Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Vulgarized by misuse

"Taste is a particular person's choice between alternatives. It is choosing a tie to go with a shirt to go with a suit to go with an occasion. It is the way you arrange oranges in a greengrocer's shop; the way you light your room; the colour you choose for the outside of your motor car. It applies to food, to interiors, to manners, to anything where it is a question of choice between one alternative and another in connection with colour, style or behaviour.

"There is a certain stratum of people around the world who consider that they know what a good choice of these elements is: this is what has become known as good taste. Thus you can have what is generally considered to be good taste in pictures, good taste in gardens, good taste in interiors, and conversely you have kitsch taste, theatrical taste, vulgar taste and common taste.

"The international cognoscenti elect themselves over the generations. At the end of the nineteenth century John Ruskin made tremendous proclamations about taste which you cannot really argue with today: he was right within the context of what he was preaching. In the 1900s Edith Wharton was regarded as a paragon of taste. People like Syrie Maugham and Elsie de Wolfe were regarded as leaders of fashion and style in interior design in America, England and France in the late twenties and thirties. History has not, on the whole, proved them wrong.

"Taste is not something you are born with, nor is it anything to do with your social background. It is worth remembering that practically anyone of significance in the world of the arts, whether in the past or today, was nobody to start off with. No one has ever heard of Handel's or Gainsborough's father. Nepotism and parental influence count for little in the history of talented designers, architects, painters and musicians. Good taste is something which you can acquire: you can teach it to yourself, but you must be deeply interested. It is no way dependent upon money.

"Many things are palatable to those of us who are supposedly people of taste. But then they are copied and become vulgarized by misuse; through association with their misuse they become unpopular with us. But I am always open to revivals – it is just a question of  reusing something in the right way. There was a time in my life when moiré or watered silk was absolutely intolerable to me, but I now find it acceptable because the mass of vulgarians have moved away from it; now I can reintroduce it and reuse it in a sympathetic way. There was a time when I loathed vermicelli quilting – it used to be done by pathetic lady decorators on watercolour chintzes of no character whatsoever. But now I like it and use it. It must be done on plain chintz though, and not on a patterned fabric. One reason why I like it so much now is my deep interest in rustication in architecture, a theme which has played a very important part in classical and baroque architecture throughout the centuries.

"There is in fact an acceptable way of using almost everything. If someone asked me to design a room for them, but confessed they collected gnomes, I would make a gnomescape on a table. If someone had a passion for flights of ducks I would say that I would use not one but nine flights and would arrange them in a Vasarely-type way, painting the ducks black and white alternatively."

All very well, Mr Hicks, I thought, but I'd've loved to have seen what you could have done when faced with what in my youth was a nadir of taste: two dolls, a flamenco dancer prancing on top of the telly, light from a low-wattage bulb shining through the black lace flounces of her skirt, and her sister in the loo, forever frozen in an attitude of dramatic renunciation, hiding a spare roll of bathroom tissue under her flaring skirts. So kitsch were they then, those dancers, that now seem so retro as to demand homage.

My taste, be it good or bad, has been formed principally by an aversion to the popular or, as David Hicks describes it, vulgar and common taste – a result, I suspect, of my early years in design school and later in university where I read two magazines almost religiously and for years. The more important of the two was Design, the magazine of the now defunct Council of Industrial Design, and Graphis, a Swiss-produced graphic design magazine that was glossy, expensive and precious. There was a third, but at this remove I cannot remember the name. All I know is that it was in the pages of these magazines that I first read about Le Corbusier's chapel at Ronchamp, Moshe Safde's Habitat 67, Buckminster Fuller's geodisic dome, and many a sleek, well-designed product. It was an era of good design when the why, how and what for were paramount – an era of innovation rather than of imitation and restyling.

On my bookshelves I recently came across Phoenix at Coventry, The Building of a Cathedral by Basil Spence. I wonder if I bought it, put it away intending to read it another day and never did, until now. In my youth I once visited the new Coventry Cathedral (the 14th-century St Michael's was bombed and ruined in the Second World War) and it's clear now where my love of combining old and new comes from – for the the power of seeing that ruined stone through the huge engraved screen of window still has resonance. The combination of old and new is still at the basis of my aesthetic though the proportion of each has changed.

Neither ducks, flamenco dancers nor gnomes are in evidence in these two rooms – though a gnomescape might be a splendid, if impermanent, addition to the first, serene, if curiously under-lamped room. Here the combination of modern and old is exciting and, if truth be told, more reminiscent of the 1960s than the architects might care to acknowledge. The modern leavened with the old, rather than the other way round, seems balanced and fresh.

The second room is the one where one might well meet a flight or nine of ducks crossing a wall and as different a room from the first as can be. Or, so you would think – most of what is visible is modern, but what differentiates it from the first room is not only plumpness of shape, but horizon line, color, lack of emphasis on the vertical, and clutter. The eye does not rest as easily in this room as it does in the first, though the backside may well do so.

The first room is from the excellent and stimulating Shelton, Mindel & Associates: Architecture and Design, and the second from a book new to me, The World of Muriel Brandolini, my purchase of which elicited a raised eyebrow from the Celt. He was silent as he read it and made a sage comment afterwards. "Hmmm," was all he said.

Shelton Mindel's room, reminiscent of no period but its own, has a neutral, timeless quality to it, but the Brandolini room, on the other hand, reminds me no end of the late 1960s though its arch cleverness dates it to today.

I surprised myself by liking Brandolini's book for there is little that gibes with my own aesthetic. Yet, though the author veers too frequently towards kitsch there is a freewheeling quality to it all that I find appealing. Would I recommend it? I'd recommend you go to a bookstore and look through it then decide if you want it. I did.

The World of Muriel Brandolini: Interiors, Muriel Brandolini, Amy Tai, Pieter Estersohn (Photographer), Rizzoli.

In a previous post I wrote: Shelton, Mindel &Associates: Architecture and Design is one of those books I bought in a "must-have" moment and, despite it being an impulsive purchase, I remain glad I did. In the Amazon blurb above the most telling phrase to me is "luminous aesthetic" – for light enlivens every page. On the other hand, there is a faded-in-the-sun look to many of the rooms but the powerful integration of architecture, space and light cannot be denied. Not a coffee table book, but it does look splendid on a Barcelona table.

Photograph of Flamenco dancer from here.
Photograph of flying ducks from here.
Photograph of gnomes from eBay.
Pelican bookcovers from here.
Photographs of Coventry Cathedral from Wikipedia.
Poster of 2001: a space odyssey from Wikipedia.
Photograph of Aston Martin DB5 from Wikipedia. 


  1. Until I had read sufficiently far down in your piece and discovered it was David Hicks you were quoting, he would have been the last person who would have sprung to mind. I think he was perhaps being a bit disingenuous. Hicks and gnomes and flying ducks; no, I don't think so. But I get his point. And if you put it another way: you have to have passion to show any talent in interior design. Actually for that matter, you have to have a passion to have a fulfilling life.

    1. columnist, thank you and my apologies for the late response. Hicks's books are quite illuminating especially nowadays when rarely, it seems to me, is a decorator educated in the craft or the history.

  2. No wonder he was so influential with powerful writing such as that! Fascinating. I too was surprised though, admittedly, to hear it was Hicks. I think these are basic notions of 'good taste' that go beyond decades, no?

    1. ArchitectDesign, thank you and my apologies for the late reply to your comment. I think there are basic notions of good taste that travel through the decades - absolutely – the Louis XIV and Louis XV chair styles come to mind as the perfect example.

  3. The black and white ducks you're referring to aren't by Vasarely - it's M. C. Escher.

  4. The black and white ducks you're mentioned aren't by Vasarely - it's M.C. Escher.