30 June 2009

At Home with Mrs. Chalmers Wood

The Hall

Anyone who has read legendary decorator Billy Baldwin's memoir Billy Baldwin Remembers will be more than curious to see photos of Little Ipswich, the Long Island country house of his mentor Ruby Ross Wood which he lavished with praised for its evident chic.

I recently stumbled across an article in the March 1943 issue of The Magazine Antiques which featured the antiques collection at Little Ipswich. These are the accompanying illustrations which offer a rare glimpse into this fabled residence.

Delano and Aldrich designed the neo-classical house which was built in Syosset, Long Island between 1927 and 1928. Wood specified a one-story building so that she could have soaring ceilings in every room.

Ruby Ross Wood may not be as widely known as Elsie de Wolfe (for whom Wood ghost-wrote The House in Good Taste), but without doubt she deserves to be included in the pantheon of 20th century design greats. No doubt Mitchell Owens' highly anticipated monograph on this tantalizingly illusive figure will put this to rights.

The Library

Wood was a huge enthusiast of neoclassical antiques - the article points out that French Directoire and English Regency, clearly on view here, were particularly favored by Mrs. Wood. The maroon and tan upholstery on the sofa and armchair were picked up by the Aubusson rug.

Even though the focus here is on antiques, Wood took pains to express that she was in no way interested in living in a Museum-like setting - it was all about "up-to-date" comfort.

Mrs. Wood's Bedroom

To my mind, the inlaid floor (which dates to the Directoire period and was salvaged from a French manoir) makes the room. A dark green-painted Sheraton-style tester bed is hung with "gray green" taffeta which matches the walls. Note the swans on the rug - a motif Wood used throughout the house.

Sadly, Little Ipswich was demolished, but the words of Mrs. Wood - whether attributed to her or de Wolfe and which were as unerring as her taste - are timeless.

UPDATE: Little Ipswich was demolished in the early 1990's to make way for a development called the Pironi Estates. Click here to see one of the hideous McMansions that make up what is now a sub-division.

photos by Drix Duryea

29 June 2009

Genius Loci: Madresfield, the real Brideshead

For many, the word "Brideshead" conjures up a deeply held nostalgia for the English arcadia. Written during a time when the English Country House faced extinction due in part to calamitous death taxes and the irrelevance of the aristocracy in a new modern age, Evelyn Waugh's novel Brideshead Revisited was a swan song to the glory days of the country's great landowning families and their private princely palaces that were built and furnished when Britain ruled the world.

The Staircase Hall at Madresfield

Even though Castle Howard has become so identified with Brideshead, it was the mock-Elizabethan stately home of Madresfield and its owners, the Lygons, who provided the inspiration for Waugh's tale (and where he even wrote long stretches of it). The story of the house and the family from Tudor times onwards is enchantingly told by Jane Mulvaugh in Madresfield.

The nursery at Madresfield where Waugh spent time writing BR

Mulvaugh ingeniously weaves each chapter around an object or feature of the house, such as "The Embroidery" or "The Red Heels" and wends it with the different generations of Lygons so seamlessly that it is hard to say where the house leaves off and the family begins. An excellent point made by Mulvaugh is that Madresfield was built over generations and became a rambling pile the better to retreat to - MUCH the opposite of Castle Howard, a Whig monument to power and pageanty, where life was lived on display.

So what was the scandalous reason that the Flytes'/Lygons' father lived in exile? What did the family make of the book that put them on a salver? You'll just have to read- and savor - to find out.

26 June 2009

Vrai Talon Rouge

No, those aren't Louboutins....

Did you know red heels were first introduced by Louis XIV to the French Court to confirm that the wearer was of noble birth and hence qualified to be presented? During the eighteenth century, the fashion spread throughout Europe and donning vrai talons rouges became a symbol of one's superior rank.

Today, ponying up the $500+ for a pair by Mr. Louboutin is its own badge of status - hopefully not one of credit card debt!

Top: portrait of William "the Miser" Jennens by Charles Jervais, circa 1710

24 June 2009

Jolie-Laide: The Beauty of Imperfection

I'll never forget being at a party in London years ago when a woman turned to me and said, "Sure you're pretty, but your looks are expected." Even if she needed a few lessons in manners, she had a point. Tall, blonde and blue-eyed is somewhat banal. And as F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote, "After a certain degree of prettiness, one pretty girl is as pretty as another."

It is much more interesting to look at something that is slightly imperfect, slightly askew - whether it be a room (MC would purposely pull her curtains off one or two hooks) or a face. And who else but the French would come up with a term for this? "Jolie-laide" or "pretty-ugly" is hard to define, and perhaps, like many French expressions, isn't meant to be.

I posted a few days ago on Les Dames de Bois de Boulogne which featured the actress Maria Casares whom I referred to as jolie-laide. A reader - in France no less - disagreed that she qualified, and immediately served up Bette Davis as a prime example.

Mr. Worthington sent me the 1963 cover of Harper's Bazaar (top photo) which apparently caused quite a stir: "Only recently it occurred to me that there was an elaborate insider's joke going on~ Richard Avedon was channeling Diana Vreeland with this model's navy blue hair, makeup, cigarette holder (inside the magazine, the same model wore a snood). Then, Walter Winchell ran a squib which implied that the model was in fact not a real woman at all! It was never verified and has intrigued me ever since...."

And intriguing is the point of the jolie-laide.

Click here for an excellent New York Times article exploring this elusive quality.

23 June 2009

Lady of Style: Tamara de Lempicka

Auto-portrait (Tamara in the Green Bugatti), 1925

It is hard to find any better embodiment of the Art Deco style than the paintings of Tamara de Lempicka. Just as her work captured the new modern spirit of the twenties and early thirties, Tamara's life was equally daring, glamorous, and with a finely sharpened edge.

In Passion by Design, Tamara's biography by her daughter Kizette, she is said to have committed herself to the life of gesture in which every detail of her outward appearance was attended to with great thought, from the decor of her studios to the haute couture she wrapped herself in. For example, although she depicted herself above in a green Bugatti, she actually drove a yellow and black Renault. "When I drove in it, I wore a pullover of the same bright yellow, always with a black skirt and hat. I was dressed like the car and the car like me." That's the kind of detail I'm talking about.

As Jean Cocteau foretold, her love of both art and high society was ultimately a disastrous cocktail. As the story of art was pushed along by abstract expressionism, it was Tamara's parties and clothing that magazines wrote about, not her work.

Here, a few of the settings for her spectacular life of gesture:

Her studio on the rue Méchain designed by Robert Mallet-Stevens, early 1930s, furniture by Rene Herbst with light grey walls and ceiling.

The studio today which is currently the residence of another woman of style, Amanda Eliasch

Tamara's sister, Adrienne de Montaut, designed the upstairs smoking room paneled in polished walnut. Tamara's initials are woven into the brown upholstery.

The bedroom

Click here for more rue Méchain photos.

In 1933, she married patron and lover (but just one of many, mind you) Baron Raoul Kuffner. In 1939 with war looming, they sailed to the States where they lived until the early 1960s.

The double height living room gave excellent northern light at their apartment on 322 East 57th Street, built in 1929 as a studio hotel and also once home to Lily Pons.

Dining Room

Tamara decorated the apartment with antiques taken from the Baron's Hungarian estates. Their friends, such as Helena Rubinstein's sister Muzka Bernard, called upon her to decorate their places.

After the war, Tamara returned to her rue Méchain studio and redecorated it in the rococo style.

The 1950s Art & Décoration article which featured Lempicka's new scheme commented on her intentional juxtaposition of the clean, severe architecture with the bourgeois neo-Louis XV style.

At the time, they judged the results cleverly tongue-in-cheek, with Lempicka's sense of refinement and style pushing it beyond exquisitely bad taste. Only the French would dare a discussion on the chic of kitsch in a decorating mag!

As all styles are destined to become démodé, they are then forgotten, but only until they are rediscovered - such is the mercurial cycle of fashion. At the end of her life, Tamara saw her work take its place in the annals of art history and onto the walls of such ladies of gesture as Madonna and Marella Agnelli.

22 June 2009

Reader Survey: What do you think?

I have been encouraged by a new friend to be more regular in my postings - even if they are short and half-baked.

So with my brain working in slo-mo, this is my obsession of the day: "Del Rio" linen as a shower curtain in a deep teal bathroom. What do you think?

19 June 2009

"Yard Sale" Hamptons-Style

If you're going to be in the Hamptons this weekend and not toiling away in the bowels of the library like some people, you might drop by the book signing reception at Glenn Horowitz for Adam Bartos' Yard Sale, a collection of still-life photographs of that all-American pastime where one lady's cast-off is another one's new prized possession.

Or, if you want to get all deep:
"Straying away from becoming nostalgic, Bartos’s images read more like anthropological studies than a longing of obselete playthings. Photographing at close range from an elevated vantage point with an objective eye, Bartos allows the viewer to connect the dots, supplying only the raw ingredients for our own story-making."

Saturday, June 20th 6-8 p.m.
Glenn Horowitz Art Gallery and Rare Bookstore
87 Newtown Lane
East Hampton, NY 11937
Tel: 631.324.5511

Click here for more information.

All photographs by Adam Bartos.

18 June 2009

Auction Spotlight: Robert Kime

Ever since I saw his handiwork for the Prince of Wales at Clarence House in WoI, designer Robert Kime has been on my radar in a big way. The only problem - no sign! Perhaps Mr. Kime's clients are very private or maybe he isn't interested in courting publicity - but whatever the reason may be, there have been few further glimpses into Kime style...

...until last week, when the Christie's sales catalogue An English Look: Robert Kime, Piers von Westenholz, David Bedale and James Graham-Stewart landed on my desk. The other names are all antiques dealers, and browsing through the catalogue it is obvious that it is a single owner sale (whose identity is not revealed) with interior decoration by Kime.

For others also intrigued by Kime, here are a few of the rooms illustrated followed by my fantasy shopping list....

and a few things that caught my eye:

I am a textile fool! and Mr. Kime's liberal dosing of fabrics and "stuffs" worked in all manner of ways from all corners of the world and periods of history sends my heart into flutters. Above is one of a pair of cushions made of Queen Anne Wool Applique, lot 60, estimate £1,200 - £1,800

Halfsies, anyone?
BY ROBERT KIME, MODERN, £3,000 - £5,000

Doesn't this make you think of a platinum screen siren dressed in a satin bias-cut gown?
18TH-19TH CENTURY £500 - £800

Speaking to my inner wasp.
One of the top lots of the sale: lot 100, WILLIAM NEDHAM (BRITISH, FL.1823-1849)
A Mastiff, a Pomeranian, a Newfoundland and a Spaniel by a dark brown and a gray hunter in the grounds of Clopton House, Warwickshire
signed and dated 'W. NEDHAM/1838' (lower right)
oil on canvas, 54 x 93 in.
£60,000 - £80,000

a bit of fantasy for the garden

153 in. (389 cm.) high, £1,000 - £1,500

BY SOANE BRITAIN, MODERN, £3,000 - £5,000

Click here to see the entire e-catalogue.

All photos courtesy of Christie's. Interior shots by Tessa Traeger.

17 June 2009

Film Couture: Les Dames du Bois de Boulogne

Brooding, melodramatic, and beautifully styled, the 1945 film Les Dames du Bois de Boulogne is a tale of revenge served cold. Auteur Robert Bresson retells the story of Denis Diderot's Madame de la Pommeraye with the help of dialogue by Cocteau and sets furnished with props from Madeleine Castaing's shop.

But what most swept me away was the beyond stunning wardrobe worn by woman-scorned Hélène (played by Maria Casares). Well, no wonder - Alix Grès and Schiaparelli were its creators, and their respective signatures of exquisite draping and wit are reason enough to see this classic.

The plummeting V-neck shows a daring amount of décolleté and is even more exciting in combination with the full-coverage elsewhere. Note the shimmering beaded hem...

which is picked up by this jet necklace...

Note the finally woven mesh scarf thrown over this Grecian goddess gown

Love the dramatic tulle that veils the face then gathers around the neck

another great hat and super strong shoulders.... this dress is intriguingly combined with a cape

and doesn't every fashion show end with a bride? Yes please, Madame Grès...

10 June 2009

Lise Deharme: The Lady of the Glove

Lise in 1936 photographed by Man Ray

While thumbing through old issues of Art et Décoration, I came across a feature on the residence of Lise Deharme. I had never heard of her, but the photos of her sumptuous, shall we say "layered" interiors told me this was a woman with a story and a fabulous sense of humor...

Deharme taunting her white Persian cat Charmante

Deharme, née Anne-Marie Hirtz, was a society hostess and a contributor/muse to the Surrealist movement. André Breton nursed an unrequited passion for her and caused her to be called "The Lady of the Glove" after describing a scene in his autobiographical narrative Nadja (1928) in which he imbues much emotion in her potential bequest of a sky blue glove.

Here in her salon, Deharme entertained such art and literary luminaries as Salvador Dali, Max Ernst, Pablo Picasso, Antonin Artaud, and Paul Éluard. Plants and trees brought the outside in as did the life-size porcelain tortoise.

Lise, center, as the Queen of Spades, by Man Ray
Joan Miro illustrated Lise's first book, Il etait une pie (There was a magpie), 1928

A satin grotto in a forest - why not?

She wrote poetry, edited the short-lived Surrealist literary review Phare de Neuilly of 1933 and later in life wrote romance novels so racy they were forbidden to minors.

The Empty Cage from Cahier de curieuse personne (1933), trans. by Franklin Rosemont

I missed
the book of my life
one night
when they forgot
to put a sharp pencil
next to my bed