Tea for Two – a site-specific installation on the grounds of the Mount, home of Edith Wharton, in Lenox, MA.
Before she was recognized for novels such as The Age of Innocence and Ethan Frome, Edith Wharton wrote, with her architect Ogden Codman, Jr., an influential treatise on interior design and architecture, titled, The Decoration of Houses (1897). In the book Wharton identifies and describes her design influences, taking the reader through the history of European and Colonial American design and her own contemporary interpretations, room by room and element by architectural element. Wharton’s inspirations included French, Italian, and English palaces and manors. While opulent by today’s standards, designs of these 15th and 16th century structures were grounded in fundamental design principals of proportion, symmetry, alignment, material honesty, and functionality found in their Greek and Roman precedents. Wharton drew from those characteristics and presented them to the American Victorian audience, one accustomed to highly embellished, upholstered, and eclectic residential design.
When Wharton developed her plans for The Mount in 1901, she had the opportunity to test her ideas in a building she helped to design from the ground up. The functionality, comfort, simplicity and consistency of decoration, connection to the outdoors, distinction between public and private spaces, and a sense of drama throughout are clearly informed by her scholarship.
Wharton’s progressive identity is complex, however. She eschewed the expectations of a woman of her privilege, but she also capitalized on her position in society to give voice to her talent as a designer and writer. Indeed, she did not extend her feminist perspective to the mainstream and did not support women’s suffrage, among other conservative views.
Tea for Two is a site-specific installation. It abstracts The Mount’s Dining Room as a half-scale transparent volume and locates this room on the grounds of the estate as a place for visitors to reflect on Wharton’s own interest in the landscape and in architecture. Tea for Two is a simple structure, focusing on the outlines of the rectangular plaster moldings and wood trim pieces found in the actual space. These repeating frame-like elements are painted on translucent screen “walls” and are hung from a wood structure to delineate the shape of the room. The wall surfaces inside the frames are cut away and serve as “windows” to the landscape beyond. Two chairs are placed inside the room to encourage guests to enter and share conversation and contemplation within the scaled-down space.
As an architectural designer myself, I am profoundly struck by the value that Wharton placed on the relationship between interior spaces and the landscape, as well as by her keen sense of proportion and scale in her home and gardens. The structure’s transparency also invites critique of the walls of class and culture that the Whartons cultivated around them.
Tea for Two was commissioned by SculpureNow and displayed May – October 2019