I am still rather fond of our marriage. So when my wife and I embarked on the complete restoration of our 1920s house, I was determined to participate in the decision-making process only to the extent of nodding my agreement to anything she selected. Years of professional observation in the real estate business wises you up to this kind of thing.
My wife, in her even greater wisdom, threw me a bone. I was to be in complete charge of the library. Perhaps this is one of the reasons that libraries are often the most masculine room in any house. However, it was no coincidence that her magnanimity came directly on the heels of a lazy Sunday morning as we thumbed through a color section of one of the Sunday papers together. We turned the page and, after a slight pause, we simultaneously said, “I love that.”
The photograph was of a library in a private Milan apartment designed by Studio Peregalli. Who would have guessed that this cluttered, if artful, shambles of a room would be the “safe” choice? It also happened to be the only practical choice. We have a huge commingled collection of books, rivaling many institutions. Hers are mostly fiction, poetry and an Alexandrian quantity of books on food and wine, mine almost exclusively large-format monographs on painting and sculpture. There was no overlap. Now we had a vision of how to cram it all into a modest-sized room and make it look like the chaos was deliberate.
Laura Sartori Rimini and Roberto Peregalli are the creative heirs of Renzo Mongiardino. They designed the library in question for Umberto Pasti, the novelist and botanist, and his partner, the couturier Stephan Janson. The owners have moved around the art and objects over the years, bringing in new pieces from other parts of their collections to keep things interesting.
My love of libraries truly did not begin until college days in London in the late-70s. I was desperate to escape my fellow students, who were swotting away in the oppressive factory-like British Library of Political and Economic Science. Appropriately, it was located on a site that had successively housed a workhouse, a burial ground, a hospital and a warehouse. A friend recommended that I join The London Library. Tucked in a corner of St. James’s Square, it is easily missed even by someone seeking it out. It was intimate and comfortable and had an excellent art collection. So the romance began.
Despite the clubby reading room, I chose to hide among the miles of dim open shelves, jumping from reference to reference, and traveling the world of art in silence and solitude. Hours could pass undisturbed in its tenebrous stacks. Peregalli puts it so neatly:
“In contrast to the living room, in all its bright and vivid splendor, the library is its shadow ̶ its darker side.”
Le Goût Rothschild
Another revelation has been the late George Weidenfeld’s library on the Chelsea Embankment, decorated by Geoffrey Bennison. Dark walls are lined with handsome brass bookshelves and hung with paintings of popes, interspersed with pictures of naked women in lusty poses. This was, after all, the man who published Lolita.
The modern Francis Bacon pope in the photo was occasionally switched around with other paintings of popes from the 17th and 18th centuries owned by Lord Weidenfeld, thereby completely changing the mood of the room. Like his library, he was a man of interesting contradictions, being a committed Zionist and on close personal terms with a real pope. He died in January 2016, and his three-bedroom apartment became available for sale for £9.25 million. If you’re interested just give me a call.
And, to show that this is not all about the guys, here is a magnificent library by Nancy Lancaster. Haseley Court was the last big house she did for herself, and here she makes over a former dining room in that 18th-century Queen Anne house, creating a comfortable and embracing space.
In the same spirit, we set about creating our own library. Believing that light-filled rooms are vastly overrated in Houston, we selected the bitterest chocolate for the woodwork paint color, to match the 19th-century stone fireplace mantle we found in Naples ̶ Florida, that is. The walls are painted an unapologetic marigold, while brass and gilt lamps and mirrors of varying styles provide the glow of the room. Our contractor thought we were mad. It is simply heaven.
There is not a digital device in this room, to which I retreat daily, just the loud tick-tock of the mantle clock to calm my heart after another day at work. With the dogs flopped on the Turkish rug, I withdraw to a dark corner of this room to dip into some learned essay on, say, “Late Titian and the Significance of Form in 16th Century Venetian Painting.” But usually, to confess, I just look at the pictures.