Ally Coulter at Holiday House 2014.

Ally Coulter and the Opulent Salon

Ally Coulter's Space at Holiday House NY 2014.
Ally Coulter’s sumptuous space at the Holiday House NY 2014.

Ally Coulter’s grand salon on the first floor of the Holiday House NYC took my breath away the minute I entered the room. It was as if I’d stepped into a Romanesque nod to modernism that intermingles a smooth mix of time-honored and modern elements—Otto Naumann art and Newel antiques hold court alongside Fendi Casa furniture and contemporary accessories, each brushstroke of design prowess painting a lush composition of what it means to be privileged.

Ally Coulter and the Opulent Salon

Ally dubbed the space “An American in Rome—A Memorable Holiday” but I would like to suggest a foreigner as the perfect resident for the salon. I think this courtier who was born in Rome and would transform certain aspects of French culture would have waltzed right in and proclaimed the room pure perfection—and this is saying something because she was one profoundly discriminating dame.

Her name was Catherine de Vivonne. The revered hostess and member of the highest order of the cultural elite was a grandniece of Pope Leo X, a distant cousin of Marie de Médici, and the daughter of the Marquis of Pisani, a French Ambassador at the court of Rome, and Giulia Savelli, a Roman lady.

She married into the French aristocracy when she was 12 years old and began making her mark on her adopted country at the ripe old age of 24. It just so happens she drew in her last breath on December 2, 1665, at the age of 77—exactly 349 years ago this coming Tuesday. What better moment to channel the Grande Dame through Ally’s sumptuous space? I thought when I saw the milieu the designer had created.

Catherine de Vivonne the Marquise de Rambouillet
Catherine de Vivonne, the Marquise de Rambouillet.

In his book Hôtel de Rambouillet and the Précieuses, author Leon Henry Vincent describes de Vivonne on her wedding day on January 27, 1600, as a young girl with a womanly seriousness, a proud spirit and a rare genius. I’ll just add the chick had guts. Beyond marrying Charles d’Angennes as a tween (the Marquis de Rambouillet was eleven years her senior), she set her sights on creating an experience that rivaled attending Louis XIII’s court at the Louvre.

Rambouillet’s Chambre Bleue

The first move in the socialite’s playbook was to transform a downtrodden property in Paris belonging to her father (on the rue Saint-Thomas-du-Louvre) into the legendary Hôtel de Rambouillet. The Chambre Bleue, or Blue Room, within the residence is where the famous salonière hosted her avant-garde discussions, her salon regarded as the first of its kind in France. Many a blue-blooded lady coming after her would try to copy it with mixed results.

Not your typical intellectual, the Marquise was also a consummate designer. She directed the renovation of the lackluster Hôtel Pisani herself, serving as her own architect and interior decorator during a time when it was unheard of for someone of her breeding. And she kicked proverbial ass with her makeover, taking such an innovative direction the architects who were hired to design the Luxembourg palace were instructed to study her Hôtel.

When Manners Were All the Rage

She would also inspire generations of Baroque architects, including Louis Le Vau, who would design Vaux-le-Vicomte for Nicolas Fouquet, the flamboyant superintendent of finances in France from 1653 to 1661, and the extensive revamping of Versailles for Louis XIV.

Chambre Bleue on the Saxon Henry blog
Marquise de Rambouillet’s Chambre Bleue.

Unfortunately, all that remains of her stately home are two chunks of granite set into the foundation of the Musée national du Moyen Âge.

We have to resort to legend passed down by her inner circle to understand how dramatically she influenced design with her penchant for open airy floor plans.

The rooms she created, illuminated by tall windows, were approached through wide doors, each flowing into the next in enfilade. These moves were unheard of at the time, as was the first curving interior staircase she designed, her inventiveness at moving it from the center of the rooms to the corners causing a veritable uproar.

Once her new abode was completed and Charles won his inheritance, both coinciding in 1612, the Marquise stepped into the role of cultural savant at her dazzling Hôtel de Rambouillet. She went about selecting her habitués with great astuteness, amalgamating the literati and the nobles in a manner that had never been done before.

Priests, soldiers, courtiers, poets, playwrights, novelists, noblemen, ladies of high rank, and the “occasional adventurer without whom society could not exist” flocked to her inner sanctum. They participated in history-making bouts of refined conversation and witty repartee within a backdrop even her detractors lauded as “a veritable sanctuary of taste.” This, to me, nails my reaction to Ally Coulter’s room at the Holiday House NY.

Rambouillet as Designer and Architect

The wall panels in Rambouillet’s salon, which were framed in gold and silver, were clad in blue velvet. The room’s cloudless sky-blue ceiling hovered above, reflecting the hues of the upholstery and the walls. These were daring design choices during an era when the socially acceptable color scheme was red and tan. The Marquise received visitors from a bed set into an alcove with open alleys, or ruelles, on each side of it and along the foot—the traffic of each highly orchestrated.

While servants made their way into and out of the room through one, her guests lounged along the other. These précieuses, as Molière satirized them in one of his most biting plays, would be draped over chairs and sofas, or perched upon cushions and stools or across the railing skirting the alcove. Hundreds of candles were flickering from a fifteen-armed crystal chandelier, the wavering brightness reflecting from a massive Venetian mirror to enliven the space.

Fireplace in Ally Coulter Space
Looking toward the fireplace in Ally Coulter’s space at #HHNYC2014.

But that was then. Now, I believe Rambouillet would have been drawn to create spaces with more of an eclectic feel, as Ally achieved at the Academy Mansion. I believe Mme de Rambouillet would have loved blending the Italian sensibilities she had inherited with French sophistication and a bit of eclectic devil-may-care, a smile passing her lips each time she spied her bright red Vespa from the corner of her eye.

Rambouillet as Entertainer a la Ally Coulter

She was a quintessential entertainer and she hated the cold, so I can see her now, covered in the sumptuous throw on one of the Fendi Casa sofas, enjoying the fire while one of her most musically inclined habitués, Angélique Paulet, sang and played the piano.

As the evening progressed, she would listen intently as poet François de Malherbe, a central figure within her inner circle, read from his poem “To Cardinal Richelieu.” The coterie of intellectuals gathered around her would be quietly engrossed in the verses honoring the powerful clergyman as the poet’s words wafted toward the ornate ceiling, a spate of lively applause echoing after them in the statuesque space.

Her smug expression would signal she had yet again pulled off a sublime evening of titillation, the mix of jealousy and awe on the faces of the shrewdest women surrounding her—Madame de Sévigné, Madame de Lafayette, the Duchesse de Longueville and Comtesse de La Suze, among them—the only sign her trendsetting heart required as confirmation.

Vespa Coulter Space by Saxon Henry
A Vespa on the ready in Ally Coulter’s Space at #HHNYC2014.

In his book, Vincent claims the Marquise was vivacious and loved all things beautiful; that she never wrote a book or kept a journal. The fact that even brief descriptions of her decorating prowess have survived should serve as a rallying cry to all working in the design industry today—make it unforgettable!

“Historians have often lamented their inability to give an accurate picture of life in the Blue Room,” Leon Henry Vincent wrote. “We shall never know what it was like. An ancient building can be restored but it is not so easy to restore an obliterated state of society.” This is true, Monsieur Vincent, but buildings can be brought back to life only if they survive.

Ally Coulter at Holiday House 2014.
Ally Coulter in her room at Holiday House NY 2014.

Authentic design on the level Rambouillet created is one reason I adore delving into history as I do; and the creation of a room like Coulter envisions is why I believe show houses are so important (beyond the philanthropy they undertake). Designers have the freedom to express themselves without the pressure of pleasing clients so you see extraordinary design storytelling at work in their spaces as they bring facets of their own personalities to life.

And the manufacturers and dealers who donate or lend furnishings deserve a hearty round of applause because they allow these professionals to create excellence on the highest order. If you are inclined to stop by the Holiday House NY to see for yourself, it is open through December 21st. You can find details about visiting on the #HHNYC2014 site.

If you felt Ally Coulter and the Opulent Salon was an entertaining read, you might enjoy a piece featuring another noblewoman who lived at a later intersection of Italian and French history in my literary design adventure highlighting a trip I took to the palace of Marie-Louise of Austria in Parma.

The Modern Salonnière and this DesignSalon entry © Saxon Henry, all rights reserved. Saxon is an author, poet and strategist. Her books include Anywhere But Here, Stranded on the Road to Promise and Four Florida Moderns.