Thursday, January 28, 2016

"Oh, very gay, dear"

"Time to write?
Oh, dad, you crack me up!" 

If you lived through the 1960s in the United States, you were either very worried in an existential way or, at best, oblivious to every crisis that loomed – and there were many. One area of calm persisted for, despite an occasional stab at modernization, crises simply did not figure in American Interior Decoration – the Colonial Dames Revival ruled. Oh, it might have got itself decked out in Empire and been prettily glamoured by Hollywood but, essentially, the same stuff as John D Rockefeller's Williamsburgian dreams were made of - and there's nothing wrong with that.

One aspect of American interior decoration that Hollywood featured was space – seemingly boundless space within rambling country and seaside cottages – and for a while, intramural acreage, the most luxuriously tangible condition of American democracy portrayed in movies and thereafter in magazines, made many a European head for the docks and, for that matter, many an American thankful for ambitions yet to be fulfilled.

The idea of a house for the summer or the winter, to my mind, is distinctively American – much in the same way "resort wear" is an American invention – a way of living and entertaining in eternal sunshine. The British aristocracy had the "Season" when annually its members left its estates, went up to town for the winter and socialized, presented its daughters at Court and fired them off into society and a suitable marriage.

American aristocracy also had its Season for pretty much the same reasons but the resorts were designed around particular activities such as boating, skiing, etc., and entertaining but they were not designed as tourist or vacation-package destinations as we understand "resort" today. Rather, they began as exclusive developments for compatible and rich society members, able to have more than one household and, in the manner of medieval monarchs, move seasonally from one to the other. Nowadays, society being what it is, the luster might be gone off the resorts but the lure of summering or wintering remains.

Michael Greer, once one of America's best-known decorators, is listed as the designer of this Palm beach house (by which I assume is meant that he was the architect) and the style of the white plaster structure is described as being "inspired by the Palladian villas of the Mediterranean" which must have invited incredulity even in 1966. Undeniably beautiful, even playful within the limits of symmetry, obviously Palladian the house is not. Mediterranean it might be given that is an American architectural style not known in and around the Mediterranean Sea. One detail easy to miss if the eye is too quick to pass along the front of the house is the solution to the two-car garage.

These are not the charismatic rooms of the Wrightsman residence in the same town, but as might be expected from a decorator Mr Greer's calibre this house has all the urban elegance that resort living and entertaining in Palm Beach required. Large, airy rooms, succeed each other from portico to water – entrance hall, drawing room, card room – separated by Tuscan columns rather than the Ionic of the portico. There's an emaciation about the moldings, a flatness to the walls and an inconsequence to the floors that subordinates any expectation of conviviality implied by the facade and the motor court.

In theory, backgrounds should not intrude and here the background, white and virtually shadowless, is as reticent as it can be for furniture that is known as "fine" – Louis XVI, Empire, Directoire – on carpets by Edward Fields, done up in pale greens, yellows, creams and pinks, and contributing to the mood of formality amongst the palms.

I nearly wrote how up to date it all looks, this interior from fifty years ago, but that wouldn't strictly be true – rather the contents of the house have never gone out of style. The sofas in the drawing room, admittedly, have a dated air but they are perfectly acceptable to today's retro-decorator sensibilities and, more to the point, are a mildly-modern element enlivening the traditional whole. A mid-century vibe, I suppose, one could say.  Sofas flanking a fireplace, across a coffee table, accompanied by symmetrically-placed matched chairs became such a cliche of decoration … in fact, as ubiquitous as the karate-chopping of pillows in later years.

Michael Greer's Inside Design by Michael Greer, one of the first "decorator monographs" is still a book worth seeking and reading. My copy, bought ten years ago in Salt Lake City, is augmented with clippings glued-in by the previous owner fan, is much valued, especially for the additions which otherwise I might never have seen. Looking through it again I have the impression that Mr Greer, in his time, was the nearest American interior decoration came to equalling the decorators at Maison Jansen. Thus, you may wonder why Michael Greer is not so well-known nowadays.

Well, forty years is a long time dead and, besides that, Michael Greer was murdered during sex with a stranger in his own home. Even in the more liberal 1970s People magazine, not known then or now as a forum of high-mindedness published an obituary of him that is shaming to read – more for the way "friends" rushed to salivate over his corpse than for the faux-grieving tone of the text.

I wonder, once the prurient had their day, if there was a turning of the shoulder of self-protection, an immediate disassociation from the victim and all his works. Perhaps in the following lies the answer: Michael Greer was raised in Monroe, GA, and there, his ashes are buried, allegedly without a marker.

A while ago we watched a movie Do I Sound Gay and whilst I found it somewhat interesting I'm not wholly convinced such a thing as a gay accent exists though there certainly is a perception that it does. However, it led me to wonder how far gender-stereotype crosses over into decoration – American decoration, that is. We blithely use "masculine" and "feminine" in decorating so I ask if one could use "gay" in the same way. "Oh, very gay, dear" perhaps, is not quite what one wants to hear, but why should it not be? 

So, is there such a thing as Gay American decoration? That's for another time, if my lawyer and Barnaby Warboys agree.

My Life
"What part of "feed me" don't you understand?" 

Friday, January 8, 2016

American Decoration, a beginning

I'm at a loss to explain how five weeks can have passed since my last post. The Holidays played a role, for sure, as did family visiting from Scotland and New York … yet, given the abiding routine of mine and Barny's days, I am, as I say, confounded.  

I remarked to a neighbor that she should not find amusing what I was about to say: that since I got Barny I had learned respect for the lives of stay-at-home parents, especially those who previously had some intellectual content to their careers. Barny isn't a human child, so the comparison doesn't fully apply, however short the duration of the process, the demands of raising a beloved member of the family with as distinct a personality as those of the others, are constant and leave little room for my pursuits. 

At ten months old, Barny has no idea of my need to write - he feels sad when the Celt goes to work and frequently needs to cuddle with me on the sofa until he's recovered enough to go back to bed for another hour or two. Not a morning person, my Barny Warboys, thus he fits in very well with both of his dads, yet once the carpet has been snuffled, my hand licked and fingers nibbled, suddenly its time to play – a situation announced by a peremptory "woof" and a stare that quite clearly says that this whippet's psychic universe is riding on my reaction. And play we do, after I save yet another attempt at a post. So, we walk and we walk and we walk… and I wonder where the day has gone. 

I have mentioned many a time that a much-valued part of my weekly routine is lunch with my old prof. Besides the friendship, she has been useful in clarifying some of my thoughts and ideas about American design – this is the woman who, when a Graduate Assistant the University of Minnesota, was mentored by Harriet and Vetta Goldstein, the authors of Art in Everyday Life a book still worth reading. 

Perhaps more importantly, for my present purposes, my old prof was friends with Helen E McCullough, who researched how Illinois housewives used their kitchens, noted their wants and perceptions, and published her findings and conclusions in Circulars from the Small Homes Council of the University of Illinois just after the Second World War. 

The idea that American interior design in the form of logical application of standards based on scientific research began to a great degree in Illinois is a seductive one, but similar work was being done at Cornell University. The times were creative: only look at what is for sale on 1stdibs to see the variety of what was achieved (and on the other hand, what one might wish hadn't been). It is mildly shocking to think that Helen E McCullough and her colleagues at Cornell might actually have had more influence on Western society than the Eameses.


As I begin my look at American interior design, I need to state straight away that, in my opinion, there has never been a time when American interior decoration could be seen in isolation from that of Great Britain, France, Italy or, in modern times, of Scandinavia and other parts of Europe. Despite the vastness of this country and the multi-origins of its population, the dominant American decorative style – what is called "traditional" – is derived from the styles created in Britain and France centuries ago. That fact that traditional decorating had its beginnings in Virginia yet in this country for much of the twentieth-century was called "English," and that its major proponent went to live in Britain, should if anything, tip the wink, as it were.

In modern times "traditional" for my taste is too narrowly defined, one might say unimaginatively and lazily so. That said – and with all acknowledgments made to opinions expressed about American exceptionalism in the past and today – I maintain that there were Golden Years in American interior design and decoration, but they are not now.

The beginnings of American worldwide dominance after WWII, the rise of the so-called "American Century" is where I'd like to begin. It was a time when insularity fought with ecumenism, democracy with Communism, the body politic self-harmed but, finally and perhaps inevitably, American interior decoration let go of the WASP-manqué leading strings and took big strides out of the eighteenth- and nineteenth centuries.  Architectural Digest of the 1960s and 1970s is full of photographs that, at this remove, seem to embody a fear of "out there," so covered in curtains and shades are the windows and doors – symbolically blinded, as it were – but Modernism with its sanatorium-like emphasis on light, air and space began to enliven the pages, if a little tentatively.

This was a time in American interior decoration, before the apotheosis of the auctioneer, when decorators worked against a background of history; they knew the basic principles of design and learned the business from a mentor or employer. Nowadays, one wonders …

This first interior from 1969 has much of what I think is significant – this lovely combination of modernity and tradition – about American interior design from that era, and most importantly, it has stood the test of time. I wonder how eye-opening it was – shocking even – for many of the readers of Architectural Digest, for here is spacious Modernism, complete with white walls and ceilings, sunlight thrusting its way through large un-curtained windows onto white poured-polyurethane floors atop which sit "no-color" furnishings in chrome, glass, vinyl, plastic laminates and plexiglass. All is geared to drawing the eye to paintings by Vaserely, Frank Stella and Morris Louis, and a collection of Chinese red lacquer furniture and objects.  As an aside, I wonder if this was the first time that cliche of modern decorating, a Saarinen table flanked by a set of French fauteuils, had been published.

In some ways, I come full circle with this house because though I'm on with a wider subject now, this is the time when the men whom I have written about previously, "the Forgotten Generation," were coming to the fore. They were some of the most exciting talents ever to grace the American decorating scene and many were soon gone, dead to the AIDS epidemic. To my mind, that was a loss from which decorating in this country has yet to recover.