Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Winterthur, Part Two

So, on Friday I attended Winterthur's "Chic It Up!" design conference. Was I inclined to enjoy it because the word "chic" appeared in the title? Perhaps a little. But how could an entire day focused on 1940s design not be fantastic?

When Winterthur was organizing this event, there was discussion as to whether the 1940s had a distinctive style. After hearing the lectures, it seems that much of 1940s design was an extension of the previous decade. World War II played a great role in redefining design. The high style and sophistication of the 1930s fell out of favor as the realities of war set in. And of course after the war, the wealthy found themselves facing a far different society than that from before.

The day began with Pauline Metcalf's lecture on Syrie Maugham. Many of you may recognize Metcalf's name from her book on Ogden Codman; her upcoming book, due to be published next year, is on... Syrie Maugham. Thank goodness she's writing this book! I for one can't get enough of Syrie. Metcalf discussed Syrie's famous white drawing room on Kings Road, seen above. And while we may remember her most for this one room, Maugham's range did include color and non-pickled furniture. While Metcalf conceded that Maugham's heyday was more of the 1930s, she did note that Maugham continued with her design business well into the 1940s. What I found quite interesting were the photos that Cecil Beaton shot of bright young females posing in Syrie's famous room. The space's ramped up glamour was the perfect backdrop for Beaton's chic photographs, like this one of his sister Baba:

Metcalf mentioned that the mirrored screen, quite novel for the time, was a bit dangerous. When the drawing room got warm, the slivers of mirror would pop off and crash to the floor!

Another favorite decorator was also discussed: Dorothy Draper. Donald Albrecht of the Museum of the City of New York certainly knows a thing or two about Draper- it was he who curated the recent exhibition on Ms. Draper. Of course we all know that in Draper's hands, hotels, restaurants, and other public spaces were given the steroid treatment- furniture was large, colors were bold, and statements were made. (Albrecht humorously mentioned The Camellia House at Chicago's Drake Hotel, seen above. The dining room and entryway were supposed to be make one feel as if he or she was in a tropical garden...in the middle of windy Chicago. Albrecht admits it seems a bit implausable. I have a feeling Dorothy probably thought "Well, why not? Get over your will to be dreary!") He also explained that Draper's career hit its peak in 1948 with her decoration of the Greenbrier. Before she was hired for the redo, the Greenbrier was meek and mild mannered. After being Draperized, however, it had more than its share of personality.

There were so many great lectures so it's hard for me to summarize all of them in one post. But just to throw out a few more names- Chick Austin, J.A. Lloyd Hyde, Thomas Waterman, and H. Rodney Sharp were also subjects of discussion. I hope to write posts on them in the future. Oh, I want to leave you with a very fun clip that Albrecht showed to the audience. It's a dance number from the 1940s Fred Astaire movie "Yolanda and The Thief". (And I thought that I knew my Fred Astaire movies! This was a new one to me.) The movie was a box office bomb, but the sets and dance numbers are so evocative of 1930s/40s high style. And Albrecht was right- the dance floor is so very Dorothy Draper!

(Beaton photograph from the Cecil Beaton Photo Archive; Greenbrier image from Winterthur)


  1. how wonderful you got to hear them speak -wish I had been there!
    This isn't one of Astaire's best movies -as you can see - but those floors are fabulous! I have a cheapo $1 dvd of the whole film -you can see why it's not in wide publication!

  2. Sounds like a wonderful trip - and, yes, how could one go wrong with a name like, "Chic it Up"?

  3. In my opinion, the 30s and the 40s were the "Golden Age" of classic high style. I look forward to reading more of your musings about this wonderful period in history.


  4. Classic elegant taste in that era! I miss seeing women dress fashionably for lunch and dinner etc. I think the world need more style. Going to church with clothes that look like you were just out gardening makes me cringe.

  5. What a great mix of design looks-How contrasting Syrie Maugham & Draper. Could not be more opposed-That would be an interesting topic! Love the clip- One of the best things about these films is the fantastic sets. Great posts-both of Winterthur. Had a friend email me you Part I post-saying We've got to go! la

  6. This post is such a delight to read. I envy & applaud you for meeting all these individual...Who could speak with great knowledge of this "glam era!" AKA as 'chic'(wink). The video was wonderful.

  7. Drimble Wedge12:05 PM

    I was fascinated to learn the story of Yolanda and the Thief from Winterthur's splendid historian Maggie Lidz. Evidently, the 1945 film lost almost $1.7 million at the box office, ended the career of its leading lady and almost put Fred Astaire out of the movies, all because its whimsical tale of a South American girl in search of her guardian angel was just too different for '40s audiences. Conceived as a surrealistic musical, complete with a 16-minute dream ballet modeled on the work of Salvador Dali and Jean Cocteau, Yolanda and the Thief was decades ahead of its time stylistically. The whimsical production was a natural for Vincente Minnelli, the most visually minded of MGM's musical directors. Astaire, who had just worked with Minnelli on the studio's all-star musical revue Ziegfeld Follies (1946) was a natural for the con man -- what other dancer could possibly be mistaken for an angel? Minnelli's wife, Judy Garland, wanted the female lead, hoping for another chance to work with her husband, but Freed wanted this to be more of a dancer's musical and cast his protege, Lucille Bremer. Bremer had scored as Garland's older sister in Meet Me in St. Louis (1944), then had been a solid dancing partner for Astaire in Ziegfeld Follies. And there may have been another reason for the casting: she was strongly rumored to be romantically involved with Freed. Costume designer Irene Sharaff always seemed on the same wavelength with Minnelli. They modeled the film's opening sequence, set in a convent, on Bemelmans' own paintings, particularly his illustrations for Madeline. For one of the film's two musical highlights, "Coffee Time," she developed a stylized fusion of costumes and decor. She had already created a set of coffee-colored costumes for the scene's extras. To set the costumes off, she created a design of undulating black and white lines for the floor (see clip). She even got down on her hands and knees to sketch them out for the studio painters. The choreographer came up with the idea for the film's 16-minute dream ballet, in which Astaire struggles through the conflict between his attraction to Yolanda and his plan to steal her fortune. Minnelli suggested using landscapes in the style of Salvador Dali, while Loring contributed the idea of having Astaire surrounded by washerwomen who tangle him in the bed sheets they're cleaning. He would later say he got the idea from the laundry scene in Jean Cocteau's classic Beauty and the Beast. Making the dream a reality posed some problems, however. Sharaff wanted Bremer's costume for the number to combine seashells molded to her torso with a scarf lined with coins. But once they glued the shells to Bremer's rather ample bosom, she looked as if she had elephantiasis, and even the lightest plastic coins made her sound like a speeding garbage truck. Instead, Sharaff had to settle for a stole with gold sequins. For Bremer's first appearance in the dream, Minnelli wanted her to rise out of a pool with scarves billowing around her. To get the right effect, he had to have an air hose wired to her stand-in's back, then shoot the sequence in reverse. But this also required Astaire to enter the scene walking backwards while looking as though he were walking forwards. And just to make matters worse, he had to angle his approach (retreat?) so the camera wouldn't pick up the air hose. After numerous ruined takes, Astaire blew up and screamed, "I am a very slow learner. Take the goddamn camera, and just shoot it!"

  8. Drimble- Fascinating! What struck me most (other than that undulating floor, of course) were the costumes. The unexpected dash of color against the brown costumes and that graphic floor was genius. And if Astaire had difficulty with that particular scene, then really, who could have mastered it? It all reminds me of that other Minnelli/Astaire movie, "Band Wagon", in which the production of Faust was a complete disaster!

  9. Wonderful Blog; I saw the exhibition on Drapper in NYC several years ago, it was great. The idea of creating a building within a building is interesting concept.

  10. Thanks, Drimble. That was a fascinating account of the behind the scenes of YOLANDA. I would love to know where this information appears. FYI, Astaire also blew up at Minnelli during BAND WAGON, and walked off the set. Minnelli was often a difficult person on the set and very indecisive. This sometimes drove the actors crazy.