Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Some Serious Curtains

See that photo above? A little grand, don't you think? And perhaps not the way we decorate today. But what amazes me is the skill and artistry that went into that bed's draperies. Those swags...stunning. The tassels and trim...terrific. Check out the printed lining of the bed curtain, the swags around the bottom of the bed, even the red table to the left that is upholstered in a red damask with a small tassel trim. Oh, and what about the bolsters on either end of the bed? All of the above took an amazing amount of skill and talent. Never mind the fact that you probably won't be decorating your bedroom with those swags and fringe trim. I understand that, and my home certainly doesn't have any of it either. But let's give credit where credit is due, and in this case it goes to Renzo Mongiardino. Only a deeply talented decorator could execute curtains like that, and I think most of us agree that Mongiardino was one of the best. In lesser hands, this room could have been ended up looking like Belle Watling's salon. Or perhaps that should be saloon.

What I find a little sad is that because the room above really isn't our aesthetic anymore, many designers never learn how to make Curtains- that's curtains with a capital "C". I'm not a designer, but I'm guilty of it as well. It's plain panels in my home. But just think of those wonderful creations by John Fowler. Now Fowler got curtains, but how many designers know how to design and fabricate curtains like his? I'm willing to bet not many.

This post certainly isn't an indictment of today's style of decorating nor today's designers. All I'm saying is that it's kind of a shame that curtain-making like what you see above is becoming a lost art. Perhaps we shouldn't be so quick to say no to the swag!

Blue taffeta and passementerie in the home of Princess Chavchavadze

At Waddesdon Manor, David Mlinaric used a Louis XVI engraving as inspiration for the silk taffeta draperies.

John Fowler was the genius behind these curtains in the drawing room at Cornbury Park. Look at the workmanship in the detail shot.

Keith Irvine...he knows curtains.

(Mongiardino photo from The Best in European Decoration; image #2 from Les Reussites De La Decoration Francaise 1950 1960: L'Interpretation Moderne Des Styles Traditionnels; #3 from Mlinaric on Decorating; Fowler photos from John Fowler: Prince of Decorators; Irvine photo from Keith Irvine: A Life in Decoration)


  1. I think the Brits are still doing curtains such as these but even there they are now beyond the price most people are willing to pay. The cost of the passementerie alone must be prohibitive. I think also, that such curtains are beyond many people's aesthetic - a reaction perhaps to the many, many examples of unsuitable curtains and draperies published in the 1980's.

  2. John Fowler's curtains were the best! Over the top gorgeous! And yes, the workmanship was difficult - true craftsmen made those curtains. Lots of hand sewing went into them. As a seamstress myself,I love fancy curtains - although they are not "in" right now. But they have to fit the room. Fun post!

  3. BTW, the king of curtains today is Miles Redd. He knows what he's doing!

  4. Fashion in curtains, like fashions in everything else come and go. I think the decorating world is still recovering from the 1980's when less experienced and less talented decorators everywhere installed massive, over elaborate "drapery" treatment with no sense of proportion or suitability. As your photos show, under surer hands, elaborate curtains can look wonderful and appropriate. Let's hope that when mid century furniture and minimalism give way and designers turn to more classic looks, there are still work rooms around talented enough to pull off curtains like the ones in the photos.

  5. Love the Keith Irvin room.
    I think that new designers have to cut expense somewhere, and this is where many choose to do so. Although these photos are a little much for many, I think leaving off the perfect draperies is a mistake.
    Love this post.

  6. I agree Jennifer! When I started doing design 10 or 12 years ago I did a lot of curtains like these above. People just seem to think they are formal and fussy in today's world, even in the most sophisticated settings. It makes me sad because the intricate work that my workroom is capable of is astounding. Hope you are well.

  7. I love soft swags and agree that there is no need for us all to completely give them up. Though I have to say I not a fan of the curtain monster. Always love Keith Irvine's choices.

  8. sewmuch15009:21 AM

    Although most people prefer simpler styles today, there are still plenty of us out there who have the ability and knowledge to fabricate beautiful treatments like the ones in this post. We are career professionals in the fabrication industry and belong to such industry organizations as Window Coverings Association of America, D&D Pro and Window Fashions Career Professional. And, there are some customers who still want these over the top treatments; just not as many as there once were. Simplicity is definitely the direction, for now, and there are many styles of treatments that can be fabricated that are simple but still stunning!

  9. I see the problem as the standardized 4x8 sheet of wallboard. That leads to lower ceilings, even in pretty fine homes. Swags are overwhelming when not in proportion with the vertical height, and lovely when in the right sort of space.

  10. I always enjoy your posts but this one especially. As a window coverings professional I really miss fabricating elaborate treatments. Thankfully, there are still talented workrooms that are members of the WCAA and stay current with techniques and styles.

  11. Anonymous10:05 AM

    take a look at robert kime's work. he does curtains!

  12. Draperies tend to go with fashion, even more than architecture. The swags and ruffles Fowler liked ultimately derived from 18th c. dresses. Sheer draperies with a big swag on top reflect post-Revolutionary "Grecian" fashion. And so on down the line. The English decorators who revived these styles were working with period architecture, so the pastiche worked. But we don't live like that or dress like that today. So draperies are much simpler than they used to be, although the materials an be pretty rich.

    At any rate, the maintenance on these traditional draperies is ridiculous. Fowler's ruffles had pinked edges, not hemmed, which had to be trimmed with nail scissors when they raveled! I can't imagine doing that today, or asking a housekeeper to do it, either.

  13. I am in the camp of the cheese stands alone. I think it stands at the great drapery/curtain divide (which I think is rather silly to give a dead old lady that much power over my thinking). If I want to call window treatments drapes—after spending a year of making them interlined, lined, with hand-made pleats and thousands of dollars on fabric and trim—I'll call them what I please.

    I keep hearing that the house should tell you how to decorate. I say phooey. I live in a house built in 1968, in what I call lacks even a soupcon of grace. But the house inside me wants more. And so I give in to my inner house and create a space that nourishes my inner self. Yes, proportions are everything. But they are not limiting. At least not to me.

    When we see the work of someone like Renzo Mongiardino we know he never had to consult someone else regarding "what we right." That is the kind of designer/artist I want to see today: someone with the the brash sense of self and an unstoppable courage to create a soul-filled home that knows no bounds in terms of artistic expression and doesn't live in any particular time zone.

    I am getting down from my soapbox now...

  14. While it's not my aesthetic either (too fussy), I really do appreciate the artistry. That top photo is just amazing!
    Now,that last photo though is pretty fantastic, Keith Irvine. I love a good pelmet!

  15. I think that Mario Buatta (sp?) needs to be added to your list. Beautiful curtains in the right setting never really go out of style--but that '80s look with awful fabric in tasteless draping had to go. I will always love heavy lined linen draperies--just neat and full. This is a super post. Thank you.

  16. Well, for a period home, the type which major cities, the Northeast USA and Europe is awash in, these styles never went out of fashion and are essential to complete the interior look. The problem is not that the work, which many artisans still are skilled at creating, is "fussy" per se, but the lack of taste in applying such wonders. Done in the right fabrics, and in the right SCALE for the room, not only can these elaborate styles work, they can often correct really bad interior architecture, the kind we have been cursed with since the end of World War II. When you live in a plain, unadorned box, the correctly judged window treatment can absolutely make the room, and often, a less formal fabric can give an elaborate swag and tail concept the needed "tension" to suit more relaxed, if architecturally-challenged, interiors. Just because they have been affected by the cyclical swing of fashion doesn't mean we have forgotten how to do them. Certainly some are more labour-intensive to care for, but many can be recreated in a fashion that allows for relatively easy cleaning - think Velcro kids. I also know artisans who snip the passementerie from otherwise ruined curtains, have them cleaned and then applied to new curtains, giving them a certain aged panache.

  17. Amen to home before dark! Freedom of artistic expression is what I crave and admire.

  18. Home Before Dark: You know I adore you, but DRAPES
    is a verb.

  19. We still do incredibly elaborate curtain dressing where house and client warrant it, and quite simple ones where they dont. Its worth noting that Fowler also often did patterned linings in his curtains, something I do myself and derive great pleasure from. Also, I can never get out of my head Sir Timothy Cliffords comments on his blush pink silk Fowler curtains he has restored in Tyningham Scotland which he affectionately refers to as 'those ladies panties. Colette

  20. I would probably be the only lottery winner in history who would blow my winnings on a "fancy" drawing room complete with the requisite elaborate drapes.

  21. The curtains of yesterday are still relevant- and "out" there-Magazines do not show them-why? I don't know. Curtains can make a room-maybe that is why many rooms I see in the mags today are sadly lacking. If Trend were banished from the magazine lexicon most would find story lines difficult- though they might have more interesting thoughtful content.

  22. I personally like cleaner lines for the most part. Gorgeous draperies (sorry Toby) can be stunning when done right and do not detract from the rest of the decor.

    Art by Karena

  23. In my new house I decided not to do the swags and frills that I loved in my last house, as everyone was telling me I'm not with the trends...

    I have lovely interlined heavy drapes, but the wooden hardware poles are HORRIBLE. They cannot be used for functional drapes Try to open a 10 foot high drape. I've also tried iron poles. It may look nice in the current decorating magazines as a more "minimalist" look, but from an expense and functional standpoint, I would have rather had valences and swags with functional traverse rods. I would have preferred to spend my budget on passementerie than the many thousands I'm going to have to spend to get working decorative rods on 44 windows. You can be sure that the windows not already made for will have wonderful valences.

  24. I love window treatments, and got my start in design as a fabricator. I finally stopped working for myself about 4 years ago when a potential client said to me, after discussing the quote for her living room, "that's so expensive -- it's just sewing!" That was when I threw in the towel and went to work for someone else for a while. Most people just don't understand how much skill, and therefore expense, it takes to make things perfectly, from pattern-matching to knowing what fabric will drape the best for what treatment. I think a good part of the reason, aside from current fashion, that window treatments are much simpler is that people just aren't willing to pay for the expertise of custom. They don't find value in it. This isn't a boo-hoo on the average client, it's just the reality of our current economic environment, I think. Thanks for such a great post -- I really enjoyed it! :)

  25. AnnaKelly, Scarlet Poppy Interiors9:42 AM

    Beautiful !!! Stunning!!! And yes Fabric Artists are hard to find.....but they are out there !!!

    I am one of them....bring it on !! I received my training from Custom Home Furnishings Academy, Charlotte NC.

  26. Anonymous5:00 PM

    It is sad, but true- many households especially with young children- much prefer to spend a little money on cheap but shoddy Chinese or Indian products- especially trimmings- and curtains- hence the huge popularity of IKEA.
    The time-honoured nesting & home-making activities of women- including art of sewing and draping curtains at home by the lady of the house is no longer possible- either to time commitments, impracticality or inability.
    IKEA and like stores (Pottery Barn etc) market themselves on home decor as disposable fashion accessoiries.
    When the curtains are ruined by little Jenny wiping chocolate ice-cream fingers on inexpensive Indian cotton- Johnny has decided to give the sofa fringe a rakish new lopsided trim or Arnie the German Shepherd uses Chinese silk tassels (then requires a visit to the vet) of a chew-toy- it is cheap and easy to replace them.
    Singer published a fantastic home-decor manual- replete with every manner of curtain. There are some Russian texts out there that are very French Empire centric (Czarist style never went out of fashion among the well-heeled Politburo). German style remains very "Gemütlichkeit" ("cosy") read traditional grand-ma- especially in the better shops, homes and restaurants of particularly Southern Germany, Bavaria, Swabia etc.
    But this in turn is driven by Germany succeeding where the UK often falls flat- protecting local small industry against the rapacious IKEAS- thus curtains are considered a minor expense.
    Many an upmarket curtain tailor will use cheap Chinese or Indian tassels etc- passed off as "bespoke" or handmade- as the properly made items (note- using legal adult not child labour) from France (DeClerq and others), Germany (Posamenten Mueller, Annaberg and others) or even the UK (Brian Turner, Gina B and others)though absouletly stunning and masterpieces- are too expensive except for boutique clientele- hotels, Government (restorations), Museums, and of course wealthy Arabs and Russians.

  27. Anonymous2:41 PM

    @ Anonymous above:
    You bring up some good points. Should design serve people's specific and various needs, or should people live in a way to preserve "time honored activities"? There are still lots of crafters and hobbyist seamstresses in the "populist" level - cue various etsy sellers and DIY domestic divas/divo featured on Apartment Therapy, Design Sponge. Your post also brings up the staggering socioeconomic differences that are people's daily realities today - to many even Ikea and Pottery Barn are the rare treat of luxury - and the question becomes: should experts with specialist knowledge of trade, craft, historical knowledge and aesthetic appreciation such as yourself, simply lament the gall of the great unwashed to participate in versions of their understanding and use of drapery arts, or is it more conducive to your cause to "outreach" (ideas: early education, integrated into "wholeness of wellbeing" of the living-designing culture) to such Ikea/Pottern Barn Levels of Hell, to entice, excite, and incite their genuine appreciation of drapery as arts - impractical, yet potentially limitless canvas for their own creative expressions and wonderment? Simply lamenting and categorizing user experiences based on ethnic-cultural-financial demographics, serves not to popularize your cause (other than to lament its marginalized 1% appeal in cultural hegemony in a Famed & Fawned Over by Billions manner - these days best achieved via Vile Reality Shows?!) - at best it allowed us to peruse a condensed rolodex of your procured or potential clientele.