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Sensuous Modernism

Jeffrey Bilhuber distills the luxurious simplicity of the twenties in a contemporary home.

The current owners of Frova House, a 1920s Italianate villa in eastern Pennsylvania, are brave and tenacious people. They discovered the house of their dreams; they offered to buy it; they were refused. It was at that time inhabited by an elderly couple, eccentric and reclusive people who admitted no visitors and avoided all disturbances. Determined to have it at all costs, in love with it though they had never been inside, the present owners pressed and pressed and finally negotiated a contract with the husband which provided that when he was no longer able to live in the house, they would be offered first refusal.

For some years they lived a few miles away and waited. When the news came to them that the husband had died and his wife was being institutionalized, they bought their dream house as soon as possible, set foot inside, and found a spectacle past all imagining. The couple made the Collyer brothers look like the White Tornado. They had never thrown anything away: rubbish filled the place to above-shoulder height, with tiny corridors carved for human passage. Sixty-six tons of stuff were eventually cleared from the house. Its bones were intact underneath, but its surface was like a vision from the grave. Jeffrey Bilhuber was called in to put everything to rights.

As if in horror at the layers upon layers of garbage that had come before, Bilhuber reduced everything to its strengths and essentials; as if in conscious disdain of the filth that had preceded him, he designed a house that is radiantly clean in every particular; as if in disgust at the haphazard agglomeration of junk, he conceived an interior in which everything is intentional. In the house today, one is constantly aware of decisions that have been made, of carefully considered priorities, of finely tuned balances. Everywhere one notes what has been eliminated to make each room into a concentrate of itself — the pictures that are not hanging, the objects that are not cluttering, the heavy curtains that are not draping Baroque silhouettes across the plenitude of sun. But the house is not strictly Modernist; it is purified rather than minimalized, without slickness or hard edges.

Throughout the house Bilhuber has got the proportions right, as if by some ancient golden mean. The doors that he heightened, the odd-size furnishings, the arrangement of the pictures in the dining room – all these things fit with one another, creating a unity of spirit that makes the passage from one room into another a pleasure and a delight. The attention to detail is phenomenal. The doorknobs, for examples, are bronze casts of a shape molded in clay by Bilhuber and his clients late one night over coffee. You would hardly notice them until you reached to open a door and found you were clasping a form your hand would make for itself.

The pieces of furniture Bilhuber has designed are similarly both whimsical and apposite. A writing table in the master bedroom is lacquered in a parchment that resembles the pattern on the living room walls and reminds the owners from their first waking moments of the elegance that waits for them below. In the dressing room Bilhuber has taken chests of drawers from the owners’ previous house and turned them into vanity units for sinks. The incongruity of faux bamboo dressers painted white and sprouting spigots is amusing but not obtrusive. In one of the upstairs bedrooms Bilhuber has used pink Indian bedspreads — “the kind of thing I hung on the ceiling in my room when I was a student in the seventies” – as curtains. The front hall has an enormous reed mat on the floor that is painted in an outside leopard-spot design. The same matting continues all the way up the stairs. “We saw these mats at Pottery Barn,” says Bilhuber. “We instantly knew that they were completely great, a onetime find, and so we bought the entire stock.” The mats looked perfectly in keeping with the refined objects around them. “It’s fun, it’s just gotta be fun!” Bilhuber exclaims. It is also wry and self-assured, the kind of decorator joke that laughs at the rest of the decoration without in any way undermining it.

The living room walls are covered in hammered-bark paper, a traditional Native American craft. It is all in squares, like a detail of Pierre Legrain furniture, like a Cubist portrait of the movement of mists against an autumn sky, like a dream of twenties elegance. The edges of these squares fade into one another. You can lose yourself in the texture of the paper — in an individual square like a panel of shagreen or in the larger pattern of squares. You can lose yourself in gradations of color, too, and as you follow the endless turning of shades you come to the curtains, which are of unlined monk’s wool, fresh and multitonal themselves in the changing light from outside. So much delicacy and softness is inviting; the edges of a wild forties armchair or of an inverted Guatemalan mortar used as an end table are just enough relief so that the room doesn’t feel muffled.

The other rooms downstairs sustain this tactile quality. The furnishings are oddly assorted; Bilhuber and his clients share a historical bent, and several pieces once belonged to noteworthy people. The dining table was Babe Paley’s. In the living room stands the drafting table of Gustave Eiffel, author of the tower. Nearby is a sofa upholstered by Billy Baldwin. The house seems to be full of the echoes of personages from every realm, and its eclecticism is as deep as this roster of names would suggest. Imagine a party at which anonymous guests — some very rich and others very poor, some French and some American, and a few with the complexions of exotic islands — mingled with Paley and Eiffel and Baldwin, and you will have a sense of the feeling of the downstairs part of the house.

Upstairs, the scale is more intimate. The master bedroom has a fireplace and a view across the miles. The bathroom is a study in which in which more semitransparent fabrics play against one another. The two guest rooms, one scrubbed in the palest blue and the other in palest pink, are the first sight of real color in the house, but the colors are as faint as echoes. Here, as downstairs, everything is comfortable, everything is inviting — nothing obtrudes, nor does it recede unduly. This is a house that coddles its inhabitants discreetly but grandly in the best spirit of the twenties, when luxury was a habit but had lost none of its novelty.