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.


  1. I hope you do talk more about Pahlmann as I know nothing about him or his work (or at least that I can remember). I'm anxiously awaiting getting my own copy of the Stacey book.

  2. ArchitectDesign, thank you. I really do think the Stacey book is good and besides the photos it's an excellent read.

  3. It's all very interesting. Design is sometimes thought of as ephemeral, and yet, these images keep the old rooms alive for future fans to study and emulate. Excellent commentary Blue!

    1. Dean Farris, thank you. The ephemeral nature of design is a relatively new idea and so closely connected to fashion – an idea well worth exploring.

  4. Free-wheeling gutsiness is still very much a part of textile design, or at least an interest of textile designers -- for whatever reason I seem to have many friends designing for well known, respected textile companies -- however, across the board they complain that nobody buys anything but light colors, and at that in a palette running from grey to beige. If you look in the portfolios of designers rather than the offerings of their employers, you'll see just the patterns you crave -- I've more than once pounded my fist into some undeserving sofa while looking at images of my friends' unmilled designs, wishing I could cover said sofa in anything so compelling. More than one textile designer I know has moved to India, where it's possible to get anything you want done to exacting specifications (and cheaply enough that they can have small quantities produced), or moved to companies that cater to fashion, which due to its more ephemeral nature allows for free-wheeling gutsiness. I agree with you that nothing, or at least little, available is compelling (or even challenging?), but it's due to consumer habits and mills unwilling to produce patterns they know will not sell.

    1. Nick Heywood, thank you. It seems to me that today's textile "design" if design it is, is reduced to the rescaling, recoloring and digitally reproducing material from archives in the name of celebrity decorators and designers. A sad state of affairs – unless I'm just not looking in the right places.

      You have given me things to think about and I must say, at first glance, I like your blog. I'll spend the afternoon going through it.

  5. "unless I'm just not looking in the right places."

    No, sadly I think you're right. There is a ubiquitousness about textiles at the moment which is depressing and uninspiring, and all too easy to see where the designers 'borrowed' inspiration from.

    I am, with equal shamelessness, borrowing the phrase "freewheeling gutsiness" as my new mantra for living...

  6. ELS, thank you. You are welcome to borrow what you will.