A Millennium of Interior Design In an Hour
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Rare is the speaker who can cover 10 centuries of material in a single lecture, but British-born author Chippy Irvine did just that last week at the New York School of Interior Design. Displaying the endurance and verve to pull off such a feat, Ms. Irvine delivered “Decorating from 1066 to today,” the final summer lecture in a series hosted by the Institute of Classical Architecture & Classical America. Her whirlwind presentation offered a personal look at decoration from the Bayeux Tapestry to the present day.
Ms. Irvine, who has written or co-authored 10 books on topics ranging from New York residences to the craft of pillow making, opened by cautioning the audience that in covering so many years, “there will be some giant leaps.”
The lecture kicked off with a quick discussion of the embroidered scenes depicted in Bayeux Tapestry of the 1066 Norman Conquest, in which France defeated England, but Ms. Irvine quickly moved on to more lighthearted material. She showed a cartoon by Sir Osbert Lancaster, and a Norman style living room featuring a hole in the ceiling that served as a makeshift chimney. The family, she explained, would have a fire in the middle of the room and hope the hole in the ceiling would make the smoke disappear. But some things don’t change, she noted.”Then, as now, there were always too many dogs in an English house,” she said.
Ms. Irvine next showed the 14th-century peat-heated Cawdor Castle near Inverness, Scotland, but immediately transitioned to a discussion of beds in Elizabethan times. The Great Bed of Ware, an oaken four-post bed mentioned by Shakespeare, could sleep nearly a dozen people. “The mind boggles” at the number, she said.
The topic of beds gave way to a lecture on cushions, as Ms. Irvine paused to discuss a 19th-century painting of Queen Elizabeth near death as she lay on a pile of cushions.
Overembellishment, especially by the nouveau riche, characterized the Elizabethan era, Ms. Irvine said. In an aside, however, she doubted the existence of a cushion with the motto supposedly favored by the wife of late car manufacturer John DeLorean: “Better nouveau than not riche at all.”
Ms. Irvine then broached the early 17th century.”The great thing about Jacobean-era interiors was that upholstery happened,” she said. Showing a slide of Knole, the enormous residence in northwest Kent, England, where Vita Sackville-West once lived, Ms. Irvine recalled a humorous anecdote from a visit there. While walking back and forth down a long hall at Knole, she commented on the seats, “I can’t believe that this is all the original fabric.” The guard on duty replied, “You’d be surprised how many Americans come here and say,‘You’d think they could afford to put new covers on.'”
After plowing through the Baroque, the Great Fire of London (after which “Christopher Wren had a field day putting up new buildings”), and Palladian architecture, Ms. Irvine arrived at the beginning of the 19th century and the Gothic movement.
While the industrial revolution gave the middle class more leisure, she explained, it also prompted those who could afford it the desire to escape the dirt and disease of the city.
From there, the lecture took a noticeable turn for the modern. Discussing the 1980s, Ms. Irvine showed a stockbroker’s home featuring sleek workout machines. He was “very much into that whole boring look,” she said.
Continuing into the late 1980s, she showed a slide of Anne Bass’s apartment decorated by Mark Hampton, and discussed the aesthetic of John Pawson’s minimalist Calvin Klein store. “You have to be so good and tidy if you’re going to live like that,” she said. “You know they have a lot of cupboards that, if you opened them, everything would fall out.”
After bringing the talk full circle to the contemporary, Ms. Irvine ended by singing a spoof of “Wouldn’t it be Loverly” from the Broadway musical “My Fair Lady”:
All I want is a room somewhere
Far away from the traffic’s blare
With one Barcelona chair
Oh, wouldn’t it be lovely!