Tag Archives: Interior design

Christmas in Salem 2016

stellar Christmas in Salem tour around Salem Common this past weekend, featuring all the things that I love about Salem houses and Salem people. The combination of generous and creative homeowners, perfect clear and crisp December weather, and myriad magical details made for a very special experience. Here’s just a short list of attractions (I really could go on and on): a McIntire spiral staircase, beautiful views of the Common (as seen through very clean windows–the first thing I noticed when I got home was how dirty mine are), an artist’s atelier/bedroom, an alpine-decorated deck, kitchens extraordinaire, an architectural dollhouse, exceptional artwork and collections. To be honest, I barely noticed the Christmas decorations as I was so focused on the architecture and interior design. I was a bit pressed for time, so I skipped the three institutional stops on the tour–the PEM’s Andrew Safford House, the Bertram House, and St. Peter’s Church–and went right for the private homes, all along the Common and a few adjacent side streets. It seemed to me that the tour was curated for contrast: of scale (larger institutional or single-family homes contrasted with smaller structures and condominiums), of architectural style (everything was built in the nineteenth century but what a difference between the Federal, Greek Revival, Victorian and Colonial Revival!), of design (very modern and more traditional), of embellishment (very decorated and more minimalistic), and above all, of expression: the homeowners expressed themselves in various ways: through their own art or design, or through their collections, or both!

I was fortunate to obtain a press pass so I could take photographs of the houses, but 1) I am not a professional photographer and 2) I got completely overwhelmed by all I had to see/ “capture”, so please go on over to Creative Salem  or to Historic Salem for more polished and comprehensive portfolios: it was really all too much for me, in the best possible way!

Let’s start with a sampling of beautiful rooms, and then I’ll try to present some of the details that caught my eye–just some, because there was so much to see.

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Let there be light! This  was a very enlightened tour, in more ways than one:

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Myriad Mantles……..

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Dazzling Details…….of collections, an amazing restoration, and all sorts of embellishment, including an historic Salem gallery wall, an exterior Christmas tablescape (set up by the homeowner of a beautiful condo, who felt that she need to offer a “bit more”), and the ultimate dollhouse.

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It was impossible for me to capture the complete creativity of Salem artist Thomas Darsney’s stunning home/gallery: his canvases were luminous but the entire home was in fact a canvas, with no surface or detail unconsidered. 

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Just a few exterior shots because again, the light was so beautiful on Sunday……

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Why not tie everything up with a big red bow?

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Seasonal Spider (webs)

Well, Halloween is less than a week away so I suppose I should post on something seasonal: my October avoidance of downtown Salem has actually made me less aware of this holiday, although yesterday it dawned on me that I was not prepared for trick-or-treating and should start accumulating all of the candy I will need. It seems as if I always run out, no matter how much I buy. In my neighborhood there is a range of Halloween/Fall decorations:  some completely over the top, others more subtle. My favorite seasonal decoration preferences run more to the natural than the macabre: I’ve always thought that bats are wonderful, and I have developed a healthy appreciation for spiders over the last few years. There are quite a few spiders, with webs and without, around Salem these days, but today’s post is really more inspired by interior decoration than exterior embellishment, and specifically by a New York Times article from a few weeks ago about the restoration/redecoration of two historic “literary shrines”: the Connecticut houses of Mark Twain and Harriet Beecher Stowe. In the parlor of Twain’s house, workers are installing a reproduction 1880s wallpaper with spiderwebs designed by Candace Wheeler, an absolutely amazing artist who, along with her design colleagues in her firm Associated Artists, was primarily responsible for the original decoration of the house. Just one look at the wallpaper started me down both a Candace Wheeler path and a spider/web path–so here’s the latter, beginning with the Mark Twain’s parlor paper and proceeding back and forth through the ages and back to Salem.

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Candace Wheeler wallpaper, Metropolitan Museum of Art: Contemporary spiderweb wallpaper in two tones, Walls Republic; Japanese silk embroidered spiderweb textile, early Meijii era, William Sturgis Bigelow Collection, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; English “Spider Print” Textile Length, 2004, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; the best “natural” Halloween vignette ever: Bat and a Spider Web, 1782, Philadelphia Museum of Art; my favorite medieval spider, British Library MS Sloane 4016; a Salem spider.


Tudor Texture in London

Besides far superior public transportation systems and many more public smokers, I think the thing that Americans notice the most when they travel to Europe is texture: a built environment that looks comparatively embellished, nuanced with symbolism, and venerable. Despite London’s dynamic growth over the past twenty years or so, there is still a lot of historic fabric in the city–but much of it is deceptively and relatively “modern”, i.e., Victorian. The Houses of Parliament are probably the best example, but scattered around the city are myriad buildings that “look” older than they really are: especially pubs! I was charged with finding Tudor sites in London on this trip: a task that was not as easy as you might think. The successive catastrophes of the Great Fire of London and the Blitz obliterated much of the city’s pre-modern fabric and in between there were those “improving” Victorians! So what remains of Tudor London? Lots of things, primarily to be found in the National Portrait Gallery, Tate Britain, The Victoria & Albert Museum, and the Museum of London. Several places, namely the Henry VII Chapel at Westminster Abbey, St. Margaret’s Church nearby, Lambeth Palace just across the river, and the Tower of London and the sister churches of St. Helen’s Bishopsgate and St. Andrew Undershaft in the City. There is also the Staple Inn of my last post, whose very Tudor appearance probably owes much to an early twentieth-century “restoration”, and St. Bartholomew’s Gatehouse and the oldest residence in London, located on the picturesque City street of Cloth Fair. To the west, Hampton Court Palace, and to the east, Sutton House in Hackney, which was one of the highlights of my recent tour. You can’t quite immerse yourself in the Tudor era in modern London–but you can come close, for an hour or two, if you find the right spot.

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Windows into the Tudor era: exterior of the Chapel Royal at Hampton Court (where we attended a service!), featuring the Tudor emblems of the portcullis and rose; looking out from the Tower towards the Queen’s apartments, built c. 1530 for Anne Boleyn; windows at the Sutton House, c. 1535; one of many impressive oriel windows at Hampton Court Palace.

Henry VIII at Hampton Court

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Tudor People: Henry VIII at Hampton Court; my favorite of his wives, Katherine Parr at the National Portrait Gallery; the tomb of  his niece (and the grandmother of King James VI and I) Margaret, Countess of Lennox, in the Henry VII Chapel at Westminster Abbey; not quite Tudor-era people but I love this triptych portrait of the Holme family in the Victoria & Albert Museum, c. 1628.

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Hampton Court courtyards and Sutton House and its central courtyards in Hackney; St. Andrew Undershaft in the City of London dwarfed by the Gherkin (my photograph didn’t turn out so well as the Gherkin wasn’t so textured; this is one credited to Duncan which I found here. It’s a pretty classic composition now, as you can imagine!)

So now finally for some real interior texture: the Tudors could not bear an unembellished surface and were particular fond of tapestries and wood paneling for their interiors. At Hampton Court, the private Tudor apartments were demolished to make way for the Baroque “restoration” of William and Mary’s reign, but the Great Hall of Henry VIII’s time remains, with its decorated hammer-beam roof and walls lined with The Story of Abraham tapestries. On the day that I was there last week, this room was full of English schoolgirls (in the best uniforms ever) drawing details from the tapestries in close consultation with their teachers, so it was hard for me to get a clear shot of the interior details (plus I was very taken with these uniforms–fortunately there are lots of pictures of the Great Hall online). Later in the week, at Sutton House, I walked around the house in complete isolation and marveled at each and every surface: it was like stepping back in time in some rooms, while in others the National Trust’s conservation/interpretation approach enabled one to look beyond the decorative facade into the bones of the house, which is a must-see for any Tudor fan.

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Schoolgirls in the Great Hall at Hampton Court; The very famous “Great Ware Bed”, c. 1590, at the Victoria & Albert Museum (this item could have a post of its own); The National Trust’s Sutton House in Hackney: front door, doorway, paneling, details from fireplace surround & hops woodcarving; upstairs drawing room.        


Sleeping with George

Even though we live only steps away, we packed up a few things (very few, essentially wine) and headed off to The Merchant to spend Saturday night in the very same room in which George Washington slept when he visited Salem in late October, 1789. The Merchant is the newly-christened Joshua Ward House, built between 1784 and 1788 for one of Salem’s wealthiest merchants; it has a long and interesting history, but is now completely restored, refurbished, and rejuvenated. My husband worked on this project and I’ve always loved this house, so as soon as it opened (November 25) we booked a room: #3, George Washington’s room. It is beautiful, and very tastefully (and patriotically) appointed with a starry ceiling and antique eagle, but we couldn’t possibly limit our presence to just that one room as there was too much else to see: a beautiful central hallway and hotel taproom/lounge adorned in jewel-box colors, amazing woodwork everywhere, details, details and more details. I couldn’t stop touching banisters, doorways and mantels, sanded down to their eighteenth-century origins to reveal very clean lines and then repainted in glorious colors. Once we did retire, I must say we didn’t spend too much time communing with George as the bed (which looked to me like a big Georgian chair covered in blue velvet–it doesn’t show up in the pictures well) was so enveloping: we fell fast asleep and woke up to a sunny Sunday morning which cast the room, and the entire hotel, in an even more illuminating light. But sadly we had to go (trudge) home.

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Above, entry hall and room #3 of The Merchant, night and day, with its starry ceiling. Below, window where Washington waved to the crowd outside in 1789, the taproom/guest lounge (with bottles found during the renovation), and back deck, other guest rooms, and a few more amenities (old architectural details/ new herringbone bathroom tile), back hallway and McIntire mantel.

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The Merchant, 148 Washington Street, Salem; 978.745.8100.


Tumbling Blocks

It’s an old, old pattern, utilized in ancient Greece and Rome and maybe before, revived in the Renaissance, Baroque, and Victorian eras. Actually “tumbling blocks”, also known as rhombille tiling, reverse cubes, or cubework, probably never went away. It’s got to be one of the most popular–and most effective–optical illusions used in tile and textile design–both in the past and the present. I’ve always loved this pattern, and after I saw it on some chairs in one of the bedrooms in the newly-restored Joshua Ward House, soon to open as The Merchant, I started thinking about it and looking for it and it was suddenly everywhere. I always knew it was ancient, but my first introduction to tumbling blocks came via an amazing and influential eighteenth-century pattern book,  John Carwitham’s Floor-decorations of Various Kinds, Both in Plano & Perspective: Adapted to the Ornamenting of Halls, Rooms, Summerhouses (1739). Carwitham’s 24 plates, including several three-dimensional patterns “compos’d of three different kinds of marble, as white, black and dove-coloured, which are so disposed of, that in the dark of an Evening they both appear as if they consisted of a number of long cubes, lying with angles upward, forming of ridges, like the roofs of houses…..”, were apparently very influential on both sides of the Atlantic. I wouldn’t be surprised if Joshua Ward’s beautiful Mansion House, built less than 50 years later, did not feature some surface in the tumbling blocks pattern, so it seemed very appropriate to see it reappear on a pair of modern slipper chairs in 2015.

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Tumbling Blocks:  House of the Faun at Pompeii; plate for John Carwitham’s Floor-Decorations of Various Kinds (1739); Victorian firescreen, c. 1865-1875, Victoria and Albert Museum Collections; Connecticut Child’s Quilt, c. 1860-1880, National Museum of American History; Tunbridge Ware Tea Caddy, c. 1860, available here; floor of the Getty Villa; bowl at Jason Home; Anthropologie Diamond Interlockrugs; guest room corner at The Merchant, Salem.


Holding the Sun

I suppose I should be writing about the (super)moon, but yesterday I became captivated by the sun: not the real sun, but a stylized image of a sun in the hands of a “medieval” king on a very cool chair by the twentieth-century Italian architect and designer Paolo Buffa. Said chair, with its mate, was featured in the pages of T: the New York Times Style Magazine yesterday, in an article on French designer Vincent Darré’s whimsical Paris apartment. There’s always something that catches my eye in this well-curated periodical, and this weekend it was the Buffa chair, or more particularly the image on the back of the chair: I tried to find its source–to no avail; I suppose Buffa must have sketched it himself–it looks “traditional” and “modern” at the same time, like many of his designs.

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The Buffa chair in Mr. Darré’s study, in multiples: photograph by François Halard for T: The New York Times Style Magazine.

I love this chair! I want this chair! But I imagine it’s well outside of my price range (a pair of much less distinct chairs is priced at $5500 here), so after considering the style for a while I moved on to the substance. Because of its obvious splendor, the sun has been utilized by kings and queens projecting their power and magnificence from time immemorial and all areas of the world. The sun is generally utilized as a visual reference–either as accessible symbol or allegorical emblem–but it is actually held, or brought to earth, surprisingly seldom. It takes bravado to do that, like that exhibited characteristically by the Sun King, Louis XIV. From early on in his reign he utilized the sun in myriad ways: basking in its beams, driving its chariot, holding and eventually evolving into it. He was identified as the sun by both his supporters and his enemies–among them the persecuted and exiled Huguenots of France who projected him as a sun-inquisitor following the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes in 1685.

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Louis XIV  in the costume of The Sun King in the ballet ‘La Nuit’ c.1665; Protestant caricature of King Louis XIV as inquisitor, illustration from ‘Les Heros de La Ligue ou La Procession monacale, conduite par Louis XIV, pour la conversion des protestants de son royaume’, Paris, Chez Pere Peters, a l’Enseigne de Louis Le Grand, 1691; Calendar of Indictments against Louis XIV, 1706, Library of Congress.

But sun symbolism was not always so straightforward, and certainly not in the seventeenth century, when it could represent not only a king and his mastery of all before him, but also faith and reason: the light of both spiritual and scientific understanding. In the very important emblem book of Georgette de Montenay, Cent emblemes chrestiens (1615), the sun goes dark when held in the hand of a philosopher who has abandoned his faith for false theories while conversely another woman–from a bit later in the century, after Galileo’s very public defense of heliocentrism–holds the sun-light of understanding in her hand.

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“Lacking Light”, Georgette de Montenay, Cent emblemes chrestiens (1615), Glasgow University Emblems website; A woman holds a sun in her hand; representing the faculty of understanding. Engraving by T. Jenner [?], c. 1650, Wellcome Library, London.


Ropes Mansion Refresh

I’ve been anticipating the reopening of the Ropes Mansion for some time so it was with great excitement that I crossed the threshold yesterday for the first time in a decade or so: the house was shuttered for restoration after an accidental fire in 2009 and I remember it being a bit tired even before that. Not now: refreshed was the word that came into my mind almost as soon as I set foot in the front hall. It’s not just the new paint and paper (and absolutely beautiful carpets): it feels like the house’s spirit has been renewed. Most appropriately, the interpretation focuses on the Ropes family, who donated the house–as a Memorial— to the Peabody Essex Museum (then Essex Institute) in 1907, almost as much as the interior architectural features. Their possessions are all around you as you walk through the rooms: their china, their pictures, their books, their trunks, their own memorials. There are touches of modern whimsy in several of the rooms which added to the overall feeling of renewal, and details, details, details, galore. I think I’ll have to go back again and again: it’s open every weekend this summer from noon until 4pm.

The house was built in 1727 but extensively remodeled in the 1890s, so it feels (to my untrained eye) almost like a perfect blend of the Colonial and the Colonial Revival. This was most apparent on the first floor: as you walk front to back you move forward in time–from 1727 (or more precisely 1830, the date of the Asher Benjamin-influenced entrance) to the perfectly-preserved 1894 kitchen, with all its “new” equipment. Two dining rooms on the right–or I suppose a breakfast room and dining room decorated in a later 19th-century style–and on the left a double parlor with an amazing front-to-back fireplace. I’ve always loved this room, and when I walked into it yesterday it instantly reminded me of one of my favorite architectural drawings: Arthur Little’s sketch of the parlor of the long-lost Benjamin Pickman house further up Essex Street, from his (now-reissued by Historic New England) 1878 book Early New England Interiors. And for cupboard connoisseurs, the first floor of the Ropes Mansion is heaven, with fully-stocked butler’s and kitchen pantries and dining-room china cabinet.

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The Benjamin Pickman House Parlor by Arthur Little, Old New England Interiors, 1878. Courtesy of Historic New England.

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The second floor of the Ropes Mansion is even more intimately interpreted than the first, with one side of the house devoted to lavishly-recreated bedrooms and the other side to displays of possessions, some quite touching: I was struck particularly by a leather fire bucket (after all, this was a family, and this is a house, that experienced three major fires: besides the 2009 fire, there was a fire during the 1894 restoration and most tragically Abigail Pickman Ropes died in 1839 after her dress caught fire on this very floor–the posthumous portrait of Abigail by Charles Osgood is also on view) as well as a lovely watercolor memorial wreath dedicated to the memory of Abigail’s niece, Elizabeth Ropes Orne, who died of consumption at age 24 in 1842 (see her own sketches here). The bedrooms with their canopy beds are lovely: one rather ghostly and/or innocent, the other displaying a much more vibrant reproduction textile, and there is a fully-outfitted bathroom in the 1894 back of the house, just as “modern” as the kitchen below. Altogether a beautiful house bearing testimony to lives lived: the best kind of memorial.

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Ropes Memorial

A true Ropes Memorial: watercolor memorial wreath for Elizabeth Ropes Orne by her former teacher, Eliza B. Davis, who presented it to Elizabeth’s mother Sally in 1851. Elizabeth’s signature, presumably from a letter, is in the center. 


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