Recently, I was asked to recommend interior design books for a beginner's library. I rattled off a list of the names we all have on the tips of our tongues – Elsie de Wolfe, Syrie Maugham, Frances Elkins, Nancy Lancaster, Sister Parish, Jean-Michel Frank, Billy Baldwin, John Fowler, David Hicks, Albert Hadley and Mark Hampton. Eventually I wandered off, texting the bartender for another manhattan as I did so, and it occurred to me as I headed to the bar that, though a good list of names, I'd missed the point. Someone else that evening in our library during one of our cocktail parties had remarked how lucky I was to own all these books. Two manhattans in, the point I'd missed, whatever it was, eluded me momentarily – until my mind snagged on that word "lucky".
Indeed, but to what end? thought I, surprising myself with the force of it. I own each of the books on my quick list (and many more such monographs) and, irritated as I am to find it so, it took someone else's perfectly normal question to set me wondering why I actually do own and want to own so many books. To what end, precisely? Or, to be precise, what happens to them if, in the end, I no longer need them? How does one dismantle a lifetime's collection of books? Is it just so much paper that few, if anyone, would want?
I've mentioned before how the new president of a local for-profit university decided the modern student no longer needed books as "everything necessary is available online." He closed the library, deaccessioned everything, and at the time it seemed self-evident that it was to my benefit to have, at least, the books I'd ordered for the school library come into mine. After all, I was still teaching, would do so for the foreseeable future and I could use them for the blog. When, a few years later, I retire, that seemed yet another opportunity – I could spend golden years reading them all – visions of velvet smoking jacket-clad days spent in a paneled library, books piling (neatly) all over the place, creaking shelves reaching to the ceiling, the scents of leather and pot-pouri, the literary equivalent of new car smell, suffusing the room, all played in my head.
And, alas, it was almost to be, this bastion against the increasing tide of philistinism.
Despite illusion and delusion I continue to buy interior design books – though in fewer number than previously. Conversely, I delve into my shelves and stacks far more than ever I did for, perhaps not so surprisingly, they prove to be more satisfactory than what is available in stores.
If there is anything missing from my collection of books it is a coherent history of 20th-century and 21st-century decorating and design. A history of residential decoration could be cobbled together from the books I own, but if anyone were interested in design rather than decoration he would have slim pickings. Interior decoration, still a massive if shrunken industry, is but a tiny part of the national market – contract or commercial design taking the largest segment.
Thus, if I were asked again to suggest a beginner's library for an aspiring student of interior design I would recommend first reading Becoming an Interior Designer: A Guide to Careers in Design by Christine Piotrowski – an expensive and rather dry introduction to the business of design and the difference between decoration and design. Beyond that, I'd suggest books about architecture and historical styles – the golden oldie by Sir Bannister Fletcher, A History of Architecture on the Comparative Method. For furniture styles and the history thereof, I suggest John Moreley's The History of Furniture: Twenty-Five Centuries of Style and Design in the Western Tradition, and because its just fascinating, Geoffrey Beard's Upholsterers & Interior Furnishings in England, 1530 -1840.
For my neighbour who asked me for recommendations I would amend my original list to include both Morley's and Beard's books with the further addition of The Inspiration of the Past and The Search for a Style by John Cornforth to provide historical context for all the practitioners, both of yesterday and today, of traditional design.
Regarding residential design the following photograph will show you where my tastes lie and I can heartily recommend each of the books shown.
The photographs by Richard Felber of John Richardson's library/writing room are from the last issue of HG published in July 1993. I still miss House and Garden – besides The World of Interiors, still the best interiors magazine there was. It was replaced by Domino, of all things.
I kept that last issue for years but where it now is I've no idea. My friend Will Merril mailed me his copy for the article about John Richardson's library and to my joy I found also the last published article about one my circles-within-circles decorators, Antony Childs. More about him next time.
The beauty, the truth
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