Monday, May 19, 2014
Not-So-Garden Variety Rooms
While I was wide awake at 2 a.m. the other night, the most random image popped into my head: a photo, seen above, which shows the garden room of architect Archibald Brown's River House apartment. When I first saw the c. 1931 photo, which was taken by photographer Samuel H. Gottscho, I was intrigued by those sunken flower beds. How clever and, perhaps, how messy those indoor beds were. I would assume that the flowers were real, if the watering can placed alongside the bed was any indication. I wonder if this garden room was the work of Brown or that of Eleanor McMillen, the McMillen Inc. founder who later married Mr. Brown in 1934? I don't have the answer, but I did take this nocturnal ponderment as a sign that I needed to write a blog post about creative ways that homeowners have attempted to bring the outdoors inside.
The concept of creating an indoor garden space is one that I explore in my lecture on 20th-century design, which I have been giving to audiences around the country. Specifically, I discuss orangeries and winter garden rooms, both of which typically housed citrus trees, palm trees, and ferns. But if you look at interior photos from the 1920s and 1930s, you'll find all kinds of imaginative and, at times, theatrical ways that homeowners have introduced garden-like decorative elements to indoor spaces. In some cases, windows or trellises were employed as part of a ruse to fool people into thinking that they were viewing a real garden when, in fact, they were looking at painted scenes. Other homeowners took an easier route by simply using floor screens that had been painted with images of flowers or pastoral scenes.
One of the most enthusiastic champions of the indoor garden tableau was Dorothy Draper, who decorated quite a number of restaurants and hotels with elements typically seen outdoors: fountains; espalier; wrought-iron patio furniture; and topiaries. But Draper did not limit these indoor garden fantasies to her commercial projects. In her confidence-building, morale-boosting tome, Decorating is Fun!, Draper wrote a case history of "A Country Wren Who Turned into a City Sparrow". Poor Mrs. White was bereft at having to leave her country garden behind when her husband's job transferred them to the city- and to an apartment. After a time spent being "positively mopey", Mrs. White had a stroke of genius: she turned her living room's bay window, which was south-facing (hurray!), into a garden oasis by building a short door sill in front of the window, laying the floor with linoleum, scattering pebbles over the floor, and placing two tall rubber plants and an assortment of other potted plants onto the pebbles. Further heightening the garden feel were red trellis, which was placed on the walls surrounding the window, and a "lovely old English bird cage with two happily married bullfinches in it." The result was such that, "Mrs. White likes her sunny little garden almost better than the one she left behind in the country."
So you see, no matter where you live, you too can create an indoor garden for yourself. All it takes is a little creativity, some know-how, and perhaps a bullfinch or two.
Photo at top and others as noted: Samuel H. Gottscho photographer, from the Collections of the Museum of the City of New York. Tate & Hall, Robertson, and Wanamaker photos from "The Book of Colour Schemes"; Elkins photo from "Frances Elkins" by Stephen Salny; Draper photos from "In the Pink" by Carleton Varney; Drian screen photo from Martin Battersby's "The Decorative Thirties".