American Bling

The dreamworld of America's shiny, sparkly aesthetic.

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Larry Hart got the idea to decorate his mansion with spackle squeezed out of cake-frosting tubes from a book on Versailles. “As I looked at those pictures,” he said, “it just struck me that it [Versailles] looked like a giant wedding cake.” As Joyce Wadler recently described it in The New York Times, ornate plasterwork swirls throughout the Hartland Mansion, slathered on the ceilings, mirrors, pillars and angels.

 

Wadler gives us a tour of the mansion, all the while sporting an ironic New York attitude:

A house with 32 chandeliers, twin spiral staircases and so much rococo plasterwork that Marie Antoinette, were she planning a weekend in Vegas, would say, “The heck with the Bellagio, I want to stay with the Hart family in that rundown neighborhood where Liberace used to live,” may not be for you. That’s understandable.

“Understandable,” I suppose, because any tasteful New Yorker could only snicker at the Hartland Mansion, and implicitly, this unfortunate “other” side of the American aesthetic. “The entrance hall has a dramatic black-and-white checkerboard floor and a 35-foot dome. Stair rails are swagged with stiffly wired gold lamé, white silk roses and ivory velvet. The living room measures 33 by 57 feet.” Here, you see the 34-pound velvet bedspread decorated with cabochon pearls. There, the gold-leafed armchairs, hand-leafed by Larry, who designed and built most of the mansion’s decor. The writer ponders a dollar-store wineglass on which a little glass slipper had been hot-glued. Above her, more glass shoes had been glued onto a 6-foot silver-and-faux-candle candelabra. “Shoe-delier.”

When the Hart family snapped up the foreclosed Vegas property in the 1970s, they dreamed of fashion shows and corporate events and all sorts of Vegas glamour. For more than 20 years, the Hartland Mansion has hosted grand bar mitzvahs, lavish weddings, and Engelbert Humperdinck. In the article, Larry talks about being a fat, asthmatic kid back in Texas, decorating his entertainer mother’s shoes with fake jewels: “Part of the attraction to the shiny and beautiful is maybe an externalization, maybe feeling there was nothing I could do about me.”

Seeing those two words together — “shiny” and beautiful” — recalled a vivid scene from my Las Vegas childhood. I’m standing in the bathroom of the High Roller Suite, mesmerized by my own reflection splattered across the mirrored walls. I had never seen that many mirrors in one room. The entire High Roller Suite was a riot of slapdash shimmer and shag: King-sized bed dolled up in baroque satin and lace. Yellow rotary phone next to the toilet (the ultimate luxury). Because Lisa’s father happened to be vice president of the hotel, an elementary school field trip had been arranged. The Las Vegas sun beamed through the windows, blasting a thousand points of light into the mirrors and glass, rainbows discoed across our faces. We were hypnotized. As we rolled through the fluffy carpets and set sail across the waterbed, every 6-year-old in the room formed a single thought: This…is…BEAUTIFUL.

We discussed the suite endlessly over crackers and juice later that day, about how we yearned to live in such a shiny paradise. We sketched up designs for how we would recreate this beauty in our own homes with plenty of glitter and paste. Thinking back, I’m sure the plans looked a lot like the Hartland Mansion. Just like Larry, shiny equaled beautiful for us. Shiny was fun and thrilling, and it was also a look that was easy to execute.

There is an aspect of the American aesthetic that approaches design like a child. There’s a giddy lack of propriety, a joyful dismissal of taste, a love of big colors and sparkle. It’s connected to our attitude toward wealth, which often equates beauty with prosperity. In other words, if it looks rich, it must be beautiful. The shinier the better. This aesthetic of bling, though, is not simply about playacting at wealth; it’s about becoming lost in a fantasy of layers upon layers of artificiality and imitation. The Versailles that Larry Hart imitated in the Hartland Mansion (Versailles itself the classic contribution to Artifice) was not even the actual Versailles, but an idea of Versailles based on pictures of Versailles in a book and created with the mass-produced materials available to him at craft and hardware stores.

All craft is imitation. There are cultures that imitate things they find in nature, or gods, or traditions that go back thousands of years. In America, imitation isn’t just about copying other essential things; imitation is the essential thing, the basis for whatever it is that “American craft” is. Sure, you’ve got exceptions like the Shakers, who designed elegant originals such as the flat-bottomed broom (which is an amazing thing, truly) and the clothespin. But the clothespin never screamed AMERICA! until Claes Oldenburg made a supersized imitation of it in downtown Philly.

This American approach to craft — i.e. filling the space between real thing and copy with fantasy — started unexpectedly in Britain with the Arts and Crafts movement. Arts and Crafts (AAC) came about largely as a response to the inauthenticity (their word) and vulgarity (them again) of bourgeois Victorian eclecticism (itself molded in the image of Versailles kitsch). For AAC, art was supposed to be a) moral and b) useful, and real art was inextricable from the individual craftsperson. AACers railed against the soul-crushing hand of the new Industrial Age, complained about the division of labor alienating the craftspeople from their work. Craft was about the integrity and quality of materials, and mostly, the integrity, the humanity, of the artist. This emphasis on beautiful craftsmanship did produce some really beautiful crafts. And it produced some liberated artisans. It also produced really expensive objects obtainable, primarily, by the rich elite. This didn’t fly with the hardcore socialist beliefs of some AACers, who struggled with reconciling their ideals with the high cost — social and economic — of quality.

The AAcers were locked in a fierce battle with another movement called, pointedly, the Aesthetic Movement. These were the art-for-art-sakers, the guys and gals who got dyspeptic if you suggested art have moral purpose, or any purpose other than just to be beautiful. They were the decadents, the sensualists, the Oscar Wildes. They loved artifice and eclecticism and romance and fancy symbolism. This is where Aesthetics and Arts and Crafts clashed most essentially. AAcers thought Art should imitate nature. Aesthetics thought this was totally backwards, that Life should be imitating Art.

Meanwhile, Arts and Crafts started to catch on in America but with a dandyish Aesthetic flair, mostly thanks to one man: Louis Comfort Tiffany. Tiffany took what he wanted from the movement — the vivid colors, the bold forms, the swirly decoration — and inserted it into one of the more popular aesthetic crusades of the day: beautifying the rapidly growing middle-class American home. Americans, being Americans, wanted quality in their decorative arts, but they wanted the BIG STATEMENT, too, and they wanted it now. It was the Gilded Age, after all. For this they would need to produce items that were affordable and available. In a very American move, Tiffany decided he could best realize the dual Arts and Crafts goal of equal distribution and quality of materials with — you guessed it — handcrafted objects mass produced in a factory. In one fell swoop, he elevated both American design and American progressivism. Pretty good, right? “The most helpful thing I can think of,” Tiffany once wrote, “is to show people that beauty is everywhere.” This statement brilliantly conveys a romantic double message. One, that the beauty of natural forms are everywhere, just like the AACers believed. And two, that beauty can just as well be made in a factory as in a garret. Just as AACers found virtue in imitating nature, Tiffany and his American contemporaries found virtue in imitating the Arts and Crafts movement. And, imitation itself.

I like to think of L.C. Tiffany as the Wizard of Oz of American design. Though a trained artist, he faked his way through art, ignoring what people were trying to teach him, in the name of his greater vision. He wanted to doll up dreary, turn-of-the-century America with splashes of Technicolor, to bring Kansas into a world of talking trees and hot air balloons and midget parades. Like Oz, Tiffany stained glass is makeshift and crazy but it works because, like the Wizard, Tiffany made people believe it did. Pull the curtain aside and embedded in every grandiose Tiffany mural are elements forged from cheap jelly jars and bottles at his factory in Queens. Tiffany delighted in the imperfections that traditional glassmakers would have deemed defects. His distinctive hodgepodge style was often made from recycled leftovers. He was a lover of the exotic and, though he greatly admired the British AAcers, his eclectic tastes — ranging from Byzantine to Romanesque, Japanese to underwater — would have given them migraines. The historical-sounding name he came up with for his signature iridescent glass — “favrile” — is historical only in effect. (Tiffany said the original name of this glass — “febrile” — came from the Old English meaning “handwrought,” but he later decided that he liked “favrile” better, which sounded more French. To me, the name also conjures the anti-naturalist, expressionist art movement of the time, Fauvre, and could have been made with one of those fantasy name generators on online gaming sites). Favrile colors had grandiloquent and equally made-up-sounding names like Gold Lustre, Samian Red, Mazarin Blue, and Tel-al-amana. Tiffany didn’t just make pretty stained glass mosaics; he created an ersatz dreamworld for America, an Oz. In every Tiffany work are the lasting aesthetic traces of the Gilded Age: boldness, exuberance, pastiche, conspicuous consumption. These are all the seeds of the American bling aesthetic, the seeds of the Hartland Mansion.

Today, the spirit of Tiffany lives on in the custom chrome spinners on a lowrider that radiate like a million California suns. In iced-out diamond hip-hop dental grills that spell out your name in rhinestones. In the hand-studded country/Western clothes of the designer Manuel (king of American Western Wear), like that state jacket with the Kentucky Derby race in sequins on the back. Like the Hartland Mansion, these are all part of America’s ongoing craft tradition, kept alive by aspiring and amateur aesthetes across the globe.

He might not have meant to, but when Tiffany put “mass-produced” in front of “truth” and “beauty” he collapsed rich and poor aesthetics. What emerged was the start of a weird and special kind of individual expression. For inherent in all the tacky sparkles is dreaming, and the belief that redesigning the backdrop of your life doesn’t require much skill or money or access to fine materials, or even taste. Just a lot of enthusiasm. As the great Cicero said, “The false is nothing but an imitation of the true.” Or, as the great Larry Hart said, “Welcome to my shiny world.” • 30 March 2010

 

Stefany Anne Golberg is a writer and multi-media artist. She has written for The Washington Post (Outlook), Lapham’s Quarterly, New England Review, and others. Stefany is currently a columnist for The Smart Set and Critic-in-Residence at Drexel University. A book of Stefany’s selected essays can be found here. She can be reached at stefanyanne@gmail.com.

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