Next week I officially begin work as a PhD candidate at The Courtauld Institute of Art. My research will focus on the ever-fascinating and my ever-favorite Gilded Age and the case of developing modern American identity in the decorative interior. What does this mean? Here’s how I see it in a nutshell:
We define ourselves by the spaces we inhabit—how we imagine and design them, how we adorn and conduct ourselves within them, how we manage and control access to them, and how we present them to others.
In the Gilded Age, America went to work on its largest and fasted-paced identity management scheme in history. Roles and institutions were turned upside down by Industry, immigration, wealth, and technology, and what it meant to be ‘American’ shifted, expanded, narrowed, unified, and diversified, occupying a critical place in the public consciousness both domestically and internationally.
For the elite sector, building, furnishing, and collecting were key in the establishment of social identities deemed appropriate for a new (the first), moneyed millionaire class. These were the traditions of the aristocracy, the cultured, the leisured, and the noble, and they were to be adopted as part of the flexing of the civilized American muscle. However! They were not, as many have surmised, adopted without intention, discernment, or difference.
So what can an analysis of Gilded Age design and decorating practices tell us about this foundational period in our history?
My interests are primarily in the (private) interior—this is where the action happens—and in the presentation of self and selves through the display of and interaction with space, objects, and others. My research for the next few years will focus on the adaptation of European, namely French, precedents in interior design and on the recontextualization of storied objects and peoples in interior decoration. On historical branding, as it were, for the fashionable modern American.
Research will involve a variety of themes and topics, including transatlantic antiques trade, the rise of the dealer-decorator, historiography and the historical impulse, technological advancement, and the style icons that were Marie Antoinette and the Marquise de Pompadour—regularly conflated, rarely contradicted.
My hope is that, by understanding some of the means of and motivations for Gilded Age building and decorating, we may more accurately assess this significant period and its lavish practices (How can Louis XV boiserie be modern or American?), and approach a more systematic review of its contents, creations, and contributions. And, let’s face it, take decoration seriously.
A more concise explanation in the form of my official proposal to follow.
Above: Ladies’ Reception Room, The Breakers, Cornelius Vanderbilt II Residence, Newport, RI, 1893-95. The Preservation Society of Newport County.