Sunday, March 27, 2011

I am really just bored with the interior design scene

More than twenty years ago, David Hicks was asked what he thought about the then current state of decorating. His answer, quite shocking at the time, I suspect, still has a resonance today. It was a longish interview, unsatisfactory for the interviewer if I'm correctly reading between the lines, and one that still after all this time seems oddly sad - until, that is, one realizes that it was published the year he turned sixty and his lifetime's investment in his career had drastically begun to depreciate.  However, that's a tale well covered in his son's biography. What he said was:

"I am really just bored with the interior design scene. I think it has become an uninteresting subject because everything has been said, everything has become sort of tired and finished."

This set out to be another post but when a friend sent me this link, it occurred to me that what David Hicks had said all those years ago had not lost its force, at least for me. I, too, sometimes think I've seen it all. As well I may have.

I saw the book referred to in the link, Undecorate: The No-rules Approach to Interior Design, on the bookshelves the other day and I admit I, in my blasé way, walked on by, thinking that finally we had come to this: someone sat in an office somewhere planning the the next wave  marketing ploy, and this is the best that could be thought of?

About a hundred years after the profession of interior design began - arguable, I know, given the history of the upholstery trade from the 18th century onwards, but bear with me - all, it seems to me, we are left with is trend. Nothing is new - the comfortable armchair as we know it developed in 18th-century France; was refined, if that is the right word, during the 19th century; and since then the only changes have been in manufacture and materials. A table is still a table, whatever its function - arguably the only new piece of furniture the 20th century produced was the salon- or coffee-table. A sofa, for all its comfort, is still a development of the settee, which in its turn was a development of the bench with an attached back. That most iconic and most uncomfortable of chairs, the Barcelona chair, is nothing more than a 1929 adaptation in modern materials of the ancient klismos. Seemingly, all we are left with at this juncture is to restyle or remake in another material. And I wonder sometimes what the implications are.

Much, in the magazines, is predicted in terms of styles yet little actually stays the course. The mainstay of traditional decorating from the 1980s onwards, the so-called English Country House style as personified by Lancaster, Fowler, Buatta and Parish, and the American Style personified by Billy Baldwin, Hadley and few others, were merely longish-lasting fads - we're all trapped in our times and subject to the ultimate influence of our time - selling. The fads of one generation become the justifications for the succeeding generation to cite the names of its (preferably dead) practitioners and thus, it is hoped, give credence to their own work and place in history. Ultimately, I think, it doesn't actually matter. For if the only standard is to sell, and if quality - if it still exists - has been usurped by the logo merchants... then what hope is there? 

New, in interior design, as in fashion, is nothing more than the re-styling of what has already been used but deemed out of style. Unfashionable and its siblings new and classic is but a concept that drives the wheels of industry, and turns the pages of books and magazines. Much as the words new and improved sell washing powders (even as the contents remain the same), the self-same same words or their synonyms are designed to sell magazines and the products the editors have to all intents and purposes discovered. New is never, however many times the taglines repeat it, about style.

Perhaps, then, here is the explanation for the growth in propping and accessorizing - the fictionalizing of interiors as I've called it before, with its underlying desperation for novelty where there is none - where nothing changes except for superficialities. Interest must be created somehow. The latest superficiality, seemingly, is to make a fashionable virtue out of disarray - mess, some of us would call it. Perhaps that pile of last week's clothing still on the bedroom floor, the unmade bed, sex toys on the nightstand, last night's dinner still on the kitchen countertop - in fact, all that is slatternly could, arguably, become storybook elements for the interior design stylist.

Accessorizing may also be a reflection of the way our current culture celebrates the famous. In the past, celebrities were seen from afar, on the big screen and in the picture weeklies - in a distant and controlled manner, on a pedestal. Today, the pedestal is long broken and celebrities are seen close-up, warts and all, their all-too-human foibles writ large on the small screen - indeed their shortcomings, their "just like us"-qualities are the most celebrated. Celebrities are no longer role models, they're just people in the 15-minute glare of the moment that "could happen to you."

In the same way, we are no longer content to view interiors in serene, inviolate perfection – that's too stuffy, too sterile for our democratic 21st-century everyman-celebrating appetites. Instead, we want to see the rooms as lived-in, the detritus of everyday (albeit oh-so-artfully and aspirationally styled) in evidence. "Oh look, they use the same brand of toothpaste we do." It's more relatable-to. More gritty. More real – real, that is, as in reality TV.

This room, Hicks' set in Albany, is an abiding favorite of mine, and the absolute antithesis of what is happening in interior design today. It was, if I remember aright, an announcement that he was still around and relevant. Relevant, in my mind at least, he remains - especially in the light of what is happening, or rather not happening, in today's interior design. In my opinion, David Hicks is one of the most significant decorators of the twentieth century and did not have to rely on stylists to increase his worth - in fact, stylists hadn't really been invented. Effectively, he was his own stylist.

I understand from some commentators that Hicks, the man, was not well-liked. I have little to say in response, except that I believe a man's work should not be judged by his character but by what he produces and the influence he has. Having made that statement, I can also argue that in other cases the history of a person is very hard to disassociate from the work they do - a theme certainly for another post.

Photos from David Hicks: A Life of Design, Ashley Hicks, Rizzoli 2008.
The interview referred to is of the series Gandee at Large published in House and Garden, March 1989.


  1. I'm a know-nothing outsider. But it seems really boring to me - the scene that is. The art scene too. The best thing is that the scene is predictable. The worst thing is that it's predictable. It seems so hidebound to me. With all the talent, training, and experience that's out there, it's as if folks only talk to each other, traveling the same road.

    But I'm not at all bored with beautiful places. I'm very happy when insiders point them out me.

  2. Couldn't agree more with what you say! I like the break up of your formal description by these lines...

    ...mess, some of us would call it. Perhaps that pile of last week's clothing still on the bedroom floor, the unmade bed, sex toys on the nightstand, last night's dinner still on the kitchen countertop - ...

    Very droll.

  3. Terry, thank you. You are not a no-nothing outsider and you're right about the boredom of it all - the churning out of the most banal arrangements of pallid accompanied by text written in the most gushing prose.

  4. I am certainly wary of any so called decorating trend hyped by magazines or books. I have long been tired of the stiff interiors where there is no place to set down a drink or enough light to read a book. But one is fooling himself to think these photos in the Undecorated Style were not arranged for the photos as well. As for me, Good Design is just that and I really do not care if it presents a whole new approach, as long as it is still relevant to the way the owner (not necessarily us all) lives today. And please, let's remember Pretty never hurts.

  5. Oh, dear. You remind me that I still have hardly looked at a book I took the trouble to advance order when I was in the US last Fall, "A perfectly kept house is the sign of a misspent life." Several bloggers raved about it and for some reason it appealed to me. Mystery.

  6. "Underlying desperation for novelty where there is none"......perfect description. Makes me think of light blue painted furniture, Greek Key pillows, white faux fur rugs, "see through" chairs, "retro" everywhere, pops of orange, violet, yellow and apple green...that make no sense, words or phrases on walls, cloches used everywhere without restraint. The list goes on. The shock value of everything just for the sake of new and improved decor. I really, really enjoyed this post. Wish more "design" blogs could appreciate it. Thank you for sharing!

  7. This post brings various thoughts to mind, the first of which is that Hick's late life classicism is mirrored in the work of quite a few composers- Fauré and Stravinsky (neo-classicsim actually) coming to mind. Seen through this lens, interior decoration is frozen music, and benefits from a knowledge of form and structure.

    Another thought is that Wagner's character, like Hicks, was reported to be less than savory. Both, however, created highly influential work. Is it coincidence that the latter blasted the former at high volume in his red room?

    The rooms in this post make my heart sing!

  8. You hit it right on the head. I remember reading years back something by Albert Hadley on this very topic. He had some words for the new generation of decorators that he felt were doing work based on something they didn't know anything about.
    Yes, the scene is a bore, as is the antiques scene, as well. As was said it is so predictable. Worse, there is nobody out there anymore with real taste, oomph, practicality, FEELING, especially to make best out of an already tired situation. I see those profiles on some of those internet markets out there dealing in antiques and design. What a bunch of mediocre work they do. But damn do they have all of their references in the right predictable places and great PR. This new mafia out there is worse than the old one, bcause at least with the old one you knew what they were all about and up to. This one has ADHD and reads too much Vanity Fair, is so politically correct, BORING, and thinks this is all so wonderful, and all they got are sloppy seconds!!!!!

  9. Oh, and I agree totally that pretty never hurts.

  10. All the topics covered that we like to touch on and you- Blue -do so well. Interior design is stagnant at the moment. Trend is overwrought. what happened? I long for the days to see a few light cords trailing off from a beautiful lamp. today- I just look for something that strikes me as beautiful, provoking? while little do I find-the novel idea of something original never enters my mind anymore.

  11. Ah- what I meant to say (and didn't make clear enough) is that those with real vision- decorators and composers alike- seem to turn towards classicism late in their careers which entails a mastering of multiple elements, something that faddists never accomplish.

  12. It seems that our culture today is so dumbed down. Do you remember when there was a time in which people who, after making money or coming into it, had the good sense to educate themselves about art, culture, history, literature, the decorative arts. Think Jayne Wrightsman. That doesn't seem to happen anymore. And, the undecorated look does indeed take far more time and effort to achieve than good old decorating in which pretty is the goal.

  13. I'm bored with it as well, but the blame rests on what is being shown
    in the influential shelter magazines, don't you think? Everything is
    brand, spanking new- and god forbid that any of them will ever feature an historic house, or the rooms of someone whose rooms weren't designer decorated.

  14. Like a navy blazer or a Chanel jacket, there are classics in interiors, such as a Louis XVI fauteuil. However, each decade has a different perspective of what is classic, and I think that makes it fresh. A blazer may change proportions and silhouette, and the chair may be finished in a different colour and with a fashionably different textile.

    Today, often simplicity and comfort are neglected at the expense of making some designer or architect's egotistical "statement". And in spite of everything we see in interior design, I think there are fewer people like David Hicks, David Easton, Michael Greer, and Mark Hampton, who really understood design history, styles, materials, and especially proportion and balance. If we had more of this to lift the standards of taste, it would be nice.

  15. I cannot tell you how much I enjoyed this thoughtful post and the discussion it engendered. I despair at the expunging of history from the design dialogue...

    And Hicks's rooms are so good, regardless of his personality

  16. Shouldn't there be plenty of room for the un-boring in the design publishing world? I'm including blogs too. Books, music, architecture are fair game for critics. But few dare to criticize interiors or furnishings.

  17. I have always thought that what makes an interior interesting is the personal style and passion that one infuses into it. That is what captivates me...even if it is not at all to my own taste.

  18. It's a rare occasion when I don't reply to each comment but 17 individual and much-valued points of view are best responded to, I feel, with an expression of gratitude and pleasure to all of you.

    Generally, we are in agreement, yet each commentator has given me food for thought and sparked ideas - ideas, perhaps, that will appear in future posts.

    Thank you, all!

  19. The design scene had grown bored of Hicks long before he grew bored of the design scene. His designs, which passed for cutting-edge in the decade that style forgot looked positively camp by the 1980s. It was only long after he had stopped trying so hard to be cutting edge that his true genius shown through. That final version of his set at Albany was his finest work and, quite simply puts to shame most decorators who attempt to do "modern classic".