|State Bed from Robert Adam's
Osterley Park House, London
16 Varieities of (Im)propriety
by James Coote
In the State Bedroom at Osterley House, Robert Adam fashioned a palatial bed, its design inspired by an engraving of the Temple of the Sun at Baalbek and its details taken from Stuart's Antiquities of Athens. Conceived as a Temple of Venus, the immense four-poster bed, encrusted with ormolu, has green velvet and silk hangings, golden tassels, and valences embroidered in gilt thread with poppy heads (emblems of sleep), alternating with the owner's 'eagle' crest. Horace Walpole, who had tricked out his nearby mansion, Strawberry Hill, in Gothic trappings, was shocked. It was "all too theatric...what would Vitruvius think of a dome decorated by a milliner?"1 The bed would have pleased even less those like Lord Burlington and his architect/painter/furniture designer William Kent, who based their tastes pedantically on Vitruvius' and Palladio's version of ancient Rome. Although capitalizing freely on the power of Fashion, Adam operated in a claustrophobic world of Etiquette which was desinged to maintain exclusivity by exclusion. This should not to be mistaken for Manners which are inclusive and have to do with helping others think better of themselves. (Neither do Manners have anything to do with status, fame, titles or wealth.)2
From his arrival in 1921, until 1968, John Staub was Houston's preeminant architect of fine houses, mainly because he had the reputation for a reliable sense of propriety. He originally went to Houston to supervise several houses in Shadyside commissioned from the fashionable, eclectic, New York architect, Harrie T. Lindeberg. Like Lindeberg, Staub drew inspiration from the buildings of the past, not by copying them exactly, nor by trying to recreate them, but by using them in whatever way seemed suitable to the making of nice, comfortable (in the Houston climate), and socially acceptable (in the top Houston society) houses. So symbiotic was Staub with his small world of Houston patrons that he knew instinctively what they deemed proper. In the Twenties and Thirties they preferred things English (Georgian and Tudor) or American Colonial, and were disinterested in, if not contemptuous of, things Mexican, Hispanic, or Mediterranean. As Eclecticism became increasingly discredited in the eyes of the profession, Staub himself began to look more to the vernacular traditions of East and South Texas and Louisiana, as appropriate precedents. Nevertheless, Staub's residential clients never wavered in their confidence in his eclectic tastes, nor doubted that they were indeed Taste.3
The Custom of the Country/Bad Girl
At the very beginning of Edith Wharton's 1905 novel The House of Mirth, Lily Bart emerged from Lawrence Seldon's apartment house after taking tea with him alone in his apartment. Alas, she ran into sly, socially ambitious Mr. Rosedale (whom the presumably proper Mrs. Wharton described as "a plump, rosy man of the blond Jewish type, with smart London clothes fitting him like upholstery, and small side-long eyes which gave him the air of appraising people as if they were bric-a-brac"). Miss Bart, flustered, claimed to have been to see her dressmaker. . . .
1 Joseph and Anne Rykwert, The Brothers Adam, The Men and the Style (London: William Collins Sons and Co., 1985), p. 130.
2 See John Fleming, Robert Adam and His Circle (London: John Murray, 1962), Geoffrey Beard, The Work of Robert Adam (New York: ARCO Publishing Co., 1978), and John Steegman, The Rule of Taste (London: Century Hutchinson Ltd., 1986).
3 Howard Barnstone, The Architecture of John Staub (Austin: The University of Texas Press, 1979) p. 43.