that was yapping. If it was, he was obviously pining for you!

  5. BWS, thank you. Genuflection like reflection should be an occasional activity.

    home before dark, you're right - taste is a slippery slope and one tends to go down it backwards.

    smilla4blogs, thank you. I too love the dining chairs - generously sized with high backs and probably very comfortable. The upholstery is superb - at least to my taste. The David Hockney piece above the console has stood the test of time too.

    Peach of Chic, thank you. Alfie could not be so bad-mannered as to bark for over an hour but actually it was a bigger dog, judging by the sound.

    As to originality, I understand the emphasis on it in a society where mass production is the norm. The word has become a synonym for novel, nothing more.

  6. One of the many reasons I love to read your posts is that with all their varied meanders, they always seem to come right to the point. Or points. Your introduction to lesser known decorators is a boon, but my weakness is for your wielding of the word. I was impressed with the second picture where angles (Mondrian - Mondrian-like?) and curvaceousness make lovely table companions. Please continue to be style promiscuous!

  7. le style et la matiere - I'm very flattered, thank you. I need to check on that tondo - I meant to name the artist.

  8. le style et la matiere - the artist of the tondo was Ilya Bolokowski. And thank you again for the kind remarks you made in your comment!

  9. I love all the touches of blue that tie all these rooms together. Lovely Blue.