Our house, is a very, very, very fine house. (Which doesn’t make Palais Stoclet a home.)
Sure, I know he wasn’t the world’s nicest person, but Frank Lloyd Wright could still design a mean lookin’ house. I have always loved Falling Water in Bear Run, Pennsylvania. The Robie House at the University of Chicago. All those fabulous prairie style houses in Oak Park, Illinois.
But, as I learned when I toured the Robie House years ago, given the architect’s dictatorial powers, a Frank Lloyd Wright house might not have been all that comfortable to live in. At the Robie House, the guide informed us that the dining room chairs that came with were originally designed by The Master with 90 degree angle backs. Symmetrical enough to look at, if not particularly inviting, but pretty darned uncomfortable to sit on. None of this form-follow-function nonsense for Wright. He did concede a bit and, if memory serves, redesigned the chairs with a slightly angled (3 degrees) back. As part of the tour, you got to sit at a replica of one of the 3 degree chairs. Still not all that comfortable. But I believe that one of the dictates of owning a Frank Lloyd Wright house was that you couldn’t change anything.
I don’t know how this translated into all furnishings – hard to believe that you couldn’t swap in a Barcalounger for a swell looking but rigid and uncomfortable straight back chair. But I think one of the tradeoffs in owning an FLW house is that you can’t touch an architectural hair on its head. So you have to pretty much live with that 1910 bathroom and kitchen – no blowing out the back wall for a great room and modern kitchen with granite this, cherry that, and SubZero Gaggenaus.
This came to mind when I read an article in The Wall Street Journal on a house in Brussels that was built a century ago. Palais Stoclet was designed by Joseph Hoffmann, founder of the Wiener Werkstätte, a design collective with sensibilities that I have long admired. For a couple of years, I even sent out very cool Wiener Werkstätte Christmas cards. (Note to self: Google Wiener Werkstätte cards.)
Palais Stoclet, like some of the houses that Wright designed, was built as a Gesamtkunstwerk, or "total work of art." I.e., everything from the outside-in was designed by Wiener Werkstätte artists.
Fully designed from the outside-in, with nothing left to the taste, desires, and quirks of the inhabitants. Unless, of course, the tastes, desires, and quirks of 100 years of Stoclet family members meant that they never wanted to change anything. Whether the Stoclets wanted to, didn’t want to, or just couldn’t bring themselves to make any change, Palais Stoclet has remained pretty much intact since the first wave of Stoclets moved in.
For the inside stuff, Hoffman brought along some of his Wiener Werkstätte bros:
…Werkstätte members including Gustav Klimt, Koloman Moser and Michael Powolny brought splendor to the interiors. The designers placed every item within the house and its grounds, supplying specially created artworks, gardens, furniture, light fixtures, cutlery and silver toilet articles.
For the dining room, Klimt crafted a dazzling marble mosaic encircling a table with 24 chairs. Silver candleholders and tureens studded with malachite cabochons sit atop polished ebony sideboards. Chandeliers strung with pearls heighten the magic.
Lovely to look at, I’m sure, but, well, just a tad bit oppressive and anti-human. I have to say that this dining room doesn’t exactly look like there were a lot of cheery, laughter filled pot-luck dinners taken within over the last ten decades.
Didn’t anyone in 100 years get sick of ladling gumbo from “tureens studded with malachite cabochons”? Didn’t anyone ever wake up one morning hating on that bedside lamp and with a colossal jones to replace it with something a bit more up to date and easy to read by from the Levenger catalog?
I’m not exactly Martha Stewart, doing over all my rooms every couple of months, but – for better or for worse – where I live reflects my tastes and interests, not those of some designer. In fact, whenever I see a designer showcase kind of house, it always strikes me how damned perfect and impersonal they are.
I’m not talking marring perfection with a driftwood lamp with a burlap lampshade. But maybe something on the wall that you actually picked out yourself? A couple of knick-knacks that have some meaning?
No one has lived at Palais Stoclet since 2002, when the daughter-in-law of the original Stoclets died, and “her daughters opted not to move back into what they once considered a "maison enchantée."”
Enchantée, certainement. But could somebody actually live-live there, and kickback and enjoy themselves?
Meanwhile, the Belgian government has “designated the specially designed furnishings as integral to the landmark,” which pretty much ties the hands of the Stoclets from parting company with a malachite cabochon studded tureen.
"It is something inhuman," Christian Witt-Dörring, a specialist on the Wiener Werkstätte, said by telephone. "It's an enormous burden for the family. The house belongs not to the occupant, but the other way around."
I’m with Christian Witt-Dörring here. A house where there’s no change or self-expression allowed is never going to be a home. Even The Royals get to kick-it up a bit in their private rooms, as we learned when Princess Margaret’s digs were revealed to be have been done up in Caribbean turquoise blue.
One Stoclet relation, Philippe Stoclet (who doesn’t seem to be an heir to the Palais) fears that it will fall into the wrong hands:
"I am afraid that one day a Russian oligarch or an Arab sheikh may offer to buy the house for $200 million and they'll sell."
Well, why wouldn’t they sell? Enough is enough. (And I’m guessing $200 large might be enough is enough is enough.)
And while I, too, might harbor doubts about the tastes of Russian oligarchs and Arab sheikhs, why would they – or anyone else – buy a house where they couldn’t do anything to redecorate it and make it their own?
Meanwhile, the Brussels regional government has come up with a restoration plan in which a good chunk of the costs are borne by the taxpayers. Some of whom are, understandably, balking. Why should they pay for restoration of a private residence that can’t be used as a museum but could be sold by its owners for a whopping amount? And, of course, from the Stoclets perspective, how can they operate when the government is dictating that they can’t change their home’s insides?
Talk about caught in a trap.
It’s certainly true that you don’t own property, that it owns you. But the Palais Stoclet story gives it a few new twists.