KENNETH JAY LANE was known as the King of Faux and his jewellery and vintage pieces are now COLLECTOR’S ITEMS. Before his death, POLLY DEVLIN visited the designer in his maximalist Park Avenue residence in New York …
I’m in his apartment and it’s glamorous. So is he. Beau Brummel. Witty. Irreverent. Handsome. Sly. And funny. A dandy. And sharp. Horribly so. Don’t get off your guard. He still is all these things, though he is well into his eighties. And his apartment matches his character. He has a fine sardonic edge to his conversation and pretends not to take things seriously, but he didn’t get to the top of his richly accoutred haute-boho tree through frivolity.
I first met him in the 1960s, when I was working at Vogue and he was in vogue, already one of the most iconic jewellery designers in the world. His fabulous ornaments channelled Schlumberger, Jeanne Toussaint, Fulco di Verdura, Bulgari, Cartier and Chanel – snakes and shells and puppy dogs’ tails and whatever that singular eye of his happened upon was given its own rococo glittering spin. Every fashionable woman wanted this new fabulous “junque” jewellery.
“I like to create jewellery that can be worn any time of the year, by any woman,” he said. (Historical note – his jewellery has been worn by every First Lady since time began; Barbara Bush wore his three-strand pearl choker to her husband’s Presidential Inaugural Ball and there’s a famous photograph of Jacqueline Kennedy practically being strung up by John, her baby son, as he plays with her KJL triple-strand pearl necklace that she bought for less than two hundred dollars. It was sold at auction, after her death, for over two hundred thousand.)
He coins aphorisms at the drop of a cabochon. “Style and chic are not the same things. Chic is sort of being au courant. Style is not.” “It’s not what the woman has on her back, it’s to do with her mind.” “Imagination is everything.”
There is an element of the fabulous about both him and his grande luxe duplex in one of the handful of surviving mansions on Park Avenue, in the Murray neighbourhood, built in the Italian Renaissance revival style by Stanford White of McKim, Mead & White. When it was finished in 1892, one of the founders of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, architectural critic Russell Sturgis pronounced it “the most dignified structure in all the quarter of town, not a palace, but a fit dwelling house for a first rate citizen”. So Kenny, as his friends called him, came home. In the 1920s it was converted into the Advertising Club and in 1977 it was developed into apartments. Kenneth Jay, who lived in a swish little place nearby, watched progress with deep interest and an eagle eye, and before there was even a prospectus he gained access and wrote out a cheque for the only apartment with a balcony.
The balcony overlooks Park Avenue. “If I turn one way I can look all the way uptown. The other way and it’s almost down to Union Square. If there’s a snowstorm it’s like being inside one of those glass paperweights which you shake so the snow falls,” he says. He was also seduced by the rare proportions of the place. “I think it’s impossible to live in a room that isn’t at least 13 feet high,” he once said – without a blush – and here he found 16-foot-high ceilings and a chance to make another jewel of his own devising. He gutted most of what was there, keeping the vast original hand-carved Italian marble fireplace, but removing a marble staircase in the middle of what is now his distinctly opulent salon. He designed the interiors himself and his own master carpenter made the stairs and woodwork.
Kenneth Lane is fortunate in being a master of rare objects and elusive space. Once inside the double trompe l’oeil walnut doors of his domain you’re in the hall and dining room muffled with voluptuousness, a cantilevered staircase (which he designed himself) leading up past the scarlet red walls with their perfectly placed sconces up, up, up to a mezzanine balcony wherein is his library (and some enormous paintings and Chinese pots and garden stools) and thence to the hidden glories of his bedroom, patterned after the Paris apartment of Marie-Blanche de Polignac, the daughter of couturier Jeanne Lanvin. The mahogany and faux ebony surround of the overmantel and fireplace is copied from the Empire-inspired doors of her library, designed by architect Emilio Terry, and there are some wonderful paintings, including one of The Sleep of Endymion by Anne-Louis Girodet.
The main room, a 27-square-foot salon, wonderfully high, of course, with an elaborate moulded plaster ceiling and a huge Heriz carpet, is a rich dialogue of colour, harmony and contrast, visually and proportionally perfect, and inspires a sense of calm that is light years away from the tumult of Grand Central Station nearby. The walls are hung with his collection of Orientalist pictures, and the mixture of textures and patterns, of different seating from sofas to ottomans to grand chairs (with a lot of faux leopard around), the elaborate ruffled curtains, the pictures and the polish give it the air of an American translation of English country house style – a little Edwardian – or grand Proustian French, with that twist of baroque fluency that is all his own. Urbane connoisseurship on show.
Tall faux palms flourish by the French windows, and the walls are close-hung with European as well as Pharaonic paintings (close-hanging is a skill that he has at his fingertips). The wall covering is chocolate-brown Herculon, a synthetic fibre mostly used for car upholstery but which under his alchemy looks deeply luxurious. The lighting of any great room is a giveaway of taste. He didn’t want chandeliers so it’s lit by huge arm lamps with fringed silk shades, the signature lamps of Robert Denning of Denning & Fourcade, a now defunct New York interior design firm known for extravagance and over-the-top opulence. They look clubby and terrific.
On every surface, including a Louis XIV Boulle Mazarin desk, and tables topped with pietra dura, pretty lamps and objects from all over are mixed and matched with insouciance. He places fanciful objects with amusement value (“silly things” he says, complacently, poking fun at himself – he’s good at that) next to valuable rarities, “to take the curse off the good things!” Two mysterious-looking succulent plants like enormous cacti in Chinese blue and white planters turn out to be painted wooden bits of Indian mischief, and the cushions on a banquette are made from hand-woven dishcloths he found in the window of a shop selling kitchen stuff in Ahmedabad. These cohabit amiably with objets de vertu and proper treasures such as the discreetly placed little oval-topped North German ormolu and alabastro fiorito gueridon table (probably made in Berlin or Potsdam around 1800) with a pierced palmette cast border and frieze that he has promised to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. More treasures … the mantelshelf supports two ravishing Flemish late 17th-century busts of warriors, a male and a female, probably representing Mars and Minerva, in white and black stone marble on variegated red, black and grey and pink marble socles. They are quite at home here, surveying their territory, but each summer he lets them go off for a sojourn in the Met.
Although he says, “I’m a person who wants; I’m a wanter and a needer,” he is a generous giver. His impressive collection of Orientalist paintings and some of his furniture have been bequeathed to the Met, where there is a room named for him. “I have no children, so the world within my gallery will be my children.” Well, the world has always been his oyster. He was born in Detroit in 1932, “a Depression baby”, visited Manhattan with his mother when he was 15 and “fell madly in love with New York and that was that; I was never going back. I was an only child. I was a princeling.” He went everywhere, in every sense – he was an inveterate traveller as well as party-goer – knew everyone, hung out with the Duke and Duchess of Windsor in New York and France, was sketched by Andy Warhol in earlier days when he was designing shoes and Andy was drawing them, appeared in Warhol’s films, and when in 1974 he married one of the beauties of her generation, an exquisite called Nicky Weymouth, he put the fashion feathers all a-flutter. (The rumour was that Beatrix Miller, the editor of British Vogue, had suggested the marriage, but in fact they met through Andy Warhol.) Nicky was the only Englishwoman I knew who wore Paris couture, and he has always been impeccably groomed. Together they were a destination style-sighting. He has been collecting since he was a boy – “even as a teenager I used to covet and collect little ivory animals – worthless things but pretty, and coins and stamps and cigar bands – whatever happened to those?” He holds out no hope for the addicts among us. “Once you buy two of the same thing you’re a collector.” The first painting he bought and still loves is a portrait by Jean-Léon Gérôme of a Bashi-bazouk wearing a multi-coloured ikat and cone-shaped turban, with a fair few dangling tassels and gleaming weapons about his lovely person. Gérôme had an abiding fascination with these mad mercenaries of the Ottoman army who fought like the devil. I look them up: their name means “damaged head” or “crazy head”, in the sense of uncontrollable and disorderly. No discipline whatsoever. “Yes, they were very naughty,” he observes equably. He too seems to have a yearning for the exotic sensual world epitomised in Gérôme’s paintings; and then too orientalism is a form of romanticism and KJL was a New Romantic before it was new.
Everything here has a provenance as well as a personal back story, sometimes capricious. The curious scarlet corded, leopard-covered chairs on each side of the fireplace he saw in a flea market in Palermo – “the chairs cost nothing so I had them brought back and covered them in the most expensive fabric you can imagine.” The fabric was made by Maison Le Manach, a dream of a fabric house founded in France in 1829, which can recreate any fabric – for a price. But the fabric on the chairs is nothing to the tiger-skin fabric, also from Le Manach, that covers the big pouffe at the other end of the room. This pouffe came from Pamela Harriman when she gave up her Fifth Avenue apartment. “It would cost $40,000 or $50,000 now to redo it,” he muses. The needlepoint wing chair nearby, found in London at Christopher Gibbs, is the focus for another congenial seating area in front of a large ornamental bookcase with a carved pediment.
He has managed to make this huge room into an intimate, satisfying and charming place – the perfect backdrop for his parties. “I like to have people around,” he says, in a bit of an understatement. “The dining room can seat eight or nine people but in here there can be 40. Sometimes it gets out of hand and there are almost 70.” His apartment is an affirmation of delight in the richness of things.
New York Places To Write Home About by Polly Devlin (Pimpernel, £40stg), is published this month.
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