Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Meeting a Maharajah

India is a jewel: I’m off to see old friends

I will be in India this week, taking in the delights of Delhi,
dabbling in diamonds, breathing in the beauty of palaces, hiking in
tiger country, tripping through temples, and taking in the peace and
serenity of the remote Rajasthan countryside.

I’l be back with stories of gems, palaces, reflecting pools, schools,
and discoveries on the road. I’ll be out in the wilds to find gypsy
encampments, and reposing in perfect splendor in Delhi and Jaipur.

See you next week.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Painter I Love: Jacqueline Probert

The Finest Dog Portrait Painter
San Francisco painter Jacqueline Probert has created a passionate following for her classic, elegant portraits—of beloved dogs. Capturing the divinity of dogs is her higher calling. Meet these canines and be inspired by Jackie’s spirit.


Jacqueline Probert has painted the adored dogs of several of my friends. I first met her through Nelson Bloncourt, the former owner of the late great Alabaster style store in San Francisco. Jacqueline is now displaying her work at Gump’s in San Francisco.

Jacqueline, a chic and stylish friend, is also a favorite among California interior designers as the official portraitist for their pampered and divine dogs.

What I admire most: her elegant portraits are not sentimental. They’re elegant, classical, and they portray these handsome dogs with such artistry. Think Stubbs and his 18th-century portraits of thoroughbred horses. Think Velasquez or Matisse—classic art. These dogs, as captured by Jackie’s brush, are noble, frisky, serious, high-minded, regal, gloriously handsome, loving, and knowing. Come and meet a very special and talented artist.


“I had rather see the portrait of a dog that I know than all the allegorical paintings they can show me in the world.” Samuel Johnson, 1787

Come and meet Jackie—you will be uplifted.
I sat down with Jackie recently in her San Francisco, and, surrounded by her fine dog portraits, we chatted of dogs, their people companions, and capturing the beauty and mystery of beloved canines.

Jacqueline Probert, of Probert Art based in San Francisco, has been creating murals, trompe l´oeil works, faux finishes, and glorious custom wall glazes since 1985. Partners Jacqueline Probert and her husband Ted Somogyi combine their artistry and experience with a genuine love and in-depth knowledge of art, artists, and the history of painting. Jackie and Ted believe that “beauty is our highest calling. Jacqueline is also an avid animal welfare advocate and a Pets Unlimited trustee and supporter of other altruistic pet groups.


DDS: Your approach is that of the finest French and English portraitists.

There are many animal portraitists who have influenced me in different ways. Jean-Baptiste Oudry was a French painter who in 1749 painted a life-size portrait of the famous traveling rhino, Clara. I made the trip down to LA’s Getty museum to see it and others of his works. He used a white ground for his paintings, and I started doing this also, noticing increased brightness in my colors. Rosa Bonheur (1822-1899) did wonderful, delicate and seductive work. She has influenced me to paint from nature, in my case at the San Francisco Zoo, where I love the kangaroos. We have for influence everyone from Titian in the Renaissance, Frans Snyders in the Baroque period, nineteenth-century emotive dog portraits from Rosa Bonheur and Maud Earl, and the great Lucien Freud and Andrew Wyeth in the 21st century. It is possible to see how major social and cultural concerns in Western culture were illustrated by these and other artists.

DDS: You are always experimenting and refining your work. What are you working on now?

Currently on my easel is a portrait of an elderly German Shepherd/Chow mix. It is the second painting I have done of this particular dog. The first one was done when the pet was a young pup of a year in age. The client had brought the dog over to my studio to be photographed.

My client left the studio to make some phone calls, and it was just me and the pooch. I thought the dog had a kind of wizened, far-reaching gaze, and, fooling around a bit, I waved one of my brushes around rhythmically in front of his eyes. As I murmured hypnotic phrases to him about getting tired and falling asleep, much to my surprise, his eyelids fluttered gracefully, he stretched out on the floor, and went to sleep.

I was touched by this large dogs’ gentle trust in me, and his willingness to let his guard down with someone he didn’t know too well.

You don’t have that experience with human subjects of portraiture! Now that I’ve been commissioned to paint this dog again at the age of thirteen, I am reflecting on this dog’s life, what kind of dog he has been, how well he was loved and loved in return. It’s in the way the eyes have become full of experience, and world-weariness, too.

Hughy and Parker

DDS: You paint people, too.

I strive to capture the same emotions in the eyes of humans, too. I see the same expressions in all eyes of sentient creatures. I have painted shark ‘portraits’ too, and while they may be lacking in empathy, they make up for it in the kind of predatory glance that can only come from 100,000 years of evolutionary perfection of form. I strive to capture the gaze that emanates from the creature in its earthly form, and the experiences registered there.

DDS: You love painting dogs.

It is fascinating as a portrait painter to reflect on the experiential difference between painting human subjects and animals. While I still very much enjoy drawing people, particularly in charcoal, I have lost interest in taking commissions. As I set out to produce a portrait, I am never sure what the final expression of mood on the face of the sitter will be. I have found as a portrait painter that I function as a conduit. Once a painter becomes fluid with the tools of the métier, she can lose herself to the process of observing and recording. I have done representations of people that radiated sadness. For one commission, no matter what I tried, I could not eradicate the anger in the face. That client, who had been a sort of friend, did not return my calls after that. Good lesson. Animals do not even know they have ‘faces’, and that fact is a great comfort and relief, even an inspiration, to me. Imagine if we as humans were not so overly identified with our visages and how they appear to others. The world would be a vastly different place. A much more peaceful one, probably. After all, an aging face is not the source of such anxiety for an animal as it is for us. Human portraiture after all is a function of recording ego. Not so with animals.


DDS: You’ve been painting and thinking about portraiture for years.

I continue to be fascinated with portraiture as a record of sentience, in all its nonhuman forms, on planet earth. With animals, there is no barrier between what I see in the eyes and what I am being ‘allowed’ to see. No emotional/psychological fallout when the painting is done. Except for positive emotional reactions. This Christmas past, four of my clients gave their beloveds portraits of their dogs. I got three phone calls on Christmas Day telling me that their significant others had tears in their eyes when they saw their dogs likeness on canvas.)

DDS: You have a Buddhist way of looking at our ephemeral life.

What remains in a portrait is a bridge between the viewer and the recorded image of one of life’s fleeting lifeforms. Like a reading from the I Ching (the Chinese Book of Changes), these simple portraits are a slice through time revealing the shimmery, transient nature of all animate matter. Our companion animals are especially fleeting, having life-spans that are one-fifth of ours. This is what makes them especially poignant and compelling to me. They have such an impact on our psyches.


DDS: I so admire your awareness of the history of animal portraiture and its importance in each century.

The earliest recorded images from the hands of artists were created 30,000 years ago in the caves of Lascaux, in France. It is significant that these images were of animals; great noble creatures leaping and running across cave walls. In our modern culture, we are distracted, disconnected, with short attention spans. The rise in animal awareness comes as an antidote to these feelings. Animals are grounded, and offer us the opportunity to recognize what we are missing in our own modern psyches.

DDS: I hear you are painting a thoroughbred horse.

Also on another easel is a painting in progress of a gorgeous thoroughbred called Tucker. His owner, Ann Jamieson, who is a well-known horse trainer, judge and author of two volumes of stories about horses, contacted me at my studio at Branford Point, CT. This is a beautiful creature with a fine and mellow disposition. I have always drawn animals, having grown up with cats and dogs, but horses were my favorites to draw when I was very young.

I took riding lessons as a child, and drawings of horses were always a way to understand them better and to prolong the experience of having ridden them. As anyone who loves horses knows, their combination of massive strength and delicacy, the soft softness of their chins, and that deep and soulful gaze from their eyes makes them irresistible. The fact that they’ve not only put up with humans, but have helped us in building our civilizations, makes them supremely moral creatures from whom we could learn many a lesson. Certainly we owe them a debt of gratitude.

I adore the process of painting their sensuous forms, and looking into their eyes. It is so interesting to photograph them. One must be very respectful, never intimidating them by thrusting a camera into their faces. I love to just be around them first, drawing them and letting them get used to me.


DDS: What camera do you start with?

My old Canon FTb camera equipped with a 135 mm lens allows me to get a very close shot without being in the face of the animal. The photograph I take is of critical importance, because for me the painting must stand on its own outside the genre of ‘animal painting’. I look for strong contrast of light and dark (chiaroscuro), which exaggerates contrast between excitement/tranquility, form/emotional content, otherness/sameness.


DDS: How do you get started?

Meeting the animals is a big factor in getting to know their personalities. It is a joy to paint two or more animals together who share the same humans and households. One of the interesting side benefits from being in this line of work is meeting all the different types of dogs there are in this world. Considering that all the breeds evolved from the wolf in the last several centuries, and all the many mutts in their configurations, it is quite an ongoing study in biology.

Blanche, the cat

DDS: Cats?

An ongoing project for me in a series of oil paintings of Siamese cats, my favorite cat breed. We had seal-point Siamese cats in succession while I was growing up (invariably named Sam), and until two years a go, I had a pair of sisters named Blanche and Baby Jane. They lived to be 16 years old, and died within 1 month of each other. I drew and painted them constantly.

DDS: Do you have favorites?

What I recall from the past 15 years of animal portraiture are all the different personalities, as different and distinct as humans. As I look through my portfolio of images, I get a distinct feeling for each of my ‘models’. The look of the wet feet and underside of ‘Bubba’, who is no longer with us. Bubba was just out of the house when I came to photograph him, and was very intent about doing the rounds scouting for that knows what in the wet undergrowth of the garden. He looked like something that had been following Mastodons for crumbs, back in prehistory.

I loved the wild look of the glamorously coiffed poodle Romeo, who also looked prehistoric, and yet contemporary.

On several occasions I’ve been told that dogs have barked at their own images in the paintings. I consider that the highest compliment!

There is the calm and dignified look on the French Bulldog, Fanny. By the 1900’s, this breed was a popular butchers and coachmen’s companion in Paris. Fortuna, the Scottish terrier, bears the reserved and slightly aloof quality of the excellent guardian. I also love the twin expressions on the double portrait of young and alert long-legged Beagle Hughey, juxtaposed with the more serious and contemplative expression on the elderly Labrador Parker.


DDS: You get caught up in the lives of your dogs.

There have been a few times when we didn’t get to finish the job due to the deaths of the subjects. The few spontaneous photos I did get of one subject bore unmistakable intimations of sadness and imminent departure. In fact, what has developed is a sort of sixth sense about animals regarding their longevity. I don’t mention this to their human companions, though.

DDS: Jackie, you have such a great perspective on your work.

What continues to make dogs enticing subject matter is their close proximity to us, and because of that unrivaled proximity they are uniquely suited to mirror our story of sentience in a body on a planet. Our two species, Homo Sapiens and Canis Familiaris, are deeply intertwined. The abiding mystery is that they offer unquestioned acceptance of their bond with us combined with their own possession of preternatural qualities that we could scarcely fathom, yet sense directly. It has been said, “Make me the kind of person my dog thinks I am”. That we should aspire to be as unconditionally accepting as dogs are, and as non-judgmental, are worthy goals indeed.

Commissions by appointment only: Fees from $1,500 for a black and white portrait. Where to find Jacqueline Probert paintings and stores that represent her work:

Gump’s in San Francisco: 135 Post Street, San Francisco, phone 415-982-1616, or 800-284-8677, www.gumps.com

Marcus Robbins and Wayne Armstrong are representing Jackie’s paintings at Pennyweight: 1337 Main Street, St. Helena, CA, and phone 707-963-3198.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Chic Antiques at the San Francisco Fall Antiques Show

A Chat with Therien’s Bob Garcia

The San Francisco Fall Antiques Show last week was a great success. Boris Vervoordt from Antwerp showed glorious photography, Egyptian sculptures, and sublime twenties French chairs.

Bernard Steinitz, based in Paris, displayed a dazzling array of Chinese antiques (theatrical chandelier with tassels), and gilded French girandoles, as well as his highly desirable boiseries.

Cheers and applause must go to Therien & Co., a founding member of this much-loved antique show thirty-five years ago. Therien’s stand has been for many years the most elegant, the most superbly stylish, and the most compelling.

Therien partner Bob Garcia keeps a pied-a-terre in Lisbon. He travels to Europe often to seek and find and acquire in Italy, Russia, Stockholm, France, Germany, and hidden hunting grounds on the Continent.

During the show, I sat down with Bob to catch up with him on new directions in antiques, styles and taste in twentieth-century pieces. All photos below are of the handsome treasures on the Therien stand, which had a sleek background of grey sheetrock with aluminum framing and criss-crossed nailheads. With dramatic tall plants, a spiffy painted wood floor, and a large-scale shagreen desk by R&Y Augousti, the stand was a lesson in style from top to toe.


DDS: Bob, I love the mix of the streamlined, custom-made ivory shagreen desk from Augousti, circa 1995, with the elaborate gilding and carving and bella figura of the Sicilian gilded table. This new/old and elaborate/rococo is the modern way to use antiques.

BG: Yes. This contrast and juxtaposition and vivid mix of furniture and styles and periods are critical to our aesthetic today. We seem to have freed ourselves from the old paradigm “Does this go with that”. It used to be sort of like matching gloves and shoes. That idea is out—for antiques as well as for fashion.

We definitely see style in a much more individualized manner and today it is not about perfect period rooms but what suits us and our personal esthetic. It does seem that all design has more “tooth” or counterpoint when given an unexpected selection to contrast with. It’s rather like restaurants today, where the most successful dishes are the unexpected and creative mix of tastes or sensations, bitter and sweet, salty and tart.

DDS: Therien originally sold only period furniture, pre 1830. Now you’ve refreshed your antiques collections with rare and beautiful custom and one-off 20th century pieces, like the handsome Mario Ceroli sculptural round table you are showing.

BG: We’ve developed the appreciation of “design” in furniture as if it were sculpture. And especially now when serious artists are focused on furniture as a medium for their expression. The Ciroli table we feature in the show was perhaps the most widely admired piece we’ve ever shown. It was both furniture and sculpture.

DDS: One virtuoso piece, like the secretaire, can make a room.

BG: That’s all it takes. One wonderful statement rather than a clutter will make an environment have resonance. Think of this bold lacquered piece in a minimalist interior with comfortable understated upholstered furniture and good art. Nothing more is needed.

DDS: For Therien, what is the key to buying contemporary pieces?

BG: Difficult to answer this question, Diane. One uses all the academic benchmarks in making a selection such as reputation of the designer, provenance, condition, and is it the best example, along with suitability, integrity, quality of workmanship, originality. But what it comes down to is basically does the piece “speak” to us. Is it beautiful? Are the proportions in harmony? I’ve been buying antiques for many decades now, and the finest things do tend to jump into the foreground and grab me. If they won’t let go, I’m very interested.

DDS: Bob, you also keep the background of the booth very quiet and restrained when setting out these beautiful objects. The paneled walls in the book at the antiques show are sheetrock with aluminum framing. With the nail-head detail, it looks rather glam but completely recessive for antiques.

BG: The background does set the mood. The necessity for precious materials does not exist if the quality of the pieces is of super high caliber or the sensitivity to design is honed. As you noticed in the stand, quite humble materials like plain old grey sheetrock are once again a “counterpoint” which gives emphasis to the abstraction of fine design.

MARIO CEROLI, "ROSA DEI VENTI" TABLE Russian pine and inlaid table with a top of circular radiating solid timbers enriched with stained compass rose pattern and inlaid with metal N, S, E, W over inverted ribbed dome pedestal. Raised on a geometric compound base. Circa 1973. Mario Ceroli (1938 - ). Overall Dimensions: 64 ½” diameter x 28 ½” high.

PAIR OF SICILIAN NEOCLASSIC GILTWOOD AND VERRE EGLOMISE CONSOLES Consoles with rectangular inset white marble top within carved and pierced egg and dart molded frame with applied carved and molded meandering foliate reserves. Framed by blocks of floral quatrefoil medallions, raised on similar blocks surmounted by outward scrolling fully realized acanthus leaf sprays over square section tapering legs with similar applied floral and foliate enrichment; the whole mounted with applied glass panel reserves painted to simulate agate and marble. Circa 1770 – 1785. Overall dimensions: 45½” wide x 23” deep x 38” high.

DANISH ROCOCO ROSEWOOD AND PARCEL GILT CHATOL Comprised of three sections; the upper with molded arched swan neck pediment centering carved wood floral cartouche over two mercury plate fielded panel hinged doors. Two fixed shelves and two drawers; the center section with fall-front writing surface enclosing fitted interior, the bombe base cabinet of three long drawers flanked by canted corners on pierced foliate and rocaille carved apron centering fruit cartouche. Raised on outward scrolling foliate carved feet; retaining original hardware with later flame finials and pendant mounts. Third quarter 18th century Overall dimensions: 57” wide x 29” deep x 109” high.

(also in photo above) FRENCH GLASS AND PATINATED STEEL CENTER TABLE The circular glass top on four contiguous loop concave shape supports joined by circular platform stretcher; the base given patinated finish. Circa 1970. Designer unknown. Overall dimensions: 50” diameter x 29” high.

ETRUSCAN EARTHENWARE FRAGMENT In the form of a fully realized nude male youth. First century B.C.E. (restorations). Overall dimensions: 10” deep x 13” wide x 30” high.

PAIR OF ITALIAN LATE NEOCLASSIC WROUGHT IRON, GILTWOOD AND GESSO TORCHERES The hand forged circular section stem surmounted by flaring turned joint fitted with two spiraling upward scrolling candle arms in the form of ribbon twisted swan necks, flanked by wings, the heads rising to support flaring circular bobeche fitted with later palm frond trumpets; the whole raised on rectangular section tapering downward scrolling tripartite feet and surmounted by acorn finial, previously electrified. Circa 1810 Overall dimensions: 19” deep x 32” wide x 80” high.

ITALIAN ROCOCO GILTWOOD ETAGERE The carved and molded frame with inset cartouche shaped mirrored reserves composed of foliate and rocaille ‘C’ scrolls with floral enrichments, supporting carved brackets and suspending shell form pendant. 18th century. Overall dimensions: 26” wide x 71” high.

R & Y AUGOUSTI SHAGREEN AND PARCHMENT “OSCAR” DESK The rectangular top has an inset parchment blotter with bone stringing over straight conforming apron, and single drawer with applied paneled handle, over double pedestal “rusticated” base. Two stacked hinged drawers with similar applied paneled handles, the upper enclosing shallow box drawer, the lower with multiple file drawer, contiguous with plinth base. CA 1990s – Paris – Branded Mark. The R & Y Agousti label by Ria & Yiouri Augousti was launched in Paris in 1990. Overall dimensions: 30” deep x 84” long x 31 ½” high.

FRENCH BAROQUE TERRA COTTA MAQUETTE Depicting two high relief sculpted intertwined dolphins amongst reeds on half classical urn; now mounted on iron stand. Circa 1780. Overall dimensions (sculpture): 9” deep x 26” wide x 14 ½” high.

GUSTAVIANSK CRYSTAL CHANDELIER The circular brass cage fitted with attached lion masks and six downswept arms terminating in circular bobeches and gadrooned urn shaped nozzles. Surmounted by domed, shaped canopy, suspending various twist-turned links with concentric cages and Murano glass bell shaped pendant; the whole strung with interlocking crystal strings, graduated pendants, rosettes and festoons. Fourth quarter 18th century. After Haga Palace model. Overall dimensions: 30” diameter x 62” high.

PAIR ROMAN EMPIRE PAINTED AND PARCEL GILT FAUTEUILS Each with arched shaped upholstered boxed back within foliate carved and molded frame. Joined to boxed seat by circular section downward scrolling foliate carved tapering arms ending in rectangular reserve. Greek key carved apron, raised on circular section tapering fluted legs headed by foliate carved collars and ending in toupee feet. Early 19th century. Overall dimensions: 24” deep x 25 ½” wide x 39 ½” high.

PAIR ITALIAN NEOCLASSIC GILTWOOD TABORETS The rectangular upholstered box seat over molded apron with relief carved foliate reserve, on tapering round section, partially fluted legs with foliate carved collars, raised on ball feet. . Late 18th century. Overall dimensions: 18” square x 20 ½” high.

ITALIAN MARBLE TAZZA Deep ovoid bulbous form rising to rolled edge and ending in conforming circular straight foot. Circa 1700 – possibly earlier. Overall dimensions: 18 ½” diameter x 12” high.

PAIR ROMAN EMPIRE PAINTED AND PARCEL GILT FAUTEUILS Arched shaped upholstered boxed back within foliate carved and molded frame, joined to boxed seat by circular section downward scrolling foliate carved tapering arms ending in rectangular reserve, over Greek key carved apron, raised on circular section tapering fluted legs headed by foliate carved collars and ending in toupee feet Early 19th century Overall dimensions: 24” deep x 25 ½” wide x 39 ½” high *Settee also available

PAIR KARL XII GILT LEAD APPLIQUES Oval plate secured by foliate molded lead frame issuing downswept scrolling brass arm ending in circular bobeche with vasiform nozzle. Surmounted by blue grass reserve with paired bird finial, flanked by female figures in classically draped cloaks; the pendant base with applied rosettes centering floral basket. Circa 1710. Attributed to Christian Precht after a design by Daniel Marot. Overall Dimensions: 21” wide x 30” high

411 Vermont St, San Francisco, CA 94107

716 North La Cienega Blvd, Los Angeles, CA 90069



Photos: Philip Stites

Monday, November 2, 2009


California design's legendary photographer for six decades
Since the forties, San Francisco photographer Fred Lyon has shot (and made famous) California’s greatest designers, from Michael Taylor and John Dickinson to Anthony Hail, Frances Elkins and Suzanne Tucker. He is California’s Horst, recording top designers, their stylish clients, and all the houses that matter. Come with me to meet the Great Fred and see the images he crafted for John Dickinson and Michael Taylor.

Fred Lyon by Steve Frisch.

Fred Lyon is talented, charming and ineffably elegant. He defines dapper. When he walks into a party, the whole room lights up. Think strobe lights!

He is also the most talented classic photographer—with a lifetime of magazine covers, books, and designer portfolios in his San Francisco studio. He’s California’s Horst and Irving Penn with a touch of Bruce Weber.

A San Francisco native, he left in his teen years for war and a stint in New York, and returned home in 1947 armed with a single camera. Vogue and House & Garden quickly found him.

Fred, now in his eighties, creates black and white and color photographs of quiet, classic beauty. His design images for the last sixty years have been naturally lit with no artificial or over-lit effects.

“The architects and designs have put all their talent and style and taste into the rooms I’m shooting, so I never want to impose a “look”, Fred said. “That’s too gimmicky for me. I want a harmonious composition. Working with designers like Michael Taylor or John Dickinson, I did not have to go into a trance or torture it. My job was and is to show the design and tell the story—not to make a design statement of my own.”

Fred Lyon: “On the face of it, photography is a rude process, freezing motion, sometimes straining out color, squashing the subject flat, and imprisoning it in a rectangle, so it’s already at a disadvantage. Architectural/interior photography then is unique in that, while it benefits from a warm, sympathetic eye, its chief requirements are painstaking craftsmanship, patience, a strong back, and comfortable shoes.”

Michael Taylor photographed by Fred Lyon

Above, Fred Lyon’s images of Michael Taylor’s designs, spanning three decades, include Michael Taylor in his studio; master mix of textures and materials at a house on the Peninsula include gilded girandoles, zebra-skin covered occasional chairs, and a Greek flokati run (combed sheepskin) that was fashionable at the time; a sunroom on the Peninsula (just south of San Francisco) has all the Michael Taylor elements including white slipcovers, dramatic plants in pots, versatile occasional chairs and lots of fresh air; Michael Taylor studio/shop setting in downtown San Francisco shows the white paint he threw around with abandon; perhaps his most famous bedroom, from the fifties, included the mix of baroque and simple that he carried through his design career.

Fred Lyon shot Michael Taylor’s interiors from the beginning of Taylor’s long career.

“We shot everything Michael did, for House & Garden and Vogue, and in the sixties and seventies and into the eighties he had an enormous amount of work,” said Lyon. “Those were the days of the decorator-as-despot. Michael was bold and terribly outspoken and his clients were completely in awe of everything he said and did. But his rooms for each client were elegant, sometimes eccentric, and always highly individual.”

The rooms Michael designed for his clients were full of possibility, waiting for the flourish he would add for the camera, said the photographer.

“We were once faced with a “nothing” corner at a beach house in Pebble Beach that we were shooting for House & Garden,” recalled Lyon. “I told Michael it was lacking pizzazz and had no focal point. He immediately got on the phone to John Berggruen’s gallery in San Francisco, a two-hour drive away. Michael had been to an opening at his gallery the night before. He asked John to send down the centrepiece of the entire show right away. Three hours later, a truck arrived and the large abstract canvas was hung on the wall. The photo made the cover of the magazine, and the client bought the painting.”

Taylor worked on the fly, improvising as the photo shoot went from room to room, said Lyon.

“In the middle of a long day of shooting, the early sixties, we were debating photographing a small room in the attic of a Pacific Heights mansion,” said the photographer. “Michael draped it in white linen, arranged a pair of French painted chairs and an antique desk, and brought in masses of terra cotta pots of white hydrangeas. It was great decor for the camera.”

To the chagrin of the grande dame that lived in the mansion, her maid’s room soon appeared in full glory on the cover of House & Garden.

Fred Lyon on Michael Taylor:
“Michael was obstreperous, gossipy, opinionated, moody and a lot of trouble to work with—and a pure genius. His decor was worldly, bold, trend-setting, and still looks great today.” “It was always a battle to get him to complete houses, but when he was involved and engaged in photography, he was a totally passionate designer. He’s do anything to make a great picture—include practically redecorate a house on the spot, borrow antiques and art from his own house, bring in truckloads of flowers and trees, and borrow paintings and accessories from other clients.”

“I started shooting Michael Taylor’s work in 1954 when he was in partnership with Frances Mihailoff, and the first thing he ever had published was the Christmas tree in their studio,” Lyon said. Michael Taylor started his own firm in 1956, and opened his famous studio on Sutter Street in 1960.

“He was the hottest thing in California, and enormously influential in decorating then and now,” said Lyon. “I always knew he was one of the first superstar decorators, restless, imposing, always exploring new design ideas.

Lyon is certain that Taylor was dyslexic. One reason was that Taylor could not pronounce ‘hydrangea’.

“He called them hydraneas,” recalled Lyon. “He used white hydrangeas a lot, so the word came up often.”

A typical day photographing Michael Taylor's décor...

Fred Lyon recalls: “A typical day with Michael started with the challenge of getting him to the location at a reasonable hour. That was tough. He’d sit in bed with his breakfast tray and gossip by phone with his favorite clients and editors. But he’d have a truck deliver a dozen fan palms or pots of white azaleas or the season’s first white hyacinths or lilies of the valley. His assistants would move the huge sofas this way and that, hang heroic-scale paintings, iron linen slipcovers, bring in charming $10 tin trays from Cost Plus, and generally spare no expense to create a fresh, lively, and dramatic picture. Homeowners were delighted. They saw their rooms finished, finally, and everything looked its best. The day ended in triumph.”

Frances Elkins photographed by Fred Lyon

Above, a Frances Elkins portrait; Frances Elkins (spit curls in place) with a client in the fifties; the flower-filled historic Monterey adobe house where Frances Elkins lived (note the fireplace surround faked with fretwork and painted wood); the lovely dining room in the adobe with the table set with her collection of Venetian glass; a game room in a Pacific Heights mansion in San Francisco with Elkins’ Georgian-inspired chairs, which are all still at the house now owned by art collectors.

Taylor was not the only dictatorial decorator Lyon photographed.

“Frances Elkins made charts for the maids of her clients, showing where to place ashtrays and which flowers were to be arranged on tables,’ Lyon commented. “She had keys to every house, and would sweep in unannounced, spit curls aquiver, saying, “Those cushions look tired. They must be replaced” or “That wall needs repainting” and it would be done without a whimper. People were so pleased and impressed to be working with her that they would turn over their lives to her.”

Fred Lyon on Frances Elkins:
“Frances was a dictator and rather scary. She had her couture wardrobe crafted by Mainbocher, was pals with Coco Chanel, and had a serious collection of fine jewelry, which I photographed for Vogue. She waltzed around Europe with her brother David, with spots of rouge on her cheeks and black spit curls marching in rows across her forehead.”

Frances Elkins, like most women at the time, did not drive. She had a car and driver and would head from Monterey to San Francisco for client meetings.

“Frances bought a black Packard convertible,” recalled Lyon. “Her maid in Monterey would pack her a hamper for the three-hour trip—a bottle of chilled Champagne, nothing else.”

Fred had a specific approach to photography, absolutely in contrast to most other photographers of the time who blasted rooms with lights. “I liked to work fast and take lots of pictures in natural light,” said Lyon. “You take a great opener and a lot of great shots that tell the story, no fluff, no weak shots with nothing in them. That’s what professionals do.”

Fred Lyon and his elegant blonde wife, Anne Murray Lyon were fixtures on the social scene and regulars on Herb Caen’s column for decades. Anne, who died thirteen years ago, had been one of Richard Avedon’s favorite models.

Fred Lyon today is in demand to shoot interiors for top designers, and wineries around the world for leading magazines.

“My friends still call me a Young Turk,” he said. “I spent all those years learning how to be a photographer. Now I have to put my experience into practice for many more years.”

The Style Saloniste Chats with Fred Lyon:

DDS: Favorite room?

Whitney Warren’s Telegraph Hill house was my first assignment for House & Garden, in 1948. Whitney was heir to a large fortune and a noted bon vivant. Impressive for its sheer opulence and the Gardner Dailey designed space, the house had a very dramatic library. House & Garden ran my picture of the classical French-inspired library as a full color page. Footnote to this shoot: The magazine had advised me that a woman would be on hand to be sure that everything looked right. We didn’t talk much and only later did I learn of the legendary stature of Frances Elkins.

DDS: What was the craziest thing a House & Garden in the golden era Editor ever did to get great pictures?
They would badger and boss their targets. But in1967, House & Garden’s San Francisco editor, Dorothea Walker, approached Dorothy Fay, a social figure, for a third time about scheduling photography of her Aptos beach house. Mrs. Fay protested, “The house isn’t ready. I’ve been begging Michael Taylor for over two years to finish it, but you know how Michael is.” Dorothea thought for a moment, then, “Do you really want it done?” Dorothy: “Of course!” Dorothea: “Then you just tell Michael that Fred Lyon is coming to photograph—and he will finish it.” In total disbelief Dorothy Fay tried it. Michael put the final touches on it, right in front of my camera. Another homeowner astounded at the power of photography.

DDS: What camera did you use to capture these wonderful images before digital?
Sometimes I worked with the small Rolleiflex and Hasselblads, but primarily the 4 x 5 Linhof and Sinar. Sometimes I shot 5 x 7, but now I can’t remember why.

Let me say this about photography: I’ve always been a photojournalist, a storyteller. So shooting interiors has been about explaining how the room works with its key components, well composed, but without any photo artifice. The architect, the owner, the interior designer have all visited their creative efforts on the space. Unlike any of my other work, this seemed to be the last place to impress my personality. On the face of it, photography is a rude process, freezing motion, sometimes straining out color, squashing the subject flat, and imprisoning it in a rectangle, so it’s already at a disadvantage. Architectural/interior photography then is unique in that, while it benefits from a warm, sympathetic eye, its chief requirements are painstaking craftsmanship, patience, a strong back, and comfortable shoes.

DDS: Michael Taylor was great.
In 1970, we labored for three days in the Diana and Gorham Knowles house in San Francisco.

It had everything, no holds barred. Great spaces, endless marble and crystal chandeliers, paintings of fine provenance. Michael and his colleague Mimi London were at the time orgasmic over their giant geodes and orchids.

Finally, having exhausted all the obvious rooms, my camera was set up on the twisty attic stairs, looking into a tiny maid’s room with little to recommend it. Michael, in one of his unstoppable bursts of inspiration, wrestled planks and supports up the stairs and behind the sofa. He positioned a dozen large white potted hydrangeas to emerge over the back of the sofa. A few months later it appeared on the cover of House & Garden, the only image they ever used from that shoot.

DDS: John Dickinson was so discreet and private. But for the famous House & Garden shoot of the Firehouse, he allowed H&G editors to turn his work table into a dining table. How many days were you shooting at the Firehouse and how was it to shoot with John Dickinson?
We were there probably three or four days over a period of time and it was all fun. My camera loved John’s work, and his wry wit was a continuing delight. He complained that none of the many magazine pages we’d crafted had ever brought him a single client. When I joked that he should add printed chintz and swagged draperies to his rooms, he greeted the idea with a snort. But he created such ingenious--and irreverent—designs that all the efforts we shared seemed a joy.

DDS: Frances Elkins was the first to import Jean-Michel Frank furniture. She palled around with Christian Berard. She was the first to bring Jean-Michel Frank to California. What was her mystique with clients?
She was simply brilliant, confident, with ballast from her brother David Adler. She anchored the unbeatable triumvirate of that era—architect Gardner Dailey, landscape designer Thomas Church, and Frances. Certainly she was authoritative, ready to do battle with wealthy clients over points of taste. But if they were eager to learn, she told me the famous rows with clients resulted in some of her best solutions. Her rooms were so good that I could point my camera in any direction with no need for tweaking furniture or accessories. Her rooms that exist today are fresh and timeless, a lesson in great design.

DDS: Your career has been a fabulous one. Today you travel around the world shooting wineries and wine country landscapes, you are one of the great social figures, and beloved by all. What is the secret of your success?
Well, thank you, but I’m not that good.

My life thus far has been a series of glorious mistakes where I innocently backed into opportunities with delicious results. And then, hard work helps. But my greatest good fortune has been working with a nonstop parade of extraordinary people. They are constant inspiration, making me try harder.

And now I have come full circle: A collection of my black-and-white pictures from the 1940s and 50s is being beautifully reproduced in a new book. SAN FRANCISCO THEN, available in January, boasts an introduction by ex-mayor Willie Brown. A show of the prints is planned for next year at Modernbook Gallery in Palo Alto, home of the publisher, Modernbook Editions.

Fred Lyon on Charles Pfister:
“He worked with Skidmore, Owings and Merrill for years, then started his own very successful design firm, the Pfister Partnership. He was an ebullient young man from Santa Rosa who became very successful in the design world, designing for Baker, Knoll, and I. Magnin. One day I was out working in my vineyard in the Napa Valley when the phone rang. I dropped my shovel and raced up the hill to the house, with my heart leaping out of my ribcage. It was Charlie calling to tell me that he had just purchased his first whole, fresh truffle. I said, “I suppose you are calling to invite me to share it”. There was silence. He was simply calling to gloat.”

John Dickinson photographed by Fred Lyon

Fred Lyon on John Dickinson:
”He was the best, and he was heaven to work with. I first met him when he was working as a designer for the E. Coleman Dick studio on Sutter Street in the fifties. E. Coleman Dick was a horrible man and John left to set up his own studio in the sixties. I photographed his Firehouse in 1972 for House & Garden when the publication was large-format. John always said I put him on the map. He put himself on the map with extraordinarily elegant and refined work. He was such a gentleman, with a marvelously swift sense of humor.”

Above, John Dickinson’s legendary Firehouse in San Francisco, photographed by Fred Lyon. The bathroom, with horsehair walls, had a series of ornate gilded antique pub mirrors which were torn out by a subsequent owner because he said they were ‘too gay’; the high-ceilinged bedroom, formerly the firemen’s dorm, had a custom faux bamboo bed and new/antiqued wainscot; white wardrobe doors were custom crafted to look like Victorian house facades; the studio/living room with the John Dickinson-designed African-inspired tables, industrial grey carpet and leather-upholstered Victorian chairs; the carved faux narwhal tusk was a John Dickinson design; the Viennese art nouveau table with the House & Garden improvised dining setting.

How to Be Chic, Effortlessly
At gala openings, museum gatherings, and vernissages, Fred Lyon is the man with the sparkling eyes and superbly draped jacket who looks like Gregory Peck in “Roman Holiday”.

“The truth is that I have just one navy cashmere jacket, one gray flannel suit, and a small assortment of slacks and sport coats, and white or blue Oxford shirts from places like Brooks Brothers or Bloomingdale’s,” he said. “I wear Sperry Topsider “boat” shoes or black laceups.”

Fred Lyon’s first rule of fashion is not to offend the eye or be gaudy. Second rule: Keep it simple.

“I wear dark colors, and when I want to add a splash of color, I do it with a paisley or knit silk tie,” he said. “The secret of looking chic is to have a very good-looking woman on my arm. That’s called Accessorizing, with a capital A.”

All photographs here are copyright Fred Lyon. No images may be used without express written permission of the photographer.

Fred Lyon Pictures
3609 Buchanan Street
San Francisco CA 94123