Sunday, December 26, 2010

Decorative Painting, Part 1

An overabundance of mediocre to just plain bad decorative painting has somewhat soured the design profession and the general public to a great degree.  But special painting, ranging from simple glazing to trompe l'oeil, can provide a layer of interest in a very personal and unique way.  In this example by the late Robert Jackson, the artist incorporated a variety of techniques to decorate the walls of a dining room of an architectural project of mine in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania, decorated by Bunny Williams.  Robert took my design for pilasters that provided the framework for a new bay window in this room and a new breakfast room adjacent, and gave a decorative rhythmic layout to the otherwise plain dining room.  While the lower panels are consistent in design as a trompe l'oeil panel with vines of morning glories, the upper panels are each a different romantic landscape view.  The overall effect, like the rest of the house, is one of charming sophistication.  There is a formality without stiffness, a trademark of Mr Jackson's work. For eight years in the 1950s, Mr Jackson developed his technique in England working for the legendary Oliver Messel and John Siddeley.  Robert Jackson enjoyed a long career of decorative painting, usually commissioned by noted New York City designers who appreciated his versatility and his knowledge of various styles and periods, especially 17th and 18th century French and Italian paintings.  

I have been fortunate to have had several phases of architectural design work to improve this stone Georgian Revival style house from the 1930s on a lovely site on a private road out the Main Line from Philadelphia.  (And I have been even more fortunate to have helped with additional residences for this couple as well, all beautifully decorated by Bunny).  This is the clients' primary home and my association was made even more a pleasure because both the husband and the wife were so involved and interested in the project, a situation that is not always the case.  Working on this wonderful house with Bunny, Robert, and fabulous clients was a treat for the devoted classicist.

The photo by Tom Leigton appears in the book Modern Murals, Grand Illusions in Interior Decoration by Caroline Cass, published by Whitney Library of Design.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Merry Christmas

Classic residential design knows no minimum size at the studio of John Tackett Design.  This new villa, currently in the planning stage for Miami-Dade County, Florida, is less than 2,000 square feet.  My new houses are not reproductions of specific traditional buildings, but a particular historic model might be an inspiration for an element of the new design;  it might be the general massing and scale, or it might be a particular feature such as the entrance that is reinterpreted for the new house.  Proportion and harmony of materials are two factors missing from so many of today's new houses, so I strive to achieve perfection in those two areas, especially.  And my houses are not just facades, but all elevations (i.e., all sides of the house) are important and each hold their own, visually.  Another important feature is the floor plan, logical in progression and spatially interesting, but meeting contemporary needs.

One of the inspirations for this free-standing single family home is the Pavillion Saint-Vigor by Gabriel in the village of Viroflay (near Versailles), France, built circa 1770.  But this house will be fully equipped for today's technology and LEED certified, environmentally responsible, and a healthy, livable home.  It will be suitable for even the most devoted classicist.

The drawing currently used for the banner was the cover for last year's holiday card, and the drawing above is this year's card.  Best wishes for all my readers, and I send hopes for peace and a very merry Christmas to all.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Maison Jansen: The Most Influential Decorators of the 20th Century

One of the many great things about the holiday season is the launch of wonderful new books.  There are a number of new titles in decorative arts by friends and acquaintances, but they have not yet made it to book store shelves in Middle America;  I hope to blog about them soon, though.  First, I will present a 2006 gem, JANSEN by James Archer Abbott from Acanthus Press' 20th Century Decorator Series with Mitchell Owens, Series Editor.  All the images shown here are taken from this book.  The photo above shows the Library of the Madrid home of the March banking family, overseen by then-head of the firm, Pierre Delbee.
In full disclosure, James Abbott is a valued friend of almost twenty years, since we were classmates in the Attingham Summer School in England.  In addition to authoring several exceptional books, he has been the curator/director of a number of great house museums, and he is a talented artist as well as all-around Good Guy.  I was an excited youngster when First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy gave a televised tour of the sophisticated improvements to the White House, many with the input of Stephane Boudin of Jansen, we were later to learn.  I became familiar with Maison Jansen as a teen, seeing their work credited in library books featuring European architecture and interior design.  I really became a fan, however, after seeing their designs published in 1971 for the four day celebration of the 2,500th Anniversary of the Empire at the ruins of Persepolis, Iran, as shown in the model above.  Jansen designs have often be inspirations for my own projects and my fascination with the Kennedy White House decoration has been enriched with conversations with James over the years with my knowledge of Sister Parish's valuable contributions.  I was not disappointed when JANSEN was published.
I am writing about Maison Jansen because there are still many design professionals and enthusiasts that are unfamiliar with the noted inteior design firm.  In James A. Abbott's JANSEN, he states that Maison Jansen was the most famous and influential interior decorating company of the 20th century.  I resisted accepting that claim at first, but I fully embraced it after reading the book.  The Jansen client list was a very diverse international group;  most of them powerful and all were rich.  With headquarters in Paris, there were eventually offices or boutiques in Buenos Aires, London, Cairo, Alexandria, Havana, New York, Prague, Sao Paulo, Rome, Milan, and Geneva.
Jayne (Mrs. Charles B.) Wrightsman, is shown above, in 1959, in the Library of her house in Palm Beach, Florida, as refurbished by Stephane Boudin of Maison Jansen.  The original 1917 house known as Blythedunes was designed by H. Hastings Mundy for Robert Dun Douglas whose family founded Dun & Bradstreet.  In 1930, it was sold to Harrison Williams, a utilities magnate who was once considered one of the world's richest men, and his wife Mona, a renown beauty, who hired architect Maurice Fatio and decorator Syrie Maugham to restyle the house into one of the most stylish of its time.  Financial reverses led to the sale to multimillionaire oilman Charles Wrightsman and his second wife Jayne who had become a serious student of decorative arts, especially those associated with 18th century France.  To make the house her own and satify her own interests, Mrs Wrightsman hired Jansen who paneled three rooms in period 18th century woodwork, altered and augmented as necessary in their own workshops, and floored four rooms in parquet of royal provenance.  The dazzling 18th century handpainted Chinese wallpaper installed by Syrie Maugham remained in the Drawing Room, but a Louis XV marble chimneypiece, set against a floor-to-ceiling framed mirror, replaced a larger baronial English fireplace.  Museum quality antique furniture was supplemented by handmade new furniture, also from the Jansen workshops, and the decor complimented the Wrightsmans' collection of Impressionist paintings.  After Boudin's death in 1967, other designers were called upon for maintenance and updating, notably Vincent Fourcade. 

When the house was sold in 1984 to Leslie Wexner of The Limited and Victoria's Secret, some of the antiques and art were divided between the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Wrightsmans' Manhattan apartment.  So-called lesser pieces were sold at a celebrated auction by Sotheby's New York, an eye-opening event I experienced first hand with "decorative" and "second hand" furnishings selling for record prices.  Wexner demolished the famed house on six acress at 513 North County Road with 600 ft of ocean frontage, causing such an uproar from locals, that he abandoned plans to build a new house (designed by my former employer BeyerBlinderBelle) and decided against having a vacation house in Palm Beach after all.  Jayne Wrightsman, b. 1920, who introduced Boudin to Jackie Kennedy, still lives in a palatial, full-floor, art and antiques-filled apartment at 820 Fifth Avenue, one of New York City's most desirable addresses.

And the Wrightsmans are just one of the many clients and projects profiled in the book!  There is also a sequel of sorts, Jansen Furniture, to be reviewed in a future post.  Both are highly recommended for anyone interested in interior design.

Both Jansen books by James Archer Abbott are available at discount pricing with the option of free shipping through The Devoted Classicist Library in affiliation with Amazon here.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

A French Kiss in Manhattan: 15 E 96th Street

A number of years ago, I served as a historic preservation consultant during the renovation of a glorious Manhattan townhouse at 15 East 96th Street.  The original owner was wealthy-in-her-own-right Lucy Drexel Dalgren who was waiting out prickly divorce proceedings in Paris in 1912 when she was introduced to Boston-born architect Ogden Codman, Jr.  Codman was also an interior designer and most of the furnishings he used, both new and antique, were supplied by French sources.  This required him to travel often to France, where he had spent part of his childhood, especially around this time as his own magnificent townhouse at 7 E 96th was nearing completion.  Dalgren and Codman became friends, and when her divorce was finally settled, she commissioned him to design a new home for herself and her eight children which was completed in 1916.

Codman scholars Pauline Metcalf and the late Henry Hope Reed have maintained that Codman was inspired by a house on rue Sainte-Catherine in Bordeaux (with lot widths similar to the 38 ft here), but clearly he was influenced by a number of models and provided his own interpretations as well.  In Ogden Codman and the Decoration of Houses edited by Ms Metcalf, Codman was said to also have been influenced by Depau Row, circa 1830 houses that once stood at 160 Bleeker Street (replaced by the Mills House Hotel now converted into apartments).  Like the carriage doors of Depau Row, the Dalgren house has a pair of impressive doors (with a smaller concealed pedestrian door) that swing in to allow an automobile to enter a shelter outside the side Vestibule entrance before proceeding through a courtyard to a Garage at the back of the 100 ft deep site.  Inside the Garage, the original turntable still remains as does the original elevator that allows cars to be stored in the Cellar. 
On the First (Ground) Floor, there is a grand Stair Hall with plaster walls tinted and scored to resemble limestone.  An Elevator and Powder Room are thoughtfully concealed adjacent.  A square Reception or Living Room faces the street, and my clients were having the ceiling elaborately painted, complete with clouds and parrots, a sharp contrast to the somber oak boiserie, when I was brought onto the project.  At some point the original Kitchen was relocated to the Second Floor, and now the space below the octagonal Dining Room is another reception room of conforming plan.
The whole front Second Floor is taken by a Drawing Room with oak boiserie and a ceiling 16 ft high.  The panelling is now painted with a beautiful multi-toned yellow glazed finish, but that is not a decision I would have easily made.  In the renovation by the current owner, the pipes for an organ were removed and, in that space, a new Powder Room was created.  Unconventionally for a New York City townhouse, but common in 18th century France, a separate second staircase ascends to the private floors above.  (Also, there is a separate service stair for access to all floors, including the mezzanine levels). 

Instead of an oval like in Codman's own townhouse, the shape of the Dining Room is octagonal with the primary architectural feature being pairs of French doors with demilune fanlights glazed with either clear glass or mirror.  But the most spectacular feature is a pair of elaborate marble wall fountains, just as were found in the time of Louis XVI, to rinse wine glasses between the courses. 
My principle contribution was the restoration of the Library, a jewel box of a room that presumably served as a private sitting room for the homeowner, on the same floor as the Master Bedroom. As it is comparativley small and requiring skillful furniture placement for optimal effect, the room has not really been appreciated by decorators over the years.  Periodically, suggestions have been made to remove the bookcases and panelling to enlarge the room by incorporating an adjacent hall.  But the room is safe, for now at least.  This photo shows the room as furnished by the late Mark Hampton for the subsequent owner after my restoration.  These five photos are from Mark Hampton, An American Decorator by Duane Hampton. 

There have been a succession of famous (and relatively infamous) owners over the years, including Pierre Cartier of the jewelry family, whose heirs sold the house to the Convent of Saint Francis de Sales.  There were two other owners before the current owner completely updated the building systems, sensitively improved the bathrooms and kitchen, and added a charming penthouse Garden Room opening onto the new south facing rooftop terrace with a pergola and outdoor fireplace.   This work, in addition to refreshed decoration but not furnishing, was designed by David Anthony Easton and Andre Tchelistcheff Architects a to high standards executed by the white-glove company Xhema Construction.   The readers might be surprised to learn that the current owner, reportedly, has never occupied the house and that it has unofficially been available for purchase for several years according to real estate sources.

Ogden Codman moved to France permanently after World War I with his scheme for the whole block to be lined by similar houses of his design never realized.  Conventional apartment buildings filled the other lots except for the three Codman townhouses that were built and still survive:  this one, his own, and the house for Susan de Peyster at No. 12.

The book MARK HAMPTON, AN AMERICAN DECORATOR is available for purchase at a discount of 37% from the published price and the option of free shipping through The Devoted Classicist Library here.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

A Bit More About Me

I have been interested in architecture for as long as I can remember, so it was no surprise that I wanted to be an architect.  I am a gradate of the University of Tennessee School of Architecture with a Bachelor of Architecture (BARCH) degree.  Participating in a summer foreign studies program administered in cooperation with L'Ecole des Beaux Arts and based at the palace in Fontainebleau, France, really cinched my love of history and preservation after my second year at the university.  The UT program allowed a special concentration of study and mine in Architectural History and Historic Preservation won a special commendation in the form of an award from the faculty.  Roz Li, a noted architect from New York City was brought in to head the preservation program and she provided an invaluable foundation for my education.  (Now in private practice, she has been responsible for numerous projects of renown, such as the Rhinelander Mansion restoration for the Ralph Lauren flagship store).

The award of a summer internship administered by Dee Ann Walker with the National Trust for Historic Preservation satisfied the required service practicum;  I was a team member of the Historic American Building Survey and documented the Woodrow Wilson House in Washington, DC.  I also participated in a grant from the Tennessee Historical Commission, administered by Glorial Neal Testerman, to survey pre-1930 building in Jefferson County, Tennessee.

Ignoring chronological order, I later had the great honor to be chosen to attend the Attingham Summer School in England, a prestigious program usually reserved for museum curators.  Focusing on the Country House, its architecture, contents, and landscape setting, my study of decorative arts began in earnest.  It was a life-changing opportunity for a truly hands-on examination of a wide range of disciplines and styles.  The program was headed by renown educator and author Geoffrey Beard and a team of tutors and lecturers, each a noted specialist, including Gervace Jackson-Stops, Roger White, and Annabel Westmann.  Also in education, were two semesters of teaching in the Interior Design department chaired by Ann Borsch and directed by Tim Gunn at Parsons School of Design, The New School in New York City;  I also taught a class in the summer program in Paris.

My first job out of university was with BuildingConservationTechnology/TheEhrenkrantzGroup, a nationally recognized architectural firm specializing in historic preservation.  Leadership of the offices in Nashville and the historic community of Rugby, Tennessee, was provided by Joseph Herndon.  When James Marston Fitch, known as the Father of Amercian Preservation, retired from Columbia University to enter private practice, I was tapped to be his assistant at BeyerBlinderBelle Architects and Planners in New York City.  But Reaganomics brought government participation in preservation to a halt, bringing about a change in my profession.

Knowledge of traditional architecture and interest in decorative arts landed me a position at the legendary interior design firm Parish-Hadley.  Under the guidance of Sister Parish and Albert Hadley, and the tutlege of Bunny Williams and Harold Simmons, my design education reached a new height of connoisseurship.  It was a truly invaluable experience, and prepared me to open my own mult-faceted studio in 1987.

Drawing on my education and experience in history and preservation, I am often called on for sensitive improvements to existing houses and apartments, designing additions and renovations.  But I also design new houses.  I often collaborate with interior designers on major projects as well as only particular elements such as individual pieces of furniture or custom light fixtures.  Contemporary design is taken on in special circumstances, but I remain a devoted classicist.

Monday, November 15, 2010


I am coming on to the blog scene very late, but I am looking forward to sharing my thoughts, works, and inspirations with all interested.