Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Fakin' it

I'd like to say it was seeing The Birth of Western Civilization in the role of book-as-cultural-talisman, that crystalized my thoughts, but actually it was reading Famous Last Words, a book recommended by a correspondent who thought I might find it relevant to my theme of the past few months - circles within circles - and relevant it is, this tale about an American citizen, friend of European aristocracy, confidante of the Duchess of Windsor, and spy for the Third Reich. Though set in times too recent for it to be considered an historical novel, the book is in its way pertinent to today's post about a history of decorating - itself a fiction if ever there was one.

Sometimes simple things have little individual significance, but occasionally they coincide and together have more import than they might severally have had. And so it was with these two books - one a propper's accessory in a pretend apartment designed for imaginary inhabitants themselves characters from a movie about spurious relationships; and the other about chimerical alliances and duplicity with and by mythical fascists. From one extreme to the other, you might think: but the common thread is that of duplicity - fakin' it, in other words.

For a while now it has been obvious that shelter magazine editors and by extension we the readers are not satisfied with a mere portrayal of rooms - there must be a story. Whether a story of celebrity, notoriety even, or just plain old-fashioned worship, a story there shall be. The plot, or subterfuge, if you will, is frequently the same - someone just walked out of a room that is littered with aesthetic and cultural detritus emblematic of riches and free time. An alliance between theatre and fiction, no less, the scripted yet supposedly extempore situation is the decorating world's equivalent of reality television.

I wonder if this making of backgrounds, stage sets really, for the mini-dramas of the rich and notorious is compensation for the neutralizing - one might say the dumbing down - of interiors that has happened over the last two decades? Interest must come from somewhere, after all, and the more complex the storyline, the more layers are applied to the room; thus the greater the opportunity for product placement - not in itself a bad thing, I'm sure you would agree.

I wonder also where stylists go from here. To those modern sanctuaries, so-called retreats from the stresses of modern life - the bedroom and the bathroom, perhaps? In the cause of creating camera vérité, could a disheveled bathroom with its toothpaste bespattered mirror, a toilet seat not returned to a genteel horizontality, and a pair of his and his robes, room fragrance by... not be emblematic of a life well-lived? Or the bedroom, perhaps, with a trail of discarded clothing leading to a bed déshabillé - while we're there, why not three trails and a set of handcuffs on the bedposts? Now there's a story!

Famous Last Words? though fiction, is an unvarnished portrait of a number of historic figures, Wallis Windsor being one of them. It appears to me that in our little outpost of the blogosphere there's a tendency to write adoringly about previous generations of aristocracy and royalty, be it actual or plutocratic, without overt cognizance of history, character, or politics. They are presented simply as style icons, their often deplorable behaviour and affiliations being totally disregarded. They are, merely by virtue of being old, rich and (mostly) dead, fabulous. In such a way is history rewritten, for in my opinion, there cannot but be a dimension beyond the superficial and the iconic.

Fakin' it, thus, is where it's at. I don't want to appear overly serious about what I see as the fictionalization of interiors, but I wonder what happened to require such a change. A change perhaps that came hand-in-hand with an apparently ravenous purience about the lives of people who are highly unlikely ever to be our intimates. Perhaps an appetite so strong it needs to be fed, however blurred the lines between reality and fable.


  1. Camille Paglia said that albums allowed musicians/promoters to sell personality/glamour. Rings true to me. Think album covers. This is where we are, this is pop.

    BTW: "toothpaste bespattered mirror" yeah.

  2. Please forgive me if this comes off in any way insolent, as I'm genuinely intrigued by this piece.

    I'm wondering if this isn't conflating multiple issues? The first being a specific mode of image production that emphasizes traces of existence through situational and aesthetic evidence. You seem to place this method as coming into vogue "over the last two decades" and I'm curious to know what styling processes you would compare against prior to the early 90s.

    I'm also wondering if it's simply these forced efforts to imply inhabitants you object to, or the use of specific cultural signifiers? Is it the trail of discarded clothing, or the fact that you can read the brand name tags? Which venues are in question here? Elle Decor? The CB2 catalog?

    When you refer to the "fictionalization" of interiors, where are you drawing the line between theater and a "true" representation?

    The second issue seems to be the divorce of style and its arbiters from historical context. This post reads to me as if you're arguing simultaneously for a method of interior photography free of "story", but also somehow placed in contextually alongside the history of those who would commission and occupy the space. Am I reading this incorrectly?

  3. Pure brilliance, Blue. The writing alone is noteworthy, the subject is highly thought-provoking, and the conclusion--well, irrefutable. Excellent work, my man. Reggie applauds you, and thanks you.

  4. Couldn't agree more.

    When I first started blogging, I had planned to travel more often in the land of the stylish, but found that oddly, I cared about other things more. My one ground rule, however, was that mention of a certain skinny woman from Baltimore and her over-plaided nazi husband and their over gilded interiors would never be mentioned. So far I've succeeded.

  5. You are always such a joy to read, but this time more than usual because it's as though you've been inside my head, having my same thoughts. You, too, have had it. Might you be referring to the Sept. HB cover story, interiors formulaically done up [against an absurd Hollywood backdrop] by our local darlings, the Howards.

    I've gotten so cranky about Hollywood and UK royalty idol worship in publications that I've just furiously cancelled a couple of subscriptions. And here comes a revival worshipfest for Gloria Vanderbilt, c'mon. I pulled the T&C out of my mailbox, looked at her face and thought [sorry] you shameless trollop, why are we worshiping you?

    So thank you for your work, and thank you for being one of the few places where out-of-the-ordinary, sometimes lesser known, spirit-driven artists and accomplished individuals make the front page.

  6. Excellent post, Blue, as only you know to do. Your magazines as ‘the decorating world’s equivalent of reality television’ made me grin. All the world's a stage though and our suspension of disbelief works pretty efficiently. I’m often bemused by the identification that seems to go on with celebrities taken, as you say, out of context. It seems the idea might be "if I know the role and I’m dressed/decorated for the part, I’m more likely to get my chance one day."? That takes fakin’ it to makin’ it and that's often called success.

  7. Terry, thank you. You're right - this is pop.

  8. Kehnan,

    Certainly not insolent – your thoughts are themselves thought-provoking. Constructive dialogue is the point!

    I agree, there are two strands to my thinking, but in my mind they are intertwined. I do believe shelter magazine styling has, over the years, changed from presenting rooms “as is” – almost as museum sets – to showing them as “lived in” – like habitats in a zoo. I’m primarily thinking of the magazines – everything from the lost and not (by me at least) lamented Lonny to AD. The world of catalogs is a different thing, although the same trend may have happened there to. I don’t look at many catalogs these days – just not my thing and besides we really don’t NEED anything more in our place. But it seems to me that, in catalogs, the “lived in” is the point. The idea is to make the reader picture themselves inside the photo. But that didn’t used to be the case with magazines.

    Also, I’m not really objecting to this trend; I am more bemused by it, and pondering its significance.

    The second strand of thought is, in my mind, connected, because it too relates to context. The stylists with their implied storylines are attempting, to my mind unnecessarily, to create context around the rooms, but there are also cases where context – genuine, rather than manufactured – is essential to understanding a room, a home, a situation, a person or a story. It’s the contrast between the added artificial context and the removed real context that intrigued me.

  9. Reggie, thank you very much. At the risk of sounding like a mutual admiration society I could make the same comments about your blog though I'd be less eloquent. Thank you, again.

  10. dilettante, thank you. You are to be congratulated for taking such a stance. I've never understood quite why the Windsors are still so popular. Either one does not know the history of those two or one refuses to acknowledge it - seems to me there isn't a middle way.

  11. Flo, thank you. Seeing Vanderbilt's face on the magazine cover held no temptations for me. I have little interest in yet another celebrity hagiography.

  12. le style et la matiere, thank you. "That takes fakin’ it to makin’ it and that's often called success." How right you are, and beautifully put!