Friday, May 27, 2011


If you haven’t heard of the wonderful, wacky Rose Cumming before, you’re about to: her niece Sarah Cecil, a New York-based designer, is working on a book with Architectural Digest’s Jeffrey Simpson about Cumming’s extraordinary talents, while US deign firm Dessin Fournir has launched a series of her classic designs, including her ‘Zebrine’ zebra print wallpaper.

Rose Cumming was one of three sisters born on a sheep station, each possessed of a hardy ambition and wanderlust which saw them up sticks and reinvent themselves in the US. They never returned to Australia, although they retained sentimental ties, organizing the annual Anzac Ball in New York during Wolrd War II.

“These three terrific young sisters got off the sheep ranch in Australia, came to America and made it in New York and Hollywood,” says Cecil. “My grandmother was an advertising whiz, the baby sister Dorrie was a silent film star.”

Rose fell in with the Manhattan fashion crowd of the roaring 20s, gadding about with the likes of Vanity Fair’s first editor Frank Crowninshield. It was he that suggested that Cumming translate her innate flair into a career in interior design. So the story goes, her response was to whoop, “What on earth is that?”

She soon learnt. “Rose pioneered ‘eclectic’ interiors,” says Cecil, who recalls a childhood spent in her aunt’s Upper East Side shop, a cluttered corner that attracted a starry clientele including Andy Warhol, Nureyev and Jackie Onassis. By the 1930s Cumming, garbed in exotic oriental robes, gowns by Worth and elaborate horse-hair brimmed hats by society milliner Adrian, was dressing rooms for the likes of the Duchess of Windsor. She had developed a fabric line, and was designing furniture, which she produced and sold out of her shop.

“Prior to Aunt Rose, Elsie DeWolfe was on that track, but Rose took it to another level,” says Cecil. “She had a dramatic sense of colour, often mixing colours like lavender and blue, which was new. Her rooms glowed and were filled with stunning antiques of diverse provenance, and yet there was a simplicity to them that makes them timeless.”

Perhaps, but in her own home simplicity often took a back seat in favour riotous experimentalism and a wild sense of fun. Her ‘Ugly Room’ was a style zoo lit by black candles and showcasing her more outlandish finds rejected by her clients: stuffed birds of prey, art works depicting animals in traps and an elaborate coil of serpents climbing around the fireplace.

The house and shop are now gone, but the Cummings legacy lives, on a macro level via the new thrill her work is causing in design circles, and on the micro, in Cecil’s house. “Her Audubon quatrepeds from the great “Ugly Room” climb the walls of my dining room, keeping company with the Russian child’s sleigh from her old dining room. Our cat sleeps in it.”

I wrote this for Vogue Living a while back but thought I'd share it here. I keep thinking about Rose lately for some reason. Isn't she fabulous?

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