It’s a great title and it’s Jeffrey Bilhuber’s, the subtitle reads ‘Reflections on American beauty’.
This side of the Atlantic Ben Pentreath’s offers up ‘English Decoration’, subtitle ‘Timeless Inspiration for the Contemporary Home’, which rather belies the personal tone of this book that I so enjoyed, the gentle eccentricity of English style which Pentreath has ‘Defined and Refined for the 21st Century ‘
What really struck me was each designers’ reflections on the origins of their design aesthetic and the influence of childhood homes and family members on their interior style and homes today. They both put a sense of place and time (present and past) as the hearth stone of home and family life.
Ben’s recently visited Greenwich, The Royal Naval College – Britain’s only set-piece Baroque Palace, (where) for 3 years, which in retrospect I think might have been quite influential, those amazing buildings were home. I will always remember my grandfather, himself a Greek scholar and schoolmaster, walking that very young me around the buildings and explaining, in his brilliant, inimitable way, the origin of the Corinthian Order or how to recognise a Doric column. That same Grandpa’s house was filled with 50’s ‘Festival of Britain’ prints and simple Georgian furniture, which he ‘loves to this day‘.
Bilhuber interviewed by Mark D. Sikes notes: I lived in 6 different states before I was 15…each place – provided an opportunity to create personality and security…Growing up nomadically reinforced the enormous value and power that a sense of place can hold.
Ben Pentreath’s Parsonage in Dorset, a sleepy Regency gem which he has gently made his own.
Jeffrey Bilhuber’s Long Island home where he has layered family treasures from christening robes to ancestral portaits with antiques which embrace the house’s history.
As Jeffrey puts it: Our homes are central to the narrations of self that we construct and pass on to our children, our families and loved ones.
Why am I so interested in this? partly because we are building our family home, therefore constructing both the space and the narrative (no pressure) The house will be in the middle of the landscape I described in ‘Country for All Seasons‘. Whilst embracing 21st Century ideas for family living (floor plans, eco-tech) I want to feel part of England’s heritage and landscape, I am inspired by Jeffrey’s words of wisdom and rebuke:
Houses (in his book) speak volumes about the people who live in them: revealing home truths, rather than like so many interiors, constructing domestic fictions about desired lifestyles. These interiors evoke personality, emotion and mood…in houses like these someone is always at home.
So Bilhuber and Bentreath have interested me to analyse the childhood spaces that imprinted on my young brain.
Pentreath’s book is timely reminder of the spaces important to a smoothly functional home and the English vernacular we associate with them:
a brilliant yellow welcome in a timeless english hall
Bilhuber’s book is a photo journey through American homes where his design conjures up intensely layered spaces with complex, unexpected layouts that really sing together:
Most people would put the large sofa near the fire, Jeffrey has a cute corner settee and lots of ‘pull and chat’ chairs.
a detail of above: 3 light sources immediately to hand, gorgeous trim, the pink backed chair… look and look again, so much thought and detail.
To my eye, either side of the Atlantic offers a very attractive home. Pentreath opens via William Morris, the Victorian master who desire for ‘honest english design’ caused a quiet revolution.
Bilhuber shows us ‘clouds of English boxwood’ also framing the garden path invitingly, a timeless welcome?
Front doors and Entrance halls, set the tone for your whole experience. I have yet to see a ‘modern’ front door which has either charm or grace – one where I actually want to go in.
Once in ‘The hall’ it’s a space which you move through rather than relax in, so you can have some fun. Making sure there’s space to hide stuff, a table, a seat and your there.
Ben talks about how our cold Northern light can make ‘brilliant’ colour welcoming rather than overwhelming, particularly true in Ireland where the weather is so often ‘soft’ (lashing rain). This reminded me of an image which has stayed with me since childhood:
I so wanted to visit this house, Derek Hill used ‘Reckitt’s Blue’ laundry aid with a distemper base, giving a powdery finish. He even has the ‘seagrass squares‘ much frequented by both Ben and Jeffrey.
Next up Bentreath visits ‘comfortable rooms’, he reminds us how comfort is not based in luxury. Like Debo Mitford he likes rooms a little ‘shabby’. Meanwhile for the English, American’s are famed for comfort, we know Bilhuber will offer it up with charm and grace:
Well my comfortable rooms are a library and TV room, I want them cosy. A library with a hidden door, a window seat, maybe a cosy table where 4 could have dinner surrounded by books. A TV room – really so that it doesn’t invade other spaces, deep sofas and space to put you feet up. These rooms are intimate and warm. A larger sitting room which is light and airy, with a bit of Aaron’s gold-dust style for high heeled moments and champagne, I’d be very happy.
Creating these spaces you must never forget the details, as Pentreath says: The final touches of comfort are too please our senses : musical instruments, flowers and bowls of pot pourri: or to place things exactly where they are needed – a box of pencils, or of letter paper, piles of newspapers and ‘Private Eye’ or ‘Country Life’, and a table carrying a drinks tray, glasses, some tonic waters and slices of lemon. As Jeffrey says: Intimacy, often, is in the details.
Eating and Cooking: The kitchen’s new role as the ‘heart of the home’ is surely one of things which define our era us as precisely as 70’s cork kitchens. The Kitchen can get too big: functionality lost in the endlessly extended boundary and additional activities within. As Ben says: Where in this arena is the variety that makes life rich, or the privacy that makes it meaningful.
I love larders, utilities and boot rooms their inherent honesty and working practicality which frees up other areas of the house to fulfil their functions more pleasantly. Their resurgence in popularity is one part of the current ‘nostalgia’ buzz based on functionality. A country home without them – oh no.
A Quiet Retreat: Bedroom’s offer repose? they should allow room to escape, prepare, sleep and cosset. I also think if they are guest bedrooms – a little distance is a wonderful thing, preferably with a kettle for morning tea. Pentreath’s bedrooms exemplify his belief in plain georgian furniture, possibly with beaded board and a splash of Josef Frank’s vivid Swedish pattern. Bilhuber’s feel lush and sybaritic .
I think it’s’ wonderful how Ben Pentreath concludes with ‘Rooms of Display’, such rooms are part of ‘English Decoration’s’ rich history. From the Curiosity Cabinet to classical collections amassed during the ‘the Grand Tour’ to Sir John Soane and Aynhoe Park of today, the urge to collect and therefore display is entrenched within us. Anyway we all know I like collections and collectors…
‘The way home’ is a subject close to my heart and both Pentreath and Bilhuber know how to make welcoming rooms rich in sensory pleasure.
While writing this I did question what I was up to, ‘compare and contrast’ feels very inappropriate in blog-land. It’s because both designers have come to be representative of their national ‘design style’- the evolving essence of which contains an ‘intangible’.
Bilhuber’s homes represent his vision of American style, Say French,’ ‘English,’ or ‘Swedish’ style, and you immediately picture a room, But what’s ‘American? ...We mix it up so much — from neoclassical to modern — in the same space.
Jeffrey’s country home complete with his design hero George Washington atop a marble column.
His confident chic, traditionalism re-invigorated is described by the great arbiter of style herself Anna Wintour: Jeffrey is dedicated to American style – his work is honest, practical, inventive, brisk, stylish, modern. It takes from the past but is never enslaved to it. Jeffrey is engaged by the present and the future. A very American exercise and one which the English have finally embraced.
English homes are part of our national identity, claiming as we do: An Englishman’s home is his castle. Currently there is a palpable resurgence in British patriotism – not the union jack waving sort – but an appreciation of ancient crafts and market towns, heritage brands and foodie pride. There’s an honesty which Ben’s style encapsulates.
Ben’s Dorset dining room, naturally he is a member of the ‘Dining Room Preservation Society’ dedicated to the life enhancing nature of its transformative enclosure.
Jeffrey says the American ideal is to witness the times that surround us. The UK ideal is to create a present that can harmonise past and future, a visible link in the chain of creative legacy: Ben is such a link, his blog has become “a corner of the internet that is Forever England” for legions of ex-pats and Anglophiles and his ‘little shop’ has a big following.
The impact of childhood homes and ‘national identity’ in interiors is ongoing in my mind. I grew up surrounded by the classic ingredients of English design: brown furniture and Nina Campbell in old houses from country cottages to Georgian gems. The house that struck me most was of course the one that stood in strong contrast to all this, my American neighbours where David Hicks and Billy Baldwin would have felt at home. Here the master bedroom was treillage green and white, dark brown grass cloth prevailed and the florals were shocking. I used to creep into the entrance hall and stroke the china leopard’s heads peering at myself and them, head to head, amidst jungle greenery in the dramatic mirrored hall furnished in dark oak.
I have come to realise that design-wise I am mid-Atlantic, sailing my own little boat with striped sail, pop-pom rigging and paisley oil cloth. Home – Ahoy.
Images from Ben Pentreath, ‘English Decoration’ and Jeffrey Bilhubers ‘The Way Home’.
Except the shop-shot of Ben Pentreath from’Fancy Box’, Derek Hill’s Donegal home, from ‘Colour in Decoration‘ Annie Sloan and Kate Gwynn and my badly remembered American hall, so much more vivid in the mind…