Wednesday, May 30, 2012

You can't go back

We had not been there for seventeen years and it was a surprise, as it was all that time ago when we'd celebrated a birthday. This time it was nostalgia, more or less, that took us across the Bay Bridge and far further into the town than I remembered from the previous visit. A long time, seventeen years, during which things can change, but the same steep steps which I climbed – more creakily this time – were still there, as was the same long and narrow Craftsman-style room filling slowly with guests for the second sitting at dinner: the same wooden walls, golden light and, when seated, the same aloof waiter (if only in character, not person) placing the same woodcut-fronted menu on the same white-clothed, barely-adequate table, together with the best bread I've ever had.

"Go figure," said the Celt, spotting, as had I, my least favorite food on the prix fixe menu. It had been there, too, seventeen years ago and despite the passing of the years I have grown no fonder of dead bird.

"Quite." I said resignedly, "You'll be helping me with that. I sometimes wonder how dead bird got to be the culinary equivalent of the pansies of the landscaping world?

"Not that there's anything wrong with that," he said, ignoring my sourness about the menu, "some of our best friends are ... "


"Pansies," he said,  causing any residual gloom about the impending grilled duck breast and crépinette with braised new garlic, potatoes fried in duck fat, and garden salad, to dissolve in his smile.  

"Too many damned adjectives," I growled as I continued to read the menu "and who in their right minds says gâteau glacé instead of ice-cream?" Mumble, grumble, mumble. 

"All right, Grumbleweed, relax," he said. So I did.

What seemed extraordinary all those years ago now seemed quite the opposite. It occurred to me that though there must have been changes at what had been my long-admired highpoint in American cooking, it was I who have changed. I live in a city where restaurant food can be superb, and visit other cities of which the same can be said. Nonetheless, disappointed we were not – a little let down, perhaps, despite standards having remained high – rather that the restaurant was no longer the stand-out it once was. For the world had changed around it, and that change for the better had been initiated by the owner and founder of the restaurant.

San Francisco, a city I had heretofore not liked much, came alive for me last weekend. The city hadn't changed, I thought, so the difference was me. Perhaps I had mellowed, though a snort from the Celt put paid to that concept pretty quickly.

Our trip to San Francisco was to see The Cult of Beauty: The Victorian Avant-Garde 1860 – 1900 an exhibition we'd missed in London last summer. And I can tell you it was well worth the journey, especially for an interior designer with any pretensions to knowing the history of styles and, if one thought it had relevance to one's life, to knowing something more about gay history by reading about the Aesthetic Movement.

The Fashion World of Jean-Paul Gaultier: From the Sidewalk to the Catwalk at the de Young museum made the flight across the country doubly worth it. Matching, it seems to me, the endless inventiveness of Jean-Paul Gaultier are what appear to be automata amongst the mannequins. What they are, in fact, are mannequins with basic but blank facial features onto which are projected videos of moving faces that appear to interact with the beholder – sometimes looking directly at one; sometimes smiling derisively; occasionally a quick glance and a "bravo" such as I received when I stepped in front of the matelot and took out my iPhone; from others monologues, and in one case whistling and singing. Disconcerting and thrilling at the same time – I had not had such a good time in a museum in years.

You can't go back to the same place, as the saying goes – by which I think is meant you can't go back to the same time and place. But this trip showed me that, sometimes, you can go back and see the same place in a new light. It has changed, and I have changed, and both, I like to think, for the better.

Monday, May 21, 2012


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

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

An extraordinary man

"Where the hell did that come from," I said. The Celt didn't reply though I did get a quizzical look. He knew I hadn't been referring to the a cup of coffee he'd just handed me and he's learned, after more than thirty years of watching me gaze with horror into the chasm, the Slough of Despond, that is early morning, to let me get on with my daily rebooting and go his own cheerful way. Like one of Jesus' Little Sunbeams in the early morning, is the Celt, whereas I ... well, the horror of it all.

What I was referring to was Don McLean's American Pie running through my head. A song, or poem, a hit from the early 70s, I'd not thought or heard of in years and one perhaps emblematic of my generation - a threnody, if ever there was one, for lost youth and times gone by. I've done a lot of that recently - looking back at the milestones - perhaps it is my age, the fact that I'm retired and the death of someone to whom I should have been closer than I was. Whatever the reason, a backwards glance is the rasion d'être of this blog - nostalgia threads its elegiac way throughout all I have written.

As I mentioned in the previous post, occasionally I receive personal reminiscences - each a milestone in its way - of the men I've written about over the past year or two: that generation of decorators and designers lost, predominantly, to AIDS in the 1980s and 1990s. Towards the end of last year I was surprised and pleased by a comment, a memory vivid and personal from TS. Surprised because it was on a post from September 2009, and pleased because it coincided with my recurring thoughts about Geoffrey Bennison, one of the men with whom, unthinkingly, I began my series about those I've called a lost generation. Bennison's name is remembered still, both as a purveyor of textiles, and also by those of us who appreciate his eye, his style and his wit. As a previous commenter said, it makes one wonder why there isn't a book about Bennison's work.

"I sold to Bennison, he got his talent from being a very good artist, which is why he stands out from the other decorators. He used to dress up in womens outfits on a Friday night and hitch hike down to his flat in Brighton. In London he lived in a top floor flat ............ and he had a pair of binoculars at the window and bought off me in the street far below, by shouting 'turn it upside down, right, show me the front and what's the best price?' Extraordinary man - I miss him. TS"

The idea of Geoffrey Bennison, the grandest of decorators, in a skirt, heels and a wig thumbing a lift on a Friday evening is, to me, the stuff of legend and, undoubtedly, a source of consternation and, possibly, joy to many a kind motorist, the lorry-drivers, the rough trade, and other denizens of the lay-bys of the road to Brighton. An image I cannot get out of my head and one that trumps even these grandest of Parisian rooms decorated by Bennison in Le Goût Rothschild.

If you would like to see how extraordinary a decorator Geoffrey Bennison was, click on his name in the side-bar Labels. In my opinion, one of the best decorators of his generation, Bennison, whether working in Rothschilds' houses or working in his friend's London terraced house he remained extraordinarily human as the tale above shows.

I've written about a number of extraordinary men and their connections over the past two years - threads, really, of a larger pattern that shines brightly in my mind's eye but which still needs to be woven - and now I have the time to do so.

Photographs by James Mortimer from The World of Interiors, July/August 1983