Monday, April 7, 2014

Joseph Braswell

Of all my acquaintance, I know only one person who has houseplants. I'm not talking about white phalaenopsis – though perhaps I should be, given their omnipresence – rather about large plants like palms and figs used as decoration in interiors. They come and go, as it were, and last year, seemingly, the plant to have was the fiddle-leaved fig. Not, I think, as living sculpture as they might have been in 1960s modernist interiors, but more as an addition to the stylish bric-a-brac that today is dignified under the name of accessories. This isn't a rant against house plants for I don't care about them one way or the other – I like the occasional visit by a geranium but that's about it – but because I've been looking through 1970s magazines again I have noticed how they were used as foreground in photographs. Never seen nowadays, this peering through foliage (see the first photograph below and the lilies in the first photograph of the library) but so popular was this conceit in the 1970s it appeared even in the hand-drawn renderings of the time. 

I don't want to overstate this but, to my eye, large plants and their location both in a room and in relationship to the camera lens help date a room – much as white phalaenopsis date rooms to the first decade and a half of this century and, perhaps, fiddle-leaved figs will date rooms to the second decade. 

Not that these rooms at 740 Park Avenue, the erstwhile home of "international tastemaker Mrs Byron C Foy," decorated anew by Joseph Braswell for Mr and Mrs Homer Langdon, are dated; they all, including the library, have stood the test of time. The drawing room with its ivory, cream and yellow scheme, FFF (Fine French Furniture), could have been decorated recently, and the library, with its grey flannel and stainless steel, a superbly beautiful room, could well have been put together a decade later in France and only need refreshing today. 

White marble floor, Louis XVI-style friezes, marble-topped console, 
eighteenth-century Coromandel screen hidden behind potted palm.

Drawing Room
Régence boiserie,18th-century Aubusson, yellow and cream striped sofas,
buttercup-yellow Louis XV chairs,  Régence-style ivory moiré armless sofas. Régence marble mantel, parquet-de-Versailles floors.

Drawing Room
"The walls were scraped and restored to the original woodwork, then finished with an eighteenth-century type water paint. Moreover, all the baseboards are the original marbleized wood." 

The Library
Matching bibliothèques flank the door, and a Flemish chandelier hangs above gray flannel sofa. Separated by a table supporting a treasured collection of Italian marble obelisks, a matching sofa faces the color television hidden behind a bank of false book bindings. 

The Library
In contrast with the oft-reiterated bronze and brass in the rest of the apartment, Joseph Braswell used stainless steel as the accent metal. The wall covering is a rusty-brown suede-cloth. The Italian marble fireplace is mounted on a sheet of stainless steel, stretching from floor to ceiling. 

Dining Room
Walls of aubergine cotton twill, red and gold Brunschwig & Fils water-taffeta curtains, 
silver and brass Louis XVI chandelier above 19th-century Directoire dining table

Daughter's Bedroom
Lit à la Polonaise draped in Colefax and Fowler's Berkeley Sprig

Master Bedroom

Joseph Braswell, despite being able with equal ease to step between residential and contract design, bringing to both the same erudition, color sense, and accord between style and purpose, was – as these photographs attest – one of the most underrated designers of the twentieth century. Click here for more about him. Braswell's design of the Helena Rubinstein corporate offices first caught my eye and it remains the supreme example of his work.

Photographs by Norman McGrath to accompany unattributed text (whence quotations) for Architectural Digest, March/April 1974.

Two photographs illustrating my point about peering through foliage. Both are by Jeremiah O Bragstad and are from an article entitled In San Francisco: International Design Show in the same issue of Architectural Digest as above.

By Billy Gaylord

By Larry Peabody


  1. Even though I can't always keep them alive long ( I've killed quite a few maiden-haired ferns) I do like a plant in a room. I have a few ivy plants in Guy Wolff pots in my dining room and foyer and my living room and kitchen have some officey viney plant I grew from clippings from my old office (impossible to kill). No massive interior trees like the 70s of course but as I was just saying with another blogger today on another topic -everything in moderation!

    1. ArchitectDesign, thank you.

      Whatever the label might say about ease of growing I find maidenhair ferns impossible. My preference overall is for flowers that have a scent – lilies, carnations (when they still had scent), daffodils, narcissus and hyacinths.

  2. When I was in architecture school, the students' drawing in plants to hide problem areas became so overdone that a moratorium had to be put in place for a time.

    One reason why they appeared so much in interior design photography in the 1970s, I think, is that the residences were apartments and, because of the color film of the time, the rooms were usually shot without natural light.

    Braswell was a good designer, but did not keep up relations with magazine publishers after these 1970s projects were photographed. I knew someone who had worked in his office at that time and it was my understanding that he Braswell had made enough money to just maintain his clientele without worrying about adding new into his retirement.

    1. The Devoted Classicist, thank you.

      I was taught to use plant silhouettes as a framing device when learning to render and did not like it.Then I didn't know the source.

      Very interesting what you say about Braswell not keeping up relations with magazine publishers – from my point of view it's a pity because I like his work but I can appreciate his point of view.

  3. Perhaps it was a "thing" of the 70s - I tried indoor potted palms in the 80s - but nowadays I grow them on the balconies, which wrap around the flat, so are visible from inside, and they seem to like it out there, despite the very dry breezy weather we have been experiencing. They seem to be the hardiest of all the balcony plants we have grown. When I was trying to soften the lobby here I had potted palms installed indoors, and immediately outside of the main entrance, and they alternate:

    1. Columnist, thank you.

      Very much a thing of the 70s, I agree, and looking back I remember when it became fashionable to fill the empty hearth with potted plants in summer.

      The fads we endure!

  4. Off the subject. On the Cam Dorsey: "Indeed. My brain can't quite get the details. We headed right thorough a cozy warren of halls and rooms. Down some stairs into a big crazy fun family room, bar, access to outside. Interesting art on the stair wall I think. It was down on pool level."

    1. That family room on pool level is the one I think was the "log cabin".