18 December 2012

Au Revoir, Bébé

Roger Prigent of Malmaison Antiques (1923—2012)

Read my Architectural Digest tribute to Roger Prigent (1923—2012), a spirited, rascally, and knowledgeable antiques dealer, who became a friend and who had an impact on my early days as an editor and writer.

17 November 2012

Artful Interiors

The Commode (also known as The Yellow Chair), 1905/12, Walter Gay.
Photo courtesy of the Frick Art & Historical Center.

A skilled painting of an interior possesses a degree of magic and wonder that can't be replicated in a photograph of the same space. To see more proof, click here to visit my blog at archdigest.com and the accompanying slide show.

18 October 2012

Portraits in Time

In the exhibition’s rotunda are, left to right, portraits of writer Pierre Louÿs, collector Count Robert de Montesquiou-Fezensac, novelist Marcel Proust, author Maurice Barrès, and artist Paul Baignères. The decor of the show was conceived by interior decorator Jacques Grange and set designer Nathalie Crinière. Photo courtesy of the Fondation Pierre Bergé–Yves Saint Laurent

If you happen to be in Paris over the next few months, it would behoove you to spent some quality time at 5 avenue Marceau, home to the Fondation Pierre Bergé—Yves Saint Laurent.

The foundation's latest exhibition is a evocative multi-room tribute to Belle Époque painter Jacques-Émile Blanche, who served as one of the inspirations for the artist Elstir in Proust's À la recherche du temps perdu.

 To read my take on the show, which opened last week and was decorated by Jacques Grange, click here.

16 October 2012

Splish Splash

The bathroom of British designer David Hicks, at his longtime country house in the English village of Britwell Salome, is reminiscent of a library. Photo courtesy of the estate of David Hicks

When is a bath more than just a place for a thorough scrub? When it's been decorated by Brad Dunning, Nancy Lancaster, Elsie de Wolfe, and, yes, even me.

To read all about it, click here to be swept away to the website of Architectural Digest.

03 October 2012

Mrs. Astor Redux

Brooke Astor in her New York apartment in 1997. Photo: Annie Leibovitz

Last week, Sotheby's sale of Mrs. Vincent Astor's estate brought in $18.8 million. And there's another sale with Brooke Astor provenance in just two days. "Where?" you ask? Click here to learn more.

Merchant Class

The exterior of R. Louis Bofferding's shop in New York City, executed by French artist Pierre Le-Tan.

To read my take on the new website of renowned antiques dealer R. Louis Bofferding, click here.

Remains of the Day

(Left to right) Dressed as a Chinese emperor and his court, Alexis de Redé, Arturo Lopez-Willshaw, his wife, Patricia, and interior decorator Georges Geffroy attend the Beistegui ball in Venice, September 3, 1951. Photo courtesy of the Cecil Beaton Studio Archive at Sotheby’s.

For the back story behind one of the most spectacular auctions this month, click here.

21 August 2012

Lights Fantastic!

Uplights highlight Egyptian artifacts in a Miami living room by Louis M. Bromante from the May 1982 issue of AD. Photo: Dan Forer

Uplights get little respect in today's decorating world. But on the website of Architectural Digest, I give these mood-enhancing yeomen the love they deserve.

To read the post, click here.

20 August 2012

Curtains, Rothschild Style

Baroness Philippe de Rothschild in the garden of her Paris apartment, 1969. Image by Horst P. Horst for Vogue.

One of my longtime design obsessions, Pauline de Rothschild, had grace, intelligence—and quite a way with curtains.

Recently on The Aesthete, my blog at the website of Architectural Digest, I examined an idiosyncratic window treatment she created for her duplex at Albany, the renowned London apartment house. To read it, click here.

17 August 2012

This Way, Please

Though I've been away from this address for several months, the virtual cards and letters keep coming in—and most of them ask, "Where can I find your new posts?"

At the website of Architectural Digest, of course! And in the Daily AD section, in particular.

Bearing that and similarly worded questions in mind, as a public service, I will continue to post here. Links, that is, to my blog entries at archdigest.com, of which there have been a few, including this morsel about a new book examining the rackety life and glorious creations of the late American-born interior designer and architect Bill Willis, a man who made Marrakech infinitely more exotic, with splendiferous houses for Rothschilds and their jet-set like.

To read it, do click here. And let me know what you think.

19 April 2012

Forwarding Address

Mrs Winston F. C. Guest moves furniture from her family's apartment on Sutton Place to Templeton, their Long Island country house. Image by Henri Cartier-Bresson, "Vogue", 1 April 1963.

The Aesthete has been a trifle antsy of late, anxious to find and furnish new digs.

Perhaps this deeply ingrained wanderlust has to do with being brought up in the U. S. military, when every year or two, my parents backed our bags, and our family embarked on a new adventure. Then again, I have been posting at Blogger since 2008, which is a century in cyberspace. So take note: I finally have settled on a new virtual residence, this one with high ceilings, fireplaces that draw properly, and masses of French doors.

That alluring address is the splendidly improved website of Architectural Digest, where I have been working as the special projects editor for nearly two years. The platform is more beautiful than any blog I could imagine designing on my own, thanks to the extraordinary talents at the magazine and on Condé Nast's digital team. Writing as The Aesthete, I hope my posts on Daily AD will be as amusing, provocative, and informative as ever. The first, an exploration of geometric motifs in Morocco, one of my favorite places in the world, was published on 12 April.

So join me at Daily AD; I don't want to leave anyone behind. Click here to read what's on my mind. And thanks very much for following me and my musings for so long.

Mitchell Owens
Special Projects Editor
Architectural Digest

01 March 2012

Technical Difficulties

For some inexplicable reason, words are running together on my posts, though all looks well on my screen. If any bright soul out there has a solution, do drop me a line.

27 February 2012

From the Archives: The Exquisite Amateur (2010)

The drawing room of Mrs. Charles Wrightsman's apartment at 21 St. James's Place, London, England. Bearing vivid evidence of her associations with interior decorators Henri Samuel, Stephane Boudin, Daniel Hamel, and others, its contents were sold at Sotheby's New York on 28 April 2010. Image by Fritz von der Schulenberg/Interior Archive, courtesy of Sotheby's.

NOTE: This post originally appeared on An Aesthete's Lament on 12 April 2010. Auction estimates have been updated with hammer prices.

Design groupies across the globe have been distracted in the past few weeks by the latest Sotheby's catalogue to be pushed through the mail slot. Small wonder, given its contents. Entitled "Property from the Collection of Mrs. Charles Wrightsman: The London Residence," it is a 276-page paradise, allowing a long, lingering glimpse into one small corner of the world of America's most discerning collector of 18th- and 19th-century European furniture, paintings, and decorative arts, the philanthropist Jayne Wrightsman. The sale takes place at Sotheby's New York on 28 April [2010].

Jayne Wrightsman in her Palm Beach, Florida, residence in 1956.

The Michigan-born, California-bred widow of a brilliant Oklahoma oilman, Mrs. Wrightsman is one of those women for whom the word "socialite" is a label whose inaccuracy verges on rudeness. She is rich, yes, and has dressed beautifully and entertained with finesse for more than six decades, in the grand manner that has all but died out. And when it comes to collecting she is not the only person of her position to live surrounded by important objects but I would argue she has purchased them more seriously and with more care than her peers. Few individuals in modern times have managed to hang on their walls paintings and drawings by Rubens, Vermeer, Canaletto, Tiepolo, Guardi, Van Dyck, Georges de La Tour, and Caspar David Friedrich, to name just a few. Or to have acquired books and sculptures of astonishing rarity.

Churlish observers might snipe that major-league collecting is done solely to impress others. Trust me: Jayne Wrightsman has been exquisitely perceptive in her spending. Anyone with sufficient capital and the desire to buy a brand can purchase a painting by Jacques-Louis David, but it takes a real connoisseur to snap up the French artist’s sensational 1788 double portrait of the Lavoisiers, accurately described "one of the great portraits of the eighteenth century." (She and her husband donated it to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1977.) Frankly I’d love to see the paintings Jayne and Charles Wrightsman declined over the years; that would be an important lesson in choosing quality over quantity.

Lot 132: a Louis XVI giltwood bergère à oreilles with five legs, circa 1760. Made by maître ébéniste Nicolas Heurtaut, it is upholstered in green velvet appliquéd with a blaze of peacock-feather-pattern silk. Estimate $20,000—$30,000. The chair ultimately sold for $37,500.

Not long after Jayne Larkin's marriage in 1944 to Charles Wrightsman, the brunette beauty with the wide houri eyes decided to collect the best examples of ancien-régime art and cabinetmaking and thoroughly immersed herself in those subjects, an elegant autodidact among lettered scholars. The skepticism that surely greeted this daunting pursuit—after all, she possessed only a high-school diploma—soon faded, eventually vanishing altogether as her familiarity with 18th- and 19th-century European masters grew to formidable levels. She read widely, listened carefully, and befriended all the right experts: Bernard Berenson, John Pope-Hennessy, Kenneth Clark, Sir Francis Watson of the Wallace Collection, James Draper of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and French decorator Stephane Boudin, among others. As American interior designer Kitty Hawks once noted of Jayne Wrightsman, "My mother [Slim Keith] admired two things about—the things she learned and her discipline."

Lot 162: a Louis XV-style white-painted canapé designed and made by Maison Jansen, circa 1950. It is upholstered in ruby-red silk velvet. Estimated to bring $5,000—$8,000, it sold for $20,000.

As a result of that determination Mrs. Wrightsman has long more than held her own among blue-chip curators. She has also generously shared the spoils. The Wrightsman Galleries for French Decorative Arts at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where she serves as an emeritus trustee, exist because of her largesse and vision, the glittering and highly popular parade of exquisite French period rooms getting better every year, again with her keen involvement. Important works of art displayed throughout that august institution are Wrightsman gifts as well; type her surname into the museum's search engine and hundreds of works can be viewed. She put her self-education to good use for the nation too during the celebrated restoration of the White House in the early 1960s, advising the new First Lady as well as quietly funding aspects of the headline-making project, which was overseen by the Wrightsmans' interior decorator at the time, Stephane Boudin, a man whose rooms blended historicist erudition with handmade passementerie.

Lot 15: a pair of Régence-style benches upholstered in green velvet. Mrs. Wrightsman purchased them in 1987 from French interior decorator Henri Samuel. Estimate $1,200—$1,800; sold for $15,000.
So what was Mrs. Wrightsman's apartment in a 1960 building near Spencer House like until it was recently dismantled and shipped to New York City to be auctioned off? In the main it was sumptuous but spirited, luxurious but not stuffy. The comfortable mélange of 18th- and 19th-century antiques that filled its rooms are dressed in deep, bold colors (ruby, aquamarine, emerald); lush, occasionally quirky patterns distracted the eye from the underfed moldings and low ceilings. I honestly would give every piece of furniture I own, along with a few other prized possessions, to win Lot 132, a French giltwood bergère clad in pine-needle-green velvet appliquéd with a blaze of shimmering silk woven with life-size peacock feathers, a Marie-Antoinette-ish leitmotif writ surreal. Alas, however, it is the work of maître ébéniste Nicolas Heurtaut and is expected to bring as much as $30,000. Nevertheless it is an inspiring example of how a formal furnishing can be made chic yet funky by an inventive fabric treatment. "Funky" is the last word anyone would associate with Mrs. Wrightsman, but for a distinguished woman renowned for her taste, that appreciation of peacock feathers is an endearing chink in her aesthetic armour.

Lot 89: a pair of Louis XVI mahogany chairs, circa 1785, attributed to Jean-Baptiste-Claude Sené. They are upholstered in leopard-spot silk velvet. Estimate $8,000—$12,000; sold for $74,500.

As the photograph at the top of this post illustrates, a panache of peacock plumes the approximate size of a showgirl's headdress bursts from a precious Regency blue-john urn in the drawing room. It's a stylish takeaway: as blogger Emily Evans Eerdmans, in a recent post about the forthcoming Wrightsman sale, pointed out, that entrancing fountain of feathers is "a look that could be replicated albeit with a more humble receptacle." In case you're interested, Lot 35 consists of about 500 individual peacock feathers (estimate $1,200—$1,800), while Lot 33 is a trio of peacock feathers Mrs. Wrightsman picked up on a visit to Houghton Hall in Norfolk in 1975 and placed in a small circa-1780 Louis XVI giltwood frame (estimate $2,000—$3,000).

Lot 110: A near-pair of large George III urns made of blue john, Derbyshire black marble, and alabaster. They are estimated to bring between $12,000 and $18,000.

Another object I covet from Mrs. Wrightsman's London flat is Lot 162, a 1950s Maison Jansen canapé covered in silk velvet the color of crushed raspberries. The seriously saturated colour is so intensely fruity that one's mouth literally water. What makes this sofa special to me is not just its highly collectible maker or the lavish fabric but the meticulous quality of the upholstery. Stuffed with traditional down and horsehair, it is perfectly plump, even voluptuous, the courtesan curves of the cushions balancing the sinuous Louis XV-style frame in a way that few upholsterers today get exactly right. The seat cushion alone is nearly a foot thick and surely weighs 20 pounds. Traditional skills like these are slowly disappearing, and our appreciation of them diminishes apace. Jayne Wrightsman, however, knows exactly how a sofa, whether 18th century in origin or 18th century in style, should be properly upholstered. After all she's dedicated a great deal of her life to learning rather than just lunching and shopping. The ridiculous creatures on the "Real Housewives" reality series should take note.

Lot 179: an Italian chinoiserie six-panel painted-canvas screen, mid-18th century, probably Piedmont. It was once owned by Belgian nobleman Baron Paul de Becker-Rémy (1897—1953), whose former wife, Rénée, was one of the Wrightsmans' aesthetic mentors. Estimate $40,000—$60,000; sold for $134,500.

Lot 282: a pair of Louis XVI-style low tables designed for storing books. Supplied to Mrs. Wrightsman by French interior decorator Henri Samuel in 1971, this practical and stylish design that deserves to be an integral part of the decorating lexicon. Estimate $1,200—$1,800; sold for $7,500.

09 February 2012

From the Archives: Thelma Foy's Top-Drawer Chic

The reception room of Thelma and Byron Foy's country house, Foy Farm, in Locust Valley, New York, circa 1945. Image by Garrison from "House & Garden's Complete Guide to Interior Decoration" (Simon & Schuster, 1947).

NOTE: This article was originally posted on An Aesthete's Lament on 3 November 2008 and has been augmented with additional information.

Most of us will be lucky if our obituaries manage to get our names spelt correctly, let alone offer a glowing encomium. So imagine how gratifying must it have been for Thelma Chrysler Foy (1902—1957) to have seen, from whichever fluffy white cloud she landed on, The New York Times declare the slender, vivacious, and highly strung automobile heiress, on the day after her death from leukemia, "the woman of the greatest taste in the current life in New York."

Nice tribute, no? But what was it exactly that earned the publicly serene, privately tempestuous Mrs Foy her position at the top of the heap? I would argue this: a sensitivity to colour schemes, fashions, and furnishings that threw her brunette good looks into high relief, as well as a control-freak adherence to good housekeeping. As for Foy's nasty temper, perhaps it had something to do with her diet—writer Jean Nathan noted in an article written for Vogue that Foy seemed to live on little more than black coffee.

Automotive heiress Thelma Chrysler Foy

Some evidence of Foy's high style lies in the archives of the Costume Institute of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where dozens of her haute-couture clothes repose—including two stupendous gowns by Christian Dior, each looking like something plucked out of the armoire of the Snow Queen, their billowing skirts stupendously spattered with glittering paillettes and gleaming artificial pearls. Small wonder Time magazine, in its observation of her death, noted that she was "repeatedly voted among the world's ten best-dressed women." And why a society admirer once noted that Foy was so immaculate that she resembled "a picture that had been newly varnished."

Junon gown made for Foy by Christian Dior, 1949. Image from the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Venus gown made for Foy by Christian Dior, 1949. Image from the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Gown made for Foy by Madame Grès, 1954. Image from the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Further proof recently came into my hands in the form of a two-volume catalogue of the auction of Foy's china, furniture, and art, a sale that took place at Parke-Bernet in New York City in 1959, two years after the socialite's death. Page after page provides evidence that she bought the best, and decoratively speaking, when it came to the boiseried rooms of the sprawling apartment on the 17th floor of 740 Park Avenue—where she lived with her husband, Byron, a dashing Texan and longtime Chrysler executive—it was all about white paint, oyster and grey silk, dashes of pink, signed 18th-century French furniture, and major Impressionist paintings. That fresh, diaphanous decor was a striking contrast to the humble houses of Foy's blue-collar childhood, back when her father, Walter Chrysler, was a mechanic, and nobody ever dreamed he would become one of America's automobile magnates.

Thelma Chrysler Foy's bedroom at 740 Park Avenue, circa 1950. The colour scheme included white walls, white curtains, and 18th-century French furniture upholstered in a restrained white silk dappled with pale pink flowers. Image from the Foy catalogue by Parke-Bernet.

That particular palette appeared to be the preferred scheme of the former Thelma Irene Chrysler, whatever the residence's geographic location. Known as Foy Farm, her summer house in Locust Valley, New York, was decorated in similar colours, as seen in the photograph of its reception room at the head of this post—ash-grey walls, pale-grey-and-pink-striped upholstery here, pale grey there, and sumptuous silk-taffeta curtains of a colour House & Garden described as "pink tourmaline." The automotive heiress must have looked like an exotic orchid against those fresh, pale backgrounds.

The lyrical settings, however, concealed a pathological undercurrent. "It was a perfectionist collection; no note of counterfeit intruded," Wesley Towner wrote in his book The Elegant Auctioneers. "Relentless in her quest, the curator of that concinnate display would ceaselessly add new triumphs of acquisition, combing the world's great galleries to replace the almost perfect piece with one a hairbreadth nearer perfection." Towner added to this recollection a startlingly strange detail of how the Foys occasionally spent evenings together at home: "After the servants had withdrawn, Mr. Foy would get out the x-ray machine that was otherwise used medically—to stall the developing leukemia from which Mrs. Foy suffered—and they would spend the evening x-raying the porcelains to make sure the butler had not broken one and had it surreptitiously mended." 

A room at Thelma and Byron Foy's apartment at 740 Park Avenue, New York City, 1959. Image from Foy sale catalogue by Parke-Bernet.

Much of the credit for the couple's domestic splendor must go to interior decorator Robert Samuels, the same courtly man her younger sister, Bernice Garbisch, hired to oversee the furnishing of her apartment at the Carlyle hotel in New York City. From 1908 until his death in 1962 he worked for his family's Francophile design firm, French & Co, an august establishment patronized by society swans such as Millicent Hearst, Janet Annenberg Hooker, and Gloria Vanderbilt (in her Mrs Sidney Lumet phase).

The New York Times noted in 1962 that Samuels's postwar interiors for Thelma Foy and her sister represented a sea-change in Manhattan decoration, "The smaller rooms, simpler taste, and more elegant lines of the French furnishings ... underlined by his way with soft greens, blues, and yellows." The decorator's work represented a sea-change in Foy's personal taste too.

18th-century canapé flageolet owned by Thelma Chrysler Foy, which was among the furnishings of her bedroom. Photograph from the Foy sale catalogue by Parke-Bernet.

Thelma Foy once had been a devotée of English traditionalism, and she briefly flirted with the neo-Attic elegance purveyed by T. H. Robsjohn-Gibbings. But 90 percent of the furnishings that went on the block at the Parke-Bernet sale were absolutely ancien-régime in origin, amassed over the last 15 years of her life. The spark for this Gallic collecting focus apparently was the Foys' acquisition of a Louis XV-style mansion, at 60 East 93rd Street, in New York City, in the 1940s. Designed by John Russell Pope, the house had been completed in 1931 for mining heiress Virginia Fair Vanderbilt, and its opulent architecture required a complementary decor. After the Foys moved to Park Avenue in 1954, the former Vanderbilt property became the headquarters of the Roumanian government's delegation to the United Nations and later still, a segment of the Lycée Français de New York. Today 60 East 93rd Street, gloriously restored, is occupied by the antiques gallery of Carlton Hobbs. 

Vogue called the Foy's Park Avenue apartment "the finest French" residence in Manhattan, noting its antique gilded paneling and choice Impressionist paintings, including works by Renoir and Degas. "Everything reflects Mrs Foy's unerring collector's eye," the magazine observed, "her unswerving taste, and her talent for making a house gay and livable, as well as visually lovely." Milady's passion for pearl-coloured upholstery, however, raised some eyebrows. As a Parke-Bernet employee noted at the 1959 sale, "People ask us if anybody sat on her chairs. They certainly did. But, after they were used a few times, she ordered them to be cleaned or recovered."

18th-century French commodes owned by Foy, which were among the furnishings of the bedroom shown above, 1959. Photograph from the Foy sale catalogue by Parke-Bernet.

05 February 2012

Well Said: Nancy Mitford

An 1824 portrait of architect Karl Friedrich Schinkel in Naples, Italy, by artist Franz-Ludwig Catel. The painting is in the collection of the Nationalgalerie in Berlin, Germany.

"I love the French window which marries a house to the firmament instead of dividing them like the stuffy sash."

So observed Nancy Mitford (1904—1973) in her 1961 essay "Portrait of a French Country House."

20 January 2012

Well Said: Lily Bart

Manhattan debutante turned silent-movie actress Katherine Harris Barrymore (1891-1927). She portrayed Lily Bart in director Albert Capellani's 1918 film of "The House of Mirth."

"If only I could do over my aunt's drawing-room, I know I should be a better woman."

So said Lily Bart, tragic heroine of Edith Wharton's 1905 novel The House of Mirth.

18 January 2012

Well Said: Elsa Schiaparelli

"Eating is not merely a material pleasure. Eating well gives a spectacular joy to life and contributes immensely to goodwill and happy companionship. It is of great importance to the morale."

So said Elsa Schiaparelli (1890—1973), fashion provocateur, inspired hostess, patron of the arts, and author of the engaging memoir Shocking Life.


14 January 2012

From the Archives: John Vesey, The Next Big Thing?

John Vesey, furniture designer and future felon, sitting in a
solid-aluminum Thonet-style rocking chair in his New York City
showroom, 1965. Image from The New York Times.

NOTE: This article, originally published on this blog on 18 November 2008, has been updated with new images, additional text, and a bibliography. That last-named feature is a research source list that will become a feature of An Aesthete's Lament. 

As the strippers in the musical Gypsy! state in clarion tones, "You gotta have a gimmick." This is true in so many professions, whether bumping and grinding or designing furniture. For John Vesey, shown above, a once prominent but now puzzlingly obscure American talent of the 1950s and 1960s, the gimmick was taking traditional furniture forms and translating them into crisp, cool metal, usually aluminum and stainless steel, often with accents of polished brass.

Who took his glittering bait? Oil magnate Howard Hughes, for one, as well as art dealer Leo Castelli, international public-relations man Count Rudi Crespi, fashion designer Hubert de Givenchy, and Ira Howard Levy, the president of Estée Lauder cosmetics. A Vesey profile  published in 1965 fairly swooned listing the designer's high-society clients, among them fashion model-turned-Warhol superstar Jane Holzer; heiress Wendy Vanderbilt; Italian socialite Countess Gioconda Cicogna; automotive divorcée Anne McDonnell Ford; the beautiful Sunny von Bulow; the even lovelier Isabel Eberstadt; French aristocrat Count Charles de Rohan-Chabot; Greek shipping heiress Chrysanthe Goulandris; stylist Vidal Sassoon; Governor Nelson Rockefeller; and Condé Nast president and chairman Iva Patcévitch. The same article declared Diana Ross of The Supremes "one of John Vesey's best customers."

A pair of Vesey-designed metal chairs with wickerwork seats and backs, from the 1960s. The chairs are being offered at the 2012 Winter Antiques Show by dealer Liz O'Brien.

A steel campaign-style chair by Vesey, 1957. Image from The New York Times.

Today it is major dealers who are transfixed by Vesey's work, and they are bringing his designs to a new generation. Gallerists R. Louis Bofferding, Liz O'Brien, and Gail Garlick of Good Design are among today's keenest admirers. Bofferding, for instance, once possessed one of Vesey's most striking designs, a round occasional table whose bulbous openwork metal base was sparked by, of all things, an American wool winder. In O'Brien's current stock is a pair of Directoire-inflected chairs, shown above, dating from the 1960s. She will have them on display in her booth at the Winter Antiques Show, which opens to the public on Friday, 20 January.

As this blog noted at the time, at the 2008 Modernism Show in New York City, Garlick showcased several vintage Vesey pieces in Good Design's sparsely decorated stand—two lounge chairs modelled after Cuban planter's chairs, a console whose glass top is supported by stainless-steel sawhorses, and a polished-aluminum campaign-style bench. It was arguably the biggest collection of his work pulled together in one place within recent memory. Garlick's next big Vesey show begins 20 January, at her gallery, Good Design; it runs for six weeks.

A pair of Vesey benches made of powder-coated wrought aluminum. The shape is a modern rendition of the Savonarola chair of the Middle Ages. The benches are offered by Good Design, and the image is from Artnet.

A pair of Vesey's calfskin-upholstered chairs from his "luxurious, costly" Maximilian Group, circa 1958. The chairs and its matching sofa were inspired by classic Cuban planter's chairs. Two of these were among the furnishings of photographer Cecil Beaton's London townhouse. A version with fine woven-aluminum mesh as the sole upholstery cost $355 in 1958. Image from Design Addict.

Six-foot-six-inches tall and matinée-idol handsome, John Vesey Colclough Jr was born in Newton, Massachusetts, on 22 September 1924, the only son and youngest child of John Vesey Colclough Sr, an investment banker, and his wife, Bertha. (His elder siblings were Florence, Marjorie, and Norina.) The family was not only prosperous but distinguished, descended from a famous Irish landlord of the 18th century, Vesey Colclough, chatelain of a much-admired County Wexford landmark, Tintern Abbey. And Colclough Sr's dynamic sister, Pauline Adams, was one of the bright lights of America's women's suffrage movement.

During the Depression, however, the finances of Colclough's parents collapsed. To make ends meet, his mother took a job managing an apartment house, while his father found employment as a salesman in the local traffic bureau. According to a profile published in 1958 in The New York Times, John Vesey Colclough Jr intended to be a museum curator and actually studied at Harvard for a year. But on 19 May 1943—after a brief stint in banking—he joined the Merchant Marine. Following World War II he surfaced in Manhattan as an antiques dealer with a specialty in 18th- and 19th-century French and English furniture and art. By this time he also had dropped his Irish surname (which was pronounced COAL-claw in case you were wondering).

A button-tufted leather Chesterfield sofa with metal legs by John Vesey, circa 1960. In 1965 an article in The New York Times illustrated a smaller version anchoring the Manhattan living room of art dealer Leo Castelli, which had been decorated by interior designer John Elmo. Another article pointed out that Vesey's sofa's cost $300 a foot. The example shown here sold for $55,000 at Wright last year.

After experiencing some success and then selling off his stock of antiques at Parke-Bernet Galleries, Vesey began exploring the possibilities of metal in 1956, driven by a fascination with steel furniture of the past. In 1957 he opened a showroom at 150 East 54th Street in New York City, and by the next year he had produced 15 designs. That year he moved his business to 235 East 58th Street (eventually he ended up at 969 Third Avenue), and an article about its debut describes a spacious interior displaying arresting metal furnishings alongside luxurious fur rugs and huge paintings.

Once part of the furnishings of the Rome apartment of Rudi and Consuelo Crespi, this brass-and-steel Vesey writing table (now sold) was recently in the stock of Manhattan dealer Gerald Bland.

Count Rodolfo "Rudi" Crespi at the same writing table, in the master bedroom of his apartment in Palazzo Odescalchi in Rome, Italy, 1969, which was decorated by American expatriate designer Howard Dilday. Until recently the writing table stood in the New York City apartment of Crespi's widow, Consuelo. Image by Patrick Morin from The New York Times.

"Steel is putty in John Vesey's hand," The New York Times reported in 1958, noting that the designer utilized craftsmen in Hoboken, New Jersey, and Long Island for the metalwork, while the leather upholstery was given over to artisans in Manhattan's Chinatown. "He bends [steel], tapers it, and turns it," the newspaper's reporter Rita Reif explained, "ending up with chairs and tables as beautiful as the antiques that inspired him."

Beautiful, yes, but the results meld surreality, industrial chic, and sadomasochism. There is something perverse, after all, in taking an otherwise uncontroversial furniture form like Thonet bentwood rocker and reproducing it in gleaming solid aluminum and replacing its woven-cane panels with fine, anodized metal mesh. That unexpected transmutation takes the Art Nouveau icon from cozily curlicue to brutally chic—and with exceptional attention to quality. Vesey's aluminum creations, Design Forecast magazine favorably noted in 1959, are "wrought, not cast; [the] frame of each chair or sofa is one solid piece."

A 19th-century American wool winder, used in the production of yarn, was the inspiration for this hallmark Vesey design: an openwork metal occasional table. This example is available from dealer John Salibello.

A Vesey ottoman, circa 1965. Image from Mondo Cane.

Over the next decade Vesey was a wild success, his talents spoken of in the same breath as contemporary tastemakers such as John Dickinson and Baron Alessandro Albrizzi. By 1969 he intended to take even greater leaps of style. As Vesey explained to The New York Times, "I want to copy this 1800 antler chair in metal. It would be a real kooky chair for a far-out apartment." Indeed it would have but whether that swinging design made it off his drawing board is unknown. What is certain is that Vesey's high-flying career came crashing to the ground two years later.

A pair of Napoléon III-inspired armchairs by Vesey, made of chromed steel and leather. They sold in 2011 at Rago Auctions for $13,000. The original model cost $465 in 1958. Image from Artnet.

After sexually assaulting a 17-year-old high-school dropout he picked up early one morning at the Port Authority Bus Terminal and took to his duplex townhouse apartment at 105 East 64th Street, Vesey was sentenced to five years in prison. During this enforced absence from the American design scene, his company, John Vesey Designs Inc., was sold, sold again, and eventually closed. As for Vesey, after his release, he lived quietly and obscurely, ultimately dying of pneumonia on 14 April 1992 in Rhinebeck, New York.

Offered by the Manhattan gallery Good Design, this Vesey cocktail table from the 1960s is made of polished stainless steel and brass and bears its original 3/4-inch glass top. Image from Artnet.



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Drayton, Cynthia A. "John Vesey: Style and Scandal," Modern Magazine, Fall 2011

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05 January 2012

Well Said: Hélène Rochas

An acrylic-and-silkscreen portrait of Hélène Rochas by Andy Warhol, 1974.

“I’m against the idea of dressing young—that shows fear."

So said Hélène Rochas (1927—2011), former fashion model, international beauty, and director of the Paris perfume house of the same name, following the 1955 death of her first husband, Marcel Rochas. Among the scents she inspired or commissioned were Femme de Rochas (a wedding gift from her husband in 1944), Madame Rochas (launched in 1960), Eau de Roche (aka Eau de Rochas), and Muse de Rochas.