31 December 2011
“Men have no concept of how to design things for the home. Women should design the things they use.”
So said industrial designer Eva Zeisel, who died yesterday at age 105, after a rich, creative, and highly influential life.
20 December 2011
"It is as dreadful to be too rich as to be too tall. In the first instance you don't find happiness and in the second you can't find a bed."
So said couturière Gabrielle "Coco" Chanel (1883-1971), as quoted in The Allure of Chanel by Paul Morand (Pushkin Press, 2008).
07 December 2011
|Roumania-born, Tunisia-based tastemaker George Sebastian in the 1930s.|
Design history is populated by mysterious personalities—decorators who doggedly remain in the shadows, craftsmen of uncommon brilliance who left few documents behind, patrons who languish in obscurity despite their onetime prominence. Consider George Sebastian, for instance. A polyglot Roumanian with crystal-blue eyes and brilliantined hair, he put Hammamet, Tunisia, on the map in the early 1930s and built Dar Sebastian, one of North Africa's most admired residences. (It is now the International Cultural Center of Hammamet.) American poet Robinson Jeffers, in a letter to a friend in 1940, called it "the great Moorish house one always sees when a perfect house is pictured in architectural magazines."
Until recently the details of Sebastian's life have been largely conjecture but an enterprising Roumanian scholar, Mihai Sorin Rădulescu, has cleared the fog. Karl Gheorghe Sebastian was born on 21 September 1896, in the city of Bacău, north of Bucharest. His father, Chiril Sebastian, may have been Russian; his mother, Moldovan aristocrat Maria Keminger de Lippa, was a baroness whose relations were stars of Romania’s glittering social goulash. Her half brother Prince Dimitrie Ghika-Comăneşti was a celebrated explorer, while another married the sister of Queen Natalie of Serbia. Princess Marthe Bibesco, the poet and novelist, was a relative; one cousin's wife was Liane de Pougy, the ravishing French dancer and grande horizontale, and Maria's nephew Prince Barbu Ştirbey was the lover of Romania's queen consort—and likely the biological father of her youngest child. By blood or marriage, Madame Sebastian and her son were connected to most of Roumania's consonant-rich, crème-de-la-crème clans, including the Mavrocodatos, Cantacuzenes, Ştirbeys, Sturdzas, and Lahovarys.
Perhaps the most intense relationship was with Porter Woodruff (1894—1959), an American artist, who designed covers for House & Garden and sketched fashions for Vogue. Records suggest they met shortly after the first world war. A biography of artist and costume designer Gordon Conway, a mutual friend, states that Woodruff was Sebastian's inamorato and that the two lived together in France and Tunisia. (Woodruff painted some strikingly attractive views of Hammamet as well as dashing scenes of North African life.) Affairs of the heart aside, the suave Roumanian formed a marital alliance in 1929 with Flora Witmer, an attractive American widow a couple of decades his senior. Fifty-two to Sebastian's 32, she swiftly shaved off a few years—seven to be exact—in an effort to reduce the chronological gap.
|Flora E. Witmer, the future Mrs George Sebastian, in 1922.|
|Flora Sebastian in a detail from an early 1930s photograph, likely snapped at Dar Sebastian, her winter residence in Tunisia. Image courtesy of a Stifel family member.|
How bride and groom met is unknown, though a chance meeting at one of Europe's watering holes wouldn't be surprising. More important is what the widow Witmer brought to George Sebastian's life: a great deal of money and an apparent willingness to allow him to spend it to his heart's content. A native of Wheeling, West Virginia, the former Flora Elizabeth Stifel (1877—1939) was an heiress to a fortune built on the manufacture of printed calico. The family firm, J. L. Stifel & Sons, was founded in 1835 by her paternal grandfather, a German immigrant, and it churned out millions of yards of indigo-dyed cotton a month. She also possessed, in comparison, a fleabite legacy from her first husband, Porterfield Krauth Witmer (1871—1920), cofounder of a Des Moines insurance and real estate agency.
How Mrs Witmer amused herself during nine years of widowhood has yet to be ascertained, though it appears she spent some time upgrading her appearance. A 1922 passport photograph shows a glum-looking creature with an unflattering bob and wearing a blouse with an untidy collar and a mannish striped tie; about a decade later, the camera records a woman who is the very model of American chic, draped with pearls, her dark hair elegantly coiffed and crowned by a smart halo-brimmed hat. Somehow, somewhere Flora Witmer crossed paths with George Sebastian. And eventually, dear reader, she married him. One month after they sailed together to New York City from Cherbourg, aboard the Leviathan, Mrs Porterfield Krauth Witmer became Madame Charles George Sebastian on the evening of 23 November 1929. Following the brief Lutheran ceremony—held in, of all locations, Porter Woodruff's apartment at 230 East 50th Street—the newlyweds traveled to Canada for a honeymoon and, thence, to Paris, which would be their home base. Winters would be spent in palm-shaded Hammamet.
The main entrance of Dar Sebastian, which was constructed circa 1932 by George Sebastian, with the assistance of a Sicilian builder, Vincenzo Dicara. The door surround is made of carved marble; on the roof is glimpsed a bit of Flora Sebastian's breakfast room. Image by David Massey from "Maisons de Hammamet" (Dar Ashraf Editions, 1988).
|A 1930s photograph of the bay-side façade of the Sebastian mansion, which is made of concrete and stucco painted a blinding shade of white. Image by George Hoyningen-Huene.|
The construction date is unclear. One source claims the house was built in 1927, another declares that 1932 is the correct completion date, and yet another says construction began in 1923 and was finished seven years later. The book Maisons de Hammamet states that ground was broken in 1927 and construction completed in 1930. A correspondent, however, has mentioned that a plan of the house indicates it was constructed in stages, from the late 1920s through the early 1930s, and has provided a supporting image, which is reproduced below.
Originally called Dar el Kbira (The Big House) and now known as Dar Sebastian (Sebastian House), this North African pleasure dome was designed by George Sebastian, who plucked ideas from regional mosques, marabouts, and museums and combined them with the assistance of a local builder, Vincenzo Dicara, a native of Sicily. (Flora, presumably, picked up the tab as the house became ever larger.) Low-slung, snow-white, and dappled with delicate handcarved screens known as mashrabiya, the house won the approval of French Vogue, which called its style "arabe modernisée" and admired its "lignes sobres et pures." Le Corbusier and Frank Lloyd Wright found the lean, uncomplicated structure worthy of abundant praise, with the latter apparently describing it as "the most beautiful house I know," hailing the structure's arcaded swimming pool and air of fantasy.
"The house, perfect and requiring no ornament, is like a line that never breaks," couturière Elsa Schiaparelli, a part-time Hammamet resident, recalled in her enchanting autobiography, Shocking Life. "The architecture is white and smooth—arcade after arcade, alleys of ever growing cypresses, and a vast crystal blue swimming pool; a long black marble table, on banquet days veiled with tuberoses, asphodels, and lilies of the sand." Indoors groin-vaulted rooms sheltered spare gatherings of sinewy furniture by Frank, Eyre de Lanux, and other gilded createurs of the time, and here and there stood painted screens by George Sebastian's friend, Porter Woodruff, as did hassocks of red leather. A mashrabiya-paneled room on the roof of the house—overlooking the bay and variously described as a breakfast room or a reading room—featured goldenrod-yellow cushions, while the ground-floor patio had a translucent ceiling made of squares of Lalique glass.
Flora Sebastian at her winter residence in Tunisia, accompanied by a fox terrier. She is seated in what appears to be a classic Roorkhee campaign chair, versions of which are still retailed today, notably by Melvill & Moon. Image by George Hoyningen-Huene, French "Vogue," January 1935.
Everyone from Wallis Simpson to Jean Cocteau gladly made the 40-mile trip from Tunis to Hammamet to bask in the Sebastians' hospitality. (Somerset Maugham and Greta Garbo came too, as did Cecil Beaton.) The photographer Horst, another Hammamet habitué, recalled being bedazzled by the Sebastians' "many handsome Berber servants." Among them, presumably, was the live-in cook, Sadok, a cleancut gentleman whose culinary expertise was the focus of an article published in American Vogue in August 1935; entitled "My Cook is an Arab," it extolls Sadok's skills, notably his way with couscous, chachouka (lightly fried eggs set atop chopped and cooked vegetables), and roast Tunisian partridge, which the article described as "remarkably plump ... with succulent white flesh, less gamy and more tender than the smaller [European] birds"). Meals at Dar Sebastian typically ended with fresh white or black figs from the garden, watermelon, or ice cream. The last-named confection was produced in a machine called an Economy Cream Maker, which the Sebastians proclaimed "a salvation ... for any one who lives in a country where the dairy resources are not of the best." The couple's enjoyment of Hammamet was so enriched by their cook that, they observed in the Vogue article, "should any strange circumstance ever draw us from Hammamet it would undoubtedly draw Sadok with it, so integral a part of our household has he become."
Prior to engaging Sadok, however, the Hammamet kitchen was manned by François Rysavy, the Czech-born chef of the Paris restaurant Au Danube Bleu, whom they hired shortly after their marriage. "Two automobiles were waiting for us when we got off the boat in Tunis," recalled Rysavy—later to be White House chef during the Eisenhower Administration—"and Sebastian chose to drive his Renault convertible himself, with his wife [who spoke no French] beside him, while I road grandly in the back seat of a chauffeur-driven Mercedes ..." (The driver was likely Sebastian's young Austrian valet and chauffeur, Franz Leitner.) The dish Rysavy's new employers loved most was the French classic Poulet Sauté Chausseur, or sautéed chicken with mushrooms and tomato sauce. The dish was the main course of a meal he created for Wallis and Ernest Simpson when they stayed with the Sebastians in March 1932. (Knowing the couple was strapped for cash at the time, their host sent them round-trip tickets, leading Wallis to splurge on a new linen suit. Ernest and his fourth wife, Avril, would visit the Sebastian house again after their wedding in 1948.) Presumably it was served beside the swimming pool, at that great black marble refectory table that Schiaparelli so admired and which was adapted from a Jean-Michel Frank design.
When the Sebastians' guests weren't dining well—Rysavy stayed in their employ for several years, and the couple sent him to London to learn English, so he could talk with Flora—they were being inspired culinarily. Mary Oliver, a childhood friend of Paul Bowles' and the wife of a British department-store heir, stayed frequently at Dar Sebastian and came up with Stuffed Peppers Hammamet, which made it into The Alice B. Toklas Cookbook. The directions are as follows: "Boil barley in salted water until tender—it should absorb all the water. Mix with chopped onions and parsley. Fill green peppers with this mixture, cover with olive oil, and put in oven. Serve with sauce made of lemon juice and paprika."
|A pair of Eyre de Lanux armchairs. Multiples of the same model were purchased by Flora and George Sebastian for their Hammamet house. Designed around 1925, the chairs sold in 2007 at Christie's New York for $85,000.|
|A circa-1934 Ananas low table by Jean-Michel Frank. Several were used throughout Dar Sebastian, though in raw waxed oak. Offered by Galerie Vallois, Paris. Image from Artnet.com.|
|The living room of Dar Sebastian today. The doors at the left lead to the pool; the doors at the center open to the patio, and the door at right leads to the bay-side loggia. Image from Tunisia.com.|
|The patio, strewn with zebra hides and furnished with leather hassocks, that connects the living room with the pool area. The glass for the ceiling reportedly was manufactured by Lalique. Image by George Hoyningen-Huene, French "Vogue," January 1935.|
|The patio as seen today. The column-and-arch sequences throughout the house were adapted from similar architectural details at the Great Mosque of Sidi-Uqba in Kairouan, Tunisia. Image from Sejurtunisia.ro.|
|A scan of a Porter Woodruff illustration of the patio at Dar Sebastian. The work, presumably executed in the 1930s, is used courtesy of a Stifel family member.|
|A bronze bust of George Sebastian, displayed in the patio; it has since been hideously polished. Image from the blog Hai-hui prin Tunisia.|
Though the house is almost entirely empty now, being used as a gallery and for receptions, a handful of original furnishings remain on the premises. There are several low oak Ananas cocktail tables by Frank, which when I last saw them were sway-backed by exposure to the elements. (I had the good fortune to spend a brief but fruitful sojourn in Hammamet more than a decade ago, but that’s another story.) That weighty poolside dining table remains in place too. Other Frank designs were purchased for the house too, including an upholstered stool paired with a dressing table (both pieces have vanished).
The most extraordinary space is a ground-floor suite whose bath is centered on a sunken marble tub inspired by a sixth-century Paleo-Christian baptistry. Some observers have examined the tub's shape and size—four curved lobes, each with steps that could also serve as seats—and believed it to be a communal hot tub, a sort of hammam, where the occupants could submerge themselves in steaming water. It seems far more likely that the bath and adjoining bedroom and dressing room were the domain of Flora Sebastian (other bedrooms are located around the ground-floor patio). Perhaps the unusual tub and the mirrored double doors surrounding it are merely her husband's essay in Hollywood-meets-North-Africa extravagance, created for the American heiress who made it all possible.
Upstairs, on the roof, is another master suite, presumably George's, overlooking the Bay of Hammamet. Paved with black marble, it is comprised of a large dressing room (its mirror-clad wardrobes and three-panel cheval glass are still in situ); a small bath; a bedroom with a six-door low mirrored cabinet stretching from one wall to another; and the previously mentioned lattice-walled space, used either as a breakfast room or a reading room.
|A black-marble staircase leads to the rooftop master suite.|
|The fireplace in the second-floor bedroom; note the carved marble frame of the door to the bath.|
The uncrowned king of Hammamet, George Sebastian, dressed in a djellaba, circa 1940.
|One of Dar Sebastian's bedrooms, as seen today. Image from Tunisia.com.|
|The extraordinary sunken marble tub in the ground-floor suite of Dar Sebastian; the bidet and sink are concealed behind the mirrored doors. The tub's shape interprets that of a sixth-century Paleo-Christian mosaic baptistry that is one of the treasures of the Bardo National Museum in Tunis.|
|The marble-tiled swimming pool that occupies one wing of the house is bordered by arcades, distinguished by horseshoe arches supported by squat marble arches. Image by David Massey from "Maisons de Hammamet" (Dar Ashraf Editions, 1988).|
|A closeup of the poolside dining table, made of black marble after the Ananas design by Jean-Michel Frank. The legs are fashioned of individual segments of marble. Standing on the table is a glass-and-wrought-iron candelabra.|
George Sebastian, on the other hand, soldiered on at Dar Sebastian. The globetrotting Roumanian was the undisputed leader of Tunisia's seasonal array of American and European socialites and expats, a louche, pleasure-seeking crowd that Maggie Davis, in her 2001 novel Rommel's Gold, described as a "collection of international oddities settled down on the African shore to do some rather elaborate sinning." Davis's acid portrait of a fictional Roumanian artist cum grand seigneur named Sebastian Ghrika (obviously modeled on George Sebastian) is chilling. Not only did he "spend his time sucking up to the Germans" during the Nazi occupation of Tunisia, one character, clearly based on Sebastian's neighbor Jean Henson, offers this scathing assessment of the master of Dar Sebastian:
"[Ghrika] knew damned well what he was doing, he was only spending [his wife] Essie's money like water, that was all. Fortunately the old fart had taste. Except toward the last, when he was living in one room with all those nasty little boys. They used to pee in the courtyard fountain instead of using the john. Made the whole house stink."
|Dar Sebastian's kitchen, where the Sebastians' cook, Sadok, and chef, François Rysavy, reigned. The doors and cabinets are painted white and decorated with nail heads in Tunisian fashion. The metal sconces are original to the house, as are the stove and refrigerator. Image from Tunisia.com.|
Three years later Sebastian sold the house of his dreams to the Tunisian government, which appointed him an adviser on historic restorations and turned Dar Sebastian into a cultural center. He died in Washington, D.C., on 9 March 1974, at age 77, the victim of kidney cancer. His will specified that his ashes be scattered at Dar Sebastian, as they duly were.
06 December 2011
|Daisy Fellowes in a 1930s photograph by Cecil Beaton.|
"Either a thing is a disappointment or it is not."
So said Franco-American fashion icon and novelist Marguerite "Daisy" Fellowes (1890—1962), daughter of the 3rd Duc Decazes and Glücksberg, a granddaughter of Singer sewing-machine magnate Isaac Singer, muse to fashion designer Elsa Schiaparelli, and mistress of many.
30 November 2011
"The placing of a desk, or a bed, or the choice of a chintz may prove more revealing [of a person] than a documented study."
So observed British writer Lesley Blanch (1904-2007) in Pavilions of the Heart: The Four Walls of Love (Putnam, 1974).
28 November 2011
16 October 2011
|French couturière Coco Chanel pinning a sleeve in 1962.|
"The opposite of luxury is not poverty because in the houses of the poor you can smell a good pot au feu. The opposite is not simplicity for there is beauty in the corn-stall and barn, often great simplicity in luxury, but there is nothing in vulgarity, its complete opposite."
So Gabrielle "Coco" Chanel (1883—1971) told photographer Cecil Beaton in 1966.
01 October 2011
|Raised-panel doors painted with bird
portraits in the early 20th century by Danish artist Michael Ancher.
Image by Andreas von Einsiedel for "The World of Interiors".|
[In 2008] a friend on the staff of The Menil Collection museum invited me on a private tour of the meticulously restored residence built by art collectors Dominique and John de Menil in Houston's posh River Oaks neighborhood. I was suitably awed by the anonymous, low-slung, brick-and-glass building (it was designed by Philip Johnson and completed in 1951) and the voluptuous upholstered furniture (custom-made by Mrs de Menil's couturière, Charles James). But as always, I found myself distracted by chic, inventive details. It's the visual equivalent of perusing a book's footnotes before actually delving into the narrative. The treatment of the doors to the small bedrooms, for instance, was more memorable to me than the world-class art on the house's stark walls—their plain front surfaces are clad in the precise shade of crushed raspberries, now beautifully faded. And that unexpected touch of brothel elegance inside that modernist masterpiece (surely the velvet had to be Charles James's idea) got me wondering: Why aren't interior doors more special?
What could be simpler than upgrading a door, so many of which are distressingly banal? They certainly could be wrapped with, say, Italian marbleized book paper. Why not cover a door in burlap held fast by large brass nailheads or perhaps in alligator-textured artificial leather or sumptuous suede, whether real or mock? I have considered decoupaging a dull door with overlapping paper cut-outs in emulation of the influential work of designer John Derian or a Victorian scrap screen, protected by a coating of clear shellac. A door could be given a striking new countenance through the studied application of stencilled decorations or intricately joined bits of fabric echoing an antique crazy quilt or an icy span of palest blue silk moiré edged with silvery galloon.
One could also break out various shades of paint and speckle a door's surface like spatterware or a dappled Early American floor. And if the door in question is a traditional model divided into symmetrical panels, use those individual sections as canvases in the manner of Swedish artist Carl Larsson and his wife, Karin. In the late nineteenth century Larsson improved one such door in the couple's impossibly charming house, Little Hyttnäs, with a painted depiction of a tall, lushly blooming amaryllis that spanned two panels, its attenuated green stalk interrupted by the door's white framework.
|In the Paris bedroom of oceanographer Anita Conti, the folding doors of her built-in wardrobe
are layered with shellacked maps of the world. Image by Guy Hervais for
"The World of Interiors".|
28 September 2011
| "The Dream of St Ursula", a 1495 painting from a series by Vittore Carpaccio. Depicting a young princess being visited by an angel, it currently hangs in the Galleria dell'Accademia in Venice, Italy. © 1990 Scala, Florence.|
|Bedroom of Barbara Rutherfurd, 660 Fifth Avenue, New York City, New York. Both the bed and the chair beside it are copied from Carpaccio's painting. This image, by an uncredited photographer, was published in British "Vogue" in August 1917.|
Around 1916, a Manhattan post-deb named Barbara Cairncross Rutherfurd (1895-1939) woke each morning in an apricot, rose, violet, and black room whose furnishings carefully reproduce those in the St Ursula painting, right down to the curious throne-like chair that appears on the canvas. Dominating the space is a bed that is a very slightly simplified adaptation of Carpaccio's virtual version, its headboard free of gilding and the pradella shallower and free of inlay.Its towering, theatrical character was a perfect complement to the Sleeping Beauty splendor of the Rutherfurd's home, an 1881 turreted French Renaissance castle designed by Richard Morris Hunt for her stepfather, William Kissam Vanderbilt Sr; her mother, the former Anne H.S. Rutherfurd, became Vanderbilt's second wife in 1903. The eccentric bed also was perfectly suited to its occupant, a creature of electrifying Casati-like beauty who eventually married twice, grew increasingly unbalanced, was committed to a sanitarium, and died at only 44 years of age. A photograph of this troubled soul, seated in the Carpaccio-style chair, is reproduced below. Somewhere there exists a circa-1921 portrait of her by sculptor Renée Prahar, a fashionable talent of the day, the work once described as "a lead intaglio set in ebony" and so highly polished that the lead possessed "the moonlight glow of old pewter".
The decor of Rutherfurd's bedroom, as described in British Vogue in 1917, deserves to be recounted in full: "The colour plan is made up of tones of apricot, rose, and violet, accented in black, which gives it character. The dado, mantlepiece, and ceiling, as well as the rough plastered walls, are all in tones of apricot, much glazed with violet; this produces an unusual mellowness and makes the tones in the different parts of the room vary according to the light and the hour of the day. The carpet is of a deep violet, and the doors and all the furniture are of black lacquer with the least bit of gold introduced. The bed ... is of black lacquer with a bedspread and day cushion of mauve and gold brocade. The canopy, nine feet high, is in cloth of gold lined with mauve velvet, and mauve tassels decorate it; the pillow at the foot of the bed is of turquoise blue velvet. The screen is composed of black glass panels and is hung with tassels of mauve. The wall lights are of black glass plaques mounted in gilt metal framework. The curtains for this room are of deepest violet damask, and violet and apricot-rose gauze inside curtains complete the window".
What happened to the bed and the chair is unknown. The name of the furniture's designer is also obscure, though at least one researcher attributes the bed to Geoffrey Scott (for more about him, see below). Between 1915 and 1916, Bernard Berenson, whose assistant was Scott, had published two widely read articles about Carpaccio, which brought the Venetian painter's work to broader attention in an era when Italian antiques had begun to transfix certain members of transatlantic society. And it is known that Anne Vanderbilt, Rutherfurd's mother, moved in the same circles as Scott, Berenson, Elsie de Wolfe (she would decorate Mrs Vanderbilt's house on Sutton Place), and other contemporary tastemakers. So perhaps Scott did have something to do with that Fifth Avenue interior. More research will have to be pursued.
What is known is that Barbara Rutherfurd married Cyril Hatch, her first husband, in 1916—apparently not too many years after her bedroom's completion—she soon moved into the starkly handsome Spanish Revival house that The New York Times reported was a wedding gift from the bride's mother. Its architect was Frederick J. Sterner. (Later owned by stripper Gypsy Rose Lee and later still by artist Jasper Johns, the East 63rd Street residence now belongs to director Spike Lee.)At present there is no indication that the St Ursula bed made the move uptown with the newlywed Mrs Hatch.
Perhaps it was simply sold, sometime between the closing of the Vanderbilt house after her stepfather's death in 1920 and the vast mansion's demolition in 1926.
|William Heywood Haslam's bed in the 1930s, as seen in the Grotesque Room of his country house, Great Hundridge Manor, Chesham Road, Hyde Heath, Chartridge, Buckinghamshire, England.|
Painted peacock blue, lavishly gilded, and crowned by an open canopy fringed with brilliant red Venetian silk damask, the bed was reputedly was ordered for Haslam's London residence, 8 Hanover Terrace. After his marriage to Diamond Ponsonby in 1930, however, it migrated to the couple's late-17th-century country house in Buckinghamshire, Great Hundridge Manor. There it was placed in Haslam's own bedroom—Scott designed a more feminine bed for his cousin's delightfully named wife—the so-called Grotesque Room, a first-floor chamber lined with bevelled paneling and extravagant landscapes framed by faux scagliola. To see Scott's bed for William Haslam in its fully restored glory, simply look below.
27 September 2011
|The gallery of the Agnelli country house near Turin, Italy. The image, by Horst, was published in American "Vogue" in 1966.|
Though for years I have been an firm proponent of big, blowsy, naturalistic floral arrangements—in the manner of Constance Spry, for example, or Anne, the Countess of Rosse—I've recently developed a renewed appreciation for bouquets with a high artifice quotient, the more sculptural, the better.
Consider, for instance, the bold compositions of snow-white and hot-pink spider mums set atop a pair of Piedmontese silver-gilt tables at Villa Agnelli, the Fiat automotive dynasty's country house in the hilltown of Villar Perosa, Italy, in the mid 1960s. With their conical silhouettes and barber-pole swirls of color, the graphic arrangements bring a crisp, declarative statement to the sweeping space, the striped bouquets holding their own amid this gala interior's delirious swarm of golden arabesques.
26 September 2011
|Ghislaine, Princesse de Polignac, by Alejo Vidal-Quadras, Paris, 1957. Image from the artist's website.|
"Men are simply not accustomed to suffer to be beautiful."
So said Princesse de Polignac (née Ghislaine Charlotte Claire Brinquant, 1918-2011): Continental society ornament; former wife of Prince Edmond de Polignac; public relations director for Revlon in France; fashion stylist for Galeries Lafayette; mistress of many, and by all colorful accounts, an all-around good-time girl.
14 September 2011
Known for passionate affairs of the heart, the legendary Standard Oil heiress Millicent Rogers—subject of Cherie Burns's new biography, "Searching for Beauty" (St. Martin's Press)—advertised that her propensity for romance on her sleeve. Or, rather, her bodice, in the form of a heart-shaped brooch made of pavé rubies pierced by an arrow composed of caliber-cut yellow diamonds. It is being offered for sale at Siegelson, the Manhattan jewelers. The price? A company representative coyly says the interested buyer should expect to spend in "the upper half of the six digits." So if you are seriously interested in acquiring this 3-3/8 inch by 2-3/8 inch ornament, click here to email your query.
|Millicent Rogers, wearing the Flato brooch, with her third husband, stockbroker Ronald Balcom, in 1939.|
Made around 1938 from a design dreamed up by Rogers for her friend society jeweler Paul Flato—its rounded, voluptuous shape is sometimes called a fat or puffy heart—the brooch is draped with a sapphire ribbon bearing the yellow-gold Latin phrase Verbum Carro. This has been translated as "A word to my dear one," thought it could be a play on Verbum caro, "The word made flesh," a reference to Jesus Christ as recounted in John 1:14. This makes some sense, since scholars have observed that the colorful jewel recalls the South American folk charms known as milagros.
11 September 2011
|Ginette Spanier, circa 1960. The Anglo-French Spanier (1904-1988, Mme. Paul-Émile Seidmann) was the directrice of the Paris fashion house Pierre Balmain for more than 25 years, after which she worked for Nina Ricci. This photograph of Spanier—wearing a Balmain evening dress, of course—appears in her memoir "It Isn't All Mink: The Sparkling Autobiography of a Woman of Style" (Random House, 1960). The highly entertaining book was edited by Spanier's lover, British journalist Nancy Spain.|
"Why do women want to be chic? Why do women feel like this? Why do they pay attention to their clothes?
"Men say it is to attract men. Women think it is to knock spots off other women. I have my own belief. Women need the sense of security that the griffe gives them. The griffe is the little label that the couture sews into the back of the dress, with the great name (Balenciaga, Balmain) on it.
"I can remember perfectly the first griffe in the first model I had. I bought the model in a sale in Cannes in 1933—a pale-pink evening dress by Worth and a coat that went with it. My dream would have been to wear the dress with the griffe of Worth outside. Indeed, I kept negligently throwing my evening coat on the back of a chair with an organized gesture. The label meant nothing to the man who took me out for the evening. It meant everything to me. It gave me confidence. It said, 'Go in and slay them, Ginette.' It helped me talk to people. It made me walk into a room with shoulders back."
So wrote Jenny Yvonne "Ginette" Spanier in It Isn't All Mink: The Sparkling Autobiography of a Woman of Style (Random House, 1960).
07 September 2011
|The breakfast area of a London dining room decorated by David Mlinaric, circa 2007. Image from "Mlinaric on Decorating" by Mirabel Cecil and David Mlinaric (Frances Lincoln Limited, 2008).|
Simplicity is something I've never been much good at achieving, particularly when it comes to outfitting a room. The reductive results either look impoverished or impractical. But if I could achieve the same spare, bold, hushed atmosphere embodied by the picture above, in our house or our apartment, I think I might come close to true happiness.
The Platonic serenity of this image is resolutely modern but also strangely classical, a functional space furnished for the bare minimum of activity and raked by cold, unforgiving light. (Not for nothing was this 19th-century structure in Chelsea the former studio-residence of artist John Singer Sargent, for whom northern light was crucial in the production of his portraits.) It has something of the calm clarity of the paintings recently shown in "Rooms with a View: The Open Window in the 19th Century," the Metropolitan Museum of Art's exhibition of depictions of sunlit European rooms, especially the works of German artist Georg Friedrich Kersting. The room seems empty but is actually quite full, furnished with honest materials spanning the poles of light and dark—curtains of silk the color of fog; plaster stippled an even more evanescent shade of grey; satiny marble; seats of supple leather; a carpet of woven sea grass; and polished mahogany chairs with cornucopiae supports. That exuberant last-named detail, the horn of plenty, is an eccentric chair element though so fitting in a room for meals. I am also keenly appreciative of the lack of overt decoration, a paucity that demands one heed the person opposite and what he or she is saying (or not saying), as coffee is poured and toast is buttered; this is a no-nonsense spot, a place where one cannot hide, where extended silences would be considerably awkward. It contains but it does not cosset. Of this atmosphere I wholeheartedly approve, since a room's decoration, to my mind, should never subsume its occupants.
One must admit, however, that this particular photograph is taken out of context. It is not the small room it seems but instead the breakfast-area end of a spacious dining room in the London residence of financier Sir Evelyn de Rothschild, shaped by Theis + Kahn Architects and interior designer David Mlinaric. The now-relatively-retired founder of Mlinaric, Henry & Zervudachi is a decorator so brilliant the septuagenarian really should be knighted, though the CBE he received in 2009 "for services to interior design and to heritage" is not to be sniffed at. Consider, for instance, the superb asymmetrical siting of the art here, notably Auguste Rodin's Le Sommeil (one of three marble versions) pushed firmly and idiosyncratically into its corner. There the sleeping woman—a gift from the artist to his American-born last mistress, Claire de Choiseul—commands attention and yet, because of her smoky-white complexion, she seems to fade into the grey wall along with the resolutely plain plinth. And what about that pulsating thread of vivid blue connecting the Yayoi Kusama abstract on the left to the Ben Nicholson canvas on the right to the armchair in the kitchen beyond? Subtly handled, I'd say, and highly deliberate.
To me, this sliver of tailored space embodies everything Mlinaric once said about his approach to fashion, according to an interview posted on the website of the Victoria and Albert Museum: "I always quite liked being smart, tidy and clean and trim." To that, I'll raise a glass.
NB: Other blogs have previously posted images of Sir Evelyn and Lady de Rothschild's London residence, namely Cote de Texas in 2009 and Brilliant Asylum in December 2007. A large article about the house was published in the January 2008 issue of W.
05 September 2011
Apparently the text of An Aesthete's Lament is experiencing garbled wording here and there. I have called upon our crackerjack engineers to determine the problem and eradicate it. Your patience is much appreciated.
04 September 2011
|A self-portrait of artist and designer Robert Home (1752-1834), court painter to the King of Oudh. This image, posted in Wikipedia's Robert Home article, has been in the collection of the National Portrait Gallery since 1943.|
A native of the city of Hull, Home (pronounced "Hume") spent a highly productive chunk of his senior years in Lucknow, working for 13 years as the court painter to Ghazi-ud-din Haider (1769-1827), the seventh nawab wazir and first king of Oudh, before dying in Cawnpore. (The name of the kingdom is pronounced "uh-VUD.") This sophisticated monarch of Persian lineage and Muslim faith was limned by Home in a marvelous portrait that was identified last year. The circa-1819 image shown below was included in a 2011 exhibition of Lucknow portraiture at the Musée Guimet in Paris and is now offered for sale by the London gallery Philip Mould. Another of Home's portraits of his royal patron, a rather large example, is the collection of Queen Elizabeth II (Her Majesty also owns two additional Home works); another hangs in the Victoria Memorial Hall in Kolkata. A description of the last-cited painting, published in 1907, is as follows: "[The King] is dressed in a canary-yellow chapkan; and strings of pearls and other precious stones encircle his neck and bluish-yellow turban." When he wasn't busy painting the ruler, his wives, and their children, Home put likenesses of British official to canvas, including the Marquess of Wellesley (the future Duke of Wellington), of whom he painted more than a dozen portraits.
|Ghazi-ud-din Haider, King of Oudh, circa 1819, in a portrait by Robert Hume. The work is presently being offered for sale by Philip Mould, a gallery in London.|
|An extraordinary crocodile barge designed for the King of Oudh by Robert Home. The image, which is contained in an album of Home designs held in the collection of the Victoria and Albert Museum, was published in "Made for Maharajahs: A Design Diary of Princely India" (Vendome Press, 2006). © V&A Images/ Victoria and Albert Museum.|
|The fish-shape Royal Boat of Oudh, a torpedo-like pleasure vessel with decorative fins, as seen circa 1858-1860. The image, by Anglo-Italian photographer Felice Beato (1832-1909), is from Bernard Shapero Fine Books, via Wikipedia's article about the photographer.|
|An 1895 image of Bara Chattar Manzil, a palace complex erected by the first King of Oudh, which was built alongside the Gomti River between 1819 and 1837. Among its pleasures was an English-style picture gallery furnished with chairs designed by Robert Home. Image by G. W. Lawrie and Company, from the website Old Indian Photos.|
|Bara Chattar Manzil, the former palace of the King of Oudh, as it is today. Image from the website of the Central Drug Research Institute.|
The splendid palace complex, which is located on a bank of the Gomti River, caused some Western visitors to wince, particularly individuals claiming refined taste. The 1883 Encyclopaedia Britannica approached it with barely concealed condescension, calling the structure " a huge and irregular pile of buildings, crowned by gilt umbrellas, [that] glitters gaudily in the sunlight." An English visitor of the time had a similar opinion, reporting that it was "an immense mass of buildings with no architectural pretension." Partly transformed into a soldiers' club and library after the deposition of the royal family in the 1850s, Bara Chattar Manzil is now the headquarters of the Central Drug Research Institute.
|The arms of the Kings of Oudh, which incorporate twin fishes centered between two tigers passant. The female figures appear to be winged mermaids, which also figured in Oudhian iconography. Image from the website Royal Ark.|
|A carved-wood armchair with gilded brass and gilded gesso mounts, likely designed by Robert Home for the first king of Oudh, circa 1820. Later owned by the 5th Earl Amherst of Arracan, it is now in the collection of the Victoria and Albert Museum. © V&A Images/ Victoria and Albert Museum. The chair is also featured in the 2001 book "Furniture from British India and Ceylon" (Peabody Essex Museum in association with V&A Publications).|