Saturday, January 22, 2011

Britwell House: David Hick's Country House

2010 was a banner year for huge coffee table tomes about famous and influential decorators: Billy Baldwin, Mark Hampton, Madeleine Castaing, Syrie Maugham each got comprehensive coverage and in The Great Lady Decorators, we get a lavishly illustrated treatment of the cream of the 20th century's crop.

But I'm reading and studying David Hicks: A Life of Design written by his son, Ashley, and released in 2009. Part family history and biography and in-depth exploration of his father's design work for himself and others, this is a superbly written account of a fascinating personality. In an odd way you never feel quite close to the real David Hicks throughout but you can't wait to see and hear what he will do next. The persona and the work are everything here: the person is composed of these two elements, so a portrait of Hicks is really achieved by examining his life's work and the very public life he led. Reviewers may cavil at his snobbery, publicity-seeking, and social-climbing but these are beside the point. He had genius and his genius clears the slate.

His son has wisely taken an amused stance on his father's personal shortcomings by never directly addressing them.  A book such as this would be spoiled entirely by some dry assessment of character. Ashley Hicks has managed to satisfy the reader's curiosity about the man while offering a complete retrospective of his design work, including extensive coverage of Hicks' many homes, London apartments and shops.
Britwell House, 1728.

Overview of Britwell House and garden. Hicks dug a canal and
added the lime walk bordering it. You can see the canal at left
in the aerial photograph.
Hick's reason for digging the canal was not merely decorative.
He claimed such a large house needed a water supply in
case of fire.

Britwell House in Oxfordshire functioned as Hicks' family home, a laboratory for design ideas, and inspiration for the evolution of his style. Purchased shortly after his marriage to Pamela Mountbatten, daughter of India's last Viceroy, Britwell was built in 1728, an early Georgian style brick mansion with early 20th century wing additions. The main features of the historic main structure are described in British Listed Buildings .

Hicks transformed the interior by emphasizing its eighteenth century features while adding his color sense, a mix of antiques inherited by his wife, and contemporary design elements to strengthen the overall grand sweep of the rooms. The house and its contents were sold in 1979 when the tax burden and upkeep were too costly for the couple to sustain. Hicks had many other homes and haunts but Britwell was his home base and inspiration for much of his long career. Fortunately, Hicks ensured his design work was documented extensively and this affectionate portrait by his son is a fine retrospective tribute to a 20th century genius.

Hicks' library at Britwell with his signature geometric patterned
carpet, black walls and black-bordered Roman shade supported
by rich red tones of leather book bindings, desk chair, and
red leather chair cushion.

Hicks created one of his famous tablescapes
using his own posessions for the cover  of
Sotheby's sale catalog.

Front Drive with column. Britwell is now a wedding venue;
 hence the bride and groom.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Adaptive Re-use: Bar Cabinet

All species have to adapt to survive. This is true of furniture as well as human beings. When we moved into our house eight years ago, my partner had a lot of inherited furniture that he had gone to great expense to refinish and care for over the years. One tricky problem was that he had two dining room sets, one from each grandmother. We ended up using almost all of the pieces in these sets but this post is about one particular item and how it evolved into a useful and functional part of our lives.
One of the dining room sets dates from the early 1900s;  the style is very old-fashioned William and Mary with baroque stretchers and elaborate carving. It's a good thing he had it all refinished as it's not to my personal taste at all, but the refinishing exposed beautiful wood and inlay.

Early 20th century reproductions prior to the 1930s often copied William and Mary pieces and usually added a lot of imaginary detail with little relation to the historical period. A entire room furnished in this style would feel heavy, overdone, and antiquated. I wasn't sure we could use any of this stuff in the new house. I argued against it even before it arrived from storage on moving day. The only piece I had my eye on was a large two-door cabinet meant for china display in a dining room.  We had selected his other grandmother's set for our dining room, so this china cabinet was up for grabs. He wanted to use it for china and place it in the center hall near the doorway into the dining room. I argued that it was over-scaled for the hall and would look terrible right inside the door, basically stopping traffic whenever anyone entered through the front door. We already had a huge china cabinet, a server and sideboard stuffed with china in the dining room proper. The rest of the china could go into a large basement cupboard. I had another idea.
We like to entertain, we like cocktails, and we are both very good bartenders who enjoy making classic and vintage drink recipes. We have a lot of glassware and bar paraphernalia. What better use to make of the tall standing cabinet than as a home bar? I wasn't crazy about the idea of actually keeping the liquor in the cabinet. I wanted it equipped with all the specialty cocktail glasses we had collected, bar tools, stirrers, shakers, trays, cracker holders, all the serverware needed for cocktails and hors d'oeuvres we would be serving in the living room. I also knew the living room needed a tall case good piece on the far wall to balance out another tall cabinet-desk across the room that contained my partner's collection of porcelain and ceramic figurines and some prized books.
After some initial resistance, my partner saw the light and has been very pleased with our bar cabinet ever since. Guests always peer inside curiously when we open it to take out the cocktail glasses and men always wax enthusiastic when they see it. What do you think?
Bar cabinet at right. A large ottoman used as a cocktail table sits
between the two loveseats and the fireplace (not pictured)

The heavy scrollwork and ornate
stretchers and baroque hardware make a
strong statement.

The base liquors are in decanters on a table by a window.
The cabinet stores glassware, cocktail shakers, some liqueurs,
vermouths, and bitters.

Another view of cocktails shakers, glassware, and
bar tools

Specialty glassware for Manhattans, sours, martinis, sherry, liqueurs
Lesson learned: The cabinet adapted to our way of life and earned its keep in a very prominent place in our home. I learned to get over my initial dislike of the entire William and Mary style and appreciate the strong statement this very personal piece makes and found a way to love it. My partner always appreciated it but more so now that it plays a big role in our everyday lives. A decorating win-win for all concerned.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Cigarettes and tablesettings

Forget your political correctness for a moment. I am a non-smoker; in fact, I never learned to properly inhale so I literally cannot smoke, even if I wanted to.  Having confessed this much, I also don't object to guests who want to enjoy a cigarette with cocktails or after dinner. I don't banish them from the house for this purpose. It's rude. Don't argue with me about it and don't rush in with warnings of the danger of second-hand smoke inhalation. I know all about it; I don't deny it's validity. I just can't be rude to guests.
So if I die from it, it's my business. This is all by way of preface to my actual topic which is smoking at table.
Smoking at table was as common as smoking everywhere else was the norm (at the office, in hospitals, etc.) up until the mid 1980s when anti-smoking campaigns turned ugly and cutthroat.  I have memories of people in restaurants smoking throughout their meal while some elected to wait until that moment of rest between the meal proper and dessert. I have noted in vintage etiquette books that smoking during dinner was frowned upon in private homes where you were an invited guest. The consensus seems to be that the classic moment for cigarettes was before dessert was served as this was a natural time let your food settle and relax before the sweet was brought on. So how did hostesses provide for their smoking guests when entertaining ?
I collect every vintage book I can find about table setting. There is an extraordinary abundance of such titles published between 1940 and 1969 as these were the earliest books about entertaining, lavishly illustrated with photographs and exhaustive coverage of how to lay the table from cloth to china, napery, flatware, floral arrangements and even decorative objects artistically placed to give your dinner, luncheon, or buffet a theme.

Most of those titles I own do not discuss or show a table setting with smoking articles. The one exception that proves the rule is the classic Tiffany Table Settings (1960) which reveals an obsession with finding creative ways to provide the smokes and the igniters at table.  This book deserves its own blog to analyze its contents, it teachings, its thinly-veiled snobbery and it's self-serving merchandising but I have no quarrel with those aspects of this work. This post is to bring back a moment in history when the socially ambitious hostess aspired to entertain in the same manner as the elite society dames whose ideas are purveyed in this work. And Tiffany was selling a concept where the table not only boasted of fine china and cutlery but decorative objects that Tiffany could sell also graced your table. This included all manner of high-end containers for cigarettes and matches or table lighters. See for yourself.
Vermeil cup holding cigarettes.  The shell salt cellars must be intended
for ashtrays since there is a sterling salt and pepper set by the centerpiece.

Another Sterling cup and saucer for the smokes. The rhinoceros figurines
were a Tiffany exclusive. Throughout the book they promote their
commissioned animal figurine collection by an Italian artist, specially
designed for "table decorations and centerpiece themes" but to "fit in with
equal ease into any part of the decor of the home."

Here the shell salt cellar holds the cigarettes with a table ligter discretely
tucked behind

Mrs. J. Gordon Douglas uses her 18th century table ornaments, including
"a pair of sterling wine-tasters, doubling as ashtrays."

Understated modern crystal bowls for the smokes in a Baroque setting with
Capo di Monte porcelain centerpiece. 

"Yellow daisies ...mixed with cigarettes in black basalt
demitasse cups provide the perfect decorative accent."

Unbridled genius! Note the sterling porringers used for ashtrays and jiggers
to contain the cigarettes.

Plain undecorated crystal for the cigarette urns and ashtrays. A perfectly
simple Summer Table (of course, the crystal is Tiffany)

Friday, January 14, 2011

Guilty Pleasure: Hotel 1967

 We go to the movies about every 8 years or so when something worth venturing out and sitting in a crowd of Nacho-eating, cell phone barking contemporaries coaxes us out of our sleeping beauty hibernation. We saw "The King's Speech" a few weeks ago when my partner was in town for the holidays and loved it. Of course we did; it's a throwback to an era that is dead as a doornail. And no patrons that night at the Tara Theatre in Atlanta had nachos! An enchanting evening for us, indeed!
But the point of this post is I'm kicking off a new feature here called "guilty pleasure" because even though I know the stuff I'm presenting is culturally suspect or even verging on camp, it's a nice category to plug my taste for over the top excess. Watching a film like 1967's Hotel with Merle Oberon, Michael Rennie, Karl Malden, Rod Taylor, Melvyn Douglas and onscreen appearance by the immortal jazz singer Carmen McRae deserves its own place here. It satisfies a craving for the look and feel of the early 1960s with its decor, costume, jewelry, hairstyles and, an added bonus, takes place in glamorous New Orleans hotel in the late 1960s before everything went south in the worst sense. Better yet,  my old VHS verison of this flic is now on Turner Classic Movie's archival on-demand dvd list and I bought a widescreen version on DVD where I will finally get to see the director's cut instead of the pan and scan hatchet job on the VHS. Film fans, rejoice. The first all-star disaster pic of the era, HOTEL, 1967, directed by Richard Quine. 
All Star Extravaganza 1967-style

Lots of between the sheets
scenes in this ad
Catherine Spaak. European. Divine. Sexy and 60s chic. 

She's corporate Raider, Kevin McCarthy's mistress and has her
own bedroom in their suite but she's into hotel manager, Rod
Taylor and doesn't want him to sell out to her boyfriend.

Hats, gloves, jackets. jewels, the works. 

So she's all buttoned-up in this scene (Chanel or Dior?)
but in just a few screen moments she will shed all the
couture wrappings.

He's her guy, even though he's not. After an innocent lunch
in the French quarter she asks to see his apartment.
He obliges and the haute couture outfit comes off in a flash.
That's sixtie's romance, folks! And how great is that?
Merle Oberon plays the Duchess, paired with Michael
Rennie's Duke. He's up for some ambassadorial
post in Washington but he's run over some poor
kid in a hit and run and the Duchess is spinning
fast to make it good and get his car fixed and driven
to DC by Richard Conte for a chunk of cash.

Phone fight! The Duchess is stopping the Duke from reporting
his hit and run so they can move on and get back to a fabulous
life of schmoozing on the British government payroll.
They are impersonating the Duke and Duchess of Windsor. The
plot may be thin but the impersonations are dead-on. Go Merle, Go!

That necklace is the real star and Merle Oberon knows it!

A Class Act, all the way around. Forget the Royal Suite and
the couture gown. The Jewellry says it all!
Richard Conte is Chief of Security for the Hotel St. Gregory,
New Orleans. Rod Taylor, Hotel Manager, hates his
guts but has to deal.  Conte is shielding the Duke and Duchess
on the hit and run charge for a payoff.

Here's the payoff promise. Duchess sneaks off to a louche
French Quarter backstreet to meet her "Security Chief"
and bribe him with fifty grand to get that damn car
out of town and into DC for them before the Duke
gets busted.
Check out her big shades and the baby blue pillbox hat
and matching tailored outfit. You have to see Merle's wardrobe
and hair to believe it.
Why did I call it a disaster flic? Well, the glamorous St. Gregoy
Hotel needs to have it's elevators inspected more often. Cant' spoil
the ending but it's a tearjerker, par excellence!  That's Karl
Malden as a comic hotel thief who never gets a big take
until he grabs the Duke's briefcase!

OK, I warned you. I said it was guilty pleasure. Try it and see if you don't OD on the over the top excess of it all.
TCM's Warner Bros. Archive release on DVD

Rosemaling -- Norwegian hand-painted decorative motifs

My mother married an Iowan of Norwegian descent some years ago. He is second generation so he inherited a lot of Norwegian lore and lifestyle. They live in Florida but her husband often wears Norwegian sweaters and they possess a large collection of Norwegian arts and crafts. One object of theirs I have always lusted after is a large wooden Rosemaling tray that rests on the their huge square glass coffee table. The tray is also of grand proportions and they have books and magazines stacked inside. The design is a traditional hand-painted floral motif.  The real thing from Norway can be incredibly expensive as this is a traditional folk art and its rare to find older examples. Modern artists continue the tradition but a real old-style Rosemaling object is something to treasure.
Right after moving to Atlanta I scoured all the great antique and collectible spots around town for decorative objects for the apartment. I brought a long coffee table I had bought in Houston in 2000 which we had never used in the NJ Colonial house. It was in the attic used as support for bins containing Christmas decorations. I love the table. It's an authentic handmade Mexican table which I'll feature in another post. Since I brought a long Ethan Allen upholstered sofa for the apartment living room this long Mexcian table was paired with the same sofa when I had an apartment in Houston.  Long story short. The table is so huge I needed a focal point and thought of a tray large enough to hold cocktail napkins, paper coasters and the media remotes for the television as my sofa faces the TV.  I found the perfect tray almost as soon as I knew I needed one. It was at a great Atlanta consignment store (saving that for later post as well). The minute I spotted it I knew it was mine. It was a generous 13 x 18 inches with a 2 inch border with delicate oval cuts in the sides for handles. The colors were just right to contrast with my medium-brown stained table. The decorative motif was centered on the tray. In the center, symmetrical petals bloomed surrounded by the most delicate leaves and tendrils that resemble teardrops. What's really special about this motif are the two prominent tulip-shaped unopened buds that appear to be carvings instead of painting, giving the design very three-dimensional effect.

I like to  think my wooden tray is an example of Norwegian Rosemaling; the technique is used in many Scandinavian countries but differs in emphasis depending on where its made. I'm no expert and folk art is not usually my preference for decorative arts, but I know have a Rosemaling tray facing me every day on my coffee table. I don't have to envy Mom's anymore.

Contrast with dark stain of the coffee table

I love the tray's shape and creamy background color

The pink unopened tulip bulb looks sculptural with a 3-D illusion
 when seen from above or a little distance.

This Rosemaling motif has more delicacy than most
due to the large area devoted to tendrils and leaves
rotating away from the central floral pattern

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Marjorie M. Post Entertains at Hillwood Estate in DC

Thanks to Life Magazine archive for the story on the Kellog-Post heiress and her entertaining backstory as revealed in the following extracts.  We visited Hillwood on our second DC trip. Hillwood is an experience not to be missed.  We honestly didn't care about all Mrs. M-P's Romanov treasures and antique European furniture. We ignored the museum aspects of the place and focused on the de luxe lifestyle implications of the joint. Translation: we were more entranced with her baby pink dressing room and hatboxes lining the shelves, her fabulous kitchen and pantry which combined are as large as one of today's McMansions.  As often in our visits to house museums, we were fascinated by how the homes were run and how the inhabitants lived in them.
Hillwood's South Portico where you have a great
view of the Washington Monument from above
instead of below the way most people have to
view it :)

The grand old dame herself. Aged 76 years
and still ticking (off the gardener, probably)

Party preparations with supervison

No great lady ever delegates the final
table inspection before entertaining

Contemporary view of the pantry. Polishing up the gilt plate.

From the Desk of ...

Being a literature major and voracious reader of lit and litcrit I have a natural fascination with the working methods of writers, famous or not. Tie this in with my passion for historic home visits and interior design I can't even count how many writer's homes and haunts I have toured and researched. So it's natural that I show my current and temporary workspace. I can't dignify it with terms such as library or study. In October I had to move to Atlanta, rent an apartment near my new job and begin the waiting game for selling our NJ home and having my partner rejoin me down here to househunt and get out of this human cage (read apartment complex).
I managed to bring my desk,  desk chair with its charming chair pad and a few of my favorite things. Let's take a look
My 1940s desk

Silverplate Deco notepad (engraving photoshopped out)

Beloved desk chair and pad 

Julep cup for pens & stamps, favorite photos & cards, and 2010
Christmas shadow box from my partner

Reading Glass holder (gift from Ptnr), partner's childhood photo and

Writer's House no. 1: Tennessee Williams in Key West
photo taken by me back in 1988
I have a postcard of a writer's desk on my desk. Wheels
within wheels? This is Vita Sackville-West's writing
desk at Sissinghurst, in a Tower room at her famous
garden in Kent. I was there in 1997: writer's house no. 2
original tapestry fabric on chair with tie-on chair pad lifted up

I love my chair pad. I bought this for a quarter at one of Martha
Stewart tag sales at my former company

I said I was obsessed! I'm trying to show the great green/yellow
highlights in this fabric and the piping and ties. It's the
perfect chair pad and I don't know where anything
like it could be bought. It may have been made from
scratch for an MSO photo shoot

I like reverse views. Here's my workroom seen from
my living room

From the opposite angle

I love this wastebasket. The striped interior
is in immaculate condition and the exterior
is vivid red with Roman coins. A classic
vintage find

From the Desk of ... Our House Blog