Tuesday, July 27, 2010

The Triumph of Beauty

San Francisco interior designer Stephen Shubel has crafted a superlative three-decade career, with beautiful, understated interiors of surpassing elegance. His uplifting rooms appear effortless but are the result of careful planning and consideration of every detail. Each interiors is a modern interpretation of classical ideals and harmony, bestowing pleasure and joy.

I’ve photographed and published most of Stephen Shubel’s interiors over the years—in magazines and in many of my books His chic dining room, with an antique French galleon chandelier, is on the cover of one of my books on San Francisco design.

Steve, who founded Stephen Shubel Design in the eighties, has always produced work that is fresh and unpretentious. He is a superb stylist, so his work has always been popular with design editors.

Shubel’s rooms are polished, but never ‘done’. In his miniscule Paris apartment shown below, for example, (linen-upholstered banquettes/beds and lots of gold-framed pictures) he demonstrates how to give small rooms oceans of chic. His use of color makes each room a tutorial in how to get color right.

Come with me for a visit to view Stephen Shubel’s recent design work. Then settle down to learn this expert’s design secrets. Take notes. He is very opinionated—and very generous with his design advice. There is much to learn.

Diane recently sat down for a chat with Stephen Shubel at his white-on-white Stephen Shubel Design studio in San Francisco:

DDS: Your interiors—no matter the style—always look comfortable and ‘real-life’ and natural. What is the secret of creating décor that is thought-out and planned, but looks and feels very comfortable and inviting.
SS: I always play down the idea of grandeur. We live in a time of drama and stress, and we need to be surrounded with subtle and meaningful things that look as if they simply drifted into our lives. We should incorporate new and vintage, expensive and inexpensive, classic and modern. and bold and quiet pieces, and make them part of the twenty-first century room.

Rooms that have a mix of different styles are modern and inviting. A combination of antique furniture and relaxed upholstered furniture sets a welcoming mood. If there is too much of one style or period the room will look very ‘worked on’.

I make rooms comfortable by planning furniture placement with great care. Sofas and chairs are relaxed, for formal. To finish, I use well-edited practical and everyday things such as books, magazines, flowers, firewood, throws, and personal pictures but I like to keep them neat and 'under control’. Fresh garden flowers always give soul to a room. My approach: never making rooms too designed or uptight or over-decorated. 

DDS: You design beautiful white rooms. Many of my favorite rooms you have designed have been almost entirely white. Your former apartment in Berkeley had white with butter yellow, and your house in Sausalito is mostly white—with dashes of color.
SS: With an all white room everything is on display, on view. Nothing is hidden or disguised.

White spaces—in California, at least—have a restful, calm, tranquil feeling and they also have a lightness that colorful rooms generally do not have. White has a wonderful flow that almost feels restful and dreamy to me. I’ve always loved to live in white rooms. I work with color all day, I need a break from it when I return home. 

I love change and white makes a quick change simple. Bring in some new throw pillows or add an antique rug or a caramel cashmere throw and you have changed the room. 

Black and white photography can add a graphic punch and contrast in white spaces.

DDS: What are your five favorite white paints?
SS: Benjamin Moore paints:
White Dove
Woodmont Cream
Cloud White
Ivory White
Decorator White

DDS: You also design glorious rooms with artful colors like rich sunny yellow (a striped headboard), and watermelon (dining room walls), and pumpkin (a living room in Sausalito) and chartreuse (silk pillows), or even orange silk curtains in a grand house overlooking the bay in San Francisco. You calm down these bright colors with white or cream or even walnut or black.
SS: “There are no bad colors, only bad color combinations.” I once heard that comment from a fabric designer and have never forgotten it. It is so true!

All colors look great with the right white or cream. For example, for a client, I softened the brightness of deep rich pink watermelon plaster walls with white paint that had a touch of pink on the trim and moldings. 

It’s like a creating an oil painting. You have to just keep stepping back and looking, adding more white where you need it. I sometimes take pictures in the process and look at what jumps out at me. 

There’s got to be a balance so that the room feels harmonious, never too harsh or intense.

DDS: You’ve always love French antiques. How are you using them now, in a modern way?
SS: Antiques combined with colorful walls or furnishings look modern and fresh. A beautiful vibrant fabric on an antique chair or settee can liven up a somber vintage piece. Clean simple rooms with modern art and with very few antiques that are carefully placed look modern. I love one or two pieces of elaborate antique furniture-a Louis XV-style chair or a gilded Biedermeier piece—in a minimal all-white room.

Stripes— on walls or on fabrics—can add a modern feeling to antiques that is clean and sharp. Using striped fabrics (black and white or gray and cream, for example) can zip up a tired-looking antique chair and help make it become tailored.

DDS: You often like bare wood floors for yourself (you have lovely dogs in the house). What is your favorite way to dress a bare floor?
SS: I like using very flat rugs or my all time favorites, cowhides. I just purchased three beautiful hides in different shades of tans and cognac. I put them on painted white glossy floors and they help the space become fluid and interesting. 

I love using antique Moroccan wool rugs. I just completed a private spa and sitting area with river rock flooring and I selected a Beni Ourain in rich cream and caramel colors with long wooly yarns.

I sometimes work with fine Oushak rugs if the budget allows. They are very elegant in soft pale colors and can be in silk or wool. I like them in neutral rooms as well as colorful rooms. Oushaks are subtle and luminous, and give a modern feeling to bare floors that never looks suburban or dated. 

Sisal, seagrass, jute, and any rough textural rug can add so much to an environment. A border of leather or linen around the rug gives it a neat finish.

One of the biggest design errors is to use too many different floor surfaces from room to room. It breaks the flow and can make a big space look very small. In France grand chateaux usually have only one floor material—stone, parquet, oak planks—throughout. 

DDS: You are an expert at mixing simple and inexpensive fabrics—natural linen, cotton canvas, or raw silk—with a splash of rich velvet, a vivid cashmere throw, and antique textiles.
SS: Practical materials like washable canvas slipcovers help loosen up a room and take the stiffness out. For houses with children and animals it is important to create an environment that does not say, “keep out”. Many of my clients have young children and pets and they want rooms that are welcoming and enjoyable to all.

Overly stuffy rooms don’t fit into of lives now. People what a more pure and calming feeling to their homes. I keep it simple with natural canvas sofas (washable) or a natural linen-upholstered club chair. I’ll add a vintage or antique silk or a velvet throw or vintage Fortuny pillows. They instantly add luxury. I’ll contrast the plain off-white linen hopsacking on a sofa with a very sharp chartreuse silk pillow, or a black and white striped cotton pillow. This clean approach is where I add the wow factor. My favorite clients are those that tell me, ‘I want to be wowed’!

DDS: Steve, thank you. It is always a great pleasure to see your rooms.

All photographs of Stephen Shubel’s designs courtesy Stephen Shubel Design, used with permission.

Among the interiors above are Shubel’s downtown San Francisco loft (white plaster Juno bust); his Paris apartment with natural linen upholstery and gold-framed flea market find images; a chic French salon-style apartment in San Francisco’s Presidio Heights; a house overlooking San Francisco Bay.

Stephen Shubel shows his selection of antiques and accessories in collaboration with Gabriella Sarlo, at the Sarlo showroom, 295 Kansas Street, San Francisco.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

La Vie de Chateau: Elegance and Eloquence

Come with me for a private visit to magical Chateau de Haroué

An Exquisite Rendezvous with a Princess—and a private viewing of a spirited exhibit of couture fashions by Balenciaga, Givenchy and Venet. I arranged a private visit to Haroué (pronounced ah-rou-eh) last month when I was in Paris. It was one of my all-time favorite French adventures, thrilling in every way.

I had dreamed of visiting the mysterious eighteenth-century Chateau de Haroué in Lorraine ever since I saw romantic images of the exterior and the garden years ago in a French book on the most elegant historic private chateaux.

Pictures of misty turrets and a moat with white swans, and graceful late eighteenth-century Chinoiserie murals by Pillement drew my attention. I saw images of a rigorous parterre of topiaries by Emilio Terry, and voluptuously appointed rooms with centuries of tapestries and boiseries and gold-tinged embroideries.

I later heard the name Haroué whispered when I visited other private chateaux, Vaux-le-Vicomte and L'Ainay-le-Vieil.

Perhaps the most inspiring aspect for me: Haroué, in northeastern France near Nancy, has been in the Beauvau-Craon family since it was completed in 1732. The current proprietor, Princess Minnie de Beauvau-Craon, is a direct descendant of Prince Marc de Beauvau-Craon who in 1720 commissioned the architect Germain Boffrand to build it in the remote countryside near the Moselle and Meurthe rivers. (It took twelve years to complete.)

I was intrigued that the family still lives with grace and style and determination at the chateau. It is this very rare continuity, this passion for a house, an inheritance of style and of tradition that appeal to me.

A private chateau lives and breathes, has seasons and celebrations, and traditions, and is carefully maintained and pampered. Laughter echoes in the stairways. Children grow up. Fresh flowers are in crystal vases in all the rooms. Gardens are manicured and perfect, and protectiv staff who’ve worked with the family for generations uphold the highest standards. Everything is comme il faut.

My visit to the Chateau de Haroué

First I had to get there.
I made an appointment with the proprietor, Princess Minnie de Beauvau-Craon (her full name is Marie Minnie Isabelle Cristina Adèle Gracie de Beauvau-Craon) to tour the chateau and visit the Balenciaga Givenchy Venet exhibit.

The quickest and most efficient route is by TGV. From the Gare de l’Est, I headed east in a first class seat (with a delicious sandwich from Gerard Mulot and a stash of Moleskines).

The non-stop one-and-a-half hour trip to Nancy sped through endless landscapes of wheat fields and distant farmhouses, country roads and the occasional hilltop fortification.

In the city of Nancy (noted for Art Nouveau buildings) I found a friendly taxi driver to take me on the one-hour drive south through the lush green fields and along the Moselle River to Haroué.

After this bucolic reverie, the chateau came into view, imposing and elegantly symmetrical behind grand iron gates.

The fragrance of linden blossom drifted in the afternoon air as I entered this serene domain. And there was the princess, charming and gracious, with a plummy and posh and totally proper retro-English accent. She could not have been nicer.

We chatted as we walked across the broad cobblestone courtyard, over the moat, up the limestone stairs and into the grand entrance gallery of the chateau. Up a Versailles-worthy staircase, we arrived at the Balenciaga Givenchy Venet exhibit.

Princess Minnie explained that the show had been the idea of Hubert de Givenchy, a longtime family friend, who selected all of the 50 couture gowns in the presentation.

“This summer exhibit was Hubert’s concept,” said the princess. “He and his team chose the gowns. Then he arrived with all the jewelry and accessories in a suitcase. Givenchy styled everything, the gloves, the flowers, and dreamed up the idea of dressing the mannequins feet with grosgrain ribbons.”

As strains of ‘The Swan’ from ‘Carnival of the Animals’ by Saint-Saens played on a soundtrack, the first gown, Balenciaga’s pristine mink-trimmed off-white duchesse satin wedding gown of Queen Fabiola of Belgium came into view beneath a dazzling Baccarat chandelier. To the right, another Balenciaga masterpiece, a simple long black silk crepe gown has a pale emerald evening coat, afloat with a tangle of curled ostrich feathers.

Princess Minnie (who was named after her beloved grandmother) walked ahead of me spritzing the air with Jo Malone’s Orange Blossom cologne, all the better to enhance the atmosphere in the darkened rooms. One fierce Balenciaga creation follows another. It’s almost too much beauty.

We walk silently (spritz, spritz) across the gleaming waxed parquet floor into the second room arrayed with designs from Givenchy’s archive.

The sound track begins to play ‘Moon River’ from ‘Breakfast at Tiffany’s’, and I see the famous cut-out back of the black gown worn by Audrey Hepburn as Holly Golightly as she steps from a cab on Fifth Avenue at 5am, munches on a Danish, and gazes at Tiffany’s windows.

“Moon River, wider than a mile, I’m crossing you in style one day…Two drifters off to see the world, There’s such a lot of world to see, We’re after the same rainbow’s end, waiting round the bend, Moon River, and me.” I could cry at the extravagant beauty of these rooms and the crème de le crème of couture.

The gowns, here the cream silk zibeline embroidered dress worn to the Paris Opera by Jackie Kennedy, there pale rose tulle embroidered with flowers, here a bright yellow silk crepe gown with bodice and sleeves embroidered and set with tiny paillettes.

The Princess leaves for a moment, and I wander through these vast rooms. I inspect and admire the embroideries and jewels and hand-stitching up-close, and linger before an off-white crepe gown by Philippe Venet or inspect the crystal-embroidered bodice of a white silk faille gown by Givenchy. The art and craftsmanship are breath-taking, the beauty understated and precious and lovely.

Above are highlights from the special fashion exhibit at the Chateau de Haroué.

Among the most stunning gowns designed by Givenchy are the long black dress worn by Audrey Hepburn in the opening scene of 'Breakfast at Tiffany' (in which Hepburn departs a cab, munches on a Danish, and gazes wistfully into the windows of Tiffany, after removing her sunglasses. The group of three black gowns were designed by Givenchy.

The cream Duchesse satin embroidered gown and opera coat, by Givenchy, was worn by Jackie Kennedy to the Opera Garnier in Paris, on a state occasion.

The exceptional embroidered gown (model has flowers in her hair), designed by Balenciaga, is entirely embroidered on palest pink tulle over silk, to shimmering effect. 

The ivory silk crepe gown with artful stole included was by Philippe Venet, the long-time partner of Hubert de Givenchy.

Gowns in the exhibit date from the early sixties to summer 1990.

The exhibit ends, classically with the cream silk faille wedding gown of Princess Minnie, designed by Philippe Venet.

I stepped into the circular Pillement room, in the west-facing turret. Vivid linden trees and a boscage of sycamore and chestnut trees formed a lacy green screen curtain at the open windows.

The finale of the fashion exhibit was a collection of archival videos showing the gowns making their first appearances on Queen Fabiola and Audrey Hepburn, Princess Grace and Jerry Hall and Mona Bismarck (who owned more than 300 of Balenciaga’s designs).

In a grainy video of one of the last Givenchy runway shows, 1992, I caught sight of my dear friend Tatiana Sorokko (see THE STYLE SALONISTE archive) modeling a sweeping gown with a rich emerald silk skirt.

I wandered back into the exhibit to see it all one more time.

The scent of orange blossom lingered in the eighteenth-century air.

Book cover of the handsome volume dedicated to the fashion exhibit.

Come with me into the garden

I walked down the lichen-covered stone steps and into the garden, the turrets looming on either side reflected in the moat.

Cuban-born landscape architect/interior designer Emilio Terry (1890-1969) was commissioned by Princess Minnie’s grandmother to turn the garden into a beautifully formal frame for the chateau. (Terry also designed the gardens at the Chateau de Groussay.)

Terry’s avant-garde all-green concept (a no-flowers mandate now favored by classicist genius Jacques Wirtz) was to reject overwrought ornamental parterres that usually accompanied historic chateaux.

Carefully placed and positioned yew pyramids and cones stand like sculptures across the lawn. Their dimension and the peaceful monochrome give the garden an air of tranquility and grace.

I walked down to the left, along a clipped hedge, and lingered on a teak bench in the shelter of chestnut trees. I gazed up to the chateau and then across the lovely Lorraine landscape edged with meadows of buttercups and daisies. Bullfrogs croaked. A tintinnabulation of bells rang out the hour from the village church. Doves cooed. Insects circled. A cacophony of crows whirled in the blue sky. And yet there seemed centuries of silence, the peace of the French countryside in early summer.

To punctuate the ordered scene, a pair of weathered stone sphinxes is positioned just at the bottom of the lawn before a meandering stream breaks up the symmetry.

The sun was slanting across the garden as my watch showed 6.30. The Princess suggested that I might like to view the newly completed English garden designed by Didier Misler (“He’s a genius with peonies,” said Princess Minnie).

Bees buzzed drowsily among clouds of sweetly perfumed Philadelphus (eat your heart out, Jo Malone). Borders o mauve and pale cream irises and rare yellow peonies, white dianthus, Cecile Brunner roses, and Daphne were planted in impressionist borders.

Eventually I left to catch the train in Nancy.

This had been the most memorable private visit, and an incredibly heartfelt one.

Princess Minnie grew up at the chateau. Weddings and holidays and birthdays have always been celebrated there with panoply and pomp amidst her international illustrious family and regal friends. The chateau reverberates with her kindness and her careful protection of her heritage and France’s patrimony.

I could not be happier with this encounter. The scent of waxed parquet floors and chestnut blossoms lingers as the TGV speeds through the shimmering wheat-fields, back to Paris.

“The only things worthy of interest are the ones that are heartfelt,” –Audrey Hepburn

Photographs of the garden and exteriors were shot by Diane Dorrans Saeks, in June 2010.
Images of the fashions of Givenchy, Venet and Balenciaga, used with kind permission of Princess Minnie de Beauvau-Craon, Chateau de Haroué.

Note: There are several books published on the Chateau de Haroué in French and in English. I acquired the best one, 'Haroué' by Christine de Nicolay-Mazery at Gallignani in Paris. (It's beautiful, published in French only.) 'The French Chateau' also by de Nicolay-Mazery was published in French and English and is findable through Amazon.

A delightful overview of the fashion exhibit, a book called 'Balenciaga Givenchy, Venet' was published by Flammarion in France and will be published by Rizzoli next spring, 2011.

Upcoming performance at the Chateau:

On September 3 and 4 Bizet's Carmen will be performed in the gardens of Haroué. For more information, check on www.operaenpleinair.com

For more information: www.chateaudeharoue.com