Friday, September 26, 2014

Baton Bob and Synonyms in Decoration

During a pre-theatre (Gilbert and Sullivan's HMS Pinafore) dinner recently, I watched eight identically-dressed young women walk by our table – long blonde hair, flimsy dresses and clumpy shoes – a look not improved by the effects of the late-summer storm they'd just arrived in. Obviously, I thought – as I munched on black rice, butternut squash, golden raisins, and cilantro with brazil nut pesto – no-one had noticed or maybe cared that the tipping point had been reached – the point beyond which fashion becomes uniform, and individuality apparent only in the unsuitability of the raiment for the figure, rather than in any other way.

I'm not so much of a believer in barroom psychology, but I did wonder that evening if group dynamics require such conformity of dress and, indeed, if group norms apply in interior design. It could be said that there is conformity in design judging by what is visible on Tumblr, Pinterest and blogs; but lacking any scientific data, I'll have to rely solely on my jaundiced eye.

Baton Bob, the figure in the two photographs above and a much-loved character (by me at least) in Atlanta, is often to be found strutting his stuff on Peachtree Road. His whistle is the first indication he is somewhere around, and I wish I could tell you how happy I was at seeing a bride shining in the shade by the side of the new mixed-use development, where only the day before the Celt and I had been stranded in a mosquito-infested, unfinished space without any means of exit (try explaining to 911 that the space where you are trapped is part of a complex called Buckhead, Atlanta that itself is located in Buckhead, Atlanta. Talk about a comedy of errors!) Without taking this sighting of Baton Bob too seriously, for me he represents the Individual, the Jester, if not the Fool of the Tarot, in a sea of conformity.

So, where am I going with this? I'd like to say I intend to post pictures of interiors that represent a certain individuality, but as I write I wonder, despite the wonders of Tumblr and Pinterest, if there might be a paucity of imagery suitable to my task. The English, mysteriously to me, are considered to be eccentric, if only in their decorating. What I have seen of spaces considered to be individual or eccentric is that frequently they resemble the attics of down-at-heel aristocratic hoarders or, worse, the rural digs of the Bloomsberries – in short, an accumulation of kit and effect that makes one itch to clear the lot out.

I've also been musing about an occasional series called Synonyms in Decoration – about interiors that are out of the ordinary, don't shriek of trend and are perhaps representative of an idea not immediately definable. In other words, rooms that are individual fantasies in a conforming world.

It seems such a good idea yet I might fall flat on my face. In the way that it's easy to come up with a good title for a book but writing a book is a "hoooolnuther thang" as they say around here. So, with my own little ignis fatuus, as it were, by my side I'll begin with the title Synonyms of Fantasy in Decoration and go from there. 

In these photographs the synonym for fantasy is the illusory depiction of an ancient Arab bazaar, drawn in a Renaissance manner with life-size human figures that seem both to attend and ignore the viewer – the whole, mural, decoration and architecture, suggestive of early twentieth-century American travels in Italy and Venice.  Now, fifty-three years after it was published, this house, from a richer period of decoration than we know today, to my eye has depth, subtlety and refinement that is rare.

Group dynamics, then, would suggest that fifty years ago this house was not untypical but I wonder why it never became legendary (not a description of a house I normally like but it is in someway synonymous with fantasy). I wonder if the tide for mural decoration had already turned. It was only ten years later that the whole rage for faux finishes broke out and real picture-making on walls became stranded in an historical alley. But, that is a post for a hooooolnuther day. 

The owner of the house and the decorator was William Chidester.
The architect was Walter Wilkman AIA

The muralist, and the painter of the picture above, was Douglas Riseborough about whom I find very little online that is satisfactory.

Photographs by Danforth-Tidmarsh, published in Architectural Digest, March-April 1971


  1. I do so love it when you fall down the rabbit hole and take us along with you. As for fashion being act of extortion for acceptance, I got off that merry go round long ago. The globalization of decor, the speed of light sameness, has been rather astonishing to watch. All of these all white/neutral rooms with bookcases holding objects not books makes me nervous!

    Having a rather theatrical nature, I am always drawn to rooms that seem to be over most people's tops. I have been greatly influenced by set design. If life's a stage, you might as well play the part, no?

    1. home before dark, thank you. My apologies for a late reply but what with trying to find the right dog (greyhound, whippet or Italian greyhound), entertaining friends new in town, getting locked in strange buildings, and visiting show houses, I find I've had little time to concentrate. What's the old saying about the devil making work for idle hands?

      I totally agree with you – the globalization and if I might add, industrialization, of everything from decoration to deception has taken the individuality away from life. Uniformity rules – in the first world.

      I visited a show house in a newly-minted rural "community" this last weekend and found myself in a house drained of color. Absolutely dreadful! And the assumption that accessories solve problems of space planning seemed to be the most idiotic of all.

  2. This house still looks great 50 years later and really isn't that what matters? Anything too 'trendy' seems unthought or even impractical and will need to be 'updated' again before being worn out through living.
    I've never heard of the 'character' in the wedding dress but it really is quite happy making! I wish we had someone like that around here to catch site of.

    I'm working on a project right now where the clients had a muralist, who became like family to them, decorate THE ENTIRE FIRST FLOOR over a period of years with a fantasy of Italy and Classicism. 30 years later they still love it and are remodeling around the murals rather than move onto something more practical because they have become a part of it. THAT is successful decorating I would say. The very well known decorator they are working with, that I cannot name, is having to work around the murals without mimicking them and tie new spaces in the addition into the 'spirit' of the murals and is doing a very artful job. It's about 2 months from finishing and I am really excited about it. Nothing is trendy about the work but reflects not only the muralist and the new designer, but also the homeowners. THAT is the formula to a great room.

    1. ArchitectDesign, thank you and apologies for a late reply. What a wonderful job you have – to be working with such clients. It's almost unimaginable nowadays that such a decorative scheme is not thought of as disposable and is still beloved after all this time.

      I read once that the woman who established McMillen, Inc, Eleanor McMillen, once she had decided on her decor did not change it except to renew worn-out textiles and to refresh paint. etc. She had got it right the first time. A remarkable attitude that could have little currency nowadays and only shows how exceptional she was, and your present-day clients are.

  3. I know the look of the girls you mentioned- A very well known designer here in Atlanta who had to retire for health reasons lately had an office full of those girls- Absolutely interchangable- Indistinguishable from each other the exact same hair color and cut -same shoes- it was a bit disturbing-

    1. Thomas, thank you. My apologies for a late reply. I know the decorator you refer to and his cohorts also – might even had had one in a classroom. Anything clone-like is always unsatisfying - even a white orchid.

  4. Imitation lends itself to appearing "off" or absurd. The eccentric English country house trope has been played out so many times and seems to have been condensed down to a Chesterfield sofa presided over by ungainly taxidermy. My hipster grandchildren, loathe to be called what they are, alas, subscribe to this overplayed trend in decorating their over-priced and tiny city apartments: Ottomans upholstered in Hudson Bay blankets (borrowed) from my closets, table tops choking with tarnished silver trophies for sports they cannot play, my mother's LV steamer trunk tarted up as a home bar, and the glass-eyed heads of hunted wildlife staring down(ironically, of course) at my anti-gun, anti-hunting namesakes.
    I do enjoy those who can decorate in both an eccentric AND an original manner. Henry Davis Sleeper's "Beauport" in Gloucester, Massachusetts is a personal favorite in terms of lettering your creative freak flag fly. I am not so sure about today. With the Tumblrfication of images, is originality even possible?
    What do you think of the alleged original creativity of the interiors of "
    Mrs. S.

    1. Mrs S, thank you. My apologies for a late reply. I looked at every set of photographs "The Selby" had to offer and, frankly, was underwhelmed. There is very little on that site I find of interest but having said that it isn't, in my opinion, about interior design.

      Trawling flea markets and second-hand stores is not an activity I consider equates with being creative.

      I also wonder if creativity is possible given, as you say, the Tumblrfication of imagery. With so much to copy why look inside to what might satisfy the inner man or inner woman when all you have to do is go online and have your thinking done for you?

  5. home before dark, ArchitectDesign, Thomas, Mrs S,

    I'd like to express an extra "thank you" to each of you for giving me more to think about – I'd like to think it will bear fruit in the upcoming weeks. Again, thank you.