February 26, 2015

Grau House

Edgar Allan Poe visited England as a child. His imagination was stirred by the Walter Scott atmosphere of English country houses.  Later he heard about the neo-gothic mansions built by Horace Walpole and William Beckford, two masters of the Gothic novel. All the trappings of the Tudor manor house myth were to make a great impression in America: the rusty armor, dirt-encrusted portraits, mysterious coats of arms, dusty stained glass, the spidery chandeliers-and, of course, the ghosts. In sum, the decor of Henry James's "Turn of the Screw."

There were plenty of churches in the neo-gothic style in America, but not many private houses. The most charming of these is still Lyndhurst on the banks of the Hudson. And then came the great age of college-building, which bore its final and most extraordinary fruit at Yale.  The Cloisters Museum in New York stems from this same nostalgia for a medieval world, which could provide a link with some dark supernatural life, mysterious or just plain "creepy" like the drawings of Charles Addams, who has located "his" House of Usher in the suburbs. Another variant of the style took its inspiration from the ruins of Heidelberg; restaurants built by immigrants in the 1880's in the Wilhelmine manner still exist in New York.  The necessary preconditions for this decor for phantoms can be found in abandoned plantations, and even in some New York apartment blocks, like the Dakota building used in "Rosemary's Baby," itself extremely Gothic in inspiration.   And the sets of vampire films set in the Carpathians are also inspired by these English mansions, where one expects to come across hidden treasures and beneath whose tapestries, stirred slightly by the wind as in "Hamlet," rats or revenants are likely to lurk.

February 19, 2015

What Do You Say to a Naked Room?

Years ago there was a book with the title, “What Do You Say to a Naked Room?” It contained a diagram and templates for furniture-the concept being that each of us makes a unique response when confronted with space for decoration. Floors, walls, mantels, and tabletops are the surfaces on which we issue statements. When we design interior spaces, we make a statement. Ideally, it should express the tastes and likes of the client. It can be as diverse as the spectrum of colors, textures, fixtures, and finishes available.

I have often been asked why my sensibilities lean toward the less is best.

First, because I mostly design for, and need to meet the design demands of clients whose dictum as a rule is, less is best. 

Second, all my adult life I have lived in small spaces. The only way for me as a visual person to do this, was to edit. This has incorporated the ruthless removal, and the gentle weeding of a room’s content. Re-imagining a room that suffers from overmuch is not a difficult thing to do. What should go or stay? A handy rule and my straight from the heart advise is, if you have not sat in it, turned it on, or dumped the mail on it for three days, consider getting it out of the room. Recycle.

I am brutally practical when it comes to the little stuff that bogs us down; picture frames, silver doodads, carved onyx, porcelain figurines. If it is dingy, recycle it. If you cannot manage the maintenance put it away. The silver you never get around to polishing does not belong in your life. What we need are open spaces and clear surfaces for living. Storage for books and media. Places for reading. Room for cell phones, car keys, mail, and all the momentary necessities of everyday life.

As I got on, I arrived at what I call the Zen approach to possessions: less is all you ever need.

February 6, 2015

Vaux-Le-Vicomte ... the house the Sun King was set on

For or a split second the eyes of the host met those of his guest of honor. Everything, was intended to please:  the barely-finished castle, splendid in its vast acreage of ordered gardens, the exquisite tapestries and paintings, the sumptuous array of food, the music, the play, the fireworks. But the host felt a chilling premonition when he saw in his guest's eyes neither delight nor admiration, but a gleam of envy tinged with hate. The guest was the young King Louis XIV; the host was his Finance Minister, Nicolas Fouquet. There have been parties just as lavish, just as costly, just as gossiped-about. But the chateau-warming thrown at Vaux-Ie-Vicomte by its owner, Fouquet, in honor of Louis XIV on August 17, 1661, went down in history as a thunderous event.

The party was a smashing success. Everybody, it seems, had a good time ... except for the King. The play was by Moliere, the music was by Lulli, the catering was supervised by the renowned maitre d'hotel Vate!' It was all too beautiful, truly fit for a king, but not for a finance minister. Within three weeks, Fouquet was thrown into jail, where he was to languish and die nineteen years later. And the Sun King scooped up everything from Vaux that took his fancy ... ideas, objects, designers-even Vate!' That was when in the field of political philosophy, are lacking in managerial talents."

Versailles was born. Louis wanted a better Vaux. Fouquet had made two big mistakes: spending his money too well and too wisely (whether it was ill-gotten or not remains a moot point); and having infallible taste. After eight years as finance minister, he wanted to build a worthy monument, or as he said:  "It was a place where I wanted to leave a few traces of my station."

His ideas were hardly niggling. A whole village called Vaux was razed in 1656 to make way for the chateau. At one point 18,000 workers were employed. But what made Vaux the marvel that it was, and is, was Fouquet's choice of the illustrious triumvirate-Le Vau the architect, Le Brun the painter-decorator, Le Notre the landscape architect.

Louis XIV had visited the chateau twice before the famous fete (at the suggestion of the perfidious Colbert, who was jealous of Fouquet and angling for power).  Louis' brother, Monsieur, had remarked ironically: "Sire, all you have to do is become finance minister for one year, and you'll have enough money to build."  So, at one point, though Vaux was far from finished, the impatient King sent notice that he expected a formal reception with all the trappings in one month's time. Fouquet, already ill, threw himself into finishing Vaux with a feverish surge of activity. He hastily transferred furniture from his old house; he goaded on the tapestry workers at nearby Maincy (a workshop he had created, later taken over by Louis XIV to become Les Gobelins); he bought more and more statues, furniture, paintings from Rome with the assistance of Poussin. And by the time Vatel had iced the last petit four, Vaux, to all intents and purposes, was finished. Fouquet was really finished.

The arrest was made by D'Artagnan (one of the Musketeers) on September 5 in Nantes; there was a trumped-up trial, and Fouquet was lucky to get away without execution. Many were sympathetic to his cause, especially his friend La Fontaine, who wrote the romantic Elegie aux nymphes de Vaux:

“Fill the air with sobs in your shadowy caves; Weep, nymphs of Vaux, and swell your waves.”

But who could help in the face of the Sun King? Practically everything that could be moved in Vaux had to be sold by Fouquet's wife to pay debts. The King took the lion's share of this lucre, especially the exquisite fabrics, the most voluptuous statues, the tapestries and books. Le Vau, Le Brun and Le Notre were enlisted to work on Versailles.

Happily, Vaux has pulled through all kinds of chaos, and was opened to the public. With its moat, its sweep of formal gardens, its sloped roofs and huge central dome, it is a rare example of a miraculous combination of talents at the time when France was just rising to her apogee of power, with the influential flower power of French baroque.

Le Brun never had a chance to finish the eighty-eight-foot-diameter dome: the painting was to have depicted Fouquet welcomed by Apollo in his Sun Palace, "like a new star enclosing the shape of a squirrel" (Fouquet's coat-of-arms). The "squirrel," whose family motto was Quo non ascendet (What heights shall I not reach) fell off his perch too soon, and most of his worldly goods disappeared with the downfall.

But Vaux's interior has been reconstituted exactly as it might have looked in 1661, with Louis Quatorze armchairs, tapestries, objets d'art, chandeliers. The man responsible was Alfred Sommier, a rich sugarrefiner, who bought Vaux in 1875 and raised it from its sorry state to the glory it enjoyed on that fateful day in 1661.
The two centuries between Fouquet and Sommier were not, however, entirely a dark age of decay. "Beautiful things or terrible things can happen to enormous places and this place has known both all the time.  I see the history of Vaux as a series of peaks and valleys, marked by its share of drama, including murder and suicide.

Fouquet's arrest was the first catastrophe. Although his son 'was allowed to live there, the family fortune dwindled, and the estate could hardly flourish.  At his death, who was going to keep such a big place?  Nobody.   But along came a wealthy soldier, the Marechal de Villars, who had lately been made a duke by Louis XIV.  He was looking for a glamorous place, bought Vaux in 1705, and Vaux was on the up again. The good luck did not last long. The duke's son was not interested in the place, and is even suspected of digging up lead pipes in the gardens in order to sell them, thus ruining the irrigation system.

Next takers were the powerful Choiseul-Praslin family, in 1764. Those people were rich but the Revolution came and Vaux went down again. When the local revolutionaries from Maincy politely asked the lady of the manor, now Citoyenne Praslin, to destroy anything recalling the monarchy, she just as politely complied and let them burn a few tapestries and royal portraits. The townspeople would not have dreamed of touching the chateau.

A few weeks later, however, matters became serious when a messenger arrived on horseback with a written order decreeing that the old ex-duchess must leave the chateau within eight days so that it could be torn down. Not giving up without a fight, the plucky dowager whipped off a letter to the Convention, suggesting that perhaps her chateau could be useful to future art students. The Convention agreed that it would indeed be very useful to students, but legal tangles kept things at an impasse. Time passed, and the Revolution was finished. Nothing happened, and Vaux got out of that crisis!

The Choiseul-Praslins (descendants of that courageous old lady) lived grandly at Vaux until 1847, when the fifth duke murdered his wife and committed suicide, in one of the century's great crimes passionnels. It's a sad story because the duke was basically a quite normal man. His wife was very ardent, and they were not made for each other. She was passionately in love with him. “Why are you not in my arms every night?” She complained.

She built up a folly and lived in a completely different world. She wrote thousands of letters on her unrequited love for her husband. And then she became insanely jealous, believing wrongly that her husband was in love with the children's governess. All this became too much for the duke. Understandably driven to distraction by his wife's mad devotion, the duke reacted the way any red-blooded man might: he did away with his wife, and then swallowed a deadly dose of arsenic!

Vaux was once more plunged into darkness. Nearly thirty years later, word got round that the Praslin children were planning to parcel the vast property into lots, tear down the chateau (almost a white elephant without its gardens) and auction off the land. The prefet of nearby Melun, a cultivated man interested in art, heard about the sale and informed Sommier, already becoming known as an art collector. One look at the abandoned chateau, and the industrialist was thunderstruck by the beauty of the architecture, by the painted ceilings and murals. Vaux was sold to the sole prospective buyer at the auction-Sommier. "And up goes Vaux again!" shouts Vogue triumphantly. Until his death thirty-three years later, Sommier devoted himself to restoring Vaux and its gardens. The next hint of disaster to the chateau was the institution of income tax in 1913. Not that it was immediately dramatic. But fortunes started disappearing, and it was getting awfully difficult, if not impossible, to keep up big places like this. Enter Patrice de Vogue, who was given Vaux by his father and moved in 1967, taking it as a sort of sentimental responsibility. Even with tax relief and state benefits, I knew hecouldn't keep Vaux up alone. He had to have help.  Letting the public in was the obvious solution. Eighty thousand visitors paid their four francs to cross the moat into Vaux in the first "open season" from April to October, 1968.

Vaux has impressive trumps to draw: it is only forty miles from Paris; it has the biggest gardens of any chateau, with the exception of Versailles, of course; and it is the most completely furnished big chateau open to the public in France.

As for ghosts, they are the spirit of the people who have lived here and devoted their lives to the place ....