Saturday, May 30, 2015

In days of old, when knights were bold and monkeys chewed tobacco

Actually, a long, long time ago in a land far, far away, the world's first international trade fair took place in Hyde Park in London. It was called The Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of All Nations or, as it is often called today, The Crystal Palace … and a marvel to behold it must have been at 1851 feet long and tall enough to hold fully-grown oaks within it. Not only a marvel to behold, the building, a prodigious green house – all plate glass and prefabricated cast-iron – was a not only technological phenomenon but also, architecturally speaking, a portent of things to come.

Yet I wonder if the Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of all Nations gets more than a passing glance in present-day design school curricula, so much is there to be covered with the emphasis being on contract/commercial, not residential, design. Not to notice the Great Exhibition of 1851 as part of a History of Architecture and Interiors course would be a very odd choice because one might posit that is where the modern concept of design began, as did the still-current conversation about design quality. That the concept of design took root and flourished in the ensuing debate about the aesthetic horrors created by machine production on exhibit at the Crystal Palace is history that should not be forgotten, pertinent as it is to today, one-hundred-and-sixty-years later.

False Principles of Design and Other Legends of the Past
Perhaps the greatest legacy of the Great Exhibition of 1851 is The Victoria and Albert Museum,"the world's largest museum of decorative arts and design" with a permanent collection of over four million objects. The Museum opened its doors at Marlborough House with its inaugural exhibition about false principles of design – an attempt by Henry Cole, the Museum's first Director, to define the principles of good and bad design.

Curtain rod holder

Examples of False Principles of Decoration Exhibition
Henry Cole's purpose in holding the exhibition and the seventy-eight objects it showcased was to deter the public from buying goods held to be unsatisfactory and to educate them in matters of taste. A quotation from an Appendix to the exhibition catalogue, illustrates the strength of Henry Cole's dissatisfaction with the industrially-produced goods of his day.

"There has arisen a new species of ornament of the most objectionable kind, which is desirable at once to deprecate on account of its complete departure from just taste and true principles. This may be called the natural or imitative style, and is seen in its worst development in some of the articles of form."

with perspective representation of the Crystal Palace and Serpentine

The exhibition, however, was not a success: a quotation from the Victoria and Albert Museum website:

"The reception accorded this exhibition quickly proved that Cole and his assistant, the artist Richard Redgrave had rather misjudged matters. Every article selected for the exhibition, however unprincipled its design might be, was at least commercially very successful. The public were merely amused by the selection but remained unconverted. The manufacturers whose products were criticised were mortified and immediately complained. The exhibition was closed after only two weeks."[My Italics]

Gilt brass and glass gas lamp bracke
In the False Principles exhibition, this bracket was stigmatized as "direct imitation of nature" and thus held to be unfit for its purpose. 

Roller-printed and glazed cotton
circa 1850 

The chintz above and the printed cotton below were chosen as examples of bad design because of the realistic imitation of nature, and the effect draping or folding the textile would have when used in a room. 

Printed Cotton, circa 1850

The reaction to the Great Exhibition – fundamentally a discussion about good taste and bad taste, with the Aesthetes losing every skirmish on the middle-class battlegrounds then and since – is relevant to today not only because, history being what it is, the pendulum has whizzed round a few times, and we're back where we were – maybe.

The aesthetes, the purists, the minimalists, the expounders of principles such as "fitness for purpose", rightly or wrongly, lose every time the wheel of fashion turns, because the rest of us want our cosy world filled with as much novelty as possible. Any real notion of taste is long gone; "taste" is a word that makes us a little self-conscious, is even pronounced in Italics. And, to be honest, I'm glad of it. Whether or not this is a good thing for the environment is a discussion for another day.

Each of the five examples I borrowed from the Victoria and Albert Museum – the curtain finial, Crystal Palace wallpaper, gas lamp bracket, chintz and printed cotton – is attractive by today's standards (or, if you are a strict Modernist,  probably not). Aesthetically speaking, I'm promiscuous, so I love 'em all, and possessing a fifty-year-old hand-blocked length of the Hollyhock linen I've decided to have a blazer lined with it.

The five images below are of newly printed carpets by Moooi. Printed carpet, long the unmentionable  poor relation frequently seen hanging around many a roadside rug sale, has now come out of the industry closet with a photo-realistic smack between the eyes – to say nothing of a final broadside to notions of taste.

Eden Queen
Marcel Wanders

Marcel Wanders

Jewels Garden
Maison Christian Lacroix

Ross Lovegrove

Imitating nature, industrial revolutions and twenty-first-century photo-realism
Whereas Henry Cole and his associates were horrified at the nullifying effect of the Industrial Revolution on the hand-made craftsman aesthetic thereto customary, we today have for so long lived with an orthodoxy of industrial processes that has made craft something of Etsy tweeness or, at the extreme, an artistic wannabe, we are inured to it all. Of course, to every such blanket statement there are exceptions which are worth noting.

Henry Cole and his fellow exhibition organizers found few supporters in the general public and the manufacturers of his time, but the Arts and Crafts Movement that came after him was influenced by his ideas as were, in their turn, the early Modernists, and here we are nearly two-hundred years later in a post-industrial society, in a technological revolution watching an interior design industry in its death-throes still producing printed textiles that probably would have given Cole apoplexy, but excite the rest of us with their novelty or, perhaps more importantly, in the case of chintz, the lack of. Plus ça change.

Photographs of Moooi Carpets from Dezeen
Photographs of five objectionable objects from Victoria and Albert Museum
Images of Crystal Palace from Wikipedia

Sunday, May 17, 2015

A book recommendation and the persistence of an idea

I'm not sure why since I came back from California I've been captivated by dining rooms, but many a time I've sat in mine in the early morning sun, black dog at my feet, leafing through books searching for rooms I like. I found many of the formal kind, fewer of the less so, and not a few that were nothing more than showing off. Stylists rule, I guess. I came across old favorites, other rooms I'd forgotten about, influences and, two days ago at an evening event at my favorite furniture store, a book about a Spanish decorator, the Marquis of Azpeztequia, who died in January this year – a fact that surprisingly made hardly a ripple in the design social media here. 

I first knew of the Marquis of Azpeztequia, better known to the English-speaking world as Jaime Parladé, from the pages of The World of Interiors during the 1980s, with photographs of a house for a couple from Bilbao (I learn from the book it is no longer standing), which at the time made both of us fell in love with pink-lined linen sheers and cream-colored crewel upholstered furniture. Seeing those rooms again brings it all back and I would like to write about them in the future to see if I can recapture the magic – for magic it was and Señor Parladé was no trickster. These two dining rooms in Spain are by him, the first with walls of toile de jouy and the second of cordovan painted leather, and illustrate what I realize now I was searching for all those mornings and had to go out of the house to find – atmosphere. 

Nowadays there are many who decorate or, as my old prof would put it, desecrate – it all depends on your point of view –  but few create atmosphere. It could be argued that atmosphere is a combination of stylist, lens, photographer and lighting and I tend to agree, for one has only to see realtors' photographs of once famously atmospheric rooms to recognize that the skill of a good photographer is paramount when working with rooms of any subtlety. It is the combination of the two professionals – the two artists, if you will – that create the intangible that lifts off the page. 

Jaime Parladé
  Ricardo Labougle, Joaquín Corté, Derry Moore, photographers
This is the third of three books about decorators I have felt worth buying this year

The Formal Dining Room
"More than any other room in the house, the dining room is a place for old traditions, a scene of ritual use where we can indulge in memories of the way our parents and grandparents did things in days gone by. We can put to use objects we have inherited from previous generations without their seeming like irrelevant artifacts. Many otherwise modern people when using their dining rooms actually enjoy returning to the vanished world of manners commonly thought to have been more gentle and refined than our own."

Mark Hampton
Fort Worth, Texas

Almost thirty years ago, Mark Hampton wrote about the essential nostalgia and costly exhibitionism of dining rooms. His essay, The Integrity of Dining Rooms, written at a time of resurgence of an idea first established, allegedly, during the eighteenth-century – that of a room dedicated to dining, not communally in the medieval manner, but socially for members of le beau monde. So well-written and apparently personal is it, it is easy to forget that Mr Hampton's essay, written at the height of the trickle-down economy, should be seen as precisely what it was, a piece of marketing for the magazine in which it appeared, the long-ago defunct House and Garden, and his own flourishing business working for those who had created that economy. 

David Hicks
Oval dining room, Britwell Salome

David Mlinaric
The Salon Rouge, British Embassy, Paris

Geoffrey Bennison
Lord Weidenfeld's dining room 

Exquisite but unattributed from Instagram

An eighteenth-century dessert setting 
 A recreation of the French manner at Waddesdon

Formal dining rooms persist in this modern age – when for most people, I should think, beyond the seasonal reenactments of Rockwellesque family gatherings that are a powerful tool for selling the idea of family to families – the actual need for a room solely dedicated to dining, is rare. Essentially a room of ceremony and parade, the formal dining room co-exists with the "great room" – that combination of kitchen, living room and dining space so useful to the modern family – and unless the family is given to much entertaining at table, is a status symbol as vestigial as the human tail. Belonging as it does to the "public" part of a dwelling where the inhabitants are characterized by what they display in terms of possessions and behavior, an inordinate amount of money may be spent on it. And so the dining room goes on, generation after generation, lugged around as Coleridge said in another context:  

Ah ! well a-day ! what evil looks
Had I from old and young !
Instead of the cross, the Albatross
About my neck was hung

The Happiness and Heartache
Christmas Eve
Carl Larsson

His First Birthday
Frederick Morgan

The Health of the Bride
Stanhope Forbes

Mariage de Convenance 
Sir William Quiller Orchardson

Two night ago, beneath a beautiful Venetian chandelier, seven of us dined on gumbo, salad and bread pudding and I thought then however grand the room, atmosphere also comes from the mood of people with whom one sits, not from dimmed lighting so beloved of restaurateurs and which has begun now to sap the joy from residential dining spaces. We were a crowd international in origin – Mexican, British, Spanish, Texan and Chinese – and a jolly one, despite three of us being very serious architects. We ended the evening, skirting the hiphop-throbbing frat houses of Georgia Tech, with a viewing of the College of Architecture's adaptive reuse of the Hinman Research Building. It's the kind of thing one does, at midnight after a good dinner with architects,

A most magnificent space, an erstwhile machine shop, likened too easily to a cathedral as are many older industrial spaces (the present-day Tate Modern, for example) and not shown to advantage by my iPhone photographs, hence this link to official Geogia Tech images.

Personal Preferences
Melvyn Dwork
New York

Joseph Braswell

William Hodgkins

Tino Zervudachi

"Atmosphere" is where I begin my search for images of rooms that could give me ideas for our sparsely furnished dining room. More alcove than room, we use it every day and at the weekends we breakfast there too. Facing full east, it's the ideal place for weekend relaxing over a second cup with iPads, especially when the the plumbago is in bloom, the hummingbirds squabble and dart about, and the clouds build.

Some of the best times have been spent at that table listening to the Jeweler, such a rare friend and a superb raconteur much given to elliptical digressions and occasional jaw-dropping transgressions that can cause tear-inducing and cathartic belly laughs. His partner, the Celt's much valued friend, is of a quieter bent – though occasionally disposed to slipping off dining chairs onto dogs – and typically looks on in wide-eyed, if speechless mellowness. The rest of us try not to simultaneously inhale and chew, and end the evening with a feeling of magnificent well-being that has nothing to do with bourbon and everything to do with companionship and laughter.

Drama we don't need – gawd knows the world provides enough of that – but good lighting is an absolute. Since my eyes have deteriorated, I cannot clearly see who is at the other side of the table but the whorls of fingerprint left by the maid on the silver is completely identifiable and as to the number of angels dancing on the head of a pin, I can be precise. Candlelight is wonderful for smoothing out wrinkles; Botox better, I hear, but until the mooncalf look becomes acceptable for everyone, I'll keep the beeswax burning. Candlelit dining tables are divinely romantic but I do worry once in a while, when surrounded by acquaintances caressing their newly Botox-injected faces to see if they still have them, that these candle flames, by some mischance, a stray breeze and the clouds of fragrance with a superabundance of sillage, might become the final conflagration that takes down the whole universe.

Atlanta, Georgia
Early morning coffee with one of my peeps 
Beyond, a view to the dining table

The Health of the Bride, Stanhope Forbes from Paradise Lost, Christopher Wood, Trafalgar Square Publishing, 1988

Mariage de ConvenanceSir William Quiller Orchardson, from Victorian Painting, Christopher Wood,  Bulfinch Press, Little, Brown and Company, 1999

His First Birthday, Frederick Morgan, from Victorian Painting, Christopher Wood,  Bulfinch Press, Little, Brown and Company, 1999

Christmas Eve, from The World of Carl Larsson, The Green Tiger Press, La Jolla, 1982

Recreation of an eighteenth-century dessert setting in the French manner at Waddesdon from Flora Domestica: A History of British Flower Arranging 1500-1930, Mary Rose Blacker, photography by Andreas von Eisiedel, The National Trust, Harry N. Abrams Inc.

Photograph of dining banquette by Melvyn Dwork from Manhattan Style, John Esten with Rose Bennett Gilbert, Photographs by Chinsee, Little, Brown and Company, 1990

Photograph of kitchen dining table from Tino Zervudachi: A Portfolio, Natasha Fraser-Cavassoni, Pointed Leaf Press, LLC, 2012

Photograph of Joseph Braswell's dining banquette by Peter Vitale from Architectural Digest, April 1977

Photograph of William Hodgkin dining table and chairs by Peter Vitale for Architectural Digest, May 1983

Photograph of Lord Weidenfeld's dining room by Geoffrey Bennison from Geoffrey Bennison: Master Decorator Hardcover,  Gillian Newberry, Rizzoli, 2015

Photograph of the Salon Rouge from Mlinaric on Decorating, Mirabel Cecil,  Francis Lincoln Limited, 2008

Photograph of the oval dining room, Britwell Salome from David Hicks: A Life of Design, Ashley Hicks, Rizzoli, 2009

Photograph of Mark Hampton's Fort Worth dining room from Mark Hampton: An American Decorator, Duane Hampton, Rizzoli, 2010

Monday, May 4, 2015

Ginger-ale and croutons

This afternoon I'm sitting on a terrace high on a bluff overlooking the ocean reading James Lees-Milne's Diaries from 1984 to 1997 and came across this entry for Thursday, 19th September 1984. 

“Last night after dinner David Hicks telephoned to say Rory had died at 7.30. A[lvilde]pretended she knew already – so odd of her. She adored Rory and cherished the knowledge that she had known him years before David and other grand and rich friends. This morning, poor Gilbert telephoned from Ménèrbes, saying that he had spent the whole night with Rory on his bed, unable to believe he was dead.”

"Rory," of course, is Roderick Cameron, about whom I've written a number of times before. In some ways it's good to have an end to that story because he was much more to his friends than the creator of the so-called tablescape (according to Hicks) and talented arranger of beautiful rooms that many have aspired to emulate. But, more about Mr Cameron at another date when I return to my erstwhile theme of what a friend called my "dead decorators." 

I am, perhaps, finding Mr Lees-Milne a tad depressing for such a sunny day, harping as he does on loss, death and ruined architecture. Nonetheless, his diaries are fascinating; he knew everyone and has absolutely nothing to do with anything or the fact I'm in California. 

Ginger-ale and croutons based on a sentence in JL-M diaries and suggested my lunch in hotel bar.