eau de cologne on the esquire carpet during the making of this issue, as a bitter turf war erupted over the content and direction but most of all the look of the magazine. This conflict was, as you might imagine, not an especially butch affair — manbags at dawn, to put it kindly — and it was conducted, for the most part, electronically, as arguments so often are these days (alas). Still, it was good, clean, passive -aggressive -shading-into -aggressive - aggressive fun. I’m told that at one point of high needle, the term “basic bitches” was used. I’m told it was I who used it.
The opposing sides, then, each bristling with indignation and seething with resentment at the wrongheadedness, the ignorance, the idiocy of the other, were as follows:
In the colour-clashing, flock-wallpapered, tchotchke-stuffed, tapestry-hung, tripping-overthe-antiques corner: me.
In the clean, white corner, undecorated, empty of character and devoid of personality: everyone else.
Here was a confrontation, to my mind, between minimalists and maximalist; roundheads and cavalier; ascetics and aesthete. It was a question, as ever, of style and taste, specifically styles of architecture and tastes in interior decoration. In mid-April, we were in the final stages of putting the magazine together when it occurred to me that, in an issue overwhelmingly dedicated to the appearance of things, from card holders to drinks coasters, there was scarcely an image of anything older than yours truly to gaze upon. A vintage sports car. A famous photo of Los Angeles by night. Richard Gere’s barnet. And that’s your lot.
Did beauty not exist before modernity? Did design begin in 1930? Were the staff of Esquire born in a laboratory and raised in a monastery? Or — worse? — vice-versa? Such were the questions I found myself asking.
Not that I wasn’t pleased with the work already done. On the contrary. Tim Lewis’s story on IKEA’s future laboratory in Copenhagen; John-Michael O’Sullivan’s interview with the founders of Dimore Studio, the influential Milanese interiors company; Johnny Davis’s profile of the British brothers behind Vollebak, perhaps the most technologically advanced maker of clothes on the planet; Richard Benson’s salute to the car designer Giorgetto Giugiaro; Will Self ’s paean to the fantasy architecture of LA. All terrific pieces of reporting on the cutting edge of design and tech, then and now. But with all that already on the blocks, we were now planning a fashion shoot at a brand new, fiercely contemporary, starchitect-designed museum. In Doha. I called a time out.
Where’s the chintz? I asked, or words to that effect. And I continued: what happened to the pouffes? Whither the knick-knacks? Would it be too much trouble to have a photo of a chair a person might actually want to sit on? Possibly in a room someone — someone like me — might actually want to inhabit? With, maybe, I don’t know, a painting on the wall, or some books on the shelf ?
My suggestion for a fashion shoot location, to offset the militant millennial modernism: Hilles, Detmar Blow’s house in Gloucestershire. (The “e” in Hilles is silent, naturally, to bamboozle us non-Us.) I visited Hilles once, when I was researching a story on Alexander McQueen, Detmar’s late wife, Isabella Blow, having been the designer’s early champion. It is not an old house. It was built in 1913 by Detmar’s grandfather, also Detmar, a protégé of William Morris. A newish house, then, but one that looks like it might be old. And so, while I suppose we must disparage it as nostalgia, deride it as pastiche, I find that hard to do: I remember finding Hilles something of a swoon, with its slightly rakish
aspect, its mock-baronial halls, threadbare carpets and awkward furniture. The perfect setting, I thought, in which to show off summer’s directional menswear.
This idea, that we might shoot the cover of Esquire at Hilles, was met, as I may have mentioned, with horror. There were tears of rage and fits of the vapours and pleading emails and veiled threats and glowering stares. I dug my heels in. When that didn’t work, I fought back. As you can see from the cover, I prevailed — I don’t always — and off they went, the fashion team and the art team and the photo team, filled with misgivings, on a glorious sunny English spring day. And they came back with — well, you be the judge. But I think it looks splendid.
now, i’m easily led. and i confess that i was, at the time of this important debate, heavily under the influence of a brand new picture book. In March, Rizzoli published John Richardson: At Home, a handsome survey of the houses and apartments of the Picasso biographer, haute bohemian and art world gadfly. Robin Williams said that cocaine is God’s way of telling you you are making too much money. For me, chunky coffee table hardbacks perform the same function; the Taschen shop is my Studio 54. (Searching and fearless inventory: alongside the John Richardson tome, and the three extant volumes of his Picasso biography, I also have coffee table books by Bob Richardson and Terry Richardson, as well as multiple copies of Andrew Richardson’s mucky magazine. If Samuel Richardson had published a saucy coffee table edition of Pamela, his ground-breaking #MeToo novel, I’d own that, too. It’s an illness.)
Sir John Richardson, who died in March, aged 95, just two weeks before the publication of At Home, was a connoisseur. At various times, he lived in a colonnaded chateau in the south of France; a set in the Albany, in Mayfair; two floors of a pink brownstone on Manhattan’s Upper East Side; an elegant country house in Connecticut; and, latterly, a loft apartment on Fifth Avenue.
Richardson had taste. Each house is decorated with what might be described as considered nonchalance. Each is filled with pictures by his famous friends. Picasso, of course. Also Braque, Lucian Freud, Warhol. There is sculpture and there are antiques, and textiles and fabrics and lamps and mirrors and framed photos — lots of photos, photos everywhere — and flowers and clashing prints and piles of books and voluptuous curtains (Richardson’s phrase) and marble busts and Russian chandeliers.
“The rooms did not conform to fashion,” Richardson writes of his Albany digs. “I simply arranged the things I liked and had accumulated in a manner I found comfortable and casual.” Richardson’s idea of casual extended, in his Mayfair sitting room, to an Italian baroque mirror, 17th century Flemish tapestry and Tibetan trumpets, as well as a portrait of Sir Joshua Reynolds and cartoons for stained glass by Sir Edward Burne-Jones. He had, he wrote, “the usual English penchant for objects patinated by wear and tear and time.”
The East 75th Street duplex — bought for $12,500 in 1960 — is his masterpiece. In one room, deep blue armorial tapestries are presided over by a stuffed leopard. “The jumble works, at least for me,” explained Richardson. “But then I’m a bit of a jumble myself.” Well, aren’t we all? And isn’t it that, the glorious jumble of life, which so much modernist design shrinks from, and denies? Modernist architecture is ideological. It is utopian. And like so much utopianism it begins with good intentions but, confronted by the messy imperfections of humans and human nature, it becomes doctrinaire, then dictatorial, then damaging.
The risk in pointing this out is that one seems like a pipe-puffing fogey, a Prince Charles or a Tom Wolfe. Wolfe’s From Bauhaus to Our House, his reactionary grenade, lobbed into the lobby of the museum of modern American architecture — almost 40 years ago now — makes great sport of the “whiteness & lightness & leanness & cleanness & bareness & spareness” of postwar American design, deriding in particular the glass and steel and concrete boxes of Philip Johnson and IM Pei and the other American adherents to the International Style, in thrall, as Wolfe felt they were, to the corrupting influence of the European masters of modernism, from Germany, France and Holland.
I picked up the Wolfe polemic again recently because the Bauhaus has been hard to avoid, in its centenary year. And at the same time as I was under the spell of John Richardson, I was deep in another book, about a different man, more significant, no doubt, though possibly not quite as fun at parties: Fiona MacCarthy’s magisterial study of Walter Gropius. (Wolfe delightedly quotes Gropius’s wife, Alma, on “the most unforgettable characteristic of the Bauhaus style”: “garlic on the breath.”)
In 1919, six years after Hilles was built, Gropius founded the German art school that did more, perhaps, than any other organisation to influence — and even invent — 20th-century
architecture and design. Not only buildings, but furniture, products, graphics, industrial design (John Richardson’s early profession), typography, all were profoundly changed by the philosophy and aesthetics of the Bauhaus.
If neophytes know anything at all about it, it might be the simple phrase, “Form follows function” (actually coined as “Form ever follows function”, by the American architect Louis Sullivan). Gropius and his gang — László Moholy-Nagy, Marcel Breuer, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe — avoided applied ornamentation (except in their names) and strove for a clean and harmonious, one might say efficient, relationship between the design of an object, whether a skyscraper or a chair or a desk lamp, and its purpose. I don’t agree with Wolfe: I think the Bauhaus made beautiful things, even if you don’t always want to sit on them for too long. I also think its legacy is complicated and unresolved. And I don’t think Wolfe is always to be trusted on points of style; he wore spats.
In any case, you’re wondering, what has the Bauhaus, that most strudel-flavoured of movements, to do with this issue of British Esquire, or with Hilles, or with Sir John Richardson’s collection of Pre-Raphaelite art? Isn’t, or at least wasn’t, Britain the great home of anti-modernism? “We do not understand the modern movement and we do not like it,” MacCarthy quotes a British journalist of the Thirties saying, in her book. “An a-cultural country,” Gropius called Britain, in a letter home to a friend, after he was effectively exiled here, escaping the Nazis, in 1934. “Bauhaus balls,” huffed Osbert Lancaster.
But one of the most important influences on the Bauhaus, and thus on all modern design, was an Englishman: William Morris. It was Morris, the Victorian architect, textile designer, poet, socialist agitator, beard wearer and Arts and Crafts bigwig, who posited the notion that art should meet the needs of society, and that its function should dictate its form. A notion taken up at the beginning of the 20th century by the modernists of the Neues Bauen, precursor of the Bauhaus. Their idea was that art and mass production could be reconciled, that beauty in design could be achieved through radical simplicity, and that it could be made available to all. This is very modern, and also very William Morris-y. Hilles, then, designed in the shadow of Morris, might be said to be, in its way, impeccably modern. So there.
what would william morris have made of Instagram? A shop window for wallpaper, a promotional tool for poetry? How about Gropius, and Mies van der Rohe, and the rest of them? Would they have adapted their practices to acknowledge the tyranny of the tiny square? Would Breuer have recruited a naked Kardashian to help flog his Wassily chair?
Plenty of architects and designers and decorators today work with Instagram in mind. (Plenty of magazine editors, too.) This does not always result in their finest work. Witness the appalled response, among architecture and design aficionados, to Hudson Yards, the new, $25bn megadevelopment on the Far West Side of Manhattan. Witness, most damningly, the Vessel, the selfie-ready construction situated therein, designed by the Mr Marmite of British designers, Thomas Heatherwick. Whether you see the Vessel as a “waste-basket-shaped stairway to nowhere” ( The New York Times) or a “shawarma-shaped stairway to nowhere” ( The New Yorker), pretty much everyone concurs: it’s a stairway to nowhere. One can only regret that Tom Wolfe has ascended the stairway to the great design studio in the sky, and can no longer pass judgement.
We know, then, about Instagram’s sometimes pernicious effect on fashion design, product design, architecture. But Miranda Collinge’s piece in this issue draws attention to a still more insidious development, one we can perhaps describe as unnatural design. Her story is about the rise to digital fame of a quite hideous fish (sorry, fish lovers) called the flowerhorn cichlid. Manmade, carnivorous, this strange, hybrid creature has, largely thanks to Instagram, become a status symbol — a living luxury good, like a trophy husband or certain breeds of dog. It’s a story about technology, about aesthetics, and about ethics. And fish food.
Even more chilling than the tale of the Instafish: “The Group”, Joanna Kavenna’s blackly comic, dystopian fable, which we’re proud to publish here. “The Group” is a Ballardian nightmare about artificial intelligence, ersatz community, synthetic nature and latecapitalist bullshit. The enervating language of corporate marketing — the Group of the title is “a tech-connected, experiential environment with engagement and participation built into every level” — is particularly enjoyable. Like many of the most effective satires, Kavenna’s story succeeds because one cannot be 100 per cent certain that the alternative world it conjures is not, in fact, alternative at all. That it is, already, our own.