How They Decorated by P. Gaye Tapp

Noted interior designer and author P. Gaye Tapp gave a fascinating lecture to a rapt audience at the Virginia Robinson Gardens based on her beautifully illustrated book How They Decorated: Inspiration from Great Women of the Twentieth Century. Hailing from North Carolina, Gaye related in her lovely Southern accent the trendsetting style of the extraordinary women in her book who were intensely passionate about beauty. “These inspiring women shape the way we look at our rooms today… They had great style that came from self-confidence, study and from cultivating their eye. As one of my personal icons Gloria Vanderbilt put it: ‘Decorating is autobiography’,” Gaye said.

Divided into four parts, the book concentrates on women who decorated in the Legacy Style, the Grand Manner, the Fashionably Chic and the Unconventional Eye. The women of Legacy Style loved the “lived-in intimacy of rooms that look untouched for generations.” They identified with the faded grandeur of ancestral homes and embraced the objects they inherited, whether they were sentimental or priceless heirlooms. The Irish fashion designer Sybil Connolly, the British aristocrat Lady Diana Cooper, the American ambassadress Evangeline Bruce and French writer Louise de Vilmorin are examples of this style.

Sybil Connolly paired seashells that she collected on her travels with Chinese export porcelain, thus personalizing her rooms in a high/low fashion. Like the other women of Legacy Style, ambassadress Lady Diana Cooper decorated with her treasured antiques, moving them from London to France and back again. In the rooms of Evangeline Bruce, her well-traveled possessions were arranged for comfort and beauty. Her use of yards of silk ribbon, with bows on top, to hang her beloved paintings became her signature decorating touch. In one of the most iconic rooms of the 20th century, Louise de Vilmorin unified disparate periods of furniture with a blue cornflower, rambling floral chintz

The women in the Grand Manner were most likely to be on the best-dressed lists and lived in the “most desired locations in the most beautiful homes.”They loved luxury, drama and the grand sweeping style. Helene Rochas, Gabrielle van Zuylen, Pauline de Rothschild and Mona von Bismarck were emblematic of this style. Rochas could follow every style trend and still look classic and timeless. With the help of interior designer Francois Catroux, she decorated her New York penthouse with Art Deco furniture and world class art. Gabrielle van Zuylen favored a spare and modern, though luxurious style. She said of her friend, Pauline de Rothschild, something as simple as a breakfast tray became a work of art and “a glimpse of bliss,” when she arranged it. In her Paris apartment, Pauline put slender stems of irises in Ming vases, and placed them on a straw tray on the floor, visually extending the landscape of the Chinese wallpaper behind it. Just like Madame de Pompadour, Louis XV’s legendary mistress, Mona von Bismarck collected grand houses, including a beautiful villa in Capri.

Fashionably Chic women thrived on personal self-expression. Babe Paley, Elsa Schiaparelli, Fleur Cowles, Pauline Trigere, and Lesley Blanch exemplified this style. Perhaps the chicest woman of her era, Babe Payley was always surrounded by stylish rooms that exuded polish and sophistication. The fashion designer Schiaparelli was famous for the “shocking pink” color in her designs. Similarly, Yves Saint Laurent described her Paris salon as a “bouquet of spells, a fireworks display, a kaleidoscope of colors, and a provocative palette of scarlet, lilac and puce.” Fleur Cowles was the legendary editor who created the magazine Flair. She moved to London, and decorated her flat in the Albany. She swathed one room in “head-to-toe powder blue” fabric. Fashion designer Pauline Trigere decorated her dining room with works by Matisse, Picasso and Modigliani. Her favorite flowers were anemones, and images of these florals and a signature tortoise print appear on the clothes she designed.

Bunny Mellon, Dominique de Menil, Georgia O’Keefe and Lesley Blanch reflect the style of the Unconventional Eye. They were all original and idiosyncratic. After First Lady Jackie Kennedy visited Bunny Mellon’s Oak Spring Farm in Virginia, she wrote to Bunny: “I love your house, but I don’t love mine.” A friendship began, and Bunny redesigned the White House East Garden and Rose Garden. Her legacy, the Oak Springs Garden Library houses an unmatched collection of rare horticulture books. Art collector Domenique de Menil believed that “art is what lifts us above daily life.“ This philosophy is reflected in her art-filled home, and the rooms she created with the fashion designer Charles James in the 1950s. A true original, artist Georgia O’Keefe forged a new style of art and decoration in the desert in New Mexico. World traveler and English author and historian Lesley Blanch espoused the romantic and bohemian style. She said, “Surround oneself with the things you love and your house will make you happy.”

Gaye concluded, “All of these women have fascinated and inspired me for decades. I hope that there will be rooms in the book that will speak to you, and women that will inspire you… I say write your own story with boldness, care and inspiration from the women of How they Decorated.”

Once again, our wonderful education co-chairs Kerstin Royce, Patti Reinstein, and Ellen Lipson outdid themselves. The lecture sold out almost immediately, and Gaye signed her book, now in its third printing. Ellen, Kerstin and Patti with the help of our resident genius and design assistant Andy created the most dramatic and exquisite headpieces, displayed on exotic green mannequin heads. Patti raved about Andy, saying, “He is a miracle worker. There is nothing he cannot do artistically.” The elegant and creative headpieces, reminiscent of the 50s, sported fresh flowers, ferns, and leaves artfully arranged. Some had chokers of pearls and earrings adorning their long necks. These stunning creations decorated the tables as centerpieces in the Display Rose Garden where the guests enjoyed a delicious luncheon, catered by the Kitchen for Exploring Foods. Thank you to special Fellows member Regina Drucker who introduced us to her good friend Gaye and made it possible for the Friends to hear this most delightful and inspiring lecture!

Post by Linda Meadows
Photos by Diane Jenkins & Linda Meadows
Friends of Robinson Gardens Board Members


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