Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Why do we bother?

Every year I say that it was not worth the schlep (driving to a designated parking location, waiting for a shuttle to take us to the house and, after feeling immensely let down by what we have seen, reversing the journey and arriving home in a bad mood and out of pocket). Nonetheless, each year we go back and I must say it was with some trepidation because of the negative rumors surrounding it, that Sunday afternoon, together with three friends, we visited the Atlanta Symphony Decorators' Show House again.

I know in the world of decorating one is supposed never to be critical – amazing really when one considers the ever-churning rumor mill – so let me say only that there were highlights. Nothing OMG or I'm Loving This though I did hear a nostalgic Remember when? remark about when decorators used to learn their trade as assistants to the big names.

One such highlight was a basement room done entirely in its own products by IKEA – actually, an eyeopener for here was a room stylish, low-budget, livable, contemporary, and completely in the wrong place or, if not in the wrong place, it was being viewed by the wrong clientele (which I suppose is the same thing). I heard many a snobbish comment but I tell you honestly if I were starting out with little money I would seriously consider, after seeing that room, using IKEA products for my first flat. The disconnect is that most of the people visiting the show house are not just starting out and, frankly, stressing the inexpensiveness of it all, as the docents did, is not what thrills the oh, my dear lord! crowd avidly reeling in faux ticket shock. A highlight, if a strangely misplaced one.

"I do," said our friend, when I quipped "every A-list gay in Atlanta will want a version of this room. "As do I," I replied. We were looking at the brightest highlight of them all: on the lower level, a moody masculine, bodice-ripper of a room by Michael Habachy.

It is clear to me that Mr Habachy is one of Atlanta's most original designers and one who, with nightclubs, spas and restaurants on his resume, brings a completely different understanding of atmosphere and sociability to residential design – not for him the pallid prettiness that suffuses Atlanta decorating. A room where two men in tuxedos might sit, manhattan and negroni to hand, on their long-awaited wedding night, laughing about their first honeymoon thirty-five years before.

It was thanks to Uber we drove up the torrent that was the driveway to the suburban faux chateau hosting the show house (not for us, this time, the drive to the designated parking spot and then the shuttle). I feel I've seen more than my share of these houses, thus I cannot tell you I was impressed by the architecture inside or out. I'm just bored stiff with sheet-rocked grandeur. As to authenticity ... well, a tired joke at the best of times.

I do ask myself why we bother with show houses and I strongly feel that, year in, year out, its always the same. But it could be I just need to get out more – and we are, for in a couple of weeks time we're going to visit the Kips Bay Boys and Girls Club forty-first annual Decorator Show House – neither of us has done it before though we have tried a few times to get their schedule matched with ours and the one time previous to this we did so, they had to cancel at the last minute. Let's hope it isn't another "why did we bother?"

Photos of Michael Habachy's room unattributed on the card I picked up so if anyone can tell me the name of the photographer I would be grateful and certainly would add it to this post.

Monday, April 22, 2013

Standing stitch stark naked on the corner of Hollywood and Vine

"Have I ever told you about Boom-Boom?" She had of course, a while back, but I said would love to hear it again. The drinks were ordered – for her a gin and tonic, Tanqueray of course, and for me a Woodford on the rocks – we sat, my erstwhile professor and I, near the window in the bar in the sun undisturbed by the lunchtime murmur from the dining room and the also by the barman who, once he's got our drinks sorted, knows now to let us be whilst we catch up, toast each other, and settle down to a good old natter. We'll eat eventually, conversation being the point not food, and we'll eat very slowly.

"Years ago," she began, "I was den mother to a crowd of students visiting Rome ... it's odd how after all these years they remember you ... completely at a loss ...  all their faces, hundreds of 'em over the years, have blended and, and ... when that twenty-something-year-old is now a grandmother ... but one or two stand out and you cannot but wonder what happened to them."

A bowl of soup – surprisingly, for the time of year, split-pea – half a Cobb salad, and veal in lemon butter caper sauce made their way between our glasses, the bread basket, the butter, and our cutlery, silently brought by the barman, who also, when we asked after her, delight and pride written all over his face, showed us photos on his phone of his months-old daughter. There she was, smiling, blue eyes like her dad's crinkling with happiness and, with a swipe of his finger, laughing and looking straight out at the happy man taking her photograph. There is something entrancing about a baby's laugh, even one unheard – the sound of heaven on earth.

"Well, Miss Kate" said Boom-Boom on her return to the lodging at end of the afternoon, "I could stand stitch-stark naked on the corner of Hollywood and Vine and no-one would give me a second glance, but here in Rome ... " It seems she – curious as any nice Jewish girl well might be in St Peter's Basilica – had spotted an empty confessional and had dropped in for a chat with the priest. Such a meeting of minds was it that the young man had whisked her out of the church and spent the afternoon showing her around Rome, after first taking her for a drink at the bar in the Basilica. "Note," said my prof, "not in the Vatican but in the Basilica. Not many people believe that, but it's true and I've seen it and it's right there on the left as you go into St Peter's – and you need a priest to take you there."

As I say, the first time I heard the story, a while back, the Celt and I went looking for the bar – curious as you might imagine and fully prepared to be as thirsty for a warming spirit as a cold wet day in a gloomy basilica can make one. It's not that we pushed open every door we came across – for most were locked or behind a barrier – but there was one that seemed to be in the right place and, if I remember rightly, had grapes and vines carved into its lintel. But alas it was a door that did not open to us, nor has it yet. It stands near Antonio Canova's Monument to the Stuarts.

As my prof used to say to many an unwilling student "you can check if you wish, I might be lying to you."

Photo of the Monument to the Stuarts in St Peter's, Rome, from Wikipedia Commons

Friday, April 12, 2013

Reading on the rug

The Emperor's New Clothes, illustration for Hans Christian Anderson's Fairy Tales, 1935

Being intellectually lazy, I've never been able, with any patience, to take part in the discussion that has marched on since at least the nineteenth-century, about the distinction between fine arts and the decorative arts – with fine artists claiming for themselves not only the Olympian heights, but also the right to be considered philosophers, sociologists, psychiatrists and priests. I do not agree with assessments that give fine artists a special place in society, other than recognizing their status as producers of commercial artifacts that might or might not either do well as investments or, at the other end of the continuum, look good above a sofa or on the coffee table. As to the product itself, abstract art bores me silly and conceptual art leaves me wondering which of us – the artist or myself – is demented.

In other words, to me it's all "Emperor's New Clothes" and prejudiced as I am, I'm fully prepared to condemn that which I don't understand. (I may of course, like a modern pundit or politician, apologize for it later.)

Two days ago, I opened a new Amazon box and found the most thrilling book of my year so far, In Search of Rex Whistler: His Life and Work. Hitherto easily dismissed as a decorative painter, Whistler's status in twentieth-century art can, thanks to this excellent book, be reassessed and, finally, understood. I'm not going to write about the hi-jacking of twentieth-century art by the likes of Clement Greenberg and the nationalistic assumptions therein – I could, but I'll leave it for another day. Rex Whistler sits firmly in my personal pantheon of those who draw and can explain an idea in clear visual language with imagination, wit, and without gobbledygook. I cannot recommend this biography of one of my favorite artists more highly, but with a publication date of 2012, I suspect I'm preaching to the quire and y'all probably have your copies already. I keep being pulled from the excellent text by the superb illustrations, one of which is a double-page fold-out of the Plas Newydd mural – an absolute delight.

The Triumph of Neptune, a carpet design by Rex Whistler for Edward James, 1934

A friend who is remodeling his place asked me if I would have wooden floors again and I immediately said I would not – at least, I qualified, not in the form of planks that just go from here to there. My preference for floors, be they of wood or stone, is that they should have more than a length of shoe-mold or baseboard to relate them to the architecture that surrounds them and I feel also that nowadays most floors, carpets and rugs do not relate, other than superficially. That said, there are times when it is a blessing not to draw attention to the shape of rooms and camouflage is called for – despite Rose Cumming's put-down of "'ere to 'ere," it is sometimes the best option and occasionally that choice is not solely aesthetic. Sometimes it's about acoustics or perhaps, more usually, what you can afford. 

An expanse of floor, be it wood, stone, or both, is very satisfying when, for my taste, it is not broken up with too many rugs. In fact, space, illusory or real, is a modern luxury and one too easily ignored given the pressures to be good consumers. That said, two few soft surfaces and there will be problems with noise. I tried to keep away from what one should do and make sure our friend understood that I was talking about my preferences not rules. So, there are no rules, he said, making me realize I'd rattled on a bit too much. I had to say that there are rules and most of them are not to be broken but, to get into that discussion was going to require another Bloody Mary (it was brunch) and likely he'd end up even more confused. I really should have just said yes in the first place or had a Virgin Mary (I know, I know... ). 

I like floors, carpets and rugs to have borders – I like borders, both personal and aesthetical. Our hall rug (not shown to advantage in the photograph below, I confess) – a faded palimpsest when lit from above, with the faintest of arabesques ghosting through each part – is a total treasure both in its beauty and its associations of bright sunlight on the Silk Road to Samarkand. It should, I feel sometimes, be on a wall, but rugs are made for the floor and it goes so well with the Turgeot map and the 1950s bench.

The living room carpet, on the other hand, could be a length of broadloom cut to a standard size. I bought it as a wool-and-silk-hand-knotted-in-Tibet carpet and though without a border, it is equally subtle, though simpler in design. And while it might at first glance be a length of broadloom, the pattern ends at each edge equally, with is no slicing through a motif. (I know in the photograph it looks like a ploughed field, and I've tried to explain to "the help" what I want, but neither of us, it seems, feels we can spend our days smoothing the pile with a silk scarf.)

Seeing again the image of Whistler's The Triumph of Neptune carpet set me thinking about the occasion a week or so ago when I attended a showroom presentation about new rug and carpet lines. Sitting there, I got to wondering why viscose – not the best fibre for high-traffic areas – is so prevalent in decorative textiles. Further, I wondered why one would specify a fibre the production of which is allegedly very polluting, and also who is designing carpets nowadays?

What I should wonder about is not who, but how carpets are designed – a subject I'd like to return to in the near future given that most carpet and rugs (beyond the time-honored orientals) designs look remarkably alike to me, even those from the branded collections of celebrity interior designers.

As I looked, apropos something else, through Pierre-Emmanuel Martin-Vivier's excellent book about Jean-Michel Frank, I came across four rug designs that seem to me to be the antithesis of modern carpet and rug design – original artworks for the floor, they show how – in the hands of an artist (in this case trained in theatre) – how delightful, original, frivolous even, rugs or carpets can be.

The Emperor's New Clothes, illustration for Hans Christian Anderson's Fairy Tales, and The Triumph of Neptune, a carpet design by Rex Whistler for Edward James from In Search of Rex Whistler: His Life and Work, Hugh and Mirabel Cecil, Frances Lincoln, 2012.

Rug designs by Christian Bérard from Jean-Michel Frank: The Strange and Subtle Luxury of the Parisian Haute-Monde in the Art Deco Period, Pierre-Emmanuel Martin-Vivier, Rizzoli, 2008.

Monday, April 8, 2013

A legendary house

It is facile to use the word "legendary" about Villa Fiorentina, but it definitely fits this house that has become part of design-bloggers' collective consciousness – and one that for many is the last word in elegance and discretion. Well, elegant it was, discrete too, if only in decoration and furnishing, and it may still be, but, judging by the photograph below, the discretion and elegance of today is not that of yesterday. I make no judgements.

After and before

Now and then

Before and after

Over the past couple of years I have written quite a bit about Villa Fiorentina and its owner so I shall not bore you with repetition here. If you wish to read my essays on this subject look in the Labels list on the right and click on "Roderick Cameron" and "Villa Fiorentina".

To see what the inside of Fiorentina was like go here, here, and for a more comprehensive look at Fiorentina and its owners, here in the Labels list to the right. 

A correspondent sent me the first photograph and link to the architect's site yesterday and you can imagine how grateful I am. Thank you TT.

The new photographs from here (Bruno Bolzoni Architecte D.P.L.G.) Attributions for other photographs where known will be found in the Labels list.