I’m ashamed to admit that a relatively large part of my paycheck goes to Anthropologie each month or season, so as I became aware that I was in the vicinity of one of their rarer garden stores as I passed through Connecticut last week, I had to make a slight detour for the Westport Terrain. What a store–I was a bit overwhelmed, which doesn’t often happen to me in a shop scenario. Actually, it’s a combination nursery/garden store/ housewares store/gift shop/bar-restaurant–there was a lot going on when I arrived, too much for me! I certainly hadn’t planned on getting any plants as I was on the road (and I like nurseries to be a bit more dirty) but I thought I might get some planters–as I had never really replaced the ones that were stolen last summer. But there were too many planters to choose from! And too many watering cans, baskets, and vessels of all kinds–along with candles and lanterns and wreaths and everything else. Sensory overload–though I plan to return, better prepared, in the not-too-distant future.
Tag Archives: Interior design
The very first old house which enchanted me–and still does–is the Justin Smith Morrill Homestead in Strafford, Vermont, where I lived as a child. It’s a pink Gothic Revival confection, perfect in every way, and perfectly preserved. Here in Salem, we have several notable Gothic Revival houses, including conspicuous examples that were captured by Walker Evans when he passed through town and an Andrew Jackson Downing design that I walk by every day on the way to work. And then of course there is the gothicized Pickering House. All of these houses are very well-maintained: people who buy Gothic Revival houses really have to make a commitment to their preservation because the style is characterized by intricate exterior and interior detail and for the most part they do make this commitment, with the very notable apparent exception of Mario Buatta, the famous New York interior designer nicknamed the “Prince of Chintz”. In 1992, Mr Buatta purchased a very prominent Gothic Revival house located in a very prominent historic district: the William H. Mason House (1845) in the midst of the Thompson Hill Historic District in Thompson, Connecticut. After some initial renovations he abandoned the project and the house, and its very prominent deterioration ensued. The Connecticut Trust for Historic Preservation placed the property on its Most Endangered list in 2004, and last summer an online petition was launched. Things heated up last month: with the cancellation of a scheduled appearance by Buatta on March 6 by Historic New England and an article in the New York Times in which one Thompson neighbor called the designer a “New York interior desecrater” and Buatta threatened to sell the house to a funeral parlor if the complaints don’t cease and desist. Closer to the scene, the Hartford Courant has published an article today which discusses the legal remedies open to preservationists (very interesting–involving environmental laws). “Demolition by neglect” has always been incomprehensible to me, except in situations of hardship–which clearly this is not. This particular case is even more difficult to understand: surely this notoriety is bad for Mr. Buatta’s business as well as his reputation. And this is a man who has served, or continues to serve for all I know, on the board of New York City’s Historic House Trust. Let’s hope that he comes to the decision to sell or save the Mason house soon.
The William H. Mason House today and in 1986 (Hartford Courant and Gregory Andrews for the National Registry of Historic Places, 1986; a watercolor sketch of Mr. Buatta lounging in a Gothic-esque bed, Konstantin Kakanias for the New York Times (pinched from this great post at the Down East Dilettante).
I’ve been trying for quite some time, in several posts, to place Salem squarely in the center of the Colonial Revival design movement of the later nineteenth and twentieth centuries–and not just the artistic and academic movement, but also its more popular expressions. This is a continuing exploration, and as I am trained not as an art historian, or even an American historian, but a plain old English historian, I’m not sure that I’m searching in the right places or looking at the right sources. Right now I’m particularly interested in the broader impact of the period rooms installed in several major American museums after George Sheldon (at Deerfield in the 1880s) and George Francis Dow (at Salem’s Essex Institute in 1907) created the first period-room displays. By the 1920s and 1930s period rooms seem to have been assembled in most of the major American art museums, among them distinct Salem rooms such as that established by architectural historian Fiske Kimball at the Philadelphia Museum of Art in 1923 and the South Bedroom/later “McIntire Room” at Winterthur.
The Salem and McIntire Rooms at the Philadelphia Museum of Art and Winterthur Museum.
I don’t think that it is a coincidence that you see advertisements for reproductions and adaptations of “Salem” furniture from this very same era, though the inspiration could be traced to many sources. Several major American furniture manufacturers, including Karpen Furniture and the Erskine-Danforth Corporation, produced entire lines of “Early American” reproductions. The latter’s Danersk line, advertised with accompanying Salem ships, seems like the very epitome of the popular Colonial Revival.
The “Salem Room”: 1928 vignette by Edgar W. Jenney, who specialized in the depiction and reproduction of historical interiors and worked to preserved them–most notably on Nantucket.
1926 advertisements for Danersk Early American furniture, Erskine-Danforth Corporation.
It’s not really Salem-specific, but I can’t resist referencing the great 1948 Cary Grant/Myrna Loy film Mr. Blandings Builds his Dream House here, because it both exemplifies and mocks the longstanding influence of the Colonial Revival in America. After an interior decorator (named Bunny Funkhouser!) sketches an over-the-top “Colonial” living-room redesign for the Blandings’ NYC apartment featuring a cobbler’s bench, pie safe, and spinning wheel, they decide to decamp for the real thing in Connecticut. When their authentic colonial is deemed unsound, they level it and build a neo-Colonial, a bit more refined than Funkhouser’s sketch certainly, but most definitely Colonial in inspiration and design. I can’t find a still of the Funkhouser room, but you’ve got to see it to believe it.
My material side–always simmering under the surface–almost takes over during the holidays: I have no doubt that I would be consumed by it if I didn’t also have lots of academic responsibilities at the same time. It’s not just shopping, it’s really more about decorating–I have to have a theme, and the theme must layered all over the house–which means I have to get ready now. This year, I’ve decided to go with little clay villages, a ceramic city of sorts, interwoven with the usual holiday stuff (but not a kitschy enchanted village). I was inspired by the “Town Square Sculptures” of ceramicist Molly Hatch, but as soon as I started looking, I’ve been finding little clay houses everywhere. Here are a few of my favorites on the web, and next weekend I’m off to check out a potential treasure trove in New Hampshire. Please forward any additional sources, as right after Thanksgiving, I’ll have to be ready to assemble my ceramic city.
I adore these little houses by Rowena Brown, modeled after the cottages of St. Kilda, the westernmost islands of the Outer Hebrides off Scotland, but they might be a bit too rustic for my little city, and definitely too precious to display for only one month a year:
The houses which I am eying on Etsy:
Lots of tea light holders–lighthouses–out there (these are my favorite), but most are a bit too cute for my taste, and I think I’m going to refrain from all of the collectible series of miniature houses, from Europe and America and the past and the present, as well. So it’s going to take a while to build my city, but in the meantime the many deer I’ve collected over the years can dominate the landscape.
Last year around this time (of course), the private sales site Joss & Main featured a “Destination Salem” shopping event, comprised of items chosen to conjur up the spirit of my fair city. I was pleased that the selections were not all kitschy witchy, but included some maritime, colonial and Federal (quotations around all terms, please) items as well. This year I’ve been looking out for another Salem collection, but instead the site curators have showcased Design Icon Edgar Allan Poe. Poe is certainly having quite a moment, with his big show at the Morgan Library & Museum! It’s hard to think of him as a “design icon” but he certainly was proficient at setting the scene. The curators of the Joss & Main collection seem to have gone in an exclusively dark and literal direction: all black and gray (think ravens and cats) and no red (think hearts, masques, and blood). I think I can do better.
Man of the moment Edgar Allan Poe, © Fred R. Conrad, New York Times.
The Salem and Poe collections actually share quite a few items: black-painted tables, windsor chairs, grey upholstery, raven-embellished pillows. There are some nice looking desks, although they’re a bit undersized (why is it that modern desks are so small and coffee tables so big?) I think the items below represent the Joss & Main portfolio quite well.
In putting together my Poe-inspired room, I took into consideration two influences. One is Poe himself who, oddly enough, did write an article on interior decoration, “The Philosophy of Furniture”, published in Burton’s Gentlemen’s Magazine in 1840. The other is my more imaginative conception of the Poe ambiance, based on my reading of his works: what I want my Poe room to look like rather than what he would have wanted his room to look like. We obviously have a much clearer vision of the former, and an illustration, as the reading room at the Poe National Historic Site in Philadelphia is decorated according to the preferences laid out in “The Philosophy of Furniture”: silver-grey walls with lots of crimson and gold accents, landscapes and female portraits, no flowers, minimal window hangings (Poe seems to have had a disdain for swags, like most men I have known), the Empire furniture of his time. Taking all these preferences together, you get a pretty conventional mid-nineteenth century Empire room–I think I need a little bit more texture, a bit more drama, a Gothic air.
The Reading Room (and spooky basement) at the Edgar Allan Poe National Historic Site in Philadelphia, recreated according to Poe’s “Philosophy of Furniture”.
Poe writes a lot about “arabesque” motifs in his “Philosophy” piece, and the importance of carpets, so I’ve picked the Jaipur “Narratives” carpet below for my Poe parlor, from Joss & Main’s inventory site: this rug has all of his favorite colors, it looks perfect to me. I would keep the Empire sofa that you see above (I already have one), but I am very inspired by the Gothic doors of Poe’s Reading Room, so I would look for some Gothic revival side chairs with a similar silhouette: the perfect one sold in a Doyle’s auction last year, but I need more! In front of the Empire sofa I would put a neo-Gothic table made of metal; there are no “period” coffee tables so you might as well go for something cool.
I love this gilded mirror from Christopher Jones Antiques, which is contemporary with Poe: it would go over the mantle of the dark marble fireplace, with two Argand lamps on either side: the pair below are perfect: they just went for $3500 at a Connecticut auction gallery last weekend.
Now all we need are some whimsical/literal accessories and finishing touches: footstools and/or drapes in this “Nevermore” fabric, a Poe pillow or two, Raven candles from Target on the mantle, interspersed with these amazing metal sculptures. A great, beating (ticking) clock. I’m not sure about paintings; Poe’s preferred landscapes are boring and (against his wishes) I would definitely have a textured wallpaper rather than plain painted walls. I’m torn between the Pugin wallpapers below, created in 1848 for a client named Lockhart, which might be too much with my rug, and something more silvery and spidery. My Poe parlor is a work in progress.
Just back from a quick trip to New York City, which overwhelmed me, as usual. It’s not just the size of the city and the buildings, it’s the details that overwhelm, on the (pre-World War II) buildings, and everywhere: the textures of the city. I need a week or so just to absorb a neighborhood, so the pictures below are just instant impressions of Brooklyn Heights and lower Manhattan, where I attended a very special wedding and a very indulgent (seven-course? I lost count) lunch. On the way out of town I did stop at the Met’s Interwoven Globe exhibit, which also overwhelmed me with its details and textures. Part of my return trip was quite leisurely as I took the Taconic Parkway and Route 23 into Massachusetts, but then I flew back to a very busy Salem on the Mass Pike. It’s really Witch City here now, which is overwhelming as well.
Brooklyn Heights and Lower Manhattan: the view from my brother’s apartment window, streets and windows in Brooklyn Heights, “Historia testis temporum” (History is witness to the Times) at the Brooklyn Historical Society, lower Manhattan, apples in the foyer of Bouley, where we ate lunch, a palampore (bed cover) and table carpet from Interwoven Globe.
I never tire of expressions of “olde Salem”: books about colonial furniture, furnishings and architecture, old-fashioned gardens, and photographs and drawings of Salem buildings and scenes, real or imagined, from the first few decades of the twentieth century. There appears to have been an entire generation of authors, photographers, architects, and preservationists who either emerged from or descended upon Salem to capture its fiber before it was lost to modernity: Frank Cousins, Mary Northend, Arthur Little, William Rantoul. I’m sure the Great Fire of 1914 intensified their pursuit, and they are also representatives of a national Colonial Revival, of which Salem was a singular inspiration. I’ve covered a lot of Salem stuff in this blog, but I don’t think I’ve focused on fabric before, so I thought I’d take a first stab.
I’m inspired by some drawings I found in the collections of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston by Walter Mitschke, a German-born textile designer for H.R. Mallinson & Company, which specialized in the production of silk fabrics in the early twentieth century. Their most productive and profitable period was in the 1920s, when they offered a series of American prints, many designed by Mitschke: American National Parks, Wonder Caves of America, American Indians, and Early America. His preparatory drawings for the latter series include several “Olde Salem” vignettes.
Walter Mitschke, Drawings for the”Early American” Series of Designs by H. R. Mallinson & Co., 1927, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Gift of Robert and Joan Brancale.
As you can see, the House of the Seven Gables, perhaps Salem’s most iconic “olde” building and image, is front and center in Mitschke’s emerging design. And Olde Salem is most definitely maritime Salem, not industrial Salem or witchy Salem. A large collection of his drawings and fabric samples was donated to the MFA, and you can see several portfolios of his work via the museum’s Interactive Tours. The Museum of the Rhode Island School of Design has some of Mitschke’s finished fabrics, including the very patriotic (and dynamic) Betsy Ross-Liberty Bell print.
Walter Mitschke, Drawing for the “Early American” Mallinson Series, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, and Fabric Samples, 1927-28, Museum of the Rhode Island School of Design.
I wish I could find the finished product for the Salem drawings; I’m struck by Mitschke’s modernization of “ye olde” images and would love to see the old Gables in such a striking setting. In any case, comparing drawings to finished fabrics is a lesson in how textile designers plotted out the repeat–no small consideration for them. I tried my hand at an old Salem silk print on Spoonflower, and as you can see, I’m no Walter Mitschke!
Two more sources for information on Mitschke and Mallinson: this post on the blog On Pins and Needles, and the current exhibition at the Bard Graduate Center: An American Style: Global Sources for New York Textile and Fashion Design, 1915–1928.
Desperate for green, and while I am waiting for my own ferns to pop out of the ground, I have been perusing various botanical books, several of which led me to some spectacular plates published right here in Salem in the later nineteenth century: Daniel Cady Eaton’s The Ferns of North America: Colored Figures and Descriptions, with Synonomy and Geographical Distribution of the Ferns (Including Ophioglossaceae) of the United States of America and the British North American Possessions (Salem, MA: S.E. Cassino, 1877-80) contains 81 beautiful lithographs hand-colored by James H. Emerton and C. E. Faxon. Another Salem surprise; I’m familiar with Cassino, whose diverse publications included everything from Black Cat Magazine to Bleak House, but this Eaton book is really spectacular.
I suppose I shouldn’t be that surprised: Cassino was trained as a naturalist before he turned to publishing, and seems to have been part of a New England circle surrounding the eminent Harvard naturalist Asa Gray which included Eaton and also John Robinson, head of the Botany Department at the (then) Peabody Academy of Science, whose somewhat less scholarly Ferns in Their Homes and Ours was also published by Cassino during this same time: the illustrations in Robinson’s book are less detailed and naturalistic (and certainly expensive) than those in Eaton’s, but still charming. Robinson designed the garden of the Ropes Mansion on Essex Street and his own large garden on Summer, right around the corner from my own house. While the former is still there, the latter is unfortunately buried under a parking lot. The Robinson house is still standing, however, and the garden plans are in the Library of Congress: they detail several fern borders similar to the illustration below.
How the Victorians loved their ferns, inside and out! The demand for books about ferns seems to be insatiable in the pre-1914 period, and the production of jardinières impressive. In the Victorian language of flowers, ferns were assigned mystical meanings, but also represented shelter, which might explain some of their interior attraction.
Plates from Shirley Hibberd’s Rustic Adornments for Homes of Taste (1870); another recent find: Frances Theodora Parsons’ How to Know the Ferns (1902) with an amazing cover by esteemed binding designer Margaret Nielson Armstrong.
My scholarly, botanical and materialistic interests intersected the other day when I came across a beautiful Arts and Crafts wallpaper print by Charles Francis Annesley Voysey named “Fool’s Parsley”, first produced in 1907. Even though it’s not really appropriate for my 1820s house, I love art nouveau and Arts and Crafts wallpapers in general, and Voysey’s designs in particular. The more I looked at the design, the more it reminded me of Sweet Cicely, one of my favorite plants in the garden, and so it was no surprise to learn that these two plants are in the same family. Though they have a very similar appearance, these herbs have very different natures: while Sweet Cicely “is so harmless you cannot use it amiss” according to the old herbalists, Fool’s Parsley is very, very poisonous. Beauty can be deceiving.
“Fool’s Parsley”, or Aethusa cynapium, in a 1907 wallpaper pattern by Charles Voysey, Victoria & Albert Museum, London and 1856 and 1542 herbals by Constantin von Ettingshausen and Leonhart Fuchs, respectively, Wellcome Library, London.
Fool’s Parsley is often called “Lesser Hemlock” in herbals from the Renaissance onwards, emphasizing its Socratic connection and toxic qualities rather than the evergreen tree. Along with Sweet Cicely, it belongs to the large Umbelliferae plant family, named for and distinguished by its lacy, umbrella-like flowers and including such beneficial vegetables and herbs as carrots, celery, dill, chervil, parsnips, and, of course, parsley. Besides the deprecating designation, there are many stories and anecdotes of poor fools who mistook the poisonous parsley for the passive one and ended up with severe nausea, headaches, and worse. But for CFA Voysey, this lethal plant was as beautiful as a rose, and by all accounts, his very best birds embellish the design.
The combination of the Metropolitan Museum’s current exhibition, Plain or Fancy? Restraint and Exuberance in the Decorative Arts and the onset of Spring (even though it looks very much like winter here) got my thinking about “fancy” chairs. I use this term very liberally, probably too liberally, to refer to any decorated chair with a vaguely Sheraton and/or Empire profile produced in America in the second quarter of the nineteenth century. I have maybe 7 of these chairs, which represent the full spectrum of fanciness, from basic Hitchcock models with stenciling to hand-painted examples which I think are a bit more special. I have had more, I could buy more–they’re everywhere and I love them. I can’t imagine how many of these chairs were made: certainly Lambert Hitchcock started the trend with his Riverton (then Hitchcockville), Connecticut factory in the 1820s, but he must have had many imitators because there are so many fancy chairs out there. Several of my fancy chairs (the ones that are less fancy) have cushions which I had custom-made, and it’s a spring ritual to take the cushions off for the warmer seasons, exposing the rush seats, just as I put slipcovers on some of my upholstered chairs.
The (English) Sheraton inspiration and some of my chairs, the American interpretation: from fancy to plain.
You still see fancy chairs in Salem dining rooms today, but the photograph below shows a room from 1916 (not sure in which house; it’s from an article in the long-defunct Mentor magazine), well after the fancy craze was over. These chairs endured and became classic, and their style was revived multiple times in the twentieth century. Back in their heyday, the prolific New England folk artist Joseph H. Davis (active 1832-37) featured very fancy chairs in many of his parlor portraits, like that of Mr. Demeritt below.
Joseph H. Davis, John F. Demeritt, probably Barrington, New Hampshire, 1836, American Folk Art Museum, New York.
Because of a number of factors–the sheer number of chairs that were made, both in the “fancy” period and after, the great variety of chairs, and the range of imperfections on their painted surfaces–you can find these chairs pretty easily in New England, and often for a very good price. I was looking through the sold lots of several auctions at Skinner this month, and found the groups of chairs below: the entire first lot, a set of 6 chairs made in Newburyport in 1825, went for a little over $1000, while the pair of grain-painted and gilt-stenciled chairs went for $615.
Then again, these are rather restrained examples of the “Fancy” style, which encompassed not only furniture but all of the decorative arts in the second quarter of the nineteenth century. One of my very favorite exhibitions at the Peabody Essex Museum here in Salem was American Fancy: Exuberance in the Arts, 1790-1840, on view in 2004 (curated by Virginia antiques dealer Sumpter T. Priddy III, who appears to have made the study and appreciation of “Fancy” his life’s work and who wrote the beautiful companion volume). Talk about exuberance! Chairs and settees were a big part of this exhibition, and it was clear to me that the most fancy chairs were not made in New England but in the mid-Atlantic, in Baltimore to be precise. The “Baltimore Fancy Chair” makes all others pale in comparison (and fetches prices that indicate its enduring appreciation) but I think I prefer my own chairs–less perfect, less brilliant, less valuable, but still fancy.
More variations on the fancy chair: a Baltimore chair by the Finlay Brothers, c. 1815-20, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; Portrait of Mrs. Edgar Paschall (Martha Eliza Stevens) by unidentified artist, 1823, National Gallery of Art.