Rosebuds, Snowy Linens, and his muddy boots by invitation only
By CHIPPY IRVINE
Photographs by Phillip Ennis
From the archives of
Design Times edited by Louis Postel
March / April 1997
The bed is so massive that it almost fills my modest farmhouse bedroom. The finials had to be removed and the mattress cut in two to make it up the stairs. It is rare these days to be born at home. I like to think there may be still be a few old-time traditionalists who are born in and die in the same bed.
Proper Bostonians may allow themselves designer-decorated reception rooms, but because of Puritan scruples they are not known for their sumptuous bedrooms. Lavishing attention and money on areas unlikely to be seen is considered somewhat decadent. Times, however, maybe changing. Judging from the accompanying portfolio of glossy and flossy bedrooms, private luxury even for New Englanders is gaining sanction.
Privacy in the bedroom hardly existed in medieval times. Servants slept on the floor of their masters’ or mistresses’ rooms or rested outside the door as guards. Other lay in piles on the floors of hallways, corridors, and kitchen and in haylofts.
By Elizabethan days, posted beds – only for the very rich – were hung with heavy curtains held by rods and rings hidden by a valance. The hangings might be tied together with tapes to exclude draughts, being more for warmth than privacy. Beds were a serious item of furniture, treasured and bequeathed in wills—Caryl Brahms and S.J. Simon’s hilarious pseudo-Elizabethan novel No Bed for Bacon centered around the queen’s indecision about leaving her second-best bed to Shakespeare’s rival, Francis Bacon.
With 17th-centuryDutch prosperity, the haute bourgeoisie possessed curtained box beds tucked cozily against walls. Well-heeled travelers would carry their own sheets as well as china and cutlery but frequently had to “bundle” with fellow travelers. Bed sheets were examined after the wedding night in many cultures to prove that the marriage had been consummated and the bride a virgin.
To ascertain true succession, royalty gave birth in front of witnesses. As a rule kings and queens, as well as nobles and their ladies, slept in separate quarters – “one for play and one for show,” as the song goes. For additional warmth, bedrooms were lined with tapestries such as those seen today at Cawdor Castle in Scotland where 17th-century tapestries decorate the walls in the Countess of Cawdor’s bedroom –with a corner cut away to accommodate the doorway. Her bed is hung with crimson silk velvet lined with white satin.
True to Scottish style, peat is brought every day in a wheelbarrow and banked on the fires to give minor warmth and suitably dour but authenticity throughout the main keep. The tapestry in Barbara Ostrom’s circular room serves different purpose, solving the problem of hanging a picture on a curved wall.
By the late 17th-century in France, the bed chamber was the innermost of all the reception rooms but still not a place where the high-born could relax. No one in society relaxed except in the privacy of a closet –a very small private room – or petit apartment. According to Peter Thornton’s informative book Authentic Décor (a must for every decorator), princes of the blood bowed and ladies curtsied to the royal bed – protected by a balustrade and warded by a valet de chamber – even when unoccupied. Less formal reclining took place on a day bed, a “sopha” borrowed from the Turks. Another newly essential part of bedroom equipment was the “triad”, a table, looking-glass, and a pair of candle-stands.
Because of the perils of moths and light, few bed hangings from the period still exist. As children, we had the rare privilege of visiting Calke Abbey, a now open-to-the-public stately home in Derbyshire. All the Harper-Crewe family, owners of Calke since 1622, were neurotically reclusive and did not encourage guests.
It was a dank and dowdy mixture of Victorian victrines, slipcovered furniture, and bric-a-brac almost obscuring the ancient family portraits and early Georgian plasterwork. When the National Trust took it over, a historian delving into a package that hadn’t been opened since 1734 brought out some dazzling vivid, embroidered Chinese-silk bed hangings. They are now on display in a light-controlled room for all the world to see, but how long will they retain their brilliance?
Gradually in France, where décor as we know it developed, elaborate flying testers with fanciful names furthered the upholsterer’s art. Ambitious courtiers were nobody unless they knew how to tie up the elaborate hangings on a lit’d’ange. The boudoir – where affairs of state may well have been decided – was a woman’s territory and far more elaborate than a man’s chambers. Being attired in the essential costume de toilette probably took as much time as donning a ball gown. Years ago at Versailles we visited the newly opened apartments of Mme.de Pompadour – probably the most canny of all mistress. There was a mass of space for her panniered skirts in the garderobe, but the main rooms were still sparse and rather stuffy. An antique dealer friend, feeling faint, tried to open the window, then collapsed on the only genuine period bench in the suite – to the consternation of the guide who murmured something about “les Anglais sont les barbarians.”
Also at Versailles my coauthor, Murray Douglas (of Brunschwig & Fils Style), escorted by curator Gerald Van der Camp, was taken through some private passages to a tiny door at the back of Marie Antoinette’s state bedroom. She opened it just as a crowd of tourists held at bay by the balustrade was being wowed by the elaboration of the hangings. Their communal intake of breath as Mrs. Douglas suddenly appeared made her feel as though she had made a queenly entrance. Luckily, she kept her head.
A Parisian friend of mine lives in the apartment from which Rose Bertin – Marie Antoinette’s milliner and dressmaker – used to hire out her bedchambers to courtiers who wanted a place for amorous assignations. Being a true femme d’affaires, when the Revolution hit, Mme.Bertin escaped to England and ran a successful shipping business.
George Washington, as well we know, slept everywhere. There is a house not five miles from where I live that was his temporary headquarters. Whether he actually slept there or not can’t be proved, but I’m sure, whether office or bedroom, it was far more frugal than Ronald Bradshaw’s bedroom with its elegant writing desk, as seen on page 70.
Gradually heating improved—thanks to Benjamin Franklin’s stove—and bedrooms became more comfortable and more private but also, by mid-19th century, more prudish. Middle-class Victorians, who had euphemisms for everything, could hardly bring themselves to mention bed. To say “leg” even when on a piece of furniture required elaborate circumlocution. It was the century of the hope chest filled with a dowry of hand-worked linens for the bedroom symbolizing chastity, cleanliness, and patience.
In this century – which I dub the Screen Century as we have been so influenced by movies, television, and computers – Hollywood stars of the 30’s and 40’s appeared to spend all day in bed — connected by the umbilical telephone – reclining on satin sheets with massive quilted headboards in palatial rooms furnished with white-painted Joan Crawford-esque Chippendale. There are still privilege women today who spend their mornings in bed, setting up their social and charitable calendars, emerging at midday to meet other ladies for lunch. In an interview with Mae West in her later days, Woman’s Wear Daily quoted her as saying,“ The article was headed “Mirror, mirror on the ceiling, how’m I doin’?”
For a West Coast client, my husband, Keith, designed a bedroom discretely lined in natural seersucker curtains that, at the push of a button, drew aside to reveal mirror.
Once upon a time, beds were lavishly draped with fabric to hold in heat from sleeping bodies and warming pans. Or, in more temperate lands, the material draped around the bed was gauzy to let cooling breezes through while fending off attacking insects.Today our homes are heated an insulated and we place screens on our windows, yet many Americans still opt for canopied beds despite their impracticality.
New York designer Barbara Ostrom is noticing that parents with grown children tend to redecorate their empty nests, putting in huge bedrooms, with grand beds as the focus. They want the beds to be striking and inviting. Fabric draped over and around a bed creates a fantasy-island retreat in the middle of the room. Having worked on canopies for both couples and single women. Karen Gilman of Finelines Drapery in Peabody, Mass., says that clients clearly value the aesthetic over the practical. But she also looks for solutions to the inconvenience that yards of extra hanging fabric can create.
Recently Gilman worked for designer Eugene Lawrence on a canopy project that required ingenuity. The client wanted a beautiful, romantic bed. One possibility was a four-post bed with soft pink silk panels at all corners, but it quickly became clear that the panels at the foot of the bed would block the view of the television. So Lawrence and Keith Brown took advantage of an existing cove of lights that ran around the bed. Brown added a matching molding to the ceiling that followed the contour of the cove, creating a U-shaped slot allowed the silk panels to come forward from the head of the bed to make a graceful alcove. –A.F.
*Against his favorite yellow walls with white trim, Mario Buatta mixes a complex and highly personal bunch of patterns and colors – including sheets from his bed-linen collection – in this girlish Kips Bay Showhouse bedroom.
*In keeping with today’s love of paint patinas, the central armoire in this bedroom is treated as a piece of art, flanked by swagged valances. The shutters, rough floor, brown wicker, and unabashed painted radiator enhance the deliberately relaxed ambiance of the space, designed for the Princeton Showhouse by Redford & Girard.
*From the pierced-metal chandelier centering the sand tented ceiling to the paisley upholstered bed on the wine-and-sand Oushak-patterned carpet, Anne Cooper assembles a bedroom with subtle Eastern overtones fit for an adventurous traveler. Photographed at the Fairfield Showhouse
*A wealth of richly patterned fringed and tasseled pillows underscores a glistening baroque bed with its luxurious embroidered and fur-trimmed coverlet. Instead of curtains, the window gets a hedge for privacy in this bedroom designed for the Chieftains Showhouse by Rheda Brandt.
*Kips Bay Showhouse 1995
Natural tones and material are highlighted by touches of gold on creamy white in this serene bedroom by Carolyn Gutilla for a Kips Bay showhouse.
The gold touch is carried to an ultimate fantasy with a four-poster bed heaped with a down-filled coverlet, supported by gilded tree trunks.
*In this bedroom by K Design for the Mansions and Millionaires Showhouse, a handsome day bed is framed by gilt-edged overhead drapery supported on poles, while the gothic arched valance above luxurious velvet window curtains is trimmed in crystal beads.
*Tailored linens, luxurious faux zebra, and an elegant veneered antique desk mix comfortably in Ronald Bradshaw’s gold-lined bedroom designed for the American Hospital of Paris Showhouse.