My first impression of this year’s Kips Bay Decorator Show House was that so many rooms were full of blooms that reminded me of the floral drama in Dutch still lifes of the 17th century. Here are just a couple of examples:
Indeed, that’s precisely what designer Joan Craig told me about the mural she commissioned for the windowless basement space she was assigned in this $26.8 million town house on the Upper East Side. Like the paintings of the great Dutch masters, she said, “it’s the idea of objects emerging from the darkness.”
Now that I’ve been ruminating about the 18 rooms in this showhouse, which is now open through June 1, I’m interpreting her comment on a new level. There’s so much drama and spectacle in these rooms that it’s as though the designers were expressing a form of escapism, or a nostalgia for better times gone by. Beauty and glamour emerging from the darkness of our own times, just as when Hollywood hit its heyday during the darkest days of the Great Depression.
Nostalgia defines so many rooms here, and there’s a certain sadness that accompanies it, whether or not it may have been intended. Designer Billy Cotton was unabashed in his bittersweet expression of an Attic SRO. [“single-room occupancy,” where tenants occupy a room in a boarding house, and kitchens and bathrooms are shared.]
“This is the final home of a woman who has seen much tragedy,” Cotton writes in his room description. “The last stage of life has seen her packed away into this top-floor SRO, once a grand townhouse before its conversion after the war. Her gay cohort has sought to uplift her with donated decoration, spinning her last remaining bits of finery into a joyful bazaar of pattern. This room is an ode to that great bond between the homosexual decorator and his patrons, often female. May this creative exchange be celebrated and continue.”
Designer Timothy Brown staged his gallery space in similar fashion, where memory prevails. It’s supposedly within the townhouse that “Madame Amelie Beaumont” inherited from her Parisian grandmother. “She redecorated with a nod to her childhood time spent in Paris, summers in the south of France, and influences from her studies in the States.”
The pigeon above is just one of the many animals that make an appearance in this house—all in service to imaginings of the past.
Designer Richard Mishaan used a modern Audubon painting by Walton Ford to highlight his parlor, which celebrates the layered curation of the grand old palaces in Venice and Florence.
Mishaan placed the painting on top of wallcovering reproduced from hand-painted wood panels from 17th-century Syria, and it hangs over sofas of his design that are covered in pillows with fabric from the Venetian Bevilacqua family, which still weaves its creations on 18th- and 19th-century looms.
The space channels kings and aristocrats who “had these lives for real,” Mishaan told me. “Fussy Audubons and Orientals. It’s like creating a character for a play, and this person comes alive in your head.”
Designer Ken Fulk also created a character for his dining room—and he wrote a story to go with her.
This booklet describes the life of “Madame F.,” who was living on the Upper East Side in 1968. “Her social circle was a fascinating mix of uptown and downtown characters, and an invitation to one of her legendary dinners was a gesture not to be taken lightly.”
The de Gournay wallpaper depicts what Fulk describes as the view from Madame’s windows into a lush garden where escaped zoo animals have taken up residence. In his vision, we also escape from our own realities—in the most dazzling way possible.
Designer Joan Craig channeled a more subversive merriment of an even earlier time—the classic Prohibition speakeasy. She decorated it with framed photographs of bygone parties, and chose brass sconces that reminded her of Brooke Astor’s library, she told me.
Similarly, Nick Olsen was inspired by French modernist salons of the 1930s and ’40s—”specifically, the interiors of Jean Michel Frank and the Paris apartment of Yves Saint Laurent and Pierre Berge,” Olsen writes in his description.
Nick told The Washington Post that he especially loves the chintz chair, above. “It’s a vintage English club chair I bought at auction,” he told The Post’s Jura Koncius. “I used a glazed chintz fabric on it with hydrangeas in pink, celadon green and French blue. It’s cheerful, and I love a little bit of granny in a room.”
Robert Stilin attempts to move that old salon culture into the present day, using modern New York art collectors as his muse. I love his optimism here—the thought that all is not lost, that we can move the convivial camaraderie of those great old gatherings into our own times.
But oh, if we could just go back—even to a place that might not have existed before, like in the movies.
I immediately thought of Indiana Jones when I walked into Susan Ferrier’s master bedroom.
“We’ve nicknamed it the League of Extraordinary Archeologists,” said Ann Feldstein, Susan’s spokeswoman. Ferrier’s point of departure was nearly two dozen archeological lithographs from the 19th century, which fill the gallery wall below. She then filled in the space with any number of curiosities, from whale ribs (visible above) to antique artifacts. Icing on the cake: an oversized ammonite museum banner that anchors the back wall.
On the first floor, architect Robert A.M. Stern and his firm’s interior-design team were inspired directly from the film “I Am Love” by Italian director Luca Gaudagnino; his sumptuous scenes depict Italian aristocracy through the fictional Recchi family, whose wealth comes from (appropriately in this case) textiles.
Stern, with designers Lauren Kruegel and Ross Alexander, were inspired by the “stripped-down classicism” of the 1935 villa in Milan where the film takes place. It also led them to use Italian and French furniture of the same era for this drawing room.
There are certainly rooms in this house that express contemporary grace and beauty—Kirsten Kelli LLC’s living room, Kate Singer’s family room and the adjacent kitchen by Bakes & Kropp are fine examples—but the overriding mood here longed for something else—an elan of grand old times that’s since dimmed. I hope you will go see this showhouse for yourselves, and bask in a grandeur that at once is long gone, but may also be possible again.
Here’s the everything you need to know:
Kips Bay Decorator Showhouse
[click above link for address, tickets and hours]
Bakes and Kropp
Neal Beckstedt Studio
Dineen Architecture + Design
Kate Singer Home
Kirsten Kelli, LLC
Susan Ferrier of McAlpine
Nick Olsen Inc.
Powell & Bonnell
Richard Mishaan Design, LLC
Robert A.M. Stern Architects
Robert Stilin LLC
SAVAGE Interior Design