Sunday, October 25, 2015

My old prof

I have a confession to make and I might as well make it on a Sunday morning as another time: I really like plain white Corian. Unmentionable today by the salesmen of honed stones that resemble nothing more than textured Formica, and still unfashionable enough to create an eye-roll when mentioned, Corian remains my favorite kitchen surface. 

You might think that if that's all I have to confess on a Sunday morning, I lead a pretty blameless or boring life. That's not for me to judge but I am at my own dining table – our "home office" having temporarily reverted to the hall closet it once was – thinking about the instability of taste and the derisory attitudes there are towards certain materials. I suppose I'm thinking about fashion and the uncritical way in which much of the interiors industry accepts what is served up. 

Kate, my old prof, and l were having our usual Friday lunch at Pricci, an Italian restaurant now so 1990s in style that we both fear it is in danger of being renovated and "modernized" and fervently hope it will be left to mellow and grow old, when we got on to the books she had either given or loaned me recently, and  by extension to materials and finishes no longer fashionable. 

In one, The Pahlmann Book of Interior Design, first published in 1955, there is a photograph of a flooring no longer fashionable – at least amongst the cognoscenti in our field – vinyl. Once new and fashionable enough to be used by the most fashionable decorators of their day (William Baldwin and Albert Hadley as wall-covering, for example), it is now still known to the contract side of the industry but appears in the residential or gift and accessory trades primarily as faux shagreen and ostrich hide, et al. If I were to choose an alternative to vinyl flooring – which would be an ironic choice, for vinyl was marketed in in the early days as a modern surrogate for this – it would be linoleum – an interesting, biodegradable, durable and beautiful flooring – around since about the time of the American Civil War. 

"You know I once sat in Dior's salon for a showing? And Jacques Fath's, too? My friend Marion and I got tickets somehow … so long ago … 1957, I think … but could have been 1954. We spent weeks touring the continent. It was not like it is today, the big productions – it was very reverential, like being in church. Fath had died by that time time, if it was '57, but his wife continued the business for a while, and Dior died in '57 also. Ah, those dresses … oh, excuse me! Those gowns! They were beautiful. 

"I think that was the second time on the ship, crossing the Atlantic, when the bartender came to the table and took an order for a round of drinks. Asked everyone what they would like, but did not ask me. I recognized him from my trip the previous year and said 'Reggie, you forgot me.' He replied, 'That would be a gin and tonic, madame, if I remember correctly.' Cunard line, of course. Always had the best employees."

"Have you seen this?" She asked, handing me the brochure you see below. "I've been sorting out old files and boxes and I wondered if you might like to see this before it goes in the trash. Cute little drawings, too, of their time so when you're done keep it or trash it. Up to you." 

I haven't trashed it – this useful little circular from the Small Homes Council of the University of Illinois, Urbana. printed in 1950 and still, I think, of more practical use to the to the modern young man or woman looking to decorate a house than any of today's how-to manuals. 

Before I go on let me just say that just in case you think that residential interior design is nothing more than celebrities creating vignettes for magazine and monograph and fabric and furniture collections for fabric houses and furniture makers, you might take a look at the first quotation from this sixty-five-year-old eight-page circular: 

The purpose of interior design or decoration is to make the home more livable and attractive.

Interior design must (1) serve the living habits of you and your family; (2) satisfy your ideas of comfort, beauty, economy, ease of maintenance or "housekeeping"; and (3) satisfy the broader standards of good design.  [My italics]

Interior design involves personal likes and dislikes; it involves habits and hobbies. Unless it fulfills individual needs, it can never be called successful, regardless of how well it meets the rules of good design. On the other hand, it is not successful if it violates all rules of good design even though it satisfies a fad or whim of an individual. 

The lowest cost house should be as livable, and therefore, as successfully decorated as the larger home. Every budget, no matter how small, provides for certain furnishings. These influence the design of the rooms. 

I wonder if the broader standards of good design are as well-known as they once were – so surely have they been subsumed in the fustian of the desecrators and the concept-laden verbiage of the design school curricula … but, I'm a long way from the happy lunch Kate and I shared last week. We had split a pizza between the two of us. I'd had a bourbon, she her once-weekly glass of white wine, and we'd chatted and … well, the illustration above shows the good sense that pervades the circular. 

I wish I'd noticed this piece of nonsense puffery before collecting my old prof because we would have had a riotous time going over it. Quite how anyone believes this beats me, but it seems it is big business. Here are three of the ten from the link above. I leave you to judge but you may imagine my reactions to the deathless prose persuading the buyers in the garment and interiors industries to use the colors. 

Rose Quartz
 “A persuasive yet gentle tone that conveys compassion and a sense of composure.” 

“Like the expanse of the blue sky above us, Serenity, [a transcendent blue], comforts with a calming effect, bringing a feeling of respite even in turbulent times."

Snorkel Blue
“Playing in the navy family, but with a happier, more energetic context, the maritime inspired, Snorkel Blue implies a relaxing vacation and encourages escape.”

Now were all told not what good design is, but what the design du jour is to which we must all subscribe. Back in the days of Mr Pahlmann and the writers of the circular from The Small Homes Council of the University of Illinois, Urbana, they simply led by example. 


  1. Your lunches sound like so much fun - reminiscing about watching the Dior show in the 50's, speaking derisively of the current trend driven Interior Design world and swapping interiors books sounds like perfection.
    I am fairly unfashionable to some extent too - I put down Linoleum floors in my recent house extension. It's really only specified commercially and I have no idea why - literally no one can actually tell what it is, and as you said it ticks all the ecological boxes as well as being very hard wearing with a young family. But then I also like Laminate, which is deeply unfashionable for kitchens in Australia at the moment, and I quite like Corian too (not the ones with the sparkles though…). As for the Pantone colours of the year, I think the people hanging breathlessly onto what the predictions are tend to be the same people pushing decorator scatter pillows/ vases/ matching throw rugs/ spray painted tchotchke etc etc.

    1. Heidi, thank you. I hate all these here-today-gone-tomorrow fads. Besides making idiots out of us it is ruining the planet.

  2. Puffery, indeed, though I am pleased to know there are still jobs for poetry majors.

    1. Anonymous, thank you. If only what these people wrote was more along the lines of haiku ... as it is, Hallmark beckons.

  3. I always enjoy your blog. I find it to be a nice centering place in an internet decor-world full of garish flashing lights. But then I still have hunter green with dark mahogany trim in my den and way too many well used books on the built-in cases to be acceptable, so what do I know?

    1. Anonymous, as to what you know - it sounds as if you've had the sense to keep what has been a satisfactory place for you as it was planned. Seems to me you know more than most!

  4. Returning after nine days in San Francisco and the fog of travel to find some things still the same: your blog, your view of the world, your railing against puffery and frippery and the lovely shots of the best dog in the world. If you haven't read The Art of Racing in the Rain, you should. If you're already thinking you need a Barny house in the country, this book is not sentimental jibberish. It might explain Barny's angst (because he can't talk!).