A Selection of Editor’s Letters
from New England Home Connecticut
The Stinky Cheese Effect
Over the years, as I’ve matured, my tastes have changed in interesting ways. During high school and college I stood frankly on the ascetic and even puritanical end of the spectrum. Aesthetic judgments were stark, philosophical positions uncompromising and fiercely held. Franz Kline was good; J.M.W. Turner was bad. Patti Smith, sure; don’t even talk to me about Air Supply—that kind of thing.
More recently, though, styles and genres that would once have sent me running in affronted horror have begun to become not only comprehensible but enjoyable. (A few of my less-charitable friends assure me this is an early sign of encroaching senility; I prefer to consider it a product of riper understanding.) An example: just this year I have found myself more than once praising a piece of 1920s American art pottery, something I once would have sworn would never, ever happen.
It’s much the way children are about food. At age four or five, a combination of carrot sticks, apple juice and hunks of Kraft Singles may seem like the only acceptable diet. But moving on eventually to tacos and olives definitely makes life better, and with time and curiosity even uni and a nice, ripe Stilton can begin to unfold their delights to initiates. Acquiring a broader experience and focusing on things in a richer, more informed context makes all the difference.
So it has been with me in many areas of life, including work. My evolving duties at New England Home have meshed beautifully with a growing catholicity of aesthetic enjoyment. Since we are a regional magazine, our subject matter can be defined by geography and level of mastery, rather than by staking out a particular quadrant of style. Even better: it becomes not just a pleasure but an obligation to celebrate the increasing diversity of work being done in today’s New England. We have Federal houses restored with a copy of Asher Benjamin in hand; we have lofts of raw steel, Lucite, and travertine; and we have everything in between, with influences from everywhere. It can all be gorgeous, and over time, I hope, you’ll find it all here.
—From the Fall 2011 issue of New England Home Connecticut
No Sacrifices for Style
We don’t typically begin work on issues of New England Home with a particular theme in mind. But I find it interesting how often something like a theme, or at least a series of related ideas, tends to appear as the content for each magazine takes shape.
This issue is no exception. Our three featured homes, though stylistically somewhat diverse, are similar in their feeling of luxury. Yet, as you read the stories behind their creation, you will discover that two of the three are inhabited by families boasting no shortage of active children and pets—and in both cases that fact became part of the design brief. The houses had to be made both beautiful and livable.
These are not residences where delicate Savonnerie carpets are topped by Louis XVI chairs of such antique pedigree that they suffer mortal peril every time a guest leans back in after-dinner satiety. Which makes me realize that such precious, easily damaged homes, once staples of design publications everywhere, have become a much rarer species these days.
Why is that? Perhaps it has something to do with an increase in the number of households able to aspire to high-end design, with a consequent increase in owners who are not hemmed in by older notions of patrician propriety.
But my sense is that it’s really a broader cultural change. People in general, at all points on the scale of affluence, simply seem less interested in rooms where you have to worry about breaking or dirtying the furniture. Who has patience now for the formality of old-style upper-class life, where children were hidden away upstairs or at distant boarding schools, and adults were expected to dress and comport themselves, in company or in private, with exquisite decorum?
We, today, aren’t willing to put comfort in second place behind appearance. (I wouldn’t, mind you, yet apply this statement to the world of fashion—particularly when it comes to women’s shoes. But in the arena of home design, I think it tends to hold true.) And, therefore, more and more robust, worry-free products are available, all designed to convey every appearance of luxury to both eye and hand: ceramic floor tiles, say, that are indistinguishable from fine cerused wood; synthetic leathers that are impervious to Fluffy’s claws.
Interiors that are rugged, resilient, yet refined; family-friendly; solid without sacrificing style. What’s not to like about that?
—From the Winter 2016 issue of New England Home Connecticut
Modern Styles, Old and New
It may seem a little odd, at the start of a magazine issue that happens to show a lot of fairly traditional-looking New England houses, to write about contemporary style. Flip through the four features beginning on page 74 and you’ll find nary a cantilevered steel beam or concrete piloti in sight. But a closer examination is illuminating. Yes, the four houses conform to four different historical looks, but modern touches lurk subtly in each one. Once upon a time this might have been interpreted as a deplorable lack of consistency; today, however, I see these homes as embodying an admirable synthesis.
Decades back, traditional vs. modern was presented as an either-or choice. You could either have your rambling, Newport-style cottage or you could have Philip Johnson’s Glass House (or a similar production by another of New Canaan’s “Harvard Five”). Likewise the 1970s brought their bio-blobs and the ’80s their pasted-on PoMo ornament. Many Connecticut architects would do work oriented either toward the future or the past, as it were, but even within each person’s oeuvre the two outlooks were generally kept quite distinct. Contemporary architecture, in the residential realm, was still always a foreign intrusion, indulged in by the suspect few and mostly just tolerated by the quietly grumbling many.
No more. Look at the high-end houses going up today, and a fascinating change is apparent: very little is just contemporary or just traditional. Even within the most doctrinaire-looking, flush-boarded Greek Revival, sleek Italian sofas perch cheek-by-jowl with fifteenth-century Italian commodes, the staircase railing is a minimalist construction of anodized aluminum and glass and Harry Bertoia chairs flank the rustic farmhouse table in the kitchen. Be it new construction or renovation, a home’s interior layout will obey a modern “form follows function” program, and it makes no real difference to the livability of the result if there happen to be classical pilasters involved.
Intentionally or not, we’ve come, over time, to an interesting and healthy realization: a Corbusian “machine for living” can work just as well regardless of the aesthetic style of its constituent parts. The relative proportions of each may differ, but old vs. new no longer matters much overall. This is a melding that’s here to stay.
—From the Spring 2012 issue of New England Home Connecticut
An Exercise in Imagination
Not long ago, Pico Iyer, writing about Japanese literature (and art, and culture and, indeed, life) in The New York Review of Books, noted that “It’s what’s not expressed that sits at the heart of a haiku; a classic sumi-e brush-and-ink drawing leaves as much open space as possible at its center so that it becomes not a statement but a suggestion, an invitation to a collaboration.”
Architecture and interiors magazines obviously operate in a very different sphere, and it may seem presumptuous to make any comparisons whatever with Bashō or Sesshū or Lady Murasaki. Yet, when surveying the hushed, creamily lit, generally empty spaces that fill the pages of Architectural Digest, Veranda, and other magazines similar to this one, it’s hard not to sense a similarly beckoning—void seems too harsh a word, but perhaps suggestive vacancy is the right way to put it—that entices the viewer into a similar complicity with the people who created the rooms.
How would it feel to spend our days with those hand-hewn planks overhead, to grab a quick breakfast at that vintage Nakashima table, to have the texture of that particular fern-patterned chintz (carefully washed and applied reverse-side out) under our legs on the sofa?
We can be perfectly happy with our own houses or apartments, and still enjoy trying out, however briefly, that vicarious taste of a subtly or wildly different existence. Would I have had the courage and trust to let a designer line the entire family room in a lilac-colored silk? With lime velvet settees and a few magenta pillows and onyx lamps thrown in? Maybe not, in real life, yet it’s wonderful to spend a few moments envisioning what a quiet evening in that room could be like.
And the more of those imagined experiences I have, the more I discover that the limits of my taste extend well beyond what I had thought. Many more potential living situations seem not only thinkable, but enticing. And should I find myself in a client’s role, on the receiving end of an architect’s or designer’s advice, I will be that much more open to ideas that might at first sound beyond the pale.
After all, being able to conceive the circumstances of a life is the first step toward living it. And I’m spending a lot of time practicing my ability to do that.
—From the Spring 2013 issue of New England Home Connecticut
Noticing the Simple Things
I have a tendency—I know it about myself, and my friends also enjoy reminding me occasionally, for good measure—to overintellectualize. Faced with pretty much any situation or set of data, my mind naturally begins searching for patterns, building a logical framework, or extrapolating what might be an underlying rationale. At most times this tendency stands me in good stead; an ability to see the big picture can be helpful in many aspects of work and life.
Theorizing, though, isn’t the only valid approach when it comes to experiencing the world, and especially when it comes to getting the most from design. So every now and then, when I remember to make myself do it, or when I happen on an object or an image that stops me in my tracks, I make it a point simply to notice and admire the little things, the details that can add momentary—or lasting—pleasure to life. Satisfying forms, sensuous textures, brash or subtle plays of color: take the time to look, and there they are.
Putting together an issue of the magazine is a perfect excuse for indulging in this exercise. Of course our features will be filled with rooms that are carefully composed in terms of shape and scale and color harmony. But many of the raw materials of those rooms are also gorgeous in their own right.
Consider the voluptuous surfaces of Lauren Kaplan’s raku ceramics (see page 28), with their sooty cracks and incised graphics. How delightful to live with those daily! Or what about a soap dish sheathed in a grid of capiz-shell tiles (page 42), an item whose primly regular architecture contrasts wonderfully with the mottled internal glow of its covering?
Our scope for aesthetic appreciation can also extend beyond formalities of structure or material attributes. Narrative and inspiration can charm in their own right, as when, on page 152, fashion designer and longtime Connecticut resident Alexander Julian discusses background concerns that have undergirded his long career in apparel and that translate just as convincingly into his furniture collections.
Sometimes—at least now and again—it really doesn’t hurt to turn off the analyzing brain and let the senses take over. And sometimes I don’t even feel guilty afterward.
—From the Fall 2017 issue of New England Home Connecticut
The Designer As Hunter-Gatherer
A recent trip to the 2017 Design Bloggers Conference in Los Angeles—where I saw several familiar faces from Fairfield County and environs—got me thinking about just how event-heavy a designer’s schedule could be, if she or he were determined to see everything, and just how interconnected the various segments of our Euro-American world are when it comes to high-style products for luxury home interiors. (Australia and Asia have their fairs, too—Design Shanghai and Decor + Design in Melbourne perhaps most prominent among them—but those don’t yet seem to be as much on the radar screens of our local crowd.)
When it comes to the U.S. and western Europe, there is hardly a month of the year that doesn’t have its destination for intrepid folk intent on scoping out the newest of the new and the best of the best . . . and perhaps sneaking in a bit of vacation scenery along the way.
January kicks things off with the KBIS kitchen and bath show and Las Vegas Market, along with Paris-based Maison & Objet; NY Now comes in February, followed in March by the Architectural Digest Design Show and Westweek at the Pacific Design Center in Los Angeles. April is time for High Point Market in North Carolina and Milan’s Salone del Mobile; in May you can hit the International Contemporary Furniture Fair and other Design Week events in New York City, plus Legends of the La Cienega Design Quarter in L.A. Design Miami follows in June. In August, it’s off to Las Vegas Market and NY Now again. September brings take two of Maison & Objet, plus Decorex in London. October means heading back to High Point.
At the moment I can’t think of anything major in November (SOFA in Chicago, perhaps?), December, or July—but then again, I’m reciting this list off the top of my head, and it doesn’t even include high-profile antiques and fine art fairs like New York’s Winter Antiques Show or Art Basel, TEFAF Maastricht, and their younger New World siblings.
I’m almost amazed that any interiors ever get finished, given the plethora of semi-compulsory stops designers have to make in their nomadic rounds. There are big-name brands you will see in common at most of these shows, naturally. But, at the same time, the curious visitor will find choice new producers just getting their start, and perhaps score that absolutely perfect piece a current client needs.
Did you ever wonder how a certain sofa or carved mirror frame ended up in your living room? This kind of exhausting but productive social circuit might be the answer.