31 December 2008

Proust for the New Year

In preparation for my next book, The World of Madeleine Castaing, I have committed to reading Proust's magnum opus In Search of Lost Time. Castaing claimed to have read it a staggering 12 times and undoubtedly his poetic and descriptive prose played a part in Castaing's romantic interiors.

Proust can not be read in brief spurts, jammed into the subway ride on the way to work. It is not that it is intellectually rigorous, but rather that one needs the mental space to savor and meander along with his paragraph-long sentences.

The first volume, Swann's Way, introduces us to Proust's Aunt Leonie whose house (where Proust spent his summers) is conserved today as a museum in Illiers-Combray, France.

As part of my New Year's resolution to read more, I will be tuning out for the next few days and enjoying Proust and his madeleines. Bonne Annee!

All photos © Bernard Annebicque/CORBIS SYGMA

30 December 2008

My Very Own Diller

I received an urgent call last week from dear friends Rush and Klaus asking me to drop by and pick up my Christmas present. As we don't normally exchange gifts, I was immediately suspicious. "It's not a Phyllis Diller painting, is it?" I asked, as one does. Oh no, they reassured me. I was secretly disappointed - but not for long as I would soon be face to face with a Diller original inscribed to me.

La Diller herself

I first heard about the Phyllis Diller Art Tour about a year ago. If you have the right connections in Los Angeles, you and a group of friends can be taken around La Diller's residence which is hung partout with her prodigious output. Apparently this is a passion for her and she is often up until the wee hours drawing and painting away.

Where the magic happens....

Thanks to photographer Kurt Benbenek who captured the tour on film, we can catch a glimmer into Diller's Giverny. Kurt and his lady's favorite room is the completely red kitchen of which - alas - there seems to be no picture.

Guests on the Art Tour usually cap off their visit with an ensemble photo with Ms. Diller and Mr. Hope.

The Wig Room

Kurt also commented on how there are decks of playing cards everywhere inside and out - which no doubt help keep her 91-year-old mind agile and spry. Click here to see more of the house tour.

To see more of Ms. Diller's work, click here.

Top photo by author; all others courtesy of Kurt Benbenek at the Houseplant Picture Studio.

29 December 2008

Film Decor: Giant

Last spring, I attended a symposium at the Museum of the City of New York on great New York residences. The charismatic Mitchell Owens spoke on Mame Dennis' Beekman Place townhouse and its numerous redecorations which reflected the latest fashions from the Great Depression through World World II.

Similarly, "Reata", the Benedict Ranch, in the 1956 epic Giant mirrored the changing social values and tastes of the Texan elite.

Reata as it is when Leslie (Elizabeth Taylor) comes to live as Bick's (Rock Hudson) new bride. High Victoriana, with red flocked wallpaper, leather upholstery, and heavily carved Eastlake style furniture. It must have been quite a shock for Leslie after the gracious Georgian-style house in Virginia she grew up in. The decor changes little until after Bick's commandeering sister Luz dies from a nasty accident and Leslie gives birth, firmly sealing her position as chatelaine. Circa 1920s, but its 19th century era decoration hints at Texas' provincialism at this time.

Bick's office or Man Cave. This room changes little throughout the film - which fittingly reflects Bick's traditional ways and reluctance to change.

Leslie's bedroom which connects to Bick's. More of the same dark, heavy furniture.

Leslie recreates her Virginia home with chintz, cream woodwork, and Georgian furniture.

Leslie and Bick's bedroom, now with twin beds.

Reata gets the Hollywood treatment with a very Billy Haines vibe. White on white, touches of Chinoiserie, wall to wall carpeting, and low slung mod seat furniture. Love the cattleman at the white piano with the mirrored obelisks - so incongruous!

Another view of the living room. Don't miss the great white and black stone floor of the entrance hall in the background.

Leslie and Bick's bedroom.

This is actually not Reata, but a suite at the ultra-glam Emperador Hotel which was based on the Shamrock Hotel in Houston. Had to include it for the lacquer Carlton House desk and the fantastic tufted sofas - calling Jonathan Adler! Bick is looking worse for wear as he comes to terms with the waning of the Rancher and the new dominance of the Oil Man in Texas.

24 December 2008

Merry Christmas

Thank you all for such a warm welcome into the blogosphere. I hope your holiday is full of mirth, merriment, and good cheer. A stiff drink never hurts either.

All my best,


Photo: Women Modeling Festive Christmas Hairdos, © Bettmann/CORBIS, circa 1961

Two young women display their holiday hairdos, each with 42-inch hair decorated with tinsel and ornaments. Claudette Ackrich's hair is decorated with tinsel, and Giselle Roc's hairstyle consists of Christmas tree balls. Both women have never had their hair cut. [Editor's Note: Eek!]

23 December 2008

Too Many Cookies

This just came into my inbox and, as you can imagine, immediately grabbed my attention.

It was sent by my friends at the Merchant's House Museum, a New York City historical house very dear to my heart. When I first moved to New York years ago, it was by first volunteering and then working at the MHM that I began to find my footing in the city and form close friendships (I found my fiancé there as well!).

Chair Nick Nicholson writes: "Just as the bottom has dropped out of the market, so too has the ceiling in Seabury Tredwell’s study fallen in -- quite literally. But it’s not Santa’s fault. We traced the cause to water infiltration from damage to our roof (repaired in 2006), which weakened a large section of ceiling plaster.

"The cost to repair the ceiling is estimated to be $21,000. And because much of the remaining plaster is seriously compromised and in danger of falling, the study, where merchant Seabury Tredwell burned his midnight oil, must remain closed to visitors."

To make a year-end (fully tax deductible) year-end gift and help preserve this very unique New York landmark, please click here.

Auction Spotlight: The Roger Warner Collection

One of my favorite sources for photographs of interiors is auction catalogues. Often, it is the only public record of a private collection that only a rarified few have had personal access to.

This is not exactly the case with the Christie's South Kensington sale of the property of Cotswolds antiques dealer Roger Warner: after all, anyone could come into his shop in Burford and browse - and many did, from Queen Mary to Bruce Chatwin to Robert Kime. Warner's eye was both refined and eclectic and embraced deeply patinated oak furniture, 18th century costume, Victorian hairwork pictures, and even a mummified Egyptian cat!

Here are a few of my favorites rooms in his house which was tucked right behind the shop, along with my picks of the sale.

A view of the hall. I am crazy for this 18th century English botanical oil painting. Estimate $30,000-$45,0000.

I'm really drawn to the primitive quality of delftware. An amassment, like in this cupboard, really packs a punch.

I love these. A collection of five French painter papier-mache wig makers' or milliners' marottes, circa 1880. The largest 16" high. $1,500-3,000.

Who couldn't use another bookcase? A GEORGE II ARCHITECTURAL BREAKFRONT BOOKCASE CIRCA 1740. Estimate $11,000-$15,000.

A William de Morgan twin-handled ceramic vase, circa 1890. Height: 7 1/2" Estimate: $3,000 to $4,500. de Morgan's work is a sound investment and his dexterous use of color and pattern reminds me of textiles - another obsession of mine!

All images from the Christie's South Kensington sale catalogue of The Roger Warner Collection, 20-21 January 2009.

21 December 2008

Holiday Hangover

With the help of lots of quiet and a few Advil, I have almost fully recovered from our annual holiday party. Once a year, we roll up the rugs, deck the halls, and put on the ritz for 50 or so of our dearest friends. It's a lot of work and a long night - generally ending around 3 in the morning - but it's also wonderful fun.

To my amazement, the hit of the night was the Champagne Punch. I've never served punch before, and was a little nervous about how it would be received. (Our Crowd loves their champagne and is veddy veddy particular about it - Pol Roger and Louis Roederer being the current faves.)

I highly recommend this recipe, not least of all because it gives a lot of bang for the buck (don't even think about using Veuve or somesuch - go with Prosecco or a Spanish sparkling like we did) - and these days, that counts. This would also be magnificent at a brunch.

From Epicurious.com

  • 1 cup Triple Sec
  • 1 cup brandy
  • 1/2 cup Chambord
  • 2 cups unsweetened pineapple juice
  • 1 quart chilled ginger ale
  • 2 chilled 750-ml. bottles dry champagne (prosecco is great too)
In a
bowl combine the Triple Sec, the brandy, the Chambord and the pineapple juice and chill the mixture, covered, for at least 4 hours or overnight. In a large punch bowl combine the Triple Sec mixture, the ginger ale, and the champagne and add ice cubes.

The recipe says that it serves 12 - we doubled it for 50, but this wasn't the only thing we were serving.

Ooh! Now I need to invest in a proper punchbowl! Any suggestions?

19 December 2008

Kim Cattrall: 52 and Fabulous.

That woman is fearless.

Imagine my surprise as I'm thumbing through an issue of Country Life looking at the usual pretty pictures of ancestral houses, fox hunts, and gardens to see this:

This is seriously sassy stuff for CL, bastion of traditional English values.

The photograph has quite an interesting backstory. It is a recreation of Titian's masterpiece "Diana and Actaeon" by photographer Tom Hunter as part of a campaign to raise £50 million to purchase the original from the Duke of Sutherland for the National Gallery.

And it worked! On December 14, The Times announced that the campaign is on track to meet the deadline at the end of this month.

18 December 2008

Homage to Heywood Hill

While an impoverished graduate student in London, I was given two luxuries by my most beneficent uncle: a charge card to Fortnum and Mason and an account at the Mayfair bookshop Heywood Hill.

I became instantly addicted to popping in and browsing through the stacks upon stacks of books. And if the ghosts of some of my favorite writers who were past patrons (including Osbert Sitwell and Nancy Mitford who actually worked here) weren't enough to enchant me, the extremely well-read and engaging staff made this no passing affair.

Here are HH managing director Jeffrey Kerr's current recommendations - all of which look like must-reads to me! I urge you all to visit next time you are in London and, in general, to support your local bookstores which are going through tough times.

DAVENPORT-HINES, R Ettie: the Intimate Life and Dauntless Spirit of Lady Desborough (£20)
The extraordinary life of Ettie, Lady Desborough, aristocratic beauty, society hostess, member of the Souls, courtier, heiress, and mother, whose life spanned the reigns of five monarchs from Queen Victoria to George VI. Although from an early age her life seemed shadowed by death (her mother, father and brother all died before she was ten)

FELLOWES, JULIAN Past Imperfect (£17.99)
On his death bed the enormously wealthy Damian Baker asks a former friend to search amongst the offspring of their University clique for his heir. The quest affords the central character the opportunity to look back at the group’s youthful expectations and find out whether they have come to terms with the reality of the lives they now have. Hugely entertaining - Brideshead for the twenty-first century. [Editor's note: Julian wrote the screenplays for Gosford Park and Vanity Fair.]

KRESTER, MICHEL DE The Lost Dog (£16.99)
Tom Loxley loses his dog whilst working on his book on Henry James out in the bush. His search takes him not only through the bush but through his memory, calling back his childhood in India and his early life in Australia. Yet his trip to the past is balanced by the sharp reality of his mother’s failing health and the mystery of Nelly. A beautifully crafted modern novel from Australia.

MLINARIC, DAVID & CECIL, MIRABEL Mlinaric on Decorating (£35)
A lavishly illustrated look at the work of David Mlinaric, one of the foremost interior designers of the last forty years. In addition to having taken over the mantle of adviser to the National Trust from John Fowler, David Mlinaric has worked on some of the most important historic projects in recent years: Waddesdon, Spencer House, the Royal Opera House, and the British Embassies in both Paris and Washington. The book also includes beautiful images of his own houses; Thorpe Hall in Suffolk, being particularly gorgeous with interiors of stunning simplicity and great elegance.

MOSLEY, CHARLOTTE In Tearing Haste: (£25)
Although at times sporadic, the Dowager Duchess of Devonshire and the travel writer Sir Patrick Leigh Fermor have exchanged hundreds of letters over the last 50 years. Charlotte Mosley has used her considerable judgement and skill to draw out some of the very finest of these, illustrating his devotion and her friendship. Paddy Leigh Fermor’s poetic travel writing, which immediately draws one to the place and event described, is perfectly balanced by the highly individual mode of expression of his correspondent. Light hearted and fun, a terrific read.

Click here for an interview with Debo herself.

NICOLSON, ADAM Sissinghurst: an Unfinished History (£20)
A fascinating and beautifully written account of Adam Nicolson’s relationship with the place which is home to him, but which for many people is a national treasure, something to be preserved in aspic. This is a book about place, how it becomes a part of you: the history, the trees, the soil. Nicolson weaves the story of his efforts to reconnect Sissinghurst with the surrounding landscape into the history of the place itself.

17 December 2008

Made me smile.

In celebration of the 45th anniversary of Alfred Hitchcock's iconic film The Birds, Mattel has just released this commemorative Barbie.

RR Backstory 2: Choosing a Cover

It's hard to believe now, but it was a long road to finding the perfect cover for Regency Redux. In fact, the Greenbrier enfilade was a last minute find and wasn't my first pick.

The Initial Work Up

A gloriously decaying interior at Stephen Tennant's Wilsford Manor. Tennant was a Bright Young Thing, great friends with Cecil Beaton and Rex Whistler, and a client of Syrie Maugham.

Rizzoli liked this one best.

The famous David Adler mirrored bathroom now in Miles Redd's NoHo townhouse as photographed by Martyn Thompson for W magazine. The bathroom was originally designed for meatpacking magnate Lester Armour, and torn out when the house was purchased by singer/songwriter Richard Marks.

My editor and I fought for this one, but#1 Rizzoli doesn't like loos on covers and #2 the general concensus was that the image was too difficult to read.

Trying Again

This was the first Greenbrier image we worked with. I thought the Rococo revival chair sent too much of a contradictory message.

Loved this one! Myrna Loy's dressing room in Wife vs. Secretary. Rizzoli really wanted color and although I was devastated for five minutes, I think they were right.

What do you think?

(Susi Oberhelman is the extremely talented graphic designer responsible for all these covers as well as the book itself.)

16 December 2008

"Top Dog": Pure Camp, Pure Bliss

Sally Struthers with her chow, Chester

Some people who know me are surprised by how lowbrow my tastes can run. Yes, I really did stay up until 3 A.M. watching a Rock of Love marathon, and, yes, the Real Housewives series - all of them - is must-see TV (much to my fiance's horror). I fully embrace my love of Camp - there's only so much Proust one can read before one needs a dollop of Peyton Place. As Susan Sontag says, "it's good for the digestion."

So when I saw the book Top Dog by Liz Walker, John Haynsworth, and Bonnie Skinner Levy, a 1980's time capsule complete with B-list celebrities clad in leather and sequins hamming it up with their favorite canines, there was no question that it was coming home with me.

Dallas Hairdressers Danny Kapavik and Richard Florio, "the leading purveyors of Big Hair in a city known for all-out 'dos" with Yorkshire Terrier, Baby Jane.

San Francisco socialite Mrs. Francis A. Martin Jr. with Labrador, Nicol
Now this is a room I would love to see more of - love its ambiance of patina and old guard elegance.

Barbara Lazaroff, 2nd wife of Wolfgang Puck, with Jaguar, Melon, and Zandra

15 December 2008

Regency Redux Backstory: The Ashley Hicks Stools

A few weeks ago, Regency Redux had its book launch in London at the Fine Art Society. It was a lovely evening - I got to see many old friends as well as meet contacts made while writing the book.

One of these was the very charming garden designer Marie-Christine
de Laubarede whose country house living room is pictured above and is the closing photo of the book. I was drawn to this photograph because of the pair of neoclassical stools that seemed so academically correct, they could have lept out of the Parthenon. I knew they must be by the designer T.H. Robsjohn-Gibbings (1905-1976) - "Gibby" to his friends - who was absolutely obsessed with adhering faithfully to Ancient Greek precedents. In the search for discovering a contemporary style, Gibby thought it was necessary to return to the purity of ancient design when form was distilled to its most simple and beautiful.

Gibby's NY studio in 1936. Doesn't that vase look like something from Jonathan Adler? Photograph by Loomis Dean for Life, reproduced in T. H. Robsjohn-Gibbings, Furniture of Classical Greece , New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1963).

Well, I was wrong. And luckily before the book went to press, Marie-Christine corrected me and said they were by Ashley Hicks, son of legendary decorator David Hicks. I confessed all this to Ashley at the book party and he told me that in fact he had thought quite a bit about Gibby while designing them. As a student, Ashley came across Gibby's 1963 book Furniture of Classical Greece which included his iconic version of the klismos chair (see below).

In the 1960s, Robsjohn-Gibbings and Life magazine went to Greece to showcase his "authentic" designs in their "original" surroundings. Life Magazine, circa 1961

Gibby relied heavily on the furniture drawings found in
Ancient Furniture: A History of Greek, Etruscan and Roman Furniture written in 1926 by Metropolitan Museum of Art curator Gisela Richter to create these replications of antiquity . However, Ashley did a little digging and realized that Richter had revised her descriptions just three years later in the 1966 The Furniture of the Greeks, Etruscans, and Romans and that Gibby's klismos was no longer on the mark. Ashley picked up the glove and made his own line of even more correct klismos chairs, of which Marie-Christine's stools were a spin off.

Why I find this so particularly interesting is that not only does it affirm that interest in the Classical tradition is alive and well, but that - to my eyes - it continues to be as striking and appealing today as it was to those both decades and centuries ago. This then begs the question: why have we responded for so long to Classical design?

Top photo © Fernando Bengoechea/Beateworks/Corbis