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.

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.

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.)