Friday, April 22, 2011


"I often think designers should keep their thoughts to themselves, and just let the results show their point of view. But in this particular case, I am anxious to talk about my work, because I think that what is most eloquent in this house is what doesn't meet the eye. I'm referring to absence - or abstinence, if you will. The most important thing about the house is what didn't go into it."

So said David Whitcomb over thirty years ago during a conversation about a 1950s modernist glass box he'd decorated in the Appalachian hills of Tennessee. What he said about absence in an interior struck a chord with me, for I like a certain simplicity, emptiness and a lack of visual clutter - qualities common to many of the interiors I've written about. All my favorite decorators of the last forty years share the same eye for proportion, simplicity, and appropriateness - an analogy with tailoring (bespoke is implicit) comes to mind - how a garment is constructed of fine stuff by hand after years of training of both hand and eye. In interior design there has to be training and knowledge, not just of historical styles (in which I include early and mid-century modernism) but of how the forms of furniture, the drape of textiles and the texture of color inhabit both a volume and the lives of the clients.

I'm not sure if it's a phenomenon of aging but I have come to feel the oppressive weight of possessions. I've never been a collector per se, and I don't think that nine framed drawings, two etchings, one large abstract painting, two watercolors, three photographs, a framed Hermes scarf, a small bronze, a tiny terracotta Grand Tour souvenir, 125 square feet of books, and twenty-eight-years-worth of The World of Interiors actually count as a collection - more, perhaps, the evidence of a life well-loved and a hell of a lot of dusting required.

I was reminded recently - it happens every time I see a piece of majolica - of a house early in the 1980s that in my memory was awash in chintz and majolica. No surface nor shelf was free of the stuff. The lady of the house had been persuaded by her decorator to collect majolica, as if by building this collection she was in some way validating her existence - I collect, therefore I am, as it were.

As frequently happens, when in search of something else, my eye was caught by something I was not looking for - this time, a mildly repellent passage in Patricia Cavendish O'Neill's autobiography and, suddenly, there it was - the word I didn't know I'd been looking for, which sums up my thoughts about much of today's interior decorating.

Soignée is a word not much used nowadays, and it's surprising, really, given that its meaning is quite simple. It just means well-groomed, carefully and elegantly put together. Before I develop my thought, let me quote the passage in which O'Neill refers to a famous, now dead (thus arguably fabulous) personage:

".... He had another hang-up, which was horrid. He liked all his women to smell au naturel and remain unshaven. I used to watch in horror all those beauties becoming unsoignée, going without makeup and gradually losing all their glamour. Having reduced them to the mundane, he would move onto the next one and repeat the process."

Unsoignée is precisely the quality that has become so much a part of modern interior design in America. It's not just the plethora of mise en scene props and accessories that overlay most horizontal and vertical surfaces, but also the unconsidered, and some might say benighted, groupings of mismatched pictures in small frames, and in the (to my mind) uneducated juxtaposition of furniture from various periods and styles. I'm not going to argue that the juxtaposition of, say, an Eames plywood chair with French a canapé or Verner Panton plastic with a farmhouse table is wrong, per se, but what I am going to say is that if brand, logo, name or provenance is the deciding factor, that leaves no room for proportion, scale or suitability. One imagines the intent is to be "eclectic," perhaps even worldly - but the result is all too often mere randomness, evoking an upscale flea market.

There was a time, starting in the 1960s, I think, when young designers began to take a piece of what nowadays is called important furniture and display it in isolation, spotlit, against a white wall and with lots of space around it. White wall apart, the point is, placement in relation to immediate surroundings and effect on the viewer, were considered. The unsoignée character of and the apparent lack of consideration in much of modern decorating is a clear example of how innovation - the mix of styles - becomes established practice and eventually descends into retrograde performance art.

How, you might ask, did we go from well-groomed and considered elegance to the accessory- and collection-riddled interiors of today? The answer to that lies, I believe, in the nineteenth century and is for another post. 

Photographs by Daniel Eifert to accompany text, from which the quotation comes, written by Peter Carlsen for Architectural Digest, March 1979. The quotation of Patricia Cavendish O'Neill is from A Lion in the Bedroom, Park Street Press, 2004.


  1. With enough money, it is really not hard to acquire some good and even interesting furnishings. Taste is a factor, of course, although not crucial. After all, there are some wonderful stores with nothing ugly. But talent comes into play when putting it all together; relatively few can do that with unqualified success. This is particularly apparent in large houses where there is room after room that the schemes often quickly lose steam. I am not advocating that everyone should hire someone to style their house; most interior designers are just personal shoppers for the home, anyway. The key to successful, comfortable interiors is putting it all together with both style and function.

  2. Hello:
    You touch on so much of interest here but perhaps most importantly, in our view, is the notion that "there has to be training and knowledge" to show though in all design. This, we believe, is what is sadly lacking in so much of interior and garden [of which we have some experience] design today where 'eclecticism' is a term used to defend a house full of poorly arranged flea market finds.

    You mention scale. This we judge to be another vital area of design which is almost completely overlooked, never more so than outside where the sky replaces the ceiling of an inside room.

    How wonderful to have collected all the WoI magazines from the start. We have a similar collection but only, on and off, from 2004. We now keep all issues.

  3. Well done, Blue! I found myself nodding in agreement at every sentence and sentiment expressed here. One is sick of seeing endless photo spreads of jumbled up, overdone interiors full of the latest fad accessories (coral! lucite! trellis print! ceramic garden stool! foo dog! zebra skin!) and described in gushy, breathless commentary as "curated," or "the new eclecticism," or "traditional with a twist," or "flea-market chic!" It makes one long for serenity, and as you write what is soignee. I suppose some of Kelly Wearstler's interiors have merit, at least the hotels and restaurants she has done, but she has unfortunately inspired an avalanche of absolutely horrid, decorating-on-a-dime (even when done expensively) imitations amongst the Domino/Lonny set that are impossible not to see when opening the pages of many of what are passed off as decorating magazines today. I once met Mr. Whitcomb many years ago, and have had the pleasure of visiting his splendid house overlooking the Hudson River, so have admired his work in person. I heartily agree with what he said. A well-done room, or house, or what have you, is not only about what is in it, but also what is not. Good decorating is, I believe, good editing to a large degree. There, I feel better now!

  4. The Devoted Classicist, thank you.

    I agree that with enough money its not hard to acquire some good furnishings but I'm not sure it is always a successful process. The taste comes in, I think, in knowing whom to hire to do the job for one - or, at least, knowing whom to ask about whom to hire. As undoubtedly have you, I have seen some enormous amounts of money thrown away on fakery. There's a whole essay in this but little room here!

  5. Reggie Darling, a big thank you! You took the rant right out of my mouth! "Curated" is one of those words that makes me snarl - when that word is used its clear the writer doesn't know what the hell to say about the place! Actually, I do know exactly what to say but standards must be upheld!

    I totally agree about Wearstler. I have yet to see anything of hers other than the fabric on the chair by my desk that is worth a second glance.

    I remember the day Domino arrived in the mailbox as a replacement for House and Garden and once I'd flicked through it it went in the trash by the mailbox - it didn't even make to the front door. I've never understood it's or Lonny's popularity.

  6. Jane and Lance Hattatt, thank you. It really is a matter of training and education and there's no substitute for either. The World of Interiors remains at the top of the tree but I do miss the American House and Garden - it was such a wonderful magazine and I'll never understand why the publisher closed it and brought out that rag Domino as a so-called replacement. Well, actually, I can deduce why they closed H&G and I'm clear on why Domino folded so shortly after its start. Don't get me started!

  7. That's a seriously appealing house - luxurious, certainly; stylish, to be sure; yet quirky too. I think what you like is the deliberateness with which things were arranged - considered, thoughtful choices - which convey a sense that the objects on display have meaning, or significance, to the owners. And well-made things are given breathing room, as if to say: "have a look...enjoy me...I'm worth it." We create a narrative when we arrange our rooms - and the story being told here is sophisticated, assured and inviting. This house makes me want to get to know it's occupants - what do they think; what do they read; where do they do in their spare time - that's an alluring notion...and an accomplishment.

  8. Regarding your thoughts on today's interior design - I know exactly what you are saying, yet I think you're addressing only one particular current in interior design - the sort of "Elle Decor" aesthetic.

    I live in New York City, and the OVERWHELMINGLY prevailing look here is "steampunk" - Edison bulbs, shabby, worn vintage with a 1900's look mixed with a Warhol-esque pop art sensibility. See Manhattan's Ace Hotel for a prime example:

    However, in much of the country, bourgeois taste tends towards oversized, pseudo-baronial "Tuscan" looks and the like: wrought iron; dark, heavy, ornate woodworking; gigantic burgundy leather sectionals; massive, clunky four-poster beds. That's how McMansions of the upper-middle class nationwide are decorated (PS: I wrote the above description before finding the below example, but sure enough - I only had to go through THREE home listings before I found one which fit to a "T"!):

    Meanwhile, as someone who has lived in Europe, Asia, and South America, I can tell you that the U.S. diverges from global design trends. Basically, the most predominant global interior style now is what I would call "IKEA modern." High-gloss laminate kitchens, etc. No eclecticism at all, just pseudo-Jetsons. Well, you see juxtaposition of current cliche elements like outsized print wallpaper and black glass chandeliers. When I came back to live in the U.S.A., I thought we were behind the times in clinging to aesthetics of the past, but now I've come to see it all that shiny "futurism" as a bit tacky and cheapo - the furniture is made of particle board, and the gimmicks like color-changing LED lights just remind me of an upscale Asian nail salon.

    Regardless of what others are doing elsewhere, I totally agree with your aesthetic and taste!

  9. Alex Ellsworth, thank you and my apologies in being tardy in replying to you. All I know is that much of what is happening in design, judging by what I see in shelter magazines, be it in Europe, North and South America, the Antipodes, is dull, repetitive, self-consciously cute and faddish. As with clothing fashion what is one day (perhaps) original, is by the following day merely a uniform - so it is in interior design.

    Yours is one of the most interesting comments I've had in a long time and frankly I'm still thinking about it. I hope, thus, my quick reply today doesn't seem terse and uninterested. If you read my post of July 27th you'll see why at the moment I rarely write .

    Again, thank you.

  10. Personage?

    Come on.