New Event: SAH 2019 Conference, 24-28 April


The Gilded Interior: Modern Identity and “The Historical Tradition”

Next month I will be taking a critical look at the fashion for and fabrication of eighteenth-century French-style interiors in the Gilded Age American mansion as part of the panel “Fantasies of Aristocracy: England and the American Renaissance” at the 72nd Annual International Conference of the Society of Architectural Historians in Providence, RI.

See Events page for more details.

Above: Salon, John Jacob Astor IV Residence, 840 Fifth Avenue, 1895 (photo ca. 1912). LOC.

The Next Chapter(s): PhD, The Gilded Interior


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.

The 'Life' (and Death?) of Objects: Reuse and the Biographical Metaphor

A couple of months ago I participated in a thought-provoking conference at Brown University that reconsidered 'reuse' in a broad cultural context. Revisiting my presentation for writing now, I find myself again grappling with one of its central metaphors: the 'life,' and afterlife, of architecture, objects, and design.

For a Gilded Age scholar, the discussion of reuse is unavoidable: Gilded Age architects drew regularly, often directly, on historical styles and treatises; dealers amassed volumes of historical and other objects from declining European estates (already full of 'reused' things) for redistribution in the US; and patrons adopted and adapted freely the elements of high cultures past that most suited their contemporary ambitions as a new social elite. As part of this discussion, objects are often considered in terms of 'lives' and 'afterlives,' denoting, generally speaking, their roles in the contexts for which they were originally created and the roles that they assume in other contexts later.

But as I struggle to unravel the 'life' of a tub that was based on ancient Roman designs adopted by the French in the eighteenth century and rediscovered in turn-of-the-century America by way of Victorian England, quarried and carved from 'antique' stone ca. 1880, installed in a Renaissance-style mansion on modern Fifth Avenue and dispersed with the rest of its contents in the 1920s (you get the idea), I can't help but wonder: Is the biographical metaphor the most efficient, or the most appropriate? Why do we use it in the first place? And what are its benefits and drawbacks?

The life of objects: the human aspect and the historian aspect

The most obvious explanation for the biographical metaphor is, simply: we're humans. We're born, we live, we die, we ostensibly live again in alternative form or meaning, and this is our readiest framework for the understanding (and creation) of other things. And it is useful in many ways.

For historians, and particularly art historians, the biographical metaphor serves as an organizational device that helps to define and contextualize periods of significance and change. This, in turn, helps us to understand the meaning and value of objects for individuals, groups, and cultures over time. We recognize, for example, that objects are experienced differently in different settings, and that objects, designs, spolia, etc., take on new meaning (or, in common phrase, are 'given new life,' in an architect-as-demigod sort of way) when removed from their original context.

It also calls attention to the agency of objects and their impact on social interaction and history. By interpreting objects according to human qualities, we position them as active players in the continuous definition of sociocultural structure and symbology. For me, this is the nuts and bolts of my Goffmanian approach to Gilded Age collecting and design: social identity is created through symbolic interaction in carefully staged settings, in which objects act as props for the performance of specific and socially exclusive roles and rituals. Their histories and provenance are part of their value and usefulness as such. (See also: Mimi Hellman's 1999 "Furniture, Sociability, and the Work of Leisure in Eighteenth-Century France," in which objects are interpreted as actors rather than props.)

For all its advantages, however, the biographical approach to objects and architecture also has significant shortcomings, some of which can be fatal (no pun intended, but there we are) to well-rounded scholarship.

The death of objects: the limitations of biography 

The first flaw in the biographical metaphor is the first flaw of all interpretive categorical devices: it inherently prioritizes certain periods and elements over others, creating false boundaries and giving naturalized authority to manmade schemata. Is Boucher's The Toilette of Venus any more or less significant in the Metropolitan Museum of Art now than it was in Madame de Pompadour's bathing pavilion in 1751, or in Alva Vanderbilt's boudoir in 1880? Which is its life and which is its afterlife?

The second is that it can give rather too much agency, imbibing inanimate objects and structures with a sort of Hegelian spirit or Vasarian genius that distracts, again, from the fact that they are crafted and given meaning by humans. Do things have lives if we don't delineate them? Does the stonework from the A. T. Stewart mansion now incorporated into Our Lady of Lourdes Roman Catholic Church 'live' in the same way if no one knows, or cares, that it's there?

And this begs the final question of: When do objects die?

I for the most part have been considering physical objects, but what about the memory of objects, or, to use an example from my current work, descriptions of objects for which there is no physical evidence? How do we interpret these as elements of an object's or building's story? And what about cast, copied, or misattributed objects? If Salvator Mundi turns out not to be a Leonardo, what happens to the biography we're writing for it now?

The practical has taken a bit of an abstract turn here....




New Event: SESAH Annual Conference, October 11-14, 2017

Interpreting the Historic House Bathroom: Gilded Age Design, Decoration, and Distinction

Next month, I will be presenting on the Gilded Age bathroom and issues surrounding bathroom preservation and interpretation in the historic house museum at the Annual Meeting of the Southeast Chapter of the Society of Architectural Historians (SESAH) in Lynchburg, Virginia.

See Events page for more details.

Event Announcement: Fellows Lectures Pt. I, Maison Félix & Gilded Age Lighting

This Wednesday, July 26th at 11 a.m., two of my fellow Fellows at The Preservation Society of Newport County will be presenting their research at Rosecliff. Anna Rose Keefe will be presenting on Félix, the dramatic and largely forgotten French couturier who clothed such iconic Gilded Age figures as Sarah Bernhardt, Virginie Gautreau (John Singer Sargent's 'Madame X'), and Caroline Schermerhorn Astor. Amber Wingerson will be discussing the technologies and etiquette of Gilded Age interior lighting, from 'brilliant' ballrooms to dimly lit dining tables.

Advance registration is required, and is available through The Preservation Society's website (here). 

The New Gilded Age Bathroom: 3 Turn-of-the-Century Trends That Are Making a Comeback in Luxury Design

When plumbing first made its way indoors around the mid-nineteenth century, the bathroom was hardly a luxurious place: technology was iffy, space and decor were limited to the strictly necessary, and individual bathrooms were shared by multiple members of a household. By the end of the century, America's first millionaire class had transformed the bathroom into the place of refinement that it remains in much high-end design today—a place for privacy, relaxation, rejuvenation, and, most importantly, style.

Drawing on eighteenth-century French Classical models, bathrooms were elaborated into sophisticated multi-room suites that included sizable dressing rooms and closets for individual use, with porcelain and marble tubs installed in niches or near windows to provide picturesque views (both of bathers and of their delightful settings), and every conceivable comfort—many of which we take for granted today, e. g. warm running water—provided for. The concept of the 'master bath,' as distinct from the 'guest' and other baths was invented, and how one bathed became as indicative of one's social 'character' as how one dressed or dined.

With the decline of the Gilded Age and the rise of apartment living in the early twentieth century, this historicized luxury bed-bathing suite fell out of favor to be replaced by more modern(ist) styles and trends. Now, 100 years later, in what has been called the 'New Gilded Age,' some of its characteristic features are creeping back into luxe design.

1. Exposed plumbing & hardware

The rise of germ theory in the 1890s led to a shift in bathroom design from the wood-encased and heavily textiled style popular in the 1880s to a supremely 'sanitary' aesthetic. Pipes and other fittings and fixtures were exposed for ease of repair and wood floors and paneling were replaced with more durable, waterproof, and fashionable Classical materials such as tile and marble. 

The slab sink

The Waterworks 'Henry' washstand, with its marble slab, porcelain basin, and industrial metal fittings, recalls late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century designs by manufacturers such as J. L. Mott (left), and its style has recently made appearances in chic London locales such as The Ned (center), The Hoxton (right), and Soho House.

The free-standing tub

The bathroom of Meg Ryan's recently renovated New York loft (right) by architect Joel Barkley (Ike Kligerman Barkley) and interior designer Monique Gibson features a free-standing Water Monopoly tub with fittings by Waterworks, complete with white 'Subway' tile (see below) and Mott-esque slab-basin sinks, an arrangement not unlike that found in Mrs. Edward J. Berwind's Newport bathroom of ca. 1900 (left).

2. 'Subway' tile

In the 1890s-1900s bathroom, tile was praised for its efficiency, cleanliness, and durability, as well as its decorative diversity. White 'subway' tile, so named because of its usage in the then-newly developed urban railway systems, was especially popular for its ability to expose dirt. Now generally associated with Modernist simplicity, in the Gilded Age, white tile was often paired with more conventionally luxurious materials and appointments such as gilt-wood furniture and cut glass chandeliers to create bathing spaces that were at once modern and historical, efficient and opulent. Leanne Ford (right) is among the many designers making use of this subway tile in the bathroom today.

3. Marble everything

In the most luxurious Gilded Age bathroom examples, marble and onyx were the materials of choice for tubs, sinks, floors, and even walls. White Italian 'Statuario' (or statuary, sculptural marble—denoting the highest grade of Italian import stone) was particularly prized for its exceptional quality and its aggrandizing historical and mythological associations. According to interior designer Ferris Rafauli, Carrara and other "authentic" Italian marbles are once again "in high demand." C. P. Hart has identified marble as one of the chief design trends of 2017, emphasizing its ability to create a "timeless feel" when paired with warm metals, and Waterworks's Barbara Sallick (The Perfect Bath) has similarly emphasized its "elegance and sophistication." A bathroom at the recently renovated Le Meurice, Paris (right) features marble throughout.

What's next?

If time is any indication, the next bathroom trend on the horizon will be the bold and colorful glamor made popular in the 1920s and 30s. Pink tubs, black toilets, geometric light fixtures, and mirrored surfaces will replace the airy windows and all-white Beaux-Arts modernism of the early century. This fashion is already on the rise in the so-called 'power' powder room, where young, contemporary firms like House of Hackney are re-inventing bold, historically-informed prints and accessories for statement design. Think: Hollywood.


(For more period bath photos, see the online collections of Library of Congress & MCNY.)