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Grand Room for a Family

A discerning couple uses warm colors and a lively mix of styles to make prewar proportions seem intimate.

In the monasteries of the Middle Ages and the palaces of the Italian Renaissance, in the coffeehouses of the Age of Reason and decadent night cafés of the fin de siècle, men believed that knowledge and beauty and grace were their own reward, to be pursued with a combination of high-minded asceticism and profound sensualism. These days most people acquire knowledge to get ahead and construct beauty that others may wonder at it. Grace itself has become a means for self-advancement. The innocence which imagined these are three windows of the soul, as luxuries unto themselves, is not of the 1990s; it belongs to a softer and more lavish world.

Carolina Irving, however, is immensely knowledgeable about an extraordinary range of subjects simply because knowledge gives her pleasure. She inhabits beauty not to draw other people to her but because her own beauty and the beauty she brings to her surroundings are sources of immense aesthetic gratification; she knows beauty as Ruskin wished to do. She is graceful by instinct and not for effect. It is not that she is the least bit unworldly but that her simple enjoyment of matters most of us complicate with ambition recalls, despite her dizzying sophistication, something almost primal.

Carolina is at first co composed that those who don’t know her might find her chilly. Then you see her with her baby, Olympia, or you ask her about Venezuela, or you admire the bit of fabric that is her favorite, and something Latin comes alive in her, and she sweeps you up in laughter. “Do you love Iznik?” she asks. “Oh, that lost red!” And she speaks with a relish that brings the lost red back before you and makes it the color of miracles.

The apartment just off Fifth Avenue where she lives with her husband, Ian, and Olympia manifests her own nonchalant elegance. It is really one remarkable room with several small antechambers. The room – which was the dining room when this vast building was a single residence – is the strong yellow of good weather. It’s an easy place to be in, one where you feel you could put your feet up were you so inclined; the ashtrays are full of cigarette butts, books are piled on the floor, and someone’s empty glass is sitting near the fireplace, as though Carolina wanted you to know how little she cares for perfection. And yet it has a perfection that is very much its own.

Panels of embroidery, silks, and painted leather hang on the walls, some quite valuable, some not at all valuable; Carolina has assembled a mix of things anyone would recognize as fine and things she happens to adore. Her husband is an expert in antique silver at Sotheby’s, and silver objects and designs for silver are much in evidence. So are photos of her very beautiful mother. A large round ottoman covered with a nineteenth-century Chinese rug is the geographical focus of the room, ready to be sat upon or to be piled with books.

Behind a damask sofa stands a clunky folding table casually draped with a fabric so ornate and remarkable that you could spend a week in its patterns. Carolina seems not to mind that from certain vantage points you can see the table’s steel legs and Formica top. If you are too much a fool not to see only the fabric, an old curtain heavily embroidered with fantastical floral motifs, that’s you loss and not hers. Nearby are a baseball form a key New York Mets game in 1986, a sixteenth-century mounted coconut, a Hungarian parcel-gilt sweetmeat dish, and a Meissen tea caddy. The room is full of extraordinary things that never compete with one another; none of them insists on your attention. It is as though they have found some obscure symbiosis so that each lovely object is made more lovely by its proximity to the others.

Right now Carolina is studying pottery at Parsons. “I decided last year that I wanted to do things with my hands. My background is in art history, but it is a selfish pleasure. I never did anything with it. When I’m not making things, every day I go to the libraries at the Frick or the Cooper-Hewitt or the Met to read about anything that interests me. Recently it’s Islamic art. It changes. I have my moods.”

Carolina’s parents had to leave Venezuela after the coup of 1958. She was born in Miami but grew up in Paris, where her family moved when she was three months old. She studied art history at the Louvre, then came to New York in 1981, took a job at Christie’s, and did an internship at the Metropolitan Museum. Later she was hired by the International Foundation for Art Research to catalogue the contents of churches in the Peruvian Andes. “It was hard work. It was such a beautiful country, but the poverty and the filth and the food…” She shudders. “It was disgusting – and also scary because Sendero Luminoso was on hand. Then you arrived in villages where no one even speaks Spanish and saw the work. The Indians of the seventeenth or eighteenth centuries were given prints of paintings, and they copied them in their own way. In the middle of the Andes, suddenly you come across these amazing baroque things. You cannot imagine how beautiful it is.”

A tone of nostalgia creeps into her voice. Carolina Irving has a quality of sadness about her – an elegant, fragile, almost elegiac sadness. She is not exactly a scholar, and she is not exactly a society beauty, and she is not exactly an artist. She is not quite Venezuelan, and she is not quite French, and she is not quite American. She is not of the present, but she is not really of the past. In some sense she brings together the best of her many worlds, but sometimes she seems to yearn for a clarity and simplicity of nationality and purpose that she has perhaps never had. The overflowing ashtrays and the Formica table – it is almost as though she had tired of perfection, but wouldn’t know how to escape it. Then she laughs again and brings the world back to order.