Friday, January 8, 2016

American Decoration, a beginning

I'm at a loss to explain how five weeks can have passed since my last post. The Holidays played a role, for sure, as did family visiting from Scotland and New York … yet, given the abiding routine of mine and Barny's days, I am, as I say, confounded.  

I remarked to a neighbor that she should not find amusing what I was about to say: that since I got Barny I had learned respect for the lives of stay-at-home parents, especially those who previously had some intellectual content to their careers. Barny isn't a human child, so the comparison doesn't fully apply, however short the duration of the process, the demands of raising a beloved member of the family with as distinct a personality as those of the others, are constant and leave little room for my pursuits. 

At ten months old, Barny has no idea of my need to write - he feels sad when the Celt goes to work and frequently needs to cuddle with me on the sofa until he's recovered enough to go back to bed for another hour or two. Not a morning person, my Barny Warboys, thus he fits in very well with both of his dads, yet once the carpet has been snuffled, my hand licked and fingers nibbled, suddenly its time to play – a situation announced by a peremptory "woof" and a stare that quite clearly says that this whippet's psychic universe is riding on my reaction. And play we do, after I save yet another attempt at a post. So, we walk and we walk and we walk… and I wonder where the day has gone. 

I have mentioned many a time that a much-valued part of my weekly routine is lunch with my old prof. Besides the friendship, she has been useful in clarifying some of my thoughts and ideas about American design – this is the woman who, when a Graduate Assistant the University of Minnesota, was mentored by Harriet and Vetta Goldstein, the authors of Art in Everyday Life a book still worth reading. 

Perhaps more importantly, for my present purposes, my old prof was friends with Helen E McCullough, who researched how Illinois housewives used their kitchens, noted their wants and perceptions, and published her findings and conclusions in Circulars from the Small Homes Council of the University of Illinois just after the Second World War. 

The idea that American interior design in the form of logical application of standards based on scientific research began to a great degree in Illinois is a seductive one, but similar work was being done at Cornell University. The times were creative: only look at what is for sale on 1stdibs to see the variety of what was achieved (and on the other hand, what one might wish hadn't been). It is mildly shocking to think that Helen E McCullough and her colleagues at Cornell might actually have had more influence on Western society than the Eameses.


As I begin my look at American interior design, I need to state straight away that, in my opinion, there has never been a time when American interior decoration could be seen in isolation from that of Great Britain, France, Italy or, in modern times, of Scandinavia and other parts of Europe. Despite the vastness of this country and the multi-origins of its population, the dominant American decorative style – what is called "traditional" – is derived from the styles created in Britain and France centuries ago. That fact that traditional decorating had its beginnings in Virginia yet in this country for much of the twentieth-century was called "English," and that its major proponent went to live in Britain, should if anything, tip the wink, as it were.

In modern times "traditional" for my taste is too narrowly defined, one might say unimaginatively and lazily so. That said – and with all acknowledgments made to opinions expressed about American exceptionalism in the past and today – I maintain that there were Golden Years in American interior design and decoration, but they are not now.

The beginnings of American worldwide dominance after WWII, the rise of the so-called "American Century" is where I'd like to begin. It was a time when insularity fought with ecumenism, democracy with Communism, the body politic self-harmed but, finally and perhaps inevitably, American interior decoration let go of the WASP-manqué leading strings and took big strides out of the eighteenth- and nineteenth centuries.  Architectural Digest of the 1960s and 1970s is full of photographs that, at this remove, seem to embody a fear of "out there," so covered in curtains and shades are the windows and doors – symbolically blinded, as it were – but Modernism with its sanatorium-like emphasis on light, air and space began to enliven the pages, if a little tentatively.

This was a time in American interior decoration, before the apotheosis of the auctioneer, when decorators worked against a background of history; they knew the basic principles of design and learned the business from a mentor or employer. Nowadays, one wonders …

This first interior from 1969 has much of what I think is significant – this lovely combination of modernity and tradition – about American interior design from that era, and most importantly, it has stood the test of time. I wonder how eye-opening it was – shocking even – for many of the readers of Architectural Digest, for here is spacious Modernism, complete with white walls and ceilings, sunlight thrusting its way through large un-curtained windows onto white poured-polyurethane floors atop which sit "no-color" furnishings in chrome, glass, vinyl, plastic laminates and plexiglass. All is geared to drawing the eye to paintings by Vaserely, Frank Stella and Morris Louis, and a collection of Chinese red lacquer furniture and objects.  As an aside, I wonder if this was the first time that cliche of modern decorating, a Saarinen table flanked by a set of French fauteuils, had been published.

In some ways, I come full circle with this house because though I'm on with a wider subject now, this is the time when the men whom I have written about previously, "the Forgotten Generation," were coming to the fore. They were some of the most exciting talents ever to grace the American decorating scene and many were soon gone, dead to the AIDS epidemic. To my mind, that was a loss from which decorating in this country has yet to recover.


  1. Blue, I'm too ill-informed to comment on decorating; I can tell what I don't like and go from there. But, I can tell what a fine boy Barny Warboys is. I love seeing your photos of him. Such a character. I didn't know whippets were so intelligent and expressive. Glad the holidays were good, but keep us up to date with Barny.

  2. It's interesting to see how Barny has redecorated your flat. Has he transmogrified your spacious Modernism into Traditional?

    Happy new year to the Blue household.

  3. Totally fascinating premise. Agree that "now" is not one of the golden ages, nor the layer on layer of fabrics decor and bows and furbelows in imitation of Colefax and Fowler (as if) in the dreadful 80s. So look forward to your next blog. The Forgotten Generation in design and fashion was a loss beyond measure.

  4. Glad to hear that Barny has allowed this post. As an addition to the columnist's comment, I have wondered what a country house would look like if Barny designed it, totally from his needs and perspective. Maybe you and your dear old prof could use up a few cocktail napkins with that exercise!

  5. If it took 5 weeks of playtime with Barney to produce this post, then I look forward to the next one -- no matter how long it takes. I felt as if this could be the introduction to your book "The Forgotten Generation". I look forward to being educated. Thank you! Susan Adler Sobol

  6. Dog days, indeed. Lucky boys. Lucky dog.

    Your post makes me think about music—singing actually—insofar that too many singers want to ply their art without having sung a scale. They think singing songs is enough—as if the last 250 years of knowledge is not needed at all. In that sense, modern singing, like decoration/design wants to do without, do its own thing with a why-do-I-need-to-know-that approach. This is what I hear you saying.

  7. It's funny because I babysat my brother's dog over the new year while he was away and even though she is lovely we couldn't get anything done and while I was so sad to hand her back we could finally do things. But I am glad you got to make the most of Barny's nap time!

  8. I've had a lapse as well with no Barny to blame...well...maybe work got in the way. Do appreciate your blog classes and musings though so happy he could spare you for awhile!

  9. Funnily enough we are having a big debate about adding a dog into our family. With three children, the last only just starting school, I'm not sure I've got it in me for another one, which a dog surely is (although I'm legally allowed to leave it at home when I duck out to the shops to buy milk which you're not allowed to do with small children).
    It is a strange occurrence that the major proponent of English Country Style was in fact American. I have always thought that American decorators have a good knack with seating arrangements, and are superior in lighting schemes. But I love the looseness of English interiors, and the layering, and the not quite right that somehow works.
    Fascinating to see that Saarinen table and french chairs in 1968… modern design isn't really all that modern.