Like Katherine Mansfield’s enigmatic stories, the book Place by Tara Bernerd feels like “a thread with a subtly woven texture embracing ecstatic feeling, sensuous delight.” The quote is from an essay by Angela Smith in a remarkable book titled The Modernist Party. Edited by Kate McLoughlin, the collection of literary explorations surveys the dinner party through the lens of literature. The editor deems the essayists who are writing about the wordsmiths her guest list for her version of modernist party, the book itself.
The Sensuous Delight of Place
The authors whose work these essayists plumb include Mansfield, Virginia Woolf, Ezra Pound, Natalie Barney, Gertrude Stein, D. H. Lawrence, Ford Madox Ford and Joseph Conrad, among others. Given I am prone to situating historical figures in present-day atmosphere, I knew a number of the projects featured within Bernerd’s book, which was published by Rizzoli, would be sensuous backdrops for modernist parties were the “it” lit crowd of early modernism going about their machinations as globetrotters today.
Consider the image above through the words of Joanne Winning, who wrote in her essay: “For a party to take place, there has to be the creation of a spatial and temporal frame.” Winning is writing about the milieu in Paris during the 1920s when the Lost Generation flocked to Natalie Barney’s salon on rue Jacob and Sylvia Beach’s Shakespeare & Company bookstore when it was located on rue de l’Odéon.
The pictured project in which I believe the group of writers who frequented these locales would have felt quite at home is a serenely lit space in Hotel Russell, located in Russell Square in London. It is a fine example of Bernerd’s ability to achieve tranquility using light, materials and spatial arrangements as her tools. The British designer has projects around the globe realized through her firm Tara Bernerd & Partners that hold the same level of finesse.
A Sense of Place in Bloomsbury
Bernerd’s book is divided into sections labeled Past, Present and Future. She says of her approach to the properties featured in them, “The world today moves at an exceptional pace; however, trends are something I have avoided—and perhaps rules, too. For me, the most important aspect of design is seeking the components that are authentic, that will stand true in time.” Case in point is this second image from the Hotel Russell below, which is in the heart of historic Bloomsbury.
In this setting, I place Virginia Woolf journaling at the elegant desk before moving to the sumptuous bed, a ruse inspired by Bryony Randall’s essay titled “Virginia Woolf’s Idea of a Party.” Her thesis sprang from both Woolf’s memoir 22 Hyde Park Gate and letters the author wrote to her friends. In 1925, Woolf described a party that she was meant to co-host but did not attend in such a letter: “My party was absolutely heavenly. I lay in bed and imagined it. Never shall I go to a party any other way. One is so brilliant; so happy; so beautiful.” The weeks following the penning of this missive, Woolf began working on party scenes that informed her novel Mrs. Dalloway. I’m grateful to writers like her for leaving process notes in their journals; and I believe we lost quite a treasure trove of information with the death of letters written by hand, as the one she penned proves.
Dreams and Illusions
Margot Norris notes in her essay titled “The Party In Extremis in D.H. Lawrence’s Women in Love” that Lawrence and his wife Frieda were among the first guests invited to Lady Ottoline Morrell’s Oxfordshire country home Garsington Manor. They attended a birthday party for the renowned hostess on June 16, 1915. He caused quite a fine mess when unmistakable likenesses of Lady Morrell and her cadre were recognized in his characters. Quoting Michael Holroyd’s biography of Lytton Strachey, who frequented her lavish affairs, Norris notes that with Garsington, “Lady Morrell had ‘created a magic reflection of her visitors’ dreams and illusions.”
I see the same outcome in Bernerd’s design of the main salon of the superyacht the Orient Star pictured above. The designer says of designing a yacht, “it is not about thinking outside the box, but making a world within the box.” This is much the same for novelists creating their plotlines and characters, only their box is a world between two covers.
A Magic Circle
The image below is a vignette from a Westminster Terrace Penthouse in Hong Kong. Within the envelope of the flat, Bernerd created an Eastern-influenced, loft-style home, the spaces in it overlooking Kowloon and Hong Kong Island. “Throughout this project, one is struck by the exquisite combination of different materials, colors, and textures, all of which coalesce in a super-deluxe yet warm feeling,” the introduction to the project notes.
It goes on to say, “The expert use of ‘pooling’ spotlights further enhances these different design elements. This, combined with a keen eye for details…has transformed an expansive space into an intimate home.” Returning to Norris’s essay, the writer cites this moment in the “Breadalby” chapter of Women in Love when Lawrence presents another setting in idyllic terms that could easily describe the above vignette from this home: “There seemed a magic circle drawn about the place, shutting out the present, enclosing the delightful, precious past…like a dream.”
Mesmerized by Beauty
It’s in Smith’s essay describing a moment in Katherine Mansfield’s short story “Sun and Moon” in which we find a literary parallel for the above vignette—the dining room for Chiswick Gate. The protagonist is a young boy of four or five named Sun who has astute insight into the masks his parents have donned for the party they are giving. In one scene, “He is mesmerized by the beauty of the dining-room and can’t stop looking at it; as the housemaid says, ‘It’s a picture.’” The mix of warmth and coolness Bernerd achieved in the design is indeed a picture.
In a letter to Virginia Woolf, Mansfield, who was a member of the London literary scene during the Bloomsbury Era, refers to a letter she received from Anton Checkhov in which he said a writer does not so much solve the question as puts the question: “There must be a question put. That seems to me to be a very nice dividing line between the true & the false writer.”
Cheswick Gate appears in the “Present” section of Bernerd’s book, which begins with a question put by way of an interview during which Charlotte and Peter Fiell ask the designer, “Do you think there is an increasing convergence between design and other creative disciplines?” She answers, “I can get an idea for design from all sorts of things. Sometimes I get an inspiration and just park it in my mind, holding on to it until it is relevant to a new project. Everyone looks for a set of rules, how to create something; for me, I have to be open to inspiration from all areas of life…I try to feel what’s right for a given project, as opposed to what everyone else is looking for or doing.”
The Perfect Afternoon
This is evident in her redesign of Chalet Miramonti, which overlooks the Gstaad Valley in Switzerland. Taking inspiration from the spectacular mountain views and the concept Gemütlichkeit, or a relaxed coziness, her team worked to combine the old with the new, and to introduce a warm palette. I leave this literary design encounter with a line from Mansfield’s short story “The Garden Party,” which I believe describes the welcoming ambience they achieved: “the perfect afternoon slowly ripened, slowly faded, slowly its petals closed.”
I’ll end today with a quote about Sylvia Beach, whose importance in enabling the lauded writers of the Lost Generation to survive and thrive cannot be understated. It’s in Winning’s essay. She’s quoting Annie Winifred Ellerman, who went by the nom de plume Bryher. The writer described Beach’s Shakespeare & Company as “a place of shelter for the artefacts of modernism and modernity.” Designers of Bernerd’s talents know the difference between the two as is evidenced by her work in the book. It’s wonderful to have a published example of interiors that so clearly embrace both.
The Modernist Party
I highly recommend The Modernist Party for your summer reading list if you are a fan of literary history seen through a cultural lens. These are academic essays but they are written with great insight, and they give one a true sense of place and time for that lauded era. I’ll add one note of caution: if you are as addicted to books as I am, don’t allow yourself to look at the notes pages that cite sources at the close of each essay!
The Modern Salonnière and The Sensuous Delight of Place © 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.