“Pretty” is an adjective in the design world that, for the last decade, has become much maligned. Synonymous with a superficial, skin-deep attractiveness, “pretty” has been snarled out as an aesthetic insult, cast upon and spat upon like a shunned leper—somehow capable of mass contagion. Sworn to be devoid of substance, “pretty” has become a lightning rod of derision, a descriptive concept avoided at all costs. Smothered by the arbiters of chic, cool, fabulous, stunning, contemporary and classic, “pretty” has demurely stepped aside and permitted the self-promotional bullies of design cognoscenti to obliterate it from visual vocabulary.However, with the passing of Mrs. Paul Mellon, the subsequent exhibition that amounts to truckloads of furnishings, art, tableware, textiles and accessories from seven homes, and Sotheby’s commitment to a four-week exhibition period, five floors of exhibition real estate and a number of catalogs thicker than the old-fashioned New York City telephone book (both white and yellow pages combined), “pretty” has reentered the design vocabulary with Category 5 impact. Despite a certain esoteric New York antiquarian quoted as “only being able to bid on five lots—nothing there really for me,“ New Yorkers and the world at large were entranced by the nearly 2,000 lots, bidding their prices up to 10 times or more their initial estimates.
Mrs. Paul Mellon, or “Bunny” as she was referred to, was a woman of “sophistication, expertise, sensibility and intelligence,” a philanthropist and above all a devoted horticulturist and botanist. “Legendary for her impeccable taste,” said I.M. Pei, who noted that “Mrs. Mellon has the combination of sensitivity and imagery with the best professionals.”
Referring to the 2,000 lots sold to benefit her foundation, Sotheby’s described Mrs. Mellon’s possessions this way: “Together this selection stands as testament to the phenomenal sensibility, judgment and taste of Rachel Lambert Mellon, one of the great connoisseurs and collectors of the 20th century.”
And I would say that Mrs. Mellon has unintentionally reintroduced the graceful nature of “pretty” with this enormous retrospective to an audience hungry for the uplifting prettiness of the White House Rose Garden, the intimate prettiness of her toile de jouy sitting rooms, the sweeping prettiness of her espaliered fruit tree tunnel, and exquisite prettiness of her porcelain collections.
For example, her taste in chairs tended to be from the more restrained yet elegant period of Louis XVI, painted in well-weathered French gray-white, pointing toward an unfussy lightness. If she chose Italian furnishings, they would lie in the late-18th-century neoclassic period with attenuated lines. The Italian furnishings, juxtaposed with her Giacometti tables, allowed one to understand Mrs. Mellon’s attraction to thin graceful lines. Even when her tastes veered into the rococo, an effortless, perfect prettiness of line and carvings was always in evidence. Her cream-painted standing bookcase, constructed of thin dowels and trimmed with a wavy wooden rick-rack (Nancy Lancaster provenance) was a pretty confection of architectural display.
Her carpets, garlanded with flowers and wreaths of botanicals, were very pretty. Her kilims and Aubussons were effervescent. And collection after collection of American hooked rugs, scattered and layered about, were the quintessence of pretty. The tureens and boxes molded in the shapes of asparagus bundles, cauliflower, melons (of course!), cabbages and squash, gorgeously glazed and lavishly detailed, were a revelation. A collection of this scale and quality has seldom been seen outside the great houses of Europe.
Then there was the china and porcelain collection. In this contemporary world, where the laxity and sterile efficiency of daily life has deemed fine china and porcelain a thing of the past, even steadfast modernists yearned. Meissen ornithological plates of such beautifully hand-painted detail, articulating every feather and scattered with pretty insects, were irresistible, along with a spectacular Wedgwood bone china dinner and dessert service. Finely painted scenes of English country house views lightly centered in a field of translucent bone china and delicately traced in gold held one captive with its prettiness. Even the Delftware bowls, canisters and candlesticks, which can by their nature show a clunky side, displayed a lightness of being. Since the dealers of porcelain and china have thinned their ranks, perhaps the voracious adulation of the exquisite Mellon collection will whet appetites enough to revitalize and increase their ranks.
Along with the collector’s edition catalog, featuring pictures of the intact rooms in each of Mrs. Mellon’s homes, Sotheby’s produced life-size images of these light-filled, inviting and pretty rooms. Whether in New York, Virginia, Nantucket, Antigua or Paris, her sense of pretty was pervasive.
Though I have heard several comments as to this collection’s meandering through a mid-20th-century sensibility—no longer current—I disagree. This exhibition’s heart lies in a light calm where one can breathe freshly. Hopefully its civilized gentle prettiness can challenge the random sharpness of today’s brash and facile eclecticism. This is not mere nostalgia. And I hardly suggest reproductions of this original viewpoint, but I hope for a recognition of its flawless delicacy, its gift of serenity, its acknowledgment and appreciation of history and craft, and its informed connoisseurship along with the appreciative moniker of prettiness.
This sensibility is imbued with simplicity and peace. What more could interior design wish for?