One-Minute Book Reviews

September 20, 2011

‘Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty’ – The Book on the Blockbuster

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“When you see a woman wearing McQueen, there’s a certain hardness to the clothes that makes her look powerful.” – Alexander McQueen

Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty. By Andrew Bolton with contributions by Susannah Frankel and Tim Blanks. Photographs by Sølve Sundsbø. Metropolitan Museum of Art, 240 pp., $45.

By Janice Harayda

Americans know Alexander McQueen mainly through the wedding dress his design firm created after his death for Kate Middleton, a gown demure except for its plunging neckline. But he made his name with clothes that took more risks – anatomically correct bodices, trousers that showed “bum cleavage,” a jacket imprinted with an image from the painting The Thief to the Left of Christ. On the cover of this catalog for a show at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, a hologram turns a portrait of McQueen into a skull. It’s visual metaphor not just for his suicide at the age of 40 but for the difficulty of pinning down a man who made armadillo-shaped shoes fanciful enough for Lady Gaga and hand-carved wooden leg prostheses practical enough for a Paralympics champion.

The cover of 'Alexander McQueen,' left, and a red silk coat over a dress of ivory silk tulle from the designer's 'The Girl Who Lived in the Tree' collection, 2008-2009

Alexander McQueen suggests but does reconcile the contradictions of its subject. The London-born McQueen had Scottish roots and professed to deplore the romanticizing of the land of his ancestors. But he created romantic clothes for collections that invoked two of the greatest tragedies in Scottish history. In “Highland Rape,” he used luxurious, torn fabrics as a lament for the eviction of thousands of Scots from their lands during the Highland Clearances, an event he called “genocide.” And in “Widows of Culloden” he embellished tartans with jet beads in memory of the dead in the 1746 battle. If Scottish history isn’t romantic, why honor it with “romantic” clothes? If the Clearances were genocide, what makes “Highland Rape” morally better than designs inspired by Nazi death camps? Any beauty in the clothes co-opts the tragedies that gave rise to them. It’s as though Ralph Lauren’s more aggressive and ghoulish younger brother had created collections called “Antietam” and “Widows of 9/11.”

McQueen’s contractions may reflect his early work as a costume-cutter for London shows that included, he says, Les Misérables. Many of his designs, such as a winged, hooded dress made of black duck feathers, suit the stage better than the street. They look more like costumes than clothes, even for women who attend events that justify spending $20,000 for a gown. And unlike Middleton’s wedding dress, they are memorable less for their elegance than for their theatricality. Conventional elegance seems to have held little interest for McQueen, who said he wanted to “empower” women by making people afraid of them: “When you see a woman wearing McQueen, there’s a certain hardness to the clothes that makes her look powerful.” Middleton showed courage in choosing the firm of a designer who once said of his runway shows: “I don’t want to do a cocktail party. I’d rather people left my shows and vomited.”

Best line: A quote from McQueen: “[I design from the side,] that way I get the worst angle of the body. You’ve got all the lumps and bumps, the S-bend of the back, the bum. That way I get a cur and proportion and silhouette that works all the way round the body.”

Worst line: More quotes from McQueen: “I hate it when people romanticize Scotland. There’s nothing romantic about its history.” And this one about “Highland Rape”: “Fundamentally, this collection is luxurious, romantic but melancholic and austere at the same time.”

Recommendation? This book doesn’t include a photo or information on Kate Middleton’s wedding dress, so it’s not for anyone who is looking for those things. But it could make a good gift for people — and there were many of them — who couldn’t get into the Met show or spend as much time as they wanted there.

Published: May 31, 2011

Furthermore: Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty was the eighth most popular show in the history of the Met and drew more visitors than any exhibit mounted by its Costume Intsitute. Holland Cotter reviewed the show for the New York Times. The blog for the museum includes a brief video about McQueen and photographs of some of the clothes it displayed, which appear in the catalog.

You can also follow Jan Harayda (@janiceharayda) on Twitter at www.twitter.com/janiceharayda.

© 2011 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

December 17, 2008

A Coffee-Table Book About African Art from Algerian Pottery to Zulu Shawls — and Ghanaian Coffin Shaped Like a Mercedes

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In the capital of Ghana well-off families often bury their members in coffins shaped like objects important to the deceased — an onion for a farmer, a sword for a tribal leader, a Mercedes Benz for a successful businessman. A photo of a remarkable fish-shaped coffin appears in the new second edition of A History of Art in Africa (Pearson, 560 pp., $150), written by Monica Blackmun Visona, Robin Poynor, and Herbert M. Cole. And that picture suggests part of the appeal of this unusually comprehensive book, which spans thousands of years and topics from Algerian pottery to Zulu shawls: The authors show how much more there is to African art than the representations most familiar to Americans, such wood carvings, kente cloth, and Egyptian tomb paintings.

An intelligent text and more than 700 photographs describe the evolution of the continent’s jewelry, textiles, ceramics, painting, and photographs and other arts. And a new chapter in the second edition covers African artists abroad, including Edmonia Lewis (c. 1843–1909) “the first woman artist of African descent to gain prominence in the United States,” whose marble statue of the biblical Hagar appears in the Smithsonian Institution

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.

December 14, 2008

‘Ozzie and Harriet’ Meets MySpace in ‘Apartment Therapy Presents,’ a Coffee-Table Book for Fans of Back-to-the-’50s Décor – Turquoise Naugahyde Chairs, Anyone?

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Want to brighten your place for the holidays? How about hanging a fake AK-47 on the wall instead of mistletoe?

Apartment Therapy Presents. Real Homes. Real People. Hundreds of Real Design Solutions. By Maxwell Gillingham-Ryan with Jill Slater and Janel Laban. Chronicle, 264 pp., $27.50.

By Janice Harayda

A red-flocked Jesus coin bank. A mural of pink flamingoes. A paint-by-numbers picture of a black poodle.

These are a few of the things that stylish young renters and condo owners display in their homes today, or so we learn from Apartment Therapy Presents, a coffee-table book based on a popular Web site. The “current aesthetic,” the author says, aligns with the tastes of a couple who bought a 1951 ranch-style house in Skokie, Illinois: “the’50s are back in style.” Call it Cold War Chic or Ozzie and Harriet Meets MySpace.

If chairs covered with turquoise Naugahyde aren’t to your taste, this book shows other items that could earn you style points: a pair of fake AK-47s framed by a rococo-like mirrors, a scary-looking dental chair made around 1900, a thousand yellow Post-Its stuck to a wall like overlapping shingles.

You can’t accuse the author of making any of this up. Apartment Therapy Presents shows “40 real homes decorated by real people” in more than 400 color photographs. It has floor plans and resource lists long on plugs for ebay, IKEA, and Design Within Reach. Nor can you say you didn’t understand the risks of, say, standing on a ladder for days while you stick a thousand Post-Its to your wall. A notice on the copyright page warns that the author, publisher and others “disclaim any and all liability resulting from injuries or damages caused by imitating the ideas described herein.”

Best line/picture: Some apartments in this book shout, “I’m camping out.” Dana Joy Altman’s beautiful place in a converted circa 1902 single family house in Chicago’s Logan Square, says, “I’m home.”

Worst line/picture: The photo of a pair of fake AK-47s framed by mirrors that a young Manhattan tenant hung on his wall. You hope this man never has guests who have lost friends in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Recommended if … you’re planning to redo a small space and have a sense of humor. One picture in this book shows a collection of “’50s, ‘60s, and ‘70s freezer doors” that hangs on a kitchen wall in the East Village.

Published: April 2008

Furthermore: This book grew out of the site Apartment Therapy www.apartmenttherapy.com

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

November 4, 2008

Jessica Todd Harper – A Photographer of Manners Observes Her Patrician Family’s Christmas, Easter, Wedding and Other Customs

[If you can’t see the cover of this book, please click here www.jessicatoddharper.com.]

Interior Exposure. By Jessica Todd Harper. Foreword by Larry Fink. Damiani, 112 pp., $45.

By Janice Harayda

Jessica Todd Harper’s photographs of her family are what Ralph Lauren ads might be like if they were real. This is a compliment. Unlike Polo ads, Harper’s pictures of her patrician family are warm, engaging and at times witty. They tell — or at least suggest — rich and multilayered stories.

Interior Exposure is the photographic equivalent of a good novel of manners, an art form that shows a well-defined social group at a particular time and place. Its pictures would provide wonderful visual data for anthropologists studying Eastern upper-class kinship rituals in the early 21st century. Harper’s relatives sport clownish paper hats, just extracted from poppers, at a Christmas Eve dinner. Her sister Becky wears an ill-fitting wedding dress in the Victorian dining room of their parents’ house, where the furnishings might have stayed the same for a century. In an amusing self-portrait with her future in-laws, Harper stands at attention as though trying to pass a military inspection.

Part of the charm of Interior Exposure is that it shows how a gifted photographer can bring fresh life to many elements of the high classical tradition in painting. Harper draws on techniques of the Dutch Golden Age: the artful use of natural light, subjects framed by doors and windows, paintings-within-paintings (represented by ancestral portraits within photographs) and domestic objects are that are at once ordinary and freighted with symbolic meaning. But like all good artists, she brings her own sensibility to tradition. Some of her pictures are almost an updated index to the symbols used in vanitas, those treatises-in-oil that comment on the transience of time and earthly life: clocks, flickering candles, half-empty wine goblets. At times you sense that Harper would have loved to include a skull or two, and you wonder what her work will look like when her children are old enough to go trick-or-treating.

But the pictures in Interior Exposure don’t moralize as vanitas do. They raise questions: Is Becky the diva she appears to be in Harper’s photos, or does she upstage other people by force of her beauty, not her personality? What is Harper saying by giving her such a prominent role? You could return to Interior Exposure again and again and keep seeing new things in it, just as you can with a great novel.

Best picture: No. 1: “Becky in the Dining Room, 2005.” Harper’s sister wears an ill-fitting wedding gown — possibly their mother’s — and stands next to an ancestral portrait in the Victorian dining room of their parents’ home in Allentown, Pennsylvania. If you saw this photo out of context, you might mistake it for a movie still from an elegant new film version of a Henry James novel. The picture would show the moment just before the doomed American heiress weds the callow European who, though she doesn’t know it yet, is marrying her only for her money. Everything in the Harpers’ dining room might have existed a century ago except for — a wonderful touch — a plastic bag on the table. Looking at the photo, you wonder how the idea that ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny ever got so discredited, because this picture seems to illustrate perfectly a Brahmin version of it. No. 2: “Self Portrait With Christopher and my Future In-Laws, 2001.”

Worst picture: “Self Portrait with Christopher (Rochester), 2000.” In this photo Christopher lies on a four-poster bed and gazes at his naked wife, whom we see from behind. Harper positioned the camera in a spot that allows a wood poster to rise majestically from her husband’s crotch. Christopher is going to take some ribbing about this one.

Consider reading also: Patrick De Rynck’s How to Read a Painting (Abrams, 2004), a good introduction to the use of symbols in Old Masters, including those of the Dutch Golden Age.

If you like this book, you might also like … Bonnettstown: A House in Ireland (Abrams, 1989).

Published: March 2008 www.jessicatoddharper.com and www.damianieditore.com.

Furthermore: This book includes an interview with the author by Sarah Anne McNear in English and an Italian translation. Harper teaches at Swarthmore College and has won many awards for her work.

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

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October 21, 2008

Librarian-Approved Gift Books for a Cook, a Baker, and a Fashionista, Including a Gift Book That Dares to Answer the Question, ‘What Are Spanx?’

A Project Runway judge praises that “life-altering” product — Spanx pantyhose — in The One-Hundred

Oh, joy. Just back from the library with an armload of 2008 coffee-table books I’m going to check out as potential holiday gifts.

One of the challenges of running this site is that because I don’t take free books from publishers, I no longer routinely see all those fat coffee-table toppers that appear at this time of year, as I did at Glamour and the Plain Dealer. I can get almost everything else from the library and other sources. But the gift books are the killer. So many are too expensive for libraries – especially given their vulnerability to theft – and for me.

This week I was lucky. I went to the library soon after it had put out some of the coffee-table books the staff bought this year. Here are three that I’m reading with an eye to whether they might make good gifts. All were among the 2008 books bought by the staff at a suburban library that the American Library Association has named one of the country’s 10 best:

The Christmas Table: Recipes and Crafts to Create Your Own Holiday Tradition (Chronicle, 239 pp., $19.95, paperback) by Diane Morgan. Photographs by E. J. Armstrong. Take that “crafts” in the subtitle lightly. This book has only 13 pages of craft ideas, and one calls for safety goggles and an electric drill, needed to make lighted glass blocks. (The instructions include the slightly ominous note, “This will take a few minutes, so be patient.”) But The Christmas Table is attractive and, at less than $20, reasonably priced for a gift book. It has a suggested menu and recipes for “Christmukkah – the hybrid holiday meal,” which blends Christian and Jewish traditions in dishes such as “Fa-La-La-La Latkes.” www.dianemorgancooks.com

Professional Baking: Fifth Edition (Wiley, 770 pp., $65) by Wayne Gisslen. Photographs by J. Gerard Smith. Foreword by André J. Cointreau. This encyclopedic cookbook has more than 900 recipes for serious home bakers as well as professionals. Published in cooperation with the Le Cordon Bleu cooking schools, it gives U.S. and metric equivalents for ingredients and tells how to adapt them for large-quantity measurements. The book retains its focus on classic techniques. But the fifth edition has a new chapter on “baking for special diets, including low-fat, low-sugar, gluten-free, and dairy-free diets.” Bet that Ciabatta on page 147 and those cream cheese brownies on page 512 would taste better than your supermarket’s. www.wiley.com/WileyCDA/Section/id-311193.html

The One Hundred: A Guide to the Pieces Every Stylish Woman Must Own (Collins Living, 284 pp., $21.95) by Nina Garcia. Illustrations by Ruben Toledo. This book is a brand-name–strewn wallow in consumerism by a judge for Project Runway – you apparently “must own” diamond studs even if your ears aren’t pierced – raised to a higher power by the stylish illustrations on nearly every page. The title is somewhat misleading: The One Hundred is less about what all women need to own than about a hit parade of basics and why they endure: the pea coat, wrap dress, pearl necklace, striped sailor shirt, Wellington boot (“the Royal Family always wears the classic green version for mucking about in the country”). Among the newer items in the book: Spanx, “a life-altering, footless, control-top panty hose that should be warn whenever a woman wants to appear a size smaller.” Bet the teenage boys at the library will like the picture for that one as much as the one for the push-up bra. www.harpercollins.com/books/9780061664618/The_One_Hundred/index.aspx

Other holiday gift ideas will appear later this year. To avoid missing them, please bookmark this site or subscribe to the RSS feed.

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

September 19, 2008

Wedding Gowns That AREN’T Strapless – A Book With More Than 200 Ideas

Brides are getting the cold shoulder from fashion designers. Strapless wedding gowns have become so popular that the mother of a recent bride told me you can find little else in many stores. And if bare shoulders don’t flatter your body type or you’re getting married in December in a church with iffy heating, you might need to design your own dress or spend extra time looking for one. Either way, you’ll find a bouquet of ideas for nonstrapless gowns in Philip Delamore’s The Perfect Wedding Dress (Firefly, $35). This handsome coffee table book has more than 300 photos of elegant gowns, only about three dozen of them strapless, worn by celebrities and others. If you’ve vowed to keep your shoulders covered for the ceremony, you’ll discover that you have lots of company among the brides who appear in the book in their wedding dresses. Among them: Grace Kelly, Audrey Hepburn, Jennifer Lopez, Liv Tyler and Princess Diana. You can read more about Delamore and The Perfect Wedding Dress here www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2006/12/07/.

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

December 16, 2007

How to Eat Well Before You Get Electrocuted — Hilary Heminway and Alex Heminway’s ‘Picnics’

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You could get fried along with the trout at these outdoor feasts

Picnics. By Hilary Heminway and Alex Heminway. Photographs by Audrey Hall. Gibbs Smith, 144 pp., $19.95.

By Janice Harayda

Taking my advice on cooking would be a little like taking advice on winning pennant races from a middle reliever for the Chicago Cubs. So I generally avoid reviewing cookbooks and stick to books on subjects I know perhaps too well, such as all the unintended comedy provided by the finalists for the recent Bad Sex in Fiction Award.

But I thought Picnics was my kind of book when I saw that it had a recipe for gorp (trail mix), which basically involves throwing together a few things like nuts, M&Ms and dried fruit. This coffee-table-topper isn’t a cookbook so much as a celebration of meals in the outdoors or other spots that call for portable food – sushi at your desk, dinner in bed, a sandwich on a plane (apparently a private jet, because you’d never get the glass bottle of San Pellegrino on page 24 past airport security). It has tips on defeating bugs, recipes for dishes like chili and grilled trout, and photos worthy of Martha Stewart Living.

The trouble arises when Hilary Heminway and Alex Heminway move beyond outdoor, sunny-day picnics. Quoting the novelist Alice Walker, they say that the English see a tea as “a picnic indoors.” That’s true only of a low tea (which includes foods such as cucumber sandwiches and sweet buns). A high tea is eaten at a dining room table – typically, instead of dinner — and involves more substantial fare, such as ham, roast beef and Cornish pasties. Picnics perpetuates American misconceptions about these two types of tea by showing pictures of (and giving recipes for) what the authors call a “high tea” but that the English would consider a “low tea.”

Then there is the bizarre section on what to do when it rains on your picnic. The Heminways suggest that you seek shelter in a convertible or under a gabled roof, then seem to contradict themselves by saying that you could also have your picnic under an umbrella or “in the drench where you are.” The metal parts of umbrellas aren’t usually dangerous because people use them near taller trees or buildings. But they could increase your chance of frying to death on a flat field. And the suggestion that you take cover in a convertible seems similarly irresponsible. So let’s give the last word to a group that specializes in preventing the kind of disasters this book could cause. The American Red Cross says that if no building is nearby, a hard-top vehicle will offer some protection: “Keep car windows closed and avoid convertibles” www.redcross.org/services/disaster/0,1082,0_590_,00.html.

Best line: The old rhyme about how to avoid poison ivy: “Leaves of three, let it be.”

Worst line: “Weather never fails. It may disappoint, but it never fails.” Picnics has many lines like those: They sound pretty, but what do they mean?” The first line of the book exemplifies the flowery writing throughout: “Doomed, a painted skimmer cuts (cuts a hundred bias lines per minute) air rich with midges: curves past blue dashers (out for midges, too); breaks through pickerel weeds; stops short on a nodding monocot: a rush for rest.”

Recommendation? The pictures in this book are easy on the eyes, so you might consider it as a gift for someone who wouldn’t mind the lapses in the text.

Published: March 2007 www.gibbs-smith.com

Furthermore: Hilary Heminway and Alex Heminway also wrote Guest Rooms (Gibbs Smith, 2005).

Janice Harayda is an award-winning critic who has been the book columnist for Glamour and the book editor of the Plain Dealer in Cleveland.

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

November 27, 2007

Carol Saline and Sharon Wohlmuth’s ‘Sisters,’ a Holiday Gift for Women Who Think That Having a Sister Is ‘Like a Marriage Without the Sex’

Sisters of many ages talk about what they give to and get from each other

By Janice Harayda

“It’s like a marriage without the sex,” the folksinger Anna McGarrigle says of her relationship with her sisters, Kate and Jane. If you know a woman who has similar feelings, your search for an ideal holiday gift book might begin with Sisters: The Tenth Anniversary Edition (Running Press, 164 pp., $29.95) www.sistersbook.com.

Since 1994 more than a million people have bought this attractive coffee-table book that has 36 brief essays by the award-winning journalist Carol Saline www.carolsaline.com and wonderful black-and-white photos by Sharon J. Wohlmuth, who shared a Pulitzer Prize at the Philadelphia Inquirer. What accounts for its staying power? In part, an inspired mix of sisters – pairs, trios and a quintet — who talk about their relationship. Some are celebrities — Chris Evert, Melba Moore, Gail Sheehy, Dixie Carter, Barbara Mandrell, Christy Turlington, Coretta Scott King, Wendy Wasserstein. But the most memorable essays involve women unlikely to appear in “Got Milk?” ads – a Vietnamese refugee, a pair of nuns, a trio of police officers, and a 7-year-old girl who tries to comfort an 11-year-old sister with AIDS.

The tone of Sisters is warm but not cloying. And Wolmuth’s photos often have a low-keyed wit, as in a picture of three sisters in their 80s who relax at a pool in what appears to be a Miami retirement complex. One member of the trio, in a Betty Ford hairdo, stands in chest-high water and lights a cigarette. What are ashes in the pool, the picture seems to ask, when you’ve got love like this?

Caveat lector: This review was based in the first edition. The 10th anniversary edition has some new material, including updates on sisters in the first edtion.

Furthermore: The authors also wrote Best Friends and . Mothers & Daughters, which have a similar format.

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

November 5, 2007

A Closer Look at a Florentine Treasure, Ghiberti’s Glorious Baptistery Doors — In a New Book and at the Metropolitan Museum of Art

Filed under: Art,Coffee Table Books — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 12:43 pm
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A great exhibit comes with a handsome companion volume

By Janice Harayda

On, joy and rapture unforeseen! On Saturday I went to the Metropolitan Museum of Art to see the new show of bronze reliefs from the doors for the Baptistery of San Giovanni in Florence, created by Lorenzo Ghiberti over a 27-year period in the mid-15th century. And when I’m counting my cultural blessings for the year, I can stop right there with a profit.

The exhibit displays only 3 of the 10 bronze reliefs from the doors that depict Old Testament scenes, a jewel of the Renaissance. But the show is so rich — in beauty and interpretation — that it might change your view of one or two of the subjects of the reliefs: Adam and Eve, Jacob and Esau, and David and Goliath. Did you remember that David beheaded Goliath after he smote him with his slingshot? You’re unlike to forget it if you view the panel about them. The New York Times‘s critic was right when she said in a recent review that this show almost makes you feel sorry for Goliath.

One of the remarkable aspects of the exhibit is that Ghiberti’s craftsmanship is so precise, you can see the use of high, middle and low relief in the same panel — a technique I haven’t seen shown as clearly anywhere else. You may be able to get a sense of this if you enlarge the book cover at right, which shows a detail from the Adam and Eve panel. At the bottom center you see God (looking like many artistic representations of Jesus) creating Eve from Adam’s rib in middle relief. At the top center you see another image of God — in a hat, looking down on Creation — surrounded by angels in low relief. Another scene in the Adam and Eve panel, which you can’t see, shows God in high relief.

I couldn’t afford the handsome companion volume to the show that the Met was selling, The Gates of Paradise: Lorenzo Ghiberti’s Renaissance Masterpiece/High Museum of Art Series (Yale University Press, 184 pp., $45) www.yale.edu/yup/, edited by Gary M. Radke, a professor of humanities at Syracuse University. But this is a book to check out at your local bookstore or an online retailer if your holiday gift list includes a lover of art, architecture, Italy or the Renaissance. Better still, go to the Met www.metmuseum.org and take a look at the book after you’ve seen the show, also called “The Gates of Paradise.” You have until January 13.

(c) 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

June 25, 2007

Rudolf Nureyev (and Others) Slept Here: Derry Moore’s ‘Rooms’

The 12th Earl of Drogheda visits the homes of aristocrats and others in Paris, London, Madrid, Vienna and elsewhere

Rooms. Photographs by Derry Moore. Text by Carl Skoggard. Editor: Joseph Holtzman. Rizzoli/Nest Books, 263 pp., $60.

By Janice Harayda

Books about interior design typically show rooms with character. Derry Moore’s Rooms shows rooms with characters.

Rudolf Nurevey, Lady Diana Cooper, the Rev. Peter Gomes, the Duchesses of Devonshire and de Mouchy — all are among the aristocrats of birth or achievement whom the 12th Earl of Drogheda has photographed over three decades. Moore aims to capture, not romanticize, his subjects. So he looks beyond Nureyev’s deep cooper bathtub and the Sargent portrait of the granddaughters of an earlier Duchess of Devonshire that hangs in the Blue Drawing Room at Chatsworth. He offers glimpses of faded paint, threadbare silk, buckled wallpaper, tilted lampshades and a roll of toilet paper.

In that sense his book has something of the twilight-of-the-gods air of Andrew Bush’s great Bonnettstown. Rooms also has a bracing and opinionated text by Carl Skoggard, who situates good design – as Jane Austen did – in the context of morality. “Here, you will find no effort to intimidate by means of a display of grandeur (or false grandeur),” Skoggard writes of the château Le Fresne, near Tours. “Nothing overawes through its size.” You could say that “Le Fresne and its unforced elegance express the unfeigned goodness of dispositions naturally moral.” This may be a reach. But Skoggard’s writing has much more life than the sycophantic prose of most design magazines. Like Moore’s haunting photographs, his text usually is, as the introduction notes, “impractical in the best sense of that much maligned word.”

Best line: Prince Tassilo von Fürstenberg’s former hunting bristles with so much taxidermy that Skoggard wonders if an Austro-Hungarian decorator tricked it up “with suitable remains”: “Recall Vladimir Putin’s astonishment when he suggested to his friend George Bush that the two of them saddle up for a ride around the ranch, only to be told that his host could not ride a horse at all.” This is one example of Skoggard’s refreshing willingness to confront a truth rarely acknowledged in books about interior design: Décor is always, in part, a commentary on politics.

Worst line (tie); The chapter on the gardens of Powis Castle in Wales is written, preciously, from the point of view of its yew trees. And Skoggard’s usual good taste fails him in his justification of opulence of Indian rajas and maharajas: “Where poverty is widely shared and there is no shame in being poor, ostentation on part of the well-off few becomes public entertainment, a benefaction shared by all, legitimation of things as they happen to be.” Exactly how did the poor “share” in the opulence when, as the Wall Street Journal said in its June 23–24 edition, the “untouchables” (now known Dalits) “were barred from temples used by upper-caste Hindus and from upper-caste homes”? Did they “share” it the way the homeless in Manhattan share Donald Trump’s wealth by gazing at Trump Tower?

Recommendation? This book could be a great gift for an architect, interior designer or traveler who loves visiting stately homes like Chatsworth.

Consider reading also: Andrew Bush’s Bonnettstown: A House in Ireland (Abrams, 1989), a remarkable portrait of three elderly aristocrats during their final days in their decaying 18th century Georgian manor house in Ireland.

Published: November 2006 www.derrymoore.com.

Furthermore: The New York Times ran a good article on Moore, “Insider’s View of Society’s Vanishing Rooms,” on Nov. 23, 2006. [I can't get a direct link to work, but you can find it easily by Googling "new york times" and "derry moore."]

 

 

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

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