One House Two Worlds

Across the room hangs a handsome gilded English pier glass of about 1800 that was covered in dark green paint when it was in Kindig’s warehouse (see Fig. 4). Out came the ice pick and scraper again, but this time when she got down to the original layer, the wife found that most of the gilding was gone. She sought out books on gold-leafing and taught herself how to do it. “The hardest part was making it look old, which I finally accomplished through trial and error—applying the gold leaf unevenly, allowing the red ground to show through, and then rubbing in some lampblack.” Beneath the glass is a painted serpentine Baltimore card table with finely executed landscapes of ruins in the cartouches that are probably the work of an artist such as the Dutch-born Cornelius de Beet (1772–1840), who worked as an ornamental painter in Baltimore between 1810 and 1840.3 The couple’s twentieth-century interests are subtly insinuated into the room in the pair of “toucan” bookends designed by Albert Drexler Jacobsen (1895–1973) for the Cowan Pottery in Ohio, 1929, and in the four-piece Diament tea set designed by Jean Theobald about 1928 for the Wilcox Silver Plate Company, a division of International Silver in Meriden, Connecticut.

Friends will tell you that fine wine, food—she is an excellent cook—and conversation are the hallmarks of every dinner party here. The original demilune ends of the dining table, with unusual inset painted glass panels depicting George Washington, were probably made in Baltimore or Philadelphia, where the European trained Samuel Kennedy (active 1801–1819) made and sold églomisé panels in the first decades of the nineteenth century (see Fig. 4). The dining room chairs are from two sets with the elegant heart-shaped shield backs closely associated with Baltimore. “The backs are very fragile, and tend to break easily, but we definitely wanted Baltimore chairs, so we glue them back together. Actually today’s glues are much stronger than the originals anyhow. Still, it makes one friend nervous, since he broke one chair and was here when another one went, so we have invested in a pair of sturdier Crate and Barrel chairs too.” Notable, too, in the dining room are a serpentine-front chest of drawers, 1790 to 1800, and the sideboard (Fig. 5), which was included in the seminal Southern Furniture, 1640–1820 exhibition, held at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in Richmond in 1952.4 Kindig notes a certain provincialism in its proportions and combination of inlays that suggests it was made outside Baltimore, but ongoing research suggests that it may well have been made in the city by a craftsman newly arrived from abroad.

The couple moved to the town house in the 1970s, thinking that sooner or later they would find a place more suitable to their eighteenth-century furnishings. Eventually he admitted that the thought of shoveling snow and mowing the lawn was not really that appealing: traveling was better. They began taking almost yearly trips to France, each time carefully determining a theme in advance, and setting up a well-researched itinerary that would provide the fullest exposure possible (not to mention the best food and wine)—Gothic architecture, art nouveau in Nancy, the fountains of Paris, Le Corbusier, the eighteenth-century architecture within the Paris Péripherique (ending at the Hôtel de Crillon, built under Louis XV, where the manager asked to meet them and provided complimentary champagne and flowers). They also traveled extensively in the United States, visiting numerous cities and national parks across the country, always fully briefed before they left on the art, architecture, and music—or the flora and fauna—they would encounter: only three states remain to be explored—North and South Dakota and Alaska.

At home their focus turned increasingly to the twentieth century. First, his law office. In contrast to the staid wood-paneled offices of his partners with their easy chairs, fine art, and mahogany desks, he wanted art deco and moderne: a sleek convertible desk/dining table, aluminum and steel floor lamps, capacious black-upholstered armchairs and chrome side tables of the 1930s, a bold standing ash tray, and, as the centerpiece, a 1919 model of a coastal freighter out of Philadelphia. His partners said it looked like a “Greyhound bus station,” but somehow it was where they most often congregated.

The couple began frequenting the seminal American art deco dealers Dan Inglett and Gene Watson, who had established Inglett-Watson in the Washington, D. C., area in the 1970s, but reputedly found the clientele too conservative and moved to Baltimore in the early 1980s, where they were putting American design of the 1920s and 1930s on the map. “The shop became a gathering place for many budding enthusiasts,” recalls the wife, “and we all learned a lot together. It was an exciting time. We decided to do the guestroom, dressing room, and office in the town house in this new style, which appealed so strongly to both of us.” They went to the first Modernism show in New York in 1986—and to many thereafter, but for a long time Inglett-Watson was their main source.

One favorite piece acquired from the firm is the crisscross-based table in the guestroom, the designer of which is unknown, showing that good design is still often anonymous (see Fig. 8). In this room, too, are a plate glass dressing table and chair and a molded-glass looking glass from the line the Pittsburgh Plate Glass Company introduced at the 1939 New York World’s Fair. On the bed pictured (one of a pair from the 1930s) is a length from a bolt of fabric that was unidentified when they bought it, but subsequent research revealed that its design is identical to that of a wall covering in the women’s lounge on the third mezzanine of New York’s Radio City Music Hall of 1932. The fabric may have been designed by Donald Deskey (1894–1989) who had overall control of the design of the music hall’s interior and produced some textile and carpet designs for it; or it may have been the work of Ruth Reeves (1892–1966), whom Deskey commissioned to design some of the fabrics for this and other buildings.5

“Finding appropriate twentieth-century rugs is important to the look of a room with these kinds of furnishings, but can be difficult,” the wife observes. Many art deco rugs, including the one in the guestroom, were made in China in the 1920s and 1930s by the firm founded by Walter Nichols in the early 1920s. By contrast, the rug in the dressing room, called Two Harlequins, is French, initialed by Jean Lurçat, who trained in Paris as a painter but also designed rugs and tapestries derived from his cubist style.6

Thank you for signing up.

by Émile Jacques Ruhlmann (1879-1933), 1926. Macassar ebony, amaranth, and ivory. Metropolitan Museum of Art. By Cynthia Drayton

» View All