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.