Interiority and the The William S. Paley Collection: Home as a Staging Ground for Identity

It’s hard to imagine that the artwork on view in The William S. Paley Collection: A Taste for Modernism (through December 30) once decorated the walls of a private home. Today’s guest blogger, Alisa Carroll, explores the role that art can play in both the construction of a home and the communication of the owner’s identity. Carroll is a San Francisco-based writer and consultant the editor-in-chief of 3D Magazine, and a San Francisco scout for Elle Décor. Her first book, a monograph with interior designer Jay Jeffers, will be published by Rizzoli in fall 2013.

Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec (French, 1864–1901). M. de Lauradour, 1897.

Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec (French, 1864–1901). M. de Lauradour, 1897. Oil and gouache on cardboard. 26 3/4 x 32 1/2 inches. The William S. Paley Collection. The Museum of Modern Art, New York. SPC79.1990

Interiority—The quality of being focused on one’s inner life and identity.

“I want it to look like a garden, but a garden in hell,” decreed Vogue editor Diana Vreeland about her riotous red living room. Novelist Edith Wharton wrote conversely of the Mount, her serene and sanctuaried home, “Its blessed influence still lives in me.” Devilish or divinely composed, a well-designed interior is an extension of its owner’s inner life. A house is a staging area for identity, a space where values, sensibilities, and status take shape in furnishings and fabrics, color, and collections.

The interior designer, as mediator between owner and architecture, operates in two interior dimensions—his role is to tease out the client’s inner inclinations, and then transform them into an artful space. Do the owners value history and posterity? Is their goal status or comfort? Are there spaces for study or entertaining or connecting with nature? All dependent, the designer may recommend 18th-century French antiques or new bespoke pieces, grand, glamorous settings or intimate vignettes, a tenebrous or vibrant palette.

As the setting for the lives of a broadcaster and a socialite, the messaging role of Bill and Babe Paley’s home was amplified. This was a critical space for Paley to broadcast his success and to achieve the social acceptance he sought. The home had not only to project the owner’s sensibilities, but also to achieve the goal of influencing others. As exhibition curator Timothy Anglin Bernard notes, the Paley’s New York apartment exhibited “A combination of taste, elegance and cultural sophistication appropriate for a businessman who carefully cultivated his public image.”

Paley apartment. Photo by John M. Hall

Photo by John M. Hall, Wall Street Journal

The Paleys chose not one, but three interior designers to craft that image at 820 Fifth Avenue:  Sister Parish of iconic American firm Parish Hadley, Billy Baldwin, and Stephane Boudin of Maison Jansen. Each brought their own unique style to the space while simultaneously invoking the spirit of the Paleys’ extensive art collection.

Parish, whose impeccable design pedigree made her an apt choice for Paley, brought her signature traditionalism—think effulgent floral prints and chintz—to the home. Her work extends the color and vibrancy of Paley’s collection into three dimensions. This isn’t the 21st-century model for displaying artwork in a residential setting, with white walls and a clean-lined backdrop.

Paley apartment. Photo by John M. Hall

Photo by John M. Hall, Wall Street Journal

Here, in the dining room the climbing vines of the wallpaper extend from the painting’s branches, and in the living room, the rich browns and reds of Gauguin’s The Seed of Areoi emerge into the space.

The Seed of the Areoi

Paul Gauguin (French, 1848–1903). The Seed of the Areoi, 1892. Oil on burlap. 36 1/4 x 28 3/8 inches. The William S. Paley Collection. The Museum of Modern Art, New York. SPC14_1990_CR

Billy Baldwin was invited to recreate the sumptuous room he designed for the Paleys’ pied-à-terre at the St. Regis. In her 2010 Town & Country article, Carol Prisant described it as “The world's most extraordinary room: walls curtained in red-brown print (and, in memory, a tented ceiling), French furniture artfully scattered on a needlepoint carpet stitched with blackamoor heads, and, above the whole, a Venetian chandelier centered by a clock.” In the Paleys’ Fifth Avenue apartment, those sumptuous curtained walls became a backdrop for Gauguin’s Washerwomen.

Paley apartment. Photo by John M. Hall

Photo by John M. Hall, Wall Street Journal

Maison Jansen also brought additional cachet to the project, having recently designed the Kennedy White House.

Paley gravitated to late 19th- and early 20th-century French artists who captured modernity and the transitory nature of the world.Paley’s domain—television—is the very site of urban impermanence. Images flicker, transition rapidly, and move on beyond sight.

As Burgard writes about Bonnard’s Still Life (Table With Bowl of Fruit), “The cropped view suggests momentary capture of people moving in and out of view.” With his Fifth Avenue residence, Paley created a space for the camera.

Paley apartment. Photo by John M. Hall

Photo by John M. Hall, Wall Street Journal

Experience The William S. Paley Collection: A Taste for Modernismin a completely new context at the de Young, on view through December 30, 2012.

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