Keith and Chippy Irvine do seem to come from a different time when making and doing and cultivating inner resources were the focus of life, rather than whatever is the focus now … money making, self-promotion and acquisition.
They are both British, studied together there and eventually married here in the States where they have lived for almost 50 years. Chippy writes books that might fall under the broad category of interior design, whilst Keith is the well-established Irvine half of design firm Irvine & Fleming. They were a joy to interview, funny, unguarded, confident in their opinions without being boorish. They live much of the time in the country, where Chippy admits she keeps up with the Spartan ways of her Derbyshire childhood (she saves the lint from the dryer to stuff into cushions) but it is obvious that there is a generosity of spirit to them both, and, in their dialogue, towards each other.
You seem to spend most of your time at your country house, and your [Chippy’s] latest book is entitled Shades of Country. Where is your house?
Chippy and Keith. Click on Keith to hear him on decorators.
Chippy: Patterson, New York not Paterson, New Jersey.
Keith: It’s on the wrong side of the tracks, not on the hills on the other side of the valley, Quaker Hills …
So you’re happy not to be on the posh side?
Keith: I never have been all my life …they do ask us for dinner … they’re pretty boring.
Why are they boring?
Keith: They’ve got too much money and they’re all super WASPS
Why does money make you boring?
Keith: It does, it does for a lot of people. And every dinner party you go to, it’s always the same people.
Chippy: And they’re not what I call do-ers, really.
Keith: I think they think that Chippy and I are very peculiar, but they have to pay attention because we might be something. They love the fact that Chippy’s an author.
Chippy: And they love it that you’re a decorator.
What do you do when you go into someone’s house and it’s just not your cup of tea? They must be waiting for your verdict because you are a decorator.
Chippy: He’s polite.
Keith: Best to say nothing. There was a fabulous line … um … who was that playwright with the long eyelashes?
Chippy: Oh, yes I know who you’re thinking of …he was a man, and he was quite lovely but he’s old now …is he still with us?
Keith: Yes he is. In one play he wrote … there was a fabulous bit where this woman came in and she was busy sort of talking sideways and then she stopped and suddenly put her hands up and said ‘What a perfectly hideous room!’
A look around the front office.
Keith and Chippy Irvine's A life in Decoration.
The author cheerily signing a copy of A Life in Decoration.
Is that a fantasy of yours?
Keith: Yes! I’ve never actually dared to say it. [laughs] I mostly keep quiet although you can get little digs in.
What do you find hideous?
Chippy Irvine's latest, Shades of Country.
Keith: Well I mean being in the business they’re so many aspects of it. I mean boring good taste is the killer of all. And then all that nonsense the young are reaching for, I can’t stand! That sort of bogus fifties retro shit. The other real killer is everything beige.
Chippy: And skin looks horrible against beige!
The styles of interiors in your book are not show-off styles …
Chippy: They’re country and you know in the country, showing off is not terribly well-looked on.
How many years have you been living in the United States?
Chippy: About 48 years. I came in 1958 and he came in 1957. We were both at the Royal College of Art.
Keith: And then she foolishly married someone else.
Chippy: I married someone straight out of college and we came to the States around the same time as Keith … then gradually it sort of ran out of gas. And then Keith suddenly asked after we’d known each other for13 years he turned to me in the middle of theatrical show–I’d done the costumes for it–and as the curtain was going down he said: I think we should get married. And I whispered back to him: I’ll let you know in a month.
Flipping through Shades of Country - The sitting area at St. John's Farm, country house of Keith and Chippy.
St. John's Farm's grand Greek Revival portico.
Collections of china and glass at the grand country house.
The St. John's ballroom sports an easy blend of periods.
The dining room at St. John's Farm.
The parlor at St. John's Farm.
At St. John's Farm, a rich, layered effect is achieved by using a "sidewall"
The ballroom and corner group at St. John's Farm.
I love your ‘real’ name: Juliet Grime. It sounds like something out of Dickens.
Oh dear. I was called Juliet because I was born in July. The fourth of July. They told me it was a bad day for England when I was born so I came to America and I thought I’d get tax exemption. But I didn’t. My eldest sister was the one who called me Chippy, right from the start and it just stayed and stayed and stayed.
And you, Keith, are Scottish.
Keith: Yes, and very proud of it.
Very proud … but you don’t live there.
Keith: Last week I was in the Bahamas and I had lunch one day and was sitting next to Sean Connery, and the two of us had a drink. We both said the thing is that your heart is still there. And I said well every time we go to England and I cross the border, I cry. And he said: I do the same. The Scots are very emotional about Scotland because they had to put up with all those centuries of the bloody English.
Chippy: I’m really horrible in Scotland. It was rainy and windy. I couldn’t see the tops of the hills we were passing through. No, I mean I didn’t dislike it but then all of a sudden Keith turned to me and said: What shall we do now? And I said offhand: I’ll take the train back to London.
Does writing come easily to you?
Chippy: No. It’s hell. It is hell, it’s agony. Usually I do train of consciousness, which I put down in the morning. I’ll do that in the morning and then in the afternoon put on an editor’s hat and cut out three-quarters of it. I just plod my way through. If I suddenly feel nothing is happening I’ll get up and iron some clothes or clean a room. I think you need to have something physical along with something mental …and then you wake up in the middle of the night with a notepad. If it’s not going to keep you awake, it’s not going to keep anybody else awake. I’m twitching with nerves about the whole thing.
Photographic memories of friends sprinkled throughout the office.
And you have worked on Keith’s book.
Keith: I wrote it all and I can’t write. She was the first editor before the publisher’s editor. And she also made it all sound fabulous.
Chippy: I came to Keith and said: Darling, you can’t say the word ‘ravishing’ 16 times in one book, especially about your own work.
Keith: The thing is, not to blow my own trumpet, because I’ve been in this bloody business for 55 years, I’ve always liked things very grand. My natural taste was for palaces but I’ve always done grandeur played down. That’s also because I’m British and the thing that British people hate is where any showing off shows. It mustn’t show like you’ve made the effort, it mustn’t show like you’ve spent money.
But that is a kind of extra level of stage management, where you are pretending that you never tried, that it just happened. It’s a double bluff.
Keith: Yes, but what it achieves is very pleasant to live in.
How did you end up coming to this country from Britain?
Keith: I was working for Colefax and Fowler in London, and I had this itch to move. You know in those days the social barriers in England were still very strong. I hadn’t gone to a top prep school or public [i.e. private] school, so it dawned on me that I would never reach the top of the ladder of Colefax and Fowler because all those people had been to Eton or Harrow. I became more and more intrigued by the idea of America.
And you wound up working for Sister Parish.
Keith: Sister Parish came to London to do a job in South Africa and John Fowler lent me to her. When it was finished she said: Would you like to come and work for me in New York? She offered me $40 a week, which in those days sounded like the gold of the Incas. But I couldn’t live on it! I stuck it with her for about nine months, never liked her from day one. She was an old trout. She wasn’t very nice.
She was a real snob, we’ve heard.
Keith: I’ll tell you how I came to leave. I had met this family as friends. They had a daughter who was about to get married and they said: Would you help her with her apartment? So I went to Sister Parish and said that I had been offered this small job, is it alright? And she said: Well, who are they? And I told her, and then she said: Oh we don’t work for Jewish people. I said: Well, I guess I do. And I left … there were quick steps up the ladder here if you had a good English accent.
What are your observations of American society after all this time?
Keith: Terrific in the beginning.
Chippy: When we first came it was free of the drug business. The streets were safe anywhere, anytime. It was much easier to have a good time.
Keith: Theater was fabulous … jazz was fabulous
Chippy: We used to pitch up at the theater wearing those little shruggy fur things … nowadays they have paint poured on them.
Could you go back to Britain now?
Keith: I think I could in my mind … but I’m much more used to American straightforwarndess. The English do waffle the whole time. And it’s all manana …how they ever ran that Empire, I’ve no idea.
Chippy: You can’t go to an American party and not to talk to somebody. I’ve been to many in England where nobody introduced me … you have to wait to be introduced. One time we went to this party and Keith went up to the host and said: I’m Keith Irvine, how do you do? The man turns his back to Keith and says: He must be a Yankee, he introduced himself. Keith got his own back because going down the stair case at the end, he passed the host and he pinched his cheek and said: Bye sweetie!
Keith: I’d go back to Scotland tomorrow … if I could find a lighthouse on the Argyll Coast and have Bess [his dog] with me …
Chippy: I’d think you’d go there and spend a week there and then want to come back.
• by Sian Ballen and Lesley Hauge • photographs by Jeffrey Hirsch