Thursday, 28 March 2013

Classical Interiors (Part 2)

In a purely classical room, sheltered by the embrace of classical form, there is a singular intention, a thread of decorative motif that will carry throughout in varying degrees. An acanthus leaf that snakes around the cornice will embellish the leg of a chair. The shape of that cornice will be echoed in the rug. This decorative harmony is pleasing to the eye and although to us it may look a bit staid or overly formal, it was a revelation in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

Nearly as soon as it was introduced though, we were busy chipping away at classicism, or perhaps reforming it for our own purposes, and responding to the cycle of industrialisation and war. With industrialisation came cheap, mass produced pictures and furnishings. Today we are not accustomed to exercising rigourous restraint when creating or renewing rooms. Few of us will seek to freeze a room in time when putting it together. This is usually the preserve of the rare historic house where a collection of furnishings has remained intact, where the original collection is being pieced back together as much as possible, or where the owner seeks to create a particular period.

The double parlours at Millford, 1840, in South Carolina, repaired and restored, including many of the original Duncan Phyfe furnishings, sought out and returned to the house by owner Dick Jenrette. He believes Millford to be the finest example of Greek Revival Architecture in America. 

Especially in Britain, we are often happiest to create a pleasing jumble out of all our possessions, or as Nicky Haslam said recently on Radio 4, "to create a story of objects". The decorator Nancy Lancaster was famous for creating this look, perfected at the home bought with Ronald Tree, Ditchley Park. She and her husband had little in the way of important pictures and furnishings for theit vast pile. Instead she created atmosphere using pieces that were the precursors of what is detestably referred to today as shabby chic. Brought up in a lovely house in Virginia that had suffered much during the American civil war, a bit of pleasing decay was important to her. Whilst we try to make things old using special finishes and dyes and paint finishes, she would leave a newly upholstered sofa lying out in the rain until she had the result she was after.

The elegantly proportioned hall with Palladian chimneypiece and stone flags,
comfortably yet sparsely furnished by Nancy Lancaster in the mid 1950s

What we do today, often unconsciously, is use classsical principles as a reference point for our rooms. The anything goes approach often termed eclectic, which in real terms means a mixture of furnishings, art and pictures from many different periods and styles, in a room that may have no architectural context for its contents, predominates. We are literally bombarded with choice and to some degree I believe that is reflected in the way we furnish our rooms and why we furnish them this way. It is what we see everywhere. Media exposure, for better or ill, has become our version of The Grand Tour. Despite the pendulum swing at the end of the last century towards modernism, classical influence is still apparent.

Classical architectural details such as the early dado and panelling in this intimate drawing room, and the cornice added by antiques dealer owner Michael Rainey, although incongruous, provide a suitable backdrop for its contents.  The fine bibelots and furniture, combined with contemporary sofa and chairs,  are almost whimsically placed.  Decorative scheme by Killian-Dawson  

"Happy are those who see beauty in modest spots where others see nothing. Everything is beautiful, the whole secret lies in knowing how to interpret it." French painter Camille Pissarro

Thursday, 21 March 2013

Classical Interiors (Part 1)

When one says "classical interiors", what do people visualise? A ubiquitous google search yielded nothing I expected - just pages and pages of links to shops selling mostly reproduction furnishings and accessories that one could perhaps think of as classical, occasionally a design firm, a wikipedia entry on classical architecture. So what comprises a classical interior? Are classical design principles rigorously applied when designing new interior spaces and rooms? How do we express classical design principles in historic interiors today?

The Great Hall at The Queen's House, Greenwich
Inigo Jones, England's sixteenth century classical architect, was transformed by his years in sun-kissed Italy and returned to England filled with his vision of classical architecture and consequently classical interiors. Simply expressed, if the exterior of a building is regular, symmetrical and in proportion according to the golden mean, that translates to an interior filled with more light, a more rhythmic and regular placement of doors,  fireplaces, windows, a hierarchy of ornamentation and consequently a greater sense of direction and aesthetic pleasure.  It means the surfaces will be embellished within a framework of architectural ornamentation expressed in carved cornices, plasterwork, architraves and other mouldings. The furnishings echo the ornamental motif and are often more comfortable, with upholstered settees, sofas and chairs taking the place of hard chairs, benches and stools. A few years ago I attended a wedding at The Queen's House Greenwich, a precious survivor of Jones' interior work. Furnished by him in the 1630s, The Great Hall is a masterpiece of elegant geometry, the Tulip Staircase appearing to float into eternity. It never fails to invoke in me a sense of the possible and to fill me with both serenity and longing.

The Tulip Staircase at The Queen's House
That's all very well but what does that mean to us today? As a result of what is popular, we notice a look that might be called "eclectic" tends to dominate period or period inspired interiors. Those living in a Georgian farm house will have a Magnet fitted kitchen, and Conran style furniture throughout, with the odd Georgian secretary (or Victorian copy) or sofa table dotted around. Is this just going with the flow of what is readily available and what is considered up to date by peers and the media, is it comfortable, is it simply a modern expectation of what constitutes home? Or are we coldly influenced by the perceived resale value of the house? Do we picture a dream and find the reality of a period house is not comfortable enough and so fill it with incongruous furnishings? Something must surely be taking place at an emotive level because in real terms, it will usually be a better investment to buy period furniture than to buy mass produced furnishings that will be largely worthless shortly after purchase. Also, antiques can be continually repaired and renewed - and carefully placed look peerless in a modern setting.

Robert Adam, in conjunction with artists and makers, in particular the renowned furniture maker Thomas Chippendale, created some of the most important neo classical interiors known today. He was an architect with a complete vision, in an era which celebrated the harmony that he created in a room where everything was connected by repeated motif.  He created a cohesive world which included the design of the lighting, mirrors, furnishings, carpets, every single architectural moulding and bit of plasterwork. Though his vision was initially implemented only for the very rich, elements of it eventually trickled down to most homes. Classical elements, widely copied by those who could not afford architects like Adam, are also evident in the simplest of terraced houses, whether in the architraves and entablatures of doors, ceiling roses, regular window placements, plasterwork and balanced arrangements of furniture, paintings and ornaments.

The Long Gallery at Syon House, by Robert Adam
Next week we'll explore how these historic examples of Classical interiors influence how we create rooms today...

Tuesday, 12 March 2013

Classicism in today's world

Recently, whilst meeting with Hugh Petter of Adam Architecture at their new offices in Winchester, I began to think about the notion of modern classicism. How is it viewed in the world of design where seemingly anything goes, and what does it mean to the average person who is spoon fed media opinion visually, aurally and virtually?

When classical architects like Robert Adam began their careers in the early 1970s, classicism was dead or at least deeply unfashionable. Brutalism, modernism, cubism, these were terms in the public domain that had energy, that looked to the future, that won the largest public monument and institutional competitions, that forced public housing skyward, and resulted in the continued pulling down of many classical buildings. It takes enormous ego, strength of character, self belief and vision to rise against the tide of public opinion. Architects like Robert Adam, founding director at Adam Architecture, and QuinlanTerry, both with thriving multigenerational practices today, swam against that tide but they could only do so because of the patronage of clients who wanted what they had to offer.

Today, the buzz is all about sustainable urban development, and classicism plays a major role in it. This often translates into closely built structures with shared green space in existing or brownfield urban sites, or fiercely fought for undeveloped and redeveloped spaces in the countryside. According to recent studies, people are flocking to cities globally. Towns and cities will, over the coming decades, continue to be under enormous pressure to support burgeoning populations. Countries like China will lead the way as their people grow more affluent. Yet we seem to be under greater economic and environmental pressure than ever before, and this is no doubt influencing how we look at the way we live and the buildings we live and work in.

A successful example of Vernacular sustainable urban development in a regenerated area of downtown Charleston, designed by Andrew Gould of New World Byzantine
Architects and planners shape these environments, and it can be difficult to assess what people really want, although even in the thrust of modernist building trends, traditional buildings still predominate in the residential sector. Some communities are a great success, sometimes quickly like I'On in America. Poundbury, an ambitious project instituted by HRH The Prince of Wales, is a slower growing example. Our colleague, Tom Abel Smith at Savills, has said that at the top end of the market new country houses are being planned and built throughout the UK, and fetching prices in line with the period houses they are modelled on. Why? They are far more energy efficient, and they can be built to accomodate modern family life, and they allow scope for the owners to create their own dream.

Modern Classical Villa, Cheltenham, designed by Hugh Petter of Adam Architecture

Are we inherently drawn to classical design or is it just familiar? In these uncertain economic times, many of our colleagues believe that looking towards the past engenders continuity, security and helps us to cope with uncertainty. A cynic might say it creates instant pedigree for those who are newly affluent. Or that a structure has greater marketable value. Many believe a classical structure melds more gently with the past and creates a harmonious whole in a country where we live cheek by jowl and our heritage is fragile and worth preserving and enhancing. Or that its very regularity of form is somehow more pleasing and emotionally coherent. A modernist might say we must break with the past to create something new and vital, to contrast completely, to continually challenge what is accepted form and seek yet a new vocabulary of expression, or to sharply contrast old and new to create a dialogue of truth.

The Great Court at The British Museum by Foster and Partners (2000), a marriage of Classicism and Modernism 

How do you respond to the built environment... Classicist, Modernist or something else? Next week we'll be turning our attention to classical interiors.

Tuesday, 5 March 2013

On curating an art collection

"Portraits are a really good way to ground a room in a specific period."  Philip Mould, renowned art dealer whose Mayfair gallery displays some of the finest in English Portraiture from the sixteenth century forward, said this to my business partner during a recent visit.  His thought provoking remark inspired me to take a closer look at the art hanging in our modest studio and to consider just what attracts me to a work of art.  What are my criteria for purchasing and hanging paintings, engravings, watercolours, in a space?

Airborne, an oil by American artist Rose Marie Glen, evokes the Kent marshes in a surreal light, yet portrays an area of the American South settled by the English in the 17th century.  Visitors all see a different world in this painting.
I would like to say that I am attracted by colour, but that is not the case at all.  I am drawn to the emotion in a painting, or what seems to me is hidden in it.  What makes art art? Why do some pieces fetch enormous amounts and others very little? Collectors collect because of an artist's value, as an investment.  Some store their art away in climate controlled warehouses with strict inventories, as good as money in the bank.   Other collectors start young and buy modestly, their tastes and budgets maturing over time, their collections reflecting that; their walls cluttered with pieces they could never bear to part with. They may focus on an artist or sculptor, a time period, a style.  Others collect in a purely acquisitive way.  My thought is listen to the experts but trust yourself and collect what you love.  Chances are whatever you choose will hold or increase its value and will provide untold hours of pleasure.

Andrew Davidson's The Wood, 1992, (top) pairs organically with
a Victorian hand coloured engraving

A work of art can also ground a space.  I think of "Girl with a Dolphin", installed by David Wynne in 1973 at the Tower Hotel near Tower Bridge in London.  Years ago I walked past that sculpture every day on my way to the tube and it inspired me - fortified me for the journey ahead, cheered me when I was down, indeed became a confidante, a silent friend.

Photographs, especially shot on B&W film on archival paper,
make a powerful statement in a collection.
What do I collect? I'm drawn to contemporary oils and acrylics because they are affordable, because I believe in supporting living artists, and because they mark our times. I admire the precision and clarity of eighteenth century engravings and botanicals, and watercolours, often produced by amateurs. I think of artists like Van Gogh who sold paintings to pay for meals and never lived to experience his own greatness reflected back to him. Quite unlike the working lives of the dandy court painters, who were the ultimate in personal PR. The careful portrayal of faces in 16th and 17th century portraits, the exquisite details of the lace on their collars, the extravagance of their clothing heralding or perhaps only alluding to their status, ask more questions than they answer. I've also begun to explore the world of miniatures, extravagant calling cards of previous centuries.   What will you choose?