Saturday, November 13, 2010

Hicks, Hermes and a book review

More than thirty years after this photograph taken in Wright Ludington's salon, David Hicks was interviewed (a post for another day) by Charles Gandee for House and Garden - a source for some of the content of my recent posts - probably the best interior design magazine that ever was, its demise after the glory years under the editorship of Louis Oliver Gropp, much regretted. In the 1980s the magazine was renamed and reformatted as HG, the first of its, in my experience, two changes in pursuit of the chimera of hip. The last and most frenetic of the three formats was followed after the final closure by the limp and, by me, unlamented Domino.

Today's post did not begin as a review of the state of interior design publishing, but whilst I'm on the subject I might as well say how disappointed I am by the quality of the design of the long-awaited biography of Billy Baldwin. I'm not going to complain about the fact that I learned little that is new for that perhaps says as much about me as the author, or about the fact that I've seen a great deal of the photographs in other books about and by Billy Baldwin. I do not question the author's scholarship or his writing style, for it is a learned, well-written and easily-read book, but what I will say that is that when it was announced it was to be published I asked myself what else there was to say about Mr Baldwin and now I have the answer.

My concern is this: at this point in twenty-first century book production it should not so be so that photographs, however old the original, can look so sad on the printed page. The major problem, I think, is with the old print films - four-color halftones that were made before the refinements of the 1980s, and which, when enlarged beyond their capacity, begin to look fuzzy and dull on the page. Not all the images suffer in this way, but there is many a photograph that is fuzzy and dull. None of this can be laid at the door of the author - he after all is at the mercy, if mercy is the right word, of his designer and publisher. In this case, the publisher should have exercised more editorial control over the graphic designers.  Did anyone think of doing a print check?

When buying a book online, and I increasingly do because they are cheaper, I cannot leaf through as I could in a bookstore. There's a lesson here, of course, for had I been patient and waited until this book appeared on the shelves I would very likely not have bought it. Of all the books that were slated for publication last month, two were of interest to me - Billy Baldwin: The Great American Decorator being one of them. I'm so disappointed I think I'm going to return it. The other I've yet to check out - in the bookstore!

Photograph of David Hicks from David Hicks, A Life of Design, by Ashley Hicks, Rizzoli, 2009. The second photograph of Wright Ludington's salon by John F Waggaman from The Collector in America, compiled by Jean Lipman and the Editors of Art in America, Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1971.


  1. I agree with you. I often see a book that I think will be of interest, and then the old photography as you've described makes me think it's really not worthwhile.

    I will be very interested to hear your views on Hicks, for me one of the great inspirations of my interior design interest, (but I know coupled with a less than delightful character), although I did lunch with him and other mutuals towards the end of his life and he wasn't as awful as I thought he might have been. Sad and bitter perhaps.

  2. Awaited, yes and I agree the book could benefit from more photographic quality or perhaps editing of them.I think it is a good book nonetheless. I have 4 of his own penned books. Billy Baldwin was the great, and a compilation of his career-if the book is at least considered that- is desired and required.To introduce him to people (and some do buy every book on design known to man) is the most important idea here.Billy Baldwin for the most part was an open book- leaving his own records. For some the introduction is well worth the price and in these times the book is a much needed. For those of us that have or get the tattered editions- our beloved 1st editions- we must try to have the positive thought that maybe this will "take."

  3. I completely understand and lately I have become very particular about the books I choose to purchase!


    Art by Karena

  4. I haven't seen the book yet, but as a former employee at Hearst Magazines, I find it amazing that this book lacks the eye of a wise editor--no less a print specialist at the print run; I'm sure someone was there, but really!

  5. Perhaps the rush to get the book out for the holiday season has a lot to do with it, but I would think today's technology would be able to produce better images. But apparently cut-backs in publishing staff is also a factor. Inexcusable in any case.

  6. Columnist, thank you. Hicks is an interesting character and I have loved his work ever since I saw his shop in London - so exciting. Roderick Cameron's sister has pleasant things to say about him in her book but I cannot say I warmed to him. I've just read an interview he did for HG in the 80s and didn't find it particularly pleasant to read.

  7. Little Augury, thank you. I too have Baldwin's books and value them highly but one thing I now wonder about is if the present generation of readers, used to more ostentatiously well-propped decorating, will even appreciate Baldwin's simplicity.

  8. Karena, thank you. There are a lot of newly-published books about interior design and I, frankly, find most completely uninteresting. They tend to be interchangeably bland.

    Bruce Barone, thank you. The book was printed in China but judging by the overall quality of the book that is not to it's detriment. Editing is so important!

    John T, thank you. Perhaps it was the rush to the market but overall, as I say to Bruce above, the quality of the book is not bad.

  9. It's hard to be patient and wait go to the bookshop, yet the slight nicks or scratches I've had in recent deliveries --too slight to take the trouble to return when it will probably happen again ---make me feel I should.

  10. I'm dying to know what the other book is you want to check out!

  11. sigh. Lou Gropp's HG, definitely as good as it gets...and the bizarre fashion hybrid it briefly was under Anna Wintour? Ugh. The only time Mr. Newhouse made a worse horizontal promotion was when he made Tina Brown editor of New Yorker. I've never forgiven him for either. I have searched the internet high and low for a replacement copy of the first Gropp issue, lost by fire. But I repeat myself.

    I too was startled by the poor quality of reproduction---especially in our technologically advanced age. My conclusion of the cause is different than yours. I have the sense that quite a few of the pictures are photographs from the printed page, the original transparencies either lost or not available, but agree with you that it is a shame in an otherwise admirable book.

    And what is the other book?

  12. LOL, I get so wrapped up in my magazine loss that I forgot to add that David Hicks is one of my design heroes---but, can barely stand to read interviews. Poor man, having to carry all that ego and snobbery around all the time.