Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Let Us Now Praise Witty Men

In this increasingly homogenized world of target audiences and common denominators, someone in possession of true individuality is a rare bird indeed. I was reminded of this fact one Thursday morning a couple of weeks ago when, over my coffee and strawberries, I opened my favorite section of the Times and spied a wonderful article on one of my decorating heroes, Keith Irvine. Now 80 years old, Mr. Irvine’s penchant for original thought and singular taste has not diminished one wee bit. If anything, as happily often occurs with age, it has only intensified, this being evidenced by his sharp pronouncements on topics ranging from the imperiousness of Sister Parish to the tentacles of Crate and Barrel. Mentored by the best, with talent to spare, the Scotsman Irvine combined what he learned with who he was and proceeded to concoct designs that were ever consistent in their beauty and their comfort; enchanting, inviting, and imminently livable rooms. In reading this entertaining interview with the man himself, and recalling all the pictures I had seen of his amazing work over the years, I recognized afresh an essential ingredient that is shared by all creations that I find most inspiring in the art of interior design, or in the art of life, for that matter. That most crucial element is Wit. For me, a room cannot sparkle without it. It is of no consequence the cost of the fabrics, the importance the paintings, or the provenance of the bibelots - when a room is devoid of wit it sits as lifeless and dull as a physician’s waiting room on a sunless day.

Many years ago, when I was just beginning to be fearless, I saw a magazine photo that effected me greatly. It was of a sitting room at Gipsy House, the home of the late author Roald Dahl.
Dahl had hung an immense and flamboyantly opulent mirror on the pale peach wall of the tiny room; a mirror which touched both ceiling and floor and straddled a ceiling beam to boot. Needless to say, it totally dominated the room, and I found it entrancing. With a beribboned bouquet of dried flowers tucked along one side and an emerald green tote bag hanging from the nose of a carved dolphin on the other, it was a wink to the seriousness that can sometimes exist in design. It was completely charming. It was witty.

While intelligence can be present without wit, and sadly often is, wit simply cannot breathe without intelligence. Wit springs from, and thrives on, intelligence. Think Austen or Rowling, Hepburn or Vreeland, Leonard Cohen or The Beatles. Think Keith Irvine. Intelligence plus wit so often equals magic. Perhaps that is why the most sought after dinner guests, the longest married couples, and yes, the most creative decorators seem to possess that bit of a sidelong glance at gravity, that crinkly sprinkle of amusement that just makes everything, in art and in life, better.
Keith Irvine has it, has always had it.
Long may he reign.

“No matter how much restriction civilization imposes on the individual, he nevertheless finds some way to circumvent it. Wit is the best safety valve modern man has evolved; the more civilization, the more repression, the more need there is for wit."”
Sigmund Freud

If you are unfamiliar with the work of Keith Irvine,
a wonderful book was published last year that I would recommend.
It is entitled Keith Irvine-A Life in Decoration, and was written by his wife, Chippy