Thursday, March 31, 2011

The hands of the Madonna

"The other afternoon, when at the top of the house in what is known as the Anglo-Indian room - the study in which I work - Emilienne came through on the house phone: the admirable Emilienne who hs been running things for us for the last thirty-five years. I must come down, there was an old lady of ninety-one who wanted to see the garden. Emilienne has an infallible judgement about people, and wouldn't have called had the visitor not passed muster. So I went down, and there at the door stood Madame Delor accompanied by three friends. Impulsively she held out both hands - 'I was born here, grew up in this house, and it is only now I have dared to come back'. She apologised for intruding, and her eyes were misted with tears. Equally moved, I took her arm and we walked off down under the pergola. Excitedly she exclaimed on this and that, and turning into the spring garden she showed me where the family used to play boulles: 'and you know, we could get so worked up that we stuck a candle on the couchonnet and went on playing in the dark'. She carried her years well and there was no faltering or fumbling for words. 'You still have that palm, I see. You know the coastguards were always after my father about cutting it down. They claimed that it made a landmark for the smugglers.' Again the tears of joy behind the glasses: "And the Madonna up there' - she was referring to a twenty-foot Virgin and Child cast in copper which stands next to the King of Sardinia's mortuary chapel capping the head of the point. 'The sculptor was a friend of my father's and he used my hands as his model.' The Madonna is not actually in the garden, but looms over the wall and was originally intended for the tower - all that remains of the original fort. Her role was to be that of guardian angel to the fisherman, but somehow she never quite made her supposed elevation and now dwarfs her surroundings, a miniature Statue of Liberty, an ecclesiastical landmark cradling the Christ Child instead of holding aloft a lamp of liberty.

"Before leaving, I asked Madame Delor to sign the visitors' book: the date is 20 May 1974, and without hesitation she wrote out her piece, ending with a well-turned phrase, thanking me - 'Who has given me today, at the age of ninety-one, the opportunity of reliving my early years'."

There it stands, next to the eleventh-century Chapelle Saint-Hospice, the inordinate bronze statue of the Virgin, overlooking what was Roderick Cameron's garden and, at her feet, the ninety graves in the First World War military cemetery - graves of Belgian soldiers who died at Villa Les Cedres, the house belonging to the Belgian king Leopold II, that had been converted to a hospital.

Occasionally, I think I'm done with Roderick Cameron and his friends, yet each time more connections are made and new ideas present themselves. Nevertheless, for a while at least, I want to move away from Cameron and look in other directions and broaden my theme of circles within circles.

Photo of the Madonna by Eric Hoekszema from Google Maps.
Screen shot from Google Maps.
Quotation from The Golden Riviera, Roderick Cameron, Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1975.

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.

Monday, March 21, 2011

The decorator and the writer

Twenty-eight years ago I bought my first issue of The World of Interiors and was immediately captivated, especially by an article about Grange House, the redecoration of which was done by David Hicks for a London businessman and his family. Grange House seemed to me to be the most comfortable and stylish of English country houses - not too grand, nothing pompous and actually great fun.

Imagine, then, my surprise when - and I don't remember precisely how much later - I discovered that the name of the house and its owners were completely fictitious. I've never found the explanation for the subterfuge and it could be there is an official one somewhere, but I missed it.

The story is this, and I quote the writer of the article:

"David Hicks' most recent, and coincidentally one of his favourite, commissions was to redesign Grange House - a pretty, rather small farm-house in Oxfordshire - for a London businessman, Peter Westbury, his American wife, Louise, and their two children. He confesses that the reason he enjoyed the job so much was due mainly to the Westbury's sense of style and taste - a style so much attuned to his own that he became involved in redesigning their garden as well.....

"The Hicks' maxim - that he sees himself merely as an interpreter of his client's taste - never once presented a difference of opinion in the case of Grange House. He was dealing, too, with a family who had formerly lived in a much grander house and who had quite a collection of possessions; so they were able to chose the best of these, which give the house its distinct personal style."

By now you're probably saying "but, I thought that house was ..." and you'd be right. Grange House was, in fact, The Grove, and Peter and Louise Westbury were David and Pamela Hicks - their former "much grander house" being Britwell House.

The story as presented is quite cohesive, with lots of telling, or misleading, details - for example:

"Although Grange House is fairly old - early 18th century - with a double-height drawing-room added on in 1825, it clearly couldn't be too grand, except for the drawing-room, where David Hicks felt justified in adding a stately touch or two. But, because Peter and Louise were used to living in more generous surroundings, he felt that he had to give them a sense of scale to get away, as much as possible, from the existing cottagey atmosphere.....

"Granting that, in this instance, David Hicks had a great deal of possessions to chose from, he finds that on the whole (especially in the United States) his clients have none, or don't wish to use what they do have, preferring to start afresh. They want to be told what to collect and his advice often extends to buying antiques too. 'I think it is terribly nice, and flattering, and I suppose it's better than making mistakes ... but it does seem odd to me......'

"The pale-blue dining room, is a tribute to Hicks' skill, as the most dominating feature, and extremely attractive and decorative mural en grisaille with silver and pale-blue, executed for the Westburys' previous house, had to be included. The original beamed ceiling was obviously unsuitable for anything so sophisticated, and the room wasn't tall enough, so the floor had to be dug out to fit it in. The dining-table is, surprisingly, a plywood top on a circular drum base, covered in a Hicks-designed print. 'I can't see the point of spending a lot of money on a table and then covering it up with a table-cloth - and I happen to like table-cloths....'

"David Hicks and Peter Westbury designed Peter's dressing-room as an audacious combination of bedroom, bathroom, and library to take Peter's collection of books which go over, around and under the window. A 19th century chintz with a black ground and autumn colors was used for the bedspread and roman-blind, whilst the bath alcove is lined with Gothic engravings. ...

"As David Hicks was nearing the end of resdesigning Grange House, the garden began, increasingly, to take up more of everyone's thoughts. He hadn't been asked to help with garden-design in the past, although, having just written a book on the subject, it is obviously a consuming interest of his, and, in this case, he was able to design it from scratch. 'Of course you can see it is still a young, new garden which needs to a good ten years to mature.' "

As I say, a cohesive tale with lots of telling details, and they really must have enjoyed, the writer and the decorator, constructing this quite entertaining work of fiction! And, while on the subject of fiction, I can't help but notice that there isn't an abundance of tablescaping in these early photographs of Hicks' house, and I wonder if perhaps, on occasion, they too were fiction, those tablescapes - stories invented for the moment and the camera lens.

There is another way, of course, of looking at the dearth of objets on Hicks' tables. Until quite recently, rooms were not photographed in a state of freewheeling clutter, beset with the risible detritus of lives lived untidily in rooms created for the camera lens - the ficionalization of interiors, about which, months ago, I wrote a small essay. It was an essay in which I also expressed the belief that there is a tendency to write adoringly about aristocracy, royalty and celebrity as icons of style, their deplorable behavior and affiliations being ignored. But, that is a story, or non sequitur if you will, for another day.

"It is easy, in elegant diction
To call it an innocent fiction;
But it comes in the same category
As telling a regular story."

W.S. Gilbert, The Pirates of Penzance

Photographs by James Mortimer to accompany text by Annabel von Hoffmannsthal for The World of Interiors, December/January 1983.

Quotations are from Annabel von Hoffmannsthal's text.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011


It is difficult to take the measure of a man through someone else's eyes and experience. After all, we don't actually meet them, except, perhaps, in the pages of diaries, magazine articles, even cookery books - as is the case, in my experience, with Norman Douglas. Over the years, I haven't bothered to read any of his books, and the other day I remembered why. I shall read them now - I discover that the university library has some - South Wind, Old Calabria and even a collection of limericks entitled Some Limericks, Collected for the Use of Students, Ensplendour'd with Introduction, Geographical Index, and with Notes Explanatory and Critical. Anyone who can write such a title deserves to be read, however bawdy the contents of his book.

I was put off Douglas years ago because of what I read or, rather, read into the quotation below, another from Elizabeth David's An Omelette and a Glass of Wine. The young man referred to, it seems to me,was simply being inexperienced, adulatory and looking for what we nowadays call validation for expressing what was, in post-war Europe, and could be still, a valid socialist point of view about the haves and the haves-not. Looking back, I wonder if I, young as I was, took Douglas, and the victim (as I considered him), and myself far too seriously. I wonder also, as I write the last sentence, if a reproof ever really needs be annihilating.

"In the summer of of 1951 there was much talk on Capri, and elsewhere in Italy, of a great fancy-dress ball to be given in a Venetian palace by a South American millionaire. The entertainment was to be on a scale and of a splendour unheard of since the great days of the Serene Republic. One evening, Norman, a group of young men and I myself were sitting late at Georgio's cafe in the Piazza. Criticism of the Palazzo Labia ball and the squandered thousands was being freely expressed. Norman was bored. He appeared to be asleep. At a pause in the chatter he opened his eyes. 'Don't you agree, Mr Douglas?' asked one of the eager young men. 'All that money.' He floundered on. 'I mean, so many more important things to spend it on ....'

" 'Oh I don't know.' Norman sounded very far away. Then, gently: 'I like to see things done in style.'

"And he stomped off. Evaporated, as he used to put it. The reproof had been as annihilating as any I ever heard administered."

Charles de Beistegui's fancy-dress ball took place sixty years ago and is as far distant in memory and relevance as the Ball of the Yew Trees given at Versailles in the Galerie de Glaces. Either ball could be called legendary - the one attended by royalty, aristocrats and artistic riff-raff, snobs and panderers, a group of loose associations and equally loose living – now collectively described as cafe society – and the other ball where Jeanne Antoinette Poisson tangled with the King's hunting horn, went on to become royal mistress, great patron of arts and literature, and lend her name to a hairstyle much beloved by tele-evangelists. However, legendary isn't an adjective I'm disposed to use and I wonder, perhaps, if there might not be a description less travelled-by, as it were.

Celebrated, fabled, notorious, out-of-sight, doozie, outrageous, rad, fantastic, fabled and stupendous are all adequate synonyms, depending on your point of view and age. I don't think there's anyone still alive who might say out-of-sight, man except perhaps ironically, though there are plenty of us who remember it. Rad is, well, no longer rad, fabled is such an advertorial phrase, notorious has long slipped into the porcine vocabulary of reality TV, and chic has lost its cachet in some quarters - though not in mine, as I quite like the word still. My style guru says that crispy is a word of the moment but the moment might have passed by the time I finish this sentence. I shall fall back on the old word, gratin to describe if not the ball, then the guests, and in that I am definitely not being original.

When the gratin - European royals and aristocrats, American and South American millionaires, Hollywood movie stars, politicians, artists and general hangers-on - moved on after the ball in the not-so-early hours of the morning, they left behind not a legacy of taste and style for the aspirational, as is occasionally supposed, but something of far more lasting value. That something, which for a few short hours, was merely a theatre for one of the silliest of human activities - striking attitudes, playing at tableaux, and seeing and being seen - that something was the glorious set of rooms at the Palazzo Labia.

The ballroom is the star, with its frescoes by Tiepolo of the story of Antony and Cleopatra, a tale from the ancient world, transposed to modern-day Venice. The pair, as with everyone else in the frescoes, was not clad in Roman or Egyptian fancy dress, as had been Besteigui's guests dancing in front of them, but in seventeenth-century aristocratic dress - the equivalent of being portrayed today in a tuxedo and a couture evening gown.

The conversation Elizabeth David recorded took place in 1951, three years after de Beistegui bought the house from a Labia widow, and only six years after the end of the Second World War - a war that had laid waste to Europe, the East, and to unimaginably vast numbers of people, in the Shoa, on battlefields and at sea, and which rewrote the manuals on Fascism for succeeding generations. Undoubtedly, in those early years of reparation and repair, an ostentatious event such as the Villa Labia ball could be viewed as a rich foreigner's attempt to buy his way into an old and hermetic society - much in the same way as did the Labia family centuries before - and, given the rawness of the early post-war years, perceived as spitting in the face of the still-suffering populations of Europe. That is how, I think, the young man in Elizabeth David's tale saw the situation. If I have taken his measure correctly, the young man, the anti-hero, saw the situation for what it was.

Photographs of Villa Labia rooms by Gianni Berengo-Gardin for an essay published in The World of Interiors, April 1987.

Painting of Palazzo Labia by John Singer Sargent from Wikipedia Commons.

Paintings by Tiepolo from Wikipedia Commons.

Friday, March 11, 2011

The light of a Venetian dawn

"Of all the spectacular food markets in Italy, the one near the Rialto in Venice must be the most remarkable. The light of a Venetian dawn in early summer - you must be about at four o'clock in the morning to see the market coming to life - is so limpid and so still that it makes every separate vegetable and fruit and fish luminous with a life of its own, with unnaturally heightened colours and clear stencilled outlines. Here the cabbages are cobalt blue, the beetroots deep rose, the lettuces clear pure green, sharp as glass. Bunches of gaudy gold marrow-flowers show off the elegance of pink and white marbled bean pods, primrose potatoes, green plums, green peas. The colours of the peaches, cherries, and apricots, packed in boxes lined with sugar-bag blue paper matching the blue canvas trousers worn by the men unloading the gondolas, are reflected in the rose-red mullet and the orange vongole and cannestrelle which have been prised out of their shells and heaped into baskets. In other markets, on other shores, the unfamiliar fishes may be vivid, mysterious, repellant, fascinating, and bright with splendid colour; only in  Venice do they look good enough to eat. In Venice even ordinary sole and ugly great skate are striped with delicate lilac lights, the sardines shine like newly-minted silver coins, pink Venetian scampi are fat and fresh, infinitely enticing in the early dawn.

"The gentle swaying of the laden gondolas, the movements of the market men as they unload, swinging the boxes and baskets ashore, the robust life and rattling noise contrasted with the fragile taffeta colours and the opal sky of Venice - the whole scene is out of some marvellous unheard-of ballet."

I thought I might end the week with a lovely piece of writing by Elizabeth David from her book Italian Food,  a Penguin Handbook, 1971. This book was first published in 1954, the year that Second World War Rationing ended in the United Kingdom - imagine its impact!

Photographs by the Celt.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Piercingly aromatic

I'm not sure how well-known one of the most literate of food writers, Elizabeth David, is this side of the Atlantic, but if you like simple, authentic French food then let me recommend her books to you. She was not the kind of writer who played the celebrity game, though she certainly was famous - but, unlike many today, very private. Her books, generally speaking, are without illustrations, except perhaps for decorations at the beginning of chapters, and she uses Imperial measurements which means using a scale and weights. There is little glamour beyond verbal sketches of the places, the countryside, small regional restaurants and cafes, occasionally a very grand restaurant, charcutiers and patissiers, and the markets - but the descriptions of the ingredients, the methods and the final results are superb.

I was trawling for something else when I came across these photographs, published a year after her death, of Elizabeth David's kitchens - summer and winter - shockingly and unexpectedly ordinary by today's standards, but the kitchens were where she cooked for good friends, tested her recipes and, sitting at her kitchen table, wrote her erudite, authoritative and immensely readable cookery books. Luddite by our standards today,  these kitchens were without dishwashers, built-in double ovens, microwaves, food processors, gadgets and fitted cabinets. Elizabeth David furnished her kitchens, she did not fit them out.

I remember a similar sink and wooden draining board from my childhood. I remember too, the fad during the 1960s and 1970s for all things French - the rage for beige, white porcelain tureens and soup bowls with lion-headed handles, rivet-handled knives, wide, heavy, green, gold-rimmed coffee cups, the cafetière, iron casseroles, oval earthenware gratin dishes, fondue, pissaladière, gratin dauphinois, ratatouille and Moutarde de Meaux, sea salt and herbes de Provence - oh and lest I forget, quiche lorraine, which, according to Elizabeth David, is a simple mixture of eggs, bacon and cream in the thinnest of crusts.

They still ring true, these words below, a quotation from her Summer Cooking, written nearly fifty years ago, about simplicity, appropriateness and taking part, however temporarily, in the foreignness of life going on around one.

"In the summer there is also holiday cooking. That may well mean food cooked in an unfamiliar kitchen equipped, more than likely, in an impersonal and inadequate fashion by the owners of a house, holiday villa, or caravan hired out for the summer. For some, and the numbers are increasingly yearly, this temporary Paradise will be situated close to a Mediterranean shore. Food shopping will be done in a general store, or in some chaotic little market where the best produce will be sweet ripe tomatoes, mild onions, olives, and cheese of an undistinguished nature. The eggs, however, will be fresh and the bread authentic. Meals will be primitive - and, so long as one has learned to be adaptable and not to hanker for roast meat and steaks - entirely delicious because perfectly appropriate to the time, the place and the circumstances. There will be cheap coarse red wine to drink and the wise will follow the example of the local people, dilute the wine with ice and have a supply of bottled mineral water as an alternative."

Elizabeth David belonged to the same generation as Van Day Truex and Roderick Cameron, and in her writing subscribed to the same standards as they, or at least the standards I ascribe to them - suitability, simplicity and proportion.

Frequently Mrs David writes of her great friend, the writer Norman Douglas. He was seventy-two and she twenty-six when they met and their mutual admiration was immediate - teacher and pupil, master and disciple, friend and friend. He is someone to be looked at in a later post. In the meantime a quotation from her book An Omelette and a Glass of Wine.

" 'For Liz. Farewell to Capri,' Norman wrote in the copy of Late Harvest which he gave me when I said goodbye to him on 25 August, 1951. For me it was not farewell to Capri. It was farewell to Norman. On a dark drizzling London day in February 1952 news came from Capri of Norman's death. When, in the summer of that year, I spent six weeks on the island all I could do for Norman was to take a pot of the basil which was his favourite herb to his grave in the cemetery on the hill-road leading down to the port. I went there only once. I had never shared Norman's rather melancholy taste for visiting churchyards. A more fitting place to remember him was in the lemon grove to be reached only by descending some three hundred steps from the Piazza.

"It was so thick, that lemon grove, that it concealed from all but those who knew their Capri well the old Archbishop's palace in which was housed yet another of those private taverns which appeared to materialize for Norman alone. There, at a table outside the half-ruined house, a branch of piercingly aromatic lemons hanging within arm's reach, a piece of bread and a bottle of the proprietor's olive oil in front of me, a glass of wine in my hand, Norman was speaking.

" 'I wish you would listen when I tell you that if you fill my glass before it's empty I shan't know how much I've drunk.'

"To this day I cannot bring myself to refill someone else's glass until it is empty. A sensible rule, on the whole, even if it does mean that sometimes a guest is obliged to sit for a moment or two with an empty glass, uncertain whether to ask for more wine or wait until it is offered.

"In the shade of the lemon grove I break off a hunch of bread, sprinkle it with the delicious fruity olive oil, empty my glass of sour Capri wine; and remember that Norman Douglas once wrote that whoever has helped us to a larger understanding is entitled to our gratitude for all time. Remember too that other saying of his, the one upon which all his life he acted, the one which does much to account for the uncommonly large number of men and women of all ages, classes and nationalities who took Norman Douglas to their hearts and will hold him there so long as they live. 'I like to taste my friends, not eat them' "

Appropriate, pagan, simple, loving, sacramental, that hunch of bread sprinkled with oil, swilled down with sour wine.

Photographs by James Mortimer to accompany text by Mirabel Cecil written in August 1993 for The World of Interiors. 

Image of Summer Cooking, a Penguin Handbook, Penguin Books Ltd, 1974 (when I bought it). 

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.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Decorator or designer?

Last week, in my post Il Gattopardo I made a remark about David Hicks to the effect that he "... was undoubtedly a snob, but in that he was no different from many a modern decorator or, as they frequently prefer to be called, designer - another step in the dance of status and branding."

There were comments, of course, and on reading them, it occurred to me that there might well be a confusion about the difference between a interior decorator and an interior designer or, even, that there is a difference. I tend to use the term decorator because I almost exclusively deal with residential design and would rather refer to myself as a decorator than a designer. Some decorators prefer to be known as designers and with that, personally, I have no problem for it is a matter of peceived status. But I will say that in many people's minds the two terms are interchangeable - yet there difference, and I would like to explain something of that difference.

Basically the situation is this: states regulate the professions that impact health, safety and welfare of the public and in twenty-six of those states interior design professionals are included in that regulation - they must be licensed to practice and the title of interior designer is specific to those individuals. The main path to licensing is long - a four-year bachelor's degree from an accredited interior design program, followed by an internship for a minimum number of years with a licensed practitioner before one can sit for the NCIDQ* examination. The point of professional regulation is to set a minimum level of competence required to safely practice a profession - in this case, that of an interior designer working predominantly in contract design. A decorator, on the other hand, suffers no such regulation in any state (I think).

The quotation below explains the difference between interior decorator and interior designer very clearly, if a little tendentiously. I have no disagreement with the definition of what an interior designer does but I have reservations about the explanation of what a decorator does. However, those reservations could consume many an hour and I shall spare you that. I wonder, though, if you decorators recognize yourselves in the quotation. Italics are mine.

"Interior design is the art and science of understanding people’s behavior to create functional spaces within a structure. Decoration is the furnishing or adorning of a space with fashionable or beautiful things. Interior designers may provide interior decorating services, but decorators are not qualified to provide interior design services.

"One primary difference between the two professions is that interior designers are responsible for the elements that affect the public’s health, safety and welfare. For example, an interior designer can evaluate wall finishes based on durability, acoustic properties, cleanability, flame retardancy, allergens, toxicity and off-gassing properties. An interior decorator can evaluate finishes based only on color, style and texture."


There is absolutely no connection between the paragraphs above and these photographs of the ravishing Gallery of Mirrors in the Palazzo Gangi - the room where, as I mentioned previously, Luchino Visconti filmed the ball scene from his movie, The Leopard. I simply find the room one the most beautiful and atmospheric I've ever seen. A room redolent of warm winds and roses, candlelight and perfume, silk and damask, coruscation and lambency, blushing and fading, black-eyed men and etiolated chaperones - the one louche and vigilant of honor, wives, mistresses and daughters; the other spiteful, fans atremble with scandal and malice.

First two photographs by Joel Laiter to accompany text by Lydia Fasoli. From The World of Interiors, October, 2002.

The last is by Marc Walter. From the book Private Splendor: Great Families at Home, Alexis Gregory and Marc Walter, The Vendome Press, 2006.