Thursday, December 30, 2010

"In My Book"

My Mother used to tell the story of how as a little girl, her favorite Christmas presents were invariably books.  While her sister and the other children would play with their toys, she would go off and bury her nose in one of her presents, until her mother would admonish her for ignoring the others. 

I was incredibly lucky to grow up in a family where reading was a deeply valued activity, and like my Mother, my favorite presents were always books, first and foremost.  (OK--my favorite presents starting the year AFTER I got my electric trains.)  Over the years, Christmas in particular would present wonderful additions to what has ultimately become a much treasured collection of books, books mirroring my deepest interests and enthusiasms.  

Thus, sitting under the Christmas tree with a new book is a tradition that takes me back to my childhood, and this year I am enjoying that nostalgic luxury to the hilt!

Modernism, too many candlesticks, and trains

Long before the advent of the Internet, my Mother patronized a favorite book seller, whose shop was housed in a wonderful building marked by a 1920s era fake half-timbered cottage facade with an iron shop-sign of a man tottering under a stack of books.  The shop was run by the nicest older man and his younger partner, and they both looked out for their customers and knew their interests.  Mr. Levinson would phone my Mother and say, ‘Mrs. Kakies, we’ve gotten a book that we think would be of interest to your son’, and on his recommendation Mother would purchase things like the reprint of Paul Frankl’s 1929 treatise on Modernism, FORM AND REFORM, or the two volumes of Martin Battersby’s brilliant summation of the decorative arts of the 1920s and 30s.  Thus did both my library and my knowledge grow apace.

(photo circa 1929)

Sadly, my dear Mother is gone now--as is the wonderful downtown book shop--so at Christmas I have to fend for myself, book-wise (as indeed I do the rest of the year).  The Internet of course is a miracle when it comes to finding obscure, and particularly out-of-print books. I still remember 10 years ago when my dear friend Gail excitedly told me about  Upon seeing 650-plus Cecil Beaton titles scrolling down the page I thought I had died and gone to heaven!  Over time I discovered books I had been searching to find for over 20 years, many of them even at affordable prices!  Ebay, too, has provided some treasures (like CECIL BEATON’S SCRAPBOOK in an immaculate dust-wrapper), though the auction format cuts both ways, in terms of affordability.  In addition, there are the big sites like Yahoo and Barnes & Noble, though they sadly endanger the small, independent book sellers.  But they have their place too, with their often deep discounts on new books.  (I think I ended up paying $4.- for the coveted Yale University Press monograph about Paul Frankl--with free shipping!--and $3.99 for the big Martin Wood photo essay about Nancy Lancaster.)

pressing the precious Beaton dust-wrapper with a warm iron

This year my two favorite presents were--oh you’ll NEVER guess--books, of course!  One was a present “from me to me” (I always seem to know exactly what I want and give terrific gifts!) while the other was a present from a very dear friend who wanted to give me an “extravagant’ Christmas gift.  

The “me to me” present was Adam Lewis’ THE GREAT LADY DECORATORS, a recently published book chronicling the careers and lives of a dozen of the most influential women to grace the decorating profession in the first six decades of the 20th century.  Mind you, they didn’t just “grace” the profession either:  rather they invented and perfected the way it is practiced to this very day, and struck out for the sort of independence and equality in the work force women and men both now know is their due.

Actually, I know of and admire all of these “Lady Decorators” through years of study, and since I bought the book sight-unseen, I worried a bit that it might merely restate facts I already know.  As it turns out, it for the most part does just that--but the writing is so sparkling and so well researched, that I am finding it a delightful read.  Besides many beautifully reproduced photographs, the book also provides wonderful thumb-nail portraits of its subjects, each approached in a different light and all enriched with wonderful quotations.

the table set for Christmas dinner
with my Mother’s (now my) library in the background

The second Christmas book is a biography of one of the great Modernist Industrial designers, Donald Desky, the man who is perhaps best remembered for his iconic interiors for the Radio City Music Hall.  I neglected to buy this book when it was published in 1987, in pre-internet and post-Levinson’s days, and it has since appreciated in value to the point where a copy in an undamaged dustwrapper brings upwards from $250!  

Parenthetically, I once had a wonderful correspondence with an English book seller who observed how convenient it would be to know which books were going to appreciate so dramatically in value, as  one could then squirrel them away for future profit. I suspect her musings were in regard to the slim little volume about Syrie Maugham by Richard Fisher, (also pub. 1987) which consistently brings prices in the mid three-figure range--if you can even find a copy for sale! 

At any rate, I stumbled across the coveted Desky book while mooning over vintage Christmas ornaments on ebay.   Reduced from “market price” to a special (what on ebay is termed a “buy it now”) price, it was being offered at what seemed an immensely attractive discount.  I knew it wouldn’t last long--and indeed it didn’t, because I quickly snapped it up!  And then came the offer of it as a present!  How ‘in the spirit’ of Santa Claus (which at a certain point of course turns out to be the generosity of our loving parents!) is that?

Christmas and Modernism collide
miniature cardboard ornament in the shape of the Empire State Building
Czechoslovakia, c. 1932

So under the Christmas tree I sit, delighted by the urbane and sentimental Nancy Lancaster; marveling at the foibles of the eternally gamine Madeleine de Castaing holding court in her shop on the Rue Jacob; seduced by the luxurious work of the erudite “Mrs. Eleanor S. Brown”; marveling at the sheer idiosyncracity of Rose Cumming (cellophane draperies cascading from under mirrored Venetian pelmets!); and once again struck by the creative power of these remarkable women, working in what was as yet a largely uncharted field. 

Switching gears, I pick the monograph chronicling the career of Donald Desky, and get to marvel how he transitioned from creating interiors featuring a particularly luxurious and monumental American take on Modernism, to become the designer (in the 1950s and 60s) of corporate logos and products that equally reflected their time.  (Think CREST toothpaste tubes for Proctor & Gamble and Maxwell House Coffee labels for the General Food’s Corporation.)

Now to my mind, the great thing about books is that one book usually leads to another; and the marvelous thing about having built a good library is that as one sits and reads, other books often come tumbling off the shelves to underline and enrich the reading experience.  

Unfortunately, I don’t know who I am paraphrasing when I say it, but, ‘Books are like drink to me--they go right to my head!’  (Actually, upon reflection I DO know--it’s Lord Peter Whimsy explaining to his beloved Harriet how the investigatiion of crime affects him.)  

At any rate, to my way of thinking, reading is a source of the most endless delight--at Christmas and throughout the year--or at least that’s how it is...

“In My Book.”  

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got a heavy date with 250 pages and a sofa...

Franklin John Kakies
Christmas Week, 2010

My thanks go to Jon Harris for the wonderful Christmas photographs and to my favorite Turkey for unwrapping Christmas early.

Recommended reading for those who find this posting of interest include:

THE FINEST ROOMS -- Katherine Tweed, with an introduction by Russel Lynes (The Viking Press. 1964). Interesting “period” photos including those rarities showing the work of Rose Cumming, Marian Hall, and Mrs. Henry Parish II.

SYRIE MAUGHAM--Staging the Glamorous Interior -- Pauline Metcalf (The Acanthus Press, 2010).  The divine Mrs. Maugham in all her splendor.

SYRIE MAUGHAM -- Richard K. Fisher (Duckworth, 1987).  A book which never looses its allure--and I’ve got an spare copy for anyone with deep pockets...

DONALD DESKY--Decorative Designs and Interiors -- David A. Hanks with Jennifer Toher (E.P. Dutton, 1987) 

FORM AND REFORM -- Paul T. Frankl (Harper & Bros., 1930/Reissued by Hacker Art books, 1972)

PAUL FRANKL AND MODERN AMERICAN DESIGN -- Christopher Long (Yale University Press, 2007).  The chapter on Skyscraper Style is worth its weight in Modernist furniture.

CHRISTMAS IN THE COUNTRY -- Barbara Collyer and John R. Foley/Pictures by Retta Worcester (A Little Golden Book/Simon and Schuster, 1950)

THE REAL SANTA CLAUS -- Marguerite Walters/Pictures by Meg Wohlberg (Lothrop, Lee & Shepard Co., Inc., 1950)