Friday, March 4, 2011

Full circle

Van Day Truex is a man I've never written about. I've quoted him, referred to him, quoted other people about him but I've not written about this essential link in my circles within circles. I intend to, I keep telling myself, knowing as I do that he was more than a decorator, artist and teacher - designing for Tiffany, Hinson, Minton and Wedgwood as he did - but Van Day Truex's history* has already been written.

It seems to me that as the world turns and time passes, the more individual his later rooms become and the harder they are for modern clients, decorators, and, in my case, students, to understand. The interiors of his that I admire the most, and I think many would agree, are not those of 1940s New York, but those in his last house at Ménerbes - simple, unpretentious, symmetrically arranged distillation of stone-floored and plaster-walled spaces furnished with rattan and wood, softened with linen, cotton and African art.

I have shown these later rooms in lectures to students as part of a history of interior design and the reaction almost without exception has been one of wonderment that I find significance in them - that they are set apart from the work of his colleagues. They are so beguiled by fad and fashion, it makes me wonder if I am wrong in how I try to portray the man and his work. As I see it, the younger generation is increasingly swayed by the deepening relationship of celebrity and marketing, where few standards beyond cute and famous are relevant. With the dissolution in modern design of many precepts Truex might have recognized, I should perhaps not be surprised to find myself and what I value increasingly off-topic.

Truex's influence is undoubted, as his place in the history of interior design, but it seems he is too far removed from this present generation for them to care - he died over thirty years ago - and there are many newer names jostling for position. Unlike David Hicks, Angelo Donghia, Geoffrey Bennison and Michael Taylor, there is little that exists to carry his name - unless Tiffany reissues his designs.

Truex's name is still well-known, more so than that of his friend Roderick Cameron, but I wonder to whom. Is it a generational phenomenon - the Olympians of one generation fade into legend and new kids on the block with their own idols take their place?

A while back I bought The Gardens of Provence and the French Riviera because it contained an essay with photographs of Roderick Cameron's last house, Les Quatres Sources, in Provence. The book was produced in the middle 1980s and has all the choppy, scattered arrangement of a page characterized by small images, floods of negative space and muddy photographic reproduction - a style of design that has not stood the test of time. However, the quality of 1980s book design is not what this post is about.


"I was luckily on my own when I first visited this garden. I discovered the garden of Les Quatre Sources shrouded in the morning mist, my steps accompanied by the light-hearted rhythm of the overture of Don Giovanni, faultlessly whistled by the music-loving gardener. From the underwood covered with dew to the terraces soaked in the morning sun, along paved paths, and up hidden stairways, I had the feeling of I was discovering a new universe, where each planet sent out its own perfume, its own message or myth; wild mind, lavender, rushleaved broom, and dead leaves combined their fragrances. One should know the language of scents to understand this garden."

So wrote the author of his visit to Les Quatre Sources, and whilst there is much more that could be quoted about how Roderick Cameron and his lover Gilbert Ocelli created their garden - a garden so personal as to hold a memorial to Cameron's mother that read Enid, his beloved mother, Countess of Kenmare, one of the beauties of her time - and, as the following paragraph tells, the ashes of Van Day Truex.

"Higher up on the last terrace, an obelisk flanked by two urns, interrupts the perspective. Under the obelisk lie the ashes of of the friend who showed this place to Roderick Cameron. Roderick Cameron wanted his garden to be inhabited by all those most dear to him. Unfortunately, this master landscaper has since died. 'I wanted to create a romantic garden,' he had confided to me."

Roderick Cameron's ashes were scattered in the garden he created around Truex's obelisk. Where Gilbert Ocelli's ashes lie I have no idea.

So there, scattered in a garden in Provence, the ashes of the two lynchpins of my circle within circle theme, lie close by a memorial to the woman of whom her daughter writes: "Mummy and Rory both had the same quality of innocence. The dark spots of life were discarded and not allowed to intrude on their existence. They saw the world through a golden haze and if you were lucky enough to be part of their magic circle they took you through into that fairyland where life was always fun and always filled with beauty. The reverse simply wasn't tolerated, or perhaps noticed." 

Quotation and photograph from The Gardens of Provence and the French Riviera by Michel Racine, Ernest J-P Boursier-Mougenot and Françoise Binet. The MIT Press, 1987.

Photograph of Roderick Cameron and Van Day Truex in Ireland from *Van Day Truex, Adam Lewis, Viking Studio, 2001.

Quotation about Roderick Cameron and his mother from A Lion in the Bedroom by Patricia Cavendish O'Neill, Park Street Press, Sydney 2004.


  1. How many of those students have been to the South of France I wonder? Do they understand that 'place' is just as important as 'time'?

    I have the book and Van Day Truex, and do agree that the latter images are infinitely more interesting- compelling even. The word that comes to mind is classicism. It's what decorators and composers alike evidence they mature in their work. Fads? They are for children, who see only objects and not the thread that runs through everything.

    Many look but do not see. Many hear but do not listen.

  2. Blue, if you are not already familiar with Van Day Truex's drawings, I think you would find them interesting. Most that I have seen tend to be architectural and richly rendered in light and shadow.

  3. We don't get much poetry from pop or celebrity design. Not: "...where each plant sent out its own perfume, its own message or myth; wild mind, lavender, rushleaved broom..."

  4. I have the impression that the 900-lb gorilla in the classroom to which you draw our attention, is the void in inter-disciplinary context on which your students were "raised," which would leave them speechless at the refinement of principles at Ménerbes. (By coincidence, I addressed this general condition in another context, yesterday). Who would dare, for example, to call Cézanne a transitional painter, must first be deprived of the means of looking at him. It's tremendously important work that you're doing, and you will reach some. It will change their life.

  5. I wonder if VDT experienced some of your same frustrations during his days as a Parson's instructor.

  6. A friend with many enviable possessions had six Truex drawings, which I personally envied far more than the 18th century English portraits, the grand boiseries or the FFF that followed him from house to house---really lovely architecturals.

    And oh how true your observations about the passing of Truex's design values---I am seeing it in business so much now.

    As for 80's book design, though as you point out, not the subject of your post: The almost willfulness with which some designers would make the detail closeup photos large and the panoramic photos tiny, has more than once caused a book to be tossed from my library in frustration.

  7. the one truex book reads like a novel for the most part. I find his design story to be so clear-he was born to the field. his arc was like many don't you think? as we age-for the better-we do so in all things. for me my dream house now is one perfect room-just one-perfect room. I am glad your students have you Blue-really I wouldn't expect them to know vdt. I am discovering names and talents I didn't know often-that's why we stop here. pgt

  8. Little Augury, thank you. Its a well-know phenomenon, I hear, that as one ages we desire simplicity around us. I fully understand your single room and mine would be sparsely but comfortable furnished. It would also be painted a grey-blue of course and have lots of Kraak ware on the walls. Whites would be those of blanc de chine, linen, chalk and whitewash.