Tuesday, March 31, 2009

From the past ....

.... that we still value.

The Ambassadors, painted by Hans Holbein the Younger in 1533, is a fascinating work from a decorator's point of view.  The symbolism of the objects apart, what is of interest to a decorator are the fabric of the garments, the hangings, the carpet and the floor.

First, the carpet, known as a Holbein carpet, perhaps for obvious reasons, is 16th century Ushak, with a pattern of squares, octagons, or stars. The Holbein carpet is one of many depictions of Turkish carpets and rugs in paintings for in the way that Holbein lent his name to a style of carpet so too did the artist Lorenzo Lotto. The Lotto carpet, made in the in the 16th and 17th centuries along the Agean coast of Anatolia, was depicted at least ten times by Lorenzo Lotto in his work. 

The hangings and the clerical robe of the man on the right are made of the same ancient weave that we still value highly today. Apparently first made in China, India, Persia and Syria, used in Byzantium and came to the West where it was first known by its Byzantine name of diaper. Damascus, in the 12th century was so famous for the beauty of its textiles that it gave the cloth its modern name, damask.

The floor is what is known as a Cosmati pavement named for a Roman family of marble craftstmen working during the 12th and 13th centuries, who created floors and wall decorations in geometrical patterns by reusing marble stripped from ancient Roman ruins. 

A Cosmati floor would be stunning in any modern building, especially a residence. Would one need a Holbein or a Lotto carpet on the floor? Maybe not, but why not show that carpet the respect it deserves by draping it as Holbein did on a table or against a wall? Could one use such large scale damask as wall hangings nowadays? Perhaps a superb alternative to the standard two coats of latex. 

Why not?

Three ingredients for a wonderful contemporary interior using ambassadors from the past. 

To be continued. 

Monday, March 30, 2009

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Rainy day ....

... morning light.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

.... devoted to literature .....

"Mrs. Jamieson's drawing-room was cheerful; the evening sun came streaming into it, and the large square window was clustered around with flowers.  The furniture was white and gold; not the later style, Louis Quatorze, I think they call it, all shells and twirls; no, Mrs. Jamieson's chairs and tables had not a curve or a bend about them.  The chair and table legs diminished as they neared the ground, and were straight and square in all their corners.  The chairs were all a-row against the walls, with the exception of four or five, which stood in a circle around the fire.  They were railed with white bars across the back, and nobbed with gold; neither the railings nor the nobs invited to ease.  There was a japanned table devoted to literature, on which lay a Bible, a Peerage, and a Prayer-Book.  There was another square Pembroke table dedicated to the Fine Arts, on which were a kaleidoscope, conversation-cards, puzzle-cards (tied together to an interminable length with faded pink satin ribbon), and a box painted in fond imitation of the drawings which decorate tea-chests.  Carlo lay on the worsted-worked rug, and ungraciously barked at us as we entered.  Mrs. Jamieson stood up, giving each a torpid smile of welcome, and looking helplessly beyond us at Mr. Mulliner, as if she hoped he would place us in chairs, for, if he did not, she never could.  I suppose he thought we could find our way to the circle around the fire, which reminded me of Stonehenge, I don't know why."

Friday, March 27, 2009

Who knew ........

..... that one small drop of lemon juice could reveal so much? 

According to the authors of Decorating for Dummies if you drop some lemon juice on your tongue you can tell whether you are introvert or extrovert by the reaction of your mouth to this small amount of acid. If you salivate then you're probably introvert but if your mouth stays dry then the opposite, you're extrovert and this difference is reflected, it is suggested, in your personal style. 

This attractive truism is a reflection of my personal situation where there have been times when after what seems like the mother of all battles about fabric, color - you name it - I've reached for the bottle, either to use as a club or as anesthetic. Just recently, we have been battling about the color of the new library - blue/green as it became, and a color we both love, or the off-white "Clunch" from Farrow and Ball. Now the debate is about the textiles for the reupholstering of the library sofa and chairs. Some people might think we're arguing about trivia but if it matters to you, it matters.  I'll come back to this subject in a subsequent post. 

The authors suggest that next time you give a party serve Lemon Drops "a slice of lemon, a dollop of sugar, and vodka" and I am taking their advice, in this at least. 

So, here it is, the Friday cocktail, thanks again to Nigella from Forever Summer and somewhat more chic than the above taste test.

Lemon Drop

1 lemon peeled and quartered
1 tablespoon granulated sugar
4 tablespoons limoncello
4 tablespoons Triple Sec
handful of ice cubes

Whizz all in a blender and "when everything's combined, thickened and ice-white, pour into large tumbler and knock back."

Makes 1

Who knew?  

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Hand blocked prints

I love a hand blocked textile, especially hand blocked linen. I love the imprecise precision, the uneven impression, the modulated color - things in themselves not important but which in total add up to a kind of lively beauty a machine could never reproduce.

What I love more than the front is the back. The front is a bravura exercise in color and form, strong and impudent, but the back where the dye has been forced unevenly through the weave is reticent, abraded and watercolorish. 

Compare the images of this beautiful Lee Jofa cotton chintz, Amazon: the front above and the back below. Do you see how the front remains firmly in the 19th century (though introduced in 1993) whilst the back crosses the fin-de-siecle and moves towards impressionism? 

Who could not love this?

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Just because ....

..... it is Wednesday. 

Fragonard's The Reader.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Around the corner ....

As mentioned yesterday, this is one of the survivors. 

Built in 1922 as the 696 Peachtree Apartments then converted to the Hotel Peachtree Manor in 1947, it was restored in 1986. Hentz, Reid and Adler were the architects with Philip Shutze being named as Designer.

According to the AIA Guide to the Architecture of Atlanta: 

"On the Peachtree Street facade, limestone ornaments focus on the slightly projecting central portion: a two-story arched entrance surrounded by heavy rustication incorporates a pedimented opening at its top; swags of fruit and flowers decorate the upper stairway window. The vertical thrust of this pedimented portion is counterbalanced by the stringcourse between the second and third floors and dentiled band at the top."

This condominium, now known as 826 Peachtree Street, is a stately survivor from before corporate modernism, inviting in a way that no undressed concrete could be.  Look at the warm brick contrasted with the cool limestone, and above all, look at the human scale. 

Worth a detour in the car or as part of a Sunday walk.  

Monday, March 23, 2009

Concrete and commerce

Why do I care that this old apartment house on 7th Street in Atlanta is so pitifully dilapidated? If it ever was a chic place to live I don't know of it and I cannot find my AIA Guide to the Architecture of Atlanta to check. Its location just off Peachtree Street around the corner, so to speak, from a Philip Shutze apartment building suggests that it might at one time have been a very pleasant and possibly fashionable place to live. It is falling down and probably not regretted but could it not be saved? 

It is facile to romance the past and find modern times and styles lacking in culture but when I compare this building, with its quietly classical door case, arched window above, topped by a cartouche and swags, with the barracks-like building behind, I cannot help but regret that this little jewel is allowed to fall to bits.  

Peachtree Street until the 1960s was lined with houses - churches oddly located in the middle of the commercial sprawl remind of communities that once stood there - survivors like this building, a Shutze Georgian style row of shops, Rhodes Hall near Buckhead, and a few others that the developers forgot - gently speak in the old polite way that it wasn't always about concrete and commerce. 

Sunday, March 22, 2009

View from my sofa ....

..... early morning light.

Friday, March 20, 2009

Fragonard ......

.... the Vernal Equinox and a cocktail.

I'm enjoying a short vacation at home and somehow I just noticed it's Spring. So, rather than post a picture of new growth I thought a new birth might be more appropriate, especially when its by one of my favorite 18th century painters, Jean-Honore Fragonard. 

Also, it gives me an opportunity to give another Friday cocktail .... 

a Fragonard

1 bottle sparkling white wine
1 pint strawberries, pureed
2 tablespoons creme de fraise

for 6

As Nigella, from whose book Forever Summer this comes, says "Think Bellini, only with pureed strawberries." In Italy, apparently, this drink is known as a Rossini. 

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Ex Libris

All three still are good reads especially as they belong to past times long gone. Homes, Sweet Homes is a delight and better about styles than any college text ever was. I learned more from this book, had a good chuckle, and realized none of it needs to be taken too seriously.

The likes of The Saturday Book is no longer to be found in any modern form. As the name implied, it was a book to dip into, be surprised, be diverted for a chapter or two, to put down and come back to later. The very concept of such a book is gone and that's a pity.

Nikolaus Pevsner's Pioneers of Modern Design, first published in 1936, is a tracing of the roots of Modernism to origins in socialism the 19th century. A wonderful book. Dated? Maybe, but if you think for yourself you'll get it. 


Tuesday, March 17, 2009

1972 - Outspoken comment by William Haines

In 1972 Architectural Digest published a great interview with William Haines. Entitled Designer William Haines' Outspoken Comments, it is a real window into attitudes of nearly 40 years ago and into how a great decorator, for that is what he called himself, thought about his process, his clients and his profession. Of course, some of it is dated, some of it sexist, some elitist, some still current, but all of it is fascinating.

"Design is an opinion, not a profession."

"I loathe cozy cottages. They were made for farmers and peasants, not ladies and gentlemen."

"I contend there's no decorator in the world who can make a house good if the architecture is bad."

"Who can say what good taste is and what is bad? I don't know what taste is. It's like a fog ... you can see it and feel it, but you can never touch it."

"A house is a shell. The people who live in that house make it come alive and no designer in the world can do that for them. They have to make it their home. They must possess the house; it should not possess them."

"Trends? There are all sorts of epidemics." 

"Which came first, fashion or interior design? In the time of Louis XV, armchairs were designed to accommodate the ladies' voluminous gowns. Today we have big, deep sofas because we are a reclining culture. We sit more on the back of our necks than our derrieres."

Enjoyable though the article is, and there are many more statements like those above, for me the most pleasurable part is the photo of the room below - a delightful combination of architectural modernism, English or American Rococo, 18th century crystal, Mexican painting, neoclassical fireplace with caryatids and the beautifully updated klismos in the dining room, above. 

The roots of modern decorating are all here - the mix as it was in 1972 and not bettered since.

As William Haines said, "We're coming back into the sterility of the fifties today with all the plastic, the chromes and the mirrors. All that is going to be a cliche. Plastics are wonderful and we use them. But you do not divorce them from the past. You mix. Life is the same way. Interiors are becoming clinical. Decorators are softening the look a bit with using furs and skins. Of course, that's not new. A lot of us decorators did that in the thirties. Our best modern work was done twenty-one or twenty-two years ago, and it still stands up."

Change the date, change the materials, change the shapes, but the principles remain - "If you're designing modern, use the past."

At the end of the article it was stated that Mr. Haines like so many people did not want his home available on supermarket news stands, but Architectural Digest subscribers being both friends and clientele made the difference and helped the story be exclusive to the magazine. 

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Character studies ....

The Awakening Conscience by William Holman Hunt tells a story of what was once called a 'fallen woman.' It is a genre painting depicting an up-to-the-minute interior of the 1850s in all its shiny newness furnished solely for the man's mistress. It is a moralizing painting drawing parallels between the shoddy new furnishings and the shoddiness of the woman's role as mistress. 

We don't think in the same moralizing way today - at least we don't express our judgements of character in terms of decorating, for in our society any celebrity's interior is worth photographing despite character, actions or morality, simply because these interiors are designed by a celebrity, for a celebrity and are laden with celebrity objects. We seem to have lost the requirement of judging someone by their interiors.

Yet interiors can be easy to read: take the following example from one of my favorite detective novels, The Death of a Doll, by Hilda Lawrence. It was first published in 1947 and the following is a device illustrating the character of one of the protagonists. 

"On the other side of the fire door, Miss Brady stopped. 'This is Miss Small's' she said. 'Go in and wait. Would you like coffee?'

'No thanks.' Trying to be nice, he thought. Knows she's in a bad spot. When she left, he made a shameless tour of the two rooms, telling himself that a woman's bric-a-brac said more than words, and chairs and tables could be garrulous. Little Miss Small emerged. No natural taste, he decided, but a good eye for copying. Given enough time, more money, and the right example, the arty desk with the bad veneer and the fake pearl inlay would fall into the lap of the Salvation Army. Bought it in the first place because she thought it looked opulent. 

One lamp shade in the bedroom was covered with bluebirds, meticulously feathered, and the bedspread was machine-made lace over bright blue silk. He remembered that another flock of bluebirds, in colored glass, had nested on the lapel of Miss Small's well-cut suit. Shoddy background, he told himself, but fairly quick to catch on. When she realizes that her friend is expensively unadorned, she'll chuck the fancywork too. In another two years she'll have the foolproof accent and say damn like a lady."

Friday, March 13, 2009

Friday night cocktail ....

.... and dinner

Tonight I began the evening with a Whiskey Sour, a cocktail I went to bed thinking about last night. Whiskey, lemon juice, powdered sugar, egg white for froth - that seemed to be what I remembered.

So, tonight sitting quietly in the restaurant with my beloved whilst waiting for friends I ordered a whiskey sour and at the first sip was Proust-like taken back - in my case to a night in Greenwich Village many cocktails ago. A hot August night it was, walking around the Village with friends: those same friends who introduced me to Willa Cather; to the Village itself; to the first loft I ever saw; to Manhattan bars; to the Clam Broth House in Hoboken NJ; to the Garrison NY railroad station where I met Miss Dolly Levi; to Olana and the Hudson River School: to Hyde Park; and more importantly,  to the richness of culture of the country I'd loved from afar but which in my British isolation had been taught to discount. 

Willa Cather led me to Eudora Welty and she led me to .... well I could go on for hours about my love of American literature and the way the land and the people are invoked in such clear, simple ways: the people of the South, of Appalachia, of the West, of the far North - my love affair is long-standing and runs deep. 

So, the Whiskey Sour, which in its Americanness evoked in me reminiscence, melancholy and a certain philosophical mood has left me wondering why I ever gave away Death Comes for the Archbishop, Shadows on the Rock and O, Pioneers, these books I loved and had meant so much to me. That opening of the inner eye is now for other experiences but let me tell you when I first read O, Pioneers it was as if a whole new landscape had opened up for me - and it had in a way, for it was the landscape of the mind, my American mind.

It's good to go back, even years and many cocktails later. 

Dinner? At Dogwood, was ham and pimento cheese blue grits, followed by a plate of seared foie gras with black pepper brioche French toast, fried quail egg, and truffled maple syrup. Wine for the four of us was a Luigi Bosca Malbec. 

Thursday, March 12, 2009

1972 - Another in occasional series about walls

These walls from William Haines' living room are clad in a hand-blocked Empire wallpaper depicting Pizarro's conquest of Peru. Though nearly forty years old this room is as modern today as it was then and that has nothing to do with retro-marketing of the last few years. 

It is complex, texturally layered, mica-tinted, altogether chic and inviting and I confess is more attractive to me than all the neutered pallid rooms filled with "classics" from the early and middle days of Modernism.  I know, I know, a Barcelona chair is beautiful but it is only a chair, not an icon, and its hell on the back - on mine, at least. And don't get me started about bent plywood! 

In William Haines' room one could sit one leg over the other, cigarette in hand, a glass of smoky single malt icily deliquescing in the other, munching hors d'oeuvres and ruminating on the latest from the Nixon White House tapes, all the while wondering what Brooks Brothers was thinking when they allowed your wife to buy these socks . 

The photo is from illustrated interview with Mr. Haines in which he is deliciously opinionated: 

"American architecture is the best in the world. In Europe they haven't done anything since the eighteenth century." 

To be continued ...... about Mr. Haines, that is. 

Monday, March 9, 2009

Echoes ....

... of the Fall of the Roman Empire? 

I won't go too far with that analogy but just mention the echoes, not of financial chaos, but of Roman and Renaissance architecture seen here in this Atlanta bank building. On the front there is a suggestion of a Palladian window and on the side, almost hidden behind the solar panel on a pole is a vestige of a Thermal window. 

Thermal, in this case, having nothing to do with heat control, is derived from the Latin word for warm spring and by extension, bathhouse, thermae.

The Palladian window, also known as the Serlian window, and across the pond as a Venetian window is actually misnamed in this case, for Palladio did not invent it. However, we call it a Palladian window, and so it remains, right or wrong. 

Classical architecture well into the 20th century was the favored style of banking because of its ties to authority. There's a whole digression here into the concept of a temple of money which I will spare you at least for today. Having said that, it is good to see a playful take on Classicism in a city that is so traditional and typically sticks to reproducing the classics, lock, stock and barrel. Post Modernists could never go wholeheartedly into a return to Classicism but gave an impression of such without the underlying discipline. 

This bank looks almost as if it is a Classical building from which all the details, the columns, the entablature, etc., have been stripped. 

Saturday, March 7, 2009

My next visit

"My next visit to Cranford was in the summer. There had been neither births, deaths, nor marriages since I was there last. Everybody lived in the same house, and wore pretty nearly the same well-preserved old-fashioned clothes. The greatest event was, that the Miss Jenkynses had purchased a new carpet for the drawing-room. Oh, the busy work Miss Matty and I had in chasing the sunbeams, as they fell in an afternoon right down on this carpet through the blindless window! We spread newspapers over the places, and sat down to our book or to our work; and lo! in quarter of an hour the sun had moved, and was blazing away at a fresh spot; and down again we went on our knees to alter the position of the newspapers. We were very busy, too, one whole morning, before Miss Jenkyns gave her party, in following her directions, and in cutting out and stitching together pieces of newspaper so as to form little paths to every chair set for the expected visitors, lest their shoes might dirty or defile the the purity of the carpet. Do you make paper paths for every guest to walk upon in London?"

Friday, March 6, 2009

“You can drag a horticulture ........ "

It is Friday and given that somewhere in the Empire the sun is over the yard arm, it is time for a drink, preferably a gin and Dubonnet. My favorite place for a drink of a Friday evening or any evening for that matter, is the Oak Room at the Algonquin Hotel. I know there are lobbies infinitely more fashionable but the Algonquin with its deep dark oak paneling, golden nicotine tinted murals, pompous old long-case clock and really uncomfortable furniture just works for me.  I love it. I first went at the invitation of an old friend before the theater and go back whenever I'm in the city. That same evening I learned about Dorothy Parker and the rest of the Algonquin Round Table, or as they called themselves, the Vicious Circle.

"You can drag a horticulture, but you can't make her think." Dorothy Parker 

Thursday, March 5, 2009

1958 - The second in an occasional series about walls

Painted in 1958 by American artist William Hankinson in what the owner, Earl Blackwell, describes as a Venetian style. Mr. Blackwell, born in Atlanta, said that in his estimation fewer than three ballrooms were extant in New York and his was one of them. He was not sure how wide the room was but he knew it to be fifty feet long and twenty seven feet high.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

A visit to an old bachelor

"When he and I went in, we found that dinner was nearly ready in the kitchen - for so I suppose the room ought to be called, as there were oak dressers and cupboards all round, all over by the side of the fireplace, and only a small Turkey carpet in the middle of the flag-floor. The room might have been easily made into a handsome dark oak dining-parlour by removing the oven and a few other appurtenances of a kitchen, which were evidently never used, the real cooking-place being at some distance. The room in which we were expected to sit was a stiffly furnished, ugly apartment; but that in which we did sit was what Mr. Holbrook called the counting-house, when he paid his labourers their weekly wages at a great desk near the door. The rest of the pretty sitting room - looking into the orchard, and all covered over with dancing tree-shadows - was filled with books. They lay on the ground, they covered the walls, they strewed the table. He was evidently half-ashamed and half-proud of his extravagance in this respect. They were of all kinds - poetry and weird tales prevailing. He evidently chose his books in accordance with his own tastes, not because such and such were classical or established favourites.

'Ah!' he said, 'we farmers ought not to have much time for reading; yet somehow one can't help it' "