23 February 2011

Well Said: Gladys Duchess of Marlborough

Gladys Deacon, later Duchess of Marlborough, in a portrait by Paul-César Helleu.

"If you want to do something, don’t tell other people about it, just do it. Other people will always find a reason to try and prevent you."

So said Gladys Duchess of Marlborough (1881—1977), American heiress, intellectual, adventuress, and celebrated beauty.

SOURCE: Hugo Vickers, "An Eccentric Duchess," New York Social Diary, 23 February 2011.

19 February 2011

Well Said: Gina Lollobrigida

"What is the use of being beautiful, if you have to buy your own emeralds?"

So said actress Gina Lollobrigida (born 1927), after being complimented by Moroccan diplomat Taibi Benhima at a dinner party in New York City in 1965.

SOURCE: Gladys Wilson, The Duchess Pini di San Miniato, Memoirs of a Canadian Duchess (Montréal: P.D.S.M. Editor, 1986), page 110.

18 February 2011

Well Said: Pablo Picasso

Artist Pablo Picasso in his studio. Image from World Art.

"There are chemists who spend their whole lives trying to find out what's in a lump of sugar. I want to know one thing: What is color?"

So said Pablo Picasso (1881—1973), in a conversation with German writer Ernst Jünger in the 1940s.

SOURCE: Bruce Chatwin, What Am I Doing Here (Penguin, 1989), page 110

16 February 2011

The Eyes Have It

British artist Colin Gill's 1928 depictions of the bright blue eyes of Gladys Duchess of Marlborough (née Gladys Deacon) stare down from the North Portico of her former country house, Blenheim Palace, near Woodstock, Oxfordshire. The Marlborough seat is hosting an exhibition about the duchess through 25 March 2011. Image courtesy of Blenheim Palace.

History is a curious thing. Scandals become footnotes, emotional bruises fade, and people that once commanded international headlines recede into anonymity. Such an individual was the American beauty Gladys Marie Deacon (1881—1977). But through 25 March 2011, visitors to Blenheim Palace in Oxfordshire, where she briefly but memorably reigned as Duchess of Marlborough in the 1920s and 1930s, have an opportunity to step back in time and catch a fleeting glimpse of a lady the Anglo-American Member of Parliament Chips Channon called “the world’s most beautiful woman, the toast of Paris, the love of Proust, the belle amie of Anatole France.”

The Long Library at Blenheim, site of the exhibition "Gladys Deacon: An Eccentric Duchess."

Curated by the bestselling British biographer Hugo Vickers and arranged from end to end of Blenheim’s ravishing Long Library, “Gladys Deacon: An Eccentric Duchess” is an intimate exhibition of photographs, art, and fascinating ephemera, among them a lock of golden hair, a Jacob Epstein bust, suitcases, and Gladys’s personal photograph albums. Last night was the show’s gala opening, and Mr Vickers will be giving a lecture about Gladys and her rackety life at Blenheim on 2 March. To purchase tickets online, go to Blenheim Palace's website.

Gladys Deacon, her beauty celebrated, in a photograph by Lafayette. Courtesy of Hugo Vickers.
“It’s quite an emotional story, and my involvement with it is emotional as well,” Vickers told me in a telephone interview on Sunday. “When I was 16 years old, if somebody had asked me who I would have most liked to meet, it would not have been Winston Churchill but Gladys Deacon, the fascinating woman who married his cousin.” Vickers befriended the Duchess of Marlborough when he was 23 and spent two years visiting the aged aristocrat, then in her 90s and confined to a psychiatric hospital, feeble rather than insane. The more than 60 interviews that resulted ended up as the foundation of Vickers’s first book, Gladys, Duchess of Marlborough; it was published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson in 1979, two years after its subject’s death.
Gladys Deacon, age 27, as painted in 1908 by Giovanni Boldini. The painting is in a private collection.

In her heyday Gladys Deacon (the name was pronounced GLAY-duz) was an A-list personality, as renowned for her unsettling beauty—especially those great, staring, crystal-blue eyes—as for her impressive intellect. Writers, musicians, and politicians were in her thrall, as were several dukes and princes. The German kaiser’s eldest son fell head over heels for her though his father put an end to that infatuation; the dandy and poet Robert de Montesquiou compared her beauty to that of an archangel. The self-absorbed Gladys adored being adored, though she seems to have loved no one. Art scholar Bernard Berenson, who met Gladys when she was 17, bitterly wrote of his disappointment in what he perceived as her capriciousness. "I decided to stop seeing Gladys Deacon when I convinced myself that in human relationships she offered nothing but an offensive arbitrariness, pursuing people in a flattering and ensnaring fashion, only so as to be able to break it off with them noisily when the fancy struck her."

Gladys Deacon, daughter of Florence Baldwin and Edward Parker Deacon, as a young girl. Courtesy of Hugo Vickers.

Berenson's wife, Mary, recorded her mixed impressions of the intriguing American, then 20 and taking Italy by storm. “The event of this month has been the reappearance of the radiant Gladys Deacon, so beautiful, so brilliant with her soft elixir ways, her hard clear youthful logic, her gaminerie, her lively imagination, her moods, her daring. It would take volumes to describe her and I don’t feel up to it. … Beautiful, cruel, selfish, untrained. What will become of her?”

"Gladys Deacon," a 1917 bust by Jacob Epstein. It is in the collection of The Israel Museum in Jerusalem.

What became of the fascinating Miss Deacon is the stuff of “Gladys Deacon: An Eccentric Duchess,” which Vickers says should really be called “Gladys Deacon: The Lost Years.” (It includes the lady's numerous scrapbooks, which have never been seen before and are in Vickers's possession.) At the age of 40, on 25 June 1921, she married her lover Charles Spencer-Churchill, ninth duke of Marlborough, following the end of his marriage to her close friend the American railroad heiress Consuelo Vanderbilt. (A morose and irritable man, the duke was perversely called Sunny, a nickname derived from his courtesy title, Earl of Sunderland.) The newlyweds soon realized the union was a mistake—Sunny's only passionate relationship was with Blenheim, to whose survival he was devoted at all costs. Still the duke honored her presence in his life. A pair of long-necked lead sphinxes, cast in Gladys’s image in 1930 by W. Ward Willis, grace the grounds of the palace.

A detail of one of Gladys Marlborough's eyes, as painted on the ceiling of the North Portico of Blenheim by British artist Colin Gill. Image courtesy of Blenheim Palace.

Two years earlier artist Colin Gill (1892—1940) painted gigantic evocations of her famous blue eyes on the ceiling of the portico; the brown ones accompanying them, in some sort of inside joke, are suspected to be Consuelo's but could just as well have been the duke's. Leaks and weather largely destroyed those surreal orbs and the flashing gilded rays surrounding them, but thanks to the present duke, Gladys’s step-grandson, Gill’s distinctive work was restored to its original glory a few years ago.

Gladys Deacon and Charles Spencer-Churchill, 9th Duke of Marlborough on their wedding day, 25 June 1921. The ceremony took place at the Paris home of her artist cousin Eugene Higgins and was described by one of the guests, Linda (Mrs. Cole) Porter as "the most incredibly vulgar performance I have ever witnessed." Others witnessing the nuptials were the interior decorator Elsie de Wolfe and several crowned heads, including a maharajah.

In Gladys Marlborough, the blueblooded world of Edith Wharton intersected with modern tabloid tawdriness. Her parents’ tempestuous marriage ended when her father, Edward Parker Deacon, murdered her mother’s French lover and then went insane. Obsessed with her Greek-statue good looks, Gladys, at age 22, had an enterprising surgeon inject melted wax into the bridge of her nose in an effort to create a perfectly straight line from forehead to nostrils. The freakish procedure worked for a while; eventually, however, the wax migrated, settling in her cheeks and along her jawline, somewhat altering a beauty recorded by Rodin, Degas, Boldini, Epstein, and other leading artists. Her enormous aquamarine eyes, however, remained intact, as did that inquisitive mind.

Gladys Marie Deacon, in a passport photograph taken in 1918.

Unfortunately the duke didn’t appreciate his wife's mental acumen or her increasingly odd behavior. Nor did he happily accept her many Blenheim spaniels, which left their mark, literally, in the state rooms of his ancestral seat. Ultimately a union that began in mutual if misjudged admiration turned to implacable hatred. “Watch Sunny—he hates her guts—great sport!” Winston Churchill's son, Randolph, chortled on a visit to Blenheim in the early 1930s, as Gladys prepared to enter the room. “She left Blenheim under pretty gruesome circumstances,” Vickers says. When Gladys refused to find other accommodations as her marriage disintegrated, the duke abandoned her and ordered Blenheim's gas and electricity cut off. When she took refuge at their London mansion, he did the same thing. (Friends smuggled in a portable stove so she could cook.) Those actions didn’t dislodge the recalcitrant duchess either, so he had her evicted. Divorce proceedings followed; unfortunately the duke died in 1934 before the legal papers could be finalized. And with that, Gladys Marlborough, Europe's golden girl, vanished into the English countryside—growing older, more reclusive, even adopting an alias to avoid detection. Eventually, in the 1960s, she was committed to an institution. Gladys apparently didn't put up much of a fight as she was removed from the cottage she called home. As the elderly duchess told Vickers on one of his visits, “Sometimes something happens that is so awful that it cuts you off and after that you don’t care.”

Gladys Duchess of Marlborough, died in 1977 at the age of 96. And now, at least through the end of next month, she’s back home.

The Duchess of Marlborough, snapping a self-portrait, in 1928. Image courtesy of Hugo Vickers.

13 February 2011

Well Said: Edmond Roudnitska

“A beautiful perfume is the one which gives us a shock: a sensory one followed by a psychological one."

So said Edmond Roudnitska (1905—1996), creator of memorable scents, notably several for Christian Dior, among them Diorama (1948), Diorissimo (1956), Eau Savage (1966), Diorella (1972), and Dior-Dior (1976).

In honor of Roudnitska, today I splashed on Moustache, the 1948 fragrance that he and his wife, Thérèse, created for Marcel Rochas. Though Moustache has been discontinued, supplies of a recalibrated version can be found online but nothing beats the long-ago real thing. As Bruce Everiss, writer of the blog Bruce on Shaving, explains, "If you are looking for Moustache then the new formulation is in a rectangular frosted glass bottle with a silver cap. The original is in a cylindrical fluted glass bottle." For an example of the latter, see the '60s advertisement below.

Word to the wise: Proctor & Gamble, owner of the Marcel Rochas marque, should bring back Moustache—the Roudnitskas' 1948 formula, please. And that distinctive bottle too.

12 February 2011

Well Said: Patricia Highsmith

"Obsessions are the only things that matter."

So wrote noir novelist Patricia Highsmith (1921—1995), masterful writer of books that biographer Joan Schenkar has called "brilliantly disorienting narratives of ... shimmering negativity."

11 February 2011

Well Spent: 1940s French Armchairs

One of a pair of 1940s Louis XV-inspired armchairs, available at Sibyl Colefax & John Fowler Antiques.

Furniture made by designers of the 1940s ranks high on my list of desirables, especially those French talents who reinterpreted dix-huitième elegance for their own unsettled time. That backward glance can be traced to a desire to create a safe harbor in a world that had been shattered culturally, socially, and emotionally. As the quietly soignée Solange de Noailles, Duchesse d'Ayen, an editor at the Paris editions of Vogue and House & Garden, achingly observed in a wartime letter to a friend in New York City, "loves, lives, and belongings have lost every kind of value ... we suffer, and we shall suffer more." Despite her noble title, her perfectly fitted Balenciagas, and her family's romantic Château de Maintenon, the duchess (1898—1976) knew what she was talking about. Her husband, arrested and tortured by the Gestapo, spent three years being shuttled from one concentration camp to another, before perishing at Bergen-Belsen—one day before it was liberated by the Allies. Her only son, a 19-year-old infantry sergeant, was killed when he stepped on a German landmine. Mme d'Ayen herself spent months in solitary confinement in the famously brutal Fresnes prison.

Solange de Noailles, Duchesse d'Ayen, as seen in a signed 1931 photograph by fashion photographer Baron George von Hoyningen-Huene. It can be purchased from Staley-Wise Gallery.

Postwar France, the duchess noted a few years later, was finally free of its Nazi oppressors but it remained psychologically crippled, a land barely breathing. By returning to the glories of the distant past, she and many others thought, the spiritually wounded could find succor. Aesthetically, they had a point. In The Age of Comfort (Bloomsbury, 2009), cultural historian Joan E. DeJean, trustee professor of Romance languages at the University of Pennsylvania, winningly and wittily explores how the tastemakers of 18th-century France created not only palaces and hôtels particuliers of imperishable beauty but also chairs and sofas whose unprecedentedly ergonomic silhouettes and innovative upholstery techniques invited the human body to relax. In short, to be comforted. Which partly explains why so many French designers working in the 1940s and 1950s enthusiastically embraced handcarved cabriole legs and goosedown stuffing. And why their revivalist creations, however retardataire in concept, arguably represent something more than a mere fashion trend.

Sibyl Colefax & John Fowler Antiques in London has in stock a pair of open armchairs (Reference #AF16939) made in the 1940s, their painted-wood frames echoing the taste of the Louis XV period. They are priced at £4,800, approximately $7,700. The pale pink upholstery, trimmed with passementerie in a slightly darker shade of the same color, is highly appealing, don't you think?

10 February 2011

Well Said: Sir Nikolaus Pevsner

"A bicycle shed is a building; Lincoln Cathedral is a piece of architecture. Nearly everything that encloses space on a scale sufficient for a human being to move in is a building; the term architecture applies only to buildings designed with a view to aesthetic appeal."

So wrote Sir Nikolaus Pevsner (1902—1983), the author, as Wikipedia states, of a "46-volume series of county-by-county guides, The Buildings of England (1951-74), one of the great achievements of 20th century art scholarship."

To order the latest editions of these celebrated guides, click here. And to hear one of Pevsner's Reith radio lectures about English art, click here.

Originally posted on An Aesthete's Lament on 5 December 2008.

09 February 2011

The Other Lanvin

Soprano, pianist, patron of the arts, and heiress to the Lanvin fashion fortune founded by her mother, Marie-Blanche de Polignac is shown seated in the music room of her hôtel particulier at 16 rue Barbet de Jouy in Paris. The image is an watercolor illustration by Cecil Beaton, which was published in British Vogue on 1 May 1936.

Haute couturière Jeanne Lanvin is justly renowned, decoratively speaking, for the periwinkle-blue apartment she inhabited at 16 rue Barbet de Jouy in Paris, France. Created for her in the early 1920s by Armand-Albert Rateau, its rooms—some of which are preserved at the Musée des Arts Décoratifs—were a frenzy of femininity, the silk-upholstered walls drizzled with embroidered white flowers and leaves sprouting from the carved-wood skirting boards. Its cerulean glory, however, has thrown another significant Lanvin interior, located at the same address, in deepest, darkest shadow: a music room that was commissioned by Lanvin's elegant daughter, Marie-Blanche de Polignac, from Art Deco designer Louis Süe.

The only child of Jeanne Lanvin's brief marriage to an Italian nobleman, the former Marguerite di Pietro (1897—1958) was known to intimates as "Ririte" but preferred to be called Marie-Blanche after she became the wife of Count Jean de Polignac (1888—1943). (She was also the inspiration for Lanvin's invention of the color rose Polignac as well as the perfume Arpège, but that's another story.) Music mesmerized her more than fashion, and as a girl the young Mademoiselle di Pietro made plans to become an opera singer, a dream for which the lissome brunette diligently trained and was admirably suited. Artist Jean Hugo compared her silvery soprano to the singing of the sirens of Greek mythology and was impressed that she could spend remain "for hours at the piano sight-reading the most difficult scores." As another admirer observed, "Her voice was ravishing, like Saint Cecilia in person," adding that, in all areas of life, Marie-Blanche's "taste and ... discernment were perfect." Even the American composer Ned Rorem agreed, writing that "were I lost on a desert island with only five LP records, one would be her singing of Monteverdi's madrigals under the direction of her dear friend and mentor Nadia Boulanger."

Marie-Blanche, Countess Jean de Polignac, painted by Edouard Vuillard between 1928 and 1932. The portrait, which shows the countess in her bedroom, is in the collection of the Musée d'Orsay. Photograph by Ondra Havala via Flickr.

Though social engagements sometimes interfered, the "haughtily lovely" Polignac was a founding member of the celebrated Nadia Boulanger Ensemble Vocal. In addition to composing music, performing in concerts both public and private, and appearing on seminal recordings—her husband helped underwrite Boulanger's pioneering 1937 recording of the Monteverdi madrigals—the countess quickly established herself as a sophisticated patron of the arts. Among her close friends were Boulanger, Erik Satie, Gabriel Fauré, Germaine Tailleferre, and, most especially, François Poulenc. Like Satie, he wrote numerous works in her honor, including "Trois poèmes de Louise de Vilmorin," a song cycle that set some of Vilmorin's writings to music.

Given those talents and her high-profile marriage to a scion of one of France's grandest noble families—she had been previous married to and divorced from President Clemenceau's grandson Dr. René Jacquemaire—it is natural that Marie-Blanche de Polignac became a magnet for artists. As such she flung open the doors of her mansion on rue Barbey de Jouy, mere blocks from the Invalides, for a soirée every Sunday evening. American pianist and conductor Leon Fleisher described these crushes as being populated by "a whole host of splendid names, aristocrats and cultural figures alike" while singers sang and pianists played. Often new works were aired for the very first time, such as soprano Janine Micheau's rendition of Jacques Leguerney's "Chanson Triste" (1944). This sort of heady entertaining required a suitably impressive and comfortable setting, of course, so the count and countess commissioned the adventuresome Paris decorator Louis Süe (1872—1968) to do the honors.

A detail of the doors and paneling of Count and Countess Jean de Polignacs' Empire-inspired library in Paris, which was the work of architect Emilio Terry. The 1940s mahogany-and-faux-ebony woodwork was a star of the 2002 Biennale des Antiquaires. Image by Didier Herman from cdecor.com

Previously owned by the radical political hostess and art collector Marie-Louise Arconati-Visconti (1840—1923), the Polignacs' handsome neoclassical hôtel particulier would eventually include significant decors orchestrated by Süe between 1930 and 1932. Among them was a dining room inventively frescoed by Christian Bérard; in the 1940s Emilio Terry became involved in the house and installed a neo-Empire mahogany library. (The paneling of the latter space ended up for sale at the 2002 Biennale des Antiquaires, as shown above.) The mansion, demolished in the mid 1960s and replaced by a dreary modern apartment building, also contained Jeanne Lanvin's admired blue apartment, because mother and daughter, whatever their increasing differences, rarely lived apart.

White silk cushions were scattered across the grey satin sofa in Marie-Blanche and Jean de Polignacs' music room on rue Barbet de Jouy. The cocktail table's mirrored top was set on a painted base that recalled a fragment of an ancient column. Interior design by Louis Süe and Henri Gonse. Image by Buffotot published in British Vogue, 10 June 1936.

Curiously, given Marie-Blanche de Polignac's reputation for personal restraint, she selected a decorator best known for opulent, often decadent interiors. To name just one example, Süe created an astounding grotto-style dining room set aglow with phosphorescent paint for the Neuilly-sur-Seine villa of fashion plate and writer Daisy Fellowes, a Polignac relative by marriage. (Her formidable aunt Winnaretta, a major music patron backed by Singer-sewing-machine millions, was the widow of Jean de Polignac's composer uncle, Prince Edmond de Polignac.) For Marie-Blanche's music room, however, the designer and diplomat-turned-decorator Henri Gonse (1874—1946) soft-pedaled his usual edgy extravagance in favor of haute-couture monumentality.

Paved with golden parquet and a coral-pink carpet, the music room at 16 rue Barbet de Jouy was as much a statement of the muscular classicism of the 1930s, though wrought in candy-box colors, as Mme Lanvin's apartment exemplified the feminine frivolity of the 1920s. At either end of the chalk-white room Süe and Gonse carved out wide, ceiling-height alcoves: one sheltered the main door, the other a large window overlooking the Polignacs' garden and the dome of the Invalides. In the latter, a raised platform was constructed to support an immense button-tufted sofa dressed in dove-grey satin and scattered with white cushions. Here six to eight guests could comfortably relax as uplights, concealed behind the sofa, set the filmy pale-pink curtains aglow.

At right angles to the Polignacs' satin sofa were smaller windows lined with mirror, which Marie-Blanche used to display potted orchids. Tall folding screens of polished wood were placed in the corners of the room, their ebony complexions setting off a sequence of Roman-style busts perched on tapering pedestals. Here and there tailored canapés stood at the ready, and Süe custom-made the room's centrifugal pièce de résistance: a sumptuous round ottoman, about eight feet in diameter, upholstered in brilliant coral-pink satin, and squatting on a half-dozen lion's paws made of snow-white plaster.

The Süe-designed ottoman that centered the Polignacs' salon musical. (The dark area at the top right is an overlapping photograph that could not be cropped out.) Image by Buffotot, published in British Vogue, 10 June 1936.

Eighty-odd years after the heyday of that blush-colored salon musical, it is easy to imagine Marie-Blanche de Polignac's Sunday soirées—bejeweled women and brillantined men taking in the latest art song by Satie or Poulenc, sometimes performed by an up-and-coming young soprano, sometimes by their soignée, thirty-something hostess. And with the windows open during the spring, Salvador Dalí archly observed in his memoirs, one could repair to the Polignacs' garden and listen as "string quartets played in the interior all aflame with candles and Renoir paintings and with the malefic coprophagia of an unsurpassable pastel by Fatin-Latour—all this accompanied by petits-fours and much candy and other sweets."

08 February 2011

Well Said: Marie-Hélène de Rothschild

Baroness Guy de Rothschild (née Baroness Marie-Hélène Naïla Stéphanie Josina van Zuylen van Nyevelt) at a movie premiere in 1973, in the company of Salvador Dalí and Yul Brynner.

"Those who are small in spirit, who are mean, narrow-minded or timid, should leave entertaining to others."

So observed Marie-Hélène de Rothschild (1931-1996), the queen of Paris society.

Originally posted on An Aesthete's Lament on 8 November 2008.

07 February 2011

Well Spent: Highgrove Shop Boot Rack

Given the copious amounts of snow we are experiencing in our picturesque corner of the world, this handsome boot rack would be welcome near the front door.

According to the Prince of Wales's charitable-gifts website, The Highgrove Shop, it is "handmade by craftsmen ... using air-dried hardwood from a sustainable broad-leaved Welsh woodland." And the cunning little urn detail replicates the stone urns that march along the roofline of Highgrove House, the Prince's residence near Tetbury, Gloucestershire. Built between 1796 and 1798 by a rich Huguenot cloth-trader with the amusing name of John Paul Paul, Highgrove was elegantly Palladianized for the Prince of Wales, circa 1989, by architect Peter Falconer. His redesign was inspired by an idealized painting of the house by Felix Kelly.

The Highgrove boot rack is priced at £65 (approximately $105). To order one, click here. All profits go to The Prince's Charities Foundation.

06 February 2011

Well Said: Mildred the Maid

"You got your dishes, you got your home."

So said actress Nancy Walker (1922—1992) in her role as the idiosyncratic maid, Mildred, in the first episode of the 1970s crime drama McMillan & Wife. In that particular segment, San Francisco Police Commissioner Stewart McMillan's wife, portrayed by Susan Saint James, nearly gets killed when a murder investigation intersects with her search for a missing Wedgwood china service she inherited from an aunt.

I understand Mildred's sentiment completely. When I lived in Spanish Harlem, in my youth, my ground-floor apartment was utterly bare, I mean mattress-on-the-floor bare. There was also a floor lamp and my dog. That was it. I did, however, possess a set of sterling silver flatware and some 1830s English plates, which made eating Chinese take-out while seated on the floor much more comforting.

05 February 2011

Get Inspired: A Perfect Porch

The town my family and I call home most of the week is graced with all manner of charming houses. A walk down almost any of its tree-lined streets bears witness to a mid-to-late-19th-century heyday: here a Victorian mansion with a whimsical tower, there a Greek Revival cottage dignified by a temple-like façade. After dropping our daughter off at school one morning, my husband and I walked past a particularly delightful residence extensively renovated by an owner with a romantic streak.

Clad partially in shingles, partially in clapboard, and painted a pleasing shade of biscuit, the house has been made memorable by the addition of an L-shape double-porch that stretches across the street façade and around one side of the building. But instead of deploying balustrades of turned-wood spindles or fancy gingerbread that would have been common around here a century and a half ago, the owners and their architect came up with captivating railing treatment: wood pales rounded at the top, pierced with a single hole, and then set closely together in a manner that provides privacy but without being standoffish.

My husband, who lived in Turkey as a teenager, says it reminds him of yalis, the lacy wood Ottoman houses built along the Bosphorus. To me the overall impression is of a summer house in Eastern Europe, say a dacha located an easy carriage drive away from the bustle of Budapest, the sort of house where white linen is worn when the temperature rises and whose female inhabitants protect their complexions with lace parasols.

02 February 2011

Get Inspired: Ernest Wiart

Space: An apartment balcony in Paris, France

Year: 1936

Client: Called a member of Paris's jeunesse dorée by his friend the pianist Arthur Rubenstein, Georges L. Brocheton was a scion of a Spanish banking family that had settled in Paris around 1860 and whose descendants married into the French nobility as well as the American diplomatic corps. By the 1930s, however, the dashing young heir was a distinguished gentleman nearing retirement, living with his forty-something second wife, Renée, in an elegant limestone apartment building on the Champ de Mars, the fashionable sycamore-shaded park that stretches from the Eiffel Tower to the École Militaire. (The mosque-like building on the other side of the Seine is the original Palais du Trocadéro, a meeting hall from the 1878 World's Fair, which was soon to be demolished.) The neighborhood was, and remains, a bit stuffy, but the pale Beaux-Arts and Art Nouveau façades surrounding the park concealed many stylish residences, including the Brochetons' high-ceilinged flat. At some point the highly social couple came into contact with Ernest Wiart, an interior decorator, and he transformed their rooms into cool, classic, comfortably modern settings sparked with chinoiserie accents. The most inspired touch, to my mind, however, was Wiart's bright-idea treatment of a spacious balcony.

Elements: Through the installation of a glass-paned metal shelf that surely must have been hinged, Wiart gave the Brochetons' balcony a dual character. Shelf down, the balcony served as simple vantage point, a pleasant place to momentarily stand and gaze. Shelf up and locked into place, it became a plein-air entertaining space, a perfect spot to partake of drinks and hors d'oeuvre or enjoy more serious dining. Renée and Georges Brocheton and a couple of guests, all seated comfortably in chairs likely pulled out from the dining room, could sip wine and converse well into the evening, the grey-green sycamore trees, the Eiffel Tower, and a picturesque assortment of spires and rooftops spreading out at their feet and across the horizon. Boxwood planted in terracotta pots and clipped into tall, tidy cones were positioned at each corner of the balcony, making it seem an intimate adjunct to the park below.

Image: Bodorff for British Vogue, 5 August 1936, page 32

01 February 2011

Get Inspired: Yves Saint Laurent

"Standing Moroccan in Green," a 1912-1913 work painted by Henri Matisse during his first trip to North Africa. It is owned by The Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, Russia.

"I'm not painting pictures, I'm painting furniture. I found two beautiful wooden Moroccan tables in the souks, and I painted them in vivid colors à la Matisse."

So said Yves Saint Laurent more than two decades ago, when a reporter heard the fashion designer had taken up painting at his home in Marrakech.

What's stopping you from doing the same?