Thursday, March 27, 2014

The best known decorator of his time

On looking through my piles of old, often mildew-perfumed, magazines I came across a room designed for a New York charity benefit in 1961 by William Pahlmann. I'd passed over it a few times in my trawling but it was only now, nearly fifty years after it was created, that it struck me as classic as it gets but, as one might expect, with certain dated elements.

Mark Hampton, in his book Legendary Decorators of the Twentieth Century, wrote:

"If one were to come up with just the right phrase to describe the late Bill Pahlmann, it would probably be 'the best known decorator of his time.' " He became a household word, as well as an enormous influence on the design world, both commercial and private. He was also the first man to do so – not that one wishes to sound sexist. Before Pahlmann, there had been some very famous ladies in the decorating business who dominated nearly every aspect of the field, most notably the publicity that surrounded it ...."

" .... sooner or later a Siegfried figure was bound to arrive upon the scene. His name was William Pahlmann. Thirty five years ago*, anyone in America remotely interested in decorating would have known immediately who he was."

I'm sure William Pahlmann is not as well-known today as he once was and, occasionally, one still comes across photographs of rooms done by him that illuminate what Mark Hampton meant.  On the other hand, there are photographs of rooms that make one wonder how he became as famous as he did. This is not to say Pahlmann was not a good decorator because he was, as this room shows. It is a room that could be extant today and be charming enough to be considered a time-capsule.

However, to my mind, there is a direct correlation between what made him famous and what makes some of the present generation of decorators famous – those elements of novelty and fashion that titillate the national publicity machine to giddy heights of febrility (and, which, inevitably date a room.) Also, to my mind, what gives this room a degree of modernity is the degree of visual clutter.

In her new and excellent book, George Stacey and the Creation of American Chic, Maureen Footer mentions William Pahlmann as a friend of Stacey's and that each influenced the other. George Stacey's influence certainly comes to mind here, not solely in the quality of the antique furniture, but  in the gemstone-hues (that wonderful emerald–green chandelier) used in Mrs Carll Tucker's townhouse in New York City – the venue in 1967 for a decorator's showhouse to benefit the Epilepsy Association of America.

The dark paneled walls, offset by a bright gold painted ceiling, seem to me a beautiful and restrained setting for an effervescent printed linen that, frankly, might well have led the old-guard carpet to wonder about the younger generation, the flower-children of the 1960s.

In comparison with a room by his friend George Stacey, Pahlmann's rooms have, however formal the basis, a definite air of informality – as Mark Hampton wrote: "he could guarantee an atmosphere of lively, unconventional modernity where dinner jackets and finger bowls were less common than television and cashmere cardigans."

I'll write again about William Pahlmann in future posts. He's worth getting to know. I write above that one comes across photographs of rooms done by him that make one wonder why Pahlmann became as famous as he did, but I question now if his diverse (I won't use the word "eclectic") approach to design and modernity is lost to my jaundiced eye. Clearly I need to investigate further.

The fabric on the sofas and the curtains is, I think, "Carmel" by Franciscan Fabrics – a kind of floral sadly missed by those of us regretting the dumbing down of design ..... nope, mustn't say that sort of thing. Sensitivity training, and all that! However much I might wish a 1960s free-wheeling gutsiness were again visible in textile design, it isn't.

The photographs are by Alexandre George for Architectural Digest, Fall 1967.

* Written in 1992.

Friday, March 14, 2014

George Stacey and the Creation of American Chic

A while back I read that a book about George Stacey was soon to be published and I must say I looked forward to learning more about the man I'd first read about in Mark Hampton's Legendary Decorators of the Twentieth Century. Charmed, over twenty years ago, as I was by Hampton's watercolor of Stacey's living room at Le Poulailler in France, and impressed by what he wrote about Stacey, then ninety, I'm even more charmed and impressed by the new book, the first, about George Stacey – George Stacey and the Creation of American Chic. In a time when, generally speaking, indiscipline and ignorance of history holds sway it is good to read a well-illustrated book showing why George Stacey was considered a "legendary" decorator by another of that ilk.

"A short while ago I went to see a house in East Hampton decorated by George Stacey nearly thirty years ago for Mrs. William Lord, a woman who has bee his friend and client for many years and who lives there all year round now. Its rooms still bear the Stacey stamp of boldly stylized chic that, paradoxically, has aged to a mellowness one rarely finds in fashionable statements from the past. One reason we redecorate so often is to erase the trendy flaws that reflect the unconscious mistakes we make trying to be in style. Twenty-five years or so ago, when this lovely East Hampton house was being done up, there were a lot of popular trends now almost impossible to remember, they've been buried so deep. George Stacey, however, never embraced Mylar wallpaper or chrome and plastic tables. He relied on strong color schemes and carefully selected and arranged pieces of furniture, each one beautiful on its own. Because he is a classicist of sorts, as well as the possessor of a fine and highly trained eye, his choices have survived the years, carrying their beauty with them." [Mark Hampton]

"One of the requisites of a competent decorator is real knowledge of period furniture of any country. It is, in general, a fairly complicated study involving research, comparisons, and a liking for both art and history. With this knowledge, and with a knowledge of color, any young decorator is, I feel sure, well on his way." [George Stacey]

"In answer to the questions most often put to me  about decorating, I would say the following. My favorite classic styles are eighteenth-century French, Italian, and English – in that order. I prefer painted French and Italian furniture to plain wood, and simple rather than elaborate design. I definitely believe in mixing different styles of furniture both in a house and in a room. One of the most common errors people make in decorating is trying to make a room perfect in all the details of a single given period, which inevitably results in a stiff and impersonal background." [George Stacey]

George Stacey and the Creation of American Chic, by Maureen Footer, with a foreword by Mario Buatta, is to be released by Rizzoli International Publications, Inc. of New York on April 1st. It is a book to read and learn from, is well-designed and though it will add a certain currency to a cocktail table or to a modish stack, it is really – and I repeat – a book to read and learn from.

A brilliant stroke, in my opinion, on the part of the book designer – and it is a well-designed book – was to repeat the bright shiny red of the lampshade in the book jacket photograph as bright shiny red end papers.

If I were you and I lived in New York I'd go to the Rizzoli bookstore on 31 West 57th Street, buy the book and sign the petition to save what is one of New York's finest bookstores from demolition.

Photos of George Stacey rooms taken from the book.

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Before and after

My first visit to the Algonquin, in the 1970s, was for a drink in the lobby with my friend Glen, then newly returned from living in Europe. We were there because he wanted to show me where the Vicious Circle had met and, if I remember rightly, he said the lobby which to my eyes looked old and tired, had been recently refurbished and, to the relief of the clientele, few if any visual changes had been made. Years ago, we stayed there a few times, swapping the inconvenience of small rooms for the glamour (to my eyes) of the lobby but, eventually, the purgatorial seating and intrusive waiters sent us seeking a more contemporary setting and larger rooms.  

So it was, the morning after the previous day's vespertine glance at the Algonquin remodel, I couldn't for the life of me recall if the wonderful old nicotine-stained Chinoiserie murals were still there, I headed out across the street, warnings of doom from the doormen notwithstanding. The murals were gone, of course, replaced with what appeared to be honey vinyl. Otherwise, not much had changed excepting for sconces, chandeliers, and textiles, or so it appeared to me. And it perhaps is entirely the point that like a face after photoshopping or or a facelift, it looses looses much of what had been its character and therefore its attraction.

The Royalton, in all of its late 1980s Starckness, attracted me no-end, though we never stayed there. It caught the moment and I wish those interiors had survived despite them probably showcasing the worst of the that time's bullishness – for all, or maybe because of, its in-yer-face icy arrogance it had tremendous style. A high-water mark, I think, in hotel design that was obliterated not twenty years later and replaced with a bronzed woody ponderousness as visually negating as advanced cataracts. In the redesign no reference was made to its past – except that our bathroom vanity stool looked very similar to one of Starck's small tables.

Of the two – the Royalton and the Algonquin – it was the former that was teeming with the after-work crowd. My friend David and I discussed the fact that we both remembered the Philippe Starck remodel but on looking around thought it unlikely, given the age of the majority of the clientele, that many others would. "Begone dull care" said he and hailed the waitress – we needed to be on our way.

Uber fans and grateful customers thereof, we headed in comfort to the Gloria Vanderbilt – Recent Paintings opening at the 1stdibs Gallery later that evening. Look at last Friday's New York Social Diary for an account of the opening – not that you will see me, but the Celt is there.

I do find that the famous underwhelm and such an event, perfect in its way for people-watching, had its complement thereof. No-one resembled their photoshopped images except in passing, which is surreal, really, if you think about it. I'm not referring to the artist who, for a woman just turned ninety, looked pretty amazing. Twice I found myself being filmed for the HBO special reportedly being made about Gloria Vanderbilt, and was amused when the lady with the cameraman called me by a name not my own. Such is fame!

Later that evening as we ate Indian food one of the charming ladies at the next table which whom I'd struck up a conversation asked me if I recognized her uncle in the photo she handed me. I did. There he was, shortly after his wife had died, looking for all the proud family man in his element, arm around a younger version of the lady at my side – George Burns. There was fame!