It was, one might suppose, one of history's happier coincidences – if less earth-shattering than some might have one believe given the amount of twaddle written about them – the eventual partnership of Tree, or Nancy Lancaster as she became, and John Fowler, and given its success, inevitably, the association led to many imitators. After years of maudlin chintzes being pitchforked across battalions of bergeres, tables, sofas and windows, this so-called English style has been reduced to a wretched formula, leading to rooms that are prosaic and analgesic, where elements are constant, whoever the decorator, from magazine to blog to Pinterest to Instagram and back again. Some decorators strive to convince us it's a snappy American style and, arguably, given with whom it began, they're not wrong but my point remains, English or American, it's still the same stuff all the time.
Where's the originality, I wonder? Who has the ability to look at a space and not want to recreate what everyone has published in magazines, books, and online for the past umpteen years: be it a Fifth Avenue version of a salon from Chateau de Ferrieres; a dining room from Pavlosk; Nancy Lancaster's Brook Street yellow room; everything by no-lady Mendl; the same white room by Syrie Maugham; badly-drawn cabbage roses, black-and-white-stripes and big baroque moulding by Dorothy Draper; nothing I can remember of demimondaine Rose Cumming's outré offerings, and far too much by Cecil Beeton. The list is longer but I'll draw the line here.
Mentioning Cecil Beeton does bring to mind an idea I occasionally have – that there might be a difference between gay and straight decorating. Not that I am suggesting that Mr Beeton was homosexual – heaven forfend! – but if he were, would it be possible to infer that there was a certain gayness in his work and his houses, theatrical as one might say they were. BUT, I digress …
Perhaps I'm wrong in hoping for originality and individuality from decorators when I suspect what clients mostly want is to conform to a perception of monied propriety. Respectability, like virtue and good manners, is a concept created in copywriters lairs, so why would a client want to stand out when conforming and being told one is unique is merely a matter of image creation by publicist, photographer, stylist and copywriter?
Consider the undoubtedly beautiful room above – and to be clear, I really do find it beautiful but, to my point, it's more of the same. I have not read about the room in Elle Decor (which I do not take) but to my eye it conforms to mainstream expectations of social background and economic status, and it projects a strong image to the world about the inhabitant's status against that background. In other words, it is a room of parade – not quite a State Room but nearly so.
By contrast, the room above, by a decorator in England, has some of the same elements but the objective is different – here I don't have to rely on deductions based on a photograph but can read a text. A quotation will be illustrative.
"To accommodate the owner's preference for contemporary art, a balance had to be struck between the majestic interior and the contents planned for it. Chester achieved this by buying a huge painting by Mimmo Paladino, which is even larger than the room's dominant central wall panel, and by placing below it a 3-metre (10-foot) banquette fronted by a massive coffee table. The style may be entirely different, but the scale and weight of these elements are so compatible with the room's architecture that the problem is resolved. The rest of the room is a mixture of contemporary art, modern furniture, tribal artefacts, and appropriately scaled antiques." [Italics mine]
I added the italics because the sentence is not about decoration but about design – note the words "the problem is resolved." So much of modern interior decoration, especially by the devotees of mid-century-anything, seems a lemming-like rush to publicity with a consequent dumbing-down of expectations by everyone concerned. I read yesterday of a designer without design education dancing her way into fame and product lines in fabric houses and wondered if her experience was not untypical. I have no idea how many of the media darlings have any design education but I wonder if it matters for with fame and fortune comes image creation by publicist, photographer, stylist and copywriter. Quite where education fits in any longer is hard to say.
This room with its George I paneling I find one of the best examples of twenty-first-century
First photograph from Instagram but I think originally from here.
Second and third photographs also from Instagram but originally from here.