The Decoration of Houses: Cultivating Connoisseruship

The Decoration of Houses: Cultivating Connoisseruship

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_________________________ Transcript _________________________

Hey fellow interior designers and design lovers. Welcome to The Daniel House Book Club. Together, we’re reading and discussing the 8 books every interior designer and design enthusiast should have read according to Architectural Digest. This is our final episode focused on Edith Wharton and Ogden Codman’s The Decoration of Houses. For a complete reading schedule, please visit our website, and click on the club bulletin tab. While you’re there, consider becoming a member. Daniel House Club is a powerful tool that helps interior designers do more of what they love and less of what they hate. I’m the club’s Chief Creative officer, Peter Spalding and I’ll be your host.

We started our study of this book by identifying that one of its surprising threads was that of simplicity. Today we are looking at the book’s final three parts, a chapter on The School – Room and Nurseries, which I’m imagining will feel slightly more relevant than it might have in the pre-pandemic era, a chapter titled Bric-a-Brac, which is a term that makes me think of the scenes on Portobello road in the movie Bed knobs and Broomsticks, and the conclusion. All continue to address this issue of simplicity – In fact, the book ends with a collection of what read like proverbs on the subject, “The supreme excellence is simplicity;” “a great draftsmen represents with a few stokes what lesser artists can express only by a multiplicity of lines;” and, “the tact of omission characterizes the master hand.”  I’m not sure if you all have a collection of short essays by more contemporary thinkers and design practitioners at the end of your copy like I do in mine, but in the one I have by William Cole he says, “the book might equally be called, The Graces of Life - for its real subject is not just about houses, but the quality of life in them. Edith and Ogden are definitely not advocating for the simple life in the sense we think, but they are calling for unity not just in the composition of the home, but in one’s life. Nowhere is this more evident than in today’s chapters. 

Strangely, or maybe not, the chapter on nurseries and that on bric-a-brac both address the issue of connoisseurship. I think little would offend Edith and Ogden more than the contemporary idea of a home make-over. For them, the development of a great home begins with an eye trained toward artistic excellence, and this is an eye that, even for people with an inherent interest in beauty, takes a lifetime to cultivate. I’ve been listening a lot to Architectural Digest’s AD Aesthete, which was hosted by their decorative arts editor, Mitchell Owens. There was a great episode on Jayne Wrightsman, who I didn’t know much about, but talk about cultivating connoisseurship. 

Actually, I did know the name Wrightsman; it’s the title of some of my favorite galleries at The Met, but one of my weaknesses is not always seeking context for the things I really enjoy. The Wrightsman Galleries are an amazing collection of French period rooms that are so complete, I just assumed they were always there. This is a ridiculous assumption to make, since clearly, once, long before The Met existed, every piece of these rooms was somewhere in Europe.

After listening to the AD Aesthete episode on Jayne Wrightman, I did some research and learned that before Jayne met her oil magnate husband Charles, she worked in a department store and her mother owned a bar in Los Angeles. After she married and became a major contributor to the arts, her mother is said to have walked her neighborhood in bunny slippers, occasionally announcing, “I am the mother of the Mrs. Wrightsman.” Now, this may be hyperbole meant to convey a rags-to-riches story, and by all accounts Jayne Wrightsman was as dignified and sophisticated as they come, so dragging she and her mother through the mud, even if they have both passed, hardly seems kind. But, the point I’m trying to make here, is that where one begins has very little bearing on their ability to cultivate within themselves a vast and discerning knowledge of the great objects of the world. Admittedly, it requires lots of time and exposure. And this cultivation, in the end, has relatively little to do with the objects and more to do with the whole worlds that existed to make them possible. When you learn about history, it becomes a part of you and you see the world through a much bigger lens. The things you possess are no longer about you and what others think of you, they are a window into a time and place that have informed the world you occupy now. If I’m getting really crazy, these windows help you remain calm when you read the morning news, and you remember all the great and horrifying things that have happened before.

Jayne did not grow up in the world she died a leader of. She did not become a leader by having lots of expensive stuff and Instagramming about it, she became a leader by developing her mind and sharing that with as many people as she could. Looking from the outside in, her life was simple, in that she and her husband established for themselves a lens and everything they did and collected and contributed was within that lens. If it fell outside the lens, there was no need to waste any time.

Anyway, your origins play little into whether you can develop artistic knowledge or not, but Edith and Ogden believe it is best to begin cultivating awareness as early as possible, and we see that in their recommendations for the school-room and nursery. I actually am pretty sure I had a professor who employed the very ideas they suggest here on my classmates and me. Call it brainwashing if you like, but the techniques were definitely effective.  There is no mention of Classical orders on the walls of the nursery, just this idea that kids can handle a lot more than we give them credit for.

How can I child reading only rose-color fairytales with cute illustrations become prepared for the gravity of A Knight’s Tale, they ask? Because, in a sense, you are what you eat. They argue that a child given a gift of value will be excited to possess something a grownup has and will treat it with great care. I am not a parent, but I have met a lot of kids and was one once, and this seems a bit of a broad-brush stroke to me, but then I was not raised in a time when this sort of thinking was the norm, so I may not be seeing what Edith and Ogden saw. I can say that even as a kid, I loved houses. My dad travelled to Washington D.C. a lot and there was an old man who had a kiosk in the airport there, where he sold little houses he made from paper thin pieces of wood. The houses were of real architectural style, and their rooves could be removed, exposing tiny, fabric lined treasure boxes within. When dad came home from Washington, he usually brought a little house with him. I loved getting them – I would design their floor plans and tell myself stories about the people who lived in them and learn about what period of architecture they represented.

Come to think of it, those little houses were probably made in China and exactly the sort of junk Edith and Ogden would have hated. Anyway, on to the brainwashing; they suggest that, with the help of the children’s teacher, one could develop a rotating decorative plan for the nursery that coordinates with the lessons being taught. If the lessons are about Ancient Rome, inexpensive prints and plaster casts depicting the art, architecture and literary and political figures of the time could be hung and swapped out for the same imagery from France when the time comes. The classroom I had where I said the professor was practicing these techniques on my classmates and me, was filled with plaster castes of architectural elements that once hung in the huge entrance hall of The Met. In the midst of all these incredible objects that spoke of disparate times throughout Western history, he pinned a computer printed image of the inscription on the side of the John Carter Brown Library at Brown University in Rhode Island. It says, “Speak to the past and it shall teach thee.” How bizarre, I thought, when he pinned it up. Maybe the inscription was wrong, surely it should say something like, “listen to the past and it shall teach thee,” or even maybe, “let the past speak to you…” For me to speak to the past implies it is still alive. It implies the possibility of a dialogue. It says, we can have a chat and I can learn from you and we can both move forward together with a new perspective. It is not fashionable to learn from the past right now and that sucks, because it’s so filled with answers it’s not even funny. Perhaps it is not the whole answer you need today, but the building blocks are there. I think, if we want to criticize Edith and Ogden, we could say they were a little too fixated on listening to the past, and not talking back to it enough, but this is the norm for people in a society working to establish itself as a torchbearer.

In any case, they felt a child exposed to works of art, even if they didn’t appreciate them directly, would inadvertently have their whole world view expanded. If beauty wasn’t the foremost concern, encouraging taste in a young person by having them select the art for their room would force them engage in judging the merits of one object over another, which is a skill we all rely on in decision making throughout our lives. As our homes are turned upside down to accommodate all sorts of activities that previously took place in schools and office buildings, I do think we have a renewed opportunity to help young people see a bigger picture.

And with this bigger picture, we become adults who have seen a lot and aren’t fooled by junk. This brings us to Edith and Ogden’s chapter on Bric-a-brac, which is a chapter I would retitle for the contemporary audience as Insta-style with the dual purpose of educating a client against falling into the trap of creating rooms that produce trendy pictures and learning that great things, more than requiring extra money, require more patience. We don’t really have people posing as “antiquities” dealers anymore as is written about in the book, because, as I recently heard Alexa Hampton say in an interview, when you say the word “antique,” people practically throw up. For almost 20 years, great pieces of art and furniture Edith and Ogden would have treasured has been headed to the dump. It is stuff that, once gone can likely never be replaced, because our contemporary expectation of time and cost make its creation impossible. Happily, this is changing fast and all you need to do to know this is tune in to live auctions and watch as antique objects go for higher and higher prices. It used to be that a designer could stockpile great things and fill their clients’ homes with them profitably, and if current lead times and shipping delays continue, we may find ourselves there again, but now, with clients having the same access to stuff you do, what they don’t understand is that they do not have your cultivated your eye and they will not be able to develop a set of their own overnight. For many of us, our greatest asset is our eyes, and that is what we are selling. We can speed the process up (which Daniel House is here to help with), we can come in on budget (which we can also help with). But when people come to us and they say I want some beautiful rooms, what they really want is a beautiful life and no amount of time and cost savings can provide that. Learning to see will provide that. You can teach them to see.

Beyond mere cultivation, which is no small feat, Edith and Ogden do have some practical advice for the collector. New collectors will tend to collect too much and the scale of their objects will usually be wrong for the room they choose to put them in. A huge vase might have plenty of empty space behind it, but it might appear to be crushing the table it sits on. Too many objects makes it impossible to appreciate any of them. Scale and quantity are the most important factors in collections of art objects. Where people forgive collections of furniture that are good bad and indifferent because these things are needed to sit on and set things on and see by, there is no reason to have bad art. It is not a necessity, but instead the crowning element of a room so, like costume jewelry, cries out if it is junk. In my own opinion what constitutes junk in the world of art these days is what is mass produced with no eye to original production methods. If something originated as a print, that means in its original state, it could be made over and over again. So, there are many wonderful prints. What’s not so good is a painting, copied and digitally printed on to a canvas and then laid over with transparent markings that suggest the texture of real painting. Little chotchkies that come from a catalogue of other little chotchkies aren’t great either. Apart from the inferior quality of these things, there is the question of what the heck they mean to the person who owns it. Are they windows into another world? It is difficult to imagine how. There is something to be said for a room requiring a thing of a certain scale somewhere, or enough objects to feel inhabited, but Edith and Ogden say these things better add more value than the blank spaces they occupy.

Apart from the proverbs of simplicity I mentioned at the beginning, Edith and Ogden conclude by saying something I think we’d still need to finish a similar book with today; hose attempting to set standards of house decoration are suspected of proclaiming individual preferences under the guise of general principles. But it is their unique, or at least pretty unusual blend of authority and practical advice that makes The Decoration of Houses rise to the level of a classic. Even if they are exerting their own taste on their readers, they are providing the foundational knowledge for these readers to go out, examine the built world and try for themselves. In providing their marching orders as they did, I think they believed they were setting their readers free in the same way a financial advisor with obedient clients might set them up for a terrific life in retirement. 

Before we leave Edith and Ogden behind, which will be hard to do since their permeation of our world is lasting, let’s just look briefly at who they were outside the confines of The Decoration of houses. A lot of people know at least a bit about Edith Wharton, so let’s start with the lesser known Ogden. He was born in the 1860’s in  Massachusetts where he lived with his family until he was 12, before spending the next 9 or 10 years of his life in France. His grandfather inherited the house Ogden grew up in from his uncle who had no kids. It was built in 1740 for his father, Chambers Russell, who founded the town it occupies. All this is to say, by the time Ogden was born, his home had been in his family for 120 years and in this way, would have felt something like the great country houses of Europe that get passed down and altered from generation to generation. It did not start as a huge house, but grew to be large and important to its community. The house remains intact today and is operated as a museum by Historic New England.

In France, Ogden lived in the American and British resort town called Dinard. During this time, he was exposed to and fell in love with 16th, 17th and 18th century French and Italian architecture. Two of his close relatives were in the profession of architecture and decoration and when he returned to the states, he studied architecture at MIT, which he did not enjoy. He did not seem to have enjoyed working for other architects either and began his own practice in 1891 both in Boston and in Newport, Rhode Island, which was then a major summer resort for important New Yorkers including Edith Wharton. She hired him to turn her ugly house into something beautiful and admired him for being an architect who treated the subject of decoration seriously. Together, they did transform her house to great effect and through this experience decided to write The Decoration of Houses together. Later, Ogden said he had written it almost entirely himself, and Edith just added polish, but we know that Edith played more than a ghost-writer role. She even credited her good friend Walter Berry with helping her revise the first draft into a clearer work.

As an architect, Ogden did successfully complete over 20 houses, but critics always praise his interiors more highly. I have only experienced his own house at 7 E 96th Street, which is fantastic, so I cannot really elaborate on why his career as an architect didn’t leave a greater impression. He did decorate for the very top echelon of his day though – he did the interiors at Rockefeller’s house Kykuit, in Westchester, and the Vanderbilts Newport house, The Breakers. I prefer the former, which is very quiet, restrained and livable and has a bizarre basement collection of tapestries copied from Picasso paintings, which were commissioned by Nelson Rockefeller in the 1960s. Both houses are open to the public and very worth a visit.

In his personal life, Ogden Codman is known to have been gay, despite marrying the widow of a railroad magnate in 1904. When she died only six years into their marriage, Ogden inherited her estate. He lived in New York for another 10 years, before returning to France for the last 30 years of his life. There, he bought the former estate of King Leopold II Belgium near Monaco. He redesigned its collection of disjointed structures into a unified whole. Considered his masterwork, Villa Leopolda as it is now called, was so expensive, he could not afford to live there. Instead, he rented it to many important people, though when the former British King Edward VIII and his wife Wallis Simpson wanted to make changes that went against his aesthetic preferences, Ogden famously said, “I regret that the House of Codman is unable to do business with the House of Windsor.” You can imagine what he must have been like to work with – I say this partially rolling my eyes and partially admiring the strength of his conviction.

We know a lot more about Edith Wharton. She was a hugely successful novelist in a time when it was considered inappropriate for women to be writers. In 1921, she became the first woman to win a Pulitzer prize for her novel, The Age of Innocence, a depiction of life in gilded age New York City, where she was born in the 1860s. Edith Newbold Jones at birth, her family made their money in real-estate and the phrase ‘keeping up with the Joneses” is thought to refer to them. She married Teddy Wharton from Boston when she was 23 and while they shared a love of travel, especially to Italy, Teddy never became the breadwinner, his mental state declined and they eventually divorced. Here three loves were American Houses, Novels and Italy. When World War I began, as many Americans moved home, she moved to her Paris apartment. Apart from visiting the front lines on more than one occasion, she set up work rooms for unemployed women, hostels for refugees, and raised over $100,000 dollars on their behalf.

Even though their relationship was strained from time to time, Edith and Ogden remain close and she died at his expensive French home while working on a revised edition of The Decoration of Houses. Even though many of her other works eclipsed this one in public popularity, it was from The Decoration of Houses that she received her first royalty check. I think it is safe to say, Edith Wharton practiced the expansive view of life she preached. The art and architecture she loved really did reflect her aspirations. In her autobiography, A Backward Glance, she lamented the “monstrous regiment of the emancipated: young women taught by their elders to despise the kitchen and the linen room, and to substitute the acquiring of University degrees for the more complex art of living.” I think it would be a mistake to hear this and think Edith was advocating for women to stay in the kitchen. Instead, I think she was saying the standardized parameters instituted in order to educate the masses greatly reduced our ability to take in all there is to see and know in the world. To believe a university education is all there is to know, is to see learning as finite. She is proof that it is not. Join us next week as we move on to study a similarly pioneering woman, Elsie de Wolf and her book, The House in Good Taste.

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