The Southern Cosmopolitan Travels

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Join me as I travel to East Hampton, New York, for an exhibition of Dominy furniture  and a Southern expatriate supper

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I recently spent the weekend at the East Hampton home of voracious and omnivorous collectors Glenn Purcell and Charles Keller. During the last several years, they have developed an obsession with furniture made in the 18th- and 19th centuries by East Hampton’s  Dominy family of cabinetmakers. While their late 19th-century Shingle Style house is usually filled with chairs, stands, and a dining room table made by the family, at the time of my visit the furniture had relocated to the East Hampton Historical Society’s Clinton Academy Museum (easthamptonhistory.org) for an exhibition entitled Dominy: The Federal and Empire Periods, 1790-1840, New Discoveries.

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Open from May 29th through June 27th, the exhibition was co-curated by Glenn and Charles and has already won the attention of The New York Times.  Arranged against a backdrop of  banners printed with pages from the hand-written Dominy ledgers, chairs, stands, beds, tables, mirrors and clocks demonstrate the family’s refined, and often restrained, approach to Federal and Empire styles.

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The exhibition reflects the co-curators’ relentless pursuit of the Dominy family’s handiwork, often guided by ledgers that indicate names of buyers, the descendants of whom often still own the pieces. Having developed a connoisseur’s eye for the furniture, Glenn and Charles also hunted pieces down in the homes of unsuspecting owners, in Long Island antiques stores, and even in a local yard sale (East Hampton yard sales are different).

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In between trips to the museum to install the exhibition during my weekend visit, Glenn and Charles took time to host a Southern expatriate style dinner (Glenn grew up in Newnan, Georgia, not far from my mother’s hometown of Milledgeville). While Glenn gave me a tour of East Hampton houses, Charles and my graphic designer Eric Mueller (who has ties to Tennessee) set a gorgeous table complete with plates ringed with the names of the thirteen colonies.

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On the rims of these plates, reproductions of those used by George and Martha Washington’s family, Georgia sits right next to New Hampshire. Late 19th-century wine glasses of glittering cut glass–a favorite element in Southern table settings–share the tablecloth with 1920s Murano glasses that bespeak Northern sophistication.

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In a second table setting (below)–so much to play with in these collectors’ house–Charles swapped the thirteen colonies plates for simple wedding band china, beloved in both the North and South. This table setting could have been at home anywhere up and down the Eastern seaboard, a fact which reveals a simple truth about historic Northern and Southern styles: they have more in common than you might think.

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I recently had a meeting with my editor at Rizzoli to discuss the contents of my next book, Houses with Charm: Simple Southern Style. She kept asking me, “What makes this Southern?” I explained that while there are definite distinctions between the architecture of the two regions, the decorative arts of the South and the North have much more in common. What makes them different, perhaps, is the way we use them.

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For example, the Southerner’s idea of perfection is thinly sliced Virginia ham served up with Henry Bain sauce, a Louisville, Kentucky favorite from the Pendennis Club. A bit like A-1 sauce, it is made with a base of English mango chutney (a reminder of the South’s Anglo-colonial roots) and sparked with a dash of Tabasco. While Southerners would choose iced tea with fresh mint as the ideal accompaniment for a salty ham luncheon, my Northern hosts preferred a rose sparkling wine in mid-20th century Murano glasses. But we all agreed that fresh peaches would be an ideal counterpoint–and table decoration–for a casual outdoor luncheon.  Cheers!

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