Tuesday, June 29, 2010

"You're not old, you're a classic!"

So said the text of one of my birthday cards this morning.

I suppose a sixty-fifth birthday is significant – certainly it's an excuse for splashing out a bit, throwing a party, bringing in a piano player for the evening, having valets at the door, waiters, bar staff, buffet, flowers, candles, invitations to three thousand of one's BFFs, etc. (Well, maybe I exaggerate a little, but it's my birthday. So there.)

The invitation to my party had photos of me from age six to sixty-four, all of them – well, almost all –not-quite-smiling images. Seemingly, I rarely smile for the camera and there are countless grumpy-looking photographs, detested by me, that have landed over the years in trash cans on two continents. Comments about my photographic impairment have followed me through my life and I know they are true. I rarely smile. But I love to laugh.

The image of the six-year-old me has become more significant the older I've become – the grumpiness exhibited there I now read as bewilderment at the news that I would never again live with my mother from that day forward, and perhaps that image explains why I cannot look at a camera pointed in my direction with any equanimity. Each photo op brings with it a feeling of panic – a feeling that has never lessened through all the years.

Nonetheless, those photos have marked each milestone, each distance travelled, each companionable moment, and most important of all each loving glance – and isn't a loving glance one of the most important things in the world?

There's a photo of me looking quite shyly at the man I didn't know I was to spend next thirty-plus years of my life with. Another, I'm wearing the only solid green shirt and certainly the last shirt with a visible logo I have ever worn – well, it was Halloween in Philadelphia years before we moved here. A third, perhaps better for being partially hidden, is a passport photo from my thirties and then two from two family weddings. Only one has me actually laughing and there I am mid-guffaw at a comment the Celt made as we sat at lunch overlooking the Louvre. The last... ah that last photo... that is the one that shows how shy a person can still be after all this time together and how fatuous an expression a loving look can bring to a face crumpling into maturity.

That not all photos are harbingers of disaster is a theory I'm examining very gingerly, crabwise even, and despite the fact there are many, many photos of me on the Celt's iPhone, the world has not come crashing down around me. Even here, it is quite a step for me to show you who I am – in the form of photos, that is.

And that is what birthdays such as mine today are all about – opportunities to understand where one has been and to take stock of what one actually has, and the reasons to be happy. These birthdays are thresholds, vestibules or consummations, depending on your point of view – all perhaps, depending on how you use them.

So, today, what do I have that is so valuable, so joyous? Well, I have flowers sent by a friend who besides this gift traveled four-and-a-half hours to attend my birthday party; and there are the friends who helped me celebrate the fact that I'm finally reaching maturity; the friends who stayed till two in the morning laughing, remembering, laughing, planning and laughing. I have a loving partner – he whom I call the Celt, and who has over the years been a model of patience. I also have a sterling silver water pitcher that neither of us expected to own, having gone looking for a modern, sleek pitcher but coming home instead with an Edwardian piece of nonsense that we both love and which, for today only, sits proudly next to the Directoire clock we bought as a souvenir of our life in Amsterdam, which itself stands over a small enamel peanut-shaped box holding two peanuts – the two of us living in Georgia – which was brought home one day as a surprise present for me.

There are memories, too. Memories that come to mind when I use the pottery colander bought years ago for pennies in the market at Avila in Spain, where we ate figs, melting, honeyed and fly-blown – the best we've ever tasted. And I think that's what our house has become and I hope many of your houses are – reliquaries of our lives, comfortable, timely albums holding treasured shards of experience, memory, love and laughter. There are many, many more memories.

I said above that in one sense important birthdays are vestibules, and so they are – waiting rooms for the next stage, itself only a second away, places to be passed through, hopefully holding the hand of a loved one – the one who's just come home from work early and poured us both a glass of champagne from a wonderful case of a very fine vintage that was sent to me by his sister and husband at the previous threshold.

Where to go from here? Retirement slips further away but not for negative reasons and I continue to work with some of the best students I've ever had, yet work begins to feel like a leash. A wish to travel is growing on me, as is the desire for a cabin somewhere in Vermont, Maine, or the Gaspe. The blog, my occasional diary, has taken on a life of its own but it's not quite sure where to go from here. At heart I am a lover of history, of processes and of the good things that make us what we are, and of flowers. I adore flowers, so thank you, Will for these.

Monday, June 21, 2010

God knows they need some taste

In his autobiography, Billy Baldwin tells of the occasion when, before lunch with the Spencer family, he sat next to Amelia Nettleship, the not-quite-yet step-grandmother of the-not-quite yet Princess of Wales, and the author of a seemingly unending series of bodice-rippers. Never having read one of her novels, I remember her more as a gaudily beruffled and brocaded television personality wheeled in front of the camera whenever an opinion was required to further deepen the class divide.

Mr Baldwin relates his conversation with this lady, the writer of this book of etiquette - here quoted in part.

"You are what?" she said.

"I am a decorator."

"Well," she said, "I've just come from your California, and I hope to God you're not a decorator from California, are you?"

I said "I have done some work there."

"Well, you'd better go back again," she said. "God knows they need some taste. Another thing you might do while you are at it is to tell the airlines to have a little manners. When I travel on this side of the Atlantic I've been accustomed to having at least two full seats because I am not a young lady and I get tired and it is very necessary for me to stretch out. So, naturally, out of politeness and courtesy, I am given at least two seats and sometimes three. To my great disgust, the last time I came back from your country, on your airlines they wouldn't let me have two seats, and I wanted three."

Arthur Smith, Baldwin's associate, and the decorator of the rooms below, was with him on the visit to the Spencers and clearly had a better time of it for he sat next to "an absolutely charming, very pretty girl called Lady Diana, who was full of charm, full of wit, and full of humor."

One of the reasons why I like looking backwards is I can see so much of what I miss in modern decorating - color. The modern pallid palette, a range of bloodless tones that began to have currency in the late 1980s still holds sway and though this is an opportunity to rail against the way color is not taught in design schools, at least judging by what I see in the magazines, I shall resist that temptation.

Recently I renewed my department's subscription to Architectural Digest - for home I subscribe to Elle Decor and The World of Interiors. I hesitated about renewing Architectural Digest but I can use it as a teaching aid about celebrity, marketing, and aspiration. What strikes me about both Architectural Digest and Elle Decor is, in the editorial sections at least, how boringly lacking in color they are.

Elle Decor is a magazine with which I've had a difficult relationship over the years - I find the editorial emphasis on bedraggled and rather wan interiors increasingly disappointing - and am probably not renewing the subscription. When I think that I have kept up a subscription to The World of Interiors since 1983 it is clear that the magazine has far more to offer me than any other on the market. It may be invidious to compare other magazines to The World of Interiors, because the writing, photography, printing, paper – what insiders call its "production values" – are so high, and it remains consistently inventive. But the fact remains, these magazines are all competing, for both my dollars and my attention, so comparison is inevitable.

Photos by Peter Vitale, accompanying two short paragraphs of text written by Elaine Green for Architectural Digest, October 1983.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

A rash of lace

A couple of months ago a number of Atlanta bloggers were asked by the editor of Atlanta Homes and Lifestyles to write a paragraph or two on the subject of "What's Modern Now?" for the June issue. I posted my contribution last Saturday and I find, having made my statement, I'm still thinking about it and the cliches that hover around the subject.

Coincidentally, I've been reading the charming and insightful Good Taste Costs No More, written by Richard Gump and published in 1951. The book is of its time – beautifully so –especially in its idioms, anecdotes, admonishments, bons mots, and slightly heavy-handed jocularity. The author does a good job of skewering pretension, both traditional and modern.

"If a friend dropped over one evening wearing knee breeches and a rash of lace at the throat and cuffs, we would hasten to summon the happy wagon. 'Poor old Jim,' we'd say, 'slipped his trolley.' But if he invites us into a room dressed entirely in the same period, no one raises an eyebrow. The detailed period habitat is no more wacky today that wearing the habit. It's playing Napoleon with the environment."

"Someone else may declare, 'I only like modern. Antiques, you can have 'em.' And we pay little attention. But if he said, 'When I travel, I only go to Oslo,' we'd think he was a little soft in the filbert. Yet entirely modern interiors reflect the same sort of limited viewpoint."

"The unyielding sticklers for the modern and functional are as pretentious and ridiculous as someone with a one-track period complex who is Queen Anne queer. Those who insist that everything before the Bauhaus is bunk, in getting back to what they call "fundamentals," would ignore or toss out three quarters of the beauty of the past. Their enemies, a fence apart, who are no less sure that design stopped with the Biedermeier, would pooh-pooh the progress and development of the world of wonderful things. Small-pasture jackasses, both of them."

So, in a round-about way I come to Frank Lloyd Wright - an architect whose glamour I've never really understood or whose buildings – and I have been in quite a few – have never struck me as the most comfortable to inhabit. Oh, I know the stuff about compression and release but seeing that formula in action in the house, Kentuck Knob, seen below, led me to wonder, as I have over the years, how much of what we read and hear is really The Emperor's New Clothes Redux.

That perhaps is a discussion for another day but I can say that the house we visited after Kentuck Knob, Fallingwater, began to change my perceptions of Frank Lloyd Wright - so much so, I realized many of my ideas about him had just been prejudice. I too had been a victim, if that is the word, of the FLW industry... but in the sense that it had put me off.

Kentuck Knob is beautifully situated in a forest planted, in the main, by the Hagans, friends of the Kaufmanns of Fallingwater, who commissioned the house from Wright. The day we were there the exterior of the house was raked with dappled light through trees that marched right up to the walls and overhung the roof. The motor court, because of that dappled shade, though humid and hot was the perfect place to listen to the introductory spiel from a balletic and breathless docent, to muse and sop views of the radiant and fully-leafed forest. America the beautiful, indeed!

Photographing the surprisingly diminutive and cramped interior wasn't permitted, which is a shame, for the house felt as if it were still lived in - bric-a-brac, photos of the late Princess of Wales and of the present owners, Lord and Lady Palumbo, helped to strengthen that impression, though that apparently is not the case. What I did see, to my delight, was a collection of what I think was Bernard Leach pottery. In my youth I once visited Leach's home in Cornwall overlooking the sea and just down the road from Barbara Hepworth's studio. I digress.

Coming back to what modern is today. When I mention the Frank Lloyd Wright industry I'm really talking about how celebrity, advertising and aspiration create our perceptions of what our world, our modern world, is like - in other words, what's modern today.

Within the two broad categories of traditional and contemporary, many attitudes in the name of style are struck - think of minimal, white walled contemporary architecture furnished with low-lying furniture bereft of curve and color, and consider too of the other end of the continuum, a draped, shadowy, befringed and buttoned evocation of the Second Empire. What lies in between, a varied mix of contemporary and traditional, high and low, is where the majority of the population live.

Modern, then, is what one is persuaded to need, nothing more.

These romantic steps off one of the paths weaving through the sculpture garden led to yet another sculpture and what I named Frankie's barbie.

Photographs courtesy my iPhone.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Totally forgot

to mention this.

“Modern means living in the now and looking forward, but also being aware of what the past has given us. Modern is the freedom, and the chutzpah, to combine the best of everything that’s ever been thought of—or, perhaps, the best that you can afford—into something that’s unique and beautiful. Modern isn’t afraid to take a stance, declines to be neutral, but doesn’t take itself too seriously.”

Will be back soon when the rounds of my psyche are completed.