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Florence de Dampierre’s New Book on Walls that Talk

Rural Intelligence Style If they were less witty and exuberant, it might be tempting to describe the books written by Florence de Dampierre (her 5th, Walls: The Best of Decorative Treatments, has just been published by Rizzoli) as reference works.  Thorough and intelligent, rich in history and anecdote, they are rarities—“coffee table books” that are as valuable for their text as for their stunning photographs.  Which may explain why, in a world where such books are wont to come and go in a season or two, de Dampierre’s are perennial bestsellers.  Her first, The Best of Painted Furniture, published in 1987 and still in print, is a must-have for anyone who aspires to be well-versed about interior design.   

Born and raised in Paris, Florence de Dampierre attended a now-defunct, famously rigorous all-girls lycee on the Rue des Invalides.  “We were taught by nuns,” she says “Nearly all of us did the baccalauréat,” the secondary school curriculum that screens students bound for university.  De Dampierre went on to study medicine, before abandoning academia to decamp first for London then New York.

Nothing about her flamboyant life thereafter would suggest such an earnest start.  In the mid-80s, Florence de Dampierre Antiques in New York, specialized in 18th- and 19th-century painted furniture and was famous for the conviviality of its proprietor and for its Pompeian red walls.  When I interviewed de Dampierre around that time for New York Magazine at her stylish upper east side apartment, she epitomized young French chic—pretty, vivacious and au courant in her size 2 Chanel.  Shortly thereafter, Eleanor Lambert named her to The Best Dressed List.

Rural Intelligence StyleSo how did this French glamazon end up in Litchfield?  De Dampierre, normally chatty, disposes of the topic with a quick, “My husband [investor Sean Mathis] had some property near here,” as if no further explanation were required for such an obviously propitious move.  The mother of three, her two youngest grew up in this seat of apple-pie Americana.  Son, Cameron, 21, now at the University of Pennsylvania, played soccer at Taft, then did a post-grad at Hotchkiss (not coincidentally, his mother strongly implies, the very year they won the soccer championship).  Her daughter, Valentina, 13, attends the public school.  De Dampierre, a self-taught interior designer, has clients in Connecticut, New York, and around the world.  Somewhere in all of this, between her business, attending distant soccer matches armed with snacks, and whipping up a mousse au chocolat for a Saturday-night dinner party, she manages to write worthwhile books.

“I write at night, in English,” she says. “I like doing books that have meat.”  In Walls, her concern is not with the ordinary walls most of us live with—“a solid-colored backdrop blending in with furnishings and paintings,” rather with decorated walls—murals, wood paneling, stenciling, and wallpaper—that make a substantial contribution to ambiance.  The book starts with antiquity and gradually brings us into the present, with countless amusing stops along the way.  Drawing on a 1437 treatise on egg tempera, she paraphrases the Italian author’s earnest advice:  “Country eggs are redder and better suited to making the color blue.  Towns eggs are whiter….He suggested painting young faces with town eggs, while country eggs were preferable for painting old men.”  She tells how the poet and artistic visionary Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828 –  1882) fell short when it came to practical concerns: His pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood failed to properly prepare the walls of the Oxford Union Society’s Debating Hall before painting them with murals depicting Arthurian legends:  “Sadly,...the brilliantly colored works dissolved almost immediately.”

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The principal photography in Walls is credited to top interiors specialists Pieter Estersohn and Tim Street-Porter, both of whom have extensive archives.  De Dampierre drew up lists of the rooms she needed.  “I kind of know the subject,” she says.  For images that could be gotten no other way, such as this close-up of the remarkable stenciling at Olana, she and Street-Porter hit the road.  “Tim took many of the pictures expressly for this book.” 
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A dressing room with Etruscan-inspired painted walls, above left, designed by Robert Adam (1728 – 1792) shares a spread with a contemporary Parisian study, above right, with walls adorned with a charming adaptation of Adam’s design.  This contemporary room, alone, would be enough to satisfy the most skeptical reader that we do, indeed, need a thorough knowledge of these old-fashioned, often antique, labor-intensive, decorative effects.  “They’re very good on sheetrock walls in new construction,” De Dampierre points out.  “They give age and instant nobility to a room.  You don’t need much art—just wallpaper or stenciling and curtains, and a room is immediately cozy.” 
This Saturday, Florence de Dampierre, along with many other local authors, will be at Trade Secrets in Sharon between 10 and 11 a.m. to answer questions and sign copies of her book at a special table sponsored by Johnnycakes Books

Trade Secrets
Saturday, May 14
Limerock Farm, Sharon (Route 44 on the Salisbury/Sharon line)
10 a.m. - 3 p.m. Admission/$35
Book signings from 10 a.m. – 1 p.m.

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