Sunday, October 23, 2011

Crossing the Rubicon

The other morning at the only surviving bookstore in this part of town, ready to be persuaded despite the histrionic title that I really needed to have the latest book by a well-known decorator, an erstwhile favorite of mine, and someone, I'm sure, nominated tastemaker and trend-setter many times over. I wasn't going to buy the book then and there because, being willing to defer gratification by a few days, I intended to order it online. In the end, though, after going through the book twice, I decided not to buy it at all. When a book, to my eye, is nothing more than a series of vignette after déshabille vignette, I find, much to my and undoubtedly the Celt's relief, that I no longer can be persuaded that I really need a book for its potential historical value, especially when, disconcertingly, I hear myself saying I might not live long enough for it to become history.

However, this isn't going to be a criticism of that particular decorator's work or even about the fatuous language used when writing about celebrity interior designers (tastemaker and trendsetter) or those that wish to be so - rather more a plea for fewer vignettes and less styling thereof.  Perhaps I'm being lazy, but sometimes it's hard to understand how a room as a whole works. I'm sure I don't need to elucidate because you've all seen the petal and leaf bestrewn table tops, the asymmetrically arranged mini-gallery of mini-art, assortments of trinkets disposed on bookshelves and on and under tables, darling little lamps on kitchen countertops ........ well, you've seen 'em all and possibly loved 'em all as well!

Dear reader, it is what it is.

One of the more restrained and interesting riffs on the Post-Modernism of the 1980s, a mix of allusion and illusion, modern with the seeming old, David Whitcomb's four pavilions connected to a long hall, an eighty-five-foot-long spine, set high on a ridge overlooking the Hudson River was, I thought at the time, one of the most exciting houses published in the 1980s. I still find it interesting but, to be honest, not quite as exciting as it once was.

Perhaps my eye is a lot more critical than it was twenty or thirty years ago and Whitcomb's house is very definitely of its time. Not that I wish to imply that for a house to date is a bad thing but there are some decades, being afflicted by extremes as were the 1980s, that have a very strong flavor and cannot but date.


I struggled with what I wrote above (a train of thought I still cannot complete) about as much as I struggled with the feeling that sometime during the the late spring and early summer I crossed a personal Rubicon, and over the last month I came to realize my own "summer stream"(to misquote H V Morton)* had dried up. Many a time I've opened this post to continue writing and each time I went away frustrated with myself. It is clear to me, much as did the Rubicon of old, I must set a new course.

*H V Morton, a fellow Lancastrian, prolific travel writer and, for me, a newly-discovered pleasure and one of the positive aspects of what I suppose has been a kind of writer's block. In the hopes of finding a remedy, I haunted the university library and found many a book to occupy me and dampen my frustration - Max Beerbohm's A Christmas Garland, E M Forster's short stories The Life to Come, Tiger in the Smoke by Margery Allingham, Kate Atkinson's Started Early, Took My DogWilde's Devoted Friend by Maureen Borland, and Chasing Aphrodite by Jason Felch and Ralph Frammolino.

A Traveller in Italy by H V Morton, not actually found in the library but given to me recently by my old college professor - a happy coincidence given that we are planning our own travels in Italy - is a such a pleasure to read. I cannot say travel writing is a genre that has heretofore particularly interested me but I can see me reaching for more of Morton's books, especially those about Rome. The Fountains of Rome was a darn good read if a little too heavy (physically) for bedtime reading.

"A few miles north of Rimini, on the coast road to Ravenna, I came to a trickle of summer water that was flowing under a bridge. Its name was the Rubicon. It was once the boundary between Cisalpine Gaul and Rome, and any general who crossed it with his army, without the permission of the Senate, was committing rebellion. Caesar crossed it because his spies had told him that his enemies in the capital were plotting his downfall, and he knew he had to march on Rome or perish.........

"It is curious how often famous rivers fail to live up to their associations: the Tiber is not much to look at, and the Jordan is hardly wider than the Rubicon. In winter, of course, the Rubicon, like all torrents, would be formidable, and Caesar forded it on January 10, in the year 48 B.C., which, as the unreformed calendar was about seven weeks ahead of the sun, would really have been during the November floods. As I stood looking at this stream, to me one of the most thought-provoking sights in Italy, cars, motor-cycles, scooters, coaches, and caravans continued to rush past; and during the few moments I was there several hundred people must have crossed the Rubicon without being aware of it."

Photographs by Langdon Clay to accompany text written by Gini Alhadeff for Architectural Digest. Architecture by WM. Richard McGilvray and interior design by David Whitcomb. I cannot cite the date of publication yet.


  1. I have been in this house a half a dozen times over the years, Magical, quirky, maddening, and genius, all in one. A period piece, yes, but one that takes your breath away. I love it, and feel honored to have been able to cross its transom, welcomed within. Reggie

  2. Whitcomb, the house that inspired Toby Worthington's brilliant phrase, "Butch Classical."

    P.S. Blue, beware of books that claim anyone knows which little stream is/was the Rubicon, because no one does.

  3. Reggie Darling, thank you. I hope I did not give the impression I disliked the house - as I said in one paragraph what I had written was an incomplete thought.

  4. The Ancient, thank you. I googled the Rubicon as I was reading H V Morton's book and was surprised to find the river unidentifiable nowadays. Still, it was useful for my purposes in signaling a change of tack.

  5. I still love the concept behind the design of the house. It would be interesting to see how the decoration has evolved, if at all.

  6. It's almost embarrassing to look back upon our enthusiasm for the great post-modernist biennale, which I haven't done in years. I welcome this posting enormously, but I wish it were more flawed in a way, because it draws one's attention to a protracted period of wasted time. I do not happen to feel this way about certain works in the International Style (cf., Gordon Bunshaft's residence in East Hampton or Breuer's in Litchfield for Rufus Stillman), of which post-modernism was allegedly a cure.

    I don't wish to exploit your guestbook argumentatively, however. There can be no doubt that readers will quite gratefully follow you through any tacking maneuver, gladly encouraging where we can.

  7. The Devoted Classicist, thank you. How a house is photographed contributes, I think, to how it dates. Interestingly, in none of these photographs except the hall, perhaps, is it possible to see all of the spaces in their entirety. This definitely one house I would have liked to have seen more of - David Whitcomb was such a pleasant rediscovery I wish I had known him. I have liked all that was published.

  8. Laurent, thank you. It is time post-modernism or, at least, the 1980s versions of it were reassessed. I found much of the theory behind it more than a little fatuously self-important.

    I have found the more I write about interior designers the less I can tolerate what is happening in the business today - design as opposed to decoration seems to have taken a minor role. Also, the social aspects of interior design have always interested me ..... but, that is for another post, I think.