The chapter of “Staircases: the Architecture of Ascent” covering 1600-1800 is titled “A Theatre of Power” and illustrated with this sumptuous image of Jean-Léon Gérôme’s “Reception of the Grand Condé at Versailles” [1878], courtesy of The Vendome Press and Musée d’Orsay/Hervé Lewandowski.

Summer Reading with Carmen Natschke

Carmen Natschke shares her summer reading list with Saxon Henry, image courtesy of Annabel Campainha Photography.
Carmen Natschke shares her summer reading list, image courtesy Annabel Campainha Photography.

For those of you who think Carmen Natschke, of The Decorating Diva fame, is merely a glamorous gadabout holding court in the design stratosphere, there is a well-read brainy girl behind those fashionable shades. I’ve had the privilege of getting to know her during the past several years and I am fascinated that she maintains such a stringent intellectual life—her mastery of languages (she’s learning a number of them as we speak) as admirable as her annual reading list (she pencils in 50 each time she sets her goals for the next year come fall).

Design’s Summer Reading List

I am aware that I have a reputation as a fecund writer but covering the number she’s checked off her list to this point in the year would make for too lengthy a post even for me, so I asked her to whittle it down to a few plums on her summer reading list. I thought this would give us a sampling of what she’s gleaned thus far. I hope you enjoy taking the excursion as much as I relished conducting it!

SH: How do you choose the books for your annual reading list?

CN: It’s random, really. I like to explore and discover new things, so much so that I have realized I have a voracious thirst for knowledge. When I choose books, I look for a challenge and for something that will take me outside my world. The subject has to be new in some way. It’s a diverse list because I love learning and I love reading. I told my husband Steve that I’m afraid there’s no way I’ll get to do everything I want to do before I die and he informed me I should completely give up that notion given my desire to be continually pushing into new territory!

SH: As you have carved more of an international presence on the design scene, has your taste in what you read changed?

CN: It has. I continue to read similar books design-wise—it’s part of my work to know what’s being published so I can pass the information along to my readers on The Decorating Diva—but I think I’ve become much more critical about what passes for design or art than I used to be. When I study design from a historical perspective, it helps me be more astute about what I’m seeing.

The chapter of “Staircases: the Architecture of Ascent” covering 1600-1800 is titled “A Theatre of Power” and illustrated with this sumptuous image of Jean-Léon Gérôme’s “Reception of the Grand Condé at Versailles” [1878], courtesy of The Vendome Press and Musée d’Orsay/Hervé Lewandowski.
The chapter of “Staircases: the Architecture of Ascent” covering 1600-1800 is titled “A Theatre of Power” and illustrated with this sumptuous image of Jean-Léon Gérôme’s “Reception of the Grand Condé at Versailles” [1878], courtesy of The Vendome Press and Musée d’Orsay/Hervé Lewandowski.
SH: Given the international component in your career has ramped up, has this made an impact on the list you compile each fall for the next year?

CN: I wouldn’t say so, but only because I was born in Spain and I have never lost touch with my European roots. I read books in French and Spanish, and I’m struggling through a book in Italian. Reading in different languages keeps my brain sharp.

SH: What is your favorite way to learn languages?

CN: It’s a mix—I have tutors; I take classes; and I love Babble.com. I’ve been speaking French since I was 13—my mom and my aunts are fluent so I was constantly being exposed to it growing up. Italian seems to be coming fairly easily because Spanish is my native language (I didn’t come to the United States until I was four).

SH: Would you say your summer reading list is mostly for pleasure, for inspiration, for personal growth or for career learning (or a mix of all of these)?

CN: I would say it’s all of them. When I was growing up, I was continually being told that reading keeps your mind vibrant; that engaging with a book does for the brain what exercise does for the body so the best thing you can do for your mind is to constantly be learning. I am so happy it was drummed into me when I was young because it has helped me avoid becoming intellectually stagnant as an adult. Each November and December, I tackle my goal setting for the next year and I pick 50 books knowing I will likely make it through about half of these. I think the exercise for me goes deeper than just plowing through a list of books, though; it’s about aiming to stay fascinated. This means if I’m disappointed with one, I don’t hesitate to stop reading because I see that it is not worth the investment of time to continue on.

SH: Where do you tend to come across your choices?

CN: Steve and I both love to read, and we will buy books when we see them—when we are traveling, for instance—and put them in our library. We have amassed a very good selection and I’ll take time to go through the books when I’m planning what I want to read for the following year. I’m often surprised when I scour the shelves and come across books we’ve bought that I’d forgotten about. I just seem to know when it’s time to delve into each one so it’s actually very organic.

Vassili P. Stasov used cast iron to compose this staircase in the chapel wing of the Catherine Place at Tsarskoye Selo (circa 1820), image courtesy of The Vendome Press and Emmanuel Ducamp.
Vassili P. Stasov used cast iron to compose this staircase in the chapel wing of the Catherine Place at Tsarskoye Selo (circa 1820), image courtesy of The Vendome Press and Emmanuel Ducamp.

SH: Let’s talk specifics and highlight a selection on this summer’s list that you’ve finished. I was particularly interested in the one you were discussing with JoAnn Locktov on our recent press trip to Streamsong ResortStaircases: the Architecture of Ascent by Oscar Tusquets Blanca, Martine Diot, Adelaïde de Savray, Jérôme Coignard and Jean Dethier—which I believe you’d just completed at the time. Which part of your life did this one feed and what is your take-away from the book?

CN: This book belongs in everyone’s library, and not simply because it is beautiful but because it’s so well written by the authors, who are architects, and art and architectural historians. When you think about it, they’ve taken such a simple thing as a staircase—which is so important to us as human beings—and pinned the evolution of it into a historical frame of reference. It’s rare to find a book that has both exemplary visual and contextual elements, bringing them together in such a comprehensive way that leaves you wanting more.

This is one of those choices that appealed to both my design sense and my thirst for knowledge. What I learned is that man is incredibly innovative in his never-ending quest to make things better for himself. If you look at the book, stairs were mostly in public spaces (like churches) when they came into being. They weren’t in private homes until The Middle Ages when they popped up in the residences of the affluent—remember; this was a time when wealth was just beginning to trickle down and stairs were seen as a sign of stature. Because they were additions early on, staircases were built on the outside of buildings. Once the fad had taken hold, even those who could have built them in the interiors sometimes built them on the outside for all to see in order to declare their home was one of prestige.

As I was reading, I found myself pausing and thinking back to places I’d traveled, and it suddenly clicked that some of the historic places I’d seen had these exterior staircases—the fact I’d seen them in person made me so excited! Take Versailles, for instance: there is an incredible staircase climbing to the orangery there. It was not only built as a functional means of ascending, it represented the great wealth of the king and queen, as well as the formidable power of France. The book also taught me that Michelangelo and Da Vinci were commissioned to create the type of staircases they were building in Italy in other parts of Europe. We take for granted how information moves so quickly now; communication was so slow then, it might be years before word would spread that there was this great thing going on somewhere else.

Isn’t it remarkable that we see staircases as functional things when initially they served as such signs of prominence? Now, we take them for granted, and in many buildings stairs versus elevators represent the low end of wealth. This is because humans figured out how to build them more economically, which caused them to decrease from status symbols to mundane elements in buildings, and technology brought us even more prestigious ways of reaching higher floors.

Paris’ architect to high society Henri Parent, designed this grand staircase for the Hôtel André (1868-76), now the Musée Jacquemart-André. Photo courtesy The Vendome Press and Marc Walter.
Paris’ architect to high society Henri Parent, designed this grand staircase for the Hôtel André (1868-76), now the Musée Jacquemart-André. Photo courtesy The Vendome Press and Marc Walter.

SH: A few other books Carmen has on her list to read this summer and why:

Bonfire of the Humanities: Rescuing the Classics in an Impoverished Age by Victor Davis Hanson, John Heath and Bruce S. Thornton

I was drawn to this book because it is written by three university professors talking about how we’re losing some of the greatest works in universities over time for a variety of reasons. I experienced this on a personal level because I had to read classics I wanted to experience, such as The Iliad, The Odyssey and Beowulf, outside of coursework in high school, and I felt this was just wrong. I will be interested to see how they address the state of education from an academic point of view. The main point that inspired my choosing this book is that important works are slowly being squeezed out of curricula and it’s a cultural loss for our country.

A History of Prussia by H.W. Koch

This book is from Steve’s library. He’s of Polish/German descent, and one of my goals during the next five years is to learn Polish so I will be segueing from this book on Prussia once I read it this summer to the history of Poland this fall. I feel these will prepare me to learn the language and will also open up my point of view by helping me understand parts of the world I’m not familiar with in the historical perspective. Steve has another book that speaks to how important Prussian history is in the context of American history because they helped us during the Revolutionary War (on the down low, of course; they “officially” sided with the British). I think these are things we need to know as Americans.

SH: Do you read in the mornings, evenings, mid-day or just when the mood strikes?

CN: Honestly, I read whenever I can. I don’t have the luxury of long stretches of time during the week so I make do: wedging a bit of reading time in when I am waiting somewhere, for instance, or when I travel. I’ll pull out my tablet and read for a few minutes any time I have a chance. I don’t have set hours so I might find myself with 15 minutes to read during an afternoon before a conference call, for instance. My favorite scenario is the rare, beautiful weekend when I have the chance to read a book from cover to cover.

The gracefully ornate external staircase sweeping from the home of violinist Ole Bull, at Lysøen, Norway, built in the 1840s. Photo courtesy The Vendome Press and Bastin & Evrard/Brussels.
The gracefully ornate external staircase sweeping from the home of violinist Ole Bull, at Lysøen, Norway, built in the 1840s. Photo courtesy The Vendome Press and Bastin & Evrard/Brussels.

SH: Are you a fast reader?

CN: I speed-read, a skill that came naturally to be as a result of coming to the United States when I was so young without any experience reading in English. When Mom enrolled me in school, they felt I didn’t belong in the first grade because of this. But she is one determined woman when she is convinced of something and she was certain I was way too advanced for kindergarten. Thanks to her efforts I was put into first grade, but I was lucky in that I had a progressive and open-minded teacher—it could have gone the other way but it didn’t so I see her as a godsend. She knew I was in a challenging environment and that I had to figure out how to communicate so she introduced me to the perfect books in English and told me to read as much as I could. I took her words to heart, and I read and read and read. By the end of the school year I was speaking perfect English.

She was one of the best gifts I’ve had in my life and the encouragement she gave me is one of the things that cemented my real love for reading. It also gave me such an appreciation for how language helps you to communicate on the most basic level. I am happy that my mom pushed because the outcome is that I have fortified my intelligence though books, so much so that by some point in junior high I was reading at college level. The thing I’ve learned from all of it is that when you love something you hone that skill. And I don’t think you can write well if you don’t read. Also, reading adds another layer of richness and understanding to life. It teaches us what came before and what is possible for the future.

SH: How do you feel reading for pleasure informs your point of view for your curatorial role on The Decorating Diva?

The undulant meta-modern external stairway on the new City Hall, the headquarters of the Greater London Authority, built beside the Thames and designed by Norman Foster (2002). Photo courtesy The Vendome Press and Corbis (Peter Durant/Arcaid).
The undulant meta-modern external stairway on the new City Hall, the headquarters of the Greater London Authority, built beside the Thames and designed by Norman Foster (2002). Photo courtesy The Vendome Press and Corbis (Peter Durant/Arcaid).

CN: I’ve become much more critical and discerning because I continue to educate myself no matter what I’m reading or why. I read quite a lot about design even before I began The Decorating Diva but my choices have become more critical since then, and I think the reading has educated me toward the finer points in all the design disciplines. I’ve gained a historical perspective that informs me about trends. Any time I see what people are impressed by, I look back to the past and I ask myself, “Knowing what I know from the historical perspective, is this really so new?” Often, it’s just a reiteration of an invention that’s come before. For instance, the Tiffany book I will be reading soon will inform other things I’ll be covering in the design world this fall—there is always at least one “aha moment”!

It is sometimes a bit disconcerting because I see that nothing is really new anymore, but to be honest, I’ve realized that this is an important perspective to have because it shows us that things from the past inform what’s happening now and what will happen in the future. There’s a trajectory to design and we are merely pieces of a larger puzzle that defines this course, which will go on long after we are gone.

I would like to thank Carmen for giving us a glimpse into her intellectual world. For art lovers, she also has Delft Masters, Vermeer’s Contemporaries: Illusionsism Through the Conquest of Light and Space by Michael C. C. Kersten, Danielle H. A. C. Lokin and Michiel C. Plomp on her list for the summer. If you enjoyed this post and would like to see more reading lists choreographed by design visionaries, please let me know and I’d be thrilled to make this a series. Happy reading, everyone!

The Diary of an Improvateur and this DesignSalon entry © Saxon Henry, all rights reserved. Saxon is an author, poet and journalist, as well as a contributor to Architizer. Her books include Anywhere But Here, Stranded on the Road to Promise and Four Florida Moderns.

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