words Sam Jacob
A photograph of a polished Barbra Streisand wrapped in a velveteen shawl welcomes us to My Passion for Design. The title's letters curl and loop as though they were the calligraphy of an elaborately signed photograph. And like an autograph, the copperplate font seems to underscore the word "My". This is a book as much about Streisand as it is about design. In fact, much like the amazing photograph of her posing on a sofa in a dress the fabric of which matches the upholstery, it's hard to see where one stops and the other starts.
Streisand isn't innocent of this physiological connection between her own biography and design. She tells us that she has "intense relationships with furniture", and that, at a certain point, "objects were my friends". She recounts a story illustrating how objects can enact deep interior sensations. Losing an auction for a Josef Hoffmann pin, she feels compelled to track down the dealer who bought it and pay him four times the auction price, but then never wears it. She tells us it was "because it wasn't about the pin. Sometimes I think it's about the loss of a parent", recalling the death of her father when she was 18 months old.
As her career takes off, so too does her decorative obsessiveness, as she endlessly alters rooms from Jacobean and English chintz to Louis XV, and then Americana, art nouveau, arts and crafts, and rustic, as though Joris-Karl Huysmans' À Rebours (the greatest novel about interior decoration) was remade in contemporary, celebrity California.
This leads to the central narrative of the book, the story of Streisand's creation of her newest home. The starting point, she tells us, is a movie that failed to secure finance: "Instead of directing a movie, I built a house."
Sometimes it's hard to tell the difference. The design begins with a script, an imaginary history beginning in 1790, a made-up mill house and an imaginary family. This becomes the framework for the design development.
It's not just the idea of movie narrative that informs the project, it's also the way that Hollywood gets things done. After a series of run-ins with architects, Streisand, never happy that they either have their own ideas or might be working on other projects, sidesteps the profession by opening a private design office with an in-house production designer.
The "Design Room" is housed in the synthetic "Mill House". The design is based on a hook rug that she picked up antiquing in Vermont. She builds a pond for the mill to sit on and, of course, a waterwheel. And it's here that scenography turns normal architectural logic inside out. With no current to move it, the wheel has to be powered to turn and to create the ripples that are all-important to Streisand's fantasy. More inverted function: she paints an imaginary advert on to the side of the mill. Utility becomes decorative, historical vernacular is invoked as nostalgic picturesque.
Throughout the house and its gardens, similar architectural non sequiturs occur again and again. The basement is imagined as a street where storefronts are used to display her various collections – Bee's Doll Shop, The Gift Shoppe and so on. She then explains that this is really recreating museum street-scene re-enactments. So this is, in some ghostly way, a house that's swallowed a museum that's swallowed a town.
There's much more: The Great Room, The Screening Room, The Federal Lounge, The Mackintosh Hall, The Greene and Greene Library, The Stickley Office, with the rooms often housing pretty amazing collections of objects. Sometimes these suggest substantial scholarship (especially of art nouveau), sometimes remarkable kitsch (porcelain shoes are one excruciating example).
In describing this schizophrenic plurality, Streisand drops quotes of gnomic Duchampian quality. A chapter title, for example, reads "The Door Has Two Faces" and begins with the intriguing design concept that "most of the doors you're going to see in this house are different on each side". Hmm. This might either be profound or completely dumb.
Almost the entire book is quotable, but for different reasons: on one hand, as evidence of the ridiculousness of design as personal expression unchecked by wealth or doubt, but on the other, as evidence of the possibilities of exactly the same thing. Streisand is both explicit and knowing as well as indulgent and self-obsessed. She is knowledgeable about design as well as entirely naive.
The book might more accurately be titled My Mania for Possessions and subtitled Evidence Presented for a Speculative Physiological Case Study into the Exaggerated Myth of Personality. Although its content might seem quaint, it represents an extreme form of design, radical in its exploration of the domestic landscape as a site that externalises our psychic conditions – both real and imaginary.
My Passion for Design by Barbra Streisand, Viking Adult, £35.