On a recent trip to London, a friend recounted to me her experience at Martin Brudnizki’s famously lavish new reboot of . “In the ladies’ room,” she said, “the entire ceiling is covered in a living canopy of fresh flowers. They were peonies last night, but, of course, they change them daily. There literally isn’t a single surface that isn’t covered with gilding, or cheetah, or inlay, or bric-a-brac. It’s sort of like Versailles meets Dubai, on acid. It’s grotesque, really. Obviously we’re going back tonight.”
I get it. In the age-old battle between the austere and the lavish, sometimes more is just more. And just as each new year demands in us a craving for minimalism, organization, reflection, and barely seasoned broths, other times demand excess. I’m not talking about the obligatory extravagance of the holidays, but something more intangible—spiritual, even. Maybe it’s an expression of nihilism; if the world’s burning, why not decorate the whole set like Babylon Berlin? Or at least Made in Chelsea.
In the spirit of full disclosure, I speak as an unabashed maximalist: My sofa groans with brightly colored down pillows and throws, the bookshelf is a personal museum of odd knickknacks—a 1920s china Kewpie here, an Art Nouveau bookend there—and the walls of three rooms are exuberantly papered. (I rent.) For our honeymoon, my husband and I visited the Greenbrier, Dorothy Draper’s palace of maximalism in which the only good surface is one covered in clashing chintzes in a minimum of three patterns.
This sort of visual cacophony is not what some might call restful; the judgmental might argue that it doesn’t leave a lot of room for one’s own thoughts. But then, who wants to think all the time?
As is often the case with aesthetic predisposition, family is to blame. My grandfather was, for lack of a better word, a hoarder; his property was littered with A-frame sheds, which were, in turn, littered with pressure cookers, brass animals (a particular fetish), dated encyclopedias, Hummel figurines, and the occasional gelato maker. This is to say nothing of the broken-down boats, the trailer, the canoe, and any pile of plywood or cement blocks he’d scavenged in the past 30 years from building sites.
What was fantastical to a small child was oppressive to the adults who had to deal with the chaos. And while there were treasures to be found amid the dross—a set of Mark Twain first editions, a minor California Impressionist landscape bought for $1, the mahogany ship’s clock that still sits in my living room today—the overall impression was not one of good taste.
Certainly, maximalism will never be unimpeachably chic. I often think of Genevieve Antoine Dariaux’s authoritative manual, A Guide to Elegance, in which she asserts that, much like pornography, chic is a quality best defined by example: “The Kennedy family had chic; but the Truman family didn’t. The late Princess Diana had chic; but Princess Margaret didn’t. Marlene Dietrich and Greta Garbo had chic; but Rita Hayworth and Elizabeth Taylor, in spite of their beauty, their sumptuous clothes and jewels, did not.”
And yet, think about Diana Vreeland, with her red-lacquer, pattern-bedecked apartment: Wasn’t it she who likened a dash of vulgarity to the paprika on a deviled egg? Consider the contemporary work of Miles Redd, Studio Peregalli, and Ken Fulk—riots of color, pattern, comfort all?
Rita Konig, a proud maximalist, teaches classes in acquiring her particular brand of curated comfort from a jewel box of a gallery-walled West London apartment where amethyst threaded–crystal match strikers keep company with reimagined Staffordshire dog figurines, cane-patterned needlepoint cushions, and banana-leaf wallpaper.
At cult urban emporiums like John Derian and Pentreath & Hall, one can buy handmade paper flowers, marble fruit, and the nouveau-Cocteau fantasias of Luke Edward Hall. In the wrong context, too much tchotchke—but in the right hands, the sign of a certain haute-boho dash.
As with so many things, intention is all: What separates a Collyer brother from a Carolina Irving is deliberate curation. That, and tidiness: Maximalism is never chaos, it just hints at it—think charming eccentricity versus a stay in a mental hospital. A Philip Treacy hat, if you will, versus drinking a bunch of drain cleaner.
One should not need stuff to feel anchored to the world, perhaps. But is it a crime to like it? To let the patterns and things and textures around you do a bit of the talking, sometimes?
We spend our days taking tips on hygge and lagom and wabi-sabi. And then, when we’re purified, we go for a $30 drink at the new Annabel’s. If, that is, we can even get in.