Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Roger Banks-Pye

The 1997 New York Times article on Colefax and Fowler: Interior Inspirations by Roger Banks Pye and Photography by James Merrill came out year after Banks-Pyes' death at the age of 48, saying that he "may have been the greatest decorator that no one has every heard of." That changed, of course, with the publication of the book. A full decade later, the late-great decorator was being blogged about by Mrs. Blandings, his influence felt far and wide. 

I found Banks-Pye's book having read neither the Times or Mrs. Blandings at the now defunct Barnes & Noble at Lincoln Center. I was mesmerized. Though not much interested in Banks-Pye's thing for checks, his use of color, pattern and scale made a huge impression on me. He was fearless. Just look at the photograph above; curtains hung from the ceiling creating a spectacular line that is echoed by the hanging light, hall table and flowers reaching towards each other; sepia tones and humble flooring. Grand and gracious in one fell swoop. 

Here, verticality is created with the two-toned Farrow & Ball green striped wallpaper. One sees from other photographs of this room that it's not very big, but the use of pattern makes it seem bigger. That's Banks-Pye's genius. One of the things I like about this photograph is the pictures on either side of the mantel that aren't lined up perfectly even though there is a lot of symmetry. This keeps the eye moving around the room. And that curvy mirror against the stripes? Wonderful counterpoint. 

Always scale up, not down. Everyone is terrified of making things too big. If in doubt make it bigger, not smaller.

Another view of the same room. I can't get enough of the Chinz curtains and their dialogue with the wallpaper and the sofa pattern. And smack in the middle of the room? An earth-colored leather chair that provides a calm center for the swirling fabric. The touch of red in the lamp base is well considered too, catching the eye and pulling it towards the view while also being a foil for all that green and blue. 

Though there are moments when plain white walls might seem a relief, those moments are rare, and should be discouraged. Always make a dark room darker.


Bigger not smaller. Big yes to that. If dark go darker. Yes. Well. I buy it in theory. In actuality? I'm not sure I can live in it, though I am thinking about painting the bathroom walls black or a darkish pink with lots of old silver gilt frames and mirror. Like many New York apartments, the room doesn't have a window, so that is definitely an opportunity for drama. Did I mention that the current tile is pink with black trim, straight out the 1930's? I bet Banks-Pye would have done something wild with that. Pink Chinz? Now there's a thought. He did glue it to his own bedroom floor after all.

Had he lived, he would now be the dean of English Interior Design. Curious about such things, I've looked for a cause of death, but haven't found one yet.

Lastly, the first photograph is one I keep coming back to over and over. The vibrant warm colors taken from the carpet come alive in an alcove, creating the perfect setting for reading a book or a blissful night's sleep. Banks-Pye's signature verticality starts at the floor with moleskin colored fringe and heads straight up to the gleaming brass tiebacks, the eye pausing at the checked comforter and Elizabeth I who floats above, dreaming big.

Postscript February 3, 2011

A trip to the library led me to several articles on Banks-Pye's work, the most salient being his September 3rd, 1996 obituary in The Independent (London, England). Of course, it doesn't tell the reader the cause of death. Would it be logical, however, to wonder if this omission has anything to do with the crisis with felled so many artists of Banks-Pye's time, protease inhibiters not being invented yet, and the three letter acronym associated with it still unutterable in 1997? 

Here's what I did learn though. 

Banks-Pye started to reach his stride when he started working for Colefax & Fowler at the age of 29, where he learned the "mechanics and grammar of decoration in the grand Colefax manner" from Tom Parr. At the same time, he used materials such as napkins applied to curtains and vigorously grained woodwork which resulted in a "three dimensional evocation of Synthetic Cubism." Interestingly, he believed that photographs taught the designer nothing, a notion worth remembering in the blogging world where the consumption of images is the driving force. 

You have to draw to understand and remember clearly, especially when you need to re-use what has aroused your interest.
He also had a taste for strange objects rather than fine antiques, and a couturier's eye for fabrics and details which drew Valentino to his door. In the end, his use of modest things coupled with an eye for "scale, form, balance and color" had a way of circumventing "the world of social convention and material success." 

Certainly, he was my kinda guy. 

Note: First four images from "Colefax and Fowler: Interior Inspirations," the last photograph from "Country Life."


  1. thank you! this post is a little gem and a lovely tribute to him.
    i cannot wait to see what you do with your small bathroom.
    and you know, given your profession and 'art as a way of life,' it could be wonderfully theatrical and still be perfectly apropos.
    tammy j

    1. You may be curious to see my postscript. Thanks for your comment!


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