Mud Pies

I was just telling local antique dealer, Rich Hoffman, “I have all these brown things.  I don’t think I have enough stuff, yet I look around and I have all these brown things.  And if you asked me, ‘Do you like brown things?’ I would say, ‘No, not really.'”  I was telling him because I was admiring something brown at his and Christopher Filley’s shop.
Then, I ran across this picture of Steven Gambrel’s Sag Harbor entry.  Featuring a bunch of brown things.  Maybe I’m on to something.
Image from Annie Kelly’s Rooms to Inspire in the Country; photography by Tim Street-Porter.
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30 thoughts on “Mud Pies

  1. I believe it is the great lines of the vignette ( the featured pic)– the layering of textures, the details in the elements shapes, various tones and shading that makes it all come together in a harmonious way that makes for an interesting composition– good room design is Art — like a fine painting.


  2. I have serious "brown" issues. I am drawn to chocolate, nutella, nuts and rich woods in shades of brown. I am so glad you came clean on your brown fetish. Just add some white (glass of milk) and call me in the morning.

  3. I didn't have a chance to comment on your previous dining room dilemma post, so I thought I'd take a shot at it now. I think you should simply paint the walls something other than brown for a first step, then the brown furniture wouldn't compete and could stand on its own. I think it should be a light neutral color and the walls, panel molding and trim should all be the same color, with the trimmings being satin finish and the walls being flat. Then you should put a simple slipcover on the seats of the dining chairs made from a gorgeous decorator fabric with some pattern and color. Also, a window treatment would soften the room and bring some warmth.
    As far as the wood furniture goes, it can stand on its own if the other elements in the room support and complement it instead of fighting with it. Simplifying the wall, trim, cabinet situation with paint would go a long way.
    Something is telling you to keep the wood, so listen to your inner decorator!
    Good luck!

  4. Who knew?! I think the great contrast in the blue wall and the white lamp really makes it not seem all brown, now there is another thought for you to ponder. Kathysue

  5. I do like brown things, oatmeal colors, tea or tea stained, worn leather, natural branches or even the grain of linen fabric. Used as a base you can add more depth, color, texture and the final composition can make your heart skip a beat!
    Have a great day Ms. B

  6. This is just a beautiful image. I don't have a lot of brown things but in the right place they are just beautiful. Thanks for the post. Hope you are well.

  7. I think that brown can be great if (1) it has sexy legs (2) there is movement in the piece (like the serpentine front of the chest of drawers) (3) there are all different shades of brown (4) no black walnut (5) not too much mahogany (6) different shapes (7) everything set off with a burst of color or even black to make the space have movement. And lots of natural light.
    Love your questions and the fact that it is making me think so early in the morning. Have a wonderful day!

  8. It occurs to me that Nancy Lancaster was another
    person who claimed to dislike Brown Furniture, yet when you look at her houses there is brown furniture but it is the RIGHT brown, i.e. pale fruitwoods rather than boring stained mahogany. Stephen Gambel's vignette doesn't strike me as big bad brown, but then I was distracted by that marvelous, over-scaled lamp!
    One more thing: all this dissatisfaction with one's own surroundings tends to reach a peak at this time of year, when winter drags on and the outlook is bleak. At least that has been my experience.

  9. As much as I like the pickled finishes that Syrie Maugham made fashionable & the slick white-painted Son-of-Baroque pieces that were Dorothy Draper's signature, a lot of handsome (if not particularly valuable) old brown-wood antiques got wrecked in the process, not by those ladies themselves–who had stables of workmen able to crank out anything they needed in the way of furniture–but by folks without even a smidgen of the taste of those two women, who copied only the most superficial aspects of their individual styles.

    Now we're in another cycle where a coat of shiny white paint is seen as a sort of decorating miracle cure for an otherwise boring room, when, often, all such a quick fix does is make a room even more boring & generic. Chinese Chipendale chairs by TC himself are great–and priceless. Syrie Maugham's copies of Chippendale chairs in white crackled lacquer are chic & expensive. Jonathan Adler's poweder coated adaptations of Syrie Maugham chairs were amusing & affordable. Catalog ripoffs of Jonathan Adler chairs are cheesy & cheap. Bamboo-turned hotel furniture from Goodwill spray- painted to look like stuff out of the Ballard catalog still looks like hotel furniture from Goodwill. The thrill is gone. A can of spray paint can't do everything, and not every piece of brown wood furniture needs a fresh coat of paint. For some pieces, new paint won't help, and for others, it's the first step towards a landfill.

    OK, that chest in the picture: a lot of people associate cabriole legs with daintiness & fragility, but not when it comes to this sturdy piece. With its voluptous curves & ample proportions, this is more Margaret Dumont than ZaSu Pitts. But in addition to its hefty shape, it's also got a great patina, and although this would still look great refinished in, say, apple green lacquer, the honest, somewhat blotchy, grain of the wood gives it incredible chracter, character that would be totally obliterated with a trendy painted finish. Prettiness isn't everything. Just ask Billy Baldwin.

    OK, since I'm also late to the dining room post, I'll say that your room looks fine as it is. Maybe amp up the chairs' seats by switching the staid ticking stripes to, say, alternating yellow & green and/or add an interesting border to the rug, but that's about it. The chairs' finish is fine as it is, even with the little doodad at the top. Don't even think about painting them.

    Here's the thing: unlike the cool chest above, your chairs don't have much going for them in the way of interesting lines, but they do have that wonderful original alligatored shellac, which makes up in spades for their otherwise restrained, somewhat Presbyterian character. Painting them the trendy color-of-the-moment–whatever that color happens to be–will destroy the only thing they really have going for them.

    And leave the walls' black panels as they are, too. Their color echoes the dark tone of the furniture without repeating it & it provides a needed low-key accent, whereas repainting them white would make the walls hyperactive & jumpy, with nowhere for the eye to rest.

    Last of all, don't paint the walls a pale color. Doing that would create a silhouette effect, emphasizing the chairs' least interesting feature–their outine–while the extreme value contrasts between wall & furniture would minimize the honest patina of the historic finish.

    My real advice? Don't second guess yourself. Changing your mind, or going for a new look is fine, but wondering if maybe somethings's missing or worrying that you maybe made a wrong choice–well, that's the real slippery slope, because once you begin second-guessing yourself, there's no stopping. Self doubt is a killer. Don't start now.

  10. I have quite a few brown things too. I think of them like chocolate, which I adore. I like to combine them with rich, syrupy reds, milk or cream and sometimes something nutty (and I don't mean the color).

  11. He does have one of the best websites. I love Mr. Gambrels work.

    Always have always loved brown…especially deep dark rich brown. It's like white; texture adds the interest.

    That's a stunning piece.


  12. Patricia, you are so funny. I thihk you must be the love child of Myrna Loy and Noel Coward. Loved this little post — such wit, such insouciance! xx

  13. Steven Gambrel, Steven Gambrel, Steven Gambrel. Can you bloggers possibly mention him more? Are there no other talented designers working today? Obviously not. He's talented, yes. He is self promoting, yes. But is he worth a montly, weekly, daily, minute-by-minute mention? I am not sure. You tell me.

  14. Anon – point taken. Obviously, there are dozens of talented designers, and I do think we bloggers mention them as well. Does Gambrel get too much blog press? Huh. Couldn't say. I've been Gambreling since the beginning and do think he is remarkably talented. This particular house was the last one that seemed to have humanity about it; since this the work seems to have tipped into concept. It can be Disneyesque.

    As for self-promoting, of that I have no evidence. I have no idea how he works in the print publishing community but he is personally absent in the blog world as far as I know. Available for interview or comment, of course, but he is not reaching out to bloggers or interested in blogs at all as far as I can tell.

    Is his work inspiring? Yes. And as this is a bit of an inspiration board for me, he will likely show up again. Forgive me.

  15. Patricia,
    Your response is why I adore you and your blog….you are not only chic, stylish and smart, but honest too!
    Thank YOU for the great reply.

  16. Anon – Thank you for stopping in – and I always enjoy this kind of exchange. It's why I like blogging. If I asked a similar question of one of my friends they would say, "Who's Steven Gambrel?"

  17. the collection of natural elements, in shades of brown, is soothing and calming. The lack of gloss and polish makes it something that we yearn to touch and the textures make our eyes linger. You are onto something.

  18. Bless your heart, it's the brown walls. They are sucking the life out of your dining room. You can paint the furniture white or black or red and those walls will still be steadily deadening everything within. I bet you like the wallpaper, but you need to consider the entire room, the full effect.

    I would sell the chairs, so buying a new set isn't as horribly expensive. They aren't bad chairs, and their silhouette isn't painful, as magnaverde says. They are just non-great.

  19. what is the matter with me tonight? I keep pushing 'comment' before I'm done. I'd also kill for the white intaglios….but all those marble and alabaster things aren't so bad—but, hey, cut yourself some slack…they're as much golden as brown…

  20. Now; I have to warn you…….I am always completely blunt. (no "poor pitiful thing" for you!

    Paint those chairs white! off white…….but never ever black… will fall into a sea of MUD!!!

    White! and then those stuck-on things will be good! they will provide dimension! just paint them…..and the table too!

    My friend (who knows absolutely everything and pretends she doesn't) says…..any wood after the nineteenth century is begging to be painted! It isn't any good! And those chairs and table look like what my mother would have called……"Grand Rapids" nothing wrong with " Grand Rapids" good lines…..uninteresting wood.

    Paint white! (color of your woodwork.) will be divine and light-hearted…… are so right about mud-pies!!

    Bravo! I hope i'm not too late!


  21. Now I have read the other comments. You did really step out there! Yikes!

    I love the brown walls….a very bold move….and the answer I think for a dining room… "evening room"!

    I think what is troubling you (me too!) is the brown furniture!

    Not "glossiy white" but semi-gloss off white. The table and chairs……I love the ticking on the seats!

    You can look….and if it is a bit too spiffy…use a little 00000steel wool……and rub a bit off….then you will "like" those stuck-on things…..because they will make it interesting! with a bit of the wood showing through……go very easy,,,,,,,just pretend that 25 years of people having dinner there and enjoying it……wear and tear. Very light wear and tear…….most people don't wear out dining rooms! That is where children learn good manners!


    Good luck. You will know the advice to take!


  22. that's really funny, I end up with lots of brown items, not ever on purpose until I decided that brown was a terrific base to emphasize other colors, and could readily re- color my environment always using brown as the base since it goes well with everything accept black, as far as I am concerned…lately I really like bronze things, seeing your tastes, I think you will like this website, too

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