Monday, November 5, 2012


Strafed by flies circling the only sunny spot on the restaurant terrace, ruminating on both bread and life, and glamoured by the play of light on the tabletop, I listened as I sipped my bourbon to the Celt and my old professor discuss the worth of voting in Georgia. And as I sipped, it occurred to me that theirs was but a continuation of a conversation I been overhearing across our acquaintance for weeks now.

A few weeks ago I sat at dinner with people who, mostly, could have been my children's age and, as if personally involved, were talking about celebrity derring-do. Now, I recognize this kind of conversation is nothing more than oiling the wheels of social interaction, but there are times – many, actually – when I cannot take part because I have little if any idea of whom this or that person is. Despite the merriment – and it was a merry evening – my mind wandered as I looked around me at the Chippendale chairs and the chandelier, prismatic and tinkling above our heads... thinking, as one does, how much I might resemble a tipsy eighteenth-century squire surrounded by kith and kin in his newly-bought dining room. I thought too of a style of furniture that in its heyday (a day not yet gone by in Atlanta) had, with regional inflections, spanned the Continent, Great Britain and its burgeoning empire. As I sat there, an occasion from nearly twenty years ago and, to me, very eighteenth-century in feel, came to mind: we'd been taken to lunch by a business acquaintance at his wife's grandparents house, and the grandfather during the meal went to his Chippendale sideboard, quietly took out a chamber pot, pissed into it, put it back in its place, and reseated himself at the head of the table. Bewildering, bothering or bewitching, I couldn't decide – but sure as hell I have remembered it.

I was brought back to table from my eighteenth-century reverie of squiredom, fox-hunting and common land enclosures, by a tale of a local decorator – a friend of the speaker – who'd shocked him and his partner by announcing that they should "vote with their wallets" rather than on social issues. My question, after listening for a little while longer, and perhaps a little too forcefully interjected, was why he and his partner would consider that person a friend if she was supporting a candidate who clearly would deny them the civil rights they considered to be theirs.

In the wee hours of Sunday morning, home again from the two parties we'd attended, we drank a nightcap with two men bewildered by the number of their friends who would, as they saw it, vote their rights away for the sake of a tax break and were trying to persuade them to follow suit. During that conversation I remembered a pamphlet* published some thirty years ago that queried why we seek for the good wishes of those whom we allow to oppress us. As I recollect it, it was a piece of polemic, uncompromising in nature, and it has influenced me ever since – despite the accommodations and compromises that sometimes, over the years, whether unthinkingly or not, I have made and continue to make.

One way or another, it will be a different world on Wednesday morning. But either way, there will still be much to be fought for.

* With Downcast Gays: Aspects of Homosexual Self-Oppression. Andrew Hodges and David Hutter

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Il faut meubler l'interieur de soi-même

I don't care to know the hour
'Cause it's passing anyway
I don't have to see tomorrow 
'Cause I saw it yesterday 
Though I'm living and I'm singing
And although my hands still play
Soon enough it will be over
Cause tomorrow is today

Reading, as I was this morning, Derek Hill's eulogy of Roderick Cameron (my copy of Remembering Rory is dedicated to Natasha and Stephen) I came across a phrase "il faut meubler l'interieur de soi-même" that fit exactly with what I had been thinking recently – not that I think in French, of course, but am trying to do so in Italian and non è facile let me tell you.

I had been thinking was how impersonal our flat had become – neutral ground for the interaction of two very dissimilar personalities that have gently rubbed each other smooth over the last thirty-odd years – and smooth seemed to be the best thing I could say about the living room – an equivalent, in decorating terms, of an Aesthetic heroine, pale, wan and terribly, terribly tasteful.

"Someone ought to be able to enjoy these" said the neighbor, handing me a bunch of zinnias as I opened the door to him. "We're going away for a few days and wondered if you'd like them." And enjoy them we did, for the few days they lasted. I took a picture of the zinnias – their colors a lodestar in the grey morning light in the grey room and, idling away a second or two before my coffee was ready, took another of their reflection in the tabletop. Just like that, the lens having focussed on the layer of dust, I had myself an image somewhat emblematic of my mood of the past few months - seeing, with all the attendant obscurities, through a glass darkly.

This grey morning, ceilinged as I am – embower'd going too far, perhaps – in morning glories and enchanted by chuckling hummingbirds, I feel it's time to write again and perhaps, equally importantly, it being as much a milestone as beginning to write, to redecorate the living room.

I know ikat is faddish and everyone has it, and it really sucks to admit this, but we have two ikat-look brocade pillows in both of our newly–favorite colors, Schiaparelli pink and orange – zinnia colors if ever there were any – on the newish sofa. Much as with the zinnias, the new pillows light up the doldrums the living room and have suggested a solution to a problem we've been discussing seemingly forever – new curtains. A decision, finally, was made and the fabric  ordered and is on its way to the workroom and will return to hang at the windows as curtains of a glowing fuchsia linen - emblematic, if curtains can be said to be, of new paths, if only neural ones.

Il faut meubler l'interieur de soi-même, indeed.

Those of you who recognize the quotation beginning this post as being from Billy Joel's Tomorrow is Today will understand where I have been over the summer and if you do not, it doesn't matter. I shall return, amongst other things, to my Circles within Circles theme over the coming weeks.

Saturday, July 21, 2012

Dear Variable Name

She signed, in a very personable manner, with a "sincerely for House Beautiful" and addressed me as "Dear" but for some reason Julia Crislip was under the impression that my name was Variable Name. I really do wonder how could she have got that wrong for, seemingly, she knows me well – "as a former subscriber, you know better than anyone the value of House Beautiful ...  and how it truly provides indispensable tips and ideas for decorating projects big and small." 

Well, Ms Crislip, let's discuss why I am a "former subscriber" and do not intend to become a member of that group you describe as "returning subscribers like yourself." For a while, whilst Stephen Drucker was the editor, I thought House Beautiful began to be mildly interesting and, yes, I had a subscription but what drove me away was not so much the increasing diminution of interest – what I saw as an over-emphasis on props and vignettes – but more the way the subscription was handled – for I found my subscription had been automatically renewed, although I had not asked for that. This was in the days before potential subscribers were informed of this service. When I enquired about the surprising end of subscription date on the magazine label the man in your call center was quite snippy and when I reacted by canceling the subscription he informed me I would not receive the balance for that year. It's not a decision I regret, judging by what I see when I flip through the magazine on the newsstands. 

In other words, Ms Crislip, not only have you been let down by another employee, but you are not served well by your proofreaders. As it happens, my name is not Variable Name. The words below the black frame – Mousetype goes here. Mousetype goes here. Mousetype goes here. etc. – only underscore that this request for my attention should have been more thoroughly checked before sending. I'm assuming this is where the legal fine print belongs, that perhaps only mice read.

If something so sloppy gets out of the advertising department might it suggest, perhaps, a lack of quality in the bigger picture? 

Sincerely, but with tongue firmly in cheek, and in the knowledge that we all make mistakes,

Blue for The Blue Remembered Hills

Saturday, July 14, 2012

For the rain it raineth every day

"Well," I said, "if you are going to surprise me, first let me get used to the idea. You've known me over thirty years, you know how that goes..." One night recently, just as I settled in bed to read my latest m/m e-mystery/romance, the Celt, not usually given to causing me a sleepless night, remarked "I know you don't like surprises, but..."

He waited two days – almost long enough for me to get used to the idea – before handing me a green wrapped book over dinner, and saying "I'm dying to tell you and I can't wait any longer. Open this." And a surprise it was – a guide book for Vancouver, a city I've long been curious about, a city thronged with cousins whose family name I no longer remember, and where the Celt had decided we would spend five days to celebrate my birthday.

I wouldn't go as far as to quote Wordsworth – "Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive, but to be young was very heaven..." and I'm not sure how many of you would understand if I stated it made me very happy to have five days of unrelievedly grey skies, low temperatures and almost constant, gentle rain – but blissful it was.

It's easy to miss the simple pleasures of life in a maritime climate – the buttoning of a raincoat, the unfurling of an umbrella from which descends a patter of rain, soft as a child's heartbeat, bestowing a sense of well-being unmatched even by the slow seep through the stitches of a boat shoe, the lap of water against moored boats, or the grey veils wrapping the hills and valleys of the horizon.

There's water everywhere in Vancouver; the first city other than Rome where I've said I'd like to live when I retire (– oh, wait...) Water, not just in the form of eight months of "liquid sunshine" as our driver gloomily called it, but also in the form of fountains, cascades, rills and pools. Everywhere we looked there were references, realized in stone and tile, to waterfalls, torrents, cataracts, trickles and spates. Set amongst modern buildings – vertiginous cliffs of concrete and glass inundated by outbursts of green – water sounded its melodies.

One of the pleasures of Vancouver is that it is such a walkable city; and walk we did – miles each day, along the waterfront, the harbor, through the streets and the parks. An essential, especially with all that walking, is an afternoon nap – or, if not a nap then a rest flat out with a book. It was during one of those stops that it occurred to me that if where one lived were well-designed, that space need not be large. "I could live here," I said to an unheeding Celt already deep into his nap.

Could we, I wonder, live in the equivalent of a reasonably-sized hotel room – in what essentially is one room with attendant bathroom and storage? It's not that I'm in any rush to find out, but none of us, it seems to me, needs much space. We might aspire to more space than we inhabit but, it occurred to me as I lay there that afternoon, it's the things we own and display that inhabit more square footage than we ourselves do. No epiphany this, just a simple realization in personal terms that if we were less burdened by things we could live in a more efficiently planned space dedicated to physical need rather than to the display of possessions that, essentially, we allow to own us.

Eventually my musings drove us both to the bar for cocktails before we set out for dinner. It is clear to me that a good Manhattan is rare. A Manhattan is my drink, as the Negroni is the Celt's. They are what we order regularly and I can tell you it's a pretty hit-and-miss affair. In a world of "signature" cocktails and droll experimentation with distillates and tinctures, it is a pleasure to get what you ask for.  

My "Perfect" Perfect Manhattan
Two ounces Bulleit Rye
1/2 ounce Carpano Antica Formula vermouth
1/2 ounce Dolin dry vermouth
A dash of bitters 

The Celt's Negroni 
Equal parts Campari and Antica Formula vermouth and Hendrick's gin.
Stirred and served with a single large ice cube

The Globe Trotter, a curiosity I had in the hotel bar
1 1/2 ounces Jim Beam bourbon
3/4 ounce Cynar
1/2 ounce Campari
Dash Demarara syrup
Two dashes black walnut bitters 

Seemingly in Canada no more than three ounces of liquor may grace a glass at any one time. This makes for very small cocktails! 

Thursday, June 21, 2012

When I wore a younger man's clothes

There's an old man sitting next to me
Makin' love to his tonic and gin
He says, Son can you play me a memory
I'm not really sure how it goes
But it's sad and it's sweet and I knew it complete
When I wore a younger man's clothes

The roots of a personal aesthetic are often pretty obscure – the mind in its alluvial process gradually burying its secrets – until as in my case, walking into the supermarket, my caravan, the first place I made my own, appeared in all its silvery glory in my mind's eye. I'd never forgotten it, or how it was destroyed, but it took me a long time, fifty-odd years, to know why it was reduced to sticks - the mind in all its obtuseness revealing a fossil when least expected.

It stood, my gypsy caravan, on some land my grandfather had – an old allotment, I think, with unused greenhouses whitewashed against the sun, and in the beds, mounds of pinks overrun with meadow grass – stood silvery, all paint and decoration gone, backing onto a hawthorn hedge under which grew foxgloves and ferns.

Looking back it was stupid, to keep muscle magazines in the caravan, but my bedroom was no longer a viable option after the long and loud berating I'd received from my grandmother. I cannot but think of "And when did you last see your father?" each time I remember that charming occasion.

A solitary child, watchful and guarded, as many of us become when we begin to realize the difference that doesn't lift but certainly separates, the caravan had, over a couple of years, become my home-from-home - a real refuge, or so I thought. I hadn't furnished it – I was thirteen and pocket money was pretty scarce – but I had built a primitive fireplace from a defunct rockery. I loved to sit in the sun on the steps or, on a rainy day, on the floor, back against the wall facing the open door.

That day, the day I was reduced to having but one home and an unquiet one at that, I walked through the gate and found my caravan – and it remains, my caravan – had been wrenched and hammered into a pile of sticks. It took me a lifetime to understand the hatred of difference personified in that vandalism.

Of course, my muscle magazines had been found again and this time by people who spread the knowledge around the whole estate, most of whom were waiting for me on the other side of the stream, watching as they sent their champion down the banks to beat me up. He did not go unbloodied but I lost the only physical fight I've ever had, and what I remember more than the pain of my face was the pleasure that people who were my neighbors and, until that moment, trustworthy ones at that, took in my shame. What I also remember is the way nothing was said when I got home, either by me or by my grandparents.

I never went back. Yet in some ways I go back all the time for the appeal of silvery wood, the filtered light of whitewashed, even dirty, glass, the scent of pinks and the reek of creosote, minnows in clear flowing water, the frothy beauty of hawthorn and elderberry blossoms, the magnificence of foxgloves, birdsong, bluebells and buttercups, have accompanied me in my own journey west, if only now in my memory, in my own Calistoga wagon, and are the essence of both my aesthetic and my desire for refuge.

Do not imagine that my caravan was in any way as luxuriously decorated as the one you see here. Smaller than my present hall closet, it had bare boards for walls and floor, but two small square windows at either end, two more flanking the door, a set of shelves built-in above a tiny cupboard on top of which I kept an old, cracked ceramic vase (Art Nouveau, as I now know) that was as ugly as sin but somehow lightened the austerity of all that bare wood.

"Everything is designed to gleam and glitter in the soft lamplight. All the drawers and cupboard doors have carved crystal knobs; mirrors are set into walls around the shelves; china hangs and sways on hooks behind glass cupboard doors. The steel stove has its own gleaming fender.

"In this space, a miracle of compactness, there is a dining table, with a cupboard and plate rack above; a  wardrobe and red velvet bench seats all with storage cupboards below. There is a painted corner cupboard, shelves for bottles and glasses and a chest of drawers with a mahogany top for ornaments"*

This showman's caravan, no larger than seven feet wide and eighteen feet long, built by Orton and Spooner for a showground owner was top-of-the-line in 1900, as ornately decorated any house of the period and possibly cost as much. Though nowadays it would be considered by many to be claustrophobia-inducing, this "miracle of compactness" prefigures the modern-day Small House Movement.

I mention that my own hall closet is larger than this showman's caravan, not with any sense of pride, for it is neither a miracle of compactness nor a prodigy of sufficiency.  Rather, it is full of stuff that one somehow wants to need more than truly needs – living proof that the more space there is, the more alluvia there will be to fill it.

*Quotation from Grand Tourer written by Leslie Geddes-Brown to accompany photographs by Fritz von der Schulenberg for The World of Interiors, December 1989.

Title of post and beginning quotation from Billy Joel's Piano Man.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

To be or not to be – critical, that is

An interest in history has served me well in my musings about interior design and decorators. What has also served me well – though this, perhaps, is self-delusion – is my desire not to hurt feelings by being negative about my fellows or their work. The feeling that it is inappropriate to be critical is a form of self-censorship - a quality I do not, necessarily, adhere to in my private life. The idea that to criticize publicized work is to attack the maker is a demonstrable fallacy.

It may not be surprising that there is no formal structure for critique of interior design. What is surprising, however, is how little criticism there is – and, believe me, I've looked. Even in the dry-as-old-arseholes textbooks that are supposedly improving students all over the country, there's none. Oh, there are countless expressions of awe bespattering the blogosphere at the offerings in designer monographs and show houses and even on the part of editors about what is shown between the pages of their magazines, but wide-eyed reaction is neither critique nor an educated response by an observer. If a lobotomized "OMFG" (offensive on a number of levels) is as far as it goes, then we're in trouble.

Critique and criticism are closely related, but I want to use critique in the sense of impartial analysis and criticism with the meaning of personal judgement. Having said that, I am aware that the two at times can overlap.

For example, this chair could be critiqued against established criteria of proportion, line, function, suitability and historical accuracy. It could be criticized using a more personal set of standards where a conclusion about its looks and comfort is quickly reached – "love it" or "hate it." Both approaches are valid, but what complicates matters is the fact that it is part of a well-known and, it must be said, superb decorator's furniture collection. Some might say, therefore, that one should suspend judgement and simply accept her taste as being correct.

If branding trumps all, then the battle between opinion and analysis is lost before it is joined. The sole criterion is that of sales and marketing: was this chair a good seller for this decorator and has it advanced her brand value? Given the decorator's pedigree and industry status, it matters not that the chair legs might be considered stubbily ill-proportioned, the seat height unhappily low, the relationship between oval and rectangle in the back unfortunate.  Nor does its lightly implied Italian regal provenance add any weight on the plus side.

However, if one were to fly in the face of history, snap one's fingers at brand marketing, and attempt a formal structure of critique, what form might it take? One possible answer is something that every good designer already uses - a working knowledge of the elements and principles of design. At their simplest, these elements and principles are scale, proportion, balance, rhythm, emphasis and harmony. Concept could be included in the list – perhaps the most misunderstood of all, concept is frequently and erroneously interpreted as theme. There are other elements of design, of course, smell, light and color, sound, and ornament. An overriding principle and less tangible for discussion because it depends on individual requirements is suitability – not for magazine publication, which has become a norm, rather appropriateness for the client's life and (heaven forfend!) social aspirations.

Today, "the market" is de facto the sole criterion by which anything is judged. The best-seller lists rank books by their sales, rather than their literary merit. The value of a work of art is measured by what it brings at auction. Engineers calculate the likelihood of this or that catastrophic failure and decide whether or not a particular safety feature cost is "worth" the lives that it might save. More people watch Fox News than CNN, so the former is the "better" "news" channel. The value of a college degree is expressed in how much more money the graduate will make in a lifetime. Everything has its ROI.

But there are other criteria by which value can be judged (I don't mean Keats' Beauty is truth, truth beauty – that is all ye know on earth, and all ye need to know) the GRH for example. The Kingdom of Bhutan is the first country to measure not just GDP but also Gross National Happiness. Interesting concept, don't you think?

So, you may ask, what has all this to do with Geoffrey Bennison? Well, the answer to that is now yours alone.  My answer is simply that for me, in decoration, (and, yes, I recognize this is a clear case of what is called brand-identification) Bennison could do no wrong. That, being my personal opinion, is my criticism of his work, short and simple though it is.

To critique his work, on the other hand, we must consider those criteria mentioned earlier – scale, proportion, balance, rhythm, emphasis and harmony, along with concept and suitability. If you agree with my criteria for critique perhaps you would like to consider how well this room by Geoffrey Bennison meets them and let me know what you think.

In subsequent posts, I shall return to the principles and elements of design as I consider the state of modern-day interior design.

Photographs of Sir Alfred Munnings's erstwhile studio by Ken Kirkwood from English Style, Suzanne Slesin and Stafford Cliff, Thames and Hudson, 1984.

Saturday, June 2, 2012

The most cunning inventions

If there's one book I would recommend to any present-day interior design student, it would be Nikolaus Pevsner's Pioneers of Modern Design. During my first degree, it was recommended reading - compulsory, thus – and though I remember not being totally fascinated by it at the beginning, I came to value it so much that the updated version published by Yale, which I also own, for all its colored photographs and glossy layout, remains on the shelf, while the old yellow-paged Pelican paperback, with its beautifully designed royal blue cover dating from 1964 ($1.45), is my preferred read. A product of mid-century industry, this little book has a feel that someone was in control of a grid-based visual language when its cover was designed – and it was designed, rather than assembled by someone whose concept of design was not, indeed could not have been, confounded by Microsoft templates and clip art.

The visit last weekend to The Cult of Beauty exhibition sent me looking for the book again the day we got back from San Francisco. All the way through the rooms filled with Aesthetic Movement furniture and art I was trying to remember what Pesvner wrote about the Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of all Nations  – the Crystal Palace Exhibition, as it is commonly known – the first international trade show of the world's raw materials and manufactures, held in London in 1851.

You may wonder why was I preoccupied with the Great Exhibition, and if you read my post Taste you'll know I'm concerned with the lack of quality, as I see it, in today's residential interior design. That I do not feel the same way about contemporary contract design is a discussion yet to be held and while there isn't a place for it here, that time will come.

It was a similar disquiet on the part of people such as Henry Cole and Prince Albert over the lack of quality of design of what was on show at the Great Exhibition that led to discussions about improving the quality of manufactures – in fact, a realization that, in relying on machine production, previously held high standards had been squandered. There was no rage against the machine as yet; that was to come with John Ruskin, the Arts and Crafts Movement and the Aesthetic Movement.

This quotation from chapter two of Pioneers of Modern Design explains it far better than I can. (Any parallels you may draw with today's society, political or social, are entirely up to you.)

"A stodgy and complacent optimism was the frame of mind prevailing in England about 1850. Here was England, thanks to the enterprise of manufacturers and merchants, wealthier than ever, the workshop of the world and the paradise of a successful bourgeoisie, governed by a bourgeois queen and an efficient prince consort. Charity, churchgoing, and demonstrative morality might serve to settle your accounts with Heaven and your conscience – on the whole you were lucky to live in the most progressive and practical age.

" 'Nobody who has paid any attention to the particular features of the present era', said Albert in one of the preparatory addresses, 'will doubt for a moment that we are living in a period of most wonderful transition, which tends rapidly to the accomplishment of that great end to which indeed all history points, the realization of the unity of mankind.' In that same speech he extolled 'the great principle of division of labour, which may be called the moving power of civilization', and the introduction to the Official Catalogue of the Exhibition asserts that 'an event like this exhibition could not have taken place at any other period, and perhaps not among any other peoples than ourselves'. Indeed not; those who wrote these lines knew the reasons and spoke quiet frankly about them: 'the perfect security for property' and 'commercial freedom'. The thousands of visitors who thronged the Exhibition probably felt the same. The attendance as well as the size of the buildings and the quantity of products shown was colossal. The aesthetic quality of the products was abominable. Sensible visitors realized that, and soon discussions started in England and other countries as the the reasons for such an evident failure. It is easy for us, today, to enumerate various such reasons; but it was hard indeed for a generation that had grown up amid unprecedented discoveries in science and technique. There were the new railways and power-looms, there were the most cunning inventions to facilitate the production of almost any object, formerly made so laboriously by craftsmen – why should these wonderful improvements not help to improve art as well?" [My italics]

Yesterday, looking for another book, I came across an item I bought in 1977, and which to a degree illustrates what Pevsner discusses above. "Sensible visitor" I was not, thirty-four years ago when, in a flush of Silver Jubilee enthusiasm, I bought one of the more charming conceits associated with those celebrations – a teacup on legs kneeling, as it were, to Her Majesty. What irritated me then, Modernist that I was in those days (and I remember it well) was the illicit frisson I felt in buying such a "tasteless" mass-produced object and the way the coat of arms was slapped, cynically, it seems to me still, on the front of the cup. The cup has a whimsy and charm that has survived the years, and guilt about my aesthetic missteps long been shrugged off with the epiphany that – much as I might rail against the machine or the dedicated followers of fashion who worship at their keyboards, there's little I can do about either - except, perhaps, remain the curmudgeon that I was, according to some, born to be.

I stood, all those years ago, on the terraces of the National Theatre, overlooking the Thames, watching the fireworks celebrating the Queen's Silver Jubilee. Prior to that year, perhaps typically of my generation, I had not been not a monarchist, particularly. But I realized at that moment how proud I was to be British - though those days I probably thought of myself as an Englishman rather than a Briton. Now, at the time of Her Majesty's Diamond Jubilee, I stand here as both an American and a Briton, and thankful for all that both lands have given me. My unswerving admiration, in adulthood, of the Queen, coupled with that mysterious connection we Britons have with our monarch – much the same that we Americans have with our flag – leads me to say but one thing:

Thank you, Ma'am.

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

You can't go back

We had not been there for seventeen years and it was a surprise, as it was all that time ago when we'd celebrated a birthday. This time it was nostalgia, more or less, that took us across the Bay Bridge and far further into the town than I remembered from the previous visit. A long time, seventeen years, during which things can change, but the same steep steps which I climbed – more creakily this time – were still there, as was the same long and narrow Craftsman-style room filling slowly with guests for the second sitting at dinner: the same wooden walls, golden light and, when seated, the same aloof waiter (if only in character, not person) placing the same woodcut-fronted menu on the same white-clothed, barely-adequate table, together with the best bread I've ever had.

"Go figure," said the Celt, spotting, as had I, my least favorite food on the prix fixe menu. It had been there, too, seventeen years ago and despite the passing of the years I have grown no fonder of dead bird.

"Quite." I said resignedly, "You'll be helping me with that. I sometimes wonder how dead bird got to be the culinary equivalent of the pansies of the landscaping world?

"Not that there's anything wrong with that," he said, ignoring my sourness about the menu, "some of our best friends are ... "


"Pansies," he said,  causing any residual gloom about the impending grilled duck breast and crépinette with braised new garlic, potatoes fried in duck fat, and garden salad, to dissolve in his smile.  

"Too many damned adjectives," I growled as I continued to read the menu "and who in their right minds says gâteau glacé instead of ice-cream?" Mumble, grumble, mumble. 

"All right, Grumbleweed, relax," he said. So I did.

What seemed extraordinary all those years ago now seemed quite the opposite. It occurred to me that though there must have been changes at what had been my long-admired highpoint in American cooking, it was I who have changed. I live in a city where restaurant food can be superb, and visit other cities of which the same can be said. Nonetheless, disappointed we were not – a little let down, perhaps, despite standards having remained high – rather that the restaurant was no longer the stand-out it once was. For the world had changed around it, and that change for the better had been initiated by the owner and founder of the restaurant.

San Francisco, a city I had heretofore not liked much, came alive for me last weekend. The city hadn't changed, I thought, so the difference was me. Perhaps I had mellowed, though a snort from the Celt put paid to that concept pretty quickly.

Our trip to San Francisco was to see The Cult of Beauty: The Victorian Avant-Garde 1860 – 1900 an exhibition we'd missed in London last summer. And I can tell you it was well worth the journey, especially for an interior designer with any pretensions to knowing the history of styles and, if one thought it had relevance to one's life, to knowing something more about gay history by reading about the Aesthetic Movement.

The Fashion World of Jean-Paul Gaultier: From the Sidewalk to the Catwalk at the de Young museum made the flight across the country doubly worth it. Matching, it seems to me, the endless inventiveness of Jean-Paul Gaultier are what appear to be automata amongst the mannequins. What they are, in fact, are mannequins with basic but blank facial features onto which are projected videos of moving faces that appear to interact with the beholder – sometimes looking directly at one; sometimes smiling derisively; occasionally a quick glance and a "bravo" such as I received when I stepped in front of the matelot and took out my iPhone; from others monologues, and in one case whistling and singing. Disconcerting and thrilling at the same time – I had not had such a good time in a museum in years.

You can't go back to the same place, as the saying goes – by which I think is meant you can't go back to the same time and place. But this trip showed me that, sometimes, you can go back and see the same place in a new light. It has changed, and I have changed, and both, I like to think, for the better.

Monday, May 21, 2012


Strange to say, I have never tasted a truffle. I've eaten plenty over the years in the form of shavings, infused oil or with fois gras and the nearest I ever got to identifying the taste of a truffle was a faint flavor of paper. Not that there's anything wrong with the taste of paper, you understand, it's just not a normal part of my diet since I gave up eating breakfast cereal. I cannot taste truffles and the Celt cannot bear the smell of them so we merely at a distance contemplate all the frolics honoring that subterranean mushroom.

I've been thinking about taste – in particular, taste bland as a politician's promise, marketed by shelter magazines and many a bloggerette. Oh, I know the fashion wheel has turned, and color, subtle as stomach cramp, has slammed its way back into decorating and, coincidentally, as my living room has listed towards neutrality I have been cogitating the uncomplicated eye - that seeming, and certainly contemporary, inability to deal with layer upon layer of pattern, color and texture.

Yet, I wonder, does it matter? My graduate degree professor, now in her late eighties, unwillingly retired and a good friend, rails against the ignorance of the present generation and decries its lack of interest in what we both learned. She and I have lunch together nearly every week and we talk nonstop about what was our interior design world – and what it has become. What, so far, has remained unspoken is that the world has changed around us, left us marooned on far shores of taste informed by history, education and training – and however much we might regret it, it is a world dominated by media and by an editorial and blogging community enamored of rooms designed for the logic of the lens rather than living; of vignetteing and accessorizing; of mediocre furniture and fabric collections branded by well-known decorators; of bespoke details on mass-produced goods; of ethnic green-washed tat; of books signings known as keynote addresses; of tastemaker sales off-loading any old junk; of HGTV programs where decorators act out reality TV scenarios appearing each week more goofily incompetent than the last – innovation, even in the media, is not what the game is about.

Does it matter, taste or the lack thereof? It signifies nothing – as in the same way it does not matter that I cannot taste a truffle or the Celt find one palatable. And, in some ways, it does not matter that it does not matter.

I received another email this last week from someone who knew Geoffrey Bennison and it answers questions posed in a discussion between The Ancient and Toby Worthington about who could write a book about him. Apparently, the discussion is no longer about who could or should, but who is doing so.

"Greatly enjoyed your article, I worked for Geoffrey for about six years and drove him almost every time he went to Brighton. I am intrigued to know where the hitching story came from.

"Would also love to hear from TS who sold him things by binocular, I never saw this but can I can certainly visualise GB using such a system. He was physically extremely lazy.

"____________ is researching a book now about GB and I will fwd your article to her."

Best wishes,
Christopher Hodsoll

Geoffrey Bennison – from Lancashire not Yorkshire as is written below – according to Mr Hodsoll occasionally referred to himself as "a simple Lancashire lass." Well, this simple Lancashire lad - no longer simple (neither was Mr Bennison, truth be told) and no longer Lancashire, acknowledges a certain camp fellow-feeling in Mr Bennison's self-description.

"Geoffrey himself was an original. Funny and endearing, eccentric and affectionately bossy ... A Yorkshireman with a firm sense of reality, he was sophisticated, sensual and at times, sentimental. Although not interested in an form of intellectualism, he was extraordinarily bright. And just as sharp-tongued: only the intrepid challenged him to a match of wits. Incidentally, he was also master of his rather Hogarthian hobby of fancy dress. In this tricky game the Yorkshire lad was transformed into a jolly, seductive, understanding Madame - a personage who might well have run a successful pub with a diverse circle of customers hailing from anywhere between Eaton Square and Wapping."*

"Mr. Bennison's aesthetic was summed up in his own golden rule "something mad on top of something very good, or something very good on top of something mad." He preferred rich, dark, faded color, a sqawk of pattern subdued by wear and tear, the classical, the grand gesture, the serendipitous, the splendid, the rare, the oriental, the Baroque, and the still small voice of an objet de vertu. In less sure hands such a mix of scale, pattern and color can be cacophony - witness some of the decorators practicing today - yet it was in his hands that mix created the perfect ambience. It might be argued that he was giving the rooms he decorated a fancy dress but in reality they are underpinned with character, understanding and history - much the same as the man."**

This is a post intended for publication at the end of last week. However, a brief trip to New York to visit with family – and a very undignified fall flat on my face on Madison Avenue just by the queue for Ladurée – rather slowed things down. (I was texting, of course.) 

Photographs of a New York house decorated in 1960 by Geoffrey Bennison and restored by him twenty-five years later (his last work), by Clive Frost for The World of Interiors, May 1985.

* Peter Glenville, author of The Beatitudes of Bennison, the text accompanying the photographs. 

** Me

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

An extraordinary man

"Where the hell did that come from," I said. The Celt didn't reply though I did get a quizzical look. He knew I hadn't been referring to the a cup of coffee he'd just handed me and he's learned, after more than thirty years of watching me gaze with horror into the chasm, the Slough of Despond, that is early morning, to let me get on with my daily rebooting and go his own cheerful way. Like one of Jesus' Little Sunbeams in the early morning, is the Celt, whereas I ... well, the horror of it all.

What I was referring to was Don McLean's American Pie running through my head. A song, or poem, a hit from the early 70s, I'd not thought or heard of in years and one perhaps emblematic of my generation - a threnody, if ever there was one, for lost youth and times gone by. I've done a lot of that recently - looking back at the milestones - perhaps it is my age, the fact that I'm retired and the death of someone to whom I should have been closer than I was. Whatever the reason, a backwards glance is the rasion d'être of this blog - nostalgia threads its elegiac way throughout all I have written.

As I mentioned in the previous post, occasionally I receive personal reminiscences - each a milestone in its way - of the men I've written about over the past year or two: that generation of decorators and designers lost, predominantly, to AIDS in the 1980s and 1990s. Towards the end of last year I was surprised and pleased by a comment, a memory vivid and personal from TS. Surprised because it was on a post from September 2009, and pleased because it coincided with my recurring thoughts about Geoffrey Bennison, one of the men with whom, unthinkingly, I began my series about those I've called a lost generation. Bennison's name is remembered still, both as a purveyor of textiles, and also by those of us who appreciate his eye, his style and his wit. As a previous commenter said, it makes one wonder why there isn't a book about Bennison's work.

"I sold to Bennison, he got his talent from being a very good artist, which is why he stands out from the other decorators. He used to dress up in womens outfits on a Friday night and hitch hike down to his flat in Brighton. In London he lived in a top floor flat ............ and he had a pair of binoculars at the window and bought off me in the street far below, by shouting 'turn it upside down, right, show me the front and what's the best price?' Extraordinary man - I miss him. TS"

The idea of Geoffrey Bennison, the grandest of decorators, in a skirt, heels and a wig thumbing a lift on a Friday evening is, to me, the stuff of legend and, undoubtedly, a source of consternation and, possibly, joy to many a kind motorist, the lorry-drivers, the rough trade, and other denizens of the lay-bys of the road to Brighton. An image I cannot get out of my head and one that trumps even these grandest of Parisian rooms decorated by Bennison in Le Goût Rothschild.

If you would like to see how extraordinary a decorator Geoffrey Bennison was, click on his name in the side-bar Labels. In my opinion, one of the best decorators of his generation, Bennison, whether working in Rothschilds' houses or working in his friend's London terraced house he remained extraordinarily human as the tale above shows.

I've written about a number of extraordinary men and their connections over the past two years - threads, really, of a larger pattern that shines brightly in my mind's eye but which still needs to be woven - and now I have the time to do so.

Photographs by James Mortimer from The World of Interiors, July/August 1983

Monday, April 30, 2012

His car was a Buick

"When I was a student at Temple University, I had the privilege of meeting Henry through a mutual friend. I was a starving student at the time and lived in a tiny apartment around the corner on Locust St. Henry befriended me and I became one of his dog walkers; a job that he paid me extravagantly for. I also got to attend a few of his private parties and met the likes of Douglas Cooper, Billie, Bill Blass and other celebrities of the day. I knew Henry was extremely rich but he never acted snobbish or condescending to me or any other individuals, grand or humble, who made it through the doors of Little Monticello. One little thing about Henry that I always loved was that, despite his great wealth, his car (at least when I was living in Philadelphia) was a Buick. I happened to be Googling Rittenhouse Square the other day (a trip down memory lane) and saw pictures of the house; shutters gone and looking derelict. What a sad condition for a home that knew so much love and laughter. Henry would scream if he saw the condition those front steps are in!"

Occasionally, and gratifyingly, I receive comments on posts written a while ago - such was the case a few days ago when I found this personal reminiscence of Henry McIlhenny on a post from November 2010. Coincidentally, more or less, in one of those rare moments when focus didn't cause peripheral blindness, I had found pictures of Mr McIlhenny's Glenveagh Castle in County Donegal when I was in the library looking for something else.

It is these personal reminiscences that round out an image I've formed about the men I've written about over the last two years - circles of friends, acquaintances, allies and agents - kin, after a fashion, in a world accepting of them as decorators but not accepting of their private lives. Reminiscences, tributes even, that so far, except in the case of one man, have been positive and affectionate - such as this one from Anonymous and another a while ago about Geoffrey Bennison donning a .... but that's a story for another day.

A short essay, I'm afraid and one that should, had circumstances not caused a loss of focus, been posted last week. 

Photographs by Brian Morris from A House in the Country: The Second Home from Cottages to Castles by Mary Gilliatt, Hutchinson & Co Ltd, 1973

Tuesday, April 17, 2012


The elevator had just given a hearty shudder when the young man next to me said "I've seen this thing nearly kill two people," and, miming shoulder-butting and pulling apart the elevator doors, he continued "they were like 'Aaargh!" "Eeuw," said one of the objects of his attention and, applying an emoticon horror face, she said "this elevator is, like, sooo scary!" By the time the doors opened everyone involved seemed satisfied with the interaction and went their separate ways to classrooms where, one assumes, communication between student and professor is a little more fluent than what I'd just heard.

Its interesting watching how this generation makes itself understood to its peers, for those members of it with whom I interact in the classroom don't talk to me this way. Oh, on occasion I get "’sup, professor?" which I take at face value and frequently reply "’sup, student?"- which usually brings a smile, if a wry one. In the hallways and in the elevator I sometimes have the idea that these young people have begun to act like silent-movie stars - mugging for the camera with words replaced by gestures and poses. It seems to me the more inarticulate they are the more expressive their body language - though, perhaps, now I think about it, not so much resembling silent-movie stars, more modern-day TV actors.

I wondered once if it were fashionable to be inarticulate and whilst I think that is might be so, peer pressure, or rather pack behavior plays a role. This combination of gesture, facial expression and pose is a linguistic short form to which I've become accustomed and which I observe every day. I remember one teenager I overheard in an airport recently who was irritatingly unable to put two words together without an intrusive "like" or a gesture or a pose to fill in the missing words. I, like, was, like ... really, like... I mean... Her three uniformly clad and coifed companions were equally incomprehensible but it did not seem to matter for they all were having a great time. While I, like, in my, like, ungenerous way, wanted to .... well, I won't, like, go there.

"Is that a Brooks Brothers’ blazer?" asked a student last night before class began and on hearing it was, said he "that's, like, fratty as fuck!" Not so much thrown as intrigued, I asked "what as what?" and his female companion, perhaps in an effort to defuse what she thought might become a difficult moment, informed me in very friendly way that FAF was a compliment. Grateful as I was, and remain, for learning something new and for being made to laugh out loud, I thanked them both.

Despite the criticism it gets for its inability to put down a cellphone; its seemingly universal desire to filter life through earphones; its casual relations with deadlines; its supposed narcissism and public inarticulacy, I must say I have found my experience with Generation Me to be unalloyed pleasure. What I for my part find hard to articulate is how much I will miss my interaction with those bouncing-off-the-wall-with-enthusiasm, bright-eyed-and-bushy-tailed, uniformly entertaining and, in my experience, hard-working students when I stop teaching at the end of next week.


Sunday, April 8, 2012


"When I found this romantic house next to a small river, it was almost in ruins. Four years have succeeded in making it comfortable, but it hardly looks new. That suits me, for I have a good deal of provincial Louis XVI furniture inherited from my family. And I spend lots of time in the antique shops and flea-markets of London and Paris. I live in what seems to my interior designer friends a rather Dickensian 'Old Curiosity Shop.'

"The walls are covered in old damask or in East Indian printed materials from the eighteenth century. I also have a large tapestry made from a design by Rubens. A light touch is added by fuchsia and geraniums in blue and white china pots. There are books everywhere and pictures too: prints along the staircase and in the gallery, Chinese paintings and bamboo furniture in the bathroom.

The Drawing Room - Baroque marble statues on a wooden Louis XVI mantel; the golden damask hangings are from a Rothschild house.

"There is always a big fire in the living room to keep out the dampness. These are some of the ingredients which give my house a kind of charm, since I have made no particular effort to use a consistent color scheme or any careful interior arrangement. The house is twenty-five miles east of Paris, and it is where I write all my books. It is always filled with flowers from my garden."

The Garden Room - an Empire bust, porcelain vases and a mirror to reflect the park outside.

The Library - once part of the old barn, this room is filled with my books and many old prints. There are Japanese cabinets, a Victorian church carpet and a Dutch brass chandelier. 

My Bedroom - the Louis XVI fireplace, with a terra-cotta bust on the mantel and the brass bed warmer leaning against it, is my favourite part of the room.

Not necessarily being of an enquiring mind, Philippe Julian's name didn't strike a chord for me. I'd seen the pages before on my hikes through piles of old magazines: pages appearing to be from an album of small paintings torn from a sketchbook and surrounded by the kind of handwritten text that, irritatingly, brought to mind those occasions in my youth when, because I was thought to be "artistic", it was assumed I could and would write the gothic black letter thought to be special enough for the dedication of the moment. Those days, a mumbled apology for not being able to oblige was all I could muster but, looking back, my problem was with the assumption more than the request - much like that made two decades ago by a client who, because I'm queer, thought I could and would sew her net curtains for her.

What I have just written might, if one made such an assumption, indicate a long memory for affront but I lean towards the notion that such memories are steps in the creation of personal morality; and if the memories, on occasion, float to the surface then there's something still to learn. It could also mean, of course, I need to step up the dosage of what the Celt calls my "niceness" pills.

So, Philippe Julian – the man asked to ornament the first Château Mouton Rothschild "artist" label, illustrator of Angus Wilson's For Whom the Cloche Tolls, author of The Snob-Spotter's Guide and, amongst many a celebration of the fin-de-siècle, a suitably overwrought biographical essay about Adolph de Meyer – is not, despite the fact he began as such, the subject of my post.

On Friday I had lunch - my glass of wine bringing to mind a long-remembered phrase, not so much a pretentious little wine, more a mendacious little paint-stripper - with a man who had written to me about my essay about Michael Greer - a man he'd shaken hands with at the age of eleven, and who, like Greer is a native of Monroe, Georgia. Greer, known in his home town as Joe rather than Michael, famous in his time as one of America's grandest decorators, and whose murder provided friends with opportunities to show just how easy it is to speak ill of the dead, was, after a private cremation service, as one might assume, buried with his parents - but not quite as one might expect - between his parents' graves in an unmarked place.

So, on this day celebrating one assumption, I wonder if shame - that emotion from which we can learn so much, and one which I believe (as my long memory suggests) we should never cause another to feel - is the reason why there is no headstone for Michael Greer.

Watercolours and quotation from Architectural Digest, March/April 1975

Image of Château Mouton Rothschild from here.