Thursday, August 27, 2015


Few of the younger people in the world devoted to interior design, elegant living, antiques and collecting even remember the Georgia born society decorator who reached the pinnacle of success in the 1960's and one of New York society's most admired, pursued interior designers, the debonair Michael Greer. Greer's cosmopolitan clients also included the well born and successful residing in major places like Washington DC and in various cities in California. As a precocious teen I remember being taken by the unabashed, the no less effortless chic and panache of Greer's last New York City apartment which was the subject of an article in Architectural Digest in 1974.  It was an emphatic contributory factor in my journey as a young art historian and aesthete to eventually become a specialist in French Eighteenth Century decorative arts and to study its social history with keen diligence. At the peak of his successful career, Michael Greer was consulted by no one less than Mrs. Kennedy during her efforts to elevate the decor and collections in the White House. But, a more interesting fact is that Mr. Greer was also an advisor to Mrs. Kennedy's admittedly less discerning predecessor Mrs. Eisenhower and to Jacqueline Kennedy's successor Lady Bird Johnson. Michael Greer is seen in the photo below in the Diplomatic Reception Room of the White House next to Mrs. Kennedy during the heady Camelot Era. He is on the left of the First Lady.

In this photo portrait of Michael Greer seen below, from the verso of the dust jacket on his once widely admired book Inside Design (which had at least 6 printings!), we see the young successful designer who, at that wonderfully exciting time in his career had been recalled by one friend after his death as "stunning - tall, slender and witty". 

According to an article on Greer published in People Magazine after his tragic death in 1976, Greer counted among his clients, friends and dinner guests such personages as Joan Fontaine, Mary Martin, Geraldine Page and the irrepressible Ethel Merman. He enjoyed the invitations of such enviable hosts as the Duke and Duchess of Windsor and the Queen of Denmark. The article further added a description of a sybaritic life citing that Greer "drank from Baccarat crystal and travelled in a chauffeur-driven Rolls Royce. With his cook-butler, he entertained the Vanderbilts, Revsons, Bette Davis and Gloria Swanson." The urbane and charismatic Hermione Gingold was a special favourite "I'd known him a long time" she said in the same article, and added "He would offer me his car and chauffeur... "

I hope my readers will agree it is regrettable that such a fine, accomplished gentleman of discernment brimming over with, as more than one contemporary assures us, joie de vivre along with an infectious enthusiasm for grand interiors and facile appreciation of l'art de vivre, should more often than not be only scantly remembered today for the brutal and murky circumstances of his gruesome murder in his apartment in April of 1976 at age 60 when he was found strangled to death and tied to his favourite Neoclassical steel bed in the red room of his apartment. A newspaper clipping right after the murder is seen below. It didn't help either that, for reasons I find rather peculiar, when Doyle's auction house in New York City sold his collections of lovely Louis XVI and Directoire furniture and appointments, a piece of case furniture on display during the auction preview was discovered to still have a rather unexpected collection of dildos in it that, it seems, no one thought to remove! Need it be said? The story made the rounds all over New York and still comes up when poor Michael Greer's name is mentioned to the aged over 60 members of the antiques and interior design scene in New York!

Michael Greer should be more remembered and admired by today's lovers and students of l'art de vivre for his rolling off the proverbial log facility when it came to creating ravishing and welcoming interiors for himself and his clients that clearly demonstrate a well educated man of superior taste, an almost instinctive command of information about the history of the great periods of European decorative art and a particularly admirable knack for adapting historical styles to the mood and rhythm of the lives of well to do and sophisticated New Yorkers and other appreciative clients in other American cities of the mid 20th Century.  And while Greer did have a vast reserve of carefully acquired familiarity with all the great historical styles, it's obvious when we visit his own apartments that this man particularly gravitated to the joyful French Eighteenth Century - and especially to that particularly chic, clean period of Louis XVI and the Directoire with the occasional toe put into the waters of the First Empire!

That Michael Greer has been nearly forgotten today is genuinely to be lamented. There is much we can learn from him about the art of elegant living from reading Inside Design (which can happily be dug up second hand with a bit of diligence online) and looking at various photos of Michael Greer interiors.  However, no matter how much we immerse ourselves in a particular style of the past, it's really nearly impossible to recreate, to the last detail, a perfect Louis XVI or Directoire interior. Nor would even the most ardent collector and enthusiast of the period really want to do so. Modern comforts on which later generations depend would have to go for such a decorative ensemble to be a 100% historically correct recreation.  And with domestic help not being available in legions, it's not exactly realistic. That explains, for instance, why Michael Greer did not disdain the use of vinyl flooring when he felt it would be both convenient and effective.

For instance, Directoire inspired as this dressing room may be, it is clearly something that only a decorator working in the 1960's would have created. Perhaps not one of Greer's best moments... But it's still not without historic interest.  You can see it below as it appeared as an illustration in Inside Design.

A visit to Michael Greer's own New York City apartments confirms that, like all men who live life intensely and with joie de vivre, he lived life to the hilt and was an inspiration to the people fortunate enough to come into his orbit. His sure footed sense of style puts him in the league of other design legends such as Elsie de Wolfe, Tony Duquette, Billy Baldwin, Stéphane Boudin, Emilio Terry, Georges Geoffroy, Charles de Beistegui, Anthony Hale and David Hicks.  This apartment, until a tragic fire which occurred about 1970, was so admired in its day it was featured in the prestigious French magazine Connaissance des Arts twice in the 1960's as he tweaked and improved it with obvious love.  This is a view of the living room below which looked into a dining room that could be discerned through the three arches. 

This apartment, enjoyed by Greer from the later 50's into the early 70's, already has many of his distinctive touches and his penchant for Neoclassical lines and the use of bouillotte lamps along with tôle peint. The paravent with a grisaille decor on a gold ground is certainly reminiscent of Fornasetti with a strong 18th Century precedent at Haga Pavilion in Sweden.  Here are two more monochrome details as published in Inside Design

The library in this apartment that we see in the image below was particularly welcoming and stylish. I am tempted to compare it to the work of Emilio Terry with it's love of Neoclassicism and clean lines.  Here we also have more additions of Directoire and Empire tôle pient and steel furniture. 

Worth visiting brielfly is this library seen below for another of Michael Greer's clients. Note the tôle peint sconces flanking the trumeau and the hanging lighting fixture discerned in this monochrome image over the Louis XVI canapé.  Both images of libarires are also illustrations from Inside Design

Another distinctive area of collecting interest and connoisseurship to engage Michael Greer's attention was the use of French steel furniture from the late 18th and early 19th Century.  This dramatic steel Charles X period bed from ca 1820-30 was particularly impressive in the photo below which was published in the mid 1960's in Connaissance des Arts. It's almost certain the bed was altered by Greer to suit his use. But no less impressive is Greer's obvious love of historical details. Here he used fabric to recreate the ambience of a Napoleonic campaign tent fit for General Bonaparte himself during the Italian and Egyptian Campaigns!  Greer paid assiduous attention to such details as fringes and braids as well as hinges, and other hardware used in fine 18th Century interiors. For this he drew upon his well grounded love and familiarity with French 18th Century design principles. 

As stated earlier, a sudden fire that seems to have occurred in 1970 obliged Michael Greer to relocate with a few salvaged examples of furniture and other prized objets d'art that he understandably hastened to install in his next and final apartment which was nothing less than a tour de force!

Photographed in Architectural Digest in the January/February 1974 issue in full colour, it's obvious a mature, more self assured and fully evolved Michael Greer has emerged in this oustanding and elegant apartment which he enjoyed until his death in 1976. Ever the affable host, the magazine hastened to add that when the journalist writing about this apartment in 1974 arrived, Greer had a gathering in honour of the magazine that included Earl Blackwell, Joan Bennett, Eliot Janeway and even the Duchess of Argyll. The AD writer also thought to note that on that same day, Greer was delighted he had just accomplished the purchase of a rare antique desk costing "only $120,000.00".  The remaining photos seen below are of Greer's final residence as seen in AD and which begins with a view to the corner of the main drawing room in which an admittedly questionable Louis XV bureau plat (that is either remade from various antique elements or oddly restored) is laden with such tantalizing items as a monumental ormolu inkstand that was understood to have been made for Catherine II of Russia. Another typical Greer detail rooted in the 18th Century is the collection of obelisks. Note the lovely draped Grecian beauty of antique 18th Century terracotta which was among the items salvaged from the fire in the former apartment as was the desk and the inkstand.

Looking across this desk into the main drawing room, Greer's passion for Louis XVI and Directoire with a tempered sprinkling of Empire is omnipresent.  The suite of Louis XVI seating furniture under the large fragment of an 18th Century French tapestry is stamped by B. Grivet as per the article in AD. And of course, a steel gueridon and a fine bouillotte lamp can be discerned. This is so obviously completely inspired by the festive French 18th Century. However, conceptually this is a very 1970's decorative ensemble. One can't help speculate how Greer may have influenced a few celebrated designers just slightly younger than he was at the time, such as Robert Metzger. Metzger loved his obelisks!

Again, when we cast a glance at the photo below from that same AD 1974 article, we know it's the early 1970's when we see such stylish accommodations to subtly hide the stereo and other entertainment items like televisions and LP's of classical music behind built in cabinets and a pair of trellised doors (a nod to Elsie de Wolfe perhaps?) flanking the monumental French 18th Century terracotta allegory of Autumn in the mirrored niche. Note the lovely pair of painted and parcel gilt decorative urns atop each pilaster on each side of the mirrored back of the niche. They are very likely Italian, late 18th Century.  Also subtly discernible is the pair of terracotta draped Grecian inspired beauties seen in the mirror and which are clearly in the opposite side of this small lounge appointed in a very embracing welcoming Louis XVI and Directoire luxury that includes fine examples of late French 18th Century steel furniture such as the recycled wash stand next to the side chair seen in the left and the small adjustable table `a dejeuner seen in the foreground along the right next to a very sober but chic Directoire bergère. 

Michael Greer's very focused and admirable pursuit of knowledge about the areas of late 18th Century French steel furniture and tôle peint were widely known and his connoisseurship on both subjects were such that among the few reference articles on these subjects still consulted today were authored by him for The Magazine Antiques in the late 1960's.  The Charles X period steel bed was salvaged and reused and now set in a powder blue room with a clearly late 18th Century Pecier and Fontaine inspired decor with lavishly draped fabric.  Greer loved to reuse lovely 18th Century architectural fragments with which he created curtains and decorations for false windows. The tôle peint hanging lighting fixture is typical Greer as are the outstanding and rare steel chairs and the hauntingly curvaceous rocker that antedates Thornet's bentwood by decades. But in the midst of these eccentric and esoteric decorative fancies, a solid and deeply rooted love and appreciation of the late French 18th and early 19th Centuries resonates

The room, seen in the two illustrations below, in which Michael Greer liked to write and work, was swathed in the most Imperial red digne de Malmaison and sums up the grand Greer style admirably. The attenuated elegance of the fine mahogany late 18th Century French bonheur du jour under the Louis XVI giltwood wall mirror, the Regence caned canapé, the Baltic late 18th Century ormolu chandelier, bouillotte lamps, the steel gueridon, the painted canvas depicting Ganymede and Zeus over the steel Directoire campaign bed and the obelisks not only remind us of a connoisseur who deeply loves and understands the late 18th Century in France and Continental Europe. It's a decorative ensemble created by a gentleman and a connoisseur who had the self confidence of an Emilio Terry or a Georges Geoffroy. If Michael Greer had ever considered other careers, he might have been an admirable theatrical designer! 

Tuesday, September 2, 2014


In early December of 2011, I was perusing the online catalog for an upcoming "Interiors" auction of assorted furniture and decorative arts at Christie's in New York City. Two lots being offered in succession intrigued me. They were lots 261 and the next lot. The first comprised a pair of lovely painted and ever so gently worn and charming fauteuils à la reine and the other lot comprised a a canapé en suite. Christie's offered the plausible suggestion that the suite might be by the noted menuiseur active in Lyon during the reign of Louis XV, Nogaret. Examples shown on the Christie's online catalog as presented in December 2011 are seen below. Photos are courtesy of Christie's.

Although I could not fail to notice the similarity of these lovely examples of Mid 18th Century French menuiserie, to some seating furniture in the Rococo "Reception Room" at Vizcaya, a stunning and romantically ravishing house museum in Miami, Florida on Biscayne Bay built during WWI for its owner, industrialist James Deering, I was not prepared for the surprise that these pieces were in fact identical and had once been part of a larger suite of Louis XV seating furniture in that room at Vizcaya before it made the transformation from private house into public museum in the 1950's.  Below are views of the room taken in the 1980's as it appeared with what was left of the furniture after the Deering nieces removed the items which reappeared decades later in the auction market in late 2011. The photos are courtesy of Vizcaya.

A condition report that was kindly provided by email was the moment when it all came together and it became clear that this offering of 2 fauteuils à la reine that comprised Lot 261 and a canapé which was the next lot up for auction were part of a larger suite of Louis XV period caned seating furniture that was part of the ravishing decorative ensemble of the museum's Rococo "Reception Room".  In this condition report, a very strong provenance demonstrated that two nieces of Vizcaya's owner and builder, James Deering, who were Marion Deering Mc Cormick (Mrs Chauncey) who lived from 1886 and died in 1965, and Barbara Deering Danileson (Mrs Richard) who lived from 1888 to 1987, took possession of the chairs after the death of their uncle. After all, Vizcaya was still a private family owned home and breaking up a large suite of furniture to take back to another residence either niece had up North was not amiss or in any way unusual. it was the prerogative of James Deering's beneficiaries to do as they pleased with the contents of this grand house. The provenance also records that the items were subsequently donated to The Speed Art Museum by these ladies in 1950. Obviously, by 2011, The Speed Art Museum was seeking to sell them in what was likely a sort of de-accession sale and consigned them to Christie's. It was apparent the consigning institution and the auction house had no idea of the historical importance of this set of seating furniture to this widely loved and visited house museum in S Florida.  If any further proof was required, that this set of 2 arm chairs and a canapé were part of THE set in the "Reception Room" , a perusal of original vintage photographs of the interiors in Vizcaya document the prior existence of these very same furnishings when Mr. Deering lived at Vizcaya from 1917 until his death in 1925!  Below you can see a photo of the room as it appeared in 1917 in which the entire suite seating furniture is seen intact. This photo is taken from the December 1917 issue of The Architectural Review, in which the entire issue is dedicated to Vizcaya and penned by its great outrageously talented mastermind, principal decorator and artistic coordinator, the debonair Paul Chalfin.

As anyone who has lived a little knows, life is not usually simple or uncomplicated. Getting from point A to point B is not always a straight line.  The harrowing events that followed entailed Vizcaya missing the chance to buy the furniture at auction when the Christie's sale transpired after being alerted on such short notice.  It seemed as if the museum had lost an enviable opportunity. Then suddenly, while perusing in the early part of 2012, to my astonishment, the same 3 pieces reappeared on the gallery market in the inventory of Le Trianon Antiques in Sheffield, MA!  This dealer had been the highest (for all one knows perhaps the only) bidder and was now offering them for sale on the retail market. I alerted the museum again. They set in motion the pursuit of the furniture and the curatorial office contacted Le Trianon Antiques immediately. It is to this gallery owner's credit that he was very considerate and reasonable with the museum when approached by the curator of collections employed there at the time in early 2012 (but who is currently no longer at Vizcaya) and agreed to resell it to the museum so the suite could be once again reassembled. Special mention and credit goes to then head of the museum's fund raising arm, "The Vizcayans", Ms. Lynn M. Summers. She was the one to agree with me that the proverbial second chance seldom presents itself, really put the fire under everyone and unrelentingly pushed for this deal happen as soon as she realized the chance to bring this lovely original furniture was there for the taking! Bravo Lynn!

Below are some recent photos that show the current appearance of the "Reception Room" that has regained its "James Deering Era" (1917-1925) appearance again, with its hypnotically enchanting Vernis Martin inspired black and gold wall panels believed to be from an 18th Century palace in Palermo, luxurious wall silks depicting tropical trees after Rococo style originals designed in the 19th Century (which were kindly rewoven free of charge by Scalamandré after it was clear the originals were threadbare about 60 years ago), a rare and delicate Portuguese mid 18th Century needlepoint carpet, a soberly elegant french Louis XV stone mantle piece, various small Louis XV period tables and a Louis XV style bureau plat, original 18th Century Naples and Chelsea porcelains, a Louis XV tôle cartel clock and all of this dizzying array of Rococo beauty under the benignly serene 18th Century Venetian plaster ceiling from the Rossi Palace in Venice! And finally, back after too many years during which they had been long separated, is the now fully reassembled suite of Louis XV period seating furniture. These photos were taken by myself in January 2014.  A truly happy ending!  Go to Vizcaya when you are next in Miami and see this historic house of unimaginable poetry, fantasy and charm and fall in love!


Additional good news about the return of this furniture is that, under the careful supervision of the curatorial staff so ably headed by Gina Wouters, Curator and Remko Jansonius, Deputy Director of Collections and Curatorial Affairs, under the direction of Museum Director Joel M. Hoffmann, Ph D., the suite is scheduled
for a serious restoration and new upholstery for which Tessinari and Chatel silk will be used! 

Below are recent photos of the restoration crew carefully working on the chairs in the summer of 2014. 

Monday, August 13, 2012


Visitors coming to New York City's Met Museum to view important French 18th Century furniture and decoration often miss a very important collection of rather rare and historically significant things because they are not included in the more familiar Wrightsman Rooms. I shall have occasion to visit these justly legendary galleries in the months to come...

However just beyond those better known galleries are 2 large lesser known rooms where it seems the museum curatorial and administrative staff have placed some ravishing French items that include some of the suite of furniture ordered by the Danish Minister Count Berndstorff when he lived in Paris in the mid 18th Century. That too is the subject for a future blog article and discussion. And among the other items of not insignificant interest to American lovers of French 18th Century decorative art, which will be discussed in this essay, is a partial exhibition of some of an overwhelmingly grand series of Beauvais wall hanging tapestries that Louis XVI ordered in 1789 along with a complimentary suite of Beauvais tapestry seat covers. These absolutely breathtakingly beautiful tapestries and their related seat covers were woven after cartoons by the artist Jean Jacques François Le Barbier, the elder. Some of the artist's cartoons are still conserved in the Moblier National in Paris.

This is the ill fated King of France as he appeared on the eve of the French Revolution in a portrait I took recently during a visit to the Revolutionary Galleries at the Musée Carnavalet in Paris.

This commission should be of particular interest to Americans as the documentation indicates that it was intended to be given to the first and then newly inaugurated American President, General George Washington! Below is the familiar Gilbert Stuart portrait in the White House.

Where the President would have placed such large tapestries in his modest official residences - first in New York City and then subsequently in Philadelphia - would have been a big question and quite a challenge!  Regrettably, it was a challenge President Washington did not have to confront. The events of the French Revolution and the general turmoil of the 1790's that followed never allowed Louis XVI's well intentioned generous official gift to a valued ally and head of state to be presented or enjoyed by its intended recipient!

However in the 19th and 20th Century, the tapestries did eventually change hands and ended up in New York City's Metropolitan Museum where, at the time this blog is published in the summer of 2012, one tapestry and 2 giltwood Louis XVI fauteuils with their complimentary Beauvais upholstery can be viewed and examined by visitors and scholars.  Below is a general view of the installation I photographed last year in June during a routine visit to the museum.

Worth noting is the addition of some lovely Louis XVI period furniture on the platform by David Roentgen...

The one of the four tapestries that is available for viewing at the moment is appropriately that one depicting America.

The flag of the fledgling republic is prominently seen being held by an attractive female allegorical and obligingly classically depicted figure in the centre.

While on the viewer's left, another fetching female allegorical figure is next to the column carrying an oval relief portrait of the American Republic's great friend and ally, Louis XVI.

In between the two is another female allegory of the Kingdom of France, carrying her shield covered with Fleur des Lys, over what art historians believe is a rather dejected reclining allegorical female figure suggesting a vanquished Britain.

Exotic birds and animals, trees and such also add a note of letting the viewer know this represents the New World!

Alas! The Met does not have the other three tapestry wall hangings out for the public to view at the moment. But I was able to scan the images from that invaluable 2-volume reference of European and Post Medieval Tapestries in the Metropolitan in which the entire known history of the tapestry set is documented.

This is a very exotic and evocative tapestry depicting Africa below. It is simply splendid! Under the shade of a tree and before a backdrop including an Egyptian pyramid, we see a majestically seated Negress with leopard skin garb next to her muscular negro attendant resplendently attired in finery including turban and plumes. Another nod to Ancient Egypt's splendors is the obelisk on the right. An allusion to the challenging terrain of the African deserts is the female allegorical figure on the right cupping her hands to get a drink of precious water as well as the appearance on the scene of a snake and other desert features. A zebra, an elephant and a lion are also depicted in all their customary epic scale that nearly dwarf the figures.

And below we see the distant splendors of the Far East in this tapestry representing Asia....

Closer to the hearts and homes of most 18th Century patrons would have been this depiction of Europe...

By no means of lesser interest is the tapestry seating, also following Le Barbier's designs, and executed by Beauvais. The MET has two of the fauteuils on public exhibition. The first of two chair covers depicting allegories of America is seen below.

And the other of two chairs with tapestry covers celebrating America is seen below and can also be enjoyed by the public.

As already noted, not all of the suite is available... Consequently,  in the museum's storage facilities, not currently exhibited, are other armchairs and an additional canapé celebrating Europe and America. It is illustrated below.

 While yet another one has as its subject a celebration of Asia and Africa.  It is seen below.

While it is sad and ironic President Washington was never able to enjoy this gift of undeniably Olympian splendor, it did eventually end up in his country's premier museum where it not only serves to further educate American scholars, dealers, collectors and connoisseurs of 18th Century French decorative art. But it is also a fitting place for this early tangible cultural reminder of a long historic Franco-American friendship to be on view for many to enjoy and to be conserved for generations to come!