HeadButler.com review of George Stacey and the Creation of American Chic

Published: Jun 01, 2014

I’ve written dozens of pieces for House & Garden and Architectural Digest without once hearing George Stacey’s name. That is not quite how he planned it, but close. When he retired, he closed up shop. And as for the Society women who were his cherished clients, they too have gone into the world of night. As one of Proust’s biographers has noted, “Even the greatest hostess is forgotten when the last of her guests dies.”

Now comes Maureen Footer, a decorator and a worthy successor to Stacey, to place him on his proper pedestal. It’s not a small one, and this is not a slight book. “George Stacey and the Creation of American Chic” is wide-ranging, almost scholarly, correctly connecting the dots between design and culture.

Who was George Stacey?

Easily the most sought-after American decorator from the mid-1930s to the late 1950s. His clients included the cream of international Society: Betsey & Jock Whitney, Vincent & Minnie Astor, Ward & Frances Cheney, Babe & William Paley, Ava Gardner, and Grace Kelly. When he became Governor of New York, Averell Harriman referred to Stacey as “Minister of the Interior.” The text places them in their time, but if all you do is dive into the photos of their homes, often with the wives as decoration, you’ll be well rewarded.

Like the late Mark Hampton, Stacey had a strong, ever-evolving personal style and a great sensitivity to his clients’ taste. Left on his own, he created rooms that were “slightly spare, always rational, and never too serious.” You know: balanced. Understated. Edited. But not stiff or stuffy.

The childhood, predictably, says so much. He came from Connecticut, where his father had more pretension than pedigree. He filled the quota of talented nobodies at Parsons, devoted himself to connoisseurship, won a scholarship to study in Paris. There he bought antiques and, with a partner, sold them in New York. The Depression brought him back to New York, where he swiftly graduated from an assistant’s job to his own clients.

He started with a bang: a villa with chandeliers in rooms with shockingly empty walls, gray floors with pink highlights. Chic Society noticed. Frances Cheney, a former “It” girl, hired him, launching both a refreshing home and a deep friendship. It was his way: best friend to the wives of powerful men. Footer does not deal with Stacey’s closeted homosexuality until the end of the book — she managed to find a photo of Stacey’s late-life French lover, who never appeared in public with him — nor does she dissect the often sex-free marriages of Stacey’s clients. But when she touches on Stacey’s unacknowledged sadness and presents a photo of Stacey intensely shopping with Babe Paley, you can make the leap. The love of great things was, in a way, the closest they came to real love.

And yet this is a joyful book. With Diana Vreeland as a client, how could it not be? Stacey installed a mirror on the ceiling over Frances Cheney’s bed. Given the use of a free-standing squash court on a Long Island estate, he made it a weekend house he occupied for the rest of his life. No one minded stooping to get in; the house was a delightful mix of antiques and found objects, and the host mixed terrific martinis. And in his apartment in Paris and his converted chicken coop in the Ile-de-France, he made rooms that were simply beautiful.

If Stacey’s rooms look dated now, it’s because most have way-to-wall carpeting. But his big truth is still true: “One of the most common errors people make in decorating is trying to make a room perfect in all the details of a single given period, which inevitably results in a stiff and impersonal background.” George Stacey never made that error.