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Curtains don't just hang there, they're part of a room's structure. But they can be leaders of fashion, too. EOL talks to today's top designers and curtain makers about the latest trends in window wear—clean lines, lush fabrics and handsome exposed hardware.
Any decorator will tell you that a good rug can make or break the look of a room, or at the least steer the style. Absent a rug, it's a room's largest piece of furniture—a sofa or bed or dining table—that, like a director who knows how to throw his weight around, dictates where everything else will sit or stand and how it will behave. Does that leave curtains in the wings? Far from it.
They may hold the periphery, but they are hardly peripheral. Curtains are like architecture but softer: They're an essential frame—for views, for light, for the particular structure of a window or space. They can establish a rhythm and alter the proportion of a wall or an entire room. No other element of decorating is as controlled by pre-existing and unalterable conditions: the orientation and intensity of light; the view, or lack thereof; and the architecture. And curtains are the only furnishings that must hold their own not only inside a house or apartment but when viewed from the outside as well. Yet in spite of their burdens, curtains can do much more than make a room work, correcting or compensating for a space's inadequacies; they can make it sing.
Masters of disguise, mistresses of discretion, handmaids in maintaining the longevity of furnishings, subject to the cycles of fashion in decoration. "We always wait around for the simple to come back," says New York City curtain maker Kenny Flam. Recently, Flam stopped waiting. The majority of his window work at the moment involves transforming yards of luxurious fabrics into inverted pleats and ripple folds for simple-seeming modern curtains.
Kathy Jones, an expert curtain maker with the workroom La Régence in New York City, cites the curtains in the French period rooms at the Metropolitan Museum of Art as a perfect demonstration of what's -old-is-new-again. The curtains themselves are simple panels hung from minimal metal rings, but the fabric is magnificent embroidered silk. "We've emerged from the really minimal interiors of the late '90s," says Jones, "when windows, if they received any fabric treatment at all, were often covered by shades alone." Absence has made the eye grow fonder, not for the ballooned and festooned '80s, but for an added layer of warmth and beauty. Designers and clients are acknowledging the psychological and physical comfort that even visually restrained curtains provide. "The major trend we've noticed in the past two years," Jones continues, "is a desire for real curtains. Design-wise, the direction is less formal, less structured, less showy. People are interested in much less fuss but are absolutely committed to quality."
Susan Gill, a sought-after curtain maker also based in New York, sums up the current trend in window fashions in three words: rods and rings. "Unless they're decorating an English-style house in the Hamptons," says Gill, "the designers I work with have pretty much dispensed with swags and jabots. At most, they might opt for box pleated valance, and even that is no longer common." The near forsaking of valances for modern curtains means curtain hardware is exposed like never before and receiving more attention than it has in years, thus the focus on rods, rings and customization.
Like Jewelry that completes an outfit, distinctive hardware adds personality and visual punctuation to curtains. Every curtain maker has favorite hardware suppliers and finishers whom they consider indispensable collaborators in successfully dressing a window. Sources for drapery hardware have exploded in the past few years, as has the demand for custom finishes. Whether the hardware is made of wood, metal or resin, though, the preferred finish is uniformly softer, reflecting trends in jewelry. What faceted rocks were to the 1980s, cabochon stones are to the beginning of the twenty-first century.
More warmth, less flash rules, then—in hardware, fabrics and the form of the curtain itself. Says Gill, "Curtains are less structured. I'm seeing less puddle, less interlining, a softer, more natural look. A lot more use of lush fabrics like wool, for the beautiful way it hangs, and unusual embellishment to the fabric itself," like the chain-stitched waves New York textile artist Judy Ross applied to curtains for an apartment in Chelsea. Overall, drapery is both richer in quality of materials and plainer in form.
"Plain" or "simple" applied to curtains, as with nearly every other aspect of decorating, hardly means ordinary or easy. Laurie Eaton, a curtain maker based in Pleasanton, CA, also sees curtains moving from mostly stationary panels and shades to draperies whose outward simplicity belies the labor involved. "The headings are softer, we're using less buckram for stiffening, but the amount of handwork has increased," she says.
To San Franciscan Sherrie Horner, recognized among expert American curtain makers as a master of the field and admired for her willingness to share her knowledge, handwork is everything. "In this country, textiles are often the weakest link in the execution of decorating," Horner says. "We just don't have the traditional passing down of skills that you find in England. My goal is to make sure a window wears a curtain with ease. The curtain should move as it needs to move."
Horner is present at every installation, personally hanging and dressing the curtain, and makes every effort to ensure that the seamstress who worked on the curtain accompanies her for the final "fitting." In the studio, the seamstress work at long tables, stitching pleats, applying trimming; their relationship to the curtain is always horizontal. It's at the job site that they see firsthand the effect of gravity on a curtain. Says Horner, "They may intellectually understand why stitching must run in a particular direction, but when a curtain is hung, they feel why. And that translates into better curtains. A great curtain has as much to do with how a room feels as how it looks."
Discussing curtains in his seminal book On Decorating , Mark Hampton delicately stressed the importance of "suitability."
Image Description: Simpler curtain styles drive the desire for livelier fabrics. OPPOSITE: Dr. Seuss meets dotted Swiss in a Jack Lenor Larsen fabric (polyester crepe sheer with cotton tufts) for floor-to-ceiling curtains that line two walls of a bedroom. THIS PAGE: For an interior by decorator Amy Lau , textile artist Judy Ross created her Swim pattern, undulating vertical waves of wool chain stitched on heavy linen.
Decorator Scott Salvator, who has never stopped doing traditional curtains, couldn't agree more. "Certain architecture requires certain things. A traditional Park Avenue apartment, unless it's been stripped to look like a transplanted loft, needs the traditional three layers—over curtain, sheer curtain and blackout shade—at its windows. And because not every window in the apartment may have a good view, you need eye-catching swags or valances. For o Fifth Avenue apartment overlooking Central Park, on the other hand, you want a curtain to hold back visually so as not to compete with the view. The greatest challenge is a modern high rise with a band of horizontal windows. I wouldn't be caught dead installing a valance in that situation, but I've seen plenty of them."
Salvator has identified the dilemma that plagues designers trying to work in modern buildings: finding correctness or "suitability" for windows that depart from traditional proportions. Many modernist architects, despite their collective reputation as controlling, take the path of least resistance with curtains—abhor and ignore—resulting in no solution at all. On the other hand, McMansion and model homebuilders, with their grab bag of oddly shaped, spaced and placed windows, force homeowners and decorators into a shades-only corner. Advances in motorization as well as sun-filtering window technology have helped their cause, but if there is any consensus about what window treatments contribute to a room, it is that shades alone rarely provide comfort and elegance.
When it comes to devising window treatments for modern spaces, even excellent dressmaking skills are not enough. You also need an appreciation of architecture, a familiarity with diverse materials, a capacity for imaginative problem solving and a passion for experimentation. No one understood this better than Mary Bright, the go-to gal in New York for couture curtains until she succumbed to cancer in 2002. Since then her protégé Erik Bruce and David Paskin, Bright's husband and business partner in Mary Bright Inc., have continued in the tradition of nontradition. They don't just specify hardware or a custom finish, they invent it. They don't view the solution to covering a window as necessarily even involving fabric. But, like the most traditional decorators, they know that anything that controls a room's access to light and air and views is the protagonist on the decorating stage. Maybe it's time for the rug and sofa to admit what really deserves top billing.