The Art of Living

Someone a hundred years from now browsing in Dominique Nabokov’s 1998 book of photographs, New York Living Rooms,1 will understand the sort of room stylish, affluent, influential people considered to be tasteful and comfortable at the end of the twentieth century. Though the owners of the photographed rooms no doubt all consider themselves unique and individualistic, and though there is a wide socioeconomic range, still there is considerable unanimity of taste among them. Nearly all the rooms have white walls; most floors are bare, with Oriental or other patterned rugs. The wall-to-wall carpet, having had its mid-twentieth-century reign, seems to have declined among those who have handsome parquet or hardwood or stone floors to reveal, though Prince and Princess Romanoff, perhaps with some vestigial memory of snowy steppes, or aristocratic indifference to fashion, still have theirs, and so does Al Sharpton. Curtains are gone. Furniture is usually a mixture of traditional and contemporary, the latter style preferred for the sofas, which must be heaped with pillows.

A good room must contain at least one original work of art, in one case Rothkos, and some allusion to a primitive or ethnic culture, like an African mask or Mexican bark painting, or may refer to the culture of childhood. Books must be in evidence. The overall feeling seems to be an equivocation between the dictates of high modernism, the neo-baroque revival, and nostalgia or a continuation of decorative traditions inherited from Europe. One senses some try at “statement,” and perhaps a certain pragmatism; but there is no escaping from what’s in the wind, as when you come to name your child, and no escaping from what has gone before.

People have always been preoccupied with decor, except for those who are resolutely not, people with the visual equivalent of tin ears, or who are convinced for ideological or religious reasons that it is wrong to think about beauty and comfort. Still, “the unconscious is housed,” said the French philosopher Gaston Bachelard, “…in the space of its happiness.” Everyone does what he can to live in a bearable and if possible delightful space, and most of us have always thought about this more than we care to admit. It is interesting to compare Nabokov’s rooms with the admired decor of a century ago, as painted in a series of charming oils and watercolors by the American painter Walter Gay, one of the large set of rich American expatriates who lived in Europe, especially France, before and during the First World War.

Gay’s life, with his sprightly wife Matilda, and his paintings mostly of rooms are the subject of William Rieder’s A Charmed Couple: The Art and Life of Walter and Matilda Gay, which presents the pictures and an account of the Gays’ indeed charmed lives, which involved social events in European society at a pace that people today would find unmanageable—the Gays, like their friend Mrs. Edith Wharton, might go to a lunch and then three tea parties in an afternoon.…

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