Friday, May 29, 2009

Unseen Masterpieces

I had a few moments to spare on a recent visit to New York. I dashed over to the Metropolitan Museum. After a quick walk through the glorious monochromatic rooms of Greek and Roman antiquities, and a sprint upstairs to take a closer look at Monet’s great ‘Bridge Over a Pool of Water Lilies’ (one of his most lyrical Giverny paintings, it’s a reminder of a solo early summer morning visit I made to Monet's Japanese bridge and lily pond)—I took a quick spin into the bookshop, and then a final flourish to grab a handful of postcards of art I love.
Portrait of a Woman by Antonio Benci ( 1431-1498)
I’ve always avidly collected art postcards in museums around the world, as a way to take a closer look at a portrait, as a way of remembering a detail of a favorite painting, as a memento of a happy day in a gallery or museum or city.
Portrait of a Young Man with Medallion by Sandro Botticelli (painted c. 1470-1475)
Through an art postcard, it’s possible to learn more about the genius and bravura of each artist and the humanity of the subject. It’s always a way of studying the fashions and textiles of that era and inspecting jewelry and mannerisms and relationships. For me, even a small postcard, viewed years after encountering a painting, offers a way of approaching the detail of a masterpiece, its artistry, and the majesty of color and technique. Glancing at art postcards, it is possible to be captured, long after leaving the Uffizi or the Louvre, the Correr, the Tate, or the National Gallery (London or Stockholm).
Portrait of Bia by Agnolo Bronzino (1503-1572)
Yes, a $1 postcard can offer so much. At the Met on this particular day, the fantastic wall of postcards was not in its usual place. Most of the collection at the Met—from Egyptian to African to neoclassical and impressionist—have always been arrayed in splendid postcards. I asked for its new location, and the assistant indicated a sad corner with a few indifferent postcards.
Portrait of Eleanora of Toledo with her son Giovanni by Agnolo Bronzino (painted c. 1545)
“We don’t sell as many postcards now,” explained the kind woman behind the counter. It became instantly clear. All those gallery-goers who lean in front of others to take digital images of paintings (instead of looking at them) are sending their friends quick pix of Monet or Ingres. Who needs a postcard?
Portrait of Francesco della Opere by Pietro Perugino (1445-1494)
All of the above postcards were collected by Diane at the Uffizi Gallery in Florence.

Monday, May 25, 2009

Where to Catch Fleas

Chic Parisian style-setters love treasure hunting at the city’s centuries-old flea markets

I go to Paris as often as possible, and always in late May-early June, when summer is tentative and fresh. On weekends, unless I’m staying with my friends William and Jean-Louis at their chateau near Chantilly, I head to the flea markets. Yes, the exchange rate is gruesome, and shipping antiques is a thing of the past, but prints, table décor, linens, porcelain, old photos, paintings, and decorative treasures can always be squeezed among your underwear in your luggage.

Paris flea markets are crackling with energy at 7am on Saturday and Sunday mornings and this is the time to catch rare treasures.

I start antiquing at Porte de Vanves, a friendly and lively weekend outdoor flea market on the southern periphery of the city.

Among a jumble of impromptu stalls cluttered with crystal decanters, may be framed etchings, rickety Thonet chairs, artists’ easels, gilded ceramic bowls, rare art books, African carved masks, terra cotta bowls, delicate porcelain cups, and dubious groupings of oxidized hardware and murky faux-Rembrandt paintings. At the Porte de Vanves market, prices are very gentle.

The motley but promising merchandise at Porte de Vanves arrives Saturday morning at sunrise from all over Europe. This is an informal market, and antiques and vintage objects are “in their juice”, a French expression of admiration which means they have not been restored, sorted, cleaned, edited or repaired. They arrive straight from an estate sale or a small-town antiques fair. It’s all offered at the lowest possible prices with friendly haggling expected.

The art of the Paris flea market is to know specifically what you love - art books, white ironstone, watercolors, old Hermes handbags, Quimper ware, or fine etchings, perhaps. Experienced flea marketers can glance over a table of junk and find the fine silver boxes and astrolabes they collect.

When you know what you seriously desire, you can zero in on the perfect ceramics, candlesticks, dusty old volumes and prints, and monogrammed bed linens, an art school charcoal nude. Polite bargaining obtains the right price. The object of desire is wrapped in old newspaper, and you can head off in search of more loot and small luxuries.

Parisian connoisseurs, Belgian artists, and American designers come to Vanves summer and winter, quickly by-passing tables piled with old cameras, bundles of dusty drapery fabrics, torn library books, broken shop fixtures, beyond-repair kitchen utensils, and mediocre Chinese porcelains.

Beneath the sycamore trees, you’re likely to bump into French film directors and actors, Miu Miu-wearing Japanese teenagers, pipe-smoking German professors, French students, London art dealers, famous Russian set designers, San Francisco couturiers, and a colorful band of rich and impecunious and passionate collectors who may elbow others as they dig for treasures. It’s wise to carry a light bag, so that hands can be free to scavenge.

Antiques dealers also roam this flea market, and once they’ve purchased tables, chairs or chandeliers, they’ll polish them up, fix the wonky leg or chipped seat. Their re-sale price will be considerably higher.

After two or three hours at Vanves, it’s a quick Metro or taxi trip to the Puces de St. Ouen at Porte de Clignancourt on Paris’s northern periphery. This is the classic, centuries-old flea market and one of the largest in the world with around 3.000 permanent stalls.

The chic stalls, and the ones that attract discerning New York interior designers and artful dealers from San Francisco are those at the Marche Paul-Bert and Marche Serpette (with 130 dealers). These covered and open-air stalls offer superbly-edited furniture in all styles, Thirties mirrors jostle with rattan chairs, vintage crocodile luggage, delicate watercolors, Art Deco glass, massive armoires, old radios, Scandinavian and Belgian garden furniture, fountain pens, and old terra cotta flower pots. Stalls are stacked with Aubusson tapestries, charming old postcards from the turn of the century, Baccarat crystal, Sevres porcelains, and the pseudo Jean-Michel Frank consoles and plaster lamps and chairs that are all the rage.

Stalls are mostly permanent, and are numbered (not named) and most merchandise at Serpette and Paul-Bert markets is hardly ‘flea’. For some dealers, this is their starting point before setting up shop on the much pricier rue de Seine or rue Jacob. I love this enclave and from years of experimenting, seldom broach other markets (except sometimes when I’m frugal, I go to Jules-Valles.) It’s very congenial, and sometimes I’m finished by lunchtime, and other days (especially in spring) I linger on until perhaps 4 or 5 pm, chatting to the dealers, catching up.

On sunny days, dealers pile their tables and chairs and bronze lanterns and wine glasses along pathways. It’s a friendly free-for-all where wrought iron gates and delicate Italian mirrors stand cheek-by-jowl with Dutch portraits of uncertain ancestry, trays of old soup spoons, vinyl records, fusty fabrics, and a king’s ransom of gilded bibelots and gew-gaws.

At lunchtime, dealers bring out their homemade salads and couscous, wine and sandwiches, and gather for a communal meal, to gossip and commiserate, play cards. Serious collectors wander at will and pick through shelves of books and drawers full of bent silver.

Through the labyrinth of stalls, the collector walks in a pleasant haze. It’s a visual feast of ormolu and silver gilt, stone columns, monumental vases, mercury glass, faience, church pews, telescopes, parasols, and haute-couture costume jewelry.

Fatigued, dazzled, and finally happy with a bag full of small finds, the enthusiast heads back to Paris.

Treasures and junk jostle at the outdoor Marche Paul-Bert at the Marche aux Puces at Clignancourt. Among the day’s offerings may be garden furniture, plaster busts, handcarved armoires, Provencal pottery, crystal, lace, linens, vintage photography, Limoges plates, slate tables, Sevres urns and Swedish painted chests.

All photographs by DIANE DORRANS SAEKS


It is fast and adventurous to take the Metro to these flea markets. A taxi is speedy and direct. Note that the merchandise, dealers, and quality change dramatically from day to day and from season to season at all flea markets. One day at the Porte de Vanves or Clignancourt can be brilliant, with one stall after another stacked with superb and sparkling objets d’art and quality furniture. The following day can be dull and uninspiring, with churlish dealers, closed stalls, junky offerings, and grabby and crabby collectors.
Head out early, with optimism and a goal. Meet friends. Chat to the dealers, ask about their wares, and in the process learn to love the French heritage, decorative arts, and Gallic culture. Stop for coffee or lunch at one of the cafes and bakeries near the flea markets. A salade Nicoise, a croque-monsieur, an apple tart and a glass of Evian taste superb when you’ve been wandering through flea markets since dawn!

Marche aux Puces de St-Ouen at Porte de Clignancourt
At this oldest and greatest of the classic Parisian flea markets you’re likely to see Catherine Deneuve, Gerard Depardieu, New York designer Vicente Wolf, and top San Francisco interior designers like Steven Volpe, Stephen Shubel, Candra Scott and Richard Anderson, Myra Hoefer, Kendall Wilkinson and Vaughan Woodson searching and buying. Most of the stalls are permanent and the goods at some markets are of the highest quality.

Style pilgrims head straight to the rue des Rosiers and the Marche Paul-Bert ( 96 rue des Rosiers) and Marche Serpette (110 rue des Rosiers) and if they have time walk to the serpentine Marche Vernaison (99 rue des Rosiers).

Style tip: start with a café crème at 20, rue Paul Bert, at the bar of the Paul-Bert café (shoulder to should with the dealers). Fortified, walk past the side-walk dealers to La Petite Maison, half a block along rue Paul-Bert. It’s unsigned, and hidden behind a hedge. Stephane Olivier offers a cabinet of curiosities of statuary, natural history, oddities, the rare and the poetic. Don’t miss.

Every season, and every day is different at these markets, and collectors expect surprises. I’ve been there in the heat of summer, with no-one else around. I’ve wandered around in the snow—magical. I like the chic outdoor stalls along the inner perimeter, where women dealers editor and style tiny booths and stalls with monochromatic rigor.
Among the best stalls at Paul-Bert and Serpette are long-term dealers selling Swedish chests, the finest vintage jewelry, antique Louis Vuitton steamer trunks and vintage Hermes scarves , Venetian mirrors, provincial kitchenware, delicate watercolors, Provencal ceramics, fine crystal, Art Deco dressing tables, cane chairs, cameos, rare posters, turn-of-the-century postcards, dingy-but-charming oil paintings, vintage couture dresses and jewelry, and venerable white embroidered table linens. When you discover something you love, buy it on the spot. It won’t be there later.

Lunch and watch the goings-on at the Paul-Bert café. The cuisine is serviceable, including hearty French pot au feu, seasonal salads, and OK selections of wine.

Open Saturday, Sunday, Monday 8am-7pm. Insider tip: if you are a dealer or decorator or supremely confident and serious about collecting, you can venture to Clignancourt on Friday morning, dealers’ day. Be very low-key, ask prices only, and you may find treasures before they’re picked over.
Avenue J-H. Fabre and Avenue Michelet, and rue des Rosiers, St-Ouen.
Metro: Porte de Clignancourt.

Marche aux Puces de la Porte de Vanves
One of the oldest street markets, with over 200 vendors, This is a relaxing neighborhood in which to spend hours poking through antiques you can probably afford. Old chairs, 18th-century etchings, embroidered textiles, paintings, Hermes belts, silver-gilt mirrors, and kitsch all tumble from the backs of dealers’ trucks and vans from as far away as Rome and Brussels. Some (most!) of the furniture,oil portraits, cabinets, garden chairs, decanters, vases and other household goods are probably not as old as the dealers claim. Everything, in dealer parlance, is always “late 18th-century” but just how many chairs and tables and mirrors could Louis XVI and friends have sat on? Be very sceptical about “documented’ dates, and judge the style, the rarity. Bargain in a friendly manner--this is a very low-key place and prices are extremely fair. Dealers want to sell. Insider tip: Sunday is often best, because on Saturdays, dealers have been out in the countryside picking over estate sales, chateau attics and fairs.

Open Saturday and Sunday, and Monday 7am-1pm.
Porte de Vanves, Porte Didot, 14th arrondissment.
Avenue Georges Labenestre and rue Marc Sangnier.
Metro: Porte de Vanves.

Marche aux Puces de la Place d’Aligre
This is a small, impromptu, grab-bag neighborhood flea market adjacent to an outdoor vegetable market. Dealers set out odds and ends of varying quality and odd charm. Only for true flea market aficionados looking for unedited, vintage-in-the-raw. Go early in the morning to find bric-a-brac, cooking utensils, odd lots of furniture, books, vintage clothing, textiles, rugs--depending on the day and the season. After pocketing a lamp or glassware for pennies, head (on Sundays) to the rest of the marketplace, which is like an African souk, scented with coriander and mint. Taste Portuguese ham, wines, breads, and Spanish products. Closes 1pm.

Place d’Aligre, 112th arrondissement.
Metro: Ledru-Rollin or Gare de Lyon.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Go Orlando!

My new book, ‘ORLANDO DIAZ-AZCUY’ was published last week by Rizzoli. It’s my twentieth book. Rizzoli has crafted the most beautiful book, with an elegant gold-embossed binding, superb printing, and a graceful and dramatic design by Paul McKevitt of Subtitle in New York (Paul also designed my earlier books for Rizzoli, including ‘Michael S. Smith Element of Style’ which has been a best-seller).

Over the years I have interviewed the designer Orlando Diaz-Azcuy many times. The following are some of my favorite ‘Orlando-isms’. Some of them appear in ‘ORLANDO DIAZ-AZCUY’ (Rizzoli).
  • Mundane things enliven luxurious décor, just as quiet phrasing and bass notes add balance to coloratura opera scores. Décor should not be unremittingly rich. It’s too much, and you don’t see the beauty. In a room with museum-quality paintings or Greek antiquities, I may balance the luxury with simple white linen upholstery, bare floors or discreet and worn Oriental silk carpets, and pared-down modern architecture.

  • People think I never use color, but it isn’t true. I love color! In Cuba, as a teenager, I once painted my parents’ living room shocking pink. I spend hours working on color schemes. Many people are not tuned to tone-on-tone colors, or a carefully-selected and calibrated collection of whites, and they don’t notice subtlety. Soft, neutral, barely-there colors are still colors. Some of our most exciting projects are true color inspiration. But I always look for the unusual shade, tone or hue. I’m happiest working with colors you can’t exactly name—pale cornflower blue, blush pink, blue-gray, an unusual blue dashed with gold.
  • I am always striving for balance in a room. And I believe in the power of repetition. Pairs of things in a room give it a sense of ease and make it pleasing to the eye. Matching chairs, sofas, lamps or tables can bring discipline, strength, and balance to a scheme.
  • The most successful design is a result of rigorous, disciplined editing. Simple and successful interiors are always the result of taking out and not putting in more things. A complex solution brought down to the minimal expression gets to the soul of the solution.

  • Contrast emphasizes the special attributes of any interior. Rough and smooth, textured and plain, curvy and straight, antique and modern, are juxtapositions I make almost subliminally. A room that’s all one note—all modern, totally monochromatic, all one period—lacks individuality.
  • Control and use of light is the strongest element of my design. Light creates mood, a sense of comfort and well-being, and makes an interior totally functional.

  • An interior without accessories it is an interior without expression. While I am known for controlled, tailored and very polished interiors, I personally appreciate eccentricity, and the jolt of the unexpected. Provocative conceptual art, found objects, garden flowers, fine old paintings, contemporary sculpture. well-edited collections, and of course a bookcase stacked with books, make a room come to life.

Photography by David Duncan Livingston

Sunday, May 10, 2009

The Legendary John Dickinson

In 1980, I wrote a profile on San Francisco interior designer, John Dickinson.

The legendary decorator, admired for his fetishy white plaster tables and boldly sculptural furniture designs, was at the height of his career. Dickinson had recently designed a highly original (and
controversial) 25-piece furniture collection for Macy’s, had just completed the super-chic decor for the Sonoma Mission Inn, and was in demand among the Pacific Heights mansions, in Canada (where he designed a women's club), in New York, Los Angeles, and all over California, for his extravagantly imagined interiors. John and I were kindred spirits--passionate about design--and I decided to write a book about his interiors and furniture designs.

Sunday mornings for two years, I would drop my son off at Sunday school, then head over to John’s iconic 1893 firehouse
residence on Washington Street in Pacific Heights to tape conversations for three hours. I provoked and prodded and he discussed and dissected every aspect of design. "A real cliche is what I call "fabric decorating","John told me in one early design chat. "That's where a decorator
will go to a wholesale fabric house and find a printed fabric and from that printed fabric will pick up the green for the curtains, the white for the solid color, and if they're very daring, will use a green and white stripe for contrast. In other words, it's all there
and it's all very boring. It's not even decorating. I mean, it's hardly furnishing!"

Dickinson, dashing and debonair, turned our Sunday tapings into theater.

Climbing the well-worn pine stairs to his second floor living room/atelier (formerly the firemen’s dormitory), I’d hear Dickinson playing merry Cole Porter at his grand piano. As I swung open the
tall white-lacquered door, he would finish “You’re the Top” with an arpeggio and a flourish of Sulka silk robe, pink Oxford-cloth pyjamas and swirls of Hermes silk scarves.

I’d make coffee (his potion: extra-strong Nescafe with a long pour of whipping cream and 6 lumps of white sugar). John would make himself comfortable in his faux bamboo four-poster bed and pose like a pasha. Some Sundays decorator chums like designer Diane Burn or photographer Victor Arimondi would join us, but most Sundays we were a design duet.

“To me, the dullest room in the world is furnished in nothing but Louis XV or Chippendale or Queen Anne,” he said. “A house should be a very personal composition of things you can’t live
without--not a museum."

Dickinson, who grew up in Berkeley, was opinionated,
witty, erudite, generous, and thoughtful in his comments, and always down-to-earth. He talked and I taped, until he died in the spring of 1982. I transcribed the tapes, but the book project was set aside after one publisher’s deathless response: “We wouldn’t do a book on a dead decorator.”)

Dickinson loved the design paradox Andree Putman calls, "rich and poor"--expensive upholstery details worked in plain canvas, an elegant slipper chair upholstered in white Naugahyde, muslin curtains done in the most Balenciaga way, expensive wool cord used as simply as jute twine.

Many design insiders today still consider John Dickinson the most innovative and original American interior and furniture designer of the 20th-century. Designers as diverse as
Andree Putman, Michael S. Smith, John Saladino, Vicente Wolfe and Gary Hutton sing his praises.

“John Dickinson’s furniture passes every test--for originality, quality and style,” said Liz O’Brien, a leading New York dealer in 20th-century design. “His design is for the ages. It’s burned into our cerebral cortex.”

After John's death in 1983, I approached a noted publisher in hopes of getting my book on John Dickinson published.

"Oh, we would never do a book on a dead decorator," said he. Hardly a week goes by that I am not asked 'are you ever going to do a book on John Dickinson'. I have incorporated his work, his interiors, into many of my books instead.

In the meantime, the demand for his plaster tables and custom design remains high among the auction crowd.