Friday, February 26, 2010

The eleventh commandment

"Thou shalt have a decorator", according to Ruben de Saavedra, is the eleventh commandment. I'd always thought it to be "Thou shalt not be found out," but I'll go with his version.

Ruben de Saavedra's name is no longer well known. Like all the men I've written about over the past weeks, he belongs to that lost generation of decorators, and like all of them his name and work deserves to be remembered. One correspondent, JT, said of de Saavedra "he was HUGE in the 80s, with his exuberant personality matching his almost neo-baroque decorating."

Here, then, are photos of his New York apartment.

I could talk about how it's quite striking that this apartment, designed I think to be at its most beautiful after dark, is as classic today as it was thirty-five years ago, but I will forgo that pleasure. I could also say that perhaps today a different emphasis would be given to the interplay of levels of sheen from mirrored walls, lacquered ceiling, glittering gold, shimmering silk, polished marble, waxy wood, burnished leather, all contrasting with the visual roughness of carpet, animal-skin velvet, crusty paint, but I think that might be going too far in analyzing rooms as easy to read as they would have been to inhabit.

What I will say is that these rooms to my mind reflect the hospitable nature of the man: a man who took pleasure in entertaining; delighted in showing off his beautiful collections to appreciative friends; liked turning up the drama; was eager to provide quiet moments for the comfort of himself and guests; content with well-fed conversation around his Louis XVI dining table - a table at which robust wine was generously poured - and knowing he and they would look fabulous by candlelight.

Thou shalt have a decorator, indeed, and a sensual one.

I usually order a Manhattan at our favorite Italian restaurant, but this evening I fancy it will be a Gin and It.

1 1/2 oz gin
1/2 oz sweet vermouth

Straight up in an Old-Fashioned glass

Ruben de Saavedra died aged 57 of kidney failure in 1990.

Photos by Richard Champion from Architectural Digest, November/December 1975. Quote about eleventh commandment from text uncredited to any writer as far as I can see.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

May I have a blogging room, please?

Arthur E. Smith decorated a house overlooking Long Island Sound for clients of long-standing: previously, he'd worked on Texas and Florida apartments for them and an eighteenth-century seven bedroom cottage from which they upsized to this twenty-five room house.

Mr Smith's task, as he put it, was to make a house in which "you can walk yourself ragged" seem not grand. A mighty task given the number of rooms and the size of some of them: a dining room that appears so intimate in the photo below could seat twenty-four, a hall that could hold 125 people dancing (who, one wonders, was the wallflower?) and a room superfluous enough to be designated the telephone room. It seems, this telephone room, a swanky throwback to a time when a butler answered the single telephone in a closet off the hall, that a room in the mid 1980s could be used solely for telephoning. Probably unimaginable to the modern generation, given phone and social networking technology, and even to those of us old enough to have witnessed the Wright brothers fly.

I say, unimaginable, but witness the boom years before the present economic melt-down when builders, architects and realtors dredged up archaic designations for rooms: butler's pantry, keeping room, library, great room, and made fortunes doing so. Did I mention the bonus room?

Arthur Smith created rooms, of which there must have been many not published, that were a humane response to the scale of the place and the clients. It could not have been easy to make this house seem intimate, to have the feel of a cottage - though that depends on how cottage is defined. Cottage in the sense of a staff-cottage or a Newport cottage? Clearly the latter, in this instance.

Comparing these rooms to the sober interior Arthur Smith designed for Andrew Crispo, and to those for another client in 1977, you will see how versatile a decorator Mr Smith was and what a pity it is for interior decoration that, like so many of his generation, this Vidalia, Georgia native, protegé and business partner of Billy Baldwin was lost to the plague. Mr Crispo, described as Mr Smith's companion in an obituary survived him by a number of years, enjoying a certain notoriety.

Photos by Peter Vitale from an article written by Louise Bernikow, published in Architectural Digest, February 1987.

P.S. I wonder if the bowls of oranges in the first photo was one an early instance of fruit being uses as decoration? I remember bowls of green apples being ubiquitous for a number of years.

Oh, and talking of the first photo, aren't those candlesticks glorious?

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

At odds

One of the interesting things about my research in the last few weeks is that not only have I been able to reacquaint myself with old, sometimes forgotten favourites, but I have also been able to reassess old prejudices.

I must tell you, therefore, that I never got Michael Taylor - that is, until I saw the photos below. They are not a complete record of an interior, as far as I can tell, for when I found them I also saw that pages had been neatly cut from the bound copies of the magazine I was researching. However, the remnant was large enough for me to feel again the frisson I felt on first seeing them twenty-five or more years ago. I wish I had more photos to explain the whole interior but at least there are photos of the living room - the room that impressed the heck out of me all those years ago.

These photos come from an article describing the designer's debut, over thirty years before the article was written, as an augury of what became the California Style. When I first saw these rooms, as I say nearly thirty years ago, I felt this was one of the most sophisticated interiors I had ever seen and I also distinctly remember being almost disappointed that it was by Michael Taylor - I did not like the pale bloat, as I considered it, of his later style. Well, of course not, this was thirty years before he got to that and the invention of the ball-shaped throw pillow that galvanized every decorator from coast to coast.

In this golden, monochromatic interior, and it was probably one of the first monochromatic color schemes I actually liked, with its careful placement of what appear to be such ordinary elements, Taylor's hands created magic. I say quite ordinary, but perhaps fifty years ago, what today appears to be so run-of-the-mill, was extraordinary. And in a way, extraordinary they were, for three of those items came from the estate of Frances Elkins: the couch, the armoire and the floor lamp - provenance giving importance beyond their simple beauty.

Am I still at odds with Michael Taylor's mature style? I think I am. I understand his popularity, then and now, and in no way do I want to demean his achievement or his influence - and influential he was - but I can honestly say that when it comes to his mature style, I just don't get it. I will leave it at that, with all the implications of what could be a lack in me.

Photos by Russell MacMasters, from Architectural Digest, August 1984.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Wimped out?

What happened to color in interior design? The reason I'm asking is that yesterday I saw a magazine cover showing a room with white upholstery relieved, as far as I could tell, with a dab or two of dark brown. I wasn't interested enough even to open the magazine to see if the whole house was like that, and kept on walking, mulling over what I had just seen.

I understand the latest fad, the Belgian thing, the natural linens, worm-eaten woods, faded carpets, hand-loomed stuffs, crumbling lacquer, hand-formed brick, smoke-smudged chimney pieces, lamps giving off puddles of dimness, the single, perfect Asian ceramic, a browned-off portrait or two. I get it, I really do, but I find it dour, ashen and joyless.

So what happened to color? When did what happened, happen? Did we just wimp out or, I wonder, did the knowledge of how to use color die with that lost generation? That they and their predecessors reveled in color is obvious; that the remnant of that generation, Mario Buatta, Albert Hadley, et al, uses color superbly is equally obvious and, unfortunately, too reminiscent of times gone by. It makes me curious if, in the present generation and I'm not talking about monochromatic schemes with the occasional accent in a complementary color, there are those who could bring such a complex infusion of color to decoration.

I'm glad I found these photos of the beautifully colored rooms Mr Harrison Cultra created in a Federal house, Wildercliff, on the banks of the Hudson River. I remembered them from long ago but had forgotten how extraordinary comfortable and welcoming they seemed to me then. They're joyfully colorful, traditional rooms befitting a Federal House updated for modern living by a decorator who totally knew what was appropriate - no slavish historical recreation here. The owners of Wildercliff had seen the inside Mr Cultra's own house and wanted something just like it. I wanted something like it and I remember how, ten years before I came to live in America, this house, this summer breeze from the Hudson River Valley, epitomized everything I loved about this country - but that is another conversation.

Imagine the conversation between these rooms and their setting when Fall first ignites and also how this decorative scheme could carry the promise of Spring through the winter months. Who could not love being in this house, snow swirling, wind howling off the river, candles lit and fires burning or, on the first warm days after winter, opening the doors and windows to catch the breeze and smell the budding green?

I wonder if they still exist, these rooms? Twenty-seven years is a long time in the life of a well-beloved interior and naturally I'm curious about what happened to them. Their designer, Harrison Cultra, one of the best of his generation, died of AIDS, aged forty-two, eight months after this interior was published.

Photos by Jaime Ardiles-Arce from Architectural Digest, January 1983.

Friday, February 19, 2010

A purchase a day keeps the blues away

So said Michael Greer, about whom with a certain inevitability, I write today. Yesterday I mentioned a book by Greer I had bought a while back - the book being Inside Design by Michael Greer, published in 1962. The book, as I also said yesterday, contains clippings, so dry and fragile with the tape used to stick them in the book gone brown with age, from newspapers and magazines, some French, even one about his own New York apartment with the date 1957 written under the title. This article, two magazine pages back to back is inserted in the book as if it were a page that belonged, and clearly for the previous owner that page belonged.

Despite wanting to write about Greer, a native of Monroe, Georgia, who died in the 1970s and who is relatively unknown today, the person I'm most fascinated with is that previous owner. Who was it that used what must have been an expensive book as a scrap album about Michael Greer? Many of us have files, boxes, and digital albums in which we squirrel away images we like, rooms we covet, ideas for curtains, etc., but this book goes beyond that. It has the feel of an icon before which a candle was lit; a refuge in a life that needed glamour; a nurturing source of daydreams in which the quotidian round, so featureless, was raked with the light of what could have been.

If I'm not careful I could work myself up to a tear-jerker of a tale but, really, who knows? It's just a old book, after all.

So, Michael Greer, one of the grandest of decorators, and if these rooms, his own, are any indication he was pretty grande, doesn't quite fit in my declared range of interest. He was a life-long bachelor (those codes!), died when he was 60, and thus off the stage when the men I've been writing about began to be known. But, still, he was a gay man and he died in a horrible, if not the same way, as my other subjects.

Let me quote a 1976 People magazine article, the likes of which I would hope thirty four years later could not be written:

At the height of his career, Michael Greer had everything. He was rich, handsome and celebrated. A decorator of considerable fame, he volunteered to beautify the diplomatic reception room of the White House. Actresses Joan Fontaine, Mary Martin, Geraldine Page and Ethel Merman graced his list of clients. He supped with the Queen of Denmark and the Duke and Duchess of Windsor. He drank from Baccarat crystal and travelled in a chauffeur-driven Rolls-Royce. With his French cook-butler, he entertained the Vanderbilts, Revsons, Bette Davis and Gloria Swanson.

Mr Greer was found strangled, clad in a short kimono, ankles tied with a red cloth (seemingly his favorite color) laying on a highly valued possession, a steel-framed bed. His bedroom dressed in red faille hangings was soundproof - he said he wrote a lot in there.

I come thus to the point - how are we to be remembered?

How cruel is it, in Michael Greer's case and even that of Mr Crispo of whom I wrote a couple of weeks ago, that they are remembered for the ill they did rather than the good they have done. A so-called old friend, when there must have been so much else that could have been a better epitaph, reduced Michael Greer, the grandest of decorators, to: Once Michael was stunning - tall, slender and witty. He died blotched, fat and bloated. His clothes didn't even fit him. Some friend!

The real friend, and the one we should all hope for, is the one who kindly puts away, as if between the pages of a book, all that is best of us and then when the circle is complete, those good memories pass on, too.

Let's Mutiny

1 1/2 dark rum
1/2 Dubonnet Rouge
2 dashes bitters

Shake well with ice, strain and garnish with a maraschino cherry.

Photos by Max Eckert for Architectural Digest, January/February 1974

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Michael Greer

A few years ago, on vacation in Utah, I bought a book about Michael Greer in a second-hand bookstore: a book in which a fan had pasted newspaper and magazine clippings of his work, about his death and the dispersal of his estate. Underlined rather touchingly in a clipping about the sale was the line "... it was Michael Greer's last big event, but he was not there."

Clearly, the previous owner of the book had some sense of personal loss when Greer was murdered in 1976 and on rereading the book the other night I began to wonder how many of Michael Greer's interiors still exist. Naturally, the same question occurred about the work of the decorators I've written about over the last few weeks, Kalef Alaton's interiors in particular. I also wondered if interiors, like gardens, are as transitory as their creators?

As ever with Kalef Alaton, the list of furnishings is impressive: Charles II-style oyster walnut and black lacquer chest on stand; a Qing celadon bowl; Régence-style chairs and chandelier; Paul Storr silver; Louis XV textiles; an Indo-Portuguese mother-of-pearl cabinet; Chinese lacquer screens; a Cy Twombly painting; a drawing by Balthus; an Ellsworth Kelly and Roy Lichtenstein's Modular Painting with Four Panels No. 6 and a stair rail as temptingly slidey to a grown man as it would be to a six year old boy. All juxtaposed with white linen covered sofas and chairs, against simple, clean-lined white-painted architecture and bleached wooden floors.

The dining room, a beautiful room with lacquer panels, gilded chairs, black granite, silver, crystal, exotic flowers and softly dramatic lighting, is a close as a 20th century decorator came to the spirit of a Baroque interior without creating a feeble copy of an historic room. Who would not want to be in this room - men in correct evening attire, women in scroopy silk, diamonds aglitter?

Who would not want to experience what, for me, is one of Kalef Alaton's most delicious of combinations - the needlepointed chairs flanking a table skirted in what looks like the softest of glove leather? Who could not want to sit there?

Name of photographer forthcoming but photos are from Architectural Digest, February 1987.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

If only you knew what darkness I am plunged into ..

A bit of a stretch, I know, from Saint Thérèse de Lisieux to Anthony Machado, but that quote did spring to mind when I saw this nightclubbish interior that Mr Machado designed for himself on Nob Hill.

What other verbal ejaculation hovered on my lips when I saw the large mirror alongside the bed - the gay equivalent, I fear, of the bordelloesque looking glass above the bed - I shall not go into but I must admit I was impressed by that crowd-pleasing mattress and accommodating expanse of reflection. The large mirror flanking a bed has made a remarkable return in a number of interiors within the last few years and I think is a subject worth discussing in another post.

From that point it's downhill all the way, or should I say, a race to the bottom. Perhaps I should stop now whilst I'm ahead, but I really want to show you these rooms which, whether your taste is offended or titillated by them, are so of their time: a time of power dressing, wide shoulders, big hair and Gordon Gekko.

It is rare nowadays to see interiors completely built around a social schedule that does not involve daylight, but here you have a perfect example. What daylight, twilight actually, there is, is merely incidental, the windows almost suffocated under shades and screens. Think of it another way - what you are seeing is the 1980s version of an 1880s Aesthetic Movement interior.

Anthony Machado died of complications of AIDS in 1995.

I must find the attribution for the photographer but the photos are from Architectural Digest, December 1980.

Monday, February 15, 2010

A week off

I took last week off from blogging - it seemed almost that I'd reached the end of my search for material about what a friend called dead decorators yet I was able to find more about some I'd already mentioned, one I had never liked but was forced to reassess, and one whose name I remembered but had since his death dropped into obscurity. I have no doubt there will be more from thirty years ago who will tread again on this stage.

Thirty years - the very idea that what is so fresh in my memory can have happened so long ago, for some of you more than your lifetimes, is quite stupefying . Gazing unsteadily at my own mortality, I suppose. The men who I am writing about had to come to terms with their mortality more rapidly than they would today for they lived in what was for them uncaring and mean-spirited times, with society's leaders who, whether by intention, sin of omission, or indifference, judged them as being deserving of their fate and where research into the nature of their disease and a search for a cure had a resentful nascence.

Another reason I took time off last week was that I felt, rightly or wrongly, there was not much more to say about decorators of the calibre of Kalef Alaton that I had not already said. I realized too that my search had perforce become occidented, not in itself a bad thing, but there were designers on the east coast of whom I had, other than their names, little or no information.

Beyond mentioning that the bedroom and bathroom with their tart's knickers shades are appointed in what could be considered a more popular form of 1980s decorating - in complete contrast to the restraint of the formal rooms, I shall let the photos of Kalef Alaton's design of a house by Lake Washington speak for themselves.

Photos by Russell MacMasters from Architectural Digest, June 1984.

Friday, February 5, 2010

Mr Crispo's decorous background

Arthur E. Smith, Billy Baldwin's protege and partner before Baldwin's retirement in 1972, created these rooms for Andrew Crispo, a Manhattan gallery owner, of whom much has been written elsewhere. However, the client is not under review here - merely his possessions and good sense in choosing Mr Smith as his decorator.

In the original article written by John Loring a list, in the guise of being a distillation of works by preeminent artists, designers and craftsmen of the 1920s and 1930s, of Mr Crispo's possessions is gazetted, and an impressive account it is: a 1933 William Zorach bronze; Morris Louis, Georgia O'Keeffe, Stuart Davis, Arthur Dove and Robert Motherwell paintings; studies by Geogia O'Keeffe and Marcel Duchamp; an Eileen Gray cork folding screen; Emile-Jacques Rhulmann armchairs and table; Josef Hoffmann vase and cache-pots; an Egyptian mask; Jean-Michel Frank table, desk and dining chairs; Tiffany plates and Jean Puiforcat cutlery.

"The room's pale-toned decorous background intensifies the pure contours of the furniture and was created for Mr Crispo by a close friend, Arthur E. Smith, who also helped select some of the rare furnishings throughout the apartment."

Designed and to a degree curated by a decorator who had worked for and with the best and who in his time became one of the best of his generation, this rooms have dated little. In a previous post about Arthur E. Smith I said the same thing about a 1977 design - in its aesthetic differing from his work for Crispo, but sharing the same quality of agelessness.

Another quality Mr Smith's work shares with most of the other decorators I've mentioned in the past weeks is that of gentleness. Not from him the aggression or the excesses of some of 1970s decoration, just a job done well, illuminated with a clear understanding of what is appropriate.

Photos by Peter Vitale from an article written by John Loring (from whom the quotes) for Architectural Digest, March 1980.

The cocktail of the week is a Foggy Day and given a week which included a partner who awoke in the middle of the night to find he's allergic to mussels - this after years of eating tons of them, and all other sorts of hell breaking out, the name of the cocktail is entirely descriptive of my state of mind.

1 1/2 oz gin
1/4 oz Pernod
1 oz water
1/4 oz lemon juice

Stir and pour over ice.