Living with Art
In considering “America’s Finest Rooms” (the book I am writing that some of you may be tiring of hearing about), the role of works of art has come to mind, notably in the 20th-century rooms. It seems to me that in the first quarter of the 20th century, two philosophies for the domestic display of art emerged.
Some collectors and designers attempted to display art within the confines of traditional decoration—that is settings which were house-like. The opposite point of view was to make modernist gallery-like settings where domestic functions, such as beds and bathrooms, were mere adjunct asides. I think it is notable that these simple rooms are completely reliant on art for decoration.
This past weekend, I wrote the text for the courtyard of Fenway Court, presently known as the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston. Mrs. Gardner wanted to display her art in the atmosphere of an Italian palazzo, counter to the trend of the period of displaying art in grand but austere Beaux Arts halls. This is in contrast with another room in the book, the living room in John and Dominique DeMenil house in Houston from the late 1940’s. It is essentially a glass box centered on a Rothko.
Then there is the Morning Room at Bassett Hall in Williamsburg, owned by John and Abby Rockefeller. The house was built in the 1750’s, but acquired by them in 1936. Mrs. Rockefeller decorated the cozy spaces with Early American hooked rugs and folk art. Ironically, in a rich twist in the history of interior design, Mrs. Rockefeller, who was the founder of the Museum of Modern Art, enforced the idea here that even in houses, art should only be displayed on plain walls and at eye level.
From top: Isabel Stewart Gardner Museum (The reason the frames are picture-less is because the paintings were stolen and the frames are marking their place. The Gardner was famously the victim of the largest art heist in history in 1990 where 13 important works were taken.); Isabel Stewart Gardner Museum; DeMenil House, photo by William Abranowicz; Bassett Hall, Williamsburg; Bassett Hall, Williamsburg.