Phaidon Introductions: Carolina Irving on texts and good taste
Can we read our way towards a better understanding of good taste? The ex-editor of House & Garden thinks so
Carolina Irving is not sure about good taste. “I look at so much decoration now and a sort of nausea comes over me, seeing belongings and arrangements so socially codified with expected good taste yet so impersonal,” writes the fabric designer, interior decorator and erstwhile editor of House & Garden in our new book, Interiors: The Greatest Rooms of the Century.
Nevertheless, Irving believes a certain sort of good taste “can be learned by seeing, and looking, and especially by reading. At least that has been my experience. The reason I love Lesley Blanch so much is because when I first became aware of her, reading her amazing books, including The Wilder Shores of Love, the biography of four nineteenth-century women who leave their civilized lives in the west for Arabia, and The Sabres of Paradise: Conquest and Vengeance in the Caucasus, I realized that I had the same obsessions with the same countries as she.
"I grew up in Paris in a very en-suite home with eighteenth-century furniture, the way French decoration is: always the perfect balance. I find it ministerial, beautiful for sure, but it’s not what makes my heart skip a beat. Then I met all my English friends, in particular the decorator Peter Dunham, who now lives in Los Angeles. All of a sudden I discovered this entirely different side of the decorative world, which was the English style and it was highly romantic to me. I was thrilled by the discovery of the combination of things, that mix that only the English know how to do so well. Maybe because it’s part of their colonial past, at home in other parts of the world, that they have this kind of irreverence. The French would die before covering a Jacob chair with a piece of Indian fabric, but not so the English.
“Peter took me to visit Teddy Millington-Drake, the artist and traveler. Born in England in 1932, he died in 1994 in Patmos, Greece, where he had the most wonderful house. He was a master gardener as well, and an aesthete. As a child, his mother, Lady Effie, took her family traveling often, packing them up in an entourage including some thirty Vuitton trunks, the majority filled with her clothing from House of Worth in Paris, pieces that she ordered based on watercolor sketches she received from the couturier. Teddy said it was those sketches that inspired him to draw and paint. After World War II he lived in Este, near Venice. Travel writer Bruce Chatwin, another of my heroes and favorite writers, was a great friend of his. Teddy had a tremendous influence on Bruce intellectually. In 1963, during a trip to Greece, Teddy fell in love with Patmos and bought two seventeenth-century houses, spacious white rooms with rustic wooden beams. He furnished these rooms with all the beloved things he had acquired during a lifetime of travel. Seeing this place for the first time — the purity of the architecture and the personality expressed in the decoration — was another major revelation to me.
“Then I met a man named Harry Blackmer, an American from Denver, Colorado, who lived most of his life in Paris working as a banker before moving to Athens, where he built a house in nineteenth-century Athenian style to hold his library that was eventually sold by Sotheby’s in 1989. It was an important collection of books about the architecture, art, politics, and history of Greece and the Levant from the sixteenth to the nineteenth century. I found this house the most unbelievable place; it gave me goosebumps to see it. His furniture was the provincial empire style—more charming than that sounds, and certainly not ministerial. Instead of the satin stripe fabrics that would have been typical for covering these sorts of chairs, he had placed pieces from his collection of extraordinary Suzani rugs. On the walls were his collection of Iznik tiles. It was a heady mix, let me tell you, and something I’d never seen before.
“My education continued when I met Christopher Gibbs, the antiques dealer and overall international tastemaker. Mick Jagger once said that he spent time with Christopher “to learn how to be a gentleman.” He designed the sets for Nicolas Roeg’s 1970 film Performance, and Michelangelo Antonioni filmed the marijuana scene for Performance in Christopher’s Cheyne Walk flat in London. “Taste is difficult to define, but his is absolute perfection,” said Min Hogg, founding editor of World of Interiors, and she was right. I read World of Interiors religiously every month. The magazine did so much to educate a whole generation of interior designers and tastemakers.
“In addition to my adoration of Lesley Blanch, I started reading travel writer Patrick Leigh Fermor, whose descriptions of houses were perfection. Another writer I loved was Robert Byron. He died during World War II at the age of thirty-five when his ship was torpedoed by a German U-boat off Cape Wrath. He published for about fifteen years until his death, and his book, The Road to Oxiana, telling of his journey to Afghanistan and Persia in 1933, is beautiful. Here is an example of his writing, a description of a Seljuk-era dome: “[It] embodies that precious moment between too little experience and too much, when the elements of construction have been refined to superfluous bulk, yet still withstand the allurements of superfluous grace; so that each element, like the muscles of a trained athlete,
performs its function with winged precision—not concealing its effort, as over-refinement will do, but adjusting it to the highest degree of intellectual meaning.”
“Another monumental piece was Bruce Chatwin’s The Estate of Maximilian Tod, a work of fiction that describes Mr. Tod’s house in the most mesmerizing terms. Mr. Tod’s house was “… an airy pavilion built on a knoll about one hundred yards from the water. It was thirty-five feet square, aligned to the cardinal points, and had five sash windows on each face except for the north. The walls were of battened vertical planks painted the color of pewter. The glazing bars were a warm ivory … the only attempt at decoration lay in two thin strips of beading around the window frames, one painted a dark lapis, the other a dry red. Yet the architect had avoided the absolute regularity of the Western tradition. The roof was slightly hipped in the Chinese manner; none of the walls were precisely the same length; all were
fractionally inclined inwards; and these marginal asymmetries gave the building an air of movement in repose.” How this inflamed my imagination when I read it! Forever since, I have been looking for something that exists like that, but of course it came from his imagination. Still, I look.
“Lesley Blanch, Bruce Chatwin, Robert Byron, Christopher Gibbs, Teddy Millington-Drake, Harry Blackmer, Patrick Leigh Fermor, among many other sources of inspiration; Charles de Bestegui and Umberto Pasti; Egyptian architect Hassan Fathy; Sri Lankan architect Geoffrey Bawa, to mention a few; Eugenia Errázuriz, who some one hundred years ago. Was the mother of the invention of today’s minimalism, and I started to connect the dots. Many of the people who taught me to look knew each other, or had known each other. It’s all connected. What I am saying is that how I look, what I see, is my taste, and it developed early on, it was informed by the examples set by great aesthetes and writers, and it is still unfolding. It would be nice if someone thinks it’s good taste, but that’s not my goal. My goal, my taste, is for creating the state of mind of a traveler, a spirit of wanderlust solved, that transpires in one’s environment. The way so many English homes were the reflection of a grand tour, and the way so many French homes, like my childhood home, were not.”
To read Irving's introduction in full, order a copy of Interiors here; you can even choose your book’s cover. There are four to choose from: saffron yellow, platinum gray, merlot red and midnight blue. Pick the right one for your own interior.