Asked my old prof when I told her we were considering remodeling the kitchen. "I've lived with mine for more than forty years despite it being small and having three doorways in it." "You just make do," she said, "but nowadays you might as well tell that to the Marines." "All that good stuff going into the landfill just because some dolly desecrator says so." Warming to her theme and sipping her wine "It's not that I'm advocating waiting for the tinker to come by and have him repair a pan as my great-grandparents had to do – not that these gals nowadays would know how to wear out a pan; they don't cook! Can't cook, in most cases. Didn't you once tell me about a neighbor who threw out all her old pans because they didn't go with her new kitchen and bought a matching set of fashionable, so-called professional pans? Who do these people think they are – chefs? Can you imagine Piero throwing away a pot because it doesn't look good? It should be about function not fashion."
"Is there a problem with the new menu?" said Piero (whose grandfather, as a boy, saw Buffalo Bill in Piacenza) walking over from his kitchen – we were having our usual Friday lunch and I guess we'd got bit excited and enthusiastic. There's never a problem with the food that comes out of your kitchen except, perhaps, my waistline, I assured him.
Our kitchen, as you see from these photographs, is a galley and its layout was designed in 1969 by the architect of the buildings. It was designed as a "work center" – a place where the help could enter by the back door (there's a doorbell on the door frame) and begin her work without entering the main door. The room functions as both kitchen and laundry. Not an entirely satisfactory situation by modern standards, but as a good instance of 1960s thinking and planning it cannot be beat. Ted Levy, the architect, had provided a laundry room for tenants in one of the buildings yet I have come to appreciate the combination of kitchen and laundry – perhaps because I grew up with such an arrangement, and being able to keep an eye on more than one task is of great use to me.
The kitchen was fitted with new cabinetry and appliances in the 1970s and when we bought the place it was in a terrible state and only one appliance worked – the oven, and it died halfway through baking a cake on my birthday. Given that the building/selling boom in Atlanta was then at its peak we couldn't get a contractor because we lived in a high-rise – they were too busy with building the suburbs. Nowadays, of course, they're fighting to get in the buildings so, perhaps, this time it will be easier to remodel.
We painted the dark cherry cabinets a soft grey-blue, built a cabinet for the stacked washer/dryer, replaced the peeling counters with Silestone, backslashes with subway tile, and used Miele and Sub-Zero appliances. You see the results – on a summer morning, facing the rising sun, the kitchen is a joy to walk into. On a winter's night, orange curtains closed against the cold, it's delectable having the Celt sit at the table telling me about his day whilst I futz at the cooktop and then join him in one of the Provençal chairs we bought more than thirty years ago.
Now, nearly ten years later we both want a new kitchen – one without oddly projecting cabinets with more work surface, no stainless steel (a misnomer if ever I heard one), no visible hinges and without paneled doors. In other words we want a contemporary, streamlined, easy-to-care-for and to cook-in kitchen that is beautiful and suits someone with back problems.
Inevitably, fashion plays a role in decorating and remodeling decisions. Neither of us wants the kind of curlicued cabinetry that refers to a mythical Victorian past – kitchens until the late 20th-century were hellish and from our first-world perspective created more labor than they saved. The modern kitchen is one of the wonders of the modern age and also of modern marketing – as much a product of suburbanization as was the creation of the family room/great room/keeping room/kitchen combination with attendant butler's pantry and wine cellar.
What exercises us is not when to remodel, but whether or not we remove the wall between the kitchen and the dining room. In essence, the kitchen would not get any bigger except than an island or peninsula would supplant the dining table, yet I see the attraction of taking away the wall – the undertow of fashion and marketing is strong. We are divided about it – not acrimoniously but certainly typically.
It's likely that making do as my old prof advocates is not a choice – the concept of "aging in place" and the adaptability of the environment to the needs of the user already require that changes be made to the room. Also, perhaps, what should exercise us more than the possible removal of a wall is what happens to the old cabinets and counters. Do they go into the landfill? Would anyone even want them?
I sometimes forget the wealth of personal history there is in The Blue Remembered Hills – letters written about personal experiences of Roderick Cameron, for example, comments from relatives and friends of the Lost Generation of decorators, or simply people who have had their memories awoken. One such comment, as personal as can be and, as the writer himself states, "worthy of Remembrances of Things Past" was in my mailbox this morning. And what a privilege it was to receive it.
About the "Conversation Piece" .....a house I know well because "Villa Sylvia" was named after my Mother, Sylvia Curtis Steinert, who was born on May 5, 1999 in Paris. I therefore remember well my Mother, Sylvia, recalling how she and my maternal grandparents, Ralph and Lisa Curtis, named that house after her at the turn of the last century. And because the "Villa Sylvia" was built on such a huge tract of land, it overlooked - from its location in St Jean Cap Ferrat - the entire bay of Villefranche....and the U.S. flagships which were moored in that Bay in 1917. This enabled Navy U.S. Officers and sailors to come ashore on that part of the property which was at water's edge, to come up and be the guests of my mother and grandparents at that famous house, and to be entertained there. There were so many hectares, Bernardo and the other gardners had their hands full in an attempt to keep the grounds and the flowers in full bloom at all times. The mimosa from the Villa Sylvia continued to proliferate even during WWII because I still remember how some of those sweet smelling flowers were brought to us in Paris, even during WWII, and the Nazi occupation of France, which my mother, my brother and I lived through. Glorious past and worthy of Remembrances of Things Past. And of course, a word of thanks to the Author of The Blue Remembered Hills who was able to find and revive those memorable paintings and photos of my mother, maternal grandparents and great-grandparents who left Boston in order to settle in Europe in the mid-1800's. Anyone interested in why they left can read "The Proper Bostonians" and find out! No wonder I was born in Europe too more than 80 years ago, the same year as Hitler came to power...Oh my God...Help me!
Theo, thank you. I hope you do not mind me letting your comment on "Conversation Piece" be my post for today. I feel privileged to have received your comment and will reply.
"his stuff is all over the internet. he's grateful that the old stuff isn't totally forgotten. interior design is all fashion and people tend to disregard and even sneer at everything that isn't the latest. thanks for keeping it alive. and thanks for giving photo credit!"
The above quotation is from correspondence I had with the partner of a very well-known and excellent photographer – I'd said I hoped he, the photographer, was not offended by my use of his images and that where possible, and it usually is, I always give credit. I won't name the photographer (his is one of the best-known names in the business) but it occurred to me as I received a reply to my email that, though credit is given, rarely are photographers discussed as the creators of a genre of interior design imagery – imagery than impacts our perceptions immensely. Anyone who has ever seen realtor photographs or a blogger's photographs, of known interiors, and compared them to the professional photographer's images, knows the contribution made by a professional.
It would be invidious to compare the work of the photographer of, for example, of Howard Slatkin's apartment on New York Social Diary to that of the photographer of Slatkin's book Fifth Avenue Style, because the circumstances under which the two bodies of work were created were completely different. Yet making a value judgement is unavoidable and, to my eye, one set of images makes the place seem disorganized and cluttered. Given the same set of circumstances, in either case, the differences are likely to be those of accent and emphasis.
These days it seems every photo ever taken, attributed or not, is all over the internet. I was amused to come across one of my images, to which I make no personal claim, which I recognized by the streak my scanner had left down the image, on a blog the other day. Though my blog was credited, I was surprised to read that the image was "compliments of ... " Really, compliments of me?! Who's complimenting whom?
None of us who borrow images from magazines or books has rights to them. We may use them as narrowly defined by copyright law (Fair Use) and no profit may be made from them – the reason I won't allow any advertising in The Blue Remembered Hills.
The quotation I opened with indicates to some degree the frustration professionals increasingly feel at the overwhelming plundering of images that continues unabated.
I took the photograph above with my iPhone and for what it's worth you may copy it all you like.
Once a week, I have lunch with my old prof, usually on a Friday, and we go to the same restaurant each time, frequently at the same table in the bar where, as we arrive, our cocktails are waiting for us. It's where we can talk quietly and not be overrun by loud music. Twice a month a group of middle-aged frat boys businessmen gather at the bar, make a terrific din for an half-hour or so, and then slope off for lunch at a round table which, by the time we leave, is awash with bottles and loud good humor.
So commonplace is noise and so inured are we to this constant companion it is easy to forget how much of what we hear is intentionally part of our environment – without wishing to be redundant, noise is designed into our world to the point where it's almost climatic.
At lunch with a friend last Saturday, the Celt's new iPhone app recorded a noise level of above 90dB (decibels) where we sat. On a comparison table 90 decibels is the equivalent of a train whistle from 500 feet and is also the point at which regular sustained exposure may cause permanent damage. For an occasional diner there is little danger of hearing damage until one takes into consideration other noise levels in everyday life: city traffic inside an automobile is averaged at 85 decibels and normal conversation at a distance of 3-5 feet is 60-70 decibels For the staff at these places exposure to high levels of noise is constant. What these figures indicate is not only how loud our environment has become but how delicate is our hearing.
The irony is, on Saturday, we commented how pleasant it was to lunch in, relatively speaking, a quieter environment.
I have spent the last couple of days culling our library, and it has proved to be a relatively painless experience. Luckily, our tower – we live in one of two towers flanking a motor-court that sits on a ridge running through the city – has a small library for residents to which all our cast-offs are donated.
My intention was to bring the Celt some peace of mind, because if there's one thing he cannot abide it's an untidy house. Inconveniently, perhaps, he married a man who it seems can be very untidy – and worse, not notice it – and stacks of books spread around the place have been driving him nuts. Who knew? So, no more stacks in the living room, none in the dining room, even the piles in the library are gone, and the bedside tables have been cleared, thereby making the Celt and the maid happy.
If you want to read about a happy book owner – someone not easily parted from any book – and you should, click here for Diane Dorrans Saeks's essay on books and the joys of book ownership. I'm a little less joyous about owning books, given I have to keep the Celt, heretofore a patient man, from having an anxiety attack – the joys of both marriage and book ownership. (I wouldn't change a thing!)
Joy aside, I do get worried about the weight of books, the psychic toll that too having many possessions takes, and it's probably related to the feeling of dread I get when I walk around flea markets – all that dead people's stuff lying around exuding desolation. (I know, I know, I'm a drama queen, but the Industrial Revolution and my grandmother have a lot to answer for.)
It is frequently said that traditional decorating is the norm in Atlanta, as if the city's decorators are somehow set apart from the national mainstream or, more negatively, left paddling in some decorative cul-de-sac. If the work of decorators as shown in local magazines is anything to judge by, it cannot be denied that, however pale the modern palette or however many Hermès blankets are thrown casually before the camera, tradition rules in this city. And why not? – you may well ask.
The reasons for choosing to decorate in the way one does are too many to go into in a paragraph or two here, but it is interesting that in 1969 Brutalist Modern buildings such as ours – the first residential high-rises in the city – from the opening day, many residents responded to the architecture by ignoring it and treating their home, on the inside, as if it was the Colonial Revival standard everyone was used to. Only of late, as a younger generation gradually moves in, have some units begun to look as if they belong in modern architecture. That's not to say that Mid-Century Modern rules – it does not, but it is increasingly fashionable – and there there are those who cannot get beyond the cliché Barcelona chairs in spare white interiors.
When first built, the architecture was not as it is today, screened from the street by an accretion of blowsy hollies and azaleas, under-scaled plantings of annuals, and maples the color of dried blood disturbing the green shade under the mature trees.
It is inevitable that, over the years, there are changes – but occasionally one wonders why certain decisions were made. Foundation planting, as suburban a concept as ever there was, has blurred the lines where concrete met grass and gravel; light poles (the elegant five-globe fixtures in the photograph above) were removed from the piers flanking the drive and replaced by ivy, box and pansy-filled urns; gone too is the reflecting pool with its jets, seen to the right of the south tower in the colored photograph above, filled in because allegedly it leaked – as if every body of water from a lake to the human bladder doesn't leak sometime.
Judging by the blueprints, the original intention was that shade trees and lawn were to be the major part of the setting, with shrubs flanking the grounds at the property lines; in other words, a dignified frame, a balance, for a pair of buildings that, at the time, would have been a shocking invasion in a genteel neighborhood.
The original lobby with its long-gone rya hanging.
Tango, a restaurant much missed, judging by comments one still hears
about its originality and beauty
The bar at Tango
My old prof, now a feisty ninety years of age, was asked by Mr Ted Levy, the architect, to create the model rooms you see here. She fitted out the rooms with traditional drapery, upholstery and case pieces from Baker, Knapp & Tubbs – an indication of the generous budget, and also of the aesthetic expectations of the clientele Mr Levy was hoping to attract. There was no question of contemporary as we might understand it, for this kind of decorating was as contemporary as it got in Atlanta in 1969.
These model rooms don't look overly dated; they have stood the test of time – due I think to the black-and-white images and the fact that there are many, many flats in these buildings that look exactly the same.
These photographs are from a brochure given to me by my old prof, which was not one of the books I donated to the library downstairs – the library, another of the changes made, and this time one for the better.
An interior design history enthusiast and in my own way an erstwhile chronicler of those I call the Lost Generation - those men, some of them gay and many of whom died of AIDS in the 1980s and 1990s, and who are to a great degree forgotten.