Narratives That Illuminate Design
If you believe that design-centric coffee table books contain nothing more than visual surveys of portfolios, I am out to change your mind today by presenting my choices for narratives that illuminate design. What has prompted this quest? Two intelligently written books in Rizzoli’s holiday catalog—both of which were published earlier this year.
You will find visual sensuality aplenty in each one, though they are quite different in their aesthetic makeup, and you’ll discover dynamic narratives if you take the time to delve into the writing in the two tomes (yes, these are quite hefty in size and thickness so the descriptor fits them perfectly). The titles are Garden Inspirations by Charlotte Moss, and Anouska Hempel, a monograph of projects by the London-based designer that evoked a sizable dose of interiors envy in me—not a normal occurrence given all of the enviable design I’ve seen in my 20-year design-writing career!
In the introduction of Charlotte Moss’s Garden Inspirations, the author/designer/gardening guru quotes Vita Sackville-West, whose principles of horticulture Moss counsels neophytes to heed: “First: have a plan. Sound familiar? This applies to most things in life. There is the architecture of the garden, the seasonal ebb and flow of blooms, and a color scheme. Second: be ruthless. If it doesn’t work, if it isn’t beautiful, if it doesn’t please you, then OUT. Cut your losses and move on. What’s the point? Third: perfection is not a goal. A little unruliness, the occasional random self-seeding is okay.”
It’s a good thing for lovers of seductively beautiful books that Moss ignored the last caveat when creating Garden Inspirations. She also disregarded the proviso when deciding the depth of perspective she would share with her readers, particularly in my favorite section of the book narrative-wise—the next to the last one titled “Verdant Voices.”
Charlotte Moss’s Verdant Voices
In it, she included a varied assemblage of women—Edith Wharton, Bunny Mellon, Beatrix Potter, Colette and Empress Joséphine among them. She dubbed Sackville-West “The Columnist,” and noted that the gardening genius who made Sissinghurst Castle flourish would have been “the queen of social media gardening, blogging away with her practical advice and her down-to-earth-tone.” I love this anecdote and have enjoyed mentally envisioning how the early adopter in Sackville-West would have composed her platform were it true!
Among the other cultivators, Edith Wharton serves as the “The Writer” in Moss’s brigade. Bunny Mellon is “The Connoisseur”; Beatrix Potter, “The Imaginary Gardener”; Colette, “The Sensualist”; Nancy Lancaster, “The Sybarite”; Empress Joséphine, “The Patron”; and Lady Bird Johnson, “The Advocate.”
“With a highly developed degree of awareness, as keen observers of everything around them, they developed a certain acuteness, a kind of radar,” Moss says of her chosen influencers. “They were filled with information and insights, and, as a result, they found everything interesting and saw beauty in most things; as a result they were able to create beauty in many forms.”
Sharing Narratives of the Past
On the pages she crafted to introduce them, Moss shares a bit of each visionary’s story, the narratives brief though rich in context. She ends Wharton’s profile with a keen observation that weaves all of her impassioned accomplishments into one sentence: “The first woman to win the Pulitzer Prize for literature, Wharton lives on in the subtle irony between the lines of her novels, in the soil at The Mount and in the flowers at Sainte-Claire.”
Moss notes that Bunny Mellon was notoriously private, which didn’t stop her from attempting to land an interview. Fortunately for her readers, the move worked. Her description of the initial moments she drove onto Oak Spring, Mellon’s Virginia farm, on a cold day in November illustrates how visually astute Moss is: “Her driveway was long and meandering; the skeletal silhouettes of fruit trees against the white library walls and the leafless towering oaks along the road were impeccably sculpted.”
About one of the socialite’s most notable gardening projects—the White House Rose Garden in Washington DC—Mellon told Moss how Jacqueline Kennedy cornered her after dinner one evening and warned, “Jack is going to ask you something tonight and you better goddamn say yes.” And how lucky we are that she did. What would the White House be without its rose garden that serves as the backdrop for some of our country’s most important political announcements? Mellon died in the spring of 2014 at the age of 103, making Moss’s interview an important contribution to the cultural legacy of gardening in our country.
Only a gardener who is also an avid reader could have intuited the perspective Moss holds regarding Beatrix Potter: “When she purchased Hill Top in Near Sawrey, she implemented the garden long seen in her imagination.” One look at the charming stone cottage swathed in green above and you can see why Moss would declare this. Don’t you feel the setting would be the perfect playground for Peter Rabbit as he nibbled along the garden path just as Moss implies he might? The image by Dayve Ward came from the Heritage Open Days site; I want to take one of their tours at the farm if they produce one that segues with a trip to Cumbria in the future.
Quoting Colette, “The Sensualist” among her influencers, Moss shares this passage from Flowers and Fruit: “All this comes back to me as I write, all this that flowered long ago, those curves, that softness of design, the primness and the habits of a traditional way of gardening—all this banished by another tradition embraced by cement and flagstones appointed with grass, bronze cypress trees, atriums, pergolas, and patios…”
When I read this excerpt Moss chose, I was reminded of how surprised I was when I visited Colette’s gravesite in the Père-Lachaise Cemetery in Paris. The marble crypt holding her remains—with its cement and flagstones, no less—was angular and cold, a shock to me considering how lushly she wrote.
One of my favorites in Moss’s cadre of gardening lovers is Empress Joséphine, “The Patron” of the group. Moss enlightens readers about the sovereign’s passion for flowers that resulted in her creation of an “earthly paradise” at the once downtrodden Château de Malmaison, an estate west of Paris that encompassed 150 acres of land when she purchased it and is now a national museum. I hope to walk through the French interiors of this museum during my next trip to France.
“The planning of the grounds was heavily influenced by the English school of landscape design, with its romantic features, gentle rolling lawns, and monumental trees,” Moss writes. It’s interesting to note that Joséphine’s influence didn’t end with her death; in 1844, 30 years after the Empress passed, a rose named Souvenir de la Malmaison appeared. A Russian Grand Duke payed homage to the royal by naming it and planting one of the first specimens of it in the Imperial Garden in St. Petersburg.
And Joséphine wasn’t the only Bonaparte to love all things botanical. I visited the Shangri-La Hotel, Paris—set like a gem at the hem of the Avenue d’Iéna—when it first opened. Enjoy the video tour of the remarkable building once owned by Napoleon Boneparte’s grandnephew Roland Bonaparte (above) if you have the time. The passions of the elite collector, who was an avid anthropologist, was evident in the floral-themed stained glass windows and lush murals dotting the refined interiors. At one time, Roland owned a collection of 2.5 million specimens and a library of 200,000 books.
The name of the hotel’s restaurant, L’Abeille, was chosen to honor to Napoleon’s favorite emblem—the bee—and the hotel’s mix of flowers when I toured it included delicate orchids, many of which had their fingering feet sunk in Directoire-style planters to reflect the Empire period in which the property was built. I adored strolling through the luxuriant spaces in which the sweep of time seemed to narrow to a pinhole; the setting was so divine, it was easy to pretend I had a swath of satin flowing behind me as I ambled across the highly polished floors.
The “Verdant Voices” section of Garden Inspirations speaks to the heart of what I feel is most important for anyone who takes writing seriously. By presenting the legacies of these influential women in print, Moss cements her own place in the cultural canon as an arbiter of design, especially as it relates to the garden.
If you are a fan of Beatrix Farrand, as I am, Moss includes a section on American Gardens that have inspired her, which includes lovely imagery of Farrand’s gardens at Dumbarton Oaks. The neice of Edith Wharton was one of the author’s favorite pen pals once she had become an expat. Letters like the one above are prolific in the Wharton archives in the Beinecke Library at Yale.
Rizzoli’s Anouska Hempel
In the Introduction to his book highlighting the design brilliance of Anouska Hempel, who has envisioned environs the world over—and even a handful upon the high seas—Marcus Binney speaks of her “astonishingly quick and perceptive eye that enables her to spot the intrinsic qualities of objects great and humble.” He also notes her acute sense of mood and atmosphere, which is evidenced in her broad portfolio. Unfortunately, I was only able to secure limited photography so what you see visually here is a very narrow representation of her range.
The variety of aspects that her firm, Anouska Hempel Design, undertakes on any given project is dizzying, the demands encompassing everything from the design of interiors, furniture and furnishings, gardens, landscaping, food, hospitality in its broadest sense of the word, and couture.
Hempel is renowned for her luxuriant designs of hotels, the depth of which Binney equates to concepts that developed throughout the most regarded historical eras in art and design. “In her interiors the convergence of lines often has the feeling of a Renaissance exercise in perspective, with the vanishing point at the end of the room or beyond,” Binney writes. “With this comes a sure and confident sense of proportion.”
The Grand Manner
He notes her talent at achieving The Grand Manner, a style that ushered in imposing sequences of spaces when it was conceived by the 17th-century landscape architect André Le Nôtre for the gardens of the Château de Vaux le Vicomte. Binney points out that the theory applies just as relevantly to interiors: “In Hempel’s work the Grand Manner is enriched by the concept of layering and an Orient-inspired love of veiled effects, in particular the use of screens to add an air of mystery, partially concealing but also hinting at what lies beyond.”
Binney’s intelligent way of dissecting and presenting her acumen greatly enhances the stunning photography of the sweeping array of projects Hempel has realized. His talent at expressing what the designer achieves by taking language into unlikely territory shows in this description: “One of the most dramatic forms of framing is the enfilade—a military term indicating a straight, clear firing line. In interiors it describes a series of doors in perfect alignment and all matching in size to give the effect of breathtaking length and absolute order. It evolved par excellence in the design of palaces where the intention was to dazzle as well as to delight.”
In a statement in this opening essay, Hempel makes a brilliant observation where acquisitions are concerned, one I first heard during an antiques shopping excursion in Parma, Italy, with Toma Clark Haines, The Antiques Diva: “If you like something enough to buy one, buy the lot,” Hempel advises. “You’ll never see them again.” To illustrate the point, Binney references black ebony frames that were historically used for Dutch Old Masters in 18th-century picture cabinets. Hempel used these as inspiration for the sets of framed mirrors she designed for the Grosvenor House Apartments on Park Lane.
Sir John Soane, Master of Reflection
The historic perspective Binney brings to the subject of design truly makes this book one of my all-time favorites when it comes to a current-day writer speaking about contemporary design as viewed through the lens of the past. The fact that he articulates it so clearly is refreshingly informative. I illustrate this point with the paradigm he chose to speak of Hempel’s ability to create a sense of mystery with her clever use of reflections: “Architects and designers have long been fascinated by the Soane Museum in Lincoln’s Inn Fields, London, where the Regency architect Sir John Soane placed slivers of mirrors to reflect light into dark passages and corners, creating spaces that existed only in the eye of the onlooker.”
Given this Hempel quote that Binney shares, the designer is mysterious to her very core: “Anywhere the trade routes have passed or the trade winds have blown—that’s my territory. I can dream myself into a desert tent playing footsie with Genghis Khan, or a military tent planning strategy with Napoleon. Wherever my imagination finds itself that’s where my rooms begin.”
Elizabethan Era Portraiture
It’s her prowess as a collector that clued me in as to why her interiors resonate with such old-world richness while being completely au courant. In the second essay in the book titled “Inspirations,” Belinda Harley observes that Tudor portraiture is so central to Hempel’s oeuvre it has become a leitmotif in her work. “She began collecting early Elizabethan art as soon as she could,” Harley writes, “a pioneer in the field that is now much followed.”
Harley notes how the designer may use a portrait to set the color palette for an entire room, such as the dining room at Addison Road in London where an Elizabethan portrait of a luxuriant aged gold intermingled with shades of black set the tone for the room that included Biedermeier furniture, and black- and yellow-striped silk. “When she bought it, the portrait had a mature colour from years of exposure to tobacco smoke, but she chose to leave it uncleaned,” she explains; “the distinctive colour of the patina it had acquired became her inspiration for the room.”
It’s often some delicate detail in a portrait that first draws Hempel’s eye: an intricate lace cuff, for example, that may morph into an element in one of her fashion designs. My favorite anecdote from the book is this Harley historical reference: “The Elizabethans gloried in personal display. Many of the women painted in dresses of extraordinarily ornate, bejeweled splendour, did not own this attire; the dress was the property of the travelling artist, who recognized his sitters’ need for status through adornment.”
For me, these last three words—status through adornment—sum up Hempel’s narratives in contemporary design. The fact that some of the world’s wealthiest luxury brands tap her to unleash her imaginative vision time and time again means her class of adornment can be enjoyed by adventurers who are fortunate enough to sashay into the properties she has enlivened with her talents. Though of a different POV, in my book, the same goes for Moss and her oeuvre.
The Modern Salonnière and Narratives That Illuminate Design © Saxon Henry, all rights reserved. Saxon is an author, poet and strategist whose books include Anywhere But Here, Stranded on the Road to Promise and Four Florida Moderns.
4 Replies to “Narratives That Illuminate Design”
What a beautiful blog post for a Wednesday! Thank you Saxon! You have made my day!
I’m so thrilled you enjoyed it, Bethanne! Spending time with these books in order to write about them has been a true pleasure. Happy hump day!
I am thrilled to discover you Saxon! I found you through Lidy’s blog, and now would like to follow your writing and travels in art and literature, garden and design. I believe it will be like a treasure hunt–opening one door after another of delicious and fascinating finds. Blessings to you! And Merry Christmas…….Cate Tuten
You truly know how to light up a writer’s heart, Cate! Knowing that my adventures feel this way for you is everything that I’ve always hoped for in an audience and I can’t wait to continue my explorations, both IRL and on the proverbial page. Thanks so much for stopping by, taking the time to read and staying to comment. Happy Holidays!
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