The real Menil

In addition to Belter, another sign of Victoriana’s approaching rehabilitation was the tripod-footed black-and-gold lacquered Chinese games table that James recycled as a dressing table for Dominique de Menil (Fig. 4). It brings to mind the mid-nineteenth-century japanned papier-mâché furniture of French or English origin that became newly fashionable when reintroduced as accent pieces by such French tastemakers as the master decorator Stéphane Boudin (1888–1967) of the Paris firm Maison Jansen, and the eccentric Left Bank antiquaire Madeleine Castaing (1894–1992). Menil’s table is similar to pieces selected by Boudin for the Queen’s Sitting Room at the White House during his comprehensive refurbishment during the Kennedy administration. That small chamber remains the last intact remnant of Boudin’s effort, which included two other Victorian interiors—the Treaty Room and Lincoln Sitting Room—which marked an important turning point in historical design.

By the time Dominique de Menil died, at eighty-nine, her half-century-old residence was showing serious signs of age. The house was taken over by the Menil Collection and its contents pared down; but to give the rooms a sense of the original owners’ presence, another of their daughters, the costume designer Christophe de Menil, deployed appropriate examples of painting and sculpture—a Frank Stella (1936–) here, a John Chamberlain (1927–) there. Some found the results too stark and gallery-like, and there are plans to reinstall the still controversial James upholstered pieces in the fall.

This kind of gradual rethinking, not uncommon in historic houses of far older vintage, is likely to continue until some sort of happy medium is achieved, informed as it must be by the Menil house now being used for official entertaining on a scale that precludes certain domestic niceties. What is certain, however, is that this frequently photographed, closely scrutinized document of the high modernist style at its most rarefied and personal will continue to cast an inimitable spell on admirers well into the century beyond the one that gave it life.

* Quoted in Calvin Tompkins, “The Benefactor,” New Yorker, June 8, 1998, p. 56.

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

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