HOLLYWOOD REGENCY HOUSE
You might say of George Augustus Frederick, Prince Regent of England, that he was sad, mad, bad, and fat, which he was, and yet he was also a prolific builder of fabulous palaces, a generous patron of high art, a refined aesthete undaunted by kitsch and budgets. His Regency began in 1811 upon the illness of his father, ended with his father’s death (George III, d.1820) when the Prince Regent became King George IV; George IV died in 1830; the Regency Period is most often dated mid-1790s through mid-1830s.
It can truly be said that the Regent had an ambitious, eclectic taste, that he led the fashion (with counsel from his advisor, the ultimate gentleman, Beau Brummell), that his artists and architects borrowed motifs from all of history of all the world, and glamorously applied their borrowings to decorations, pictures, statues, and buildings in strict observance of Classive order (humane symmetry in proportion). Witness the reworking, redesign, and new design of Windsor Castle, Buckingham Palace, and the Brighton Pavilion.
Victory over Napoleon at the Battle of Waterloo (1815) brought 17 new colonies to the Regent and to Britain, colonies that would be peopled with fine Classive palaces, capitals, and houses of the British Regency. In Britian’s homeland, England, the Regency was enriched by a cornucopia of architectural styles imported from its colonies, as in Brighton Pavilion, Indian on the outside, Chinese on the inside. The Elgin marbles (statuary from Athens’ Parthenon [the Temple of Athena]) when purchased by England began the vogue of Greekness and England’s identification with democracy. From this Greekness, “Taste”, following royal precedent, a fashion that became common in the middle and lower classes
even confectioneries (desserts) were made alike little palaces into cakes that could be visually and calorically enjoyed by the middlers. Most any person of the English middle-class had a larger understanding and better taste in architecture than do graduates of contemporary American architecture schools and colleges. This easy knowledge and wide eclecticism, moderated by Classive refinement, marks the Regency until its most recent modification, the contemporary Regency Flounce, that commercial clapback of modernistic interior designers, which we shall not discuss.
Roman, or Greek? That is the question we asked, the question to which the eminent Winkelman with authority answered, “Greek. Period … period.” And though Victoria went Gothic, and America went Italianate, and most everyone turned columns in a twisted mess of doodads (named “Queen Anne” for the innocent Queen Anne), the last Modern Age before the last Modern Age* was Regency Moderne. Regency Moderne was a softening prettiness of mechanistic Deco (itself the mechanical assumption of florid Nouveau). For the most part, Regency Moderne was the elegantly simplified Greekness of designers and architects in exquisite taste.
Artists of Germany, Austria, Scandinavia, and especially of France, created a design style that cohered at the 1910 “House of an Art Lover” (“Munich Exhibition of the Applied Arts”, Paris) where sleek machine-made Classive designs were within reach of even the most modest wallet. This Regency Moderne reformed doodad taste by making sleek style affordable and commonly fashionable: ladies vogued in Greekish clothes of the Regency and Directoire, lounged with an elegancy of privacy in the boudoir, floated through all the house parts or apartments, and the doodads were cleaned, were classicized or modernized, lacquered and mirrored and trimmed.
The style was sexy—think the Ballets Russes, Nijinsky and “The Afternoon of the Fawn”—playfully elegant—think of Wodehouse, Jeeves & Wooster—grand and inspiring—think the 1937 Exposition Internationale des Arts et des Techniques dans le Vie Moderne—and the Regency Moderne was persistent, almost universal until a sick and hollowed international modernism followed after WWII. Although not a perfect analogy, to understand the projection of Regency Moderne you might begin with Gustavian (Swedish) architecture, pass through Biedermeier to the Swedish Grace, from Eliel Saarinen to IKEA.
The Vogue edition of Regency was born of magazines, House and Garden, Harper’s Bazaar, and, well, Vogue; it is a style of wit and fantasy, commercial and fancy, as the man who named the style, Osbert Lancaster, observed, the style “starts at the point where Soane left off”. Here a quirky pink Picasso pastiche might be neighbor to a Jacques Louis David classicizing panoply: Regency Vogue is a style of theatre, a setting for svelte models, a stage upon which to act the elegant life. You will find the style in sets for Noel Coward plays, in London and Hollywood films (The Scarlet Pimpernel and Cukor’s Caesar and Cleopatra, for instances), in the bedroom of surrealist Cecil Beaton and in the lugubrious boudoir spreads of Vogue. The style is remembered in its shades of white, high thin molding, open broad design punctuated with refined decorations both Regency and Empire … and in the white, classical pastiche furniture (especially dressers) found not long ago in most every middle-class American home.
Watch this: an Austrian designer, Joseph Urban, is hired by the Boston Opera to design sets (1911) and is drawn away by the Metropolitan Opera, from the Metropolitain to the Ziegfeld Follies, from these drawn by William Randolph Hearst to create a moving picture to showcase his luscious mistress, Marion Davis. The film, Enchantment (1921), did just that, drawing American audiences, especially the ladies, into the beautifully moderne luxury of seductive Hollywood. Urban offered opinion on how high design is commonly dispersed:
People, particularly women, see beautiful things on the stage and decide they want to duplicate them in their homes. They have come to look at the scenic stage for lessons in good taste.
From here, the country went Hollywood:
Transatlantic, designer, Gordon Wiles, leading lady, Myrna Loy
No More Ladies, designer, Cedric Gibbons, leading lady, Joan Crawford
A Woman of Affairs, Cedric Gibbons, leading lady, Greta Garbo
Roberta, designer, Van Nest Polglase, leading ladies, Irene Dunne and Ginger Rogers, with Astaire and Scott, and the list goes on into hundreds of films (Top Hat, Dancing Lady, Dinner at Eight, A Night in Paradise, The Hamilton Women, Bringing Up Baby, A Picture of Dorian Gray, et cetera) and on for several decades to include every movie studio star and aspiring designer.
The Hollywood Regency is an architecture of make-believe, alike the movie script of 90 minutes on 90 pages, the movie interior and exterior needed to fit the dimensions of a screen; if the screen wanted Greece, the simplest of Greek elements described the scene, as the essential elements of script describe character and inner life, simplest design describes place. Even so, the life described was American, though pictured Georgian, or Roman, or French, or you name it. Alike a character in dress-up, a Regency scene caricatured the elements of a period style (Egypt to Edgemont) glamorously, elegantly, tastefully, and sexily sexy. One day, a movie might be set in Rome, next day, in Louis XIV’s Versailles, next day, in a London apartment, and the Hollywood Regency designers, educated and trained in the Classive arts would quickly, efficiently, masterfully and beautifully reduce any detail, let us say, “a door”, to its essential period elements, and this is why the Hollywood Regency has a bold, familiar ease.
HOLLYWOOD REGENCY DESIGNERS
As you would guess, many Hollywood Regency designers began in the movies. William “Billy” Haines was an actor and set designer who between jobs decorated homes of fellow actors in the Hollywood Regency style. Fired by Mayer after arrest for acts now everywhere celebrated and promoted, Mayer with his partner, Jimmie Shields, dilated on design, creating modern fantasies for the rich, the infamous, and the famous, Walter Annenberg, Joan Crawford, Ronald & Nancy Reagan, et alia. Haines’ style was formally casual, understated and refined, a Hollywood of good taste.
Tony Duquette, an artist who worked in advertising before becoming a designer of everything Hollywood, sets, costumes, objects d’art, jewelry, interiors and whatever you paid him for, in a style eclectic, light, playful … a profuse historicity much in the manner of Brighton Pavilion. His home, Sortilegium, is the highest example of Duquette; his clients were Hollywood Royalty and wannabes; his was a Hollywood Regency of surrealist enthusiasms.
Dorothy Draper is likely the gal you think of when you think “Hollywood Regency”, or, if you do not think of Hollywood Regency, she might be the one interior designer name you recognize. Born into the upper-class, and remaining there, Draper created a design empire that stretched from department stores to hotels, to airports, to The Metropolitan Museum of Art, and from there to wallpaper and to bric-a-brac that is found in magazines, hardware stores, and likely, your house. The Draper style has been called “Modern Baroque” for its oversized swirls, gargantuan chandeliers, swishing swags and buttoned poofinesses set in dramatic colors of contrast and cooperation. Her favorite color, cabbage-rose, chintzed.
HOLLYWOOD REGENCY ARCHITECTS
Architects of the Hollywood Regency enjoyed little influence beyond the 90 minutes surrounding MGM’s Washington Boulevard entrance, because theirs was a style of the Hollywood studios. First generation movie stars continued the long tradition that began in Athens when Thespis delivered lines from an ox cart, that continued through Shakespeare’s crowded Globe Theatre to pass into the silent silver screen palaces, a tradition that honors Classive civilization. The Hollywood Regency is a shorthand of all theatrical and architectural history. The next Hollywood generation went mod, went crazy, went thin and stylish in the Mid-Century Modern, a post-WWII celebration of anything new by people just happy to be alive (and by contract within 90 minutes of a movie shoot–the genesis of Mid-Century Modern Palm Springs). The third generation Hollywood was geographically and stylistically wide-ranging, unremembering, and mostly unremembered, while the fourth generation Hollywood is for the most part style-less and classless, a people happy to tell you what is wrong with you while they gobble up Hollywood Regency houses of the real movie stars.
“Architect to the Stars”, John Elgin Woolf’s houses were as-pretty-as him and his boyfriend assistants (young men who J.E. adopted, young men who assumed Woolf’s name and bed). With a deft hand, Elgin would raise a door to elegant height, draw out a wave of molding, and punctuate the whole with a Regency bullseye window straightened straight up. With a theatrical touch he honed in flamboyant movie sets … his Classive designs purified the Classical. Master of scale and proportion, Woolf’s design elongated structural form and floated architectural detail above expansive walls of glass. His houses tended to be of jewel box quality.
Paul Revere Williams was an architect of ambition; born in Los Angeles, orphaned young, educated at the LA Beaux Arts Institute, he enjoyed success and fame for the design of over 2,000 houses (some of which are found in his 1945 book, The Small Home of Tomorrow, and his New Homes for Today, 1946). The small homes are lovely and affordable. The large homes are grand, suitable for the Hollywood elite. Both the small homes and large homes are Moderne, the best, in his Hollywood Regency style. Paul Revere Williams too was “architect to the Stars” … much to add, though here perhaps best to mention that Williams was among the first architects to design a whole house as a movie set, “Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House”, starring Cary Grant and Myrna Loy.
Other architects who developed the Hollywood Regency: Wallace Neff, a suburb stylist; George Vernon Russell and Douglas Honnold; James E. Dolena (a personal favorite), architect of the palatial Hollywood Regency, Walt & Lillian Disney estate.
HOLLYWOOD REGENCY CHARACTERISTICS
Symmetrical, elongated rectangles, ovals, and the occasional circle.
Flat and mansard are most common, though hipped roofs of the English Regency and the Georgian gable are also common. Chimneys tend to disappear. Brackets and extending eves are nonexistent.
Again, tall and long. Panes are often horizontal. The occasional Palladian can be found, if simplified and streamlined.
Structure and Materials
Stucco and brick (wood is most uncommon) layered flat and thin. Iron rails are rendered with a light touch.
Space and Floor Plan
As in the English Regency, Palladian, logical and symmetrical with some necessary elegance, a French Curve, a swelling room or oddity wanted to punctuate perfect beauty.
Dramatic, not unlike a stage set with drawing curtain, or alike the English Regency, stately and classical, though simplified as in a silver screen movie. Sometimes, an entrance almost caricature.
Simple and sleek and classical lightly drawn, even when exaggerated.
White, most often. The roof might be green. The door might be red. The canopy might be streaked with black. The green of lawn, the blue of pool to provide the color.
Thin columns will define a veranda; a balcony will be trimmed in light rail of some classical motif; a pool house or courthouse is terminal element beyond or pool or yard; the drive is circular; the plants are taught to behave.
Minimal. Tasteful. Moderne, in the classical. Or, maximal with lacquered furniture, high mirrors, crystal, floral abundance and a zoo of animal-print wallpapers. In early Hollywood Regency, low furniture of some classic derivation, widely placed so that guests might mix with ease, and be seen. Later, large furniture imposes, sometimes in winding forms reminiscent of low crawling creatures. The best style: classic Hollywood Regency of the Rogers-Astaire era.
Hollywood Regency might mix Deco, Moderne, Classical, and Baroque, though some variation of English Regency manor is most common.
* “Modern”, from the Latin modernus “modern“; modo “just now, in a particular manner“; precedential use in English by Jonathan Swift (“An Account of the Battle Between the Ancient and Modern Books in Saint James Library”, 1704). Just now, the old Twentieth Century modern is, well, old-fashioned, and a New Modern is being defined. It seems that every third generation (50 years or so) redefines the “modern”, a pattern likely to continue until we turn-in our amusement ticket and exit this dizzying, pointless modern merry-go-round. Time and again the Modern proves itself inferior to the Ancient, observe the evidence without pre-possession and you will agree as do I with Jonathan Swift, “the Ancient wins because the Classive is the language of understanding within which the Modern exists“, as does the butterflied caterpillar exist within the cocoon. The Modern might flit about on air-light wings, yet always it returns to the Classive nature of its nature.
HOLLYWOOD REGENCY INSPIRATIONS
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Featured image: Casa Encantada, the Conrad Hilton estate, originally the Jay Paley House; Paul R. Williams, architect
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