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12 April 2011

3 Beekman Place and The Wild, Wild West

                   Really. There's no number, but 1 Beekman Place is to the right, 5 Beekman Place is to the left of this door.

3 Beekman Place

      Decorators are often asked why or how they came to the field. I don't know the answer to either of those questions, since I seem to have become a decorator before I knew what a decorator was. Certainly the path was lit while I watched the film Auntie Mame when I was not quite ten years old. I was deeply in awe of those fabulous sets by George James Hopkins, and, while I realized that my family's house was about as far from the fabled 3 Beekman Place duplex as you could get, I saw every reason to try to get at least a little Manhattan glamour into our provincial Southern California surroundings. My best friend and I even fashioned a hanging fish bowl, just like the one in Auntie Mame's elevator lobby. Chez Mame, the decorative schemes ranged from Oriental Opium Den to Moderne/Vogue Regency to Louis Trocadero to Irish Georgian to the unforgettable Yul Oolu/Pneumatic Dada to the final scene's Taj Mahal Fantasia. All in the space of one hour and forty-three minutes. Chez nous, the scenery changed about every two years, and before I was out of high school we had gone from Ultra Modern (all those "hairpin" legs) to Chinese Modern (a lot of chartreuse) to something that was then known as Early American (not the Williamsburg Georgian sort of high-WASP early American, but more of an Upson Downs/Davy Crockett/Frontierland sort of early American–spinning wheel in the window, braided oval rugs, Sandwich glass) to French Provincial, which in those days was a sort of watered-down essay in the Louis XV style. (Its sister style, called Italian Provincial, was a watered-down essay in the Louis XVI style, which invariably involved a scenic wallpaper mural of the Bay of Naples and a fake wisteria plant) to, ultimately, something that was then known as Mediterranean, which conflated elements of French and Italian Provincial and borrowings from Spanish Colonial. We won't go into the All Avocado kitchen, I think.

Mummy and Daddy and Sis and me with the Skyliner, 1957*
*Sorry, I was having a Jackie moment.

My remembrances of things past are keyed to what year Ford my mother would have been driving—in this case a black '57 Skyliner with retractable hard top and Continental kit and parade bumper. We had just moved from a beautiful old Shingle-style house that I had loved, into a brand-new ranch house that I despised on first sight. It was last word in ordinary, and there was another just like it every block or so. In a draw of straws with my sister, I got the bedroom with the dreariest Olde Colonial Tymes wallpaper ever designed. No, thank you. While my parents were out, I got into the charcoal house paint that had been used to butch up the pastel exterior of our ranchstravaganza, painted out the Colonial and ushered in the Sixties, big time. My mother had a certain flair for décor, of course, and while she wasn't mad for the charcoal, she eventually let me make most of the decorating decisions. The die was cast. From there, it was on to my aunts' houses and my mother's girlfriends' houses and here we are, fifty years and countless rooms later. 

     And that, in a large nut shell, is how I became a decorator. Music up. Fade background to black with just my face in the spotlight....

"...I have my loom by the window..."


13 March 2011

More Luxe, Calme et Voulpté (every picture tells a story, don't it? - R. Stewart)

This timeworn postcard has been stuck in a corner of my bathroom mirror in every house I've lived in for the past 40 years. Many houses, many mirrors, and somehow, even unframed, it's never gotten lost. Always just stuck in the mirror frame. I was certain Mrs. Vreeland had written about this photograph in ALLURE, but she didn't. I looked. Maybe she wrote about it somewhere
else, but I would swear I remember her mentioning the hairpins in the cold cream jar. Such a prosaic touch in such an ungodly beautiful room. Someone else has noticed the hairpins, I'm sure. The room is the latest in modern chic - all travertine and mirror and hand-loomed rugs and gilt hardware. And a painted encoignure that must have been brought in from elsewhere to hold the potted plants up at just the right height for the composition.

There is a confluence of talents and personalities and social history here that is unusual in a single image. Richard Avedon, one of the major fashion photographers of the day; Dorian Leigh, the  supermodel of the day (who, though she wasn't, could have been Truman Capote's inspiration for Holly Golightly); Robert Piguet, who designed the dress, and whose fragrance, Fracas, may be what's in those flacons on the counter; Helena Rubenstein, who was, well, Helena Rubenstein (later, Princess Gourielli of Greenwich, Connecticut), whose bathroom this was; Jean-Michel Frank, one of the leading lights of French decorating of all time, who designed the interiors of Madame's Ile St.-Louis apartments.

The caption on the card doesn't tell us who designed the jewels, but they appear to be major. Cartier? Van Cleef? 

Let's see; not counting my surmise about the jewels, that's five 20th Century personages, each with his or her own well-established chops, as they say in the music business, directly involved in the elements of the photograph, plus Truman and Holly by association. And a fragrance, Fracas. To borrow from Sandra Bernhardt's lament on the word "pavilions":

No one uses the word fracas anymore, and that truly saddens me.

Fracas: (French ca. 1716  fra-käz) Din, row, brawl, from the Italian fracasso, from fracassare, to shatter. Caution: The scent of tuberoses may provoke unpredictable reactions in barrooms


08 March 2011

La Vie en Rose

Back in the palmier days of the Hollywood studios, big stars got big "dressing rooms" on the lot, veritable cottages, really, with all the amenities of hotel and home. They were decorated by the set department in whatever style was the current rage. Period looks and ultra modern looks, and a hybrid of the two that came to be called Vogue Regency or Hollywood Regency, were employed in the design of these cozy retreats. Billy Haines, the silent era matinee idol turned Joan Crawford's decorator, was the grand master of this rarefied realm. He took the look from the screen to the street, so to speak, adapting for domestic use (okay, Hollywood's idea of domestic use) the luminous worlds created by set designers such as Cedric Gibbons, who did every picture you ever wanted to see. The Art Déco that had been the ne plus ultra of cinematic taste since the Roaring Twenties lost favor in the United States as things turned decidedly Nazi in Berlin. Déco, then called Modernist or Moderne - the term Art Déco was coined in the 1970's - was the victim of its association, in the American mind at least, with the whole Nazi mise en scene. Think Albert Speer. Think Metropolis. What to do?

Look homeward was what the studios did, to an idealized take on our colonial and Federal past. The columns and pilasters and cornices and architraves and broken pediments of what was basically a transported British style served as the inspiration for this delightfully bastard style. To see an example of exactly what I'm talking about, just slip in your DVD of Dark Victory. You'll behold the epitome of Vogue Regency at its glamorous, shimmering height in the first three minutes of the film. The staircase railing alone is worth a treatise. Do watch the rest. Years ago, when I first met Barbara Pohlman, another decorator working in Hollywood, she told me she was looking for something like "that Dark Victory wallpaper" for Linda Ronstadt's house, and we bonded instantly. I knew she meant the paper in the Spoiler Alert scene at the end.

Here, then, an homage to those studio dressing rooms or bungalows, as they were sometimes called. They were no more "bungalows" than those glorified garden-court apartments at The Beverly Hills Hotel are true bungalows. For that you'll have to watch The Letterbut we haven't time.

I wanted Christmas, but Christmas in Hell!

The task here is to start out over-the-top and to stay over-the-top. If you lose your nerve, you'll wind up with your grandmother's house, and, assuming your grandmother was not Norma Shearer, that probably won't be a good thing. When your main fabric pattern features red roses the size of dinner plates, the very idea of restraint is just plain silly. Close your eyes and think of Dorothy Draper. Better, think of Ruth Draper.

Soigné to spare - the star's dressing room look: over-scaled floral prints, striped satin, big white lamps, white flowers, sparkly objets, a real telephone. The only things missing are the cigarette boxes and lighters. 

Repeat after me: There's no place like home...except my bungalow.

05 March 2011

Les Cerfs de Chanel

I had to go back and browse around at the source after writing about Chanel's salon in my Luxe, Calme et Volupté post. Here they are: those damned bronze deer that never fail to delight. The male with his ridiculously oversized antlers. When I first got my bearings, or training wheels, in the monde of design, they were among the first objets I came to lust after. I don't know why, exactly. I can't say that I'm especially fond of real deer, and I can't say that this stiff-legged pair is especially graceful, but there's just something about them. Do they represent a touch of innocence in an otherwise extremely sophisticated setting? Bambi in a brothel? Perhaps. Oh, wait. They have a certain je ne sais quoi, n'est-ce pas? That must be it. 

A friend who knew this room well suggested I show the rest of my Luxe, Calme et Volupté living room, so here it is:

While everything but the piano dates from the period between the wars, there were few actual art déco pieces in the room. You can just make out the chrome and glass torchères (or torchières, I can never recall which) on the piano, for example. The open armchairs are 1930s office furniture in what was called the "conservative modern taste", the painted gold-leaf screen is from the the '30s or '40s, the piano is 1902, the Rivera print is dated 1944, the slipcovers are hiding 1920's Louis XVI chaises volantes and the plaster bust of Hadrian II is of uncertain vintage and provenance. Hadrian's brutish mug provided that certain  je ne sais quoi to spare. I regret selling that screen, and would gleefully commit mayhem to have it back again. Je ne regrette rien? Moi?

Où sont les lys d'antan?

Say it with me:  je ne sais quoi

02 March 2011

Luxe, Calme et Volupté

Word of the day: soigné (French; carefully or elegantly done)

I didn't set out to teach French vocabulary, but since the French, as we say, have a word for it, let's take a look at soigné. We all know what a négligé is, but soigné, I think, is often equated to the American jazz age coinage "swanky". Soigné is the near-antonym for négligé; carefully done, as opposed to negligently done. Don't get me started with canapé.

And throw in Luxe, Calme, et Volupté for good measure. Who coined that? Baudelaire? Matisse? No matter, it's about as French as it gets.

Eh bien, where was I? Ah, my living room in Hollywood, circa 1985. The apartment was in a landmarked essay in the streamlined moderne or art déco mode, but the room held exactly two examples of art déco - the Paul Jouve charcoal of an elephant and mahout above the sofa, and a pair of chrome and glass lamps on the piano. (The cocktail table, by Robsjohn-Gibbings, is what? transitional?) As I look at this photo today, I see that it was my latter-day homage to Chanel's famous lair-over-the-shop on the Rue Cambon, the details of which, every good decorator in the world knows well. That salon, too, had very little in the way of actual art déco in it - but it typified, in its own way, the soigné atmosphere of the period as much as did the more doctrinaire modernism of Frank or Ruhlmann.

Say it with me: soigné

Note: Yes, I admit that the bronze bust on the stack of books is négligé. And décoleté.

Clouds are back.

Word for the day: insouciance (Origin: French 1790-1800) Lighthearted unconcern, nonchalance.  No doubt négligé dates from those happy, care-free times, as well.

Remember cloud shades, Krystle? Well, they're back, darling.

As if they ever went away.

Two yards of striped silk taffeta, eight tiny silk pins, three push-pins, and, voila! Les nuages!
I think if I had had these properly made up in the workroom - sewn hem and header and rings and cords - that the (nearly) artless insouciance of the whole thing would have been lost. Sometimes, the least effort is effort enough.

Say it with me: insouciance