Decorating with the rich and famous

Barbara Amiel on catching glimpses of changing cultural attitudes from a magazine

Decorating with the rich and famous

Allan Grant/Time Life Pictures/Getty Images

You have to be as rich as Giorgio Armani to house a stuffed polar bear a good 10 feet tall in your living room and proudly display it in the March issue of Architectural Digest. A beautiful, white, once-alive polar bear behind the chocolate leather cube chair. Clearly this is not in the same league as Jeffrey Dahmer and his longed-for altar of human heads, but it is unusual these days. The bear is explained as a gift “from someone I am very fond of.” Seven pages on is a photo of his bedroom where, the caption notes, “a fur coverlet is draped over the designer’s Armani/Casa bed.”

Look, I’m not going to howl animal rights just before I slip into my Manolos and eat my roast biff, but that “coverlet” appears to be made of lots of little skinned furry animals with their tails hanging as trim on the coverlet’s edges. Clearly Brigitte Bardot is not coming to visit Chalet Armani unless of course Armani’s animal interests extend to a private pool swimming with baby seals.

AD magazine has had a symbiotic relationship with movie stars and celebrities for more than seven decades, giving telling glimpses of changing cultural attitudes: a real leopard-skin rug complete with head in 1950s photo shoots compared with the leopard-print rug on Diane von Furstenberg’s 2012 feature. At-home photos are offered up with excruciating little quotes about the inner person behind the public facade. This is a perfectly acceptable fantasy, an extension of the star’s movie persona structured to fit the roles they act and the self-image they or yesteryear’s studio think will please their public best. I’m obviously a bitch of a reader because I find most of the images utterly cloying.

Brooke Shields, cover girl of the March AD, speaking of hubby and kids, tells how she wants “to create for them, and us, an experience of home with a layered and resonant personal history.” Does anyone actually speak like that? I don’t hold Brooke’s rather odd public declaration of remaining a virgin until God knows when against her, but the photos of her Manhattan house show a place that has as many “layers” as a slice of white bread. The only believable part is Brooke’s closet with the rolling shoe rack (yes I am jealous, since you asked). And who displays photos of themselves all over the place? Brooke does. I give you Katharine Hepburn in Architectural Digest’s book Hollywood At Home, who explained the absence of Kate photos as “the creature I don’t bring home.”

A credible exception might be if Lucian Freud happened to take your image or, as in Diane von Furstenberg’s place, both Zhang Huan and Andy Warhol. When a portrait of you is probably worth about $20 million-plus, I think it’s okay to have it on an easel, as she does, to be moved all around your home. Diane’s AD quote about living old when young and young when old rings true. The photo in her Manhattan Meatpacking District “tree house” shows a pair of legs with calves any 20-year-old would kill for, never mind someone 65. Probably runs daily around her 35,000-sq.-foot home and up the “massive concrete staircase [that] cuts through the building.”

Getting back to Giorgio Armani with his Nanook of the North decoration, it’s refreshing to see no oblique references to a personal life. No phony girlfriends, no ambiguous references to “close friend and business partner.” In earlier decades, he would have been one of AD’s “bachelors,” the guys everyone in Hollywood seemed to know were rather less girl-crazy than their fan clubs would have liked.

Cary Grant’s relationship with Randolph Scott gave AD a spread of the chums in matching white outfits. “Need I add,” said the intrepid reporter who visited the home the two shared in 1932, “that all the eligible (and a number of the ineligible) ladies-about-Hollywood are dying to be dated by these handsome lads?” Debonair moments follow with Randolph and Cary together at the piano, the “playroom,” in front of the fireplace and at their exquisitely set dining table. Rock Hudson, in a circa-1950s AD article, then living in a one-bedroom house with actor Bob Preble, was shown sprawled on his unmade bed, looking delectably sexy, followed by several pages of swimsuited girls over for fun times around the barbecue. “Rock likes girls who tackle his steaks and salads with healthy appetites,” AD dutifully quoted a fan magazine of the time.

Marilyn Monroe didn’t need much window dressing. Her helpless-blond-bombshell roles pretty much mirrored her life, or at least confirmed her view of herself. She moved from one improvised home to another, whose only architectural worth was in the room’s occupant, a decor AD couldn’t really help readers copy no matter what decorator they employed.

Celebrities project many personalities as their work demands, but often even when they know who they are and what they want to project, they are visually and culturally awkward. Two exceptions are clearly the up-yours rich Armani who doesn’t give a fig for current sensibilities, and at the far side of the moon, an endearing 1960s Jayne Mansfield captured by AD in full-bosomed splendour walking up her “Pink Palace” stairs at 10100 Sunset Blvd. Heart-shaped swimming pool and bath, pink-shag carpeting, fountain equipped to circulate champagne. “It’s too bad,” AD quotes Mansfield, “the drops of water from the fountain aren’t heart-shaped.” The house was Jayne and Jayne had no problem with who she was. If she had wanted a polar bear in her bedroom it would have been there—only hers would have been pink.

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