1. Notes: 1

    The Low Table: The Emphasis of the Whole Room

    image

    A room we decorated in Southampton with a white linen wrapped low table.

     

    My thoughts on low tables are somewhat corroborated by Dorothy Draper in her 1939 book Decorating is Fun!. She describes a plain box of a room where she slipcovers the furniture in chintz, paints the walls watermelon pink and then carries the room with a pair of low tables:  

    The emphasis of the whole room is actually the two big coffee tables before the fire. They were specially designed with the tops of black Carrara glass, the sides and legs covered with dark bottle-green leather. The gleaming black tops act as a deep, inky mirror for anything that is placed on them.

    image

    Perhaps no other furniture form can make or break the success of a contemporary room than these tables, known alternatively as low, coffee or (what fun) cocktail tables.   

    This form first appears regularly in western interiors at about 1900 when Asian eighteenth and nineteenth century examples made their way west to furnish exotic chinoiserie interiors. To this day, they continue to be reinterpreted.

    image

     An example of an early coffee table — an extremely rare 19th c. rosewood ‘Coffee Table’ attributed to J. S. Lock of Collinson & Locke cabinetmakers, London, c. 1885, with intarsia inlay attributed to the sculptor Stephen Webb.

    I think low tables are pivotal because of their central location in rooms, most often in front of sofas. And, because they are small, they are easily perfected and often enriched.

    image

    The library of Brooke Astor’s New York apartment as designed by Albert Hadley (above and below) featured two antique Asian low tables.

    image

    In fact, the Asian examples still look great in today’s interiors because they often have added decoration, say a chow leg, or a lacquered surface. It is a fine day when a genuine old Chinese table made before the twentieth century can be found, such as this example we discovered some twenty years ago for a Southampton library.

    image

    By being extremely plain, good examples can provide a decorative foil in an elaborate room such as the one in Yves Saint Laurent and Pierre Bergé’s living room on the Rue de Babylone in Paris.

    image

    Image from The Private World of Yves Saint Laurent & Pierre Bergé by Robert Murphy

    We often use linen wrapped tables of parsons like form. I appreciate their color and simple lines.

    image

    A Parsons form low table in the sunroom of Julia Reed’s New Orleans home.

    image

    A Philip and Kelvin LaVerne waterfall low table has a clean silhouette but the surface adds texture and dimension.   A bridge between the simple and elaborate.

    Certainly, as Dorothy Draper pronounces, the lowly low table can be the emphasis of the whole room.

     
  2. Notes: 2

    Americana Week in New York: Interior Drawings and Paintings to Inspire

    image

    Detail from Monks Singing the OfficeOlivetan Master and the Maestri del Corali di Lodi, illuminated manuscript on parchment, Italy, Lombardy (c. 1439-1447)

    It is Antiques Week in New York, centered on the Winter Antiques Show that will open Thursday night. It is also Master Drawing Week with 31 drawing exhibitions hosted by various galleries around town.

    This week there is much much to inspire my decorator’s eye along with the antiquarian in me. As most of you know, I always look to antiques as sources for inspiration and perpetually consider how they relate to today’s interiors.

    I especially find period drawings of interiors inspiring.The earliest examples are from the Renaissance and they continue to be subjects of art today. With the advent of inexpensive paints and more leisure time, there was a great proliferation of these illustrations in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century.

    This week there are many stellar examples being offered. At the dealer Les Enluminures, there is a remarkable fifteenth century drawing of Monks singing in a chapel— polychromed in iron red, emerald green and royal blue covered with stars.

    image

    John Bickel and Caterina Bickel, Jacob Maentel (1778-?), 1815-1825, Jonestown, Lebanon County, Pennsylvania

    At Sotheby’s there are several drawings by Jacob Maentel from the collection of Ralph O. Esmerian. Two illustrate a bright blue room with gilded rosette patterned walls and a fitted carpet in blue green. Another has a fantastic striped carpet that is almost dayglow.

    image

    Elizabeth Haak and Michael Haak, Jacob Maentel (1778-?), 1830-1835, Lebanon, Lebanon County, Pennsylvania


    image

    The Merrill Family in an Elegant Parlor, American School, c.1830

    Also at Sotheby’s, an illustration of The Merrill Family in an Elegant Parlor showcases an exuberantly patterned carpet with richly colored blue covers on the table and piano. A work by Joseph H. Davis features another bold carpet in bright primary colors and an animated fancy chair. 

    image

    William B. Chamberlain with Violoncello and Music, Joseph H. (J. H.) Davis (Circa 1832-1837)

    image

    The Boxers, Justin McCarthy (1891-1977)

    Largely these interior depictions owe a debt to the artistic liberties taken by their creators. At Christie’s, a 20th century work by Justin McCarthy, The Boxers, illustrates this to the extreme with orange walls and a bright yellow floor with chartreuse undertones.

    These images offer a fresh take on historical and contemporary rooms we admire so much. As we start the new year, inspiration is required. I hope these works of art and others at the show inspire you too.  

     
  3. Notes: 2

    House of Details: The Bartow-Pell Mansion

    image

    Mindy Papp is our next guest author in our House of Details series where we look at key elements that create great houses. She writes today about the Bartow-Pell mansion, a treasure located in Pelham Bay Park in New York City.

    A decade ago, Mindy and I first met on a scholarly tour of British houses and became fast friends. She is a third generation antiquarian, her family being the owners of Florian Papp, the New York antique dealer renowned for historic and handsome furniture since 1900. She is widely consulted authority on eighteenth and nineteenth century furniture. Most importantly she has beautiful taste and great charm.

    Mindy also contributed an earlier post to the series on one of her favorite houses, Caramoor in Katonah, New York.

     

    image

    A triumph of American spirit and creativity, the Bartow-Pell Mansion is one of the best preserved Greek Revival structures in America. It remains a country estate; open to the public, complete with surrounding parklands and gardens, which enhance the pleasures of the visitors’ experience.

    Influenced by Minard Lafever (1797-1854), one of the most talented American designers of his time (he published three books of architecture, The Young Builder’s General Instructor, 1829; The Modern Builder’s Guide, 1833; and The Beauties of Modern Architecture, 1835.), the house is characterized by bold modifications of the classical Greek precedent.

    The rooms at Bartow-Pell Mansion reflect the imaginative detail that Lafever achieved in his interiors.

    image

    The entrance hall sets the stage for symmetry, with its formal balanced arrangement of windows and doors. The doorways and windows are all architecturally framed with panels and pilasters. The plaster dental cornice and central ceiling rosette of lotus leaves provide decorative accents.

    image

    The elegant free standing staircase sweeps in elliptical curves up to the attic. It is lit by small clerestory windows at the peak of the roof.

    image

    The symmetry continues as you walk through the spacious entry hall to double parlors with French doors opening to the garden. They are mirror images of each other with all the formal pomp and grace of a period neoclassical sitting room.

    image

    image

    Note the door and window pediments enriched with spread eagle and winged cupid carved details, as well as the creative use of quarter honeysuckle motifs to fill and create the corners of each pediment. The pilasters complete the classic Greek Revival vocabulary with acanthus and honeysuckle. The lustrous satin curtains of copper color and robin’s-egg blue repeat the colors in the reproduction Wilton carpet made in England after a period design.

    image

    The neoclassical lexicon continues throughout the parlors with the Empire furniture. Indeed, note the low relief carving on the fireplace corbels repeating that stylized honeysuckle.

    image

    “Although visitors often admire the deep plum color of the dining room, the original wall treatment awaits discovery. Maybe we will find a clue under a baseboard one day.” Margaret Adams Highland, Education Director and Curator.

    image

    The American Empire sideboard with its flamboyant carved details, richly figured mahogany and distinctive carved and turned legs enclosing the pair of column supports, is noteworthy.

    image

    image

    The “best bedroom” has the most celebrated piece of furniture in the house- a tester bed by Charles-Honoré Lannuier, a French-born American cabinetmaker (1779–1819) who lived and worked in New York City. It retains the original paper cabinet maker’s label and has been carefully restored with copies made of period drapery and hangings including the marvelous canopy.

    image

    image

    Lannuier married the French neoclassical esthetic with the New York vernacular as well as the English Regency influences, then prevalent in America.

    image

    Another bedroom incorporates chintz hangings on the American Empire four poster bed attributed to Duncan Phyfe.

    image

    Pelham Bay Park, now a stop on the subway, derives its name from Thomas Pell, first Lord of the Manor of Pelham whose nephew Sir John Pell is thought to have established a house on this picturesque site in about 1675. Pell descendent Robert Bartow and his wife Maria Lorillard built the grey ashlar stone home in 1836 thru 1842. In 1888, it was sold to the city. Many of New York’s most prominent families - Pell, Bartow, Leroy, Lorillard and Aaron Burr — were associated with the historic Bartow-Pell property. Mrs. Charles Frederick Hoffman leased it from the city in 1914 and founded the International Garden Club, Inc., an organization to promote horticulture-related activities and establish gardens. She then employed Delano and Aldrich to do the restoration and lay out the gardens which the public has enjoyed since 1946.

    Luckily, the house and setting maintain much of the original feeling of a country estate, while the interior with its spaciousness and elegance reveal the lifestyle of the prominent family who lived there.

    The property was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1977.

     

     
  4. Notes: 2

    In honor of Black Friday: Shelf Reading - “Black - The History of a Color”

    image

    Tamara de Lempicka, The Duchess of La Salle, 1925, featured in Black, The History of a Color, as an example of how black served as a symbol of modernity.

    Carlton Hobbs kindly gave me a copy of Black, The History of a Color by Michel Pastoureau. As the jacket announces:

    Black- favorite color of priests and penitents, artists and ascetics, fashion designers and fascists- has always stood for powerfully opposed ideas: authority and humility, sin and holiness, rebellion and conformity, wealth and poverty, good and bad.

    It is notable that this excellent and extensive social history says little about interiors design. This make sense, because save for the decorations for funerals and mourning, such as bunting and liturgical hangings, black is rarely used. 

    image

    Anne of Brittany, wife of both Charles VIII and Louis XII introduced black for mourning to the French court (previously Kings wore purple and Queens wore white). Above image, featured in Black - The History of a Color, Ardent Chapel for the heart of Anne of Brittany in the Church of the Carmelites of Nantes. Miniature from a manuscript of the Funérailles d’Anne de Bretagne, c. 1515. Paris, Bibliothèque Nationale de France.

    Perhaps black is rare in interiors because usually they are free of overt symbolism portending such things as sin and holiness. And also, I suggest, because large doses of black decor are hard to handle — to use the slang, they are a downer.   

    image

    Oatsie Charles

    There are exceptional black interiors. One that immediately comes to my mind is the black bedroom of the great twentieth century taste maker, Oatsie Charles. Black also adorns a bedroom in her Newport house. 

    Mrs. Charles was a longtime client of Dr. Erno Laszlo, the skin-care guru. Laszlo’s Fifth Avenue clinic was painted black with white trim. ”I told him I didn’t know whether his treatments really worked or not, but that everyone who came into these rooms immediately fell asleep, they were so restful,” recalls Mrs. Charles. So she painted her guest room accordingly, but cautions that straight black won’t do. Adding some purple, she explains, results in ”a three-dimensional quality.”

    (This quote along with the Lutyens hall and the Charleston dining room below were mentioned in a NY Times magazine article from 1999 by Pilar Viladas.)

    image

    Louise Nevelson in the living room of her Spring Street home, New York City, 1979. Photograph by Diana MacKown.

    A black Louise Nevelson interior briefly belonged to Cleopatra and Marston Fitch, the great architectural historians whom I house sat for in my twenties. In their caretaking instructions they relayed the tale of renting their summer house to this iconic but then little known artist. In the Fitches absence, she painted all the walls and furniture black turning the place into what we now call an installation. She failed to ask permission. They immediately reversed Nevelson’s artistic efforts, a decision coupled with her fame that they came to lament.

    Hence, for many reasons I use black sparingly in my decoration. In its place, such as for baseboards, doors, and furniture, I like to use dark grey as I find it more lively. For walls, as Mrs. Charles advises, I like the dark effect of other deep colors that might suggest black, and that allow for more nuanced reflections.

    image

    The entry hall of a house in Southampton where we applied grey to the baseboards.

    Black Friday is approaching. I suggest you all buy Mr. Pastoureau’s dark tome for holiday reading. Then, rent a house and paint it, with our advice of course, entirely the blackest aubergine.   

    image

    The double-height hall at ‘Folly Farm’, expanded by Sir Edwin Lutyens beginning in 1906 and again in 1912, was painted glossy black with white enamel trim and a Chinese red balcony (painted to match the cabinet below it).

    image

    image

    The dining room at Charleston, the artistic center of the Bloomsbury group, was covered in black wallpaper which was then stenciled with a grey and yellow design.

    image

    The interior of Albert Hadley’s Southport, Connecticut home.  My appreciation of dark walls, I am sure stems from my time with Albert Hadley.

    image

    A panel from the “Black Room”, Imperial Villa at Boscotrecase, last decade of 1st century BC, Augustan. A proof that nothing is new in decoration.

    image

    Miniature of the Queen of Sheba from a manuscript of the Bellifortis by Konrad Kyeser, early 15th century. Göttingen Niedersächsische Staats- und Universitätsbibliothek, one of the memorable images from Black - A History of a Color

     
  5. Notes: 3

    How to Use Draped Tables

    image

    Coronation Portraits of George III and Queen Charlotte, 1761, Allan Ramsay. Collection of Mint Museum, Charlotte, NC

    “I have a standing rule that limits their use to one or two per house. I call this the draped table quotient.”

    Recently, I came to the topic of draped tables via a  meeting of the Metropolitan Museum’s Friends of the American Wing, and a presentation by Richard Hampton Jenrette about his penchant for collecting portraits, notably this great image of Alexander Hamilton. (This portrait was once the centerpiece of his investment firm’s collection and is now shared with the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and Alice Walton’s Crystal Bridges Museum in Arkansas.) As he discussed the paintings in the new galleries dedicated to early portraits, I was reminded, as I suppose only a decorator and decorative arts historian could, about the role of fabric in every one of the images and, in the painting of Hamilton, the use of draped tables.

    image

    Alexander Hamilton, John Trumbull, 1792.

    Historically, great textiles not only demonstrated painterly virtuoso, but also wealth. Most any type of cloth before the Industrial Revolution was expensive and often textiles were the most valuable goods one could own. They were  many times more valuable than gold and silver. Hene, draped tables appear as luxurious props in early portraits from the august royal to aspiring bourgeoisie.

    image

    Antoine-Laurent Lavoisier (1743-1794) and His Wife (Marie-Anne-Pierette Paulze, 1758-1836), Jacques Louis David (French, Paris, 1748-1825, Brussels), 1788, Metropolitan Museum of Art

    image

    Portrait of Nicholas Boyleston, 1767,John Singleton Copley (1738-1815), Harvard University Portrait Collection

    Today draped tables have a poor reputation because they are sometimes used to stand in when a another piece of furniture would be better, or, as we politely say, is waiting “to be selected.”  However, draped tables are best purposefully employed, not out of default, but to add balance to an interior by their introduction of fabric and soft contrast within a mix of other furnishings.

    I find they are especially useful in rooms that do not have curtains as they soften the appearance of a space. Draped tables, with their weight and mass, also unify the appearance of a room with a preponderance of chair and table legs. They can also help to dull an acoustic echo in a room.

    In any case, I still suggest using draped tables sparingly. I have a standing rule that limits their use to one or two per house. I call this the draped table quotient. Indeed, their wider use might tip their appearance into the category of cheap fall back.  

    Sometimes, as illustrated in early portraits, it is helpful to make draped tables with luxurious materials such as velvets, brocades, rich prints, embroidery or fine passementerie. This grandeur proves that their use in a room is intentional and of course, upgrades its appearance. Even the smallest tablecloths consume large yardages, which multiplied by the cost of expensive goods can soon escalate into thousands of dollars.   

    In more chaste circumstances, I usually make simpler tablecloths.

    image

    Fine looking cloths can be made from handsomely colored plain woven wools and linens and the strategic use of modest trims. For example, in our apartment in New Orleans, I chose a red linen with a simple brown grosgrain ribbon.   

    image

    In the library/media room of an Upper West Side apartment, we draped the console with a pleated cover for a tailored effect, as well as to hide the tv equipment.

    image

    In Julia Reed’s New Orleans Sun Room there is a draped table with bullion fringe, which because of its weight and flexibility, is an ideal detail for draped tablecloths.   

    image

    For a brownstone I worked on in Carnegie Hill in New York City, I chose wool and Penn and Fletcher embroidered it with a reticulated band.

    image

    Blue Drawing Room, Chatsworth House, Devonshire

    One of my favorite examples of a draped table in a historic interior is a room decorated by the Dowager Duchess of Devonshire at Chatsworth. I visited soon after their great Poussin was sold for death duties, creating a massive void in their Drawing Room. Her grace filled this gap with their triple Sargent portrait, the Acheson Sisters. She arranged it with a draped table—certainly an intentional choice— with their vast ducal collection of important decorative arts demonstrating that the strategic use of this form can improve even the finest of rooms.  

    “How To” along with “House of Details” will be another frequent post on Decoration-Ancient and Modern. Several readers have encouraged more discussion of the hows and whys of traditional decoration.