Sunday, May 17, 2015

A book recommendation and the persistence of an idea

I'm not sure why since I came back from California I've been captivated by dining rooms, but many a time I've sat in mine in the early morning sun, black dog at my feet, leafing through books searching for rooms I like. I found many of the formal kind, fewer of the less so, and not a few that were nothing more than showing off. Stylists rule, I guess. I came across old favorites, other rooms I'd forgotten about, influences and, two days ago at an evening event at my favorite furniture store, a book about a Spanish decorator, the Marquis of Azpeztequia, who died in January this year – a fact that surprisingly made hardly a ripple in the design social media here. 

I first knew of the Marquis of Azpeztequia, better known to the English-speaking world as Jaime Parladé, from the pages of The World of Interiors during the 1980s, with photographs of a house for a couple from Bilbao (I learn from the book it is no longer standing), which at the time made both of us fell in love with pink-lined linen sheers and cream-colored crewel upholstered furniture. Seeing those rooms again brings it all back and I would like to write about them in the future to see if I can recapture the magic – for magic it was and Señor Parladé was no trickster. These two dining rooms in Spain are by him, the first with walls of toile de jouy and the second of cordovan painted leather, and illustrate what I realize now I was searching for all those mornings and had to go out of the house to find – atmosphere. 

Nowadays there are many who decorate or, as my old prof would put it, desecrate – it all depends on your point of view –  but few create atmosphere. It could be argued that atmosphere is a combination of stylist, lens, photographer and lighting and I tend to agree, for one has only to see realtors' photographs of once famously atmospheric rooms to recognize that the skill of a good photographer is paramount when working with rooms of any subtlety. It is the combination of the two professionals – the two artists, if you will – that create the intangible that lifts off the page. 

Jaime Parladé
  Ricardo Labougle, Joaquín Corté, Derry Moore, photographers
This is the third of three books about decorators I have felt worth buying this year

The Formal Dining Room
"More than any other room in the house, the dining room is a place for old traditions, a scene of ritual use where we can indulge in memories of the way our parents and grandparents did things in days gone by. We can put to use objects we have inherited from previous generations without their seeming like irrelevant artifacts. Many otherwise modern people when using their dining rooms actually enjoy returning to the vanished world of manners commonly thought to have been more gentle and refined than our own."

Mark Hampton
Fort Worth, Texas

Almost thirty years ago, Mark Hampton wrote about the essential nostalgia and costly exhibitionism of dining rooms. His essay, The Integrity of Dining Rooms, written at a time of resurgence of an idea first established, allegedly, during the eighteenth-century – that of a room dedicated to dining, not communally in the medieval manner, but socially for members of le beau monde. So well-written and apparently personal is it, it is easy to forget that Mr Hampton's essay, written at the height of the trickle-down economy, should be seen as precisely what it was, a piece of marketing for the magazine in which it appeared, the long-ago defunct House and Garden, and his own flourishing business working for those who had created that economy. 

David Hicks
Oval dining room, Britwell Salome

David Mlinaric
The Salon Rouge, British Embassy, Paris

Geoffrey Bennison
Lord Weidenfeld's dining room 

Exquisite but unattributed from Instagram

An eighteenth-century dessert setting 
 A recreation of the French manner at Waddesdon

Formal dining rooms persist in this modern age – when for most people, I should think, beyond the seasonal reenactments of Rockwellesque family gatherings that are a powerful tool for selling the idea of family to families – the actual need for a room solely dedicated to dining, is rare. Essentially a room of ceremony and parade, the formal dining room co-exists with the "great room" – that combination of kitchen, living room and dining space so useful to the modern family – and unless the family is given to much entertaining at table, is a status symbol as vestigial as the human tail. Belonging as it does to the "public" part of a dwelling where the inhabitants are characterized by what they display in terms of possessions and behavior, an inordinate amount of money may be spent on it. And so the dining room goes on, generation after generation, lugged around as Coleridge said in another context:  

Ah ! well a-day ! what evil looks
Had I from old and young !
Instead of the cross, the Albatross
About my neck was hung

The Happiness and Heartache
Christmas Eve
Carl Larsson

His First Birthday
Frederick Morgan

The Health of the Bride
Stanhope Forbes

Mariage de Convenance 
Sir William Quiller Orchardson

Two night ago, beneath a beautiful Venetian chandelier, seven of us dined on gumbo, salad and bread pudding and I thought then however grand the room, atmosphere also comes from the mood of people with whom one sits, not from dimmed lighting so beloved of restaurateurs and which has begun now to sap the joy from residential dining spaces. We were a crowd international in origin – Mexican, British, Spanish, Texan and Chinese – and a jolly one, despite three of us being very serious architects. We ended the evening, skirting the hiphop-throbbing frat houses of Georgia Tech, with a viewing of the College of Architecture's adaptive reuse of the Hinman Research Building. It's the kind of thing one does, at midnight after a good dinner with architects,

A most magnificent space, an erstwhile machine shop, likened too easily to a cathedral as are many older industrial spaces (the present-day Tate Modern, for example) and not shown to advantage by my iPhone photographs, hence this link to official Geogia Tech images.

Personal Preferences
Melvyn Dwork
New York

Joseph Braswell

William Hodgkins

Tino Zervudachi

"Atmosphere" is where I begin my search for images of rooms that could give me ideas for our sparsely furnished dining room. More alcove than room, we use it every day and at the weekends we breakfast there too. Facing full east, it's the ideal place for weekend relaxing over a second cup with iPads, especially when the the plumbago is in bloom, the hummingbirds squabble and dart about, and the clouds build.

Some of the best times have been spent at that table listening to the Jeweler, such a rare friend and a superb raconteur much given to elliptical digressions and occasional jaw-dropping transgressions that can cause tear-inducing and cathartic belly laughs. His partner, the Celt's much valued friend, is of a quieter bent – though occasionally disposed to slipping off dining chairs onto dogs – and typically looks on in wide-eyed, if speechless mellowness. The rest of us try not to simultaneously inhale and chew, and end the evening with a feeling of magnificent well-being that has nothing to do with bourbon and everything to do with companionship and laughter.

Drama we don't need – gawd knows the world provides enough of that – but good lighting is an absolute. Since my eyes have deteriorated, I cannot clearly see who is at the other side of the table but the whorls of fingerprint left by the maid on the silver is completely identifiable and as to the number of angels dancing on the head of a pin, I can be precise. Candlelight is wonderful for smoothing out wrinkles; Botox better, I hear, but until the mooncalf look becomes acceptable for everyone, I'll keep the beeswax burning. Candlelit dining tables are divinely romantic but I do worry once in a while, when surrounded by acquaintances caressing their newly Botox-injected faces to see if they still have them, that these candle flames, by some mischance, a stray breeze and the clouds of fragrance with a superabundance of sillage, might become the final conflagration that takes down the whole universe.

Atlanta, Georgia
Early morning coffee with one of my peeps 
Beyond, a view to the dining table

The Health of the Bride, Stanhope Forbes from Paradise Lost, Christopher Wood, Trafalgar Square Publishing, 1988

Mariage de ConvenanceSir William Quiller Orchardson, from Victorian Painting, Christopher Wood,  Bulfinch Press, Little, Brown and Company, 1999

His First Birthday, Frederick Morgan, from Victorian Painting, Christopher Wood,  Bulfinch Press, Little, Brown and Company, 1999

Christmas Eve, from The World of Carl Larsson, The Green Tiger Press, La Jolla, 1982

Recreation of an eighteenth-century dessert setting in the French manner at Waddesdon from Flora Domestica: A History of British Flower Arranging 1500-1930, Mary Rose Blacker, photography by Andreas von Eisiedel, The National Trust, Harry N. Abrams Inc.

Photograph of dining banquette by Melvyn Dwork from Manhattan Style, John Esten with Rose Bennett Gilbert, Photographs by Chinsee, Little, Brown and Company, 1990

Photograph of kitchen dining table from Tino Zervudachi: A Portfolio, Natasha Fraser-Cavassoni, Pointed Leaf Press, LLC, 2012

Photograph of Joseph Braswell's dining banquette by Peter Vitale from Architectural Digest, April 1977

Photograph of William Hodgkin dining table and chairs by Peter Vitale for Architectural Digest, May 1983

Photograph of Lord Weidenfeld's dining room by Geoffrey Bennison from Geoffrey Bennison: Master Decorator Hardcover,  Gillian Newberry, Rizzoli, 2015

Photograph of the Salon Rouge from Mlinaric on Decorating, Mirabel Cecil,  Francis Lincoln Limited, 2008

Photograph of the oval dining room, Britwell Salome from David Hicks: A Life of Design, Ashley Hicks, Rizzoli, 2009

Photograph of Mark Hampton's Fort Worth dining room from Mark Hampton: An American Decorator, Duane Hampton, Rizzoli, 2010


  1. The ones who touch their face - to be pedantic - would have been the collagen injected faces! ;)

    I enjoyed reading this as the topic of the dining room seems to be a subject where people project many personal issues and old stories come out whether you are ready to sign the petition that every new abode must have one or those who shrug their relieved shoulders that don't have to sit up straight at the dining table anymore!

    1. Coulda should woulda, thank you. I haven't noticed the collagen-packed faces yet – the bovine look is disturbing enough without going on to inspect for any other changes. There are times when changing sight is a blessing.

      Our dining room is more large alcove than room, living as we do in a late 60s modernist high-rise and I have come to prefer the open plan – more flexible, physically and socially then a separate room for dining. Being opposite the room where I keep all my books, it's a wonderful place to spread when I need more room to blog and the rising sun is making the air-conditioning go crazy and me very happy.

  2. I know we have differing opinions of amounts of lighting (!) but agreed on a lack of atmosphere. Not to name drop but last week I had dinner with Charlotte Moss after a lecture on her latest book) and something she constantly talks about is Atmosphere. it's not always about style or modern vs. traditional -but setting a tone and the atmosphere. For her that is through personalized 'clutter', multiple light sources, and fragrance. I agree on all counts! the problem of course is that these get highly more personal as one goes down the list. What smells delicious to one is obnoxious to another, I may prefer dim lighting but others can't see a thing because of it. But then again the definition of home IS personal -so that is probably all OK in the long run.

    1. ArchitectDesign, thank you. Lucky you! I think Ms Moss is right about setting a tone but cannot agree about clutter or fragrance – the Celt can't abide clutter and I can't abide fragrance. I like a centrepiece but he always gets it out of the way. I cannot abide pre-plated food as if one is in a restaurant and prefer to serve family style. Yes, I think tone is important but, in my opinion, that comes from the simplicity of the setting, the comfort of the chair, the ease with which one sees, and the happy social pairing of guests around the table.

  3. La Comtesse LolaMay 18, 2015 at 5:54 PM

    I am so glad you are back and in such great fighting form! I read your blog, and the others pale...I learn something new, I laugh, I think...what more could I ask for? Wonderful!

    1. Madame, thank you. I am very glad to be back. In fighting form, though? I hadn't thought so, but perhaps you are right – and why not, indeed?

  4. Ah, the dining room, my favorite room in the house, and one I enjoy using, for it is here that good memories are created among friends and family. I think the "atmosphere" can come from one's dinner companions, as much as the room itself, and from the forethought and planning that goes into the preparations of a marvelous meal. Candlelight is magical and creates instant dinner theater.

    Beautiful images to illustrate your post Blue.

    1. Chronica Domus, thank you. It took me a long time to realize that there is a sacramental aspect (and I don't want either to get too serious or too sentimental about this) to eating together and that the more relaxed the occasion the more pleasure there is to be gained. I write above in another comment that I can't abide pre-plated, restaurant-style food at home, but that is merely my preference and not a judgement. I have friends who prefer the opposite to me, as well might I if I had their busy lives. What matters is that people enjoy the evening and go away well-fed and happy.

      As to the images – I have a very big library. When I was still a prof the then university president mandated that the modern student could find all things necessary online and that a physical library wasn't needed. I was able to acquire many of the books I had previously ordered for the library.

  5. My son used to call our dining room The Magic Room. I've loved that time when the lights are dimmed, the fireplace is lit, and enough wine is shared that the conversation and laughter is easy and abundant.

    Our newest change is turning that Magic Room into a dining room/library. This will cause your hair to turn grayer: I'm having a decorative painter paint the ceiling in a kind of mural full of symbols and lines of poetry that meant much to us. My narrative for this room is the journey we have taken together, our own cabinet of curiosities, if you will. Could you please pass the smelling salts?

    1. home before dark, thank you. I have not heard an idea that good in a long, long time. It seems to me perfectly right that the Curiosities should record their journey on the inner lid of their own personal Cabinet. I would buy embrocation, though, for all that staring upwards! Perfection!

  6. Probably not an accident that we see touches of burnt orange in each of your "Personal Preferences." Indeed there is that same fiery burnt orange running through the painting on your dining room wall, coming up from the wood on your floor, the wood tones of your table, and from the glass lamp in the foreground.

    Creating warmth/atmosphere without reliance on curtains, upholstery, carpets, tablecloths [as in each of your illustrating photos] is a whole other bag of tricks. I'm trying to figure that one out too.

    Warning, hairbrained idea ahead: did you ever consider painting your dining room wall/walls a browned-down shade of, say, burnt orange?

    As always, it is pleasure to be in your company. You bring your black puppy along any ole time, and we'll bring ours too. Cheers!


  7. This must be Jaime Parlade's week, there was a well written obit for him in Wed. 27 th London Times.
    Like all Times obits it's anonymous, but I suspect it might be by the gifted Mr Haslam?
    Best, from a rainy London