Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Rose Cumming and an Ode to the Eccentrics





A few weeks ago I lamented the dearth of true and passionate collectors. In that same vein, I've decided to write about the vanishing eccentric. Whatever happened to those individuals who were bizarre, squirrely, or downright kooky? Of course, where I come from we have our fair share of eccentrics, and they hold a special place in our hearts. After all, they make for good story telling during family affairs. But sadly they are a dying breed.

And in the design world, was there anyone more eccentric than Rose Cumming? Stories abound about this force of nature. First, there was her unusual appearance. A powder puff mass of blue hair was the first clue that this woman was no shrinking violet (or perhaps I should say shrinking periwinkle). In
Legendary Decorators of the Twentieth Century, Mark Hampton wrote of the time that Cumming attended a party at Sister Parish's home wearing a very long bright green crepe dress that was cinched around her waist with a gold tieback. And in her hair were plastic fern fronds! That's certainly a look I could not pull off, but I admire the effort nonetheless.

In terms of her work as a decorator, Cumming's look was hard to define. In the book
The Finest Rooms, Cumming wrote that she liked Gothic, Chippendale, Austrian Baroque, and early Victorian, just to name a few of the periods she admired. She loved "lush things", birdcages, silk fabrics, and pure color. Her dislikes were as extensive as her likes: faux beams on ceilings; figural wallpaper (unless it was a silver paper or old Chinese); and coffee tables. Oh, and wall to wall carpeting too, unless it was in a bedroom or on a staircase. When Cumming decorated a room, she tended to throw a lot of her likes into a room, making it a melting pot of styles. But in a weird way it seemed to work. Many times her work was quite beautiful, and at the very least it was unforgettable. In his book, Hampton did a wonderful job at describing this enigmatic figure. He remarked that "her version of reality was not like anyone else's". I think that would describe most noncomformists. They certainly march to the beat of their own drummers, but they also possess the courage of their convictions. Perhaps there is something that can be learned from Cumming and her ilk, plastic fern fronds and all.




I first saw these images around ten years ago, and I've never forgotten them. This sitting room was in Cumming's brownstone in New York. Cumming chose to use macabre objects in this room, supposedly as a "reaction against the usual conception of prettiness in decorating." Note the Audubon prints above the sofa that represent animals of prey. The fireplace was adorned with plates of snakes. The unusual curtains were really Indian saris. And what about that unusual lampshade? It's an Indonesian parasol. It's all rather bizarre... but quite interesting too.


Cumming's bedroom was evocative of the 1920s. The curtains are blue lame, which in this room actually works against the backdrop of blue-mauve metallic wallpaper. The 18th century Persian child's bed was used as a low table. Hampton wrote that
Cumming preferred to show her home at night. Can you just imagine what this room must have looked like, especially if it was lit by candlelight?


Cumming could also decorate rooms that were down right gorgeous. I am so smitten with this room, especially that black wallpaper with the gold stars. This room was in Cumming's home circa 1929.

Images at top: A young Rose Cumming in her drawing room circa 1930. An older Cumming appeared in a Harper's Bazaar article in July 1964. Here Rose was photographed in her legendary shop. Thank you to a very kind reader for providing me with these two images.

29 comments:

  1. Jennifer -- I agree completely about vanishing eccentrics!

    So, would you says Cumming beats Castaing in this category? Sounds like she does but I wondered about your thoughts.

    Excellent post.

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  2. Courtney- That's a good question. I might say that Cumming was a bit more eccentric than Castaing, but I'm sure there are those who would disagree with me!

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  3. Just Lovely....very, very chic that Rose!

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  4. Anonymous9:45 AM

    "The vanishing, squirrely eccentric" which, precisely is the #2 reason our dear, lovely lifetime friend 'Chel, from Newport RI, is top on our family hit parade (reason #1 being we just plain LIKE her).

    We're fortunate to have collected a few of these most rare, wonderful types along our way - if you are lucky enough to come across these treasures, never let them go.....they are what life is about.
    A Wisconsin fan

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  5. Mimilee- I agree, and she had the personality to pull off her look and the looks of her rooms too!

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  6. Anon- Here, here! Well said. They're becoming a rare breed.

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  7. We had a great aunt like that. Very interesting woman, one of the first female pilots, married to an opera singer for a while, huge old family place on a lake in New Hampshire, but wacky as all get out. She used to wear gobs of jewelry and flowing gowns, blatently re-gifted things, even giving back things you'd given, drank like a fish, but was tons of fun and sweet as pie. And loaded, too!

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  8. Meg- She sounded divine! Now that's a relative. I love the regifting thing. That's too funny.

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  9. I adore eccentrics and their style - it is what makes the world go round and certainly what makes interiors interesting.

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  10. Anonymous10:35 AM

    The new American-theme issue of World of Interiors has a lavish ode to Rose Cumming. And Jeffrey Simpson of Architectural Digest is writing a book about her.

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  11. Anon- Thank you for this information. I'll swing by my bookstore to pick up the new copy of WoI. Great news too about Simpson's book.

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  12. I have always loved women with big personalities. I adore Cumming's rooms because they are so personal.

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  13. I never met Miss Cumming but when I finally worked up the nerve to cross the threshold of that shop a parallel universe revealed itself. Marvels abounded. Her sister Eileen Cecil once told me a delightful story of a time when Rose Cumming
    commissioned an artist to paint her bathtub, inside and out, to resemble lapis lazuli. A grand success, until the actual moment that Rose decided to have a bath in it.

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  14. What a wonderful post! I loooove the third picture. The pop of lavender is wonderful. I like the layered, eccentric, well-traveled look. It is a REAL reflection of a person's life and not just a phony set that is so popular in today's decorating.

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  15. Anonymous1:09 PM

    I agree with you! And our inner eccentric is under constant threat from the political correct police, medication, and the color beige. KDM

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  16. This is quite a post! It reminds my of my aunt who, growing up, was an intensely artistic, creative, and introverted person, but boy did she have an eye for unique things. My grandparents built her a room to create and store the pieces she painted. I don't remember much about her paintings, but the room... the most beautiful black and white checkerboard marble flooring.

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  17. Truly a shame that eccentrics are becoming such a rare breed. I love these images of Rose Cummings' interiors and think that Madeleine Castaing might be her match in terms of eccentricity. It seems true originality can only stem from an eccentric personality. Thank you Jennifer for this wonderful and informative post!

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  18. Well I'm glad to know that there are so many others who admire eccentrics and eccentric design! May not be so easy to live with, but the interiors make for interesting viewing!

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  19. Amy F2:13 PM

    My favorite estate sale ever was at the decaying house of a late eccentric. Imagine the Munsters' house...but real! The only light came from antique brass and iron sconces, no carpets, just dusty concrete and marble. Gorgeous French antiques, gilded and mildewed. Lovely old gloves and antique perfume bottles on the vanity. The ceiling had been ripped out, showing the roof beams. Water stains on the walls, along with chunks of plaster missing. And of course, the garden was an overgrown jungle. Loved, loved, loved it.

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  20. Amy- That home sounds divine. I'm sure just walking into it you knew you were going to find some wonderful things!

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  21. No one named any eccentric men? Surely there are a few of those, maybe even one or two who comment?

    Great history lesson - as usual!

    JOni

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  22. Anonymous8:11 PM

    Add Empire antiques and some Sheraton pieces, and that home sounds vaguely familar.

    I don't have children (nieces, nephews and surrogates), and I always imagine what will be said when I shuffle off this mortal coil. I do, however, have a needlepoint pillow stating the true fact that my other house is cleaner. Too bad I live in this one!

    Loved your post.

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  23. Joni- Eccentric men? There are lots of those! Duquette was rather eccentric. I'll keep thinking of others...

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  24. Anon- That is too funny! I always make my bed in the morning in case I meet my maker during the day- that way, no one will come in and say "She sure was messy, and she didn't make her bed!!!"

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  25. This was is a great post.
    Rose Cummings had so much daring!
    As an interior designer I am always pushing myself to try new ideas without worrying about the what others might think of it. Thank you for the reminder that self-editing because of fear can be the death of creativity.

    xo
    Brooke

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  26. CdeT:
    Even in his most normative moments Mario Praz (literary critic and tastemaking collector of Empire and Biedermier) must have been quite a character. Read "The House of Life," his autobiography mapped by his collection.

    http://www.museopraz.beniculturali.it/

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  27. Very interesting. Seems like there was a strong Victorian taste.

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  28. Oooooo, that third picture is SOOOOO pretty! I love all the colors and the vintage look! If I was to ever have a brownstone, I would want one of the rooms to look exactly like that! SO PRETTY! :D

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