Thursday, January 28, 2016

"Oh, very gay, dear"

"Time to write?
Oh, dad, you crack me up!" 

If you lived through the 1960s in the United States, you were either very worried in an existential way or, at best, oblivious to every crisis that loomed – and there were many. One area of calm persisted for, despite an occasional stab at modernization, crises simply did not figure in American Interior Decoration – the Colonial Dames Revival ruled. Oh, it might have got itself decked out in Empire and been prettily glamoured by Hollywood but, essentially, the same stuff as John D Rockefeller's Williamsburgian dreams were made of - and there's nothing wrong with that.

One aspect of American interior decoration that Hollywood featured was space – seemingly boundless space within rambling country and seaside cottages – and for a while, intramural acreage, the most luxuriously tangible condition of American democracy portrayed in movies and thereafter in magazines, made many a European head for the docks and, for that matter, many an American thankful for ambitions yet to be fulfilled.

The idea of a house for the summer or the winter, to my mind, is distinctively American – much in the same way "resort wear" is an American invention – a way of living and entertaining in eternal sunshine. The British aristocracy had the "Season" when annually its members left its estates, went up to town for the winter and socialized, presented its daughters at Court and fired them off into society and a suitable marriage.

American aristocracy also had its Season for pretty much the same reasons but the resorts were designed around particular activities such as boating, skiing, etc., and entertaining but they were not designed as tourist or vacation-package destinations as we understand "resort" today. Rather, they began as exclusive developments for compatible and rich society members, able to have more than one household and, in the manner of medieval monarchs, move seasonally from one to the other. Nowadays, society being what it is, the luster might be gone off the resorts but the lure of summering or wintering remains.

Michael Greer, once one of America's best-known decorators, is listed as the designer of this Palm beach house (by which I assume is meant that he was the architect) and the style of the white plaster structure is described as being "inspired by the Palladian villas of the Mediterranean" which must have invited incredulity even in 1966. Undeniably beautiful, even playful within the limits of symmetry, obviously Palladian the house is not. Mediterranean it might be given that is an American architectural style not known in and around the Mediterranean Sea. One detail easy to miss if the eye is too quick to pass along the front of the house is the solution to the two-car garage.

These are not the charismatic rooms of the Wrightsman residence in the same town, but as might be expected from a decorator Mr Greer's calibre this house has all the urban elegance that resort living and entertaining in Palm Beach required. Large, airy rooms, succeed each other from portico to water – entrance hall, drawing room, card room – separated by Tuscan columns rather than the Ionic of the portico. There's an emaciation about the moldings, a flatness to the walls and an inconsequence to the floors that subordinates any expectation of conviviality implied by the facade and the motor court.

In theory, backgrounds should not intrude and here the background, white and virtually shadowless, is as reticent as it can be for furniture that is known as "fine" – Louis XVI, Empire, Directoire – on carpets by Edward Fields, done up in pale greens, yellows, creams and pinks, and contributing to the mood of formality amongst the palms.

I nearly wrote how up to date it all looks, this interior from fifty years ago, but that wouldn't strictly be true – rather the contents of the house have never gone out of style. The sofas in the drawing room, admittedly, have a dated air but they are perfectly acceptable to today's retro-decorator sensibilities and, more to the point, are a mildly-modern element enlivening the traditional whole. A mid-century vibe, I suppose, one could say.  Sofas flanking a fireplace, across a coffee table, accompanied by symmetrically-placed matched chairs became such a cliche of decoration … in fact, as ubiquitous as the karate-chopping of pillows in later years.

Michael Greer's Inside Design by Michael Greer, one of the first "decorator monographs" is still a book worth seeking and reading. My copy, bought ten years ago in Salt Lake City, is augmented with clippings glued-in by the previous owner fan, is much valued, especially for the additions which otherwise I might never have seen. Looking through it again I have the impression that Mr Greer, in his time, was the nearest American interior decoration came to equalling the decorators at Maison Jansen. Thus, you may wonder why Michael Greer is not so well-known nowadays.

Well, forty years is a long time dead and, besides that, Michael Greer was murdered during sex with a stranger in his own home. Even in the more liberal 1970s People magazine, not known then or now as a forum of high-mindedness published an obituary of him that is shaming to read – more for the way "friends" rushed to salivate over his corpse than for the faux-grieving tone of the text.

I wonder, once the prurient had their day, if there was a turning of the shoulder of self-protection, an immediate disassociation from the victim and all his works. Perhaps in the following lies the answer: Michael Greer was raised in Monroe, GA, and there, his ashes are buried, allegedly without a marker.

A while ago we watched a movie Do I Sound Gay and whilst I found it somewhat interesting I'm not wholly convinced such a thing as a gay accent exists though there certainly is a perception that it does. However, it led me to wonder how far gender-stereotype crosses over into decoration – American decoration, that is. We blithely use "masculine" and "feminine" in decorating so I ask if one could use "gay" in the same way. "Oh, very gay, dear" perhaps, is not quite what one wants to hear, but why should it not be? 

So, is there such a thing as Gay American decoration? That's for another time, if my lawyer and Barnaby Warboys agree.

My Life
"What part of "feed me" don't you understand?" 

Friday, January 8, 2016

American Decoration, a beginning

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.


As I begin my look at American interior design, I need to state straight away that, in my opinion, there has never been a time when American interior decoration could be seen in isolation from that of Great Britain, France, Italy or, in modern times, of Scandinavia and other parts of Europe. Despite the vastness of this country and the multi-origins of its population, the dominant American decorative style – what is called "traditional" – is derived from the styles created in Britain and France centuries ago. That fact that traditional decorating had its beginnings in Virginia yet in this country for much of the twentieth-century was called "English," and that its major proponent went to live in Britain, should if anything, tip the wink, as it were.

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.

Friday, November 27, 2015

Our Own Snug Fireside

It is fitting, I think, to begin a series about American interior decorating on Thanksgiving, the most characteristic American holiday. Fitting, also, to begin in the New England of the Colonies and the Early Republic by mentioning the fact that I have coopted the tile for this post from a most excellent book – on my shelves since I read it as a graduate student and even more treasured after rereading it since meeting the author when Rory and I toured with the Decorative Arts Trust in Maine earlier this year.

 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
Charles-Honoré Lannuier

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

Monday, November 9, 2015

I sent him packing

The famous British magazine Private Eye used to carry a regular feature called Pseuds Corner in which they pilloried purple poetical prose or, piffle as the Brits call it. I have no idea whether the Corner or the magazine are extant but they would have had a field day with the inanities contained in this book.

"It's easy to get white wrong – it takes talent to get it right
This is possibly the most risible of the pieces of fustian I could fill this post with but I shall desist. Talent, my ass my eye – it takes lots of observation and a bit of hard work, more like!  

"In so much as I am living and breathing, I am a barometer of change. That's my job. Keeping current and being in fashion means to be in your time."  
This second quotation came pretty close to winning the prize but … I shall not dwell on it. 

"Rooms should reveal themselves gradually over time." 
Oh, riiiight! Oh, tautologous! 

It's the hokum of these platitudes that is so absurd to me because, after all, it's only furniture, fabric and a drop of paint. It ain't art or even religion with all its attendant gobbledygook and superstition – it's decorating, not magic! I've said it before and undoubtedly I'll say it again: decorators should stick to decorating and leave philosophy to philosophers (or that bloke down the pub). 

If one were to take the book and its contents at face value, one might suspect late-nineteenth-century mitten-Europa, with its middle-class Ringstrasse aesthetic and emphasis on blood-lines and family-trees, is popular in parts of the so-called upper-echelons or, rather, the monied sections, of American society. To some of us, the so-called non-worshipping classes, bullion-fringe tacked to mantlepieces – only one instance of a desperately Victorian-revival tone to the interiors, is a little too redolent of Franz-Josef and the mess he created and left behind. 

It isn't often I return a gift but, frankly, Jeffrey Bilhuber, American Master though subtitled notes on style and substance contained so little of either, in my opinion, I promptly had this gasbag of a book sent whence it came. 

So, I come to Sunday and a time when Barnaby Warboys allows me some time to write. The Celt is home and carries some of the burden task of being trained by a whippet pup, eight-months old, who continues to be be both delight and scourge. The wool and silk carpet for the living room came home after being cleaned, restored and guess what? Yup …you got it. As did the carpet in full force.    

There Barny sat, Saturday night, as we had guests in for a nightcap, sorry for himself a little because he is ill, excited a little because we had guests and he likes company. After a while, first opening the bedroom door, he took himself off to bed then, curiosity getting the best of him, came back to say goodnight at the end of the evening.  

Our continuing search for a suitable country place – two bedroom, two bathrooms, with enough land for Barny to run free – has only brought the realization that what we envisage will have to be built. We began to lean towards a cabin combined with the contemporary. The one cabin we found had, after a long time for sale, been sold only two days before. Charming as it was – and it was – old as it was – and it was (1840) – really wouldn't have been the most felicitous for Barny or me. 

We both (The Celt and I, for Barny is silent on the matter) reached the conclusion that at any price-point (as the jargon goes) what is available, for our taste, is too traditional and evocative of a mountain setting. And why not? you may ask. Well, evocation of any place is not quite what we have in mind – The Celt is Scottish by birth and I am from Lancashire but neither of these facts should suggest a leaning towards tartans, antlers, cairngorm or macramed oatmeal or, in fact, anything else considered ethnic to either of our backgrounds. Heritage has no need of touristic flourishes the equivalent of monogrammed shirt cuffs. 

Perhaps these two views of a sitting room from a chalet in the French Alps designed by Mlinaric, Henry and Zervudachi visually explains my meaning. There is a lack of obvious references to place or function: no crossed snow-shoes above the fireplace; no antler furniture; no pinecone lampbases; no rawhide lampshades; in fact, none of the decorative cliches one has come to expect of decoration of a certain ilk. It is that lack of reference to locality that is particularly refreshing in comparison to the interiors we saw as we viewed houses in the mountains and online. 

If our country sitting room is to reflect anything it is our family – the three of us – not the mountains, not Scotland, not Lancashire and certainly not some spurious idea of what English decoration is or even what American decoration is. 

Which brings me to a subject I want to discuss in the coming post. American decorating. We read a lot about it, and how special it is. Is it just American exceptionalism and isolationism or is American decorating special?  

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.