Monday, May 21, 2012

Taste

Strange to say, I have never tasted a truffle. I've eaten plenty over the years in the form of shavings, infused oil or with fois gras and the nearest I ever got to identifying the taste of a truffle was a faint flavor of paper. Not that there's anything wrong with the taste of paper, you understand, it's just not a normal part of my diet since I gave up eating breakfast cereal. I cannot taste truffles and the Celt cannot bear the smell of them so we merely at a distance contemplate all the frolics honoring that subterranean mushroom.

I've been thinking about taste – in particular, taste bland as a politician's promise, marketed by shelter magazines and many a bloggerette. Oh, I know the fashion wheel has turned, and color, subtle as stomach cramp, has slammed its way back into decorating and, coincidentally, as my living room has listed towards neutrality I have been cogitating the uncomplicated eye - that seeming, and certainly contemporary, inability to deal with layer upon layer of pattern, color and texture.

Yet, I wonder, does it matter? My graduate degree professor, now in her late eighties, unwillingly retired and a good friend, rails against the ignorance of the present generation and decries its lack of interest in what we both learned. She and I have lunch together nearly every week and we talk nonstop about what was our interior design world – and what it has become. What, so far, has remained unspoken is that the world has changed around us, left us marooned on far shores of taste informed by history, education and training – and however much we might regret it, it is a world dominated by media and by an editorial and blogging community enamored of rooms designed for the logic of the lens rather than living; of vignetteing and accessorizing; of mediocre furniture and fabric collections branded by well-known decorators; of bespoke details on mass-produced goods; of ethnic green-washed tat; of books signings known as keynote addresses; of tastemaker sales off-loading any old junk; of HGTV programs where decorators act out reality TV scenarios appearing each week more goofily incompetent than the last – innovation, even in the media, is not what the game is about.

Does it matter, taste or the lack thereof? It signifies nothing – as in the same way it does not matter that I cannot taste a truffle or the Celt find one palatable. And, in some ways, it does not matter that it does not matter.


I received another email this last week from someone who knew Geoffrey Bennison and it answers questions posed in a discussion between The Ancient and Toby Worthington about who could write a book about him. Apparently, the discussion is no longer about who could or should, but who is doing so.

"Greatly enjoyed your article, I worked for Geoffrey for about six years and drove him almost every time he went to Brighton. I am intrigued to know where the hitching story came from.

"Would also love to hear from TS who sold him things by binocular, I never saw this but can I can certainly visualise GB using such a system. He was physically extremely lazy.

"____________ is researching a book now about GB and I will fwd your article to her."

Best wishes,
Christopher Hodsoll


Geoffrey Bennison – from Lancashire not Yorkshire as is written below – according to Mr Hodsoll occasionally referred to himself as "a simple Lancashire lass." Well, this simple Lancashire lad - no longer simple (neither was Mr Bennison, truth be told) and no longer Lancashire, acknowledges a certain camp fellow-feeling in Mr Bennison's self-description.

"Geoffrey himself was an original. Funny and endearing, eccentric and affectionately bossy ... A Yorkshireman with a firm sense of reality, he was sophisticated, sensual and at times, sentimental. Although not interested in an form of intellectualism, he was extraordinarily bright. And just as sharp-tongued: only the intrepid challenged him to a match of wits. Incidentally, he was also master of his rather Hogarthian hobby of fancy dress. In this tricky game the Yorkshire lad was transformed into a jolly, seductive, understanding Madame - a personage who might well have run a successful pub with a diverse circle of customers hailing from anywhere between Eaton Square and Wapping."*

"Mr. Bennison's aesthetic was summed up in his own golden rule "something mad on top of something very good, or something very good on top of something mad." He preferred rich, dark, faded color, a sqawk of pattern subdued by wear and tear, the classical, the grand gesture, the serendipitous, the splendid, the rare, the oriental, the Baroque, and the still small voice of an objet de vertu. In less sure hands such a mix of scale, pattern and color can be cacophony - witness some of the decorators practicing today - yet it was in his hands that mix created the perfect ambience. It might be argued that he was giving the rooms he decorated a fancy dress but in reality they are underpinned with character, understanding and history - much the same as the man."**






This is a post intended for publication at the end of last week. However, a brief trip to New York to visit with family – and a very undignified fall flat on my face on Madison Avenue just by the queue for Ladurée – rather slowed things down. (I was texting, of course.) 


Photographs of a New York house decorated in 1960 by Geoffrey Bennison and restored by him twenty-five years later (his last work), by Clive Frost for The World of Interiors, May 1985.


* Peter Glenville, author of The Beatitudes of Bennison, the text accompanying the photographs. 

** Me

42 comments:

  1. A few decorators - and magazine/book/television editors - feel that the main profitability in interior design today lies in capitalizing on the retail Do-It-Yourself market. To meet the price-point, the products are often 'dumbed down' and more is spent on promotion of the designer name than product development. All this is completely opposite of these of the design philosophy shown in these fabulous interiors by Geoffrey Bennison, a legendary designer whose photograph few could identify today. Thanks, Blue, for the great follow-up post.

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    1. The Devoted Classicist, thank you. I have a sinking feeling that quality - and I know it still exists - has become irrelevant.

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    1. Lindaraxa, thank you. No, I did not - perhaps had I fallen into the queue I might have been able to push to the front but dignity or, rather, lack of meant I hobbled on by. Actually, I think macaroons are highly overrated - they're in the same category as truffles, for me.

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  3. Interesting point - and no doubt you would never run out of lunch conversation discussing this fabulous topic! It comes back to this blurring boundary between interior design and interior decorating/styling. Everybody, it seems, is now an interior stylist, creating homes which look fabulous on the computer screen.

    But to walk into a space, to experience it in 3d, to live in it, is a very different experience. It is sad that spaces are not judged by this intrinsic quality, borne from manipulation of light and shadow, scale and proportion, contrast and form, rather than by the inclusion of the latest "must have".

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    1. Glamour Drops, thank you. You have expressed it perfectly. I find the prevailing lack of knowledge worrisome. Still, I'll just pour another manhattan and get on with it - plucky, that's me.

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  4. Oddly enough-this is the blog where I would say Taste matters a great deal. Blue you have it, as most of your loyal readers will attest. I would venture to say that these same readers are sure they have it too. What their rooms look like we don't know, however their comments would suggest they do. Such is the "way" of the blog, and no words were truer said-There is NO accounting for IT. On another point, no one in the know has an idea of what GB looked like. This in of itself-How Highly unusual especially in today's design world! I would suggest it doesn't matter what he looked like-obviously he enjoyed a certain anonymity-as it should be-a decorator should Not Be Seen-His work should speak for itself-without putting a face on it,perhaps part of his power. What HE did can't be taught, copied, HE had IT, and you know what I mean.

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    1. Little Augury, thank you. You're right, taste is an abiding concern of mine, especially "ghastly good taste." There are photos of Bennison and descriptions of how he walked but of course, as you say, it is his work that matters.

      I do know what you mean about him having "it" but I disagree, respectfully (and friendlily), that it cannot be taught. There is innate talent and there is acquired skill and sometimes the difference is not that important.

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  5. What wonderful news! (Now we all have a good reason not to expire before the Bennison book appears...)

    P.S. Blue, truffles *are* a problem in relationships. I myself am addicted to them, but ma chère femme, le Comtesse de Crepitude, cannot bear the taste. Still, truffles are worth the trial. (Just don't let the Celt see the check!)

    P.P.S. Should I ever win Powerball on the basis of a ticket bought from the very dodgy grocery some miles from my house in the country, I promise to rid Christopher Hodsoll of much of his stock.

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    1. The Ancient, thank you. My problem with truffles is that I cannot taste them and I have no idea why. The Celt simply does not like them at all - he puts them in the same category as cilantro.

      I agree about Mr Hodsoll's stock. Do you remember his round doric library?

      Best wishes to Madame.

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  6. These photographs are from a house in New York? I am flabbergasted! I assumed they were from a house in Europe, probably France. I wonder what has become of it today. Hopefully it did not suffer the cruel fate of the Guest apartment at One Sutton Place South. Sublime post. RD

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    1. Reggie Darling, thank you. Apparently the building was constructed in 1908 and has a salon that is a 22-foot cube and boiseries brought from Italy and France. If it is a Rothschild house then it probably does exist still.

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  7. Eat the cereal or eat the box, same thing. Thanks for the dignified getting up after your undignified fall.

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    1. Terry, thank you. Oatmeal is my abiding favorite but with salt rather than sugar. Texting cometh before a fall, indeed.

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  8. Very good salvo in an ongoing argument on the indispensable foundations of taste, which I think you've wisely left open for elaboration and addition. With me the sinews of the quality are what matter: I share the hope that no 'cruel fate' has befallen anything, but I'm more occupied with alarm at the atrophy of what creates fine things, as I gather you are. This bias allows your presentations a universal appeal when, to the naked eye, you may appear to be contemplating a truffled preparation, but are really writing about its structuring virtues.

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    1. Laurent, thank you. You are right about my alarm at what is happening - in more ways than one. The awful dumbing down and the terrible appeals to prejudice - therein lies my concern.

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  9. These photos are deeply peaceful. Thank you, Blue.

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    1. Thank you, Daniel. I love the one with the statuette of The Lady of Ephesus, especially.

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  10. Re the statuette of The Lady of Ephesus: she is both good and mad, don't you think?

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    1. Daniel, I agree with you. I have a photo of a beautiful version in the Vatican that I might show sometime soon. Hope you're over your cold!

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    2. I am: thank you for asking! Just in time for rainy London weather here in Manhattan. I hope you are humming along back wise.

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    3. Daniel James Shigo, I'ze just humming along!

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  11. Ah, the quagmire of taste. Does a person have good taste only if we think it is good taste? Or as we have been directed, is it better to have bad taste than no taste at all? GB's rooms are like beautiful gardens. Not all is revealed at once. Sometimes the bones of the place are where the greatest beauty lies. But whatever it is that attracts, it is the peacefulness that remains. Look forward to a book about GB. So much to appreciate about the lass.

    ps totally off topic. Have you seen the game I shot the Serif online? I think it is totally a hoot. As per my age: I was accurate but not fast!

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  12. home before dark, thank you. I have not seen that game or heard of it but I shall look for it.

    Taste is always relative but easily degrades into conventional taste which is what, however much the opposite is stated, is prevalent at the moment.

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  13. Education, whether it be gained in a classroom, by reading books, or through exposing onself to arts and culture, goes a long way in forming taste. The problem is that our society no longer values an education like it once did. Ignorance is now something in which people seem to enjoy wallowing.

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    1. The Peak of Chic, thank you. You are right to include exposure to arts and culture in an essential education for a designer/decorator. I think you are also right to point out that education is not valued in the way it once was. Ignorance - frightening, if feted as it is in some quarters. Frequently such ignorance costs society and individuals too much.

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  14. "Rooms designed for the logic of the lens.."
    Good one, Blue. That is precisely the problem.
    And how many of those "fun", photogenic rooms will
    stand the test of time? By which I don't mean years from
    now but months from now?

    Great knowing that there will be a book on Bennison, but
    why the teasing __________blank space where author's name
    should be?

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    1. Toby Worthington, thank you. The blank was because I had permission to quote Christopher Hodsoll but I had not established whether or not I could publish the author's name. CMA!

      Yes, I wonder too about the longevity of those "fun" photogenic rooms but I realize as I write I already know the answer - as do you.

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  15. Ah Blue, I thought better of you than that you would actually text in public, but so sorry for your fall---texting while moving is a dangerous pastime.

    I still remember how excited we all were when the Bennison textiles came out---artfully 'faded' linens...and how recherche they had become ten Waverly knockoffs and endless Shabby Chic interiors later.

    Brilliant man. The New York apartment is pitch perfect.

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    1. The Down East Dilettante, thank you. I think I had stopped and was stepping out of someone's way when my foot slipped on the sloping kerb.

      I too, remember the Bennison textiles and how they gave rise to a whole slew of naf tea-stained, faded-in-the-sun imitations. Nancy Lancaster and her faded, aged elegance has a lot to answer for.

      I remember also during the 1980s an article in WoI about a man who had dipped all his chintzes in strong solutions of plant food to age them - basically to make them look old and dirty! Fashion is an odd thing.

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  16. So sorry to hear of your fall. The photographs are stunning of course and so unmistakenly WOI (they could photograph a Wal-mart and make it appear beautiful). I love the back stories you often present here and look forwared to a book on this decorator!

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    1. ArchitectDesign, thank you. Texting goeth before a fall, and all that! I'm surprised WoI has not photographed Wal-Mart as they seem to have done nearly everything else.

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  17. I was once told by a chef here in DC that truffles, as with many things, are not only an acquired taste but also in your DNA. To some people they tasted like delicious melted butter (how they appear to me) while to others they have a bitter taste or no taste at all. Much like carrots taste sweet to some and bitter to others. Such a fascinating science!

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    1. ArchitectDesign, thank you. I am one of those who simply cannot taste them at all and it doesn't bother me one jot. On the subject of melted butter - fennel caramelized in butter and parmesan is one of the most sensual dishes and in my opinion not meant to accompany anything at all.

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    2. Oh, I think it might accompany an aged chenin blanc, Maître.

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    3. Laurent, thank you. Yes, you're right, of course. The perfect summer eve's dinner.

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  18. There is unfortunately a lot of "dumbing down" in interior design/decorating to attract a wider audience. True of most things, so that we all become experts in so many fields where in fact we have absolutely no talent, and never will. Much of the fallout, (from cooking for example), is that people do not persevere, and allow themselves to make mistakes, or to be told by someone who has an ounce of style that their endeavours are a load of tosh. But we all know that we're infinitely superior to all of the great unwashed. And it's the knowing that counts!!

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    1. Columnist, thank you. It is the pockets of the wider audience that keep the wheels turning and the profits churning. We have long been at the point where "a load of tosh" is the norm. As to the aspirations - well, that is a different topic for a later post.

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  19. Michele from BostonMay 24, 2012 at 3:09 PM

    I agree with you. It's not so much a "dumbing" down" in my mind it's that people in general neither have the educational background nor strive to be self-taught a reasonable facsimile of the kind that informed interiors produced by the likes of a Bennison or a Rothschild. In this day of the oligarch and HGTV, connoisseurship as something to be admired hardly exists; even though today's hedge-funders are wealthier than any pre-tax Vanderbilt or Carnegie. I'm beginning to wonder if it isn't about some quest for instant gratification or peer acceptance...something very fleeting that can easily be changed or forgotten. DIYing as you know has been detrimental to many a fine old house. I find most published homes frankly airless, over-styled and often dumb; dumb in that they do not speak of the lives that dwell within. Is this just a modern conundrum that we must be forced to live with? Most under-30s wouldn't perceive the references and layers in a Bennison room, but must the information age lead to a narrowing instead of a broadening in the way interior design is practiced? It seems counter-intuitive. Will we all be forced to forever look at the "eclectic" rooms of today ad infinitum seemingly designed by the untutored and misguided? M. P.S. The only truffles, shaved, that I have ever had were over a steaming risotto in the Tuscan hills and it was heaven.

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    1. Michele from Boston, thank you. I agree that one might think in the information age there might be a broadening of knowledge about interior design but clearly that is not going to happen. The untutored and the misguided or, in other words, the blind leading the blind, pretty much sums it up.

      I've tried truffles all over the place and I literally cannot taste them - saves a lot of money as you can imagine.

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  20. Interesting questions you pose about taste, trends, and immediate gratification from images. It is a whole new world out there. Thanks for stopping by my blog. Jennifer

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    1. the designers muse, thank you. I agree about the new world and grumps like me are going the way of the dinosaurs. It was always so.

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