| Style and Grace |
By Michael Henry Adams
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EXCEPTIONAL AFRICAN-AMERICAN DÉCOR
AT HOME WITH THE HUXTABLES Today, it's hard to recall what an innovation The Cosby Show was. When the show first aired in 1984, even some blacks exdaimed, "Humph! There aren't any, or not many, African Americans who live like that."
Those familiar with the history of neighborhoods like Strivers Row and Sugar Hill in Harlem, Brooklyn's Fort Greene, St. Albans in Queens, or Mount Vernon, New Rochelle, and other "suburban Sugar Hills" reacted differently, but for most it was a revelation. That television program taught all America and beyond an important lesson: that affluent blacks resided in tastefully conceived interiors.
At the time, many African Americans, starved for affirming representations of black décor, rejoiced. The Huxtables' smart spaces had been a long time coming. Reassuringly normal, these rooms were "utterly unlike those ordinarily associated with black life in much of the national consciousness," remembers April Tyler, a Harlem Realtor. "They betrayed neither the unlovely meagerness of A Raisin in the Sun nor the crass, overconspicuous trendiness of Superfly. Traditional and comfortably furnished, they featured the occasional African artifact alongside good Colonial reproductions. Inherent in them, we were certain, was an appropriate guide, worthy of application."
Now the program's low key sets, depicting a fictional Brooklyn brownstone, might seem a trifle dull, which shows just how far things have advanced. Another indication of how far we've come in the post-Cosby Show era is the black influence on the dynamic and far-reaching new American multicultural eclecticism. Doors incised by West African master carvers or compact-disk shelves crafted in the Ivory Coast are par for the course. Black architects and black interior designers are working now as never before.
Hardly anyplace in this book is as conservatively decorated as the Huxtables' homestead was. If you're black and a neo-Florentine villa is your heart's desire, that's all right.
AFRICAN AMERICANS IN NEW YORK: THE WORLD CAPITAL OF STYLE
From the Colonial period to the Harlem Renaissance and beyond, New York holds a special place in the evolution of black style. Doubtless you are familiar with the songs about New York. Anything goes hereas long as it has style. It is the city that never sleeps, the hub around which the rest of the civilized world revolves. It's a wonderful town, where most residents are convinced that if they can make it here, in the Big Apple, they'll be all set. Millions have been drawn to this complicated, often frenetic place, and among the lures that cause the hopeful, far and wide, to be irresistibly attracted ever Gothamward is the pursuit of beauty. Many of this group have been blacks.
African Americans in the world's greatest city, now and in times past, have created compelling and enchanting home environments. Those decorating efforts, until recent years, have been all but ignored, although blacks have called New York home for as long as any European colonist has. Little survives to document the décor of the black presence in New York for the first three centuries of its history, but much of that heritage is embodied in this cross section of black New Yorkers' homes today. It provides a rare look at incomparable, sometimes unconventional, spaces, hopefully rendering questionable a host of enduring popular stereotypes about how black people live and providing answers to more interesting conundrums about black style.
One recurring issue is whether or not an identifiable "black style" exists in interior decorating.
"I can always identify a black singer. Whether Bobby Short, SarahVaughan, or Jessye Norman, there's always a definite quality held in common by even the most disciplined and rigorously trained among them. It's a kind of warmth and depth, a richness, sometimes a subtle thing but, for me, always unmistakable," says the elegant Grafton Trew, an actor by trade and an aficionado of matters of taste. Born in Harlem in 1915, Mr. Trew now lives in Turtle Bay. But he concedes, "It's a different story altogether with a room."
Stephen Birmingham, that prodigious chronicler of elite Americans, seems to have concluded that there is a "black style." In his 1977 book Certain People, which examines customs among African-American upper echelons, an entire chapter is devoted to "Taste."
"I remember well, reading that book and especially that chapter," says Carson Anderson, an architectural historian. "It was anonymous rich black vulgarians versus mostly anonymous rich white connoisseurs, and it was awful! Chief among the complaints of the 'connoisseurs' was what they deemed to be characteristic black ostentation. Especially memorable was a caustic quote, attributed to Louis Auchincloss, the novelist. Referring to the homes of 'gracious, cultivated' blacks he had visited in Harlem, Auchincloss reportedly said, 'It's very hard to describe. There were things in their houses and apartments that, while obviously expensive, I just wouldn't want in mine.' Most unjust," recalls Mr. Anderson, "was the finger-pointing directed at a certain matron, who it's implied ought to have known better than to display 'gold painted' walnuts in a costly classic Steuben glass bowl. But didn't Helena Rubenstein fill a wooden African bowl, on the floor of her Park Avenue drawing room, with colorful glass vegetables? What sanctioned Emily Post's use of silver-painted artificial fruit in a silver bowl? What made that more correct than gilded walnuts? Birmingham depicted bourgeois blacks as obsessively house-proud."
Whether house-proud and having a fondness for the ornate, blacksonly out of slavery for one hundred forty years and beyond Jim Crow for only fifty yearsare still clearly in the wonderful throes of a rapidly evolving African-American decorating style.
Says an amused Grafton Trew, "My friend Diana Vreeland used always to say, 'Even bad taste is to be preferred to no taste at all.' It might be good or it might be god-awful, but I tell you, our folks have got some style! The way we fix our hair, wear our clothes, or decorate our housesit's, well, just as my grandmother used to say, 'You might be shocked, but you won't be bored!' I'm convinced we were born with style. We brought it over in the dank holds from Africa."
A hereditary style sense is an intriguing concept. A taste for fine objects and stylish surroundings comes to many as a matter of course. It's in our souls.
HOUSES and HOMES
As much as I appreciate and admire the beauty of objects and the solemnity of noble architecture, I've come to realize that they are all but meaningless in the absence of context provided by people. The most vital role that heritage and history play is to connect us one to anotherpast, present, and futureand to enable us to discover ourselves.
What is shown on these pages are not only interesting spaces, they are homes. They reflect the soulful living of those who have so generously opened their doors to share with us a bit of the beauty they have created.
Excerpted from Style and Grace , by Michael Henry Adams . Copyright (c) 2003 by Michael Henry Adams . Reprinted by permission of Little, Brown and Company, New York, NY. All rights reserved.Back to top