There’s a scene in Sleepless in Seattle (It was on TV last week and yes, I got sucked in to watching the last half hour. Meg Ryan looked very nice in a French braid, but there was a lot of sighing.) where Meg and hapless Bill Pullman, her fiance, are in Tiffany & Co. They wander around the tabletop section, followed by a registry clerk and she pauses in front of a vitrine filled with blue-flowered china. “Don’t hate me, but I love this pattern,” she says. Bill gets a look of wonder. “That was my grandmother’s pattern.” There is a pause for significance. Clerk asks, “How many place settings should I put you down for?” “Ten,” they reply in unison.
This scene stuck with me for ten years, 1993 to 2003, when I duly registered for 10 place settings. Of course, my premarital taste summit took place at Moss, where blue rosettes are banished. All our choices were white. And I did not throw my fiance over for Tom Hanks. Not with that hair.
But the scene, and the movie’s rejection of the idea that shared taste = true love made me think again about the topic of taste. I am looking for a book idea that is bigger than just architecture and taste is the topic I keep returning to in my mind. Where does taste come from? Is it hereditary? And why are its practitioners so slippery to describe? All the architects I am interested in turn out to really be tastemakers, top-quality designers that were able to put aside their own egos and showcase the work of others.
Ben Thompson, first and foremost, created D/R as a sort of dream version of his own home, filled with everything he would have bought for himself. He and his team designed furniture, but it was mostly in the manner of “fill-in pieces”, the phrase Florence Knoll used to describe the particular genius of her rectilinear sofas and credenzas. Thompson’s pieces were chunkier, many designed as dorm furniture, but the work of both needs Bertoia sculptures, Noguchi lamps, fuzzy pillows, rugs or dogs to come alive. Alexander Girard too provided the structure in shops, exhibitions, his own house, for folk art and letters and plows to shine.
As I have journeyed back in time as a historian I keep encountering the origins of my own taste too. For this currently inchoate book to work, I think I would need a bit of memoir, from my grandparents’ building of their own modern house in the woods, in the late 1940s, to my Cambridge childhood with big paper lanterns, to designing my own house, with more paper lanterns, and a Girard sofa, and a Koenig kitchen. Those encounters can be a shock. The most recent: in the catalog for Girard’s amazing 1949 show An Exhibition for Modern Living, my silver pattern, Towle Craftsman. I felt like Girard and I had gone to Tiffany together and answered, “Ten.”
The truth isn’t that far off. While researching my dissertation, I had lunch with a number of former employees of Connecticut General, arranged by Vassar professor Nicholas Adams. I loved the feel of my fork so much I surreptitiously turned it over to peek at the pattern name. Towle Craftsman. The lunch was at the home of the daughter and son-in-law of one of the employees, and I have to believe the parents had bought the silver. My theory of taste is that it is environmental. After you had worked in Bunshaft’s glorious building, wouldn’t you start to see things in a modern way? Your eye would become Girard’s eye, as mine has. And that would seem to be the only pattern possible.