Sunday, June 9, 2013

Chickendale, light-filled, gentlemanly rooms, and being combed out

"I've told you about Miss Louise, haven't I?" asked my old prof over lunch. "Not yet," I replied, "but I'd love to hear about her."

"There isn't much to say other than she was a Southern lady of stately aspect – a decorator ... a marvelous decorator, who knew her furniture ...  no Chickendale for her, it was all good stuff ... at Rich's when Rich's was something in Atlanta. Did I ever explain what the five pieces of Southern furniture are?"

"Yes," I said, "but I've forgotten. Tell me again." "We're off!" thought I and settled into my Manhattan – it wasn't really a bourbon on the rocks kind of day: a bit grey, a bit dull, a bit overcast – and that was me, not the weather.

"Well..." she said, "I talk too much ... do you have time?"

"We're here for the afternoon, if we like – remember, they know us."

"Well. the five pieces of Southern furniture are the slab or the huntboard; the cellarette ... oh, those Baptists loved their cellarettes ... hid a multitude of sins, of course ... the sugar chest; the lazy susan and the biscuit board. I should perhaps say that they are the five pieces of furniture that were once considered Southern, and Miss Louise certainly knew what they were. She sold enough of them, and the real thing, too."

"Ah, yes, Miss Louise. What's so memorable about her?"

"She was a good decorator, a real lady who could laugh at herself. Stopped for speeding ... windows wide open, it was summer ... she told the tale that when the policeman came to her car, she patted her bosom as only a Southern lady could, crying 'a bee, officer, a bee. Can you help me?' He left very quickly – no ticket – and she sped on. But, it wasn't the way she lived, necessarily, that made her famous... more the way she went."


"Died. She died under the hairdryer at Rich's salon and ... well the phrase is – and if it's not on her gravestone, it should be – permed at Rich's and combed out at Patterson's [funeral home]."

I admired it then, and I love it still, the Virginia countryside home of Antony Childs. Two years ago I wrote about Childs' Georgetown house:

"There are what used to be called 'important antiques' dotted around, but in this room and the rest of the house a good balance between display and hospitality has been achieved. It's unlikely anyone entering the front door got the feeling they first should have checked their personal liability insurance.

"The most pleasing thing about these charming rooms is that they were created over twenty years ago yet are as fresh and classic as they were then. Nothing has dated – well, maybe the skirted dining table a little, though I must say I've always been partial to a good skirted table. The grand dining room curtains are pretty restrained in comparison to many a drapery from the same time, and would not look out of place today. Other windows in the house, judging by photos of the living room and bedroom, are simply furnished with Roman shades, that most classic of window covering. The wooden furniture is grand but not repellant in its pomposity and the upholstery is sane and welcome. I could go on about the contents of these rooms but they are visible in the photos. Unusual for the time there is no name-dropping provenance for any of the furniture.

"I didn't know this man, but I like his light-filled, gentlemanly rooms. These are spaces to be alone it, kiss a lover or two, listen to Roy Orbison, read (the phrase curl up with a good book comes to mind, but I shall eschew it), trip a light fantastic, play with a Game Boy, wax poetical, opine on how the world's gone mad today, good's bad today, black's white today, and day's night today when most guys today ... "

Though I wrote then about other rooms with other furniture, the qualities I admired in Georgetown I found and still find in the Virginia hunt country house: light-filled; gentlemanly; restrained; pleasing; fresh; classic and simple.

There isn't anything that does not continue to delight my eye – from Sanderson's Willow Minor bathroom wallpaper, a 17th-century Dutch ebony frame above Dana Westring's trompe l'oeil finely-painted chimney board, William IV leather-covered armchairs, Régence chair, 18th-century four-poster bed and French desk at its foot – there are none of the five pieces of Southern furniture. Perhaps, more important than any individual piece of furniture or decoration, is the sense of airy, sunlit space. As far as I can see there are only two concessions to "spirit of place" as it was often expressed in the 80s and 90s, the homages to imagined histories – the horn trophies on the dining room walls and the twig chair beneath the bathroom window. For the rest, it is an evocation of the real spirit of place – peace, quiet, comfort and hospitality of a weekend in the country.

Antony Childs, who died of AIDS in June 1994 at the age of 57, one year after the article was published – the last one about him – called the house, in comparison to what he did for his clients, "undressed." 

The Five Pieces of Southern Furniture

A Huntboard or slab as it is also known is, according to, similar to a sideboard but frequently simpler, smaller and taller. Allegedly used at hunt breakfasts.

A Cellarette is a small, portable wine storage chest, frequently made of mahogany, but without a water-proof lining that could hold ice. From Pinterest.

A Sugar Chest is a piece of furniture in the late 18th-century and the early 19th-century. Used to store large quantities of sugar for longer periods of time. From Pinterest.

A Lazy Susan is a revolving platform set into the top of a "self-waiting" table. From here.

A Biscuit Board is tautologous to say it's a board on which biscuits are prepared. From here, the most explanatory example I could find on the web. 

Patterson's Funeral Home designed by Philip Shutze circa 1928

When we first came to Atlanta twenty years ago the Spring Hill Mortuary, as it is also known, was covered in ivy and looked like a house on a hill. Since, as you see, it has been stripped of greenery and repainted white.

Photographs of Patterson's and its chapel by Timothy Hursley from American Classicist: The Architecture of Philip Trammell Shutze, Elizabeth Meredith Dowling, Rizzoli, 1989.

Photographs of Antony Childs' house by William Waldren from and article by Amy Fine Collins in HG House and Garden, July 1993.


  1. You had me with the combing out. Thorny, too!

    1. Lauent, thank you.

      I thought it a tale worth the telling and it's a tale that creates, probably, mixed reactions. In some ways it is a tale told affectionately of a character who, if one looks back, would have laughed herself.

  2. A beloved client died as a result of her visit to the hairdresser, as well. They call it the Beauty Shop Stroke; when the neck and head are pulled back in a forced position in the shampoo chair, a blood clot is formed.

    I think Antony Child's best work was the decorating he did for himself. His Virginia house is indeed a classic.

    1. The Devoted Classicist, thank you.

      I had no knowledge of Beauty Shop Stroke and if it is so why does that hairwashing method continue? Not being ever in need of a shampoo and set out of the house ....

      The two examples of Antony Childs' decorating for himself are superb, I think.

  3. How nice to wake up to these beautiful rooms...

    1. Daniel James Shigo, thank you.

      After your own fashion, you do.

  4. Fun piece. How long ago was lunch with K.K.? She teased us with the five pieces of Southern furniture but never got around to the actual reveal. Hello, sense of closure!

    1. Andrew, thank you.

      We lunch or dine pretty frequently - two or three times a month and I thoroughly enjoy it. I'd forgotten the five pieces and it was our prof who reminded me one lunchtime. Now you know!

  5. Michele from BostonJune 10, 2013 at 2:01 PM

    I have this article among my many tear sheet notebooks and for some reason remember well the silhouette of those dining chairs, but the whole house was marvelous. The small entry hall just perfection. And with a funny story to boot today! Thank you. Another wonderful talent taken too soon.

    1. Michelle from Boston, thank you.

      I find the style of those chairs hard to identify but I know they are impressive now as they were thirty years ago. I agree – another talent taken too soon and one I'm not sure has been replaced. Childs, had he lived, would have been 87 this year. Strange, huh?

  6. What a character - and you play a good straight man,too! I didlike her bee trick. The A. Child's rooms you show have such clean elegance. They made the bonus of southern furniture come as a surprise!

    1. gésbi, thank you.

      When I sit down with my prof I think in many ways I'm listening to an oral history of design from a very knowledgable woman – she taught me well.

      I'm still not sure about the definition of what makes Southern furniture unique to the South but I'm reading further.

  7. Mr Child's dining room chairs are on the cusp of Gothic Revival? Possibly, a bit of an acquired taste. IMO they're strong and & architectural but I know that my missus wouldn't have them in the house

  8. Anonymous (Herts), thank you.

    I wonder if the dining room furniture might be a form of Arts and Crafts. There's an oaken solidity and I wondered too if it were, as you say, on the cusp of Gothic but, to my eye, there's a certain Moorish quality to some of the lines. I disagree with your missus - deferentially, of course - I'd allow them in my house.

  9. You did have fun with your cliches.

    Don't drink-and-dial, drink-and-text, drink-and-drive, drink-and-cliche.

    Love Webster's pair about cliche's. Trite & hackneyed. Brilliant. As was your bit of fun.

    The patio garden pic, fabulous. But, missing a layer. Perhaps two.

    Garden & Be Well, XO Tara

    1. Tara Dillard, thank you.

      Apropos additional layers on the patio garden: I understand what you mean but do think that in this case, less is more – oops, another cliché!

  10. Gosh, Blue, this post was worth coming back to . And how the devil are you?
    In great form by the sound of it. Love the story of Miss Louise, thank you.

    1. Dear Rose, this devil is doing very well, thank you. Had a liquid lunch with my old prof today but no stories, I'm afraid.

      I'm glad to see you back in the blogosphere.

  11. Love. It's not really a piece of furniture, although they can be almost as immovable, but most Virginia country houses also have an old foxhound attached to the floorboards somewhere. Perfect post! Thanks for sharing. N.G.

    1. Jennings and Gates, thank you.

      When you say old foxhound attached to the floor somewhere you mean a statue or a hound-shaped boot scraper, or ....?

  12. I thought I had stumbled upon the sequel to Steel Magnolias! Loved every delicious word.

    1. home before dark, thank you.

      I'm glad you enjoyed it. No tales today over a liquid lunch but I did receive a bunch of gardenias that are filling the place with scent.

  13. Where do I begin? Another entertaining and informative piece, Blue. I adore the country home of Tony Childs and its timeless beauty. I have a request and a question. The request would be a post by you on what you believe makes a design timeless and give us as many examples as possible using a variety of design elements. As to the question, do you believe the so called "design blogs" are making design better or worse? I read many of them and come away with the impression that readers of these blogs often want to emulate the design aesthetic of the authors. There seems to be a herd mentality brewing in blogland and it's not good. What do you think?

    1. Anonymous, thank you.

      The question of what makes a design timeless is something I've thought about a lot - in fact, I was writing a post about that when your comment came in. I try to provide a lot of examples, but as to whether it's possible to extrapolate from these some "rules", principles or guidelines – to codify, crystalize or pin down what exactly is timeless design - I'm not so sure. But it's an interesting challenge and one I may well attempt to formulate in a future post.

      Regarding your question whether the plethora of design blogs is making things better or worse, that's a tough one. My curmudgeonly instinct is, of course, to say the world is going to hell in a handbasket. Bah humbug and so on.

      On the other hand, any increase in awareness and discussion of design should be a good thing but, if the result is a dumbing down of the discourse of design, then is the net result can only be negative.

      In the coming weeks I will try to give you the answers your questions deserve. Thank you

  14. Oh, I'm sorry to have to say this, but Miss Louise's inventory of THE Southern Pieces of Furniture is/was only 5/6ths complete.

    She seems to have forgotten the omnipresent "Chiffarobe".

    Yes.....the very same item of furniture (every old house has a couple)in regard to which Miss Mayella Ewell offered poor, ill-fated Tom Robinson a nickle to come up on her porch and bust-up for her.

    Aside from Andrew Lytle's mahogany frame and Granny Weatherall's deathbed, Miss Ewell's chiffarobe has got to be the most memorable piece of furniture in Southern literature.

    I suppose yankees (who presumably had something similar to them) call/ed them "Wardrobes" or "Armoires".

    As for cellarettes?.....for some reason, half the old ladies in Albemarle County (surrounding Charlottesville) seem to have got hold of one some way or another.

    In my twenties, I used to visit a fairly mean old lady who lived in a big old house in the country. The only dog she still kept by that time was a wheezy, half-blind, very nervous, ancient King Charles Spaniel.

    Whenever it got too over-wrought by company, she would have the maid put it in the cellarette and close the lid for ten minutes or so. She always claimed that the carbon-monoxide had a "calming effect". I suppose that, if the dog had thumbs, it could have held a paper bag to its muzzle and breathed into that for ten minutes. Perhaps her instincts were right; the dog always emerged considerably less agitated.

    I am not making a bit of this up.

    Level Best as Ever,

    David Terry

    1. david terry, thank you.

      I had heard of a chifforobe but only after I published the post. My friend at The Peak of Chic, Jennifer, told me about it over the weekend and I remember such a piece of furniture from my childhood though it was not spent here in the south.

      The tale of the mean old lady having the maid shut the dog in the cellarette is worthy of Eudora Welty herself. Thank you.