A question of aesthetics

A question of aesthetics


Charlotte Fiell has been thinking about ugliness a lot lately. Fiell, 44, and her husband, Peter, 51, are publishing a book called ‘Ugly: The Aesthetics of Everything,’ by Stephen Bayley, the English cultural critic, and images of bulldogs, Brutalist architecture and B-52 bombers have formed the backdrop of their days off late.

Bayley’s book is just one of a number of titles being released by Fiell, the couple’s global imprint, which they started this fall from the garden floor of their four-story Victorian terrace house in Hammersmith, a neighbourhood in west London.

After 15 years of writing and commissioning best-selling books for the German arts publishing company Taschen, the Fiells – deemed “Britain’s most stylish couple” by The Independent, the British newspaper – are now able to create content from the comfort of home. As the publishers and their team sit downstairs examining aspects of the anti-aesthetic, however, the ghosts of a more glamorous age stir on the second floor.
William Morris is there, and so is Christopher Dresser. Both were once habitues of Hammersmith, and are now part of what might be considered the Fiells’ English aesthetic experiment – an upstairs parlour that they have kitted out in late 19th-century decor.
While the ebonised furniture and Orientalist motifs of the English aesthetic movement may seem a surprising choice for a couple known for their exhaustive explorations of all things modern, Charlotte Fiell says it was a natural extension of their collectors’ curiosity.
The Fiells met in 1987 through the Sotheby’s Institute, where they both studied, at different times, a full spectrum of decorative arts history and developed a polymorphous appreciation for objects. They went on to open a few design galleries on Kings Road that specialised in post-1945 design, then an underappreciated era.

‘Modern interiors resemble hotels’
Today, postwar design is so ubiquitous as to be a decorative trope. “A lot of modern interiors over the past decade have begun to look like hotels,” Fiell said. “We’ve all seen the white room with the Jacobsen chair. It can be so bleak. Introducing antiques can really humanise and personalise spaces.”

The Fiells, who bought their Hammersmith house in 1994 for 190,000 pounds, have an eclectic sensibility, with furniture from the 1960s and 1970s mixed in with the occasional Chippendale table or 19th-century pub sign. When their two daughters, now 18 and 20, abandoned a shared living space for individual bedrooms, the couple found themselves with a spare room to decorate from scratch. “The house was built in the 1870s,” Fiell said. “And the room had this period cornicing that was gunked up, but promising.”
Stripping some of the existing wall covering revealed more evidence of the original English aesthetic decor: wallpaper with a sunflower motif. With its immodest saffron petals and gigantic geometry, the sunflower was a symbol of the aesthetic style, which was a sophisticated and stripped-down reaction to the overstuffed indulgences of high Victorianism.

An antiques shop find of a Queen Anne revival mirror gave the Fiells the idea of restoring the room to an approximation of its original opulence.

Additional inspiration came from the Geffrye Museum in the Shoreditch area of London, a decorative arts collection with period rooms reaching as far back as the 17th century.
“We always loved the tiny space they have dedicated to the aesthetic movement,” Fiell said. “So we thought, wouldn’t it be nice if we could do something like that only on a larger scale?”

Once that decision was made, the issue of authenticity loomed large. “We had to find somebody from the National Trust who specialised in restoring cornicing,” Fiell said. The next step was to locate wall coverings that would exemplify the English aesthetic – a search that led to an art wallpaper manufacturer based in the San Francisco Bay area called Bradbury & Bradbury.

With five different patterns from ceiling to baseboard, the wallpaper is a case study in period complexity that took an expert to oversee. “With so many patterns, you would think it must be mad,” Fiell said. “But it all fits together. It’s a very calming room.” (It was also the last job the wallpaperer took before retiring for good.)

The room really came together, however, when the Fiells had the good fortune of finding a brass fire surround and matching mantelpiece from 1873 by the architect-designer Thomas Jeckyll, best known for his ornate metalwork for Barnard, Bishop & Barnard.

Awhirl with circular motifs that mimic Japanese heraldic symbolism, the design reflects the popularity of the Asian island nation, which first opened its borders in 1854.
The couple, it turns out, is in excellent company: only the Arts Decoratifs museum in Paris has Jeckyll’s exact twin. Another hallmark of the English aesthetic movement was ebonisation, the staining of wood furniture in dramatic dark tones.

The Fiells have several such pieces. There’s a 1870s side chair with an original rush seat believed to be designed by William Morris and a magenta velvet high-back sofa suitable for swooning. There’s a bracket shelf holding a Japanese-influenced coral vase thought to be designed by Christopher Dresser, and a sideboard that was once owned by the late Christopher Gilbert, Britain’s best-known furniture historian and the author of a two-volume history of Thomas Chippendale.

Brass & copper table light
Fiell’s favourite piece, though, is a brass-and-copper table light by William Arthur Benson, a contemporary of William Morris and a pioneer in artistic metalwork and manufacturing. Echoing the floral motif wallpaper behind it, the lamp resembles a stylised iris with a gracefully arcing stem and a Vaseline glass shade.

“You know, it’s slightly radioactive,” she said of the opalescent glass, which contains trace quantities of uranium (and whose manufacture was discontinued during the cold war).

It is not out of fear of nuclear contamination, but the Fiells do not use the room as often as they might. Apart from being the site of festive Victorian Christmases and the occasional afternoon tea, it seems to exist as a platonic ideal of a parlour – a place of retreat, of thinking, of dreaming – while the business of books beats on below. “I’d love to do something about the English aesthetic movement,” Fiell said. “But we’ve got books coming out of our ears right now.”

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