31 July 2009

Erratum: A case of mistaken identity

"Charles Townley proudly displays his famous collection of ancient statuary in his gallery in this painting by Johann Zoffany. He is seated on a bergere while reading at a pembroke table."

It is true that Townley, a voracious 18th century collector of antiquities, is sitting on a bergere, but, thanks to Barry of the Blue Remembered Hills who recently visited Townley's ancestral home, we know that Townley is in fact the gentleman in the foreground, with his faithful dog Kam at his feet, NOT the one at the pembroke table.

I love this picture as it communicates the mania verging on obsession the English had for all things Classical in the eighteenth century. As Barry notes here, Townley's collection was exceptional and was purchased by the British Museum in the early nineteenth century to form the foundation of its Graeco-Roman holdings.

30 July 2009

Everything is Fashion

This Fall, I will be teaching my first course on the history of interiors at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York.

I have been asked by some, "how will you make history interesting?", and my response to that (besides being slightly saddened that it's asked at all) is that everything - be it paintings, furniture, textiles, or architecture has been shaped by fashion, and fashion is fun! Seriously though, after understanding all the elements of a style, it becomes a tapestry as rich and vibrant as today. The connection between fashion and interior design is just one of the reasons why I'm thrilled to join the F.I.T. community.

But just in case my students need a little help igniting their interest in Gothic or Baroque, perhaps I'll help them by dressing in appropriate garb...

a little Cleopatra for antiquity

Kate working a snood for the Middle Ages

They won't dare to ask for an extension from Bette's Queen Elizabeth

Getting Dressed with Little Augury

dress by Thomas Wylde

Or should I say "dressed by"? Click here and here to get Kaftan-ated. If this is your first visit to Little Augury, you are in for a treat.

28 July 2009

Judging the Hamptons Designer Showhouse 2009

Not that anyone asked me to. Or I should say "us" as I was accompanied by two discerning comrades-in-arms, David and Eric.

This year's showhouse - for the most part - was a testament to safe, good taste. Or safe bland taste. These are conservative times and it isn't surprising that many of the designers didn't make their room an occasion to splash out and employ all their derring-do. In a way, it's enough of a gamble for them to even take part in a showhouse as it is a costly venture for them, and lets face it, these are tough times for the design trade.

That said, what I hope for when I visit a showhouse is to be wowed, surprised, and inspired - in a word, a "show". Which is why I adored this terrace setting below....

with the bizarre Carol Channing umbrella...
Channing in "Hello Dolly!", 1964; photo by Richard Braaten

Even though David chose it as his worst, for me, it epitomizes Arnold Bennett's famous epigram, “Good taste is better than bad taste, but bad taste is better than no taste.” Amen.

David and I did agree on the winner however:

This heavenly master bedroom sitting room by Hamilton Design Associates. The eye-popping wallpaper by Suzy Hoodless,

pochoir print from the 1911 Les Choses de Paul Poiret by Georges Lepape

which reminds me of couturier Paul Poiret, would have been enough,

but the ebony Anglo-Indian colonial furniture upholstered in clear, bright hues and the huge Tina Barney photograph pushed this to the top of my list.

Eric's top choice, which was a close second for me, was Bradley Thiergartner's bedroom. A touch nautical, a touch "Death in Venice."

Special mention also goes to Nathan Egan for a bedroom all ready for David Banda when he's a teenager and Jennifer Garrigues' master bedroom.

For more info:
Hampton Designer Showhouse
179 David’s Lane
Water Mill, NY

Open Daily Monday to Sunday
July 26 to September 6
11AM to 5PM

Admission is $30 and includes a Journal

Click here to visit an online slideshow, courtesy of Newsday.

Secret Source: L.V.I.S.

That's Ladies' Village Improvement Society of East Hampton to you. Please understand that by revealing this well-kept secret, I risk incurring the wrath of many a la Jodi della Femina.

Finely etched wine glasses, vintage couture, rare books, and fantastic lamps are just some of the offerings of this repository of Hamptons' old guard. Marianne, the hostess for whom I'm always shopping, has practically furnished her entire house from the LVIS, and so storied is this haunt that when a new guest comes to stay, their first request is, "Take me to the LVIS."

My heart always beats faster when we enter The Barn

This past Saturday was the society's annual July fair, complete with silent auction, carousel rides, and plant sale.

Even though we stayed until the bitter end, we didn't win at "Chances"

Tented stands dotted the expansive lawn of the c. 1740 shingled house and many local businesses made generous donations (such as a private tour for 6 of the grounds of Grey Gardens by its designer Victoria Fensterer).

Inside is the Octagon Dollhouse, commissioned in 1980 to recall the interior decoration of the mid-19th century.

Virginia, my eagle-eyed friend, caught this PG-13 rated view...

One can never go home empty-handed from the LVIS. Eric below models our finds of the day: my Daisy Kenyon book, Virginia's tin ferris wheel, and Eric's lederhosen ensemble that fits like a glove, as you can see.

95 Main Street
East Hampton NY 11937
Tel: 631.324.1220

27 July 2009

Nature Morte, Part II: The Artful Taxidermist

Stillborn fawn and butterfly, 2008

"Why are we so afraid of death, something so natural and so inevitable, and why do we make such an attempt to hide it? Can death be.... beautiful?" - Melissa Dixson

Melissa Dixson is not afraid of death. In fact, she contemplates and confronts it on a daily basis in her Brooklyn taxidermy studio.

"I am beginning to explore the possibilities of taxidermy as the "ultimate" trophy, whether it be the spoils of the hunter, or the spoils of merely having reached a certain level of power or accomplishment. Art, in itself, is a trophy. In the context of my work, nature becomes art, and therefore, trophy."

Henri by Melissa Dixson, available here

To delve deeper, visit her newly launched website http://www.melissadixson.com/works.html, complete with links to her Etsy shop and fascinating blog.

24 July 2009

A Perfect Match(box)

After a particularly rough and tumble day, this surprise was waiting for me in my mailbox and instantly put a much-needed smile on my face. Unbeknownst to me, Susan of Shandell's, of whom I recently wrote about here, took PVE's wonderful drawing and customized one of her delightful matchboxes. (PVE and Susan - now that's a match made in heaven!)

Thank you, Susan, for brightening up my day and many more to come!

23 July 2009

A day on the town with Magnaverde and Rue, Part II

As promised, the eerie conclusion of the Rue Wintherbotham Carpenter story from Bart Swindall. It has been a pleasure sharing this space - like our day in Chicago together this spring, I am sad to see it end.

From Bart:

I bought Regency Redux the first week it was out, and I loved everything about it: the big, handsome format, the excellent production, and seeing a lot of photos for the very first time. The only thing missing was a mention of Rue Winterbotham Carpenter.

So I wrote to Emily, told her about Rue, and told her that if she was ever planning on coming to Chicago, to let me know, because I would try to get us in to see the interior of the Casino. She wrote back right away, saying “I’ll be there on May 1 to give a lecture on my book at the Merchandise Mart!” So I called the only member whom I know well enough to ask the favor of getting inside, and voila!—ten weeks later, after a full background check, we were given permission to enter. I’ve been there many times, but always as an invited guest, never as a miserable, cringing supplicant. I felt as though we were going to call on the Great & Powerful OZ.

Fortunately for us, our elegant and gracious guide was patient & she showed us everything there was to see. When it came time for her to smash any hopes we had of taking a few photos of the stunning rooms, she did it in the mildest, most elegant way possible. We spent half an hour in what is—for me, anyway—another world.

Then, suddenly, we were cast back, blinded & disoriented, into the noise & dirt & chaos of a regular weekday morning in Chicago. Actually, we were in a really tony area of town, halfway between the Ritz-Carlton & The Drake Hotel, but compared to where we had been, well, there was no comparison.

Anyway, we walked back to the Merchandise Mart, stopping into Alessandra Branca’s on the way, where Emily autographed a few books, then we went up to the 8th floor of the Mart, where Emily gave her lecture to a nice-sized crowd. Afterward, she asked me if I’d like to go walk the show floor with her, looking for a few special items to feature in a piece she was doing for the Magazine Antiques. Sure I would.

Pair of French Cornucopia, circa 1840 from Mark J. West

One of the things she had already picked out was a pair of pretty blue opaline glass Victorian cornucopia vases that ended, not in a typical scroll or ram’s head but in a pair of silver hands resting on marble bases. They were beautiful. -

And here's where things get weird. A few days later, I was at the library, paging through the volume of Vogue magazine for 1930, looking for the article that Rue Carpenter had written, when, there on the page in front of me, was a photo of the very same pair of vases, featured in an unsigned piece that, having become familiar with the quirks of Rue’s writing and the kind of things she liked, I’d swear she wrote herself.

Later, I was looking through some photocopies I had made earlier, showing an apartment in an Art Deco building on Chicago’s Gold coast, an apartment that, to anybody who knows Rue Winterbotham Carpenter’s style, could only have been decorated by her, even though her name isn’t mentioned anywhere in the article. Then again, it hardly needs to be, since the apartment is that of Mrs. John H. Winterbotham. And there (cue the dissonant music) on the dining room table, and again on the table by the bed, were VERY SAME vases that, out of tens of thousands of top-quality antiques at the show, Emily had selected.

I can connect a lot of dots, but that I can’t explain that. Unless...

22 July 2009

Magnaverde unveils Rue Winterbotham Carpenter, Part I

I am over the moon to share this space with Bart Swindall, historian of Chicago's Auditorium Theater. (You may already be familiar with his always must-read comments under his nom de web, Magnaverde.)

On my trip to Chicago this spring, Bart took me for a private tour of the Casino Club, which ranks with Dawnridge and the Brighton Pavilion as the most sublime interiors I've ever experienced. The still intact and jaw-dropping decoration was done by Rue Winterbotham Carpenter, of whom I was embarrassed to admit I had never heard. Bart has graciously agreed to enlighten all of us here.

From Bart:

I’ve called Rue Winterbotham Carpenter “Chicago’s Greatest Unknown Decorator." Of course, she’s not really unknown. In certain circles, her dynamic personality is still very much alive, almost eighty years after she died. The Chicago we know today might be a different city without her influence, and yet, even in the city where she spent most of her life, few people have ever heard of her.

One reason that Carpenter is virtually unknown is that, unlike Elsie de Wolfe & many of her decorating contemporaries, she never wrote any books & only a few brief articles & she didn't advertise. Most of her jobs were for friends, or friends of friends. But what friends she had! She was the best friend of Sara Murphy--of the Murphys, the beautiful American couple who moved to France after WWI, virtually invented sun-bathing, put the French Riviera on the social map and transfixed Scott Fitzgerald with their beauty (at least until he hung them out to dry in one of his novels). Rue & her daughter Ginny goofed around in Venice with the Murphys & Cole Porter before Cole Porter became famous,

and other photos show them posing on the beach with the Murphys the year that Picasso was part of the gang. He sketched her, but didn’t paint her portrait, although many important artists of the period did, among them Sir John Lavery, who married another Chicago girl. A gigantic Rousseau jungle scene hung in Rue’s Chicago living room. With her husband, the composer John Alden Carpenter, Rue was also friends with some of the greatest musicians & poets of the early 20th Century. She knew Gertrude Stein & Igor Stravinsky.

Back at home in Chicago, she was the president of the Arts Club for more than a decade, in which position she almost singlehandedly brought Modern art to Chicago, inviting many of her artist pals to come to the city for a one-man show.

The Arts Club of Chicago today which has kept many of Carpenter's furnishings to this day

So how does a woman like that vanish into thin air? Especially a woman someone whose work was so memorable, and so distinctively her own? Well, unlike the seemingly ageless Elsie de Wolfe, Rue Carpenter died fairly young, just as her work was beginning to attract national attention. Also, unlike de Wolfe, Carpenter seems to have had little interest in self-promotion. Famous artists may have painted her, but images of most of those portraits are hard to track down. Certainly there is a dearth of the kind of perfectly posed photos of Rue wearing the latest fashions, the way there are with de Wolfe. Also, unlike Elsie, Rue wrote no books, and only a single article was ever published under her name, entitled “Problems in Decoration” which appeared in the August 2, 1930 of Vogue magazine. But even that one short article, it seems, reached sympathetic ears.

Almost 20 years later, long after Rue Carpenter’s death, her words were quoted in a lecture given at the Parson’s School of Design in New York, by none other than Billy Baldwin himself—who had never met her. She had powerful friends, even in death. Archibald MacLeish dedicated a poem to her.

Another reason for Carpenter’s relative obscurity is that few of her interiors survive, and of the few that do, not one is open to the public. Carpenter's truly public jobs–her friend & Tribune critic Fanny Butcher's bookstore in the old Pullman Building & her gorgeous 1910 reimagining of Louis Sullivan's Auditorium Theatre–are long gone. Well, sort of. The Pullman building across from the Art Institute is really gone, torn down in the 195Os, but Rue's long-forgotten decorative scheme for the Auditorium was documented in 2000 (thanks to the careful work of historic paint analyst Robert A. Furhoff) as part of the Auditorium's ongoing restoration. Underneath the recent recreation of Louis Sullivan's original 1889 décor, Carpenter's striking scheme still exists, hidden below a century’s worth of later overpainting.

When the Auditorium opened in 1889, Sullivan’s ivory & gold décor was a revelation, but by 1910, when Chicago finally acquired its own resident opera company, the theatre was tired & dingy and the theatre management hired Rue Carpenter to revamp the place. And did she ever. The gorgeous palette she devised was perfect for the company’s inaugural performance of Aida, with its orientalist decor. Under Carpenter’s direction, Sullivan's plaster reliefs & panels were glazed in glowing crimson & Pompeian red, lapis blue & viridian green, all highlighted with gold, and all of which jewel-like hues colors were set off with a Pompeian red velvet curtains & seats. Not only that, she had the entire ceiling of the theatre—by then a dirty beige—covered with aluminum leaf, lacquered to look like gold. Parisians had already seen–and loved–such violent color contrasts in the sets & costumes for Serge Diaghilev's Ballets Russes the year before, but such brilliance in color was brand new to Chicago. The novelist Arthur Meeker said “For a season or two, we had an opera house worthy of the troupe that sang in it.”

In the late 1920s, Carpenter decorated the Fortnightly, Chicago’s oldest women’s club, having previously done the public rooms at the Racquet Club, then an all-male preserve. And, as president of the peripatetic Arts Club, she designed the interiors for its several homes over the years. Today, the Arts club is housed in a crisp Modernist space designed by John Vinci, but Rue’s beloved 19th century furniture is still in place, and it looks as elegant as ever against a frankly modern background. In Chicago, she also decorated the Harvard-Yale-Princeton Club, the dressing rooms of the Palace Theatre and she did at least one hotel in Wisconsin, not to mention numerous private homes.

All these received lavish praise. But it was at the Casino—then, as now, Chicago’s most exclusive & prestigious club—that she did her most original, most beautiful work, and thanks to its careful preservation by the club’s membership, her work there still exudes its original drop-dead glamour & freshness.

In the Casino’s semicircular, black walled, vestibule, dim indirect light glows from a cove below a gold-leaf ceiling. In the elegantly-railed stair-hall, murals of black & white trees by the Russian artist Nikolai Remisoff decorate the walls. In the curving, black-walled salon are simple white marble chimneypieces in Directoire style, and cozy groupings of Directoire meridiennes surround marble-topped tables, perfect for quiet gossip over tea.

The oval ballroom’s walls are covered in emerald green velvet, broken at intervals by panels of wheel-engraved antique mirror glass, The swooping red satin curtains are done in Empire style. At the ceiling the room is ringed by an Empire-style frieze of red & white feathers painted by Carpenter herself: in her free time—whenever that was--she was also an artist. Higher-up yet, double-headed swans ring the coved ceiling, which is supported by pairs of tall delicate colonettes.The nearby dining room has gleaming jade green & black walls & pillars, a shiny black floor and, black-glass tabletops. Against a mirrored wall, a faceted Art Deco glass fountain in the shape of an obelisk glows from within, and the whole room is lit with Empire style torcheres. In a pair of twin dining rooms nearby, the walls are covered with pleated ivory fabric that gives the impression of classic fluting. A high elliptical bar room is finished in ivory enamel, nickel-plate & mirror, with hidden lights & sconces that reflect in the shiny black floor. Everything, everywhere, is shiny, and so impossibly elegant that you expect to see William Powell saunter around the corner at any moment, holding a platinum cigarette case & looking for a light.

You could send him down to the lower level, to what used to be a smoking lounge, where there is a suite of high-style black-&-red Regency furniture, tables in the form of military drums of about 1810, and where star-shaped bolts attach floor-to-ceiling panels of reverse-painted glass to the walls—glass for ease of cleaning, you know—except that, these days, you can’t smoke in Chicago. And there’s more: card rooms & ante rooms & sitting rooms & bar rooms in a bewildering array of shapes & early-19th century styles, all perfectly executed & perfectly preserved and all of these rooms seem to open onto each other in so many possible ways—every room seems to have at least six sets of doors—that you begin to lose all sense of scale.

I’ve tried to draw a floor plan many times, and have failed every single time. It’s like a Chinese puzzle box, much bigger on the inside than it is on the outside. And that’s not all. The place is invisible, or it seems to be. Only the right sort of people can see it. I can barely see it myself. I’ve had Chicago cabbies drop me off there & remarking “I know this neighborhood like the back of my hand, and ya know, I never noticed this place before.” The place is like that. It’s magic. Rue Carpenter was magic.

Photo by Edward Steichen for Vogue

And the magic wasn’t just at the Casino, or just in Chicago. In 1930, she redecorated Elizabeth Arden’s salon in New York in black & silver & emerald green, with, of course, a ton of Directoire & Empire furniture. But here’s the fascinating great part: the furniture may have all been antique but the glittering effect is very New York 1930.

In Regency Redux, Emily used a full page photo that Edward Steichen took for Vogue magazine, a shot of two women on a sleek satin sofa in front of a wall-size mirror mounted with a chunky crystal sconce. That wasn’t a photo-studio set, but part of Rue’s décor for the Arden salon, and the sofa itself is a dead ringer for those that are still in use at the Casino. Anyway, that’s the good part about a style as distinctive as Rue Carpenter’s: there’s no mistaking her touch.

Tune in tomorrow when…

Rue Touches Emily

21 July 2009


The lobby of the Carlyle by Dorothy Draper

For most people, dressing the mantel is an opportunity to express their creativity and whimsy. They may even be possessed of such zest and inspiration that they will change it out seasonally or for festive occasions. Alas, I am not one of those people and it has taken me all of two years to navigate the quagmire of mantelscaping.

Kelly Wearstler once told me that one should think of accessorizing a room like an outfit - balancing the proportions, textures, and colors, AND that it is these finishing touches, like a great cuff bracelet or belt, that lift the ensemble to the next level.

A simple but well-styled mantelpiece by Kelly Wearstler

The possibilities of 'scaping a mantel are endless. The first question may be - mirror or painting overhead? Billy Baldwin preferred mirrors...

But I already have much too many mirrors in the room. Of course, I could follow Frances Elkins' example and just leave the wall gloriously blank....

The Clow Residence in Lake Forest, Illinois with architecture by David Adler and decoration by Frances Elkins

But for that to work, the entire room needs to be flawlessly edited and the architectural details meticulously executed. Anyway, I'm more English County House clutter than moderne chic, so naturally I took a closer look at Mr. Buatta's oeuvre...

I adore this room he did for Kips Bay a few years ago and even tracked down the tulipieres at a now defunct online website, but somehow they didn't look as snappy. Click here to get your own, inspired by the enormous ones at the Duke of Devonshire's manse, Chatsworth, pictured below.

It was but a hop skip and jump to cachepots, and Janet at William-Wayne was waiting for me with a mirrored pair which reminded me of the planters used in the orangerie at Versailles, which you can pick up versions of here.

Janet convinced me orchids were a more interesting choice than topiaries, and the crisp white of the petals against my Forget-me-not blue walls reminds me of Butterfield 8...

So without further ado - the BEFORE

so very triste....

to "bring on the stiffies!"

16 July 2009

Seeing Redd

As anyone who has read Mrs. Blandings' Enduring Style series knows, I am a HUGE fan of Miles Redd's work and last night I got to experience one of his spaces firsthand. For weeks, I've been counting down the days until the unveiling of my dashing friend David's newly decorated flat and the results were *gobsmacking*.

You will have to wait for whichever lucky magazine ends up profiling this swanky and swelligant space to see more, but three words capture the vibe completely: Rue Wintherbotham Carpenter.

Chicago's exclusive Casino Club still preserves Wintherbotham Carpenter's interior decoration

Hopefully a guest blogger will shed more light soon on this virtually forgotten but tremendously chic decorator who was also one of the major power players in Chicago's art scene in the 1910s and '20s.

As I watched the big day loom closer, I grew more and more apprehensive about what would make an appropriate housewarming gift. After all, with Mr. Redd curating all surface-scaping, the bar was set vertiginously high. Then, out of the blogosphere came the answer in my inbox from a kind reader: Shandell's matchboxes, handmade by Susan Schneider.

Simple, small, and one-of-a-kind - I knew it was a home run, especially after I found this one with the bird's eggs, which just happened to be the shade of David's blue lacquered walls. Click here to visit Shandell's Etsy store and scoop up your own.