04 June 2010

The Kluge House Sale: A Decorating Master Class

The entrance hall - the wide-angled lens makes it look much larger in scale than reality; even the ceiling is faux-finished

When Sotheby's announced that they were holding their first on-site house sale in over twenty years (in the US), it was clear that this was going to be an Event. And is it ever.

Ideally Albemarle would be purchased by the National Trust and turned into a historical house museum of its time: the 1980s.

Patricia Kluge's gowns through the decades parade down the gallery

The house was designed from roof line to brocade bolster by David Easton for one of America's richest men, John Kluge, in the mid-1980s, the absolute height of go-go decadence and opulence. Just as with the vast Vanderbilt cottages of Newport, the estate has become a white elephant of sorts, and even though the house itself is suprisingly small, to update its air-conditioning system and maintain its grounds is a committment of millions.

Even the guns are the best of the best, engraved with John and Patricia's initials, and in their own Asprey cabinet,
estimate $330,00 to $500,000

Perhaps one of the things that dates the house the most is all the painted faux-finishes. From the marbleized columns to the antiqued ceilings, absolutely no surface was left unadorned.

The trompe l'oeil silk curtain panel wallpaper in the hallway and stairwell is a lot to take in, BUT on the other hand the space needed something that strong to balance out all the painted decoration.

The Salon - the fanlight of the Palladian doorway is mercury glass - a classic David Easton touch

All in all, the rooms are done beautifully and Easton ably created intimate, cozy rooms with museum-level furnishings.

The Dining Room - We all wished we had been able to see it by candlelight

A corner of the media room off of the entrance
The Chinese Verre Eglomise Panel in 18th century Rococo frame is a gem - Peter Lang, Sotheby's expert extraordinaire who did a commendable job cataloguing the furniture, pointed out an inscription in Chinese characters in the upper lefthand corner which are visible only because the mercury has worn away, translating to "Property of"

Serche Roche, eat your heart out - the grisaille painted masterbath had a pair of mid 18th century palm frond tables. Interestingly they bear a label from a 1935 Arts of France exhibition so perhaps they did directly inspire their 20th century counterparts, estimate $20 - $30,000

The lively carving of this dressing-room giltwood table gracefully exemplifies the naturalistic Rococo style

I had the huge good fortune to see the house with a group of design talents: architects James Carter, Richard Dragisic of Fairfax and Sammons, EEE reader favorite Gil Schafer, and designers Bill Brockschmidt and Courtney Coleman who met while working in Easton's office.

Courtney and Bill liked the library very much and thought David did an excellent job of making a potentially dark room bright and lively, although we all might have chosen a different cocktail table

Albemarle was the cornerstone of a historic house death march weekend and hearing the expert opinions of this crew was a fabulous experience. Bill and Courtney pointed out several classic Easton touches...

A bulls-eye window over the sink in a dressing room bath can be covered with a retractable mirror; a lot of the bathroom hardware was oversized in an Edwardian country house way

A major pet peeve - faux old books incorporated into side tables - Bill and Courtney have sworn they will never use them

Several pieces of Easton-designed furniture are included in the sale. Courtney rightfully pointed out how "designer-designed" furniture is underappreciated.

This pair of bookcase in the master bedroom, an homage to Colefax and Fowler no doubt, are a good investment to my mind.

A Giverny moment - this stunning view is seen from the master bedroom

After reading an essay in the sales catalogue by celebrated landscape designer (of whom I had never heard) George Carter, I couldn't wait to see the grounds. All the major rooms are arranged at the back of the house which faces onto a steeply terraced hill.

From every window, a blockbuster view of a dramatic fountain or somesuch greets the eye. However, it seems a very formal, articificial use of the outdoors - instead of embracing the bucolic rolling hills in the front (which there is hardly any view of from inside), the gardens have become something to look at from indoors. "Perhaps the Kluges didn't like to go outside?" one of my companions mused. The fabulous display of succulents by the pool reinforced that. "I'm not sure I'd want to roam around in my bathsuit near all those cacti," someone else said.

And if forced to choose just one item out of so many glories?
It would be this set of nine Chinese paintings in their original 18th century English papier mache frames from Stoneleigh Abbey, $80 - $120,000, pictured below in situ....

Easton cleverly designed the fillet bordering the walls after the pictures' frames

But I did come away with an Albemarle souvenir, or rather several. After Janet's recommendation, we repaired to the Kluge winery up the road and I came away with several Albemarle bottles of rosé....

If you can't make it down to Virginia, click here for the virtual house tour courtesy of Sotheby's, or if you're longing for more David Easton, pre-order his book Timeless Elegance here.


Bill Brockschmidt said...

It was a pleasure to visit the house and to personally see the extraordinary level of detail and sophisticated use of color and materials. Those aspects of the design are truly timeless and inspiring. Also remarkable was the atmosphere of comfort - and even coziness - that was immediately apparent even in the grandest and most opulent of the rooms. The tour was a fantastic learning experience offering the decorator as much to see as any historic house museum.

Courtney Coleman said...

What a terrific piece about visiting Albemarle as a decorating "master class". It really was! Besides the spectacular architecture of the house - which as you mentioned, was both grand and surprisingly intimately scaled - there were so many gorgeous David Easton touches that were inspiring to see and study. Since no photos were allowed in the house, my sketchbook from the visit is filled with details of furniture and wall upholstery, curtain shapes and trimmings, floor plans, and notes about a few slyly concealed air conditioning grilles. What would have been really exciting would be to have had David and all his expert artisans there to talk about designing and fabricating all of these items!
I would also add that it was especially interesting to visit Kenmore Plantation and Gunston Hall afterwards, and to think that these houses were considered just as posh and opulent as Albemarle in the 18th century.

Emily Evans Eerdmans said...

Courtney - that's such a wonderful point. When touring historical houses, it is so important to remember that many of the houses that have been preserved and conserved were exceptional examples of their time, and reflect the lifestyles of the elite, not of the cobbler or the baker. EEE

Pamela Terry and Edward said...

Decorating Master Class. Definitely.
I adore David Easton. Always have.

little augury said...

Emily, this is all beautiful-your words are perfect. I loved reading through it several times to admire your handling of all things. What catches my eye-there is too much layering nothing that isn't grandly over the top-it seems oppressive,to live there would mean lightening up(yes I know I must be dreaming. As to 80's faux paint, if good it should hold up just as so many of the grand old estates do. It needs a heavy dose of the Coleman Brockschmidt touch. I loved there site,elegance,airiness, and tastefully historically-liveable-so I could go on. What hurts with the hall is the feel of that swagged drapery paper-funerary, deathly.Though the house was obviously finely decorated looking through it online-it just couldn't hold a candle to the real thing they were trying to reconstruct. pgt

Square With Flair™ said...

Great post, with excellent observations and insight,EEE.

I was fascinated by the house, the sale, and the contents. There are lots of fantastic things, and yet I find the whole thing a bit formulaic, and somewhat commercial or hotel in feeling. I found the heavy swags and faux finishes oppressive in the 80s, and I do now. A little bit of faux marbre or faux bois is distinctive and charming, but one needs it in very small doses. The whole think is rather Reaganesque, n'est-ce pas?
Square with Flair

Reggie Darling said...

I say, dear Emily, it is lovely to have you back in the saddle at EEE. This was a marvelous post, and I believe you nailed it. The interiors of Albemarle House are exquisitely oppressive, like too much marzipan. Every mouthful a delight, but ultimately too much. The quality of everything shown in the photos (house AND contents) is astonishing, and I hope that the sale is a huge success, heralding the return of large-scale house sales in this country. Reggie

columnist said...

I enjoyed reading your post. I just received the Sotheby's catalogue, which I haven't yet perused, but now will rush to do so. I agree with your choice of the Chinese School pictures - they are a treasure, and certainly at that price!

The Down East Dilettante said...

hmmm, I've been noodling over the idea of a post about the architecture, as opposed to the decoration, of the house---I find the decoration mostly quite fine in its over the top way, not so much the building. But I haven't actually seen it, so maybe it's better than it appears?

Karena said...

Emily, the image of her gowns up and down the hallway is breathtaking..... I am astounded! I do hope the auction is a grand success!

Art by Karena

An Aesthete's Lament said...

George Carter is amazing talent. Have you seen his extraordinary garden furniture? Bliss.

lindaraxa said...

Emily, how interesting we both had the Kluges on our mind this weekend, although my post has more to do with food: http://lindaraxa.blogspot.com/2010/06/kluge-picnic-hamper-and-others-for-rest.html

So nice to have you back.

magnus said...

I remember that when the house was finished, the Kluge's had a week-end housewarming, very evidently arranged by a hyper active PR firm, with the guest list of all sorts of self described socialites helpfully provided to the media. Also published somewhere was the menu for the opening night dinner. Although it must have been over 20 years ago, it was such a hoot that i remember it still, with practically every dish "en gelee", "aux truffes" or "avec caviar". I'm sure that Mrs. Kluge viewed it as a suitably high toned menu for her new high falutin' friends It's clear from the photos that the Kluge's guests were also treated to the interior decorating version of the menu. I'm surprised that some of them didn't have strokes from a general over stimulation of the senses. I love David Easton's work, and can't put my finger on why I don't like the Kluge house, although I agree with you that there are many. wonderful Eastonesque touches therein. In my mind, taken as a whole, it utterly lacks charm and humor and a sense of comfort. I also have to add a particular bete noir of mine- I think that a dining room table surrounded by armchairs looks like nothing short of a corporate boardroom. I loved your post though, and hope you don't put me down as a crank. I am usually very positive. Really.

Toby Worthington said...

Those obelisk shaped bookcases seem to be a faithful
copy of those in Lady Haddington's sitting room at
Tyningham, decorated by Fowler (though the skirtings
weren't marbled in the originals.
Point being that all the right elements were in place
and yet, as Magnus writes, there is something unsettling and "off" about the rooms, at least so far
as photographs show us.
And it's difficult not to see the house as very much
trapped in its own period. David Easton certainly moved beyond those emblems of excess, if his own
marvelous loft is any indication.

Emily Evans Eerdmans said...

Down East,
A genius architect friend of mine (who did not visit the house with me) said, "THAT is not architecture" and he would know more than I. However, I do think when an architect is also working as the interior designer, an understanding of how to make rooms work for living can have exciting results. Gil for example remarked on how much he liked how the bedrooms were laid out. Others have pointed out to me Albemarle was one of the first of its kind, meaning I presume the first Georgian-revival approximating the craftmanship and grandeur of the original but updated for the 1980s technology. It is the scaling down (but maintaining beautiful proportions) that I am still of two minds about. In a way, miniaturizing the great English houses ends up with a doll house, but on the other isn't a smaller scale much more cozy and suited for modern life.


Emily Evans Eerdmans said...

Oh Magnus, thank you for the description of the Albemarle baptismal feast! The whole thing is an eighties time capsule and how wonderful would it be to interpret the rooms (yes, I won't give up my historical house museum idea) in the midst of a huge party, complete with a wax butler (one can be picked up from the Michael Jackson estate, no problem) lighting the candles. Afterall, for whom does the bell toll? it tolls for that kind of spectacular extravagance and formal entertaining, no?

magnus said...

And Emily- we have to make the butler's wax effigy after the butler in the Sotheby's catalog- beard and all, engaged in folding one of the napkins pictured in the catalog photo, with the single, initial "K" machine embroidered in gold theron. It adds to the whole "I get it, but I really don't" feel that the whole place has to me- as you say, a perfect 1980's period piece.

Anonymous said...

It's funny when people disparage the Kluge's house because they still think it makes them sound chic...they don't realize how badly they're dating themselves poor old dears! As someone who shares a birth year with Albemarle House I can see her for the grand masterpiece of Neo-Georgian design she is! So sad it see it all broken up like this. I think people need to keep the neo in mind here...this is inspired by the 18th century not a recreation of it! Beautiful post!

Regina Joi said...

In all, after the dust settles and 'Sall is carted away like Karen Blixen Estate sale in OUT OF AFRICA...what will remain will be Albemarle, David Easton's Vision of the 18th Century Country Manor. Grand yet comfortable. WE should all be lucky to have had a Kluge type client to give us free reign to study, create, and nuture a visionary interpretation of another century with the conveniences of our own times enhancements.

What really struck me about this HOME, was the cozy size of the rooms, this home IS meant for Country activities and long walks with a fire awaiting to warm you even in while bathing...ala Nancy Lancaster at Ditchley or King Edward VIII at the Fort...a weekend of high jinks and cocktails with a formal gown in the evening for dinner.

Why have so many ridiculed this little jewel...I would much rather have seen more of this built than the abominations strewn across America that are nothing more than the end of a sentence...THATS ARCHITECTURE?

The Kluges' may rankle nerves of jealousy and envy, some may even giggle at their oligarchical airs, but Easton never waivered in delivering BIJOUX...in Style!

Rose C'est La Vie said...

I was just going to say that I love the intimacy of that dressing room, a glimpse into which reminds me of the secret world of women's matters; of richly alluring sophisticated women who I always admired from a distance. It induces in me a sense of wonder and loss.

John said...

all mindless gushing aside, and there is a plague of it on this blog

this house and it's contents is an essay in arriviste vulgarity and wretched excess.

Anonymous said...

I have mixed feelings about the house and the collection. Scaling down the interiors to 20th century rather than 18th century dimensions lends to a squashed oppressive effect that is exacerbated by the "no surface left untreated" credo. The majority of the English furniture had surface and condition issues for true conoisseurs as well as estimates to match. There were a few gems though (the stoneleigh China trade panels and the eglomise picture) and the attention to detail in some areas (did you see the brass inlaid curtain poles in the library?) was just so chic. Yet at the same time, what a great moument to 80s excess and the creation of a whole lifestyle from nothing! In an odd way, I agree with EEE that it should have remained as a National Trust house to a different era and, equally importantly, that the houses most conoisseurs treasure were often deemed just as garish to those with more refined tastes. Nothing had the patina that is now so treasured and soft floral inlay was in garish colors when it was orginally produced. The gardens were magnificent and the way they and the landscape is viewed from the interior is to my mind, the most successful part of the estate.

Janet said...

Oh what a treat to see all of this through your eyes. I only wish I could have squired you through Kenmore and Gunston. And joined you for a glass of that Albemarle rosé (which was featured in this month's Martha!). It is delicious to come back to all these yummy goodies.

Anonymous said...

Dear Mrs. EEE,
I was amused to see that you feel the house should be preserved, but you are right. In 50 or 100 years, future generations would lament its loss.
What do you mean when you mention updating the air conditioning systems? As the house cant be more than 25-30 years old, what updating could it need? More efficient coolers would be a simple retrofit. The house must be properly ducted and insulated- what could be the problem?
The strange proportions of the house might be due to the zoning height restrictions of the community- restrictions that make it impossible to build a large, attractive two story house anywhere in America. Remember James Gibbs' formula for the correct ceiling height of a room? Ideal: Length plus width, divided by two (20x30 room- 25 foot ceiling). Second best: width of room equals ceiling height (20x30 room- 20 foot ceiling) Third best: 3/4 width of room equals ceiling height (20x30 room- 15 foot ceiling) The last was considered less than ideal.
The house is pushed so tightly against the hill behind it that all of the rooms on the garden facade have poor light and views. As you point out, no matter how elaborate the garden effects, they are a letdown after the long, open views of the entrance facade.
Biggest disappointment? No great furniture! Not one masterpiece befitting the scale of the house. No great Kent furniture, no queen Anne or Chippendale masterpieces. And no great art!
If this sale had been conducted at Sothebys, without the house as a background, the furniture would look meager.
PS-Cant wait to see your book :)

Philippines properties for sale said...

Wow, these pics are really great and quite motivational in helping with the decoration of home.

Angelo H

Anonymous said...

It is all rather ghastly. One should hope that Easton was only catering to the whims of a client who had far more money than taste, rather than this being a reflection of his own taste. It is far too over-done for a country estate. What might have worked in a Manhattan penthouse just looks silly here.