09 December 2010

Get Inspired: Millicent Rogers

Space: The living room of Millicent Rogers, 21 Sutton Place, New York City, New York.

Year: Circa 1935

Occupant: Rogers (1902 — 1953) was arguably the most glamorous of all the Standard Oil heiresses. Adventuresome too. She identified the genius of American couturier Charles James early on his career and acquired his clothes with the eye of a curator. She learned to forge gold so she could design and make barbarically chic jewelry, including a pair of gold-nugget-like cufflinks she created for Clark Gable, one of a string of lovers that included the future author Roald Dahl. She collected, with discernment, Biedermeier furniture, Navajo turquoise jewelry, Native American artifacts, and terrific paintings (Renoir, Corot, Fragonard). Rogers also had an astoundingly good eye for interior decoration, creating extraordinarily personal decors for her residences in Austria; Washington, D. C.; New Mexico; New York; Jamaica, and Virginia.

Elements: Located in the famous riverside tenements smartly renovated by Dorothy Draper during the Depression and decorated for Rogers by McMillen & Co. — Billy Baldwin gives some credit to Van Day Truex too, though surely the photograph records Rogers's exacting taste and no one else's — the room looks overstuffed at first glance. Especially to modern eyes, what with the exuberant Victorian needlework rose garden rolled out underfoot and the walls dressed with deep red satin cascading from cloak pins in early-nineteenth-century European fashion. (Note the cast-iron steam pipe in the left corner of the photograph, disguised to blend in with the fabric.) The space is actually quite minimally furnished, however, with about ten pieces of furniture, none of which takes up much room or is at all superfluous. Two tailored modern love seats with down-stuffed cushions. A pair of Chinese Chippendale tables holding Victorian glass lamps converted to electricity. A brace of papier-mâché side chairs glimmering with gilt and mother of pearl, which could be pressed into service in the adjoining dining room. A couple of Régence fauteuils covered in velvet (surely silk, given Rogers's superlative taste and bottomless pocketbook). Oh, and a low black-lacquer cocktail table set with crystal ashtrays. That's about it.

Lessons Learned: Even if the sumptuousness of the setting is out of your financial league, the takeaway is texture. It's all about juxtaposition. Sleek satin played against lustrous velvet. Crisp modern upholstery relieved by a double dose of old-fashioned button tufting. Smooth lacquer alongside nubby needlework. Don't forget the animating qualities of gilt frames and crystal candelabra either. Every room needs a bit of dazzle to keep its spirits up, even if it's just a trail of golden nail heads tracing the curves of a chair. As for the Victorian table lamps, they are pure camp — and the room is all the better for their quirky presence.