Friday, September 25, 2015

Eleanor Cummings - A Georgia Peach Thrives in the Heart of Texas

Eleanor Cummings grew up one of five children in Columbus, Georgia. You might say her family had been there for quite some time... actually her grandfather used to own much of the land that makes up the Ft. Benning Army base. Indeed, what is today the Commanding General’s house was built by her grandfather.

Her passion for design came from her aunt - also named Eleanor - who worked with the city of Columbus in the 1960’s and 70’s as they sought to revitalize their communities. In particular she worked on trying to preserve the historical nature of buildings in everything from their architecture to their original paint color.

The younger Eleanor got her start in design working at Collins and Huff Interiors in Columbus. Eventually she decided that it was time to leave the town she had called her home most of her life. At the time one of her sisters was living in Texas and invited her out… and she’s been there ever since. After taking a job at Houston Home and Garden Magazine she finally hung up her own shingle in 1986 with the launch of Eleanor Cummings Interior Design. Although it was Texas, her first clients weren’t oil men or wildcatters… actually they were doctors, as they were the only group not sent reeling by the energy bust of the early 1980’s.

Her very first client however was not a doctor, but rather a single investment banker who was setting up her first home. Today the single investment banker is married and not only has Eleanor designed four houses for her and her husband, but she is currently designing the house of their daughter! That’s what you call keeping things in the family.

And that is exactly what the world of design is for Eleanor… family. That’s always been true for her and it dovetails with something someone told her about interior design many years ago: “The first 10% of the time you spend talking about dimensions, decorations and design and the last 90% is spent talking about friends, family and life.”

And that’s the key to successful interior design… it’s not just a business arrangement, although it is that. It’s a relationship… and usually a two or three year one at that, if not longer. As such, while Eleanor obviously looks at the basics of the job, such as the timeline, architecture, budget etc. when deciding which clients to take on, her single biggest priority is determining whether the prospective clients will mesh with her and her team and be a pleasure to work with. If not she passes, as a rough fit would not be helpful for either her team or the client.

One of the great evolutions she’s seen since she first struck out in the design world deals with teamwork. When she first started doing design the roles of the players was quite distinct, particularly between architects and designers. At the time architects very much set the tone, and designers were left to design to whatever space they were given to work with. Today, thankfully, the model has changed and designers and architects work very much hand in hand. Whereas previously a designer was told, here are the dimensions, this is where the kitchen island stops and these are the arches, today there is a great deal more coordination and consultation resulting in projects where the design and the architecture seem to complement one another, rather than exist despite one another.

Although Texas is big – bigger than France and a GDP that would rank it #10 in the world – and most of her work is there, she does from time to time venture outside the Lone Star state. She’s not only worked in her native Georgia, but she’s recently done work in California, Montana and Massachusetts as well. In addition, she regularly travels to Europe to find pieces for current or prospective clients. Her most recent foray into the Old Country was a trip through France and Belgium looking for fireplaces for a project that may end up with over a dozen. The beauty of these kinds of trips is that not only is she able to buy for whatever current project she’s working on, but at the same time she can keep an eye open for pieces that might be perfect for some future project or ones that might offer the opportunity for repurposing to fill a need that’s hard to fit.

This current project - with the 12 fireplaces - is a template for her favorite kinds of projects, those starting from scratch or those doing major renovation. They give her an opportunity to see all the potential the project holds and imagine the different ways it could proceed.

A designer’s job isn’t to just fill a room or a house with whatever they like. A designer’s job is to work with a client so that when the project is finished the client has a house that's not only functional, but at the same time is sufficiently comfortable that it feels like a home. And the reality is, clients don’t always know what that house / home combination looks like or even exactly what they want! It might sound strange, but Eleanor is quite clear about her role as a designer… in order to help the client get everything they want out of a house... and get a home in the process… sometimes she has to educate them about design and the various strategies that go along with drawing out a space's potential.  

Some designers are sticklers for style or period or price. Not Eleanor. There are pieces that are original and unique and expensive and other pieces that are… shall we say, more economically priced. And that’s OK. She likens the design of a room to a little black dress. If you’re wearing a simple, inexpensive dress, and that’s all you’re wearing, people will likely notice. If however you adorn that simple, inexpensive dress with an elegant necklace, smart shoes and an eye catching clutch, then everyone will look at you and see your style and it won’t matter – and likely they won’t notice – that your dress came off the rack…

Today, Eleanor seems to have found her sweet spot. She has her team of four designers – really three designers and an architecture student – and her two support staff. Together they stay busy, but not so busy that she or they lose focus on what makes the business a great place to be in the first place: working to help bring out the beauty in whatever project they happen to be working on while exceeding client’s expectations. It sort of reminds me of a quote from Michelangelo… “Every block of stone has a statue inside it and it is the task of the sculptor to discover it.” If Eleanor said it, she might put it this way: Every house has a home inside… it’s the task of the designer to discover it.

Below are pictures from some of Eleanor's extraordinary work as highlighted in three different publications.

The following images are from a piece in House Beautiful called A Texas Home, Straight out of Italy. Photos by Eric Piasecki.

The below images are from a piece in Traditional Home called 

This is the bedroom... before and after Eleanor's magic touch!

The below images are from the April, 2010 issue of Veranda as recounted by the Indulge Decor blog.

Thursday, September 10, 2015

King vs. King: A Tale of Two Styles

Beheaded at the age of 38 in the midst of the French Revolution in 1793, King Louis XVI had both a short life and a relatively short reign. His presence however is felt two centuries later in places far from Versailles. One of the most important ways is in the modern world of design…

While Louis XVI period furniture can be found, there is a far larger universe of pieces that are inspired by his style. One of the significant aspects of that universe are Gustavian pieces. Gustavian pieces are named after King Gustav III of Sweden. In 1771 the future king returned home to Sweden after having spent time at the Court of Versailles then under the reign of Louis XV. While there he became fascinated with French culture and style, which at the time was transitioning from the rich, ostentatious Rocailles style (known as Rococo outside France) that prevailed under Louis XV to the more restrained Neoclassical style inspired by the discoveries made at Herculaneum and Pompeii, that would come to be known as the Louis XVI style.

Although highly influenced by what was happening in France, Gustav’s interpretation of Neoclassism resulted in an even more subtle style, not to be confused with simple, however. Characterized by straight lines, tapered legs, beveled corners, and gold leaf, Gustavian style was initially found only in royal palaces. As the style became better known it became more popular in the homes of average Swedes, albeit with less expensive woods and paint replacing the gold leaf. Paint, which had always been popular in Swedish furniture, took on a life of its own with the Gustavian syle, finding its expression in finishes of various forms such as faux marble, stenciling and a wide variety of pastels. These less expensive materials and techniques helped make the Gustavian style commonplace in 19th century Sweden.

The Gustavian period, which begins in the last quarter of the 18th century, is commonly understood to have ended in 1810. From that point forward, while many of the techniques of the Gustavian period continued to be practiced, they slowly gave way to the richer Napoleonic Empire inspired characteristics of the Karl Johan period that spanned from 1820 to 1845.

Before we take a look at Karl Johan however, let’s take a somewhat closer look at the Gustavian style itself:
  • Paint, paint, paint! It's the first thing one thinks about when it comes to Gustavian today. The ubiquitous use of lighter colors had two purposes:

    1) Fir trees, which were abundant in Sweden, produce a less expensive and less robust wood than that which carpenters and furniture makers in much of Europe used. As such, paint often disguised the fact that a common wood was being used.

    2) It’s dark in Sweden in the winter! The lighter, softer colors seemed to help maximize what light there was, helping to brighten rooms and moods during the very short winter days.
  • Tapered legs, reeded doors and panels, beveled sides, and the usual Louis XVI rosettes and stylized leaves on chair / sofa legs. In addition egg and dart motifs as well as running dog patterns on sofa rails. All of these are elements are commonly found on pieces from the Gustavian period and in the Gustavian style.
Of course, the above are just the beginning of a detailed work on what it takes to describe Gustavian style… but this is blog and not a book! And now on to Karl Johan! Karl Johan, formerly Napoleon’s ambassador in Vienna, would become King of Sweden (as Charles XIV John) in 1818 after having served as regent and head of state beginning in 1810. He would rule until his death in 1844. Much in the way Gustav influenced the previous period of Swedish design, Karl Johan would influence the period that would span the following 25 years. In design the pendulum often swings from subdued to rich and back again. Just as Gothic gave way to Renaissance, Gustavian was supplanted by Karl Johan, a slightly richer version of that same Neoclassical style. Just as Gustav toned down the Louis XVI style when he brought it to Sweden, Karl Johan similarly toned down some of the exuberance of Napoleon’s Empire style when he brought it to Sweden.

Here’s a quick look at some of the things that distinguish the Karl Johan style.
  • Classical details in abundance. Gilt Bronze details of Classical subject matter. Reclining figures, ladies in various poses, urns, Corinthian capitals, etc.
  • Wood. Back is the use of stained and finished wood surfaces. Beautiful veneers of expensive and robust woods, ie; Elm, Mahogany, Birch, and various burl types. Solid wood was also used widely.
  • Few drawer pulls! Many Karl Johan chests frustrate owners with the fact that they come with a center keyhole and escutcheon and nothing else, forcing the user to pull the drawer open with the key. Maddening to some!
  • Beautiful chair styles. The use of veneers and solid wood on the wonderful armchairs from the Karl Johan period very much set them apart from the previous style.
  • Saber legs. Another classical detail. Some armchairs combine both saber and Louis style legs, further confusing the buying public. Most of these are not from the period, but late 19th century copies. Many are extremely well done.
Of course this isn't meant to be an exhaustive or detailed description of all the styling cues of either period in Swedish furniture making... we’ve really only scratched the surface! Here’s the thing… where you have people working with creativity and spontaneity, sometimes it’s difficult to "pigeon hole" items definitively into one period or the other. There are no hard and fast rules that command that a pieces is absolutely of one style or the other. Nonetheless, despite the overlap and a lack of an absolute distinction between the two styles, they do represent two largely different periods in Swedish design and we are happy that we come across pieces from both regularly.

So now… which is which?  Both are painted, so that doesn’t help…  The lines are often blurred between the two styles, however, there are some clues:  The Karl Johan on the right has big sturdy feet while the Gustavian piece on the left has narrow, tapered and angled legs.  In addition, the Karl Johan piece has a scalloped bottom rail while the Gustavian piece is all about pure, clean lines. 

A detail of the scalloped bottom and heavy foot of our Karl Johan chest.

This one is a bit easier.  The wood finish on the left pretty much gives away that the pair are in the Karl Johan style while the lightly painted chairs on the right are indeed Gustavian.  Additionally, the Karl Johan chairs have saber legs and volute arms while the Gustavian chairs have tapered legs topped with rosettes.  Once again we see the Karl Johan with the curvy lines while the Gustavian has the pure, straight lines and the typical Louis XVI decorative vocabulary.
A close up image of the rosettes and fluted legs of our Gustavian chairs.

In this case the legs don’t give us a clue to the styles as both of these sofas have tapered legs.  There are however some other cues to which style they belong.  The Karl Johan piece on the left has slightly slanted arms and lyre carved slats while the delicate motifs found on the top rail and skirt of the sofa on the right and the simplicity of its lines indicate the Gustavian style.

This image provides a wonderful look at top rail of the Gustavian piece.

And we’ve left the easiest for last!  The finished wood of the table on the left quickly suggests – but doesn’t guarantee – the Karl Johan style while the paint of the table on the right suggests Gustavian.  The Karl Johan’s legs are smooth and clean while the Gustavian table’s legs are fluted and feature rosettes on the knees.  
This is the detail of the rosettes and the tapered, fluted legs of the exquisite Gustavian table.