Samuel Clemens Home

Tobacco, Saris and Portieres

9 MARCH 2016,
Samuel Clemens Home. Credit John Groo for The Mark Twain House & Museum
Samuel Clemens Home. Credit John Groo for The Mark Twain House & Museum

Day-dreaming of exotic lands led me to take a day trip to the home of Samuel Clemens (Mark Twain) in Hartford, Connecticut. I cherry-pick my way through his house and share with you some aspects of my favorite rooms, offering potential interpretations for a 21st Century home.

The entrance hall, the drawing room, and the library were my favorite rooms in this beautiful Victorian Gothic Revival home, designed by the architect Edward Tuckerman Potter in 1874. The interior decor appears to be mostly inspired by well sought-out design themes of its era, including inspiration from the Middle and Far East.

In 1881, the interior design firm of Louis Comfort Tiffany - Associated Artists - was commissioned to stencil the walls, originally carved by Leon Marcotte of New York and Paris. The wainscoting was stenciled in silver with a starburst-pattern wooden tracery over it. At the time, the gaslight interior and silvered stenciling would have given a shimmery effect and notions of mother-of-pearl. The practical and fashionable meet here with many choosing dark walls to hide the darkening effect of gaslight emissions. The walls above the wainscoting and ceiling are red with stenciled patterns of black and silver.

Stenciling continued into formal entertaining in the drawing room in a stenciled silver over light salmon pink - a refreshing contrast to the dark entrance hall. Stenciled patterns reminiscent of India, such as bells and paisley swirls, adorn the walls. Candace Wheeler of Associated Artists designed the ornate beaded sari-inspired portieres.

I was captivated by the peacock blue library with its lavish large oak mantelpiece from Ayton Castle in Scotland that the Clemens bought specifically for this room. Here Samuel would incorporate the objects on his mantel into stories for his three young daughters. (It reminded me of my own objects on my mantel piece: their actual stories and stories that could be imagined.) A quote from Ralph Waldo Emerson inscribed on the added brass smoke screen, “The ornament of a house is the friends who frequent it,” is an insightful and endearing touch.

Reflecting on this charming day spent at the Samuel Clemens home, I less charmed to learn of his smoking habit: forty not particularly good cigars a day. I remind myself that this was a very different time period and I wonder if there is something redeeming about tobacco, at least from a decorative point of view that we could use today. Indeed, my research took me by pleasant surprise and I am delighted to share my findings with you!

Tobacco baskets - probably something known to those who live in tobacco-producing States, were a revelation for me and perhaps for you as well. I scanned through dozens upon dozens of such baskets on a Google search that led me to individual antique dealers and to well-known sites such as 1stdibs and Etsy.

The baskets were made from oak strips that were nailed together. The cured leaves were carried in these baskets to market where they were weighed. The baskets tend to have rounded corners and are either large rectangles or squares. Their shallow shape makes them perfect for hanging on the wall. Some were advertised as never being used thus no worries of residue tobacco odor. I saw some displayed on various interior walls, offering the perfect accent note on a coffee table and usually in their natural state. Some baskets were painted and hung outside the home. I certainly will consider one of these baskets for my own home and for future projects.

I also found on line plenty of Chinese export porcelain with tobacco leaves, both authentic and reproduction. Recently, I fancied a large ‘pseudo tobacco leaf’ serving dish, from the last quarter of the 18th century. It was enameled in iron-red, lime green, yellow, sepia, puce and gilt, with Japanese-style moon, hibiscus, and slender serrated leaves. This particular dish recently fetched $11,250 at Christie’s. Today, we can happily rely on food-safe reproduction, as there are many good choices. You might like to add healthy tobacco leaves via decor on your table setting. Mottahedeh & Company Tobacco Leaf pattern does the trick. Their Tobacco Leaf pattern consists of a small phoenix bird and the multicolor Nicotiana of a tobacco plant, delicate florals and 22-karat gold accents.

I was also drawn to the sari-inspired Portieres in the Clemens drawing room. Design professionals and enthusiasts alike are well-acquainted with their history. Today, we may be even inundated with the influence of India and up-cycled saris - from ottomans and curtains to dressing gowns. I won’t go so far to dismiss saris as they are eternally beautiful. These, by Candace Wheeler of Associated Artists, create spectacular portieres. I like the idea of portieres for our homes now. I’ve been contemplating them for myself in my living room. Since the living room is open to a wide foyer, I thought if I have portieres made for this space, it will not only soften the edges and create a slightly theatrical entrance, but will also offer some privacy, particularly if they are fully operable and prevent drafts. This is what we call optimistically a well-ventilated home; in other words, a leaky house susceptible to drafts.

In a search for contemporary examples of portieres, one need not look further than the work of New York- and Connecticut-based interior designer Glenn Gissler. He has successfully brought lavish 19th-Century portieres into the Twenty-first Century by paring them down and omitting the tassels and trims. His portieres are clean and tailored, exemplifying a contemporary ideal variation on a Victorian idea. Though the concept of the portieres may have come originally from Asia as early as the Fourth Century, Edith Wharton in her book “The Decoration of Houses,” noted that portieres were easier to use than sliding doors. Glenn Gissler pointed out on his blog that they also soften sound. He uses them as a practical means to block the chaos of the dining room. He has used fabrics from Gretchen Bellinger’s “Limousine Cloth’ and Pollack Associates “Interweave” in a double-sided reversible jacquard weave that drapes beautifully.

The delicate stenciling in the Clemens home is another source of inspiration. The geometric decoration from Morocco and Andalusia Southern Spain is as popular today as it was in the 19th Century and the patterns are easily translated into stenciling. The arm chair traveler might like to take a look at the book Arabesques Decorative Art in Morocco, by Jean Marc Castera, et al.

For me, a home without books is inconceivable. Samuel Clemens’ library - with plenty of filled custom bookshelves and a comfortable divan nestled into the corner covered with a highly patterned oriental rug and scattered with pillows - is a cozy place to read and linger for hours. I envisioned a 21st Century twist with a digital trompe l'oeil of a library. Koziel Wallpaper offers exceptional trompe-l’oeil wallpaper, fabrics, and pillows, depicting a bookcase filled with beautiful books. It's a wonderful spin on the library theme and is practical for small spaces. I highly recommend keeping books and if possible to have one’s personal library even if it's limited to a bookshelf. I wouldn't be so quick to go for a digital library purely in the virtual world. Art and design books are visual feasts. There’s delight in turning the pages, and it offers a tactile experience that digital cannot. Obvious and yet important to note: No one can update or amend the printed books in your home. Even if you have no room for the books, there’s no message telling you your storage has been being used up. It’s glorious.

If Samuel were alive today, I’m sure he would have quit smoking and maybe practiced yogic breathing techniques. I could see his home incorporating the rooms that are popular today: Perhaps a home gym and a wine cellar, to name a couple. I conclude with this quote from Samuel Clemens: “To us, our house… had a heart, and a soul, and eyes to see us with; and approvals and solicitudes and deep sympathies; it was of us, and we were in its confidence and lived in its grace and in the peace of its benediction.”

For more information:
Samuel Clemens aka Mark Twainm, http://www.marktwainhouse.org
Chinese Export, Christie’s http://www.christies.com
Reproduction Chinese Export, Mottahedeh, https://www.mottahedeh.com
Glenn Gissler, http://gissler.com
Tobacco Baskets https://www.etsy.com/search/handmade