I'm at a loss to explain how five weeks can have passed since my last post. The Holidays played a role, for sure, as did family visiting from Scotland and New York … yet, given the abiding routine of mine and Barny's days, I am, as I say, confounded.
I remarked to a neighbor that she should not find amusing what I was about to say: that since I got Barny I had learned respect for the lives of stay-at-home parents, especially those who previously had some intellectual content to their careers. Barny isn't a human child, so the comparison doesn't fully apply, however short the duration of the process, the demands of raising a beloved member of the family with as distinct a personality as those of the others, are constant and leave little room for my pursuits.
At ten months old, Barny has no idea of my need to write - he feels sad when the Celt goes to work and frequently needs to cuddle with me on the sofa until he's recovered enough to go back to bed for another hour or two. Not a morning person, my Barny Warboys, thus he fits in very well with both of his dads, yet once the carpet has been snuffled, my hand licked and fingers nibbled, suddenly its time to play – a situation announced by a peremptory "woof" and a stare that quite clearly says that this whippet's psychic universe is riding on my reaction. And play we do, after I save yet another attempt at a post. So, we walk and we walk and we walk… and I wonder where the day has gone.
I have mentioned many a time that a much-valued part of my weekly routine is lunch with my old prof. Besides the friendship, she has been useful in clarifying some of my thoughts and ideas about American design – this is the woman who, when a Graduate Assistant the University of Minnesota, was mentored by Harriet and Vetta Goldstein, the authors of Art in Everyday Life a book still worth reading.
Perhaps more importantly, for my present purposes, my old prof was friends with Helen E McCullough, who researched how Illinois housewives used their kitchens, noted their wants and perceptions, and published her findings and conclusions in Circulars from the Small Homes Council of the University of Illinois just after the Second World War.
The idea that American interior design in the form of logical application of standards based on scientific research began to a great degree in Illinois is a seductive one, but similar work was being done at Cornell University. The times were creative: only look at what is for sale on 1stdibs to see the variety of what was achieved (and on the other hand, what one might wish hadn't been). It is mildly shocking to think that Helen E McCullough and her colleagues at Cornell might actually have had more influence on Western society than the Eameses.
In modern times "traditional" for my taste is too narrowly defined, one might say unimaginatively and lazily so. That said – and with all acknowledgments made to opinions expressed about American exceptionalism in the past and today – I maintain that there were Golden Years in American interior design and decoration, but they are not now.
The beginnings of American worldwide dominance after WWII, the rise of the so-called "American Century" is where I'd like to begin. It was a time when insularity fought with ecumenism, democracy with Communism, the body politic self-harmed but, finally and perhaps inevitably, American interior decoration let go of the WASP-manqué leading strings and took big strides out of the eighteenth- and nineteenth centuries. Architectural Digest of the 1960s and 1970s is full of photographs that, at this remove, seem to embody a fear of "out there," so covered in curtains and shades are the windows and doors – symbolically blinded, as it were – but Modernism with its sanatorium-like emphasis on light, air and space began to enliven the pages, if a little tentatively.
This was a time in American interior decoration, before the apotheosis of the auctioneer, when decorators worked against a background of history; they knew the basic principles of design and learned the business from a mentor or employer. Nowadays, one wonders …
This first interior from 1969 has much of what I think is significant – this lovely combination of modernity and tradition – about American interior design from that era, and most importantly, it has stood the test of time. I wonder how eye-opening it was – shocking even – for many of the readers of Architectural Digest, for here is spacious Modernism, complete with white walls and ceilings, sunlight thrusting its way through large un-curtained windows onto white poured-polyurethane floors atop which sit "no-color" furnishings in chrome, glass, vinyl, plastic laminates and plexiglass. All is geared to drawing the eye to paintings by Vaserely, Frank Stella and Morris Louis, and a collection of Chinese red lacquer furniture and objects. As an aside, I wonder if this was the first time that cliche of modern decorating, a Saarinen table flanked by a set of French fauteuils, had been published.
In some ways, I come full circle with this house because though I'm on with a wider subject now, this is the time when the men whom I have written about previously, "the Forgotten Generation," were coming to the fore. They were some of the most exciting talents ever to grace the American decorating scene and many were soon gone, dead to the AIDS epidemic. To my mind, that was a loss from which decorating in this country has yet to recover.