Sunday, October 11, 2015

Sunday morning, a butler's pantry, and scenes from family life

"We can’t all live a life that affords us the luxury of having a butler, but a luxury you CAN afford is a butler’s pantry. Historically, a butler’s pantry is where a butler made quick meals and sandwiches, cleaned silver, and sometimes even slept .... "  

I'm not given to criticizing other bloggers but when I come across such a piece of fatuity as this I really do wonder … well, I didn't have to watch and listen but I couldn't resist, especially when I saw that the author had no idea of what a butler actually did and its so wrong on many levels – not just historically but also about the utter meaningless of the term "butler" in the modern world outside of the houses of the rich, aristocratic or TV soap opera. 

Before Barny was awake I read chewable paper

What the blog author describes, of course, is an aspirational daydream and begins " … even in homes without a butler … " and explains that a butler's pantry is a transitional space between kitchen and dining room which must mean, I suppose, she's talking to people who don't have one, and would like one – look for yourselves, if you have the time. As Dorothy Draper said Decorating is Fun! and the complete antithesis of the book I mention below. 

This morning's tablescape

Can anyone who has watched Downton Abbey imagine Carson making sandwiches and Mrs Patmore allowing him to do it? "What's a sandwich?" I can hear it now in Lady Violet's best Maggie Smith imitation. In the end, it all became clearer as I watched the video and my sense of equilibrium began to recover – shocked as I had been to discover that there are people in the provinces, still, living lives without the luxury of butlers and are wise enough to take advice – and sage counsel is rare –  to build a cabinet and shelf or two in tiny corners of their kitchens and feign the presence of such a servant in their lives by characterizing those moving little works of carpentry as butler's pantries. Oh, plucky people! 

"Are we creating a stage set? Or are we creating a home? To this day, I am creating homes for families to live in. I want dogs and children and all the family stuff in them." The second quotation of the day, I came across as I sat reading Bunny Williams's chapter in what is, so far, the best book of the year. I say "best book" in the sense that I exclude so-called decorator monographs because Parish-Hadley Tree of Life: An Intimate History of the Legendary Design Firm does not fit within the category of monograph.

Though, inevitably, there is some repetition where one has so many designers and decorators contributing to a book about a firm, perhaps the premier American interior design firm of the twentieth-century, where they began their careers, the text alone is a lesson in how to design rooms and houses and how to provide the means by which the houses can be turned into homes by the families or individuals who inhabit them – they are designed for them from the lifestyle outwards, as it were, and not just by the application of a decorative theory or fad. 

The photographs are terrific, some already known from previous publications, some not, and the most striking thing to me is how important the floors were to Parish-Hadley, its designers and clients. There are some beautiful floors, stenciled, carpeted and be-rugged, throughout the book and what I see makes me wish to have my basic wood floors stenciled as the basis of the beautiful room I have in my head and, I hope, in my designer's too. Anyone with an eye to design can learn a lot from the photographs but the text alone is worth the price of the book. 

Watering the trees

I think why I react so badly to counterfeit names such as that with which I begin, and why much of what I see in magazines and "monographs" is that, as Bunny Williams alludes to, it is the creation of a stage set and has nothing to do with real life. Building some extra cabinets and shelves at the end of the dining room or in the kitchen is not a romantic or easy fun project as the blogger implies. It's hard work and costly. The whole concept of a "butler's pantry" in a suburban house is so out of sync with modern times – it came along with the bonus spaces that developers attached to the MacMansions of the 1980s and 1990s and which now are as devalued as the structures and prices they helped to bloat. 

Barny snuggling

If there ain't a butler there cain't be a butler's pantry – simple as that.  I wonder if anyone knows what a pantry is. Oh, if I not being too dogmatic, it's not a library without at least one wall of books in the language of the people living in the house, with all book spines facing the viewer without too many vahzes or pieces of fruit stuck in between. And a neighborhood does not consist of homes; rather it consists of houses because a home is what the inhabitants make of a house by living in it. AND … oh, don't get me started!

My old prof and Rory at brunch 

So … deep breath … and now, to family matters: every week we lunch at the same Italian restaurant, my old prof and I, sharing food, dire warnings about the fall of civilization, reminiscences about riding to school on a horse, history (this week, the time she and a friend had tickets to Dior and Fath), the Colosseum in a time of few tourists, the differences between American and English pronunciation (one word per Friday)  – really, just the two of us rabbiting on enjoying ourselves over a glass of wine, a glass of bourbon and food we can share. In many ways an unvarying routine that is a pleasure to both of us and one that has been minimally impacted by Barny.

Barny after breakfast on the sofa 

A little later

Until two days, that is, when I arrived home to find our front door wide open, debris in the foyer and living room, and Barny gone. My clever whippet, almost eight-months old, has learned how to open doors with lever handles. I was late coming home and, I think, grabbing his harness, which is missing, Barny went looking for me. He got to the floor below, with no access other than elevator (our elevators do, at times, have a life of their own so may've invited him in) where seemingly a neighbor found him, took him to the lobby from where, on receiving my panicked phone call, the office manager took him to her office. 

Barny and Rory

I won't go into the state I was in … had I a butler and he a pantry I'm sure Barny this evening would be securely locked up behind a door with a knob handle and I would be out with my husband eating dinner instead of watching my whippet sleep the sleep of the innocent by my side on the sofa as if he hadn't a care in the world, which I hope he hasn't. 

The Tale of Two Men and Their Whippet – this is family life, indeed.

By the way, I bought my copy of this book here. I make book recommendations because I like to and for no other reason. 


  1. Thank you for the book recommendation - I had seen it but was hesitant on whether it was just another fluff book, or had a little more substance behind it.
    As for the Butler's Pantry… thanks for the laugh! I am intimately acquainted with two houses that have (original) Butler's Pantries. They are rooms located off the Dining Room, the kitchen being quite far distant and were in fact used by Butlers back in the day, before staff became too expensive. They now house china and silver, and are used as a servery due to distant proximity to kitchen. But then, the modern Butler's Pantry in Australia is an oversized pantry in or off the kitchen that houses everything… and I've had client requests to make them big enough to 'work' in so that they can keep mess out of their 'real' kitchen. So odd. I always ask them why they want to spend all their time in what is essentially an oversized cupboard rather than the main kitchen. The psychology behind modern house design is quite fascinating. As is the psychology behind books that are faced with spines to the back….

    1. Hello, Heidi. I'm sorry for the late reply. I agree with you about the psychology of the modern house – or, at least, the psychology of contemporary ostentation.

  2. Please, please go on. The affectations of a butler's pantry, the spines of books turned the wall, the "pops" of color...all too laughable. Yet some accept them as perfectly acceptable, indeed desirable decor.
    Agree with your wise comments about "Tree of Life." The text is intelligent and frequently witty, the pictures a joy.
    Delighted to hear that Barney was only briefly lost. Will you be changing all door knobs to be Barney-proof?

  3. What a terrifyingly wonderful wake up for this October morning. Barny on the lam...not a good idea. So glad he is well and dreaming of his next escapade. You should ask your professor to do a guest column. What a terrific duo you two are.

    As for butlers, I don't have one. But I do have a Mrs. Patmore. I named my biggest splurge in my kitchen reno—the 48" Sub Zero Pro—after the cook who thought she'd never need that modern contraption: refrigeration.

    p.s. At least Barny has a fact, I suspect, he has two. So glad all is well in your family.

    1. home before dark, someone I know has one, though his title is "major domo." All very grand and far too grand for me. Barny has two male attendants who cater to his every wish and a weekly cleaning woman who does his floors, etc.

      With a restaurant not a block away I find I still have to cook and I cannot abide the daily routine of it. My ideal kitchen reno would be to do without one altogether – have a place for breakfast (like a bar) then dine out for every meal. Dream on, Barry.


  4. Oh, I would have died Blue. Barney will have to have a new door handle which he can't open. And put one on the balcony door while you're at it.

    1. donna, I nearly had a heart attack – just couldn't believe what I was seeing! Today he went to day care for two hours to see how he did and apparently took it in his stride. That is going to be a big help in future. Today, for example, I went to shower, closed the bedroom door and not two minutes later I heard the door open and in he came full of curiosity and merriment. Bless him.

  5. I couldn't bear to watch the video but had a good laugh all the same. This nugget: "1. Make your butler’s pantry pop with colored cabinets like a fun teal or with brass shelving to really shine! "
    That really just made my day!
    I think when it comes down to it there are designers and there are decorators -and a use for both. So often the decorators identify themselves as designers (the same people who call houses 'homes' generally) and those are the people I tend to just ignore. I might think their blogs are funny occasionally but too much can be stomach turning and depressing.
    I'm envious of your lunches with the professor -they sound amazing! Maybe I can tag along when I'm in Atlanta next month -haha. Don't worry I won't barge in!

    1. Stefan, there is no reason why you should not tag along for lunch one Friday when you're in town – I assume we'll see quite a bit of you. I might even have a carpet on the floor back from the cleaners by then – the final one is on its way to them and the place is an echo chamber.

      The thing that I don't understand is that blogger is offering a "designer MBA" whatever that means! Oh, and if one is clever enough there are badges to be earned!!