Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Frederic March and Henry Sleeper

High on my list of places that I wish to visit is Beauport, the Gloucester, Massachusetts house of Henry Davis Sleeper. Built by Sleeper in the early twentieth century, Beauport was decorated in myriad historical styles and furnished with an array of objects, both of which attest to Sleeper's flair for decorating (he was one of this country's earliest professional decorators) and his passion for collecting.  Even if you're not overly familiar with Beauport, you have likely seen photos of two of its more famous rooms: the China Trade Room and the Octagon Room.

This post, however, isn't really about Beauport, but rather Sleeper's work as an interior designer.  Sleeper's clients included Isabella Stewart Gardner and Henry Francis du Pont, who enlisted Sleeper's guidance in decorating both his Long Island house, Chestertown, and his more famous residence, Winterthur.  But what I find to be curious was the fact that this New England decorator also worked for Hollywood actors, including Joan Crawford and Frederic March (pictured above.)

I recently discovered photos of March's Sleeper-designed Beverly Hills house in a 1936 issue of House Beautiful.  According to my research, Sleeper decorated the house in 1934, the same year in which he (Sleeper) died.  (I don't know if he died before or after completion of the March house.)  The House Beautiful article shows three photos of the home's exterior, which was described as French Provincial with whitewashed brick walls and blue doors, but just a scant three photos of the home's interior, namely, the dining room and a playroom.

The dining room, which you can see below, was furbished with a hunting-and-fishing-motif Zuber paper and "woodwork and damask curtains a soft azure blue-green."  Don't you wish that we could see that dining room in color?  The playroom is charming, though a bit unusual, in that it "reproduces a kitchen in an old Normandy house- fine copper and brass on the hearth, brown toile curtains, yellow quilting on the chairs and sofa."  Though not pictured in the article, the living room was described as having been decorated "after an 18th Century salon, with laurel green paneled walls, lots of books, a piano in one corner, secretary in another, 18th Century furniture in deep yellow brocade and a dark brown chintz on the couch."

According to the Beauport website, Sleeper described his early design focus as "Norman and English Country Houses- 17th and 18th century American Interiors."  Later, however, that focus shifted slightly to "English and French Interiors- 17th and 18th century American Paneling."  Sleeper was obviously well-versed in a range of historical styles, and I think that range is quite evident in the March house. 

An interesting footnote to this story is that March's house, which was designed by architect Wallace Neff in 1934, had several subsequent prominent owners, including Shirley and Flobelle Burden (the parents of Carter Burden, who grew up in this house,) Wallis Annenberg, and Brad Pitt and Jennifer Anniston.  Pitt supposedly removed some of the home's original paneling, which really doesn't surprise me at all.

The two photos above show the March dining room.

The old Norman kitchen-inspired playroom.

The Winterthur Collection at Currey & Company

I had the privilege of touring Winterthur a few years ago, and it was truly remarkable. What is equally remarkable, though in a much different sense of the word, is the number of designers who have never even heard of Winterthur.  That really amazes me.

I have written about Winterthur before, so I won't repeat myself by explaining what it is and who Henry Francis du Pont was.  You can read my previous Winterthur-related blog posts by clicking here.  But what I do want to bring to your attention is Currey & Company's Winterthur Collection. The collection, which includes lighting and furniture, was inspired by pieces at Winterthur.  Some of the furniture, such as the "Powell" dressing table, below, was based on pieces collected by du Pont himself, while books and ephemera in Winterthur's library were the source for many of the motifs used to embellish Currey's new lamps.

For more information on the collection, please visit Currey & Company's website.  And if you have never before visited Winterthur, I encourage you to do so soon.

 This Currey & Company "Powell" dressing table was based on an early eighteenth-century Philadelphia dressing table in the Winterthur collection.  Like the contemporary version you see here, the original dressing table had ogee-arched carved front and side skirts, which is a characteristic of the "Early Baroque" or "William and Mary" style.

It was an early nineteenth-century Massachusetts fancy settee, part of the collection at Winterthur, that spawned the Currey & Company version, which is named "Chestertown", above.  The original settee was decorated with gilded grapes and leaves.

Currey & Company's "Chestertown" Rocking Chair.

Currey & Company's "Victor" lamp.

The floral motif on this table lamp was inspired by the 1881 pattern book, Suggestions in Floral Design, by Frederick E. Hulme.  The book featured chromolithographed plates of plant and floral specimens, some of which were highlighted in gold.  A copy of this book is in the library at Winterthur.

Monday, November 17, 2014

No Time for Tea

If you'll recall, I recently wrote about how I relished the thought of afternoon tea.  I was reminded of that blog post after reading Jeremy Musson's book, The Drawing Room, and attending his recent lecture in Atlanta.  In his book, Musson discusses the relationship of afternoon tea and the drawing room, writing:

...a new meal emerged in the drawing room in the 1830s and 1840s.  By about 1840, afternoon tea had become a feature of the English country house day, probably related to the main meal of the day having moved to the evening from the middle of the day during the course of the eighteenth century.

I have a living room, which serves as my version of a drawing room, and I have a tea set, sundry sets of dessert plates, pretty teacups and saucers, and plenty of table linen.  But what I don't seem to have is the time to serve afternoon tea to guests or, for that matter, to myself when I'm home alone.  In fact, the closest I come to afternoon tea is preparing tea sandwiches for my dinner.  (That is one of the perks of being single; I don't have to take another person into consideration when choosing what to have for dinner.)

I'm guessing that most of the women featured in this blog post had the time, not to mention the assistance of a staff, to serve afternoon tea.  Nevertheless, these photos will likely serve as the impetus I need to invite guests to tea.  And until I figure out how to carve time out of my schedule to host the occasional tea, I'll simply have to make do with the occasional tea sandwich supper, perhaps served with tea or, better yet, champagne.

Billy Norwich's Cucumber Society Sandwiches

12 tablespoons (1 1/2 sticks) salted butter
1/2 cup finely chopped dill
1 large seedless cucumber
1/4 cup sherry wine vinegar
1 tablespoon salt
24 slices white bread cut into 2-inch rounds
1/2 cup finely chopped parsley.

Place butter and chopped dill in container of a food processor using the steel blade, process with a few pulses. Set aside. Peel cucumber and cut into 1/4" rounds. Toss cucumber slices in a bowl with vinegar and salt.  Drain liquid.

Spread one side of each bread round with dill butter. Place a cucumber slice between the buttered sides of two bread rounds. Roll the outside edge of each sandwich in chopped parsley. Cover with a damp cloth until ready to serve.

 Nancy Mitford and her Mappin and Webb tea service in 1940.

 Mrs. Winston Churchill pouring tea in her sitting room at 10 Downing Street, 1940.

 Mrs. Thomas Hitchcock taking tea at her Canadian lake house in 1986.  I love her wicker furniture, the straw matting on the floor, and her Belgian loafers.

 Mrs. Dwight F. Davis and her pooch taking tea in 1938.  Alfie would be envious if he were to see this photo.

Ann Bonfoey Taylor, relaxing at her après-ski afternoon tea.

Tea and cigarettes for Pamela Turnure.

Mrs. Alma Spreckels in her San Francisco home.

Friday, November 14, 2014

Speaking Engagements

Over the last year, I have lectured at antiques shows, museums, women's groups, and cultural events.  My speaking engagements have kept me on the road for much of the year, and yet, I have loved every minute of it.  Speaking about design and design history excites me, and I believe that my enthusiasm for the subject comes through in my lectures.

I am currently working on my 2015 lecture schedule.  If you are organizing an event and are looking for a speaker who can both entertain and educate an audience, I hope that you will keep me in mind.  Not only do I speak about classic design and watershed moments in design history, but I also pepper my talk with anecdotes about some of the twentieth century's most stylish legends, including Nan Kempner, Billy Baldwin, and Cecil Beaton.

For more information, please email me at

Revisiting Denning and Fourcade

Truth be told, I am not an ardent fan of the work of designers Denning and Fourcade. I feel guilty writing that, because Robert Denning and Vincent Fourcade were awfully talented. My hang-up - perhaps mine alone though I suspect not- is that I often find their work to be a little too rich for my taste.  Their lavish use of sumptuous fabrics and grand furniture makes me think of chocolate truffles, in that a little bit goes a long way.

That being said, I really do appreciate their body of work, and when I come across photos of a Denning and Fourcade-decorated home, I always stop to look.  You can't glance at their work and expect to absorb it quickly.  The layers and layers of, well, stuff require close examination.  Only then can one see the method that went into their multi-layered approach to decorating.  I don't get the impression that they simply threw a lot of furnishings into a room without any forethought.

Although that opulent Denning and Fourcade look is quite the opposite of today's style of decorating, there is still much we can learn from it.  Their work is a lesson in quality, which is often sadly lacking in today's world.  When you look at photos of their work, let your eyes sift through the multitude of furnishings, and what you'll find are impeccable fabrics, excellent antique furniture, and rarefied objects.  Now imagine how just one antique rug, for example, or a gilt mantel clock could raise the level of refinement and sophistication in a room of one's own.

By the way, the photos below show the designers' Manhattan apartment, circa 1990.  "Refreshing" may not be the first word to pop into your head while looking at these photos, and yet, I do think it's refreshing to see a home in which elegance, luxury, and comfort coexist so peacefully. 

All photos from HG, October 1990, Karen Radkai photographer.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Tiger Tiger!

I always look forward to new No. 9 textile collections thanks in large part to designer Richard Smith's inventive and sometimes whimsical designs. Smith's extensive knowledge of history and the decorative arts coupled with a curiosity for the exotic seem to provide endless, not to mention fruitful, inspiration for his collections, and this seems to be the case with his latest, named Tiger Tiger.

The collection sprang from Smith's interest in Tibetan tiger rugs, specifically a 1990 exhibit, "The Tiger Rugs of Tibet", that was held at the Hayward Gallery, London.  The star print of the collection- at least, to me- is Tiger Tiger, which depicts a tiger ensconced in a bamboo forest.  These tigers really do look like Tibetan tiger rugs come to life.  Other fabrics include Lhasa (a trellis print), Xara (a fretwork woven fabric), and Tibetan Maze.  Additionally, there are two embroidered tapes.

For more information, please visit the Jim Thompson Fabrics website.  And to learn more about Tibetan tiger rugs, click here to read my recent blog post.

 Tiger Tiger


 Tibetan Maze


Peony Trellis



Maze Border

Elements Border

All images courtesy of No. 9/ Jim Thompson Fabrics.

Monday, November 10, 2014

Bonfire of the Vanities

Quite a few people have told me that Tom Wolfe's 1987 best-seller, Bonfire of the Vanities, is right up my alley. I have not read the book, nor have I seen the 1990 film version, so I don't know whether to take their "right up your alley" comments as a compliment or not. However, the book has been on my to-read list for years, and after recently finding a November 1990 HG article about the film's set, I am moving both the book and the movie to the top of my to-do list.

The article's photos, which are shown here, depict the fictional Park Avenue apartment of the book's lead characters, Sherman McCoy, a Wall Street tycoon played by Tom Hanks in the movie, and his wife, Judy, who was portrayed in the film by Kim Cattrall. Judy, by the way, is a socialite/decorator, who was responsible for her apartment's decoration. So believable was this movie apartment that had I not told you otherwise, you might very well have assumed that the photos showed a real Park Avenue apartment, circa 1985. That is how well-decorated this fictional apartment was.

The production designer, Richard Sylbert, spared no expense nor detail in conjuring up the archetypal Manhattan apartment of an 1980s-era master of the universe. The set's abundance of chintz, English furniture, elaborate draperies, and traditional pictures were all hallmarks of that affluent 1980s-look that Sylbert referred to as "a 'chopped salad' of English country classics". But, using your 21st-century-eyes, start peeling back the layers in each photo, and you'll find a number of classic elements that are still compelling today. One such example is the now-discontinued Brunschwig & Fils wallpaper in the set's dining room.

The article's author, Donald Albrecht, wrote, "In the future we may look at Bonfire as representing the essential look of the booming, greedy eighties." Although I have not read the book, I am familiar enough with it to know that Albrecht's comment was indeed prescient, because the book has become a modern classic, one which captured the excess that was the 1980s.

The set's living room was decorated with 18th-century antiques.

The dining room, so vivid thanks to Brunschwig & Fils's trellis wallpaper and floral chintz.

The breakfast room was painted with four coats of yellow lacquer.  The parquet used on the set was real and not imitation.

The kitchen.

The master bedroom was furbished with an 18th-century Aubusson rug and chinoiserie wallpaper.

The bathroom.  Very 80s, and very dated-looking today.

A glimpse into the English-style library.

All photos from HG, November 1990, Grant Mudford photographer.

Friday, November 07, 2014

Alain Demachy, Polymath Designer

Although I haven't seen a great deal of the work of French interior designer Alain Demachy, I have seen enough to know that I admire both his style and his skill. I was first introduced to Demachy's work thanks to my 1980s-era French design books. Many of those books featured photos of Demachy's decadent-looking green velvet dining room, which I consider to be one of the all-time great dining rooms.  This room must have struck a chord with people, because that dining room appeared in many design books and publications.

The Paris-based designer has had an illustrious career as a designer, an architect, and an antiques dealer.  During the 1960s and 1970s, Demachy teamed up with prominent Paris antiquaire, Didier Aaron. During their partnership, in which Demachy tended to the architecture and interior design side of the business while Aaron focused on antiques, the two men hired a young designer, Jacques Grange, who credits both Demachy and Aaron as having had a profound influence on his work.  (If you compare the work of Demachy and Grange, I think you'll see a few similarities.)  Demachy eventually went solo, first opening his own design firm and later becoming proprietor of Galerie Camoin Demachy, a much-lauded antiques gallery.  (Check out the gallery's website.  You have to love an antiques business that has "Papa Was a Rollin' Stone" playing on its website.)

What I appreciate about Demachy is his ability to mix disparate-yet-like minded furnishings in a way that ultimately fosters stylish, harmonious rooms.  "Eclectic" is often the term used to describe rooms that are decorated with a lavish array of styles and periods, and yet, I don't think that term fits the sophistication and elegance that define Demachy's work.  The designer obviously has an appreciation for early-20th-century design, most notably Arts and Crafts and the Art Deco style.  But then he might introduce African masks, Oceanic art, and 1950s-era furniture to the mix.  The result are interiors that reflect Demachy's skill as a designer and his connoisseurship.

The photos below, which were taken from Elle Décor: The Grand Book of French Style and an Architectural Digest article, show Demachy's residence, which is located above his antiques gallery. I admit that I'm a little confused about the dining room.  The AD article shows a green velvet dining room with painted doors, which, by the way, came from Pavillon Colombe, Edith Wharton's estate located outside of Paris.  The Elle Décor book also shows a green velvet dining room, furbished with a banquette and Turkish ottomans, which looks slightly different- this is the version that appeared in all of those 80s-era publications.  Is it the same design scheme that was simply photographed from different angles, or did Demachy tweak his dining room over the years?  I guess it doesn't really matter, because both versions are successful thanks to Demachy's sumptuous use of green velvet.

And finally, the photo below shows a former apartment of his, located on the avenue Montaigne.  I included it because I think it's so attractive: