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.


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?

Mrs. Astor Collects.

January 14, 2013

Brooke Astor on collections and collecting, as published in Architectural Digest, 1982:

Taste is a very elusive thing. The person who dresses with style and taste may have a banal or even hideous house. The one who collects magnificent pictures may have no idea how to hang them. Some people have good taste in everything but food; in the most delightful surroundings, they may serve you a half-cooked meal. And worst of all, some of the nicest people have dreadful friends.

I have found that my taste changes with the years. I used to love 18th-century English furniture—mahogany sideboards and large breakfront bookcases; paneled rooms with sporting prints on the walls. Then, by way of a divorce, I moved away from the English furniture and the house, into an apartment, where I had French furniture—small, pretty chairs, which were easy to draw up for conversation, and small round tables. Now I like a mixture. I want pure comfort, with some good wood pieces and low Chinese tables—and mirrors in every room. My mother used to say, “Mirrors in a room, water in a landscape, eyes in a face—those are what give character.” My mirrors are a mixture of French and English, all in old gilt, and they are there to reflect the room and to give it spirit.

There are two volumes on taste—The Economics of Taste, by Gerald Reitlinger—that I advise new collectors to read. Of particular importance is Reitlinger’s warning that you should not be so foolish as to throw away your grandfather’s stuffed bear, or your great-aunt’s ivory glove stretcher, because they may become the rage overnight and the bids will soar at Sotheby’s and Christie’s.

Collecting is a personal matter, which is why museums with the most complete and unusual collections can be overpowering at times. The point of view of a museum is to show as much as possible, in a gallery, of whatever that gallery is meant for. A museum must look for the best, but, at the same time, offer a range of lesser art, in order to illustrate the evolution of the perfect example and to satisfy both casual visitor and scholar. To accomplish all this, the museum must be totally objective. A museum must judge with an eye from which a great deal of passion has gone. There is no place for frivolity or for slipping in an unworthy object just because it is amusing or has an odd charm of its own.

Unlike the museum, the private collector can run totally amok. He can put the most outré painting on his wall and place below it a fourth-century Greek sculpture and an Axminster rug. His is not necessarily a happy mixture, because to be a collector does not always mean to be endowed with good taste; it can be purely a case of a desire to possess.

I caution that there are three catches to collecting: The first is the changing of your own taste, which entails a good deal of weeding out—a rather difficult process if you are at all sentimental. I recall asking a friend of mine, a delightful lady in her middle 90s, who was incredibly full of life and charm, what the secret was that kept her so young and on her toes. She answered thoughtfully, “I think it is because I try to make one new young friend a year. It challenges my outlook.” I did not dare to ask what she did with her old friends. Did she slough one off each year? Second, must you send one of your treasures to a thrift shop or auction room every time you replace it with another, so that your collection will not outgrow your house, but will show the fruits of your choice to advantage—not squeezed together, making a hodgepodge? And, last of all, possessions are a responsibility. They need care, as does everything. They must not be allowed to collect dust. China and glass must be washed. Pictures must be cleaned and restretched periodically. Books must be taken off the shelves, their bindings oiled and then rubbed down with lamb’s wool. Bronze must be guarded against the bronze disease. Nothing can be beautiful forever, if uncared for.

I started collecting paintings of dogs about 15 years ago. Dogs have always been a part of my life; I don’t believe I could survive without them. Inspired by their ever-loyal friendship, I started to adorn my walls with pictures of them. I chose works from the 19th century, mostly English, with a few Spanish and French, and have stuck to that. Queen Victoria, who was as sentimentally addicted to dogs as I am, had every one of her pets painted and her courtiers quickly followed her example. Thanks to that prolific period of dog lovers, I now have 74 dog pictures in the front hall and on the staircase wall of my house in the country. I have never bought a costly dog painting—say, by Stubbs—but I have Landseers, Herrings, Ackermanns, and so on. I have pictures of dogs tearing up a newspaper with a picture of Gladstone on it; dogs obviously adoring their masters, and carrying notes or slippers or gray top hats in their mouths; dogs mourning their masters; dogs sleeping or playing; and others simply posing. The dogs are my only really large collection, and the staircase was the right place for them, although they now also fill the upstairs hall.

In my smaller collections, the important thing is arrangement. I like to arrange objects as I would arrange a bowl of flowers, making a mixture that is pleasing and that brings about the best in each flower or object. In my New York apartment, the rooms are not large; so the objects all had to be fairly small.

In my blue “morning room” (named for the morning sun) there are several arrangements, including one of my favorites: Against a blue-fabric-covered wall I have hung five large Meissen plates—the heart of a dinner service painted for Frederick the Great of Prussia, to be used in his hunting lodge. I hung them over a Hepplewhite satinwood cabinet, on whose top I placed objects to enhance the animals painted on the plates.

I have a collection of teapots, also. One group is on a Regency black-and-red stand, and the other is on what is meant to be a hanging shelf, but I have placed it on the floor. The teapots are mostly European, late 18th and early 19th century, with some Oriental ones thrown in.

In the hall leading to my bedroom, a Brazilian marble dog prances between English candlesticks atop a console, and in my bedroom two Chinese Chippendale-style étagères hold a collection of English porcelain dogs.

All these things are not particularly rare, but even at the risk of sounding smug, I do think they are attractive together. I, myself, when I happen to look at them at night on my way to bed, feel they have found a good home, and I like them where they are. Anyway, they make me happy, and I hope it will be many years before they find their way into the auction rooms. I hope that then they will be loved as much as I love them, because I believe that nothing exists that is unresponsive.

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.

Hearth & Home.

January 5, 2010

Historically, a hearth is a fireplace, lined with brick or stone, used to cook or heat. It’s the architectural expression of the fireplace, the visible part, as opposed to the section hidden behind a wall and connected to a chimney. The mantel, which is separate from the fireplace proper, is something else altogether. The hearth is the most traditionally central place in a home; in fact, it’s Latin name is focus.

A wood-burning fireplace.

The hearth’s significance can vary inversely to warmth; fireplaces aren’t used much in summer months, but crisp fall evenings and blustery winter days can demand their use. A fireplace means warmth and comfort, in terms of both heat provided and the people gathered around it. It’s a central attraction, what decorators call an anchor, in any room. A stone fireplace is best, if dormant, caked slightly in ash and soot, looking recently and vigorously used. In actual use, it’s best filled with crackling, popping logs and warm, lazy flames.

Gas fireplaces offer the latter but not the first; gas lines don’t crackle and pop (unless near exploding) and sculpted metal “logs” neither crack, change shape, glow, burn, or smell like wood and home. Retiring to Scotch and cigars around a gas fireplace is like reading books on a Kindle. The superficial, identifying qualities are there (flames and heat, or, words and plot) but the feeling is gone. The gas rig offers no more comfortable pine smoke or gentle, dry crackling than the Kindle does dog-eared pages or creased binding.

"Crackling, popping logs."

Hearth taxes existed in England as early as 1662, and cost about two shillings per hearth, per home. Almshouses and schools were exempt, as were businesses other than smiths’ forges or bakers’ ovens. Subjects of the Crown paid one shilling on Michaelmas, and the other on Lady Day, until William III abolished the tax in 1689. Scotland followed suit a year later.


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.