Stephen Bayley

Making America crass again

The man's taste is as revealing as any of his outbursts

Elsie de Wolfe was the pioneer interior designer whose motto was ‘plenty of optimism and white paint’. She banished brown Victoriana from America. And her work on Henry Clay Frick’s private apartments introduced new American money to old French furniture.

If only she were with us today. For his first television interview as president-elect, Donald Trump appeared, imperiously, sitting on a golden throne in the style of Louis Quinze. My vision may well have been blurred by circumstances beyond, but I think there were period-incorrect wall and ceiling paintings on classical-allegorical themes in the background. All of this on cantilevered decks behind mirrored glass about 200 metres above Fifth Avenue.

The French invented the notion of ‘bon goût’, so they also invented the notion of ‘mauvais goût’. Good taste may be indefinitely debatable, but surely it has something to do with manners? And bad taste with appropriateness?

Yet in America, those avid for social promotion have often found that a super-glossy suggestion of Versailles lends legitimacy to uglier nouveaux attributes. Besides, American new money rarely chooses subtlety as its means of expression. The same clearly applies to this new president. Trump’s taste is as revealing of the man as any of his spastic outbursts. Make America Crass Again, you might say.

Trump, one forgets now, was originally a property developer. His first pronouncements have been about building — highways, bridges, tunnels, airports, schools, hospitals and walls. He has his Frenchified throne in an apartment atop Trump Tower, the 1983 Manhattan landmark that announced his presence as a tastemaker. His chosen architect was Der Scutt, a middle-brow modernist well used to pampering developers’ egos.

Rather as Augustus turned Rome from brick to marble, Scutt brought coruscating bronze glass to a part of Manhattan hitherto largely limestone (and thus dignified).

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