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How to live with traditional works in modern spaces — 7 expert tips

Decorator and writer Thomas Jayne discusses American interiors, guiding principles on how to blend the ancient and the modern, and his picks from the Palmetto Hall: The Jay P. Altmayer Family Collection auction on 19 January

‘One of the questions I’ve sought to answer throughout my career is, “What is American decoration?”,’ explains Thomas Jayne, who for the past 25 years has designed rooms that reflect a strong connection to history and place. ‘When I consider the diversity and breadth of this great country, the best and most liberating answer is, of course, that everything can be American.’

Thomas Jayne. Photograph by Kerri Brewer
Thomas Jayne. Photograph by Kerri Brewer
A Thomas Jayne interior. Photograph by Peter Estersohn
A Thomas Jayne interior. Photograph by Peter Estersohn

Jayne doesn’t pause when asked what he found so special about the interior at Palmetto Hall, the stately mid-19th-century plantation-style home in Mobile, Alabama, that was given a second life through the passion of Mr. and Mrs. Jay P. Altmayer. ‘It’s the Altmayer family’s sense of place,’ Jayne says.

Throughout their 40 years at Palmetto Hall, the Altmayers thoughtfully expanded the house and appointed it with traditional furnishings of the sort that would have graced a personal residence of Palmetto Hall’s stature during the 19th century. According to Jayne, the effect created was, ‘Southern grandeur through a blend of European and American forms and traditional antiques that tell a wonderful narrative.’ 

A Thomas Jayne interior. Photograph by Pieter Estersohn
A Thomas Jayne interior. Photograph by Pieter Estersohn

Jayne’s own journey as a decorator and as a Winterthur scholar, meanwhile, has been informed by key guiding principles, which he outlines below. ‘I hope some of them will inspire you to take a fresh look at some of these traditional works and have a go at giving them new meaning in your own spaces,’ he says of his selection of pieces from the auction, which takes place on 19 January as part of Americana Week in New York.

  • 1
  • Create a dialogue between old and new

A pair of Italian stained pine, painted-metal and composition three-light wall sconces. 20th century. 36½ in (92 cm) high, 12½ in (32 cm) wide. Estimate $500-800. This lot is offered in Palmetto Hall The Jay P. Altmayer Family Collection on 19 January 2017 at Christie’s in New York

A pair of Italian stained pine, painted-metal and composition three-light wall sconces. 20th century. 36½ in (92 cm) high, 12½ in (32 cm) wide. Estimate: $500-800. This lot is offered in Palmetto Hall: The Jay P. Altmayer Family Collection on 19 January 2017 at Christie’s in New York

Thomas Jayne: ‘Antiques have novel shapes and surfaces which are unmatched by new pieces. I love the shape and form of these Italianate wall sconces. Like all neoclassical designs and those derived from the antique, they come from and are inspired by organic forms, so automatically have a softness and natural quality to them. In the interior at Palmetto Hall, they were used in a traditional context, lining a hallway, but the look could be updated by pairing them with modern or contemporary line drawings by the likes of Cy Twombly, either within a room setting or in an entry way. By contrasting them with modern or contemporary works these wall sconces can be reinvigorated and find new meaning.'

  • 2
  • Re-colour the past

A George II-style mahogany armchair. Early 20th century. Estimate $1,500-2,500. This lot is offered in Palmetto Hall The Jay P. Altmayer Family Collection on 19 January 2017 at Christie’s in New York

A George II-style mahogany armchair. Early 20th century. Estimate: $1,500-2,500. This lot is offered in Palmetto Hall: The Jay P. Altmayer Family Collection on 19 January 2017 at Christie’s in New York

TJ: ‘In our bright modern world where new colours are created all the time, many of us seek refuge in “cleaner spaces” in neutral shades of white or natural tones. Paint is usually easily changed so it is a perfect medium to experiment with — and great to offset antiques with. This chair, for example, is so sculptural in its own right that I wouldn't colour it with upholstery but stick to something traditional, such as a dark leather or a traditional horse-hair so as not to detract. It would then look magnificent, new and rich set against a teal-coloured wall. The V&A is launching a new range of paints in spring 2017 and Owen’s Teal — inspired by the Victorian architect and designer Owen Jones’s designs for the museum’s Indian, Chinese and Japanese rooms — would be a perfect shade.’

  • 3
  • Listen to the architecture

A George II mahogany bookcase cabinet. Circa 1750. 117½ in (298.5 cm) high, 74 in (188 cm) wide, 20¼ in (51.5 cm) deep. Estimate $60,000-100,000. This lot is offered in Palmetto Hall The Jay P. Altmayer Family Collection on 19 January 2017 at Christie’s in New York

A George II mahogany bookcase cabinet. Circa 1750. 117½ in (298.5 cm) high, 74 in (188 cm) wide, 20¼ in (51.5 cm) deep. Estimate: $60,000-100,000. This lot is offered in Palmetto Hall: The Jay P. Altmayer Family Collection on 19 January 2017 at Christie’s in New York

TJ: ‘The best architecture is always the foundation for good interior design — it’s easier to decorate a room with good scale and details, which is why so many historic European interiors have an immediate advantage. Instead of being inhibited by it, one way to give architecture to a room without period details or historic features is through the placement and choice of furniture within the space. This handsome bookcase is one such example. You don’t need an 18th-century English country house in which to place this — its scale, form and materials could lend a formal grandeur to an otherwise bland architectural space, and provide that vernacular in one single statement piece.’

  • 4
  • Start with a focal point

A Louis Phillippe ormolu surtout de table. Circa 1840. 4½ in (11.5 cm) high, 26½ in (67 cm) wide, 79 in (200.5 cm) long. Estimate $15,000-25,000. This lot is offered in Palmetto Hall The Jay P. Altmayer Family Collection on 19 January 2017 at Christie’s in New York

A Louis Phillippe ormolu surtout de table. Circa 1840. 4½ in (11.5 cm) high, 26½ in (67 cm) wide, 79 in (200.5 cm) long. Estimate: $15,000-25,000. This lot is offered in Palmetto Hall: The Jay P. Altmayer Family Collection on 19 January 2017 at Christie’s in New York

TJ: ‘The best rooms are built around a focal point, and something that tells a story or a personal narrative is a great way to start. In itself, that focal point doesn’t have to be expensive or especially grand, but it must carry a meaning or significance for the person who lives there. The meaning could be found in many ways — the journey or thrill of acquisition, for example: finding it at auction and bidding to win the piece, a chance find in an antique fair or bazaar, or something passed down through the family. Or it could simply be something that speaks to your own sense of style or taste.

‘The Altmayers were known to love entertaining and this stunning surtout-de-table would have doubtless been a worthy centrepiece for special occasions. It could work on a low table set with colourful objects and flowers in the daytime, or equally for formal dining, as it would originally have been intended, set with candelabra which reflect light across the table and illuminate the room.’ 

  • 5
  • Change the context of a piece

A Regency brass-inlaid mahogany serving table. Circa 1815. 36 in (91 cm) high, 77¾ in (197.5 cm) wide, 31 in (79 cm) deep. Estimate $10,000-15,000. This lot is offered in Palmetto Hall The Jay P. Altmayer Family Collection on 19 January 2017 at Christie’s in New York

A Regency brass-inlaid mahogany serving table. Circa 1815. 36 in (91 cm) high, 77¾ in (197.5 cm) wide, 31 in (79 cm) deep. Estimate: $10,000-15,000. This lot is offered in Palmetto Hall: The Jay P. Altmayer Family Collection on 19 January 2017 at Christie’s in New York

TJ: ‘In my formative years studying architecture and design, I attended the Attingham Summer School — an intensive three-week programme of private visits to English country houses. It was thrilling to see the impact of aristocratic patronage, but I also knew it was something that necessarily didn’t exist in America. I try, therefore, to look at traditional pieces through a modern lens when I think of contemporary American interiors. Take this serving table, for example. So few of us now have formal dining rooms on a grand scale, but the classical lines of this table and its rich dark mahogany patina would make it just as practical and attractive in a different context. It could work in a library setting dressed with folios and busts, or equally in a hallway with some stylish lighting on top of it. It's important to use classic elements, but not as a crutch, or to overuse them. Changing the context is one way of reinventing traditional forms.’

  • 6
  • Look for quality

A pair of Regency and bronzed mahogany pedestals. Circa 1810. 26¼ in (66.5 cm) high, 22 in (56 cm) wide, 18 in (45.5 cm) deep. Estimate $8,000-12,000. This lot is offered in Palmetto Hall The Jay P. Altmayer Family Collection on 19 January 2017 at Christie’s in New York

A pair of Regency and bronzed mahogany pedestals. Circa 1810. 26¼ in (66.5 cm) high, 22 in (56 cm) wide, 18 in (45.5 cm) deep. Estimate: $8,000-12,000. This lot is offered in Palmetto Hall: The Jay P. Altmayer Family Collection on 19 January 2017 at Christie’s in New York

TJ: ‘It is an understatement to say that quality is essential to good decoration, and finding quality very often isn’t about price but about making appropriate choices. In her seminal book The Decoration of Houses, Edith Wharton writes: “A classic is a classic not because it conforms to certain structural rules or fits certain definitions; it is a classic because of a certain eternal and impressive freshness.” For me, these pedestals have both quality — the figuring of the mahogany, the balance and proportion of the neoclassical Regency design — and the freshness that Wharton references. I can imagine them paired with over-scale candelabra, or equally with figurative modern bronzes.’

  • 7
  • Express a sense of place and personality

American School,  U.S. Lieutenant, War of 1812. Oil on canvas, 39¼ x 29½ in (99.5 x 75 cm). Estimate $3,000-5,000. This lot is offered in Palmetto Hall The Jay P. Altmayer Family Collection on 19 January 2017 at Christie’s in New York

American School, U.S. Lieutenant, War of 1812. Oil on canvas, 39¼ x 29½ in (99.5 x 75 cm). Estimate: $3,000-5,000. This lot is offered in Palmetto Hall: The Jay P. Altmayer Family Collection on 19 January 2017 at Christie’s in New York

TJ: ‘Looking back to the first interior I designed, I can see the nascent qualities that have become central to my work: American decoration created from a wide combination of elements, both old and new, which are expressive of the owner’s place and personality. This attractive American portrait is interesting. There are many portraits in the Altmayer Collection representing a wonderful assemblage of historic personages, and reflecting the family’s interest in American history. These portraits were part of the narrative they told in the period interior of Palmetto Hall. The colour and lively expression make this a great decorating piece or starting point. I once saw an interior entirely hung with portraits of different scale and from different time periods — it created a dynamic, exciting room where the hang itself became the focus rather than the individual portraits.’

To find out more about Thomas Jayne’s design and view more of his interiors, please visit www.jaynedesignstudio.com. You can also follow Thomas on Instagram — @thomasjayne