A LOT OF OUR houseroom serves purposes having little to do with sleeping, cooking, eating, excreting, bathing, and doing such work as we may do at home. That those functions can be performed in exiguous space is demonstrated by a photograph Jacob Riis took around the turn of the century: it shows a tenement interior occupied by an Italian family. In a room about 10 feet square a mother and two immacuately dressed daughters are sewing a man's suit, by hand. A small table holds thread, beeswax, needles; behind them looms a large tester bed with striped curtains tied back; shelves dressed up with flounces hold crockery; on an ornate coal stove a flatiron keeps hot. A dining table is barely glimpsed; a pump and sink must be inferred; likewise the primitive toilet somewhere down a hall or out in back. Bad manners and television would have made this an intolerable living space, but the serene faces confirm an impression that things worked in this frugal room where seemliness is sought and valued.
From the slums to Architectural Digest's Celebrity Homes is a sobering trip. Having learned how little can be enough. It is unsetting to see how much an never be enough - whether it be paperweights, copper pots, Venetian mirrors, framed photographs, or Steubben glass. Few of these celebrities (when did this awful word enter our lives?) are family folk, of course, and the imprint of spouses, let alone children, is barely perceptible. These are on the whole narcissistic environments, created by interior decorators to knock out somebody's eye - a rival's, maybe; the editor of Architectural Digest, perhaps - a magazine, despite its title, dedicated to professional interior decoration; and no doubt the client and the client's guests - for entertainment, as it is called in celebrity land, seems to be more in order than playing the violin or reading books. Guests may not feel quite at home in some of these homes, but they can count on a drink and a meal.
At Mary Pickford's, "elegant picnic breakfasts are de rigeur ," in the upwardly mobile language of the caption writer. Earl Blackwell, the "social arbiter," has a whole ballroom in his apartment, with cracks painted in the trompe l'oeil murals to enhance the "very old" look. At Pablo's (he's Elizabeth Arden's "creative director" and in real life an Italian count!), a lot of the furnishings come from the home palace, which doesn't leave too much room, so though the apartment "emanates the grace and serenity of old world noblesse," "guests balance plates on their laps."
Senator Edward Kennedy's barnlike living room, with exposed rafters, wears a meager Chippendale mantelpiece like a false moustache, and into it antique furniture, photographs, and ornaments are packed so tight that guests could hardly circulate without knocking things over. It's no less overwhelming at Sonny and Cher's. They have - or had - a stupefying 40-room villa where 24 guests can sit down to dinner and enjoy preprandial drinks in suede-covered chairs matching the suede lining of the "buffet du corps" that doubles as bar and library.
Barbara Walters, by contrast, can seat only four people for dinner; but whoever they may be, they can admire the "personalized objects" gathered in her travels - a plate from the Shah, antique pottery "gifted" her by Moshe Dayan, a lump of coal she dug from a Welsh mine. Truman Capote doesn't entertain much, we learn, though his solitude is sometimes "interrupted by invited house guests from throughout the world." But then, his country house is of his own making, with its "sparse motif" (the accumulation of "collectibles" puts this description in doubt), and its 30-foot bookcases accessible only, so far as can be seen, to bats and owls. It might be nice to visit Julia Child too: one could feel as comfortable as an old shoe while putting on a pound or two (there is one whole room assigned to pastry making). The decorator's hand is absent.
But once a decorator has been let in the door, abandon hope. Joni Mitchell has a house she started fixing up herself - white bedroom, blue dining room, living room with one sofa and lots of space. Then her agent wised her up. Today the living room is jampacked with velvet sofas and poufs, chrome tables (amoeba shaped) and chairs, a snakeskin console, and tropical plants. The dining room is orange with chairs of lucite and orange suede; the midnight-green bedroom is a costly art deco den from which Bela Lugosi might emerge at dawn.
Three or four celebrity homes are admirable. Gore Vidal's Villa perched on a cliff over the Gulf of Sorrento has a view, fine spaces, and richly abstemious furnishings. The fashion designer Sybil Connolly has a pretty 18th-century house in Dublin square, to which she has brought a cultivated eye for textiles, patterns, colors, and furniture, which is not only fine but has air to breathe. Chanel's famous Paris apartment is a very model of the lavishly eclectic international style of the '30s, with its blackamoors and leather bindings and crystal flowers and innumerable tables loaded with sculptures and gold boxes, its mirrors and Coromandel screens and rock-crystal chandeliers and life-size bronze dear. It was all for display. She slept in a plain little room at the Ritz. Cecil Beaton's beautiful 18th-century house is of the same school, though more restrained, prettier, cozier, more feminine, more English. But after all this one could hug the Robert Redfords, whose New York apartment, though nothing to write home about, is their own doing: comfortable, and real as a ham sandwich. Even the fake wood beams are forgiven.
A modest little paparback by the authors of Made With Oak and Living Places shows how uncelebrated folks with good taste, some money, and creative, socially useful lives have set up housekeeping. There's 90-year-old Georgia grande dame , an artist and his writer wife, a plastic surgeon, the director of the Smithsonian's folklife festival, an industrial architect with a wife who makes quilts, an anthropologist couple who divide their lives between Virginia and Chiapas; an environmental designer, a clothes designer, a cook - and others just as enterprising. They let the authors take pictures in their houses, everywhere from Brookline to Bolinas, and answered questions about their lives, their values, and the choices they have made. The result is fascinating, and educational.
Many have fixed up old houses - big, rambling, turn-of-the-century structures, Georgetown row houses, a classic prairie schoolhouse, an 1820 farmhouse, a lovely country place with a big wild garden in Virginia. Old and new things are brought together in a witty harmony that can accomodate cats, books, guitars, dogs, children, radios, bikes, teddy bears, wood stoves, wastebaskets, television sets, and pianos.
No celebrity decorator could approach such perfect throwaway juxtapositions as the white table top on which sit a yellow Tiffany lamp, a jar of dried fruit, a white jug of yellow flowers, a brass ashtray, and a cat. Floors are often waxed and bare except for some old oriental rugs; walls are often white, windows uncovered except sometimes by bamboo blinds or shutters. There a lots of paintings and drawings and old quilts and flowers. There is a skylit bathroom with a garden, a sauna, and a Japanese tub; there is a pink sofa with a white lace antimacassar; there are collections of old dishes, cooking pots, Indian bronzes, Mexican pottery. Yet profusion is never the key. What the authors have looked for and found is spareness, contemplation, a lively tranquility, and humor.