Our Own Snug Fireside: Images of the New England Home 1760 - 1860 by Jane C Nylander is one the best books ever about early American life. There's a lot to learn about what went into the colonial houses of this period – in fact how little actually furnished a room. The reasons choices were made certainly prefigure the choices we still make and attitudes to conspicuous consumption were more pronounced then perhaps than today. Ms Nylander is far better than I at explaining the early American attitudes and achievements in furnishing and decoration and I shall leave her to it.
There is a sofa in the High Museum, that, if anyone mistaking morality for aesthetics and believing in Adolf Loos's stricture "No ornament can any longer be made today by anyone who lives on our cultural level ... Freedom from ornament is a sign of spiritual strength" could bring a person to a developmental rubicon. The High, a museum in aesthetic crisis when, thanks to indifferent architectural grafting by Renzo Piano, it turned its back on the decorative and ceremonial entrance to Richard Meier's museum, an act, it seems to me, symbolic of turning its back on the city … but I digress … and back to the sofa which actually is one of my all-time favorites.
By John Henry Belter, this sofa, in what we know as the the Rococo Revival Style (at the time Modern French) is made of "laminated and carved rosewood, white pine, and ash with original appliqué designs on modern silk upholstery." The most astonishing aspect of this sofa is that the back, made of plywood and curved, is completely smooth. The front is three-dimensional, carved exquisitely and pierced. It is a terrific piece of work – the crests resembling nothing less than the peineta worn under a mantilla in Spain – and now covered in beige silk velvet.
The creator of the Rococo Revival sofa was born in Germany, and like any number of well-known American designers/makers/artists/writers/creators contributed to what we think of as American Interior Decoration and Architecture. Duncan Phyfe, Charles-Honoré Lannuier, John Henry Belter, Calvert Vaux, and up to modern times with Mies van der Rohe, Richard Neutra and Eero Saarinen et al – immigrants all – the point is not to belittle home-grown talent and, believe me, there is more than Frank Lloyd Wright, but, rather to introduce the universality of interior design a hundred or so years ago even if universal meant two sides of the Atlantic rather than a broad world view.
American Empire Style Card Table circa 1803
The American Empire Style is a version of the Napoleonic Empire Style but made by French immigrants like Charles-Honoré Lannuier, Scotch immigrants like Duncan Phyfe, and local craftsman and furniture makers in America – the point being these people worked in that style in American cities. The Gothic Revival, Greek Revival, Renaissance Revival, Modern French, Second Empire, Queen Anne Revival, Arts and Crafts, Beaux Arts, etc. all began in Europe and Britain and it wasn't until the beginning of the 20th-century that the tide of stylistic immigration turned and Europe began to look to America to see what Mr Lloyd Wright especially was up to. In that turning of the tide Wright's ideas met the English Arts and Crafts in Germany and the ideas behind Modernism were born. When that tide turned … and so on.
Frank Lloyd Wright
Darwin D Martin House
Jack E. Boucher, Photographer - Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division
Historic American Buildings Survey
It's about this time, loosely speaking, that Elsie Mendl appeared to leave her Boston marriage and, being no better than she should have been, Introduced Wicker and Treillage into the Colony Club after which she took credit for everything there ever was, wore pearls with Red Cross outfits and eventually died at Versailles (which is more than Marie Antoinette was allowed to do). Everyone who should have known better took Mendl at her word and consigned Candace Wheeler, a far better designer, to the pages of dull biography almost unread except by the likes of me.
Immigration and importation have been themes throughout American interior design and architecture – even though General Washington may in a moment of madness have been offered a crown after the revolution, this country has never more had a king. Yet the forms of chairs, sofas and settees that have never been bettered for grace and beauty, and still sit at the apogee of style in the world's largest democracy, were developed under the French monarchs – imports of style that go back to before the founding of the republic.
I took these photographs of a house in Maine, closed for more than twenty years, except for the rare summer visit. They show how much hard work went into keeping house. The reception rooms were not worth photographing - not that we could, corralled as we were behind a rope. Docents .... !
Soap was kept in the icebox to protect it from mice
Just before Thanksgiving, this country (or many in it) turned its face against immigration, denying those who've fled their fireside a chance at another. America has done so before and stylistically, also, it has done so. The Tudor Revival, for example, in many ways thought of as a characteristic East Coast architectural style that developed after the Bicentennial when - to be simplistic – immigration of Jews and Irish was at an all-time high and the WASP establishment felt threatened and, as it were, drew up the stylistic portcullis, emphasized its Anglo origins and withdrew behind its Locust Valley vowels.
At the end of the 19th-century, when the wholesale importation of paneled rooms and, indeed, complete houses from Britain and Europe for American millionaires began, so did the supply of European art and furniture by the likes of Berenson and Duveen – a supply that continues today through decorators, auction houses and galleries – it all does rather beg the question of wherein lies the Americanness of American interior design. Bu that's for another day when Barny is less tired.
I'm not sure who needs time out the most