Thursday, November 1, 2012

...about Holiday House 2012, Part 1

I love a lot, and there’s a lot to love, about Holiday House. It’s the annual Manhattan charity show house, now in its fifth year, and this year benefitting the Breast Cancer Research Foundation, a venture of the venerable Lauder family. Almost thirty spaces, rooms and passages are transformed by interior designers and architects (along with armies of upholsters, painters, cabinetmakers, volunteers, paperhangers, florists and stylists). But it’s also not just an exercise in décor... it’s themed decorating at its finest, in all its finery, as the designers also add a holiday interpretation on top of their design plan. Win, win, indeed.

One of the things unique to Holiday House among other show houses is that each year, the venue remains the same. It’s like watching the same Broadway play with different casts, or maybe more aptly, different scenic designers. You get to see how a parade of high-powered design names chooses to enhance, celebrate, correct or even ignore the spaces and architectural detail (or lack thereof) they’ve been given. It’s the perfect place to play compare and contrast (my very favorite game!) with past years’ installations.

Aside from those designers, and like in a Merchant Ivory film, the other real star of this show is the house itself. An historic and rare triple-wide townhouse just steps away from Central Park’s tony east edge, the house has several rooms that are spectacular even empty, and it’s been fascinating to watch those rooms, specifically, get dolled up and decked out.

The first floor holds most of these spaces: a stone-walled, wildly-marbled, fully fire-placed and almost double-height Grand Entry; a spectacular vaulted dining room; a front parlor/formal living room with arched French doors opening to a center courtyard; and a back room with leaded windows, dark and deeply-carved paneling, and remarkable fireplace.

Over the years, designers have dealt with these period-ready rooms (some have been backdrops for HBO's Boardwalk Empire) in a multitude of ways, either giving into the existing vibe and bones, or updating the traditional spaces with modern art and broad strokes in an attempt to upstage the diva they’ve been dealt. The successes seem to come, mostly, from working with, not against the rooms (Charles Pavarini’s Thanksgiving dining room, and Bradley Thiergartner’s Christmas entry from years past, most notable among those successes). But whether success or near miss (there are generally no failures here), it is delightful to see the spaces get attention from another annual string of suitors.

This year, the first floor was handed over to show house veterans and shelter mag favorites, and their rooms alone presented an encapsulated view of three trends of how designers tackled their task within the house’s remaining entirety: artful installation, walk-in magazine spreads from style-first designers (whose signature is immediately evident to anyone following design today), and traditional show house storytelling.

Artful Installation
Show house rooms are generally works of art, but several participants pushed the artful concept even further, creating spaces and rooms that were more “installation” than décor.

Leading the charge of the art brigade was Inson Dubois Wood, whose partnership with luxury brands Hermes, Lladró and Promemoria, and his “Carnavale” theme, yielded a riot of color, shape, texture, and pattern, in a room already lacking none of the above. This is a love-it-or-hate-it room, but it’s sure to garner the bulk of the conversation and press. It’s a Salvador Dali production of Alice in Wonderland, or the barcarolle scene from Act III of Tales of Hoffman, after a big gulp of absinthe. 

All the elements of a dining set-up are here, but faceted, fragmented, deconstructed and exploded. It is one notch away from feeling merchandised, and getting so close without falling over that edge is no small feat. The fun Inson had with gilding this lily of a room (even the already-ornate ceiling got an extra layer of gold, paint and venetian plaster) is quite clear.

Art is modern and sharply cutting edge, and every single piece of furniture is stand-alone sculpture. The Phantom-of-the-Opera crash-landed chandelier is part art, part necessity... no overhead junction box, in this large room with only one electrical outlet. No doubt candlelight was intended in the original room, but the uplighting from this grounded flight-of-fancy is almost as flattering.

It’s one of the most exuberant showhouse rooms I’ve ever wandering into, amazed and agape. As a room that people are going to run home and duplicate, probably notsomuch, but that seems far from the intent of the same designer who wowed here last year with his lacquer red box of Chinese New Year. As a designer looking to garner clients, this assemblage is perhaps also a risk, but the bravado of this showhouse showman has to be admired either way.

Installation-chic rooms also included the “Grand Entrance Hall” by Paula + Martha, given the tough space of the entry, where traffic must first be stopped before getting any further notice. The inverted Baccarat crystal stalactite above a stalagmite of sand or salt did just that. A Jacques Jarrige screen held its own against the room already full of detail, a giant artful scribble on the mantle against the travertine walls, as did their large-scale color field paintings and highly sculptural furnishing choices. I’d still settle into last year’s Christmas set-up on a snowy day faster, but I wouldn’t turn my nose up at this decidedly insouciant take on modern glamour in a traditional envelope, either.

Paula + Martha also eased us further into the house with their more traditional design of the adjacent space, an homage to Evelyn Lauder. She makes a most elegant and suitable lady for this folly of a house, her oil portrait flanked by artfully modern sconces, proving that a woman of grace and presence can command any room. The tangerine dress doesn’t hurt the cause one bit.

Not pictured, but of art-installation note: the Christmas yoga room of Stephanie Odegard, actually two adjoining rooms. One, felt-cloaked with a custom Tibetan cloud motif; the other, a room where Tibetan monks were making sand mandalas... far more living art than living room. Other rooms also fit the bill, closer to store window installations than show house room.


Walk-in Magazine
What was black and white and dramatic all over was the easily pegged room of Geoffrey Bradfield. His signature crisp drama, and his love of white as a color, limited palettes and floating seating groupings all made walking into this room a familiar experience to anyone who has picked up a copy of Architectural Digest in the past decade or two, where he makes frequent appearance.

This is signature, and vintage Bradfield. He did dabble in art installation himself, with floor-to-ceiling graphics of dandies from way back in the day, in an homage to Marcel Proust’s “Remembrances of Things Past” and the house’s own history. On opening night, it was more like performance art: Geoffrey’s room was populated by tuxedoed, gloved and moustachioed boys, like a belle epoque Abercrombie and Fitch.

Geoffrey manages to keep Dynasty-era (Carrington, not Han) glamour fully alive, in a room of a scale which could easily accommodate the shoulder pads and charisma of Alexis herself, creating three seating areas of similarly proportioned pieces. Malachite green canvases and Nevelson constructions gave the room some old money gravitas, while a tongue-in-cheek and pie-in-the-face bust in the firebox gave this old dame of a room a little age-erasing nip and tuck.

Other “I can name that designer in three notes” rooms included Vicente Wolf, and to a lesser extent, design and social media maven Tobi Fairley. Vicente’s room had his elegant thumbprint all over it: barely-there glass green, Asian influence, an anachronistic mix of eras, and confident, dark notes against a pale backdrop. When you Wikipedia "Vicente," if Wikipedia had pictures, this room would be it.

In a showhouse-smart gesture of space management and crowd control, he set all the room’s action against three walls, demurely tucked behind gauzy scrims, leaving a clean pass-through left completely unadorned. With those curtains and an opening upon which the bed was centered, it became the stage set of a most elegant drama, but even in the wings, the designer still stayed the star.

Tobi Fairley dialed her normal high volume color choices down a notch but still stayed true to her identifiable signature style. It was a nod, said this buoyant and omnipresent Arkansas designer, to a more refined New York audience, who, for all their sophistication, still seems a little color-wary. 

With limited choices and an overall backdrop of (Trend Alert!) printed grasscloth (from Phillip Jeffries), this room was graphic and crisp, but every bit as color confident as this gal normally is, and Exhibit A why the magazines seem to love her.

Tobi managed, with whispers of blush, a dusting of coral-y pink and a shot of emerald green (another color jumping from room to room) to keep visual appeal high while allowing plenty of breathing room. That was accomplished by limiting pattern to basically two (stylized trellis and sketchy faux bois), restraining the palette, and giving shape and silhouette the real star turn. 

It yielded a breezy Palm Beach-meets-Hollywood Regency room (where last year, James Rixner taught us life is indeed like a box of chocolates), all floating above a black area carpet (sisal?) to keep the sugar content from rising too high.

Showhouse Storytelling
Typically, showhouses seem a slight exaggeration of a designer’s style, amped up for press appeal and the sheer fun of it, then given a healthy layer of styling detail to tell a story about the fictional inhabitants.

In that more classic showroom fashion, Holiday House veteran Ally Coulter told a deep and layered story for her cheeky spin on Father’s Day, for a real DILFF (that’s “Daddy I’d love to furnish for”). Last year, Ally spun a decidedly more feminine yarn with her Hollywood-glam, Mommy-Dearest-fantastic take on Mother’s Day, and like that effort last year, this is the kind of room you get hired from and for.

This redhead’s Ralph Lauren roots (and sponsorship) showed nicely in this masculine room where the guy also gets to get his glamour on. Like traditional show house narrative styling, it looked like the dude of the den had just sauntered off to check the whiskey reserves. Like her neighbor Inson, Ally had palpable fun telling this story, with racy props (riding crop and phallic missile, anyone?) and muscular art. Even in such a high-personality frame, Ally had the last laugh: Her showstopper was the gun over the mantle, a vintage piece gleaming like the most contemporary of sculpture, having a great conversation with the moderne light fixture overhead.

Overall, the Lauren look worked perfectly with this equally handsome space. Ally worked the room (as only this Rita Hayworth-invoking designer can) with deep blacks and rosewoods, so her pieces settled back easily into the room instead of just perching nervously within its walls as has happened in other years, while reserved doses of regal purple and camel took the cliché off this most elegant of mancaves. 

The tented ceiling (a vestige of when Ally had briefly considered an all-over and Out of Africa tented room, perhaps) was a tiny question mark, but the rest was pitch and picture perfect. It made me want to meet this man of Ally’s making, even if he didn’t wield that big of a gun. We’d find something to do, in this room I didn’t want to leave.

Charlotte Moss managed two trends of the house: that walk-in, recognizable, signature style, magazine look, plus classic showhouse storytelling. Like Ally’s room, Charlotte’s was propped to tell a real story about the inhabitant, in this case a classic but modeern woman destined to split her time between the Upper East Side, the south shore, and perhaps Darien.

This is a more traditional take on showhouse style than Charlotte’s boxwood aerie for Kips Bay, and she managed to activate the entire large volume of room without overfilling it. Favorite spot was the tea table and window banquette, where an afternoon could be whiled away with cucumber sandwiches or Apple laptop.

With a growing number of friends as Holiday House designers, since design is so subjective, and because the house itself a charity endeavor, it’s hard to find fault. But there were a few minor bones to delicately pick...

Lacking in Holiday House this year is the “Holiday.” It seems this year more than most, designers have stretched the definition and interpretation of “holiday,” coming up with themes like Charlotte Moss’ “Every Day is a Holiday,” Vicente Wolf’s “Winter White,” and DiSalvo Interiors’ “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.” While they yield gorgeous rooms, a trademark idea of this house is the holiday, and I think watering down that aspect is a huge misstep. It’s a concept, and the event’s brand, that sets this house apart. This year, without the banner fluttering outside, this could be any showhouse, and that seemed a shame. Even Christmas seemed a throw-away, and there wasn’t a single room I walked into and knew what holiday was being honored without asking.

I’m not saying this house should read like Party City, but past years have managed to strike a balance between holiday theme and high-design room... Suzanne Eason’s Halloween, Bryant Keller's Columbus Day, and James Rixner’s Valentines Day, all perfect examples. Sure, most holidays have been done before, but that’s the fun of it: seeing how a new batch of designers steers clear of theme cliché and expected holiday palette pitfalls.

Also throughout, lighting seemed to be an afterthought, and a lot of rooms seemed just plain murky when perhaps moody was the intent. We’ll chalk that up to the dreary, dreary day of the press preview and move right along.

The other issue, a holdover from years past: that top floor. It is a gargantuan space, with skylight and arched windows with odd curtain rails, and odder lighting that seems to combine rope lights and some sort of schoolhouse fluorescents. It’s also an often-missed room, reached via back steps and a small passageway. I know people who never knew this room existed.

As yet, it has proven to be too big a beast to be properly tamed, although the sculptural and poetic pieces chosen this year by Huntley & Co. helped zone and define a space bigger than most Manhattan apartments. But even the best laid plans and sharpest eye (and Huntley & Co. had both) still leave this room perennially feeling slightly unfinished year after year. Their Intrepid-scaled sofas were all but swallowed up, as one example. I would have loved their work even more if it existed in a space one-half the size.

To make this space work next year, two thoughts: Give this room to a real design headliner, to make it a draw and a destination, and make it someone with enough clout (or eager sponsors) to give the room the amount of content it demands. I'd LOVE to see Darryl Carter or Thomas Pheasant take on this room, with its Palladian-meets-loft references. I could also see Bill Sofield coaxing maximum potential from this airplane hangar.

Or, return to the tabletop roots of Holiday House, and fill this space with ten or twelve tables, each decked and designed to full holiday effect by another, newer generation of New York Designers. Make it an event party space, the site of an actual luncheon perhaps, a different kind of draw, where the room becomes a non-issue and the table's the thing. It’s a thought.

Even with a slight case of hiccups, Holiday House always keeps me up for a few days after first tour, plotting and planning what room and holiday I’d pick. I’m kinda a Halloween guy. But I love birthdays... hmmm! Maybe next year I’ll be writing about my own room at Holiday House. I'll make a wish as I blow out the candles next August.

Holiday House 2012, to benefit Breast Cancer Research Foundationis open to the public from October 25th through November 18th, 2012 at 2 East 63rd Street, in New York City.

Get Social! Holiday House is on Facebook.
All photos: Patrick J. Hamilton

NEXT: Five big designs in not-so-big packages, and the magic of Suzanne Eason, Dineen Architecture + Design, Javaras Kennally Associates, Donald Schermerhorn, and more.


  1. Patrick this is an excellent review for those who cannot attend! I loved each room more than the next; Ally Coulter's may be my favorite which is a surprise to me.

    Thank you and so sorry to be remiss in writing...

    Art by Karena
    2012 Artists Series

    1. Withhold your votes for favorites, Karen... plenty of GREAT stuff coming up in Parts 2 and 3!

  2. Tre-fab post Patrick. Your photos are stunning and makes each room come to life. Fabulous views from each spectacular designer's space. Spot on job and will reread during my bedtime.

    1. Thank you so much, Barbara! High praise, indeed!

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