Style Court

Textiles, Art History, Gardens, and a Little Mental Traveling with Courtney Barnes 2006-2016


Second Ingredient: Sincerity

To illustrate Vogue's second essential ingredient found in a well-mannered, harmonious home -- sincerity -- I've chosen some preview images from Michael S. Smith Houses. For years the designer has been on my short list of most admired, and when I briefly met Smith in person he seemed relaxed with a great sense of humor.

This humor, and Smith's true voice, really come through in his latest book. I treasure my signed copy of his first title, but the second edition has a soulful edge. He spends more time exploring his passion for cross-cultural design and the style to which he has always been true -- a sexy, laid-back take on English country.

And although Smith is known for using high-end fabrics and fine antiques, his interiors are enduring, flexible, and never need to be "updated." So, in a way, there is something frugal and very real about them.

In a few weeks when I put together my list of book picks for holiday giving, I'll share more on Smith Houses. (You will flip for the bedrooms and textiles.) For now here are some guidelines for sincerity as described in Vogue's Book of Etiquette, 1969. To me they echo Smith's approach.

"Sincerity in a house is simply the look of belonging so completely to its occupants that they are familiar and at home with everything in it. It is a true sense of values and a lack of serious pretense in any form."

Specific examples:

The most beautiful antique is made to be used as well as admired.

Ornaments are collected because of genuine interest and delight rather than current popularity.

Vogue says avoid displaying photographs of famous people you barely know; no decorative name-dropping; nothing solely for impressing others.

Choose everyday china that is "as pretty as your purse permits..."

Have fresh flowers even when guests are not expected.

Reproductions are fine when they are honest and not trying too hard; avoid the grandiose.

In the right hands a little obvious pretense can be light-hearted and fun: the frankly fake fur rug, enormous paper flowers. But in the wrong hands these things can "cheapen a whole room."

A sincere interior comes in all styles -- modern, minimal, layered. The point is that it feels real for the occupant.

"A wise client will never allow a decorator to tempt her into choosing any object, color, or pattern that has no meaning for her, or into discarding any possession she loves."

Image three is from Elle Decor

All others are ©Michael S. Smith Houses by Michael Smith and Christine Pittel, Rizzoli New York, 2008.

The top two images, again from the book, are renderings by Mark Matusak.


First Ingredient: Personal Warmth

It will probably be a week or so before my Cecil Beaton book arrives. In the meantime, I thought I'd share some more enduring advice from Vogue's Book of Etiquette, 1969. The tips are universal and relate mainly to the concept of home, rather than to decorating. And they apply whether you have endless resources or a tiny budget, so I think the guidance is timely.

Vogue says houses that are well-mannered and harmonious tend to put people at ease and evoke attractive behavior. Four essential ingredients contribute to this type of home: personal warmth, sincerity, understatement, and consideration. "None of these has to do with formality or lack of it. And none is a matter or money."

According to the book, "Personal warmth is the most appealing element in any room and nothing -- elegance, drama, enormous expenditure -- can take its is the sum total of many things, all of which indicate that people really live in a room, and do not merely pass through it."

Vogue stresses the presence of truly meaningful objects over a contrived arrangement. The wildly different homes of Aerin Lauder and artist Konstantin Kakanias contain layers of meaning, and both exude warmth. Kakanias' bohemian digs are in the hills of Hollywood, carved out of part of actress Barbara Stanwyck's former playground. Lauder's inherited weekend home, in contrast, is stately. But each house is filled with mementos, not trendy accessories.

Signs of the artist's fascinating globe-trotting life are clear throughout his home, and Lauder keeps her grandmother's spirit completely alive rather than worry about being hip.

"Warmth is an inviting, disarming quality that must originate in a person's or family's sentiments and way of life." Examples include:

A collection of mediocre drawings by a long-dead relative grouped without apology over a pedigreed antique.

A worn Oriental rug that children and dogs cannot really harm.

Paperbacks on the shelves alongside the better-bound books.

Lamps in the best spot for reading as well as for decoration.

A pile-up of magazines rather than a careful arrangement of this month's issues.

A lovingly arranged vase of inexpensive flowers.

"Warmth can begin with sunny colors or big hospitable sofas and chairs, but in themselves these are not enough. A warm room suggests in all its parts that comfort, affection -- even personal whim -- are more important than effect." It makes people feel contented, "just as they do in the presence of a warm individual, and they tend to be their best selves because of it. "

Images two through seven show Kakanias' home, as seen in House & Garden
Images eight and nine show the Lauder residence, also House & Garden
The exterior of the Lauder home is from Vogue Living


Beaton's Far East

I used to be the girl with many handbags, now I'm the woman with many first edition books. Brace yourselves for a possible flurry of posts related to Cecil Beaton's Far East because I just ordered a copy from Paris Hotel Boutique. Isn't the cover striking? I'm anxious to learn more about the pattern.

Most people are familiar with Beaton as the fashion photographer for Vogue, and as the costume and set designer for films such as My Fair Lady. But during World War II he was assigned by the British Ministry of Information to cover the war in the Middle and Far East. Apparently the assignment was a good idea; not only are Beaton's pictures of India, Burma, and China widely respected, his writing about the historic turning point is said to be superb. I'm also looking forward to seeing his sketches.


The Hospitable Guest Room: Vogue's Guide Circa 1969

According to Vogue's Book of Etiquette and Good Manners, 1969, "A guest room should, above all, look welcoming. It should have that indefinable quality of aliveness, rather than emptiness. It should somehow suggest that it is accustomed to making visitors happy and is not a seldom-used 'spare' room. A hospitable guest room is essentially gay, and completely comfortable."

"A tall order, you may say, but you can have a lot of fun filling it." Like many decorators today, the book says go with the mad wallpaper or print fabric you love but could not abide for more than a month. Your temporary guests will enjoy the change of pace and sense of adventure.

Vogue prefers two twin beds in a guest room with a generously scaled night table between the two. Each bed should have one very soft pillow and one firm.

The lamp should be very easy to reach, and easy to read by without strain. If the floor is not carpeted, provide plush bedside rugs.

Don't forget the filled cigarette box, ashtrays and matches.

A clock with a quiet tick, a pin cushion and sewing kit, a well-lighted mirror for makeup and a full length mirror too.

A good, "brisk" book of fairly new short stories, a carafe of ice water with two glasses, and always fresh flowers.

Also include:

A chest of drawers with at least the top two largest drawers left empty.
Half a closet pole
A closet shelf
A pretty luggage rack -- not Hotel-ish
A couple of chairs, "Guests should not have to sit on the bed to read or file their nails."
A variety of wooden hangers
Shades, shutters or lined curtains that block out light
Biscuits or fruit "can be appreciated."
Facial tissues

And, Vogue says, if you live near the water or have a pool, tuck some whimsical straw hats or Japanese paper parasols in the closet.

I think I have a lot of work a head of me.

Bedroom one, Chloe Warner
Bedroom two, Kate Spade
Bedroom three, Kate Spade's guest room courtesy M. A. Belle, via Town & Country

Bedroom four, (images four through six) Peter Dunham

Bedroom five via Domino

Clock is from High Street Market
Carafe and glasses are from Park Avenue Gifts

The Well-Mannered House

What do Asian-style parasols have to do with a well-mannered home? While I was without Internet access and unable to get much real work done, I tackled the domestic section in Vogue's Book of Etiquette and Good Manners, 1969. Most of the advice is incredibly timeless; some a bit dated. I'll be back shortly to explain.

Shown at top, a summer display in the windows of Mitzi & Romano on North Highland Avenue in Atlanta.

Textiles of the Week

This West African tie-dyed, chevron-patterned, zebra-striped cotton is believed to be from the Ivory Coast and was described by Hali, April 2006, as the most optically dramatic piece displayed several years ago at the San Francisco Tribal and Textile Art Show It reminds me of popular zebra-striped fabrics made today by so many fashionable fabric houses.

Louisiana-based textile collector, Rebecca Vizard, recently posted her 2008 assortment of small Christmas stockings. These are my go-to presents because they are the perfect size for holding gift certificates, large chocolate bars, secret messages for kids, and tiny gifts. Some people hang them on the tree. The stockings are about six to seven inches long and made from fragments of lush antique textiles in both brilliant hues and soft shades. Prices range from $35-$50.

Definition of the Day: Khotan Rugs

Without meaning to sound hoaky, I have to say some of the most beautiful things occur when different cultures come together. Khotan rugs are an example of this.

With a mix of Far Eastern and Central Asian design details, the rugs traditionally have been handwoven in Chinese Turkistan, in or near the old city of Khotan. Scholars may have different views on the fine points, but some core characteristics of these rugs often include: triple-medallion patterns with stylized vases; borders with a Chinese wave motif; and in some cases stylized chrysanthemums that almost "read" as a geometric.

Historically the dyes were quite vibrant; softer pastel shades -- so pleasing to some decorators -- are the result of fading.

Image at top is from a Dan Carithers-designed library courtesy Southern Accents;
Image two is a 1930s example courtesy Allan Arthur;
Image three is from Hali, May-June 2006


Wall-to-Wall II

Wall-to-wall carpeting seems to elicit strong reactions. Especially when it is a deep, solid color. (Yes, there are certainly more pressing issues in the world today, but among some of my friends and relatives a minor debate has been launched by the wall-to-wall "Augusta National green" seen in the October Domino -- the Sommers nursery.)

Whether you think it is bold and graphic, or you just are not a fan, wall-to-wall was used in some of the most celebrated mid-century American homes. Above is a fun image I stumbled across: Babe Paley at Kiluna Farm as seen in The World in Vogue.

If the carpet here is not literally wall-to-wall, the impact of an almost completely covered floor is similar. What strikes me about the interior -- apart from masterpieces by Matisse, Toulouse-Lautrec, Cezanne and Rousseau -- is the mix of colors. Softer versions of the primary hues red, blue and yellow are coexisting. And that tufted yellow sofa is a real standout. Paley's dress is by Charles James.


Design History, Films, and Economics

Initially this post was going to highlight the evolution of Regency style in the movies. Some cool art history professors I knew years ago often recommended films as a way for students to get better acquainted with furniture and design from different eras. Of course, the scholars intended movies to be used just as a supplement to books and museums since many films take poetic license and are not literal interpretations of a given period.

I asked the dynamic art historian and Regency expert, Emily Eerdmans, about films she suggests watching. Interestingly, her choices came mainly from the 1930s and 40s when Americans were under serious duress from the Great Depression, followed by World War II, and needed a form of escape.

Before turning to Emily's list I want to mention that historically in times of stress people tend to turn either to classic, been-around-forever design, like the 1820 English Regency chair above (courtesy Katie DID and available at Jane Austen at Home) or to fanciful upbeat looks. The Bennett family home, as seen in the recent version of Pride and Prejudice, was out of necessity very much romanticized shabby.

In contrast Windsor Smith's modern spin on California Regency blends tradition with old Hollywood glamour (C Magazine, April 2008).

As you read about Emily's picks, you may notice that she and Jennifer Dwyer have similar taste in films.

Here's some helpful background from Emily:

"Hollywood and the Regency style – could there be a more perfect pairing? Both epitomize glamour, high style, and - perhaps the most important ingredient – spectacle. It is then no surprise that movies have turned to the Regency period over and over again for inspiration.

During the Depression, the Regency style was embraced by decorators for two reasons: firstly, it was long on look, and secondly, it was relatively cheap. It didn’t take long for Hollywood set decorators to use it for the sumptuous penthouses, ballrooms, and boutiques of the onscreen swell set.

Here are a few of my favorite movies from this period from which the term 'Hollywood Regency' was born. Many of the sets feature lavishly swagged curtains, fringe galore, satin upholstery, and streamlined versions of Regency (and French Directoire and Empire) furniture."

Dinner at Eight MGM 1933
Art Direction Hobe Erwin and Fred Hope

Often it is only a dressing room or bedroom in an entire film that is given the Regency treatment, such as in Jean Harlow’s famous bedroom suite in Dinner at Eight. The white-on-white scheme devised to make the most of Ms. Harlow’s platinum beauty has been dubbed The White Telephone look and is reason enough to see this all-star classic.

Anything Fred and Ginger

RKO was particularly known for producing movies on a shoe string. Luckily, the studio had Van Nest Polglase and his team of art directors to meet the challenge. Settings that popped and sizzled were created by emphasizing the graphic contrast between black and white and shiny and matte (black glossy floors were constantly polished between takes to maintain their high sheen). Neoclassical elements are most often introduced in a Deco Greco fashion, and given a flat, two-dimensional treatment. Scale was also played up and down – a playful technique that found its way into the interiors of Dorothy Draper and others. Top Hat and Roberta, both 1935, are particularly recommended.

Wife vs. Secretary MGM, 1936
Art Direction Cedric Gibbons, Edwin Willis and William Horning

Besides a delightful story line featuring Clark Gable, Myrna Loy, and Jean Harlow, the use of contemporary style is fascinating in this romantic comedy. While Gable’s office is decorated in the latest “less is more” modern idiom – which his mother compares to a bordello! – his home and particularly his wife Myrna Loy’s dressing room is done in the classical moderne style, with neoclassical inspired furnishings. Love that Lucite, illuminated dressing table!

Midnight Paramount, 1939
Art Direction Hans Dreier, Robert Usher
Interior Decorator: A.E. Freudeman

Any Mitch Leisen film is a treat to watch – having been an art director himself, he always played close attentions to the settings. Lots of money was lavished on this production and it shows! Here we see a later phase of the Hollywood Regency style that emerged in the 1940s. It is less pared down and moderne, and more bold and over the top. It also draws upon not just the Regency (or other neoclassical styles) but mixes in Rococo and Baroque as evidenced in the exaggerated headboard of this bed. Don’t miss the draped lampshade, a staple of the Hollywood Regency interior. Another Leisen delight: Easy Living – the hotel suite is outrageous!

The Picture of Dorian Gray MGM 1945
Art Director Cedric Gibbons
Interior Decorator Jack Bonar

For a more pure and academic portrayal of the Regency Style, there is none better than the house of Hurd Hatfield in The Picture of Dorian Gray. The stunning settings for this film communicate the pomp and stateliness of the Regency, and, to my eyes, still looks incredibly chic to this day.

-- Emily Eerdmans

For a full overview of Regency style past and present, be sure to get a copy of Regency Redux. Black-and-white images above are courtesy Emily Eerdmans. Images one and two, at top, are © Mira Nair, Vanity Fair: Bringing Thackeray's Timeless Novel to the Screen, Newmarket Press, 2004. See also her Regency-era film, Vanity Fair. Images three and four are from Pride and Prejudice.

Affordable Inspiration

You've already seen books arranged by color. The concept isn't new. Some people love the look; others find it contrived. But something about Kelly Klein's arrangement here really appeals to me. Although it has graphic appeal, there's a certain softness to it. (If that is not too much of a contradiction.) Clearly these are books she collected herself, not editions chosen by a decorator.

Rearranging books costs nothing except a little time and energy. So Kelly's armoire is my inspirational pick for the day.

Images courtesy Town & Country, October 2008. Photos by John Huba.