Friday, May 27, 2011

At the sign of the dancing man

One of the pleasures of trapped sciatic nerves is that there is so little that one can actually do, beyond snarling at everyone in sight, lying on the floor and reading. If you cannot walk, drive, stand, sit, sleep, blog, empty the dishwasher, pick up a heavy book, retrieve soap in the shower, lace up shoes, even twist the cap off your favourite cologne (Imperial by Guerlain) without sending lightening bolts to your ankles, there's not much left to occupy one's time but haunt the chiropractor's office, snarl and read - and I've done a lot of all three this week.  

It's driving me nuts, this enforced inactivity, but at least the view of the living room from the rug (Kravet, wool and silk) is novel. I wish I could be a good patient (or even just be patient) but I'm a man. Oh, by the way, if ever you're in this state do avoid sneezing. 

Friday, May 20, 2011

Rapture and End-Times?

The debate as to whether or not blogs can affect magazines is over, I guess, though I wonder now if we were just looking in the wrong direction when that discussion began, because it is undeniable that the design industry and its magazines take an interest, to say the least, in blogs. Before I go on, let me say that today's post will be a bit discursive, but there is a point, if not three intertwined - one being that yesterday I had a not-entirely-rapturous experience and am frustrated enough to write about it critically - something I rarely do. However, I will get to the rapture or lack of it shortly.

Generally speaking, I have been skeptical about the interest taken by the design industry in blogs and bloggers - to wit the number of fests and conferences organized for our benefit and for which we are asked to pay attendance fees and all our own expenses - travel, lodging and food. I wonder, more than a little cynically, what's in it for me? I pay, I travel, I meet, I listen, I view, I discuss, and then I go home and do what? Well, it's implicit, of course, that I go home and I blog and tweet about my hosts and my happiness at being included, thereby creating free publicity for the organizers the event, whether magazines or design firms, getting them higher in Google search rankings. I am, thus, quite clear about what is not in it for me.

A Los Angeles Times' headline that " says it's selling 80% more downloaded books than hardcovers" has enormous implications for the magazine industry - implications that are certainly not lost on the editors or publishers. I glanced at this issue of e-publication, if issue it is, in my post Poof! when I wrote of how easy it will be when I travel to take a number of books and magazines downloaded to my iPad rather than to schlepp physical copies.

Even from what little I know, it's clear that producing a magazine is an enormously complex, labor-intensive, physical and costly process - a process that begins with editorial decisions: commissioning writers and photographers; organizing photo shoots; reviewing results and making selections; designing the layout of pages allowing for the of number of pages and number of advertisements; fact-checking and proof-reading - this all before anything goes to print and all taking place in various offices.

At the printer, proofs are reviewed; printer does imposition (how multiple pages fit on larger sheet of paper on the printing press); printing; trimming; binding; bundling and then distribution to newsstands, bookstores and subscribers (of whom a database of street addresses must be maintained) and part of the distribution process is also dealing with the returns, transporting and disposal of unsold magazines.

All in all, a very resource-intensive process, the production of a magazine, and I have not even mentioned one other side of the business - advertising sales - an enormous department of itself with its own overheads and processes, that generates the revenues that finance almost all of the preceding.

It seems to me, and this is happening I think, that if magazines are to survive in any economic form they must go digital. Imagine how much of the process outlined above can be eliminated if a digital format becomes the norm. The editorial staff can do without, and possibly already are so doing, expensive real estate. The printing side of the business can be eliminated as can distribution. I realize that what I am also saying is that many a job will also be eliminated - a situation we saw in the 1980s with the invention of software that enabled graphic designers to go from computer to printer without the need for separations houses and other ancillary trades. Think also of the parallels with the present precarious situation of selling books. End times, indeed.

For those of us who like books, compilations of magazine articles could regularly be published, much in the way (see above) Architectural Digest published its compilations in a series called The Worlds of Architectural Digest, though that perhaps is wishful thinking rather than likelihood, for if, as the LA Times headline suggests then the publishing world in general is already beyond crisis point. You might think that there will always be a need for magazines and books - and you might well be right - but it is not to be expected that either will continue to take the form we have come know, love and collect. What might it all mean for blogs is for a later post.

Now, the rapture, or as I write above, the lack of it. This week I have attended a number of presentations by well-known decorators - events I was looking forward to, not rapturously, but certainly with great pleasure. All with the exception of one were worth the trouble and rewardingly so. One, with whom I spent a while conversing, is one of the most attractively intelligent and witty women I've ever had the pleasure of meeting. Putting cynicism to one side, I know as must we all, that the reward of listening to the greats and looking at slide shows of photographs from their latest book, is that we get to buy a signed copy of the book and we can feel, however distantly, we've rubbed noses with celebrity. We might even be entertained and learn something.

If I were to be quite plain-spoken about the one I had very much looked forward to listening to and was so disappointed in, I could say I have not listened to such a simperingly self-satisfied, blasé and disheveled, but mercifully short, load of twaddle in a very long time.  As I say, if I were to be plain-spoken ...

Book cover photograph by Jaime Ardiles-Arce published by Architectural Digest in the series, The Worlds of Architectural Digest, 1979.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

The Twang's the Thang Redux

"So I concentrate on what I have and where I am. I take pleasure, for instance, in the way the house is aging - the shingles in particular, which have moved so gracefully past tan and tarnished silver to a rich dark brown. Some of this is just dirt, of course, left there by the vagrant fog, but the effect is enchanting. The shingles have grown as rough and mossy as bark, so the house seems more organic, like something rooted in the earth that will have to return there, sooner or later. To my overly romanticizing eyes, shingles are most beautiful when they're closest to collapse.

"On my better days, I try to see my own weathering this way. I rarely succeed. I'm not ready to discolor and rot, no matter how charming the process might seem to others. I'll leave the planet in a state of panic and self-loathing. I'd rather there be peace and a sense of completion. And I'd like Ben there, of course, cuddling me into the void with the usual sweet assurances. I know that's not original as fantasies go - and impossible to ordain - but a boy can dream.

"In the meantime, I tinker with our home in a way that Ben finds comical, if not a little pathetic. I arrange objects like talismans in a tomb, carefully balancing according to how the rivets on the bowl on the coffee table are repeated in the frame of the dining room mirror and the base of an Arts and Crafts candlestick. I know where every spot of Chinese red can be found in the living room. I never add anything to the decor without considering the metal-to-wood ratio and the need for the sheen and color of ceramics. 'Have nothing in your houses,' William Morris decreed, 'that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful,' and I can show you a wastebasket that fills that bill to a tee. I bought if off eBay for $385. This house will be perfect by the time I'm committed.

"A case in point: one night Ben and I were watching Six Feet Under when I sprang from the sofa and began rearranging the art pottery on the shelf above the TV tansu. Be indulged me sweetly as I swapped the purple Fulper ginger jar for the light-green one and offset them both with the large bronze Heintz vase.

" 'That's been bothering you, has it?'
" 'I couldn't put my finger on it,' I told him, 'but it's better, don't you think?'
" 'Oh, absolutely.'
" 'Don't look at me like I'm Rain Man,' I said.
" 'Come back,' he said, 'Keith is about to get naked.'

"As we settled in again for the show, Ben's head warming my chest, my gaze began to creep away from the television screen and back to the shelf of now perfectly composed pottery. And Ben somehow sensed this without looking up.

" 'Stop that,' he said, slapping my belly. 'Watch the damn show.' "

Yesterday, apropos a couple of YouTube videos we had watched - a "damned show" if ever there was one - a friend and I in discussing them raised the subject of accents, and how, though I actually have yet to hear an accent I don't like, especially the seemingly myriad Southern, some tones of voice can grate.

The word 'twang" was used and immediately I had one of those moments, increasingly more frequent it seems to me, when I plunged into the past and dredged up the phrase The Twang's the Thang - something I'd not thought of in forty years - the name, I think, of the first 45 rpm single I ever bought. Duane Eddy was the guitarist. Another name that dredged up was Sam the Sham and the Pharaohs but I'm not going to touch that one, the great Woolly Bully notwithstanding. Worrying, how much crap gets stored away!

This conversation got me thinking about accents in design - not the ubiquitous accessories one sees - but more what makes American design different from, say, English design. In traditional decorating - and here you see rooms decorated twenty years ago by Arthur E Smith - the constituents, generally speaking, are the same on both sides of the Atlantic. In the way that it is easy to spot an Englishman abroad, so it is with an American (it's always the clothing) and this before they open their mouths to speak - it is equally easy to know when an interior is American and when it is English.

With clothing the differences are easy to spot - it's a matter of fit and to some extent color. British clothing tends to be trimmer and somehow grayer, whereas American clothing leans towards the generously-cut and the colorful (I'm sure there are a million and one examples of how I'm wrong, but bear with me). The analogy does not fully work out with decorating but it fits pretty well. Scale, or fit, is smaller in England but interiors, and I think this is because of the differences in light, are more colorful - here rooms are larger, as is the furniture commensurately, and in the main neutral. It must be said that on one side of the Pond color is creeping back and on the other it might be beginning to drain away.

So, the differences between American and English decorating, as with the language, is a simple matter of emphasis, or accent, if you will. Now, you might wonder why, in a world where design is increasingly homogenized, I even care about differences in accents. I do, in the way I care about language and how we use it, for good or for bad. I care about accents because, wherever they are from, I love them. I love the cadences, the emphases, the rhythms, the limitations, the color of language - and these are all attributes that can be applied to the language of design. I love how, for example, Michael Tolliver, a survivor of the plague though not untouched by it, describes his relationship with his house, the home he has made of it and the lover who shares it with him, despite knowing, as we all do, it is but a temporary stopping place and one filled with love.

Quotation from Michael Tolliver Lives, Armistead Maupin, Harper Collins, New York 2007. One of the Tales of the City books - a series of novels, but actually one of the most acutely observed, humane, humorous and heartbreaking social documents written during the 20th and 21st centuries.

Update: it was the blogger le style et la matière who kindly wrote and told me to look in Google Reader for my lost post. She, thus, has my gratitude and my friendship.

 Photographs by Peter Vitale, accompanying text by Michael Frank written for Architectural Digest, October 1991.

Title of post quoted from an album of guitar music by Mr Duane Eddy

Tuesday, May 17, 2011


Losing a post and comments as I did last week rather took me aback. The Twang's the Thang sorta went poof and retreated into the cloud whence I've daily been expecting it to reappear. I understood the Blogger team would restore data that was removed but precisely a week later it has not so I guess it's time to stop pouting and move on.

When the Celt suggested that we take our iPads on vacation rather than schlepp books as we would normally do, to my surprise I agreed with barely a demur - which means I refused point blank and then thought about it and admitted he was right. I'd like to say that is a syndrome I've grown out of over the years but, at best, I've just got quicker at admitting he's right.

Yet I didn't like the idea, however practical, because an e-book is not a book as I have known a book to be, and I like books. By which I mean, of course, I have a fetish about owning books - a fetish I find hard to admit despite the fact that, as I said in my post Soignée a couple of weeks ago, I sit surrounded by about 125 square feet of them in the room, once the second bedroom, we call the library.

It's a rather 19th-century name for a room of books, library, and one that smacks of municipal and philanthropic do-gooding. Book-room is even more archaic - on a par with looking-glass, though that fact has not stopped me using either on occasion. Whatever I call the room, if I were to lose its contents, my life would be bereft for I have great pride in ownership, great confidence in the emblematic and talismanic roles books play, and I take enormous pleasure in being able to take a book from our shelves, browse, read or research - precisely as I use the internet, it occurs to me.

My morning read is no longer a newspaper and neither is it, generally speaking, a book. I begin my day with a smile, a cup of coffee and The Daily Beast. Ten years ago, I read a book. Today I am more likely to be looking online and am constantly amazed at how much is available at the tip of a cursor and how much I rely on it - much as I relied on Blogger always being there.

I'm told everything is moving to the cloud, wherever that may be. I look out of the window and no evidence of the internet do I see but I'll take on trust that The Blue Remembered Hills are out there somewhere, floating. How aptly named this insubstantial vehicle. Losing a post is but the most minor of happenings in the technological scheme of things, but if that cloud ever goes poof .....

The room above is Emilio Terry's library at Chateau Rochecotte, photographed by Anthony Denney for Les réussites de la décoration française, 1950 - 1960, Collection Maison & Jardin, Condé Nast S.A. Editions de Pont Royal, 1960

Friday, May 6, 2011


"Really?" I thought, when I saw the malachite-painted chair in a photograph of a room at Kips Bay Decorator Show House. Forgive my skepticism, but there's a degree of absurdity in pretending that a slight, spoon-backed chair could be made of malachite and could have supported itself, let alone an object heavier than a handkerchief, and it is that very fatuity set me thinking, again, about show houses and why I still go to them. 

From my perspective, show houses offer an annual opportunity to see the work of upcoming and well-established decorators under one roof. A good thing, undoubtedly, but at the same time a show house presents one with a visual avalanche that can be overwhelming and, consequently, it is the rare room that stands out even a few days later. Nonetheless, some rooms are memorable even after a long time, as are some objects or juxtapositions. For example, the quilt of living moss that covered a bed a few years ago remains in my memory - but whether as a thing of ridicule or romance, I cannot decide. I remember it, but not the rest of the room or, perhaps more importantly, the designer - and it seems to me therein lies the problem. If my encounter is with an object rather than the room then it means that either I'm remembering for the wrong reasons, or put another way, forgetting for the right reasons.

Recently, after a recent visit to a local decorator show house, what remains in my memory is a  kaleidoscope of neutrals and the impression of a sedimentary layering of accessories and props. That is not to say that there weren't moments of pleasure - beautifully made, handprinted linen paisley curtains that were the raison d'etre for a whole living room in which three tiny hand-carved wooden birds had landed on a marquetry commode; an iron tripod table partnered with a crustily gilded and damasked Louis XV chair in a cream and crystal dining room bounded above the dado with mercury-silvered mirror; a dusty-gray Spanish table doing duty as a desk in a man's study; a coolly brown understated guest suite; Hogarth prints matted in glass against tailored gray flannel walls; a purple-lacquered sideboard affectionately known as Barney; along with some very fine bathrooms. But beyond these moments - the equivalents of the malachite-painted chair - there was little that has stayed with me these two weeks later. Mind you, it could also be these old gray cells are just wearing out!

Please don't think I underestimate the effort and expense that goes into dreaming up and creating these ephemeral interiors. They are works of art and in many case truly labors of love. Indeed, from the designer's point of view I wonder what the return on the investment actually has been over the last few years. If, as I read here, what growth there was in the luxury market has slowed down, it makes me wonder how long these costly affairs can survive.

Which brings me to today's decorator - someone I've written about before and whose work as illustrated in these photographs is an example of the staying power I'm talking about. 

Arthur Smith's own rooms, created over thirty years ago, are I think a superb example of an interior that has not dated, a rare quality of interiors from that decade of plutocratic absurdities, the 1980s. I had intended to analyze precisely what it is about this interior I like - other than the Art Déco bronze console by Richard Desvallières for Süe et Mare, the Egyptian falcon, 1st-century Roman torso, Japanese box, 19th-century faïence dog, the Richard Serra Black Triangle drawing on paper, 18th-century Japanese screen, bronze panther, 18th-century Venetian figures, the statuette of Aphrodite standing before a miniature trellised pavilion, the carved, painted and gilded dining table, the amazing collage of watch parts, 1st-century Romano-Egyptian lion, 1st-century Roman head in the shower, Diego Giacometti stool, Amish quilt, Franz Kline drawings and Thomas Hinckley painting of a dog - but a commenter on my post Soignee summed up my thoughts about David Whitcomb, by extension this interior by Arthur E Smith, and indeed much of what I am always looking for in decorator show houses.

"I think what you like is the deliberateness with which things are 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 know it's occupants - what do they think; what do they read; where do they go in their spare time - that's an alluring notion ... and an accomplishment."

Precisely, Anonymous, precisely! Thank you.

Photographs taken by Peter Vitale to accompany text by Patricia Warner - from whom also list of contents in Smith's loft - written for Architectural Digest, November 1987.