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."
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.