A World Unto Itself.

July 2, 2013

I spend an inordinate amount of time decorating. An inordinate amount of money, too – especially in comparison to purchases which could have some more readily identifiable bearing on my quality of life. For instance: food. Or: internet service. Or even: gasoline. The net dividend of most paychecks (what isn’t vacuumed up by the student loan shylocks) is most often left in the polished brass coffers of little antique shops. Why there? Because that’s where they sell walnut writing desks and little crystal inkwells. Antique shops offer the worst sort of potential for impulse buying: a beat-to-hell Persian rug? An etching of Napoleon on the march? Ring ’em up.

The efficiency with which I finance the college careers of antique merchants’ children recently led a friend to ask: why? Why spend so much time and treasure making a place that – since I live alone – few people ever see look like an English country house? Wouldn’t the money be better penned up in a savings account or invested somehow?

The answer is two-fold: first, my apartment is well-insured and in a very old building. When and if it ever goes up in flames or (more likely) simply subsides into the earth, I’ll make a bundle. Second, no. The money would decidedly not be better saved than spent. Here is why:

The world is, even at best, disquieting. Buses are loud. People are discourteous and care about ridiculous things called Kardashians. Buildings are ugly and everything is beginning to look prefabricated and shoddy. English is butchered daily by almost everybody – and not in small, forgivable ways, but on a tremendous and violent scale: most Americans treat their country’s national language like Hitler treated Poland. The political left and right have gone insane in equal measure. Fashion is garish. In general, the lowest common denominator prevails.

Step into my home. Things are quiet and gentle. There are old rugs on the floors, which are wood and polished. Sit in any cozy chair and there is a table within arm’s reach where you can set a drink. There are brass and glass ashtrays, but only for cigars. Or, if you want, a rack of pipes is in the library – next to the old Vanity Fair caricatures and some engravings of sailboats. The light is natural, from big windows, or else soft and dusky, from thickly shaded lamps. Look anywhere and you will see neatly stacked books about nearly anything. Hunting scenes are on the walls and blankets are across the backs of chairs. A number of small bars (in the kitchen, the dining room and the library) are convenient and well-provisioned. There is ice in the freezer and tumblers in the cabinet.

No matter what the world demands in the way of tolerating vulgarity, your home – house, apartment, condominium, cabin – is your own. In it, you can create a world to your own specifications, the world you would prefer. My own tastes are clubby and subdued. Yours might be modern and sleek. In either case, the pleasure and reassurance of being able, at the end of any day, to slip into a world of your own taste is priceless.

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The Decoration of Houses.

February 16, 2013

Lifted from February’s Architectural Digest:

Hundreds of interior design books are published every year, from nitty-gritty how-to guides to lavish volumes that are the publishing world’s answer to lifetime achievement awards. But they all owe their existence to a pioneering guide that was all the rage in 1897: The Decoration of Houses, written by Edith Wharton and Ogden Codman Jr.

Wharton, at the time, was a 30-something Manhattan society matron with a keen interest in architecture and interior design, rather than the Pulitzer Prize–winning novelist she would become. Codman was a blue-blooded architect, one year her junior, with whom Wharton and her husband were remodeling a summer place in Newport, Rhode Island. Poor taste and vulgarity of all kinds reigned in that New England resort town, thanks to an influx of Vanderbilts and other newly moneyed clans anxious to put their lucre to conspicuous use, so much so that Wharton and Codman decided to write a book about how to build and decorate houses with nobility, grace, and timelessness. It would, they hoped, lead its readers out of what Wharton called (pace the Vanderbilts) a “Thermopylae of bad taste” and into an aesthetic Promised Land.

Today, however, not many people read the 198–page book. But last week I was delighted to participate in a panel discussion about it at the New York School of Interior Design. The talk was sponsored by The Mount, a historic house museum in Lenox, Massachusetts, that was once Wharton’s country residence and, like the book, was another Wharton-Codman collaboration, at least at first. (The persnickety pair’s relationship eventually proved combustible, so the architect ended up losing the job to a less-volatile competitor.) Architectural historian, University of Virginia professor, and Wharton expert Richard Guy Wilson was the moderator, and my co-panelists were the interior designer Charlotte Moss and writer/decorator Pauline C. Metcalf.

The subject of the talk was whether The Decoration of Houses, now nearly 120 years old, still had any relevancy in the Age of IKEA. The general conclusion was a qualified “yes.” Wharton and Codman’s book does have drawbacks, we all agreed. Its tone can be superior and schoolmarmish. Its photographs are black-and-white, which many people today cannot abide in a book about interior design. Its examples of good taste are invariably the ballrooms, antechambers, staircases, and other grandiose spaces in European palaces and villas—not exactly what today’s average homeowner finds particularly inspirational. Perhaps most damning, The Decoration of Houses is devoid of how-to projects and idiotproof color schemes. So why do Moss, Metcalf, Wilson, and I revere this relic of late-Victorian days? (Which, it was quickly pointed out, is still in print.) Well, because practicality and common sense are never out of fashion.

The Decoration of Houses is like the King James Version of the Bible. Thousands of interior design books have come and gone since, but most, I would argue, merely repackage Wharton and Codman’s lessons in brighter colors and snappier prose. Today we all know, to a degree, that pleasingly proportioned rooms inspire, almost magically, a sense of calm. That it is best, when on a budget, to invest in comfortable chairs and sofas rather than flashy knickknacks. That we should build and decorate houses based on our individual needs rather than popular trends. (Not for nothing was Wharton born a Jones, a New York society family whose indulgences, architectural and otherwise, reportedly led to the coining of the phrase “keeping up with the Joneses.”)

Such advice, and so much more in Wharton and Codman’s pages, seems so basic, so obvious. But it wasn’t in 1897, when many wealthy individuals, the target of the barbed arrow that is The Decoration of Houses, were doing all they could to build opulent houses glittering enough to do justice to the Gilded Age. Wharton and Codman wanted to educate the rich, to challenge them to build beautiful, practical, and pleasing residences whose details, from meaningful moldings to efficient floor plans to well-made, well-mannered furniture, would trickle down into every neighborhood in America in one form or another.

They were, of course, being irrationally optimistic—our time is as plagued with domestic horrors as was the 1890s. That said, sound advice has timeless value, which is why the book’s commandments, suggestions, and observations remain insightful and inspiring, whether your taste is ancien régime or ultramodern. After all, as Wharton and Codman wrote in their introduction, “Architecture and decoration, having wandered since 1800 in a labyrinth of dubious eclecticism, can be set right only by a close study of the best models.” Who would disagree with that?


Nightingale – not Florence.

March 7, 2012

No less an intellectual than Sylvester Stallone once quipped “if bad decorating was a hanging offense, there’d be bodies in every tree.” Mr. Stallone, if nothing else, is a consistent paradigm of taste, and hardly one to suffer inadequate interior decoration.

In deferene to Rocky’s interests, your editorial staff here presents the story of David Nightingale Hicks, the late British interior designer known for boldy pairing antique furniture and modern art.

Mr. Hicks was born in Coggeshall, Essex, to stockbroker Herbert Hicks and Iris, his wife. He was educated at Charterhouse School and the Central College of Art, both terribly English spots, then launched his career designing cereal boxes. He decorated himself and his mother a London home on the side, and its profile in the British magazine House & Garden was sufficient to elevate his design career beyond the realm of breakfast.

He subsequently lent his talents to a home designed for Lord and Lady Londonberry, on Park Lane, alongside the architectural firm of Garnett Cloughley Blakemore, and another for the film producer Lord Barbourne, coincidentally brother-in-law to Mr. Hicks (who had married Lady Pamela Mountbatten – of those Mountbattens). A London residence for his father-in-law, the Earl Mountbatten, followed.

He went on to produce carpets for Windsor Castle and design the Prince of Wales’ first apartment at Buckingham Palace. By the end of his career, his projects also included Manhattan townhouses and the King of Saudi Arabia’s yacht.

Vociferous in his pursuit of tobacco, Mr. Hicks died from lung cancer when he was 69 years old. His body, per his precise instructios, “lay in state” on the ground-floor of his garden pavillion, before being buried in a coffin he had designed himself.


The “ECHL”

December 9, 2009

Author G. Bruce Boyer is best known as an essayist on the subject of classic men’s fashion; he is the author of several books on the subject and a contributor to, and editor of, The Encyclopaedia of Clothing & Fashion. He’s also the author of the short essay below “The English Country House Look”… or, ECHL, which first appeared on the web log A Suitable Wardrobe.

The Gothic Business Look (all laser-cut black suits and pointed shoes), the Made-in-America Blue Collar Look, the Neo-Japanese Preppy Look, the Neapolitan Relaxed Elegance Look. There are so many looks around these days to tempt a young man at the onset of his wardrobing life. What’s a fella to do?

May I suggest taking one step forward by taking two steps backwards: the tried & true English Country House Look (ECHL). It’s stood the test of time, has proven adaptable to virtually any body shape, continues to have enviable street creds, and can be worked and re-worked over and over infinitum.

Ralph Lauren & The ECHL.

In his distinctive book, On Decorating, Mark Hampton slyly puts his finger on the secret of the ECHL:

…rooms with old worn carpets and turn-of-the-century upholstered furniture which, instead of being newly reupholstered, is covered in loose slipcovers that look (and perhaps are) homemade. There are books everywhere and leather club fenders in front of smoke-streaked mantelpieces. This is commonly called the undecorated look. Sometimes it is the result of happenstance; sometimes a subtle effort has been made …

“Sometimes a subtle effort” would be a good title for a study of this subject that speaks to both interior design and to clothes. Since Mr. Hampton has noted the touchstones of the interior design genre, let’s look at the salient points of the ECHL pertaining to clothes.

  1. Aspirational gentility: the perceptive Ralph Lauren has, over these many years, firmly convinced us that our grandfathers all had mahogany-lined speedboats and polo ponies, even though they were in fact slaving away down some mine shaft or other. You can’t beat the past as a commodity.
  2. Disdain for technology: why would anyone bother with a Blackberry, cellphone, headsets, ipod, Kindle, or laptop when a simple Montblanc and Moleskin diary will suffice, and not ruin the lines of the suit. Let solitude be a time for thought.
  3. Untidiness trumps symmetry and organization: consider Nancy Mitford’s famous dictum: “All nice rooms are a bit shabby.” This applies to dress as well. Otherwise there’s the suspicion of calculation.
  4. A preference for the mildly tatty over the new and shiny. Flaunting new labels, or any labels for that matter, gives the impression of insecurity.
  5. Comfort triumphs: never sacrifice a cozy, warm, homey feeling to fashionable trends. You don’t have to.
  6. Eccentric within reason is charming: we preach individuality, but how refreshing to actually see it. Wear the orange cashmere tie and purple socks with the navy suit, or a plastic shopping bag for a briefcase.
  7. On the other hand, novelty is as unwelcome as excessive tidiness. Just because a person likes something is not a good enough reason to wear it. Denim dinner jackets and chinchilla bow ties are cute and whimsical. That’s the problem.
  8. Be sentimental: style is about attitude. Wearing Granddad’s old pocket watch from a chain through your buttonhole is a perfect touch, even if the face keeps falling out of it.

But don’t take my word for it. Just ask Ralph.