David Feld On A Decorating Trend Gone Bad

Enough already. Coral is a prime example of when decorating trends go bad.

Enough Already
Coral is a prime example of when decorating trends go bad.

In one form or another, real or fake, coral is replicating itself in every house in America. There’s the real stuff, which has ossified in its naturally beautiful state of white, pink, or blackish red. Then there are the plaster fakes, which have been turned into sconces, and the cast-bronze copies, which have transmogrified into vases. The Alberto Pinto-designed china we see everywhere was interesting for about three minutes. There’s not a textile house in the country that isn’t producing a coral wallpaper print (why stop at red when 22 designer colors will do?), even Pottery Barn’s coral sequin-embroidered pillows are flying out of the pages of its everyman catalogs.

There’s got to be a 12-step program for this kind of thing.

Some trends never go out of fashion and become classics; two examples are toile and chintz. Even jaded editors must admit those fabrics are always suitable and timeless. Anything that feels at home inside of a fish tank, however, is suspect. A trend has clearly outworn its welcome when it appears on a Versace print blouse.

The use of a fashionable decorative motif, such as coral, is not a new thing, nor is its overuse. The caves at Lascaux were probably re-painted after the wife tired of those cute little horses rumps. She wanted something a little less graphic, like flowers maybe? The Late Victorian English were great collectors of things coming from the natural world including minerals, insects, and stuffed birds. But, much like the 18th century French botanical or drawings by Audubon, these were to serve science, not dcor.

The coral craze began innocently enough during the 1920s by Alberto Giacometti and a handful of French artists, Serge Roche among them, who is best known for his plaster floor lamps that look like palm trees. These artists abstracted the shapes of nature”shells, branches, seagulls, and such, which could be turned into an overhead lamp, a sconce, or a vase. The look was fresh, new, and especially exciting to eyes wearied by endless crystal and gilt. Their designs, superbly executed in white plaster, bronze, and wood, were considered provocative and daring. Frissons of shock must have rippled through the more staid aristocracy upon seeing their counterparts take up with these heretics who wanted to toss great, great grandma’s rickety gilt stool.

While these elegant natural design elements were incorporated here and there for residential interior decoration, they were mostly used in nightclub designs or other glamorous public venues by such names as Dorothy Draper. It’s hard to watch an Astaire and Rogers picture that doesn’t contain at least one nightclub scene with ebony floors, zebra upholstery, and matte white palms, shells, and the like. But the rich patrons of those clubs always returned home to their correctly designed homes, nary a zebra-skin in sight.

American decorator Francis Elkins brought Giacometti and his plaster designs to the United States. She was the sister of noted architect David Adler, who was busy re-inventing the traditionally designed homes of the Midwest’s finest families, by doing such revolutionary things as replacing a classic Georgian stair rail with a crystal banister. Adler and Elkins worked for the stolid titans of great American industry who bore august names like Armour, Marshall Field, Lasker, and Zellerbach. They were families who represented the “proper American way of life and business.” Adler and Elkins, working as a team, would often tweak a look to make it fresh, to make it new, and to make it matter. Great architecture and decorating aspires to do just that. They were clever enough to make it palatable for these clients, as well as elegant.

Elkins brought other great people and their works to America, including Jean Michel Frank and Jean Dunand. In not too short a time, dark, heavily carved walls, mahogany furniture, and crystal chandeliers were replaced by pale Hermes goatskin library walls, furniture made of mirror, lacquers, pale fruitwoods, and sconces that looked like bleached scallops, lamps that were stylized tree trunks, and, of course, coral sconces and candlesticks.

Sound familiar? What we now call Moderne, French ’40s, Deco, and Hollywood Regency are catchall terms for the work of those past masters. Dallas was the site of the look’s successful resurrection with more showrooms, shops, and designers per square foot devoted to its promotion than any other town in the country. When the style hit town a decade or so back, I embraced it happily. Coral in its many guises looked lovely to me, too.

But the inevitable has happened. Coral became the “must have” in every house. Branches artfully lay on tables, wood copies held candles, martini glass bases, resin copies, brass based lamps, ad nauseam. Pottery Barn and Ballard Designs, the bellwethers of mass-market design, began selling coral in their catalogs. To my horror, it has even infected the D Home Showhouse, which is decorated by the top designers in Dallas.

To prove a point, I began collecting pages from shelter and fashion magazines that contain coral. The photos overflowed three hampers and a file drawer in a few weeks’ time. I pinned the worst offenders to a bulletin board like trophies. The most egregious among them was a toilet bowl cleaner in the shape of a coral branch. When bathroom cleaning implements become involved, you know a trend has hit bottom.

Fortunately, there’s hope. If you own good pieces of real coral, put them away. They will look right and fresh again one day. And what to do with those beaded coral lampshades, pillows, and their heinous spawn? They must be painfully destroyed. Real coral and classic Giacometti plaster lamps will always be treasures. But even they must tossed back to the reef for now.

This brings me to another tchotchke that is taxing my patience. You know those enameled and jeweled frames and boxes by Jay Strongwater? They are starting to get on my nerves…

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