Monday, 15 August 2011

The incomparable Terry Castle has a delightful piece in The Professor and Other Writings in which she discusses her fetishistic mania for interiors magazines: a fetish I entirely share. She writes, wonderfully:

The late Mario Praz—dandy, scholar, eccentric chronicler of interior-decorating styles through the ages—once observed that human beings could be divided into those who cared about such things and those who didn’t. An avid, even ensorcelled member of the first group, he confessed to finding people who were indifferent to décor both baffling and somewhat sinister. To discover that a friend was content to dwell in “fundamental and systematic ugliness,” he wrote in An Illustrated History of Interior Decoration: From Pompeii to Art Nouveau, was as disturbing as “turning over one of those ivory figurines carved by the German artificers of the Renaissance, which show a lovely woman on one side and a worm-ridden corpse on the other.” All the more macabre when the friend was otherwise refined:

A venerated master of mine at the University of Florence used to say, from his lectern, many learned things about the Provençal poets. I hung on his every word. But it was a grim day when I first crossed the threshold of his house. As soon as the door was opened, I was confronted by a loathsome oleograph of a Neapolitan shepherdess (that same oleograph used to turn up often in the shops where unclaimed objects from the state pawnshop, the Monte di Pietà, are sold). The shepherdess, shading her eyes with her hand, affected a simpering smile, while Vesuvius smoked in the background.

Granted, for the “loathsome oleograph” (which now sounds enchantingly kitsch) one might want to substitute any number of contemporary abominations: fur-covered kitty condos placed nonchalantly in the living room, embroidered sofa pillows that say things like “She Who Must Be Obeyed” or “Bless This Mess,” Southwestern-style bent-willow furniture (barf), neoclassical wall sconces made out of glued and gilded polyurethane, monstrous sleigh beds from Restoration Hardware, Monet water-lily refrigerator magnets, fake “bistro” clocks, and just about any item of domestic ornament with an angel or a dolphin or a picture of Frida Kahlo on it. Yet even without a tchotchke update we can all sympathize with Praz’s baffled revulsion: “It’s curious, the squalor, the unnecessary and even deliberate squalor in which people who profess a sensitivity to the fine arts choose to live, or manage to adapt themselves.”

In this tendency New Agers and academics are very much alike, just as they also share a fondness for backbiting and pointless, fissiparous argument. I too have been as startled by unfathomable decorating choices in the 500k Banbury Road homes of venerable Oxford Professors as I have in the purple velveteen-draped yurts of Moon-daughters and simple quorn-herding folk. Afflicted by the congenital good taste of a certain type of posh mox---and good taste is ultimately as constricting to the breath as the steel corsetry into which every Bayreuth Brünnhilde until Olive Fremstad was strapped---I confess the same bafflement as Praz and Castle.

* * *

Ideal Home time. When I was a child, I fantasised about having a tiny house in the woods where I would live completely alone, with candles, firewood, and a sack of flour for making bread. That dream has modulated over the years into what my friend Justine and I now refer to as 'The Retreat Centre', our common vision-house. I have a very clear image of it in my mind, into which many influences have fed; but most of all, the Normandy home of the Russian artist Yuri Kuper. His home-cum-studio is exactly, exactly, my taste. Here are some pictures of it; see Phyllis Richardson's enticing Contemporary Natural for more.


Diana Rajchel said...

I don't know why it is, but it really does take a special kind of tolerance to simply accept and not judge the condition -or decor choices- of another person's home. I suspect it traces back to some weird baboon/tribal thing, where you knew your tribe by whether what they hung up made you feel comfortable, threatened, annoyed, or like you could dominate the daylights out of 'em.

Those pictures are GORGEOUS by the way. I have stacks of Dwell myself, for future drooling orgies.

Bo said...

Yes! I'm sure you're right. Aren't they lovely? Thanks for the comment too.

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