25 December 2010

Lo! Unto us a Child is Born!

The holiday window of dealer R. Louis Bofferding in New York City. The giltwood figure dates from the eighteenth century, and the star-like mirror is attributed to designer Gilbert Poillerat.

The Bible, Luke 8:14

And lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid.

And the angel said unto them, "Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people.

"For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord.

"And this shall be a sign until you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger."

And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying, "Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men."

The Qu'ran, 19:18-34

[Mary] said [to the angel of the Lord, disguised as a man]: "I seek refuge from thee to (Allah) Most Gracious: (come not near) if thou dost fear Allah.

[The angel] said: "Nay, I am only a messenger from thy Lord (to announce) to thee the gift of a holy son."

She said: "How shall I have a son, seeing that no man has touched me, and I am not unchaste?"
[The angel] said: "So (it will be): Thy Lord saith, `That is easy for Me: and (We Wish) to appoint him as a Sign unto men and a mercy from Us': It is a matter (so) decreed."

So she conceived him, and she retired with him to a remote place.

And the pains of childbirth drove her to the trunk of a palm-tree. She cried (in her anguish): "Ah! would that I had died before this! Would that I had been a thing forgotten and out of sight!" But (a voice) cried to her from beneath the (palm-tree): "Grieve not! for thy Lord hath provided a rivulet [of water] beneath thee.

"And shake towards thyself the trunk of the palm-tree. It will let fall fresh ripe dates upon thee.

"So eat and drink and cool (thine) eye. And if thou dost see any man, say 'I have vowed a fast to (Allah) Most Gracious, and this day will I enter into no talk with any human being.' "

At length she brought the (babe) to her people, carrying him (in her arms). They said: "O Mary! Truly an amazing thing hast thou brought!

"O sister of Aaron! Thy father was not a man of evil, nor thy mother a woman unchaste!"

But she pointed to the babe. They said, "How can we talk to one who is a child in the cradle?"

[The infant] said: "I am indeed a servant of Allah: He hath given me revelation and made me a prophet;

"And He hath made me blessed wheresoever I be, and hath enjoined on me Prayer and Charity as long as I live. (He) hath made me kind to my mother, and not overbearing or miserable.

"So Peace is on me the day I was born, the day that I die, and the Day that I shall be raised up to life (again)!"

Such (was) Jesus the son of Mary: (it is) a statement of truth, about which they (vainly) dispute.   

22 December 2010

Details Count: The White House Entrance Hall

A detail of the entrance hall of the White House this holiday season. Image from the blog Architect Design.

This week Stefan Hurray of the diverting style blog Architect Design posted all manner of pictures of his first-ever visit to the White House in Washington, D. C., which is presently decorated for the holidays. And what to my wondering eyes did appear but an image he snapped of the curtains in the entrance hall, aka the grand foyer, which is shown above.

Take a look at the flamboyant swooping valance holding aloft the red-silk panels dripping with saffron and scarlet tassels. Now that's swagger. A member of the White House curator's office told me the early-nineteenth-century-inspired valances were installed in 1998 during the Clinton Adminstration, under the direction of the White House Preservation Committee, and are made of carved and gilded wood. The curtains were made by Nelson Beck, an eminent District of Columbia upholsterer.

Oh, and the Honduras mahogany concert grand piano with the eagle supports? A custom-made version of Steinway's D-274 model, it was completed in December 1938 to the designs of White House consulting architect Eric Gugler and with inspired input from Franklin Delano Roosevelt. As for the stenciled-gold scenes that decorate the curved side of the piano, The New York Times reported, in an article about the piano's arrival at the White House, they depict "the Virginia reel, the American Indian ceremonial dance, the New England barn dance, the Southern Negro cake walk, and cowboys singing on the Western plains." The Virginia reel, the president said, was one of the Roosevelts' favorite dances.

Fun fact: Interior decorator Jeffrey Bilhuber's engineer grandfather Paul H. Bilhuber (1889—1979) — a Steinway relative, factory manager, vice president, inventor, and acoustical expert — created the piano's innards, including its soundboard.

21 December 2010

Get Inspired: Dogmersfield Park

The garden house at Dogmersfield Park, a great Hampshire estate. John Fowler's country house, The Hunting Lodge, was one of several follies on the property. Image originally published in Country Life, 27 April 1901.

A few recent emails about John Fowler's famous country house, The Hunting Lodge, led me to pick up the spade of research and go a-digging. One hears so much about the iconic British decorator's longtime Hampshire hideaway but almost nothing about the estate it once graced, Dogmersfield Park.

Fowler's immensely charming second home, for many years now a residence of interior decorator Nicholas Haslam, was built around 1740 or around 1770, depending on which scholar, book or historical document one prefers to believe. What is unquestionable is that it was constructed as one of several follies decorating the landscape around the Palladian mansion at the heart of Dogmersfield Park, not far from the village of Odiham. At least one source states that The Hunting Lodge, an eye-catcher of eccentric loveliness, was nothing more than a fancy-fronted cottage for a gamekeeper, which is good enough for me until the issue can be further clarified. And as for the main house?

Dogmersfield Park, Odiham, Hampshire, England. Image from Country Life, 27 April 1901.

Seat of the Mildmay baronets and constructed in 1728, Dogmersfield Park — gutted by fire in the early 1980s and now renovated as a Four Seasons Hotel —was the subject of a deep, admiring profile in Country Life on 27 April 1901. Among the enticing photographs is one depicting a handsome pedimented stone garden house. Located behind the mansion at the end of a broad gravel path known as the Long Walk and flanked by ivy-clad, red-brick walls, it is a dream of a structure, apparently erected in the nineteenth century by Major Sir Henry Paulet St John Mildmay, 6th baronet (1853 — 1916). Or so the Country Life article infers. Crowning the two spacious arches that form the entrance is a curvaceous broken pediment ornamented with blocky obelisks capped with spheres. The interior of the garden house looks most inviting; a built-in painted-wood settee fills the three solid sides, with a large rectangular table parked at the center. The walls appear to be lined with encaustic tiles, and accenting the entrance, here and there, are glazed-ceramic Chinese garden stools.

I'd build garden house of Dogmersfield Park if I had the money. Though entirely out of painted wood, which would give it an American twist, don't you think?

The handsomely weathered garden house at Dogmersfield Park today, showing that its nineteenth-century tiles and painted settee remain in place. Photograph © Allan Soedring of Astoft.co.uk and used with permission.

20 December 2010

Get Inspired: Trumeau Mirrors

A trumeau mirror updated with a graphic nineteenth-century botanical depiction of a cactus.

I have never been fond of trumeau mirrors, whether trumeau de glace, trumeau de cheminée, or trumeau whatever. Perhaps I've just seen too many second-rate examples of these tall, thin looking glasses, where the upper panel is filled with an indifferent painting depicting mincing courtiers or twee arrangements of flowers and usually displayed in a saccharine French-style room.

Yesterday, however, I was at a friend's house in Cooperstown, New York, and remembered she owns a pair of matching trumeau mirrors and has jazzed up their tasseled Louis XVI formality with gritty botanical prints depicting tropical plants. So out came my iPhone and I started clicking. One trumeau contains an image of a wonderfully spiky cactus; the other, which hangs in a spare room over a chest of drawers, displays a portrait of a bunch of unripe bananas, as if the stalk had been hacked from a tree with a machete mere moments before. The gutsy works of art add an unexpected south-of-the-border swagger to the elegant green-and-gold frames. One could easily imagine them hanging in a mansion in Mexico City or in the salon of a ranch on the Argentine pampas.

My friend's departure from the trumeau norm gave me an idea that I might pursue, if I ever come across a trumeau that's attractive enough and cheap enough to seduce me. Why not fill the upper section with a mod watercolor, an abstract oil painting, a graphic map, a striking photograph, a Matisse-style collage made by your child, even a fascinating scrap of exotic fabric? After all a trumeau is just a frame with a reflective section below. So why not be creative with what you put in it?

Inspired, I took an online spin through the engrossing website of The Old Print Shop in New York City and found a few interesting possibilities, such as a fantastically fiery Currier & Ives print of the flaming wreck of steamboat Lexington in 1840 and a bold 2001 abstract woodcut by Su-Li Hung.

The trumeau hanging in a friend's spare room is fitted with a botanical image of a bunch of bananas.

19 December 2010

Archive: A House By Any Other Name

The Hunting Lodge, Odiham Common, near Odiham, Hampshire, England, the country house of interior decorator Nicky Haslam and, before him, of John Fowler. Photograph by Hugh Chevallier from Geograph British Isles.

"Well that's pretty pompous!" I overheard someone say with an unpleasant snicker when they learned an acquaintance's otherwise modest country house—a cottage, really—had a name. Not just an address, mind you, but an actual name. As the condescending critic went on, christening one's home is something only a person putting on airs would do. But why shouldn't a dwelling be more than just a number?

In the good old days, back when addresses didn't really exist, especially in rural areas, one's residence had to be identified somehow. Often it was by the inhabitants' surname, such as the Miller place or the Collins farm. Relatively humble properties were given formal appellations too, such as Ferry Farm, the quite modest house in which George Washington spent his childhood, a wood building much smaller than the average suburban dwelling of today and so-called because of its proximity to a ferry landing. Only in the mid to late 19th century did the naming of houses begin to elicit sneers, especially in class-conscious Britain, the mockery triggered by ghastly-good-taste types who flocked to the newly built suburbs and declared their gimcrack-laden homes The Elms or The Laburnums.

For several years I lived in a 1760s shingled farmhouse in Westchester County, New York, which was dubbed Beggar's Bog, a name combining my cash-strapped existence with the house's location on the edge of a mosquito-infested wetland. (It was simply referred to as The Bog in casual conversation.) The name also, I thought, inventively echoed Beggar's Bush, aka Jordan's Journey, a 17th-century ancestor's fortified plantation near Jamestown, Virginia. That place was reportedly the first residence in the Virginia colony to be given a name. My current home, a 1801 Federal farm house, has been given several names since we took up residence; none have felt exactly right, so we're still pondering.

Residential history is full of charming names for houses. There's Pook's Hill in Bedford, New York, a lovely brick manor built in the 1920s by and for architect Mott B Schmidt; he took the name from Puck of Pook's Hill, a 1906 novel by Rudyard Kipling. Little Ipswich was the name interior decorator Ruby Ross Wood gave her country house in Syosset, New York, in honour of her husband's ancestral town, Ipswich, Massachusetts. The couple's residence in Manhattan, on the other hand, was called Star House, because the decorator collected stars and mounted a collection of brass ones on its painted front door. A mansion built by one of Wood's clients, the beautiful Swan House in Atlanta, gets its name from the owner's favorite bird, which also shows up throughout its rooms in the form of porcelain, paintings, and tapestries.

Prosaic names work quite well, especially if you are fearful of appearing too grand. Nicky Haslam's mock-Gothic country place (for many years it belonged to John Fowler) is known as The Hunting Lodge, because the picturesque redbrick folly is reputed to have been erected as a gamekeeper's cottage. Fowler's business partner Nancy Lancaster's final residence, The Coach House, formerly stored carriages and the like. I once attended a rather wine-soaked luncheon at the home of a delightfully ribald, cigar-smoking grande dame, Rose d'Avigdor-Goldsmid, whose place in Kent was called simply The Old Laundry—it had been just that, a stately Victorian laundry building, before Lady d'Avigdor-Goldsmid moved out of the estate's Jacobean mansion and renovated the awkwardly scaled utility structure for habitation.

If you do choose a name for the place you live, however, steer clear of the queasily whimsical. Even houses have feelings. How would you like to be called Dun Roamin'?

Originally published on 29 May 2009 in An Aesthete's Lament.

18 December 2010

East Meets West

A detail of the patinated-bronze-and-enamel surface of a table designed in the 1960s by father-and-son artisans Philip and Kelvin LaVerne. The table, described as a console and measuring 26 inches high by 4 feet 8 inches long, is available from Fat Chance in Los Angeles. Presumably one could also use it as a tea-height cocktail table. Image from 1stdibs.com.

Chinoiserie is one of those evergreen styles that trends in and out, riding the fickle tsunami of public taste. In the eighteenth century seemingly all of Europe lusted for objects Asiatic — or at least the era's sensationally jumbled and inventive interpretation of Far East motifs. A century later there was japonisme, a related style whose Asian elements were combined, often promiscuously, and scattered across drawing rooms and boudoirs, especially in France and England. Side tables sprouted shelves shaped like delicate fans, for instance, and chandeliers writhed with serpents or dragons.

In the 1920s, when opium was a fashionable recreational drug and adventuresome social figures such as Nancy Lancaster, Carlos de Beistegui, and Wallis Spencer (the future Duchess of Windsor) were checking out the hot spots in Shanghai and Peking, chinoiserie exploded onto the aesthetic scene once more. Likely culprits in the style's renewed popularity were Giacomo Puccini's opera Turandot, which caused pandemonium when it made its debut in 1926 in Milan, and the glamorous movies of Chinese-American film star Anna May Wong. The result was chop-suey interiors splashed with red lacquer and sparkling with gold leaf, such as one can see at Grauman's Chinese Theater in Los Angeles, completed in 1927 to the designs of architect Raymond Kennedy. (Perhaps a puff of opium made especially outlandish versions of the style more bearable, at least on the residential front.) A modern-day evocation of these Jazz Age ethnic extravaganzas is the decor of one of my favorite restaurant settings: the vast dining room of Ruby Foo's Times Square in New York City, courtesy of architect David Rockwell.

Philip LaVerne, left, and his son, Kelvin, right, manhandling a round bronze tabletop in their Wooster Street studio in 1968. Image by Richard Walker for The New York Times.

I willingly admit a weakness for all the abovementioned examples of Sinophilia but nothing causes me to swoon quite as much as the sophisticated chinoiserie produced in the 1950s and 1960s by the father-and-son design team of Philip and Kelvin LaVerne. (Okay, perhaps the Royal Pavilion at Brighton comes in first.) Close relatives of the furniture and screenprint-wallpaper geniuses designers Estelle and Erwine Laverne — the couple's see-through acrylic Lily chair is a 1950s classic— the LaVernes toiled in an unassuming studio at 74 Wooster Street in New York City. There behind the building’s bland brick façade, they made, by hand, remarkable limited-edition bronze and pewter furnishings distinguished with exotic decorations that married modernism and antiquity with notable grace.

A table by the LaVernes. Measuring 4 feet 8 inches long by 26 inches high by 20 inches deep, it is available at Fat Chance in Los Angeles, California. Image from 1stdibs.com.

The best known of the father and son’s romantic works — which were given the patina of age through prolonged immersion in a supersecret stew of chemicals and an oily soil sourced somewhere in Asia — are replete with bas-relief images of pagodas, temples, mandarins, and geishas. Others pieces explore Egyptian and Etruscan themes, according to a profile of the designing duo published in The New York Times in February 1968, and one table I have come across has a bas-relief top inspired by the gardens of the Château de Versailles. But it is the team's Chan and Lo Tai series of chinoiserie furnishings that makes me inexplicably happy. I would gladly give up our nineteenth-century Chinese altar table and rickety wedding bed in exchange for something certifiably LaVerne.

A LaVerne wall plaque, available from Belkind Bigi, Tarrytown, New York. Image from 1stdibs.com.

Whether lean cocktail table, blocky cabinet, shapely wall plaque or mirror or tables wrought large, small, round or irregular, the LaVernes' chinoiserie products are ornamented with willow-treed garden views and lively urban scenes that seem to be taken straight off the panels of a Coromandel screen. (The gentlemen, who signed their works "Philip + Kelvin LaVerne," reportedly made extensive creative use of the New York Public Library and other illustrative sources.) The mysterious greenish-gold iridescence and artful weathering of the mixed-metal surfaces, often brilliantly picked out with colorful enamels, added greatly to the final effect. Such manipulations give the designs the impression of antiquity, as if they recently had been unearthed from a Ming Dynasty burial mound. However, the LaVerne works only look as if they should rest behind museum glass. As the Times article noted, their expertly etched surfaces require nothing more than “a monthly rubdown with automobile paste wax."

A side table by Philip and Kelvin LaVerne. Available from gallerist Liz O'Brien. Image from 1stdibs.com.

These two LaVerne cabinets are in stock at Weiss Antiques Gallery in Birmingham, Michigan. The doors open to reveal lacquered interiors of vivid celestial blue. Image from Weiss Antiques.

A Chan bar by Philip and Kelvin LaVerne. Made of bronze, pewter, and colored enamels and featuring folding extensions, the bar has double doors illustrating courtly Chinese scenes while the top is decorated with the colorful figures of peasants gathered around an ox. It is available from Cristina Grajales Gallery. Image from Cristina Grajales Gallery.

17 December 2010

DIY: Faux Paneling

A dining room in a house decorated by Asheton Langdon.

Genius is in the eye of the beholder. One man's bright idea is another's been-there-done-that. That being said I continue to be impressed by the do-it-yourself gusto of New York interior decorator Asheton Langdon, who died earlier this year, aged 82.

The dining room of the New York house, which has a countrified Regency flavor, is lined with pickled-wood wainscot. The upper sections of the walls has been stretched with a nubby fabric divided into panels with woven-jute upholstery webbing.

Recently I visited a house Langdon decorated and came back elated, my digital camera loaded with snaps of inspiring details. Several of them record the Brooklyn-born designer's creativity with, of all things, upholstery webbing. You know what I mean: the woven jute strips that keep one from falling through the seat of a chair. Typically this humble material is hidden beneath fabric, stuffing, and springs. Langdon, however, recognized that webbing could be a decorative element, particularly when deployed as trim and utilized in the creation of trompe l'oeil paneling, as shown in the dining room shown at the head of today's post.

A close-up of one of interior decorator Asheton Langdon's do-it-yourself boiserie, as seen at a house he decorated in New York. Measured and mitered, common upholstery webbing has been applied to a nubby fabric to create panels.

In the same house, Langdon transformed upholstery webbing into smartly tailored passementerie, trimming portières in a book-lined corridor that connects the public areas of the house to several spare rooms (see below). The red-black-and-buff color scheme was taken from ancient Greek ceramics, examples of which are displayed on brackets, along with related antique engravings.

Upholstery webbing trims the curtains that flank an interior door. The panels of the wainscot were created with gaffer's tape.

13 December 2010

Archives: Get Inspired — David Hicks

Space: Master bedroom, Boyesen Road, Southampton, New York. 
Year: 1967-68 
Client: Lydia Buhl Melhado Farr (later Mrs William H Mann, died 1997), third wife of Francis Bartow Farr, one of Wall Street's richest salesmen, according to The New York Times. Heiress to a Detroit industrial fortune, Lydia Farr—then in her early 30s and the mother of two young sons—had an 18-room apartment at 960 Fifth Avenue and a fabled collection of Verdura jewels. And the good sense to hire David Hicks when she and Farr built a modern house in Southampton, shortly after they married in 1966.  
Elements: Next to nothing, really. A wall-to-wall field of white-glazed hexagonal Provençal tiles. A 19th-century French armoire, stripped to the raw pine. Sleek white-lacquered side tables topped by dead-plain modern lamps. A director's chair of polished steel and white leather. The bed, however, is the piece de résistance, a towering shelter hung with white-linen curtains printed with an overscale damask pattern and lined with crisp glazed white cotton. It is opulently penitential, like something a world-weary marquise of a certain age might have commissioned after being named abbess of a deluxe convent. 
Image: From David Hicks: Designer by Ashley Hicks (Scriptum Editions, 2003).

Originally published: An Aesthete's Lament, 20 November 2008

12 December 2010

DIY: Gaffer's Tape

Several months ago a meeting took me to visit a gentleman with whom I serve on a board of trustees. Mutual friends said he possessed an incredible library of books about architectural and design dating back to the eighteenth century, hundreds of volumes on subjects ranging from the houses of Vanbrugh to Southern plantations to New England saltboxes. Consequently I was looking forward to cozying up with those precious volumes, pen and paper in hand: perusing, jotting, scribbling, even, perhaps, borrowing, if that would be allowed. After I arrived, however, my camera got a workout too, because to my surprise, the books were housed in a 1970s three-car garage that had been converted into a black, grey, and white pleasure dome inside, straight from the pages of Percier and Fontaine. And the primary decorating medium was matte-grey gaffer’s tape.

Yes, gaffer’s tape, the kind that costs about $3 a roll.

The pedimented plaque, one of a pair, is actually a church hymnal board.

The gentleman in question modestly took none of the credit for this trompe l'oeil transformation. Instead, he explained, as we talked late into the night, glasses of red wine in hand, it is the work of a longtime friend, Asheton Langdon (née Jay Langdon Gaiser, 1928—2010), a Brooklyn-born, Harvard-educated decorator who specialized in interiors of astonishing grandeur. Langdon, a designer I had never heard of and about whom I long to know more, also could create extraordinary special effects with common burlap upholstery webbing too, though more on that skill another day.

My host’s multitude of books needed a proper home, and since the garage wasn’t being used to its full credit, a major decorating project was born. Masses of grey gaffer's tape in two widths were purchased, and sometimes mitered, most times not, were deftly deployed, creating simple panels on walls, ceilings, and doors. The success of this stage-set paneling is furthered by the addition of pilasters made of planks of wood fastened into place against the Sheetrock walls and painted black.

Over all this have been hung mirrors, etchings, paintings, watercolors, and busts on brackets, all the components of a country-house library. Antiques and vintage furnishings in a variety of styles — Victorian, Louis XVI, Moroccan, Empire, even a boldly flowered Bessarabian rug — give the effect of having been gathered together over generations.


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.

08 December 2010

Details Count: No-Nail Pictures

Standard Oil heiress Millicent Rogers at home with one of her several dachshunds. Photograph by Richard Rutledge for American "Vogue," 15 March 1945.
Most people simply pound a nail into a wall when they decide to display a photograph or a painting. Sadly, however, that's where those framed treasures usually stay for time immemorial, often losing their power to attract the eye through daily familiarity. But leaning a work of art against a wall rather than displaying it conventionally on the wall is always more interesting. (And I'm not talking about utilizing those narrow picture shelves popularized by mail-order catalogues.) Casual placement on tabletops, mantles, even the floor, is curiously potent. It implies a certain dégagé attitude toward the treatment of one's possessions as well as, conversely, a sense of deep attention to the intended effect. Even if the work of art in question isn't particularly compelling or valuable, propping gives it more gravitas. Plus, this kind of deployment allows works to be moved around at will without resorting to a hammer.

The impossibly stylish Standard Oil heiress Millicent Rogers, shown above, propped several giltwood-framed paintings on a Greek-key-ornamented desk in her living room in the 1940s. Curiously the table lamps partially obscure the art, tempting one to step forward and take a closer look. (Sometimes great design is about seducing others to experience the world way you do.) The leaned pictures also break up the formality of the installation, loosening the stays, as it were, of the matching lamps and the symmetrical display of nineteenth-century paintings on the wall above.

Tastemaker Pauline de Rothschild, another charter member of the propped-art school, often displayed a small Bonnard painting on a chair carefully placed at her bedside, so it was the first thing the American-born baroness saw when she woke. Precious, but why not? Real style embodies a certain amount of idiosyncrasy.

A great friend of mine, a lady of highly evolved aesthetics, has set a beautiful representation of a flower — I'm sure it's an antique, a Redouté perhaps? — on the floor of her spare but perfectly decorated sitting room overlooking the East River in New York City. The rather small artwork, no bigger than a standard magazine cover, is beautifully framed and placed so low and with such modesty that coming upon it is a delightful surprise. Seeing it out of the corner of one's eye, leaning against the baseboard, is like a gift.

07 December 2010

The Tale of a Table (Part 1)

A detail of a tabletop I marbleized last week. Unfortunately it looks more like a map of America, as seen from the air, during a record winter freeze. My next DIY attempt at faux-finishing the table will be far better, I assure you.

It's just one project after another up at our house. For the past several months my husband and I have been making lists of improvements we intend to make in our six small rooms, from hanging wallpaper in our daughter's bedchamber to having battleship linoleum laid in the galley kitchen to boxing in our clawfoot tub so it looks more refined and less like an Appalachian set piece. Needless to say, most of these projects require significant outlays of money, so we've been approaching them slowly, one by one, as cash is saved and economy-minded workmen are interviewed.

Getting the dining room into order is at the top of the list, mainly because we'd like to start entertaining again in a finished space rather than one that is forever in flux. The plans for the winter of 2010-2011 involve the installation of wainscot; lining the walls with hand-blocked West St. Mary's wallpaper from Adelphi Paper Hangings; repainting the badly worn wood floor (a task now completed); repainting the doors and trim; having new curtains made, et cetera.

Standing about five-and-a-half feet high, the 19th-century German cast-iron stove we found on eBay was recently installed for us by Top Hat Chimney Sweeps of Fort Plain, New York. The base is an old grindstone we found on our property, a former farm. That protective metal heat-shield has to be painted into submission soon.

Recently we installed a 19th-century German wood-burning stove in the form of a Doric column; it was one of my husband's numerous eBay finds. The space is quite cold in winter — our Federal Style residence, the surviving 1801 wing of a house that was begun in the 1760s, is utterly uninsulated — so the cast-iron stove is a welcome addition when the Fahrenheit drops and lake-effect snow blankets our property. As for the round pedestal table, it is usually hidden beneath a series of tablecloths, but when those linens are off being cleaned, its circa-1900 golden-oak ugliness is all too apparent. And, to my mind, it is entirely unacceptable.

I neglected to snap a photograph of our dining table before its recent transformation, but found this representative image on the website of Prices4antiques. Made of golden oak by Kershan Bros., an Ohio manufacturer, between 1880 and 1920, it is a near-match for our dining table, though minus the casters.
A view of our dining table after it was painted; the base was finished in satin black.

Last week-end, armed with directions I adapted from the Better Homes & Gardens website, I marbleized the top of the table as an experiment. A couple of days' exertions with three shades of latex enamel applied to the wood surface with an 18-inch-by-24-inch rectangle of thin plastic sheeting resulted in flamboyant amateur excess — grey faux marble with veins so thick they resemble mortar joints. (I didn't have a sumi brush, as the directions suggested for fine veining, so pressed one of my daughter's watercolour brushes into service.) Not long after the table was completed, I had the chance to visit the regal apartment of one of my idols, interior decorator Howard S. Slatkin, and realized my mistake once I laid eyes on the pair of obelisks displayed in his dressing room. The tabletop should have been painted a deep shade of terra cotta and speckled to resemble porphyry rather than boldly smudged and veined to look like mottled grey marble. That way it would have a quieter, more sophisticated presence, would show off our china better, and live more happily with the intended wallpaper.

Red Chinese porphyry, the actual stone, as seen on the website of Xiamen Orient Rising Imports.

Looks like I know what I'll be repainting in the near future. Simple directions for executing faux porphyry can be found in George D. Armstrong's Painter's Cyclopedia (Frederick J. Drake, 1908), and I'll be following them closely. And, one hopes, with more success and subtlety.

Another view of the dining table.

06 December 2010

Well Said: Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

"Il semble que la perfection soit atteinte non quand il n'y a plus rien à ajouter, mais quand il n'y a plus rien à retrancher." ("It seems that perfection is attained not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing more to remove.")

So wrote aviator and author Antoine de Saint-Exupéry (1900 — 1944) in his 1939 memoir Terre des Hommes.