Thursday, June 25, 2015

Richard Lowell Neas in France

It's always a treat to stumble upon the work of the late decorator and decorative artist, Richard Lowell Neas. Over the years, I have collected photos of his Manhattan apartment as well as examples of his trompe l'oeil painting.  What remained elusive to me, though, were photos of his much-admired home in southwestern France. Thanks to a generous friend, who recently gave me a decade-worth of House Beautiful back issues, I finally have my hands on photos of Neas's charming French country house.

The c. 1770 stone house (see above), located in the town of Charente, was built for the village priest, which explains the structure's close proximity to a Romanesque church. When Neas found the house, it was in shambles. But rather than being deterred by the home's sad state, Neas saw it as an opportunity to breathe new life into an old home whose centuries-old structure remained mostly intact.

When I studied the photos of the home's décor, I was left with the impression that Neas must have reveled in creating his dream country house.  The fabrics have a definite French flair (most of them were by Brunschwig & Fils, for whom Neas designed those now-famous trompe l'oeil papers, including Bibliothèque,) while the kitchen and pantry are like French country cuisine: earthy, yet well-seasoned, too.  But what especially charms me are Neas's decorative jeux d'esprit, which can be seen throughout the house.  That stone floor in the dining room?  It's actually painted wood.  And that wooden-clad guest bedroom?  Its walls were painted to mimic wooden boards.

The living room was like taking a step back in time.  It was lit solely by candlelight, while the floor covering was apple matting, which was a favorite of Elizabethans.

Like the painted floor, the dining room chandelier was meant to fool the eye.  In fact, it was made of wood and painted to resemble blue and white ceramicware.

In the earthy kitchen, a trompe l'oeil painted cabinet hid the refrigerator.

Another view of the kitchen.

The pantry held Neas's collection of French earthenware, including what appears to be Aptware.

The centerpiece of the master bedroom was this canopied bed, which was lavished in Brunschwig & Fils' Kandahar fabric.  The paneled walls are actually trompe l'oeil, as are the hanging key (painted to the left of the door frame) and the painting above the door.

A guest bedroom.

Another guest room with trompe l'oeil painted walls and niches.  The dominant fabric was Mexicali by Brunschwig & Fils.

A view of the church from the terrace.

The terrace pot-garden.

All photos from House Beautiful, February 1993, Jacques Dirand photographer

Monday, June 22, 2015

Anne Allen and Jean Pillement

I slipped into New York last week to see both my sister and the exhibit, China: Through the Looking Glass, at the Met.  Friends who had seen the exhibit told me that I would flip for it, and they were right.  The clothes, the blue and white porcelain, the film was a feast for the eyes.  But for all of the dazzling dresses and the mesmerizing projected scenes from Anna May Wong movies, it was two inconspicuous-looking pieces that especially enchanted me: a pair of late 18th-century, Chinoiserie-style etchings done by Anne Allen.  According to their identification labels, the designs of both etchings were "after Jean Pillement."

Not being familiar with Allen, I Googled her once I returned home.  I learned that Allen, who was British by birth but a resident of France, was not only a skilled etcher but also the second wife of Jean Pillement, the artist whose fantastical paintings and illustrations of Chinese scenes captured the fancy of a Chinoiserie-mad Europe.  During the 1790s, in what must have been a joint-effort to market Pillement's work to a wider audience, Allen created etchings based on her husband's paintings, and by using the à la poupée style of printmaking (click here if you wish to learn more about it),  she was able to bring these delicate etchings to colorful life.  The prints were then assembled into a series of books, or cahiers, which were eagerly purchased by Pillement-fanciers and, most especially, porcelain, textile, and wallpaper manufacturers, who enthusiastically incorporated Pillement's capricious scenes into their own work.

Allen's etchings can be found in the collections of numerous museums, which is hardly surprising considering that her etchings, and the cahiers, were printed in volume so as to accommodate a large audience.  When you look at the images of her work below, you'll see that there are minor differences between the museums' classifications, although I think these differences are a matter of style rather than substance.  And, you'll also notice that in addition to the Chinoiserie scenes, Allen also etched her husband's floral renderings, which are just as colorful as their Chinoiserie counterparts though a lot less fanciful.

Image at top:  Chinoiserie from Nouvelle Suite de Cahiers Arabesques Chinois, 1790-1799, in the collection of The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Chinoiserie from Nouvelle Suite de Cahiers de Dessins Chinois, 1790-1799, in the collection of The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Chinoiserie from Nouvelle Suite de Cahiers Arabesques Chinois, 1790-1799, in the collection of The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Ornamental Design from Nouvelle Suite de Cahiers Chinois no. 3, after 1775, in the collection of Cooper Hewitt

Title page from Nouvelle Suite de Cahiers Chinois, after 1775, in the collection of Cooper Hewitt

Chinese Arabesque with man kneeling beneath a double-roofed tent, from Nouvelle Suite de Cahiers chinois, no. 2, 1798, collection of Princeton University Art Museum


Chinoiserie Flowers, from Nouvelle suite de Cahier de Fleurs idéales, late 18th c., collection of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Fantastic Flowers, 1790s, in the collection of the Davis Museum at Wellesley College

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Curling Up with a Good Book

For the past few days, I've been engrossed in engaging new book, A Curious Friendship: The Story of a Bluestocking and a Bright Young Thing. Written by Anna Thomasson, the book recounts the unconventional friendship between writer Edith Olivier, the Victorian bluestocking of the book's subtitle, and the much younger artist, Rex Whistler. Although I am only a quarter of the way into the book (at 463 pages, it is lengthy), the text thus far is delightful. If you have an interest in either Olivier or Whistler, I highly recommend reading this book.  By the way, I'd be remiss if I didn't mention the book's dust jacket, which has to be one of the most charming I've seen in some time. The cover art is fitting considering that Rex Whistler was renowned for his whimsical, sometimes fantastical, and always charming paintings and illustrations.

Along with a number of photographs of Olivier and Whistler, the book also features one of Whistler's more well-known paintings, Conversation Piece at the Daye House, which depicts Olivier in the Long Room at her Wiltshire house, Daye House, along with her guests Lady Ottoline Morrell, Lord David Cecil, and Whistler himself. I've long admired this painting because Whistler's evocative painting style, coupled with the room's genteel and relaxed furnishings, captures a setting that is both mannerly (a virtue valued by both Victorian bluestockings and a few of us modern types) and favorable for relaxation. In other words, I find Olivier's Long Room- at least, Whistler's version of it- to be the ideal room in which to curl up with a good book, preferably one as pleasant as A Curious Friendship. (A cozy mystery would work equally as well.)

I spent some time finding examples of other rooms in which I would be quite happy to while away an afternoon or evening with my nose stuck in a good book.  Some of the examples are sprightly, while others are a bit more serious, but what they all share is their ability to lure visitors into their clutches, either through deep, rich color or comfortable, nostalgic fabrics.  And if you plan to lose yourself in a book, what better way to do so than in rooms designed beautifully for comfort and relaxation?

Conversation Piece at the Daye House, painted by Rex Whistler in 1937. The painting depicts Edith Olivier, Lord David Cecil, Lady Ottoline Morrell, and Rex Whistler.

The drawing room at the Dower House, Badminton.

David Hicks's library in his Oxfordshire house.

Scott Nelson's dressing room, located in the Manhattan apartment of Nelson and Alex Papachristidis, who decorated the room.

The living room in the country home of the late Timothy Mawson.

The Manhattan living room of the late Stanley Barrows, design professor and historian extraordinaire.

A cozy room decorated by Paolo Genta.

My Kind of Country Living

I want to congratulate two friends, Christopher Spitzmiller and Harry Heissmann, on what has to be a dream come true: to be featured in the pages of Architectural Digest.  The magaine's July issue features Christopher's upstate New York house, which he has been working on for years.  (I should know.  I feel as though I went through the renovation with him, if only by phone.)  A relaxed counterpart to his urbane Manhattan apartment, Christopher's house is casual and cheerful, and yet, thanks to its well-thought-out traditional décor, it manages to be rather elegant, too.  Helping Christopher to achieve this sometimes-difficult balance was Harry Heissmann, Christopher's friend and design collaborator, who assisted with the decorating. 

The house is filled with references to Albert Hadley, which isn't surprising considering that both men considered Hadley to be both mentor and friend.  But what I might admire most about the house is how it exemplifies true-blue American style.  It's down-to-earth and relaxed, and yet, it's charged with exuberance and optimism.  What's more American than that?

Photos from the July issue of Architectural Digest, William Waldron photographer.

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

The Old-Fashioned Powder Room

One of the many things I love about 1930s-era issues of House & Garden and House Beautiful is the attention given to rooms that once epitomized sophisticated living. Take, for example, the powder room.  The powder room of yesteryear was a slightly different affair from today's powder room, which is basically a small guest bathroom with a sink and toilet.  But back in the 1930s, the term "powder room" referred to a small dressing room that allowed ladies to powder their noses and touch-up their lipstick in privacy.  Frequently outfitted with little more than a dressing table and chair, the thirties powder room rarely functioned as a lavatory.  That role was left to the guest bathroom, which was typically, though not always, located adjacent to the powder room.  (Take a look at the photos below, and you'll see that none of the powder rooms had sinks nor toilets.)  However, space obviously dictated both the arrangement and the location of a powder room, because I have seen examples of old powder rooms with sinks as well as powder rooms- sans sink and toilet- situated far apart from a bathroom.  Suffice to say, not all powder rooms were alike. 

Just as they do today, decorators of the thirties-era understood that small spaces beg for outsized decorating.  Look at the photos below, and you'll see that feminine touches abounded. (These spaces were, after all, dedicated to women and their personal grooming.)  Swags, of both the wallpaper and fabric varieties, seemed practically a requirement for powder rooms, as did mirror, which was used on both walls and glamorously-appointed dressing tables.  Pairs of small dressing-table lamps were ubiquitous in powder rooms, while perfume bottles, powder boxes, and brush sets ensured that ladies were equipped to refresh themselves.

I suspect that the Second World War rendered the old-fashioned powder room somewhat obsolete, because by the 1940s, magazines, having moved on to more practical domestic issues, devoted little if any space to the powder room.  In fact, I wonder if the war and its subsequent housing and domestic-staff shortages meant that the powder room became a luxury that few houses could accommodate.  Perhaps it was the post-war era that saw the powder room joining space and function with the guest bathroom, becoming the powder room that we know today.  I'm not sure, and I need to investigate further.  But what I do know is that the old-fashioned powder room, like those other lost-to-history rooms such as the cocktail room and the telephone room, harks back to a time when function and style often went hand-in-hand.  After all, if one must powder one's nose or talk on the telephone, why not do so in style?       


This powder room appeared in House Beautiful's "Bride's House" show house in 1934.  The room's wallpaper had a pink background with pink and blue ribbons printed on it.  The chiffon draperies surrounding the mirror were blue, in keeping with the pink and blue color scheme.  According to the magazine, the white fur rug provided "a final bit of feminine fluff."

A mid-1930s powder room, which was decorated by Mimi Durant.  The wallpaper was red and white, while the material covering the dressing table was black cellophane.  How fabulous was that?

This powder room, which dates to the mid-1930s, was located in a house in Morristown, New Jersey.  Decorated by Margery Sill Wickware, the room had beige wallpaper with a coral, green, and cream swag drapery border.  The dressing table had a green taffeta skirt, while a henna-colored carpet covered the floor.

A Thedlow-decorated ladies powder room from 1935.  The color scheme was gray, royal blue, and white.  Crystal accessories, including the pair of lamps, the oval mirror, the ceiling fixture, and even the curtain tiebacks, added a note a glamour and femininity to the space.

Two of design history's most memorable- and sublime- powder rooms were those at the homes of the Kersey Coates Reeds and the James D. Zellerbachs. Both powder rooms were decorated by Frances Elkins.

This ladies' lounge, decorated by Miles Redd and located at a Houston house, is a more recent example of a powder room, though one designed on a much larger scale. (Architectural Digest, Thomas Loof photographer.)

Thursday, June 04, 2015

The Four Seasons Under One Roof

During the summer, when everyone else is focused on beach-house decor, I continue to turn my attention to warm, cozy rooms that scream winter.  It's not that I want to be in such rooms when it's 90-degrees outside.  A wool sofa just isn't all that inviting during a sultry, Southern summer.  I do, however, enjoy looking at these comforting rooms during the summer months because it allows me to pretend that it's fall and winter.  Perhaps it's my way of beating the heat.

Some of you might feel as I do about summertime perusal of wintertime rooms, while others might find it stifling.  But I think I have found a home that might suit all temperatures, not to mention most temperaments.  The photos you see here show designer Valentino's Roman villa as it appeared in 1981.  It's an eclectic house in that some of the rooms are cool and even breezy, while others feel more like a cashmere robe on a cold winter's night.

Take, for example, the home's  living room, which was inspired by ancient Egypt.  Decorated by Renzo Mongiardino, the room was perched on a slab of presumably cool-to-the-touch marble.  Stone tables and sculptures further added to the heat-quelling atmosphere, as did the mostly neutral-colored upholstery.  The only decoration that really seemed to give off warmth was the pair of fur rugs.

Now look at Valentino's private rooms (also shown below), which were decorated by Adrian Magistretti.  The tone was maximal and the attitude Victorian.  Shades of claret, russet, and Bordeaux mixed with heavier fabrics, such as velvets and tapestries.  Yes, the look is slightly heavy (and reminiscent of a Denning and Fourcade interior), but it certainly keeps one's eyes entertained.  If any room could ward off a chill, it has to be Valentino's bedroom. 

And then, switching gears again, there was the small, tented dining room, which was decorated by Valentino himself.  The mood here- very spring and summery- was appropriate for the dining room's location off of the garden.  It was slightly casual, a little carefree, and most intriguing when you compare it to the rest of the house.  It almost feels like a dining pavilion plunked down in the middle of a garden.

Of course, Valentino is known for being a polyglot collector, so it's not surprising that his house would reflect his myriad interests.  What is somewhat surprising, but also very compelling, is how one house could capture so many moods- and evoke all four seasons.

The living room, seen in the two photos above, was decorated by Mongiardino.

The Salon, which was decorated by Adrian Magistretti, was Victorian in style. According to the magazine article from which these photos came, Valentino had a fondness for Victorian decor because "it's warm and inviting."

Valentino's bedroom, also decorated by Magistretti, who was responsible for Valentino's sitting room, below.

The sitting room was located off of the master bath.

Two views of the small dining room. The Chinese bed is ebony with mother-of-pearl inlay.

All photos from Architectural Digest, August 1981, Robert Emmett Bright photographer.