Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Vulgarized by misuse

"Taste is a particular person's choice between alternatives. It is choosing a tie to go with a shirt to go with a suit to go with an occasion. It is the way you arrange oranges in a greengrocer's shop; the way you light your room; the colour you choose for the outside of your motor car. It applies to food, to interiors, to manners, to anything where it is a question of choice between one alternative and another in connection with colour, style or behaviour.

"There is a certain stratum of people around the world who consider that they know what a good choice of these elements is: this is what has become known as good taste. Thus you can have what is generally considered to be good taste in pictures, good taste in gardens, good taste in interiors, and conversely you have kitsch taste, theatrical taste, vulgar taste and common taste.

"The international cognoscenti elect themselves over the generations. At the end of the nineteenth century John Ruskin made tremendous proclamations about taste which you cannot really argue with today: he was right within the context of what he was preaching. In the 1900s Edith Wharton was regarded as a paragon of taste. People like Syrie Maugham and Elsie de Wolfe were regarded as leaders of fashion and style in interior design in America, England and France in the late twenties and thirties. History has not, on the whole, proved them wrong.

"Taste is not something you are born with, nor is it anything to do with your social background. It is worth remembering that practically anyone of significance in the world of the arts, whether in the past or today, was nobody to start off with. No one has ever heard of Handel's or Gainsborough's father. Nepotism and parental influence count for little in the history of talented designers, architects, painters and musicians. Good taste is something which you can acquire: you can teach it to yourself, but you must be deeply interested. It is no way dependent upon money.

"Many things are palatable to those of us who are supposedly people of taste. But then they are copied and become vulgarized by misuse; through association with their misuse they become unpopular with us. But I am always open to revivals – it is just a question of  reusing something in the right way. There was a time in my life when moiré or watered silk was absolutely intolerable to me, but I now find it acceptable because the mass of vulgarians have moved away from it; now I can reintroduce it and reuse it in a sympathetic way. There was a time when I loathed vermicelli quilting – it used to be done by pathetic lady decorators on watercolour chintzes of no character whatsoever. But now I like it and use it. It must be done on plain chintz though, and not on a patterned fabric. One reason why I like it so much now is my deep interest in rustication in architecture, a theme which has played a very important part in classical and baroque architecture throughout the centuries.

"There is in fact an acceptable way of using almost everything. If someone asked me to design a room for them, but confessed they collected gnomes, I would make a gnomescape on a table. If someone had a passion for flights of ducks I would say that I would use not one but nine flights and would arrange them in a Vasarely-type way, painting the ducks black and white alternatively."

All very well, Mr Hicks, I thought, but I'd've loved to have seen what you could have done when faced with what in my youth was a nadir of taste: two dolls, a flamenco dancer prancing on top of the telly, light from a low-wattage bulb shining through the black lace flounces of her skirt, and her sister in the loo, forever frozen in an attitude of dramatic renunciation, hiding a spare roll of bathroom tissue under her flaring skirts. So kitsch were they then, those dancers, that now seem so retro as to demand homage.

My taste, be it good or bad, has been formed principally by an aversion to the popular or, as David Hicks describes it, vulgar and common taste – a result, I suspect, of my early years in design school and later in university where I read two magazines almost religiously and for years. The more important of the two was Design, the magazine of the now defunct Council of Industrial Design, and Graphis, a Swiss-produced graphic design magazine that was glossy, expensive and precious. There was a third, but at this remove I cannot remember the name. All I know is that it was in the pages of these magazines that I first read about Le Corbusier's chapel at Ronchamp, Moshe Safde's Habitat 67, Buckminster Fuller's geodisic dome, and many a sleek, well-designed product. It was an era of good design when the why, how and what for were paramount – an era of innovation rather than of imitation and restyling.

On my bookshelves I recently came across Phoenix at Coventry, The Building of a Cathedral by Basil Spence. I wonder if I bought it, put it away intending to read it another day and never did, until now. In my youth I once visited the new Coventry Cathedral (the 14th-century St Michael's was bombed and ruined in the Second World War) and it's clear now where my love of combining old and new comes from – for the the power of seeing that ruined stone through the huge engraved screen of window still has resonance. The combination of old and new is still at the basis of my aesthetic though the proportion of each has changed.

Neither ducks, flamenco dancers nor gnomes are in evidence in these two rooms – though a gnomescape might be a splendid, if impermanent, addition to the first, serene, if curiously under-lamped room. Here the combination of modern and old is exciting and, if truth be told, more reminiscent of the 1960s than the architects might care to acknowledge. The modern leavened with the old, rather than the other way round, seems balanced and fresh.

The second room is the one where one might well meet a flight or nine of ducks crossing a wall and as different a room from the first as can be. Or, so you would think – most of what is visible is modern, but what differentiates it from the first room is not only plumpness of shape, but horizon line, color, lack of emphasis on the vertical, and clutter. The eye does not rest as easily in this room as it does in the first, though the backside may well do so.

The first room is from the excellent and stimulating Shelton, Mindel & Associates: Architecture and Design, and the second from a book new to me, The World of Muriel Brandolini, my purchase of which elicited a raised eyebrow from the Celt. He was silent as he read it and made a sage comment afterwards. "Hmmm," was all he said.

Shelton Mindel's room, reminiscent of no period but its own, has a neutral, timeless quality to it, but the Brandolini room, on the other hand, reminds me no end of the late 1960s though its arch cleverness dates it to today.

I surprised myself by liking Brandolini's book for there is little that gibes with my own aesthetic. Yet, though the author veers too frequently towards kitsch there is a freewheeling quality to it all that I find appealing. Would I recommend it? I'd recommend you go to a bookstore and look through it then decide if you want it. I did.

The World of Muriel Brandolini: Interiors, Muriel Brandolini, Amy Tai, Pieter Estersohn (Photographer), Rizzoli.

In a previous post I wrote: Shelton, Mindel &Associates: Architecture and Design is one of those books I bought in a "must-have" moment and, despite it being an impulsive purchase, I remain glad I did. In the Amazon blurb above the most telling phrase to me is "luminous aesthetic" – for light enlivens every page. On the other hand, there is a faded-in-the-sun look to many of the rooms but the powerful integration of architecture, space and light cannot be denied. Not a coffee table book, but it does look splendid on a Barcelona table.

Photograph of Flamenco dancer from here.
Photograph of flying ducks from here.
Photograph of gnomes from eBay.
Pelican bookcovers from here.
Photographs of Coventry Cathedral from Wikipedia.
Poster of 2001: a space odyssey from Wikipedia.
Photograph of Aston Martin DB5 from Wikipedia. 

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

For your library

Not a book for taking with one for a long soak in a bubble bath or, for that matter, for reading in bed unless your bed is equipped with a lectern, and the breakfast table would be a hazardous place if one, as one read, dipped soldiers in egg yolk, but, that said, a precious, fascinating, and in more ways than one, a weighty book it is.

It is not a decorating guide unless one longs for a sham Caroline interior – not that there's anything wrong with sham, because if one were to look through the book it would become clear that simulation in the form of French courtliness, painted marble and scagliola, was not to be be sniffed at the court of Charles II. Also not to be sniffed at, as it were, is a chamber pot engraved with the Dysart arms beneath an earl's coronet, which weighed in at 30 ounces of silver.

The Library

Nearly thirty years ago I visited Ham House – I'd taken a walk along the Thames and around a bend in the path loomed Ham, rain and low cloud lent it an atmosphere that drew me in drove me to the entrance where in my uncomfortably damp clothing I, entranced, walked around the house. Perhaps not a true memory, but not a light burned on a day that had quickly turned from light to dark, and each room appeared, as it were, from its own shadowy corners, and from the windows, gloom as dull as pewter, softly polished lacquer and gilt, drew out faded colors of textile and wood and the marvelous inlayed floors creaked as I, seemingly the only visitor, stepped on them. Details are few in my memory but atmosphere remains.

The North Drawing Room, watercolor by H W Brewer, c 1866.

Chimneypiece in the Queen's Closet, Baldassare Artima, 1673.
Fired and painted scagliola.

The Duchess's Private Closet

A Man Consumed by Flames, Isaac Oliver, c. 1610.
Watercolor on vellum. 3 x 2 3/4 inches.

Silver chamber pot, David Willaume, 1731-2. 
Engraved with the Dysart arms beneath an earl's coronet. 
4 7/8 x 10 x 7 1/4 inches. 

If you have not read this book and balk at the list price of $150 (it is a scholarly tome) then I suggest you read Peter Thornton's much more accessible Seventeenth Century Interior Decoration in England, France and Holland. Better yet, buy both. They'll look fabulous on the coffee table with a little seventeenth-century blue-and-white to the side or, heaven forbid, on top.

Photograph credits: 

A Man Consumed by Flames, The Duchess's Private Closet, The Library, National Trust Images/John Hammond

Silver chamber pot, National Trust Images/Christopher Warliegh-Lack

The Chimneypiece in the Queen's Closet, National Trust Images/Bill Batten

The Duchess's Private Closet, John Paul Photography-

Monday, August 19, 2013


"I don't know if you have the Cyril Connelly/Jerome Zerbe book "Les Pavilions". The pavilion Gabriel designed for Mme. de Pompadour at Fontainebleau is one of the highlights. The point being that the library in the pavilion is a room that I believe you would appreciate. Light, balanced, airy and welcoming, beautifully proportioned. You take a look."

Well, I had a look at the book when we went for dinner at a friend's beautiful apartment last Friday. I wish I could show you photographs of her place – of course, if anyone is to publish photographs of her place it is for Jennifer to do so, not me. Nonetheless, I wish someone would, because it is as elegant, welcoming and personal as a home can be. Books, books, and more books, all very neatly arranged on shelves and tables – so many books, I became a tad jealous (and not for the first time). 

The room my friend in Washington meant is this one and he, not surprisingly, is right – it is a light, balanced, airy and welcoming. Who wouldn't want to spend a summer's evening here, scent from the garden drifting through the doors and moths flittering around the lamps? Or, better yet, a winter's night when apple logs burn in the grate, lamplight washes the gilt tooling of the book spines, and ice in whiskey, clinking as it melts, reflects the golden, shadowy, happy, and if I may say so, timeless, room. I wish, though, there were a better photograph of this library but is enough to see how wonderful a room it must be. 

The library is that of the Vicomte de Noailles in the pavilion, known as the Hermitage, built for Madame de Pompadour. 

"The great point of the Hermitage was its wonderful garden, all arrange for scent so that one heavenly smell led to another; it could be visited blindfold for the scent alone. Here she had fifty orange trees, lemons, oleanders single and double, myrtle, olives, yellow jasmine and lilac from Judea, and pomegranates, all in straight avenues with trellised palisades leading to a bower of roses surrounding a marble Apollo. Shrubs and flowers were brought to Madame de Pompadour from all parts of the French empire, chosen for scent; she especially loved myrtle, tuberoses, jasmine and gardenias. Labor was so cheap that flowers in the gardens were renewed every day, as we renew them now in a room; in the greenhouses at Trianon there were two million pots for bedding out. 

"The Hermitage was very simply decorated, the hangings were all of cotton and the furniture of painted wood; it was meant to be rustic, a farm house. It was such a success that she soon built two others, on at Compiègne designed by by Gabriel, which has utterly disappeared, pulled down nobody even knows when or by whose orders, and one at Fontainebleau. The Fontainebleau Hermitage belongs now to the Vicomte de Noailles and it is the only habitation of Madame de Pompadour's which she could visit today without grief. She never much liked her rooms in the palace there, and lived a great deal in this little house. The King would pretend he was going out hunting, leave the palace early in the morning booted and spurred, and spend the whole day with her, sometimes cooking their supper himself. People who liked to carp at her love of building used to say that she only had this Hermitage in order to offer the King a boiled egg from time to time. She had there one of the farmyards of which she was so fond, cows, goats, and hens, and a donkey, whose milk was supposed to be particularly good for her."

Quotation from Madame de Pompadour by Nancy Mitford.  

For my other posts about libraries click here or on Library the sidebar.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

A question of balance

"Everyone who comes in here wants to re-arrange the furniture," was the complaint of an irritated attendant in a demonstration room. The reason was only too apparent. With too many of the heavy pieces of furniture at one end of the room, the room seemed to tip, and the visitors had an unconscious impulse to correct the fault. Balance in design is so natural that one is not even aware of it when it is present, but when it is violated there is a sense of discomfort or annoyance.

"Stated briefly, balance is rest or repose. This restful effect is obtained by grouping shapes and colors around a center in such a way that there are equal attractions on each side of that center."

" .... In placing the furnishings of a room, the architectural openings must be taken into consideration. Very often balance is secured by having a large piece of furniture on one wall of a room as a balance to an opening on an opposite wall. The large pieces of furniture should be placed first, with regard to balancing centers of interest in the room. The smaller movable objects would then be arranged so they will make convenient groups as well as balanced units. After the furniture has been arranged the attention is turned to the balance within each group. A well-balanced wall will have the same amount of attraction on both sides of the center line. A well-balanced room will have approximately the same amount of attraction on opposite walls and, although the two side walls  may be somewhat heavier than the end walls, there should be the feeling that the attractions are about equally distributed around the room."

Above the sofa in our sitting room hangs a grid of four long rectangular frames encasing twelve engravings of 18th-century Rome. Three engravings per frame, floating, edges lifting away from light purple-grey silk, surrounded by silver frames – and totally wrong for the room. It's not the engravings that are wrong, rather it's the way these 18th-century versions of Grand Tour postcards are overwhelmed – something we didn't see in our enthusiasm at the framer's – by their containers. The prints recede and the frames come forward and the fault, the imbalance, further emphasized by the grouping of four frames above a sofa less wide than the grouping.

It is a classic example of how what looks good on paper doesn't necessarily work on the wall. In fact it's a classic case of imbalance for, since the frames were hung, the room has not held together – it has tipped in a direction neither of us wished for: more traditional than contemporary, heavier in tone, overloaded, absorbent of light, and a commensurate loss of the delicacy the room once had. The tipping of the balance, with the extremes coming to the fore and thus denying the room "its rest and repose," has made the room look old-fashioned.

I thought it might be an interesting diversion, whilst remaining on the subject of timelessness, to look at some rooms redolent of their period – the antithesis of timeless. I'm not going to dissect the rooms, but merely indicate what it is about them that pins them in time like specimen butterflies in their cases.

To my eye the yellow and grey room – a combined drawing room, bedroom, dining room and playroom – designed by Anthony Collett is as impressive today as it was when I first saw it nearly thirty years ago. Arguably, then, this room has stood the test of time, yet there are two things that date it: the Post-Modern-incluenced inclusion of large scale architectural elements (storage, radiator covers, etc) and, secondly, the glut of paint finishes on every available surface, including a canvas floor cloth. Paint finishes speak loudly of a rage that turned craft into hobby and made everyone with or without a smattering of creativity into artists and artisans – a word nowadays used to describe cheese and sausage makers. (And I will confess I played my own part in this folie.)

Imitation of ancient surfaces, preferably Tuscan, Pompeiian or Lower East Side Slum rampaged across walls on both sides of the Atlantic, as did frolicsome marbleizing along many a baseboard, dado and cornice, under painted skies afflutter with putti, birds and butterflies. Judgement or restraint, in many ways, were untypical of the 1980s.

It could be said that the room above, inundated in chintz though it is, is restrained – in the sense that limiting patterns to fourteen is restraint – and there is a certain harmony of color. But it cannot be said the room has not dated. The style, now known as "English" is still with us but it was the multiplicity of the version here – an overstated and overrated emphasis on traditional aristocratic values through yardage that brought the English-speaking world, in the 1980s, through a recrudescence of chintz (in my understanding, a glazed, printed floral cloth), to a floral pratfall. Laid to rest when toile de Jouy (reputedly Marie Antoinette's favourite for milkmaid's frocks) took the gilt off the gingerbread, chintz is still occasionally mentioned by associate editors in their more desperate moments as coming back in style. If it is, I hope judgement and restraint will be salient elements of the restoration of a beautiful textile with an interesting history.

Post-Modernism, such as Charles Jenck's Californian bedroom, has not improved with time. The etiolated, facile, symbolist references to Classical architecture are as as big a mystery to me now as nearly thirty years ago. And there's the point, I suppose: I did not understand then and do not now why anyone took this stuff seriously. Post-Modernism is of its time, much as was Memphis, and it had a definite intellectual appeal to the urban design acolyte. Thankfully, the style has not been resurrected.

Last and certainly not least, a window treatment. Normally, when describing windows I would be satisfied with words like curtains, draperies, pelmets, cornice boards, swags and jabots, because, it must be said, "window treatments" drives me to distraction. In a decade when fabric yardage could have been the most expensive part of an interior, and no window however lowly or ill-proportioned went unobscured by grand curtains and draperies, this window treatment from 1980s London, remains a low point. Something from the imagination of H.R. Geiger, perhaps?

Quotation about balance from Art in Everyday Life, Fourth Edition, Harriet & Vetta Goldstein, MacMillan 1954 (first published 1925)

Image of engraving of the Flavian Amphitheatre from Google.

Photograph of yellow room by James Mortimer to accompany article Championship by Mirabel Cecil for The World of Interiors, July–August 1985

Photograph of chintzed room by James Mortimer to accompany article High Church Chintz by Peter Reid for The World of Interiors, September 1985.

Photograph of Charles Jenck's bedroom by Tim Street-Porter accompanying an article, In Arcadia Ego, by Colin Amery for The World of Interiors, March 1985.

Photograph of the window treatment from The House and Garden Book of Classic Rooms, Robert Harling, Leonie Highton, John Bridges, Chatto and Windus, London 1989.

Friday, August 2, 2013

There was a child went forth every day

The last two weeks seem to have been – witness my new waistline – nothing more than a round of lunches, dinners and, ultimately, a reception given by a good friend, celebrating our wedding. Bemused as we both still are about our new legal state and suffering, variously, from indigestion, hangover and, in my case, occasional bad temper, it has proved difficult to knuckle down and continue my posts about timelessness in decorating.  (By the way, in this photograph I'm the one at the back in the Liberace wig and the botox.)

One thing I have done, though, is look through the blog for posts when I have used the word "timeless" and have come up with a few examples for, seemingly, I have been concerned for quite a while with interiors "standing the test of time". A reader pointed out that for him the rooms by David Mlinaric in the last post were redolent of the 1980s and though for me they were not – Post-Modernism and English Country House Style is what I associate with those years – I have given and continue to give his reaction some thought. The following, which I quote from here, I wrote three years ago 

"It never ceases to impress me how some interiors, at their creation completely contemporary, do not date and retain that quality of here today here tomorrow. Why some interiors look dated and why some do not is a question occasionally on my mind and if I have reached a conclusion it is this: when a decorator trysts with or construes contemporary interpretations of living, it is at this point that the spectre of senescence begins to take form as an identifiable characteristic of a period.

To my mind, one of the characteristics of good 20th century decorating is a refusal to draw the curtains against the philistine dark but instead to embrace the best of global aesthetic culture. It's an axiom, a "truth universally acknowledged" to say that the best of one period will fit with the best of another, and whilst this is totally debatable, as a maxim, assuming we all agree what is the best of ...... well, you know the rest of that argument."

Today, thus, I'm giving a few images from past posts (all photographs from the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s) that illustrate my interpretation of timelessness – there yesterday and here today. 

Kalef Alaton

Alberto Pinto 

Arthur E Smith 

Geoffrey Bennison

 Roderick Cameron

Antony Childs 

There was a child went forth every day,
And the first object he looked upon and received with wonder,
pity, love, or dread, that object he became,
And that object became part of him for the day, for a certain part
of the day, and for many years, or stretching cycles of years.

William Baldwin 

Generally speaking, all the rooms I consider to have stood the test of time have a certain asceticism – I have referred to it as absence – a refusal to fill space for the sake of it. The other day, I came across the quotation (above in Italics) in my favorite book of the moment Art in Everyday Life. A book written at  a time when concepts such as good taste and character were not snigger-inducing, it is proving a salutary experience to revisit the principles and opinions underlying my training as both a graphic and interior designer: to read the unselfconscious acceptance of those verities considered eternal before marketing, branding and cult of personality removed any need for them. The quotation above from Leaves of Grass begins the following from Art in Everyday Life

"Mere belongings have a tremendous influence in forming character. It would take an unusually strong character to remain true to high ideals of truth and sincerity if dishonesty were the keynote of the home surroundings. Such things as wall paper and metal made to simulate wood; too shiny fabrics imitating costly damask – all these would be avoid if there significance were understood.

"Unfortunately, quality in things is more or less intangible – as difficult to define as personality in an individual – but the outstanding feathers can be recognized and classified. With the eyes opened one very quickly reaches the point where every picture, every piece of furniture, or drapery pattern speaks its note of social grace or friendly domesticity, vigor, or fineness. Louis XIV, Louis XV, and Napoleon told as much about themselves in the furniture and decorations with which they like to surround themselves as we are able to learn from historical records. Similarly, we are better acquainted with people after a short time spent in their home, surrounded by their own things, than we would be in a long time spent  with them in a hotel or any other impersonal setting.

"If the reader happens to be one who has never realized that the things people chose tell about their character and their ideals, let him think for a few moments about impressions which he has received at the theater. The curtain rose, let us say, upon a living room; before anyone came on to the stage the audience formed a very definite idea of the kind of people who would be at home in that room; and, if the stage decorator understood his craft the people would prove to be just about what was expected. If a stage setting shows a living room with glaring lights, florid wallpaper and rugs, showy lace curtains, and overdecorated lamps, one expects the people who live there to come on stage in flashy clothes and using a great deal of common, unpicturesque slang. Suppose, however, that the setting shows a room with soft and mellow lights, yellow walls, rugs with subdued and harmonious coloring, thin white glass curtains with attractive chintz over curtains at the windows, well-designed furniture, with some comfortable chairs in front of an open fire, plenty of books, flowers, a few good pictures and decorative objects that catch the light and create points of interest. The audience would expect the people who live in this room to be tastefully dressed, well-bred, and charming.

One of the wondrous things about the above quotation is the elitism of good taste, the prevailing class stereotypes as illustrated by interiors (first written in the 1920s) and the assumptions we all still make about each other based on what we wear, where we live and how we live. 

I wonder sometimes if what dates a room is not objects or atmospheres attributable to certain decades but our concept of class and the way it is used when selling to us. 

All photographs except for the first which is mine attributed in previous posts.