An English Country Stylist, Unrepentant
By PENELOPE GREEN in The New York Times http://www.nytimes.com
Published: October 23, 2008
KEITH IRVINE turned 80 last week and threw himself a garage sale to celebrate. “A very elegant garage sale,” he said dryly, raising silvery eyebrows.
GREAT SCOT The decorator Keith Irvine, wearing his Graham clan tartan in his ballroom, has downsized, auctioning off 200 objects that he's collected.
A day into his ninth decade, he spent the morning moving furniture at Doyle New York, the genteel auction house on East 87th Street, in preparation for the sale of about 200 of his antiques and decorative objects, which was held yesterday. He was putting the finishing touches on the displays he had assembled for the sale; in one was a red Louis XVI-style chair he seemed particularly reluctant to part with. “I could just eat that chair,” he said sadly, patting it.
“Chippy made me do it,” he continued, referring to his wife. “She said she keeps bumping into things.”
Mr. Irvine, a Scotsman who has practiced English decorating with a theatrical flair for more than 60 years for clients like Katharine Graham, Jacqueline Onassis and Pat Buckley, has recently moved his business from Manhattan to his farmhouse in Putnam County, north of the city, and winnowed the results of a lifetime’s worth of voracious collecting. While his birthday may have marked him, as he likes to say, as “the oldest living decorator in captivity,” Mr. Irvine said he had no plans to retire, although Thomas Fleming, his business partner of nearly five decades, left the firm last year. Saddened by their parting and a year of ill health, Mr. Irvine said he is glad to be finally looking at the back of what he described as “my annus horribilis, as the Queen said.”
Nearly half a century ago, the English country house look brought fame to Parish-Hadley and other American companies, yet their versions of it were paler and a little more restrained than the originals they aspired to. It was in Mr. Irvine’s interiors, lapped with chintz, paisley throws, Staffordshire pottery, Regency chairs and armadas of pillows, that you could glimpse the real thing: rooms that were eccentric, a bit arch and oh-so-slightly frayed.
If Sister Parish, the grande dame of American decorating, created interiors that spoke softly and whispered of privilege and provenance, Mr. Irvine was after a bolder effect, and tended to work for clients who had the stomach for it.
“We all borrow from the Old World,” said the designer Mario Buatta, who once worked as Mr. Irvine’s assistant and said that Mr. Irvine taught him all he knows. “But Keith has the knack of the real Englishman. His settings are a little more dramatic, a little more idiosyncratic. He has flair.”
Mr. Irvine was born in Scotland and educated in England. He served in Southeast Asia after World War II, where he learned a few things, like how to wear a sarong and what his life’s work would be: included in one care package from his mother was the latest Vogue and a new magazine, House & Garden, which introduced him to the idea of interior decoration. (By his own account hopeless at school, Mr. Irvine is fond of saying that he was educated by Condé Nast and Warner Brothers.) He met his wife, Chippy, at the Royal College of Art in London, after which he went to work for his hero, the autocratic and imperious English decorator John Fowler.
Mr. Irvine’s first job in New York was with Sister Parish, whom he loathed. “Domineering old dictator,” he said. He lasted nine months, then set up his own business, with clients Mrs. Parish declined to work for, in 1959.
Describing his own style, Mr. Irvine said, “I like an edge of grandeur, but I like it knocked down a bit.”
He fingered an eight-foot-long petit-point bell pull given to him by Mr. Fowler. In front of it was a small chair, “a little piece of Edwardian nonsense,” Mr. Irvine said dismissively. “It’s not my period, but it adds a bit of sauce.”
It is Mr. Irvine’s opinion that decorating right now has no sauce whatsoever, the expression of a culture that’s afraid to commit. Take, for example, he said, “the modern habit of propping pictures against the wall. It’s A, sort of pretentious and B, tentative.”
He continued: “And that applies to color; they’re scared of it too. Most of the rooms today end up looking like some set piece from Crate & Barrel. I don’t mean to knock Crate & Barrel, because it’s a great resource, but you don’t have to emulate their showroom.”
Mr. Irvine loves gold-framed convex Regency mirrors, anything with a key pattern, miniature furniture, Oushak rugs “that look like they’re on their last week” and needlepointed mottos on pillows.
He frowned at a wooden bench upholstered in gold lamé. “That’s waterproof gold lamé, not really my thing,” he said. “That was a job that ended in tears.” He added that the client “sent a whole truckload of stuff back, saying, ‘I don’t want it and I’m not paying for it.’ ”
“There used to be ladies and gentlemen,” he said. “Now they have no manners and too much money.”
He stopped again at a red velvet récamier, which was freighted with a cargo of needlepoint pillows, and looked up at the Chinese painted screen behind it. Mr. Irvine said that the screen was made from painted panels and that he had found papers documenting the panels’ trip from China to a ship in Brooklyn. He used a few of the panels in the offices of the Wells Rich Greene advertising agency, which he decorated in the 1960s. He added, “When I told Mary Wells” — a principal of the agency — “she said, ‘They came from Brooklyn? Just like all of us.’ ”
Mr. Irvine said he worked for Ms. Wells until one Friday night when she phoned him to say that she had bought a house in Acapulco and to ask if he would fly down the next morning with her and take a look.
“I told her I don’t work on Saturdays,” Mr. Irvine said. “And Billy Baldwin did her next five houses.”
“I’d rather not be devoured by my clients,” he explained. “Still, it was a stupid move.”
Mr. Irvine can be balky. In the 1980s, he said he suffered a midlife crisis, which he expressed by building an addition to his early 19th-century farmhouse. The addition included a very grand ballroom, and did not include any input from his wife.
“It was very irritating,” she said in a phone interview last week. Mrs. Irvine, who has written 13 books on architecture and decorative arts, took her revenge by threatening to have an image of the new wing engraved on expensive stationery emblazoned with the words “Keith’s Erection.”
The stationery never materialized, and Mrs. Irvine persuaded her husband to cut the ballroom in half. Some of the objects they filled the addition with made their way to the sale at Doyle, including a tufted mahogany reading chair covered in an old tiger-print fabric, a fine example of Mr. Irvine’s credo that furniture should look as if “it’s just drifted into a room,” and not as if it was bought new for the job. Other pieces aren’t budging, like the watercolor of Mr. Irvine as Queen Victoria, painted by his wife.
(That tiger-print chair sold for $2,375; the Chinese screen, $12,500. Indeed, most of the objects sold for well above their estimates: the entire sale totaled $320,775, which includes a 25 percent commission paid to the auction house, and was at the high end of the auction house’s estimate of $207,145 to $329,780.)
Mr. Irvine may not be retiring, but he admitted that he is working on a roman à clef, “a polite tell-all,” he said.
It’s a murder mystery, and its working title is “I Want It All.”
Interior decorator Keith Irvine steamed into New York Harbor in 1957 and immediately embarked on designing the unique, inspired interiors that have ensured him a place at the pinnacle of his field. His designs are characterized by feeling—wit, grandeur, comfort, drama—as well as by exquisite use of color, pattern, lighting, furniture, and accessories. Born in Scotland and trained in his profession in London—notably by the decorating legend John Fowler—Irving combines old-world wisdom and new-world enthusiasm in his mostly traditional rooms and houses. The first book on his work, Keith Irvine: A Life in Decoration—written by Irvine and his wife, noted design writer Chippy Irvine—is at once illustrated autobiography, collection of work, and elucidation of design philosophy.
Irvin is known worldwide as an originator of the English country house look—a look not inherited, the decorator points out, but invented in the twentieth century. His characteristic played-down grandeur includes signature touches such as authoritative use of antiques of all eras, exquisite painted effects, rare scenic wallpaper, faded old carpets (his favorites are those that "look as though they might be in their last week"), spirited English and French chintzes, and loads of busts and books ("one can never have too many!").
Included in the book are more than twenty-five projects—including homes for Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, Katherine Graham, Rex and Mercia Harrison, and Joan Kennedy—illustrated with exceptional color photographs drawn from Irvine's own archive. Irvine also presents his most personal projects—those designed for his own family.