Carolyne Roehm’s Southern Revival

Carolyne Roehm

The author, photographer (and perfectionist) takes us inside the meticulous process of creating her chinoiserie-inspired mansion in Charleston, South Carolina.

I wanted to do something fanciful,” Carolyne Roehm says, leading a sneak preview of the chalk-green Chinoiserie Room she is creating at Chisholm-Alston House, the spectacular 1836 Greek Revival mansion that she bought two years ago in Charleston.

A work in progress, the house is already a madcap fantasy of jade-green pagodas, Blue Canton porcelain and gilded consoles supported by mustachioed Chinese sentinels. Whimsy aside, every object, every paint shade, every fabric, every last detail is exhaustively researched and chosen for a precise purpose. Roehm wanted to upholster her bedroom walls, for example, in an 18th-century lavender fabric she came across while poring over old interior books. It would be too costly to reproduce the original, so she picked out a French-18th-century-inspired blue pattern at Quadrille and asked the firm to print it on six fabrics, ranging from silk taffeta to linen, which produced six subtly different shades of lavender, before selecting the exact combination she was searching for. “I’m one of those people who really do believe that God is in the details,” she says.

Roehm is an inveterate perfectionist who does nothing by halves. The Missouri-born designer was a protégé of Oscar de la Renta’s in her twenties before launching her own high-profile fashion line in 1985 while married to Henry Kravis, the private equity mogul famous for the $25 billion buyout of conglomerate RJR Nabisco. Their highly publicized marriage made the couple emblematic of a new social prototype: the Park Avenue plutocrat with the impeccably bred, entrepreneurial trophy wife. Since the divorce (which received its own postmortem in The New York Times in 1993), Roehm has established herself as a best-selling author and authority on entertaining, gardening and design. Accordingly, she has a curator’s zeal for the decorative arts and a couturier’s obsession with detail.

Roehm applies that exacting vigor to all her endeavors. During her fashion years, she particularly relished embroidery, “arduous, detail-orientated work that takes extraordinary skill,” she says. For her 11th and latest book, Flowers by Carolyne Roehm (Crown), she photographed thousands of blooms, from parrot tulips to Irish daffodils, researched the history of each flower and created the first layout of the book’s design.

With its soaring white Corinthian columns, Chisholm-Alston House resembles a storybook Southern mansion. Inside, a flying staircase swoops around the front hall, creating an effect so dramatic, one almost expects to see Scarlett O’Hara skitter down the stairs crying, “Fiddle-dee-dee.”

Roehm readily admits that this urban Tara represents the fulfillment of a childhood dream. “Gone with the Wind was my favorite movie growing up,” she says. “My ex-husband bought me the hat Scarlett wears to the picnic at Twelve Oaks.”

The fantasy of owning an antebellum mansion quickly deflated when Roehm discovered the chimneys had disintegrated and needed to be rebuilt. During the costly renovation, Roehm turned all her attention toward her Chinoiserie Room. She traces the spark of her fascination with chinoiserie—the European style inspired by the Orient that became wildly fashionable in the 18th century—to a willow-pattern plate, made in China for export, that her grandmother gave her as a child.

In the years since, she has traveled to Moscow to see the Chinese Palace built for Catherine the Great, and to Potsdam, Germany, for Frederick the Great’s Chinese House; she’s also visited the Green Salon at the Chinese Pavilion at Drottningholm Palace, the residence of Sweden’s royal family. Last year, after reading about the famous Chinese Room at Claydon House in Buckinghamshire, England, Roehm flew over to admire the rarefied chinoiserie carvings by Luke Lightfoot, the finest carpenter of his day. She also studied the chinoiserie porcelains collected by Marie Antoinette at Versailles, and those of Madame du Barry and Madame de Pompador, the cosseted mistresses of Louis XV. “I’m an eternal student,” Roehm says of her tireless—even fanatical—manner when it comes to research. “Oscar used to laugh at me, asking ‘Now what class have you enrolled in?’”

Resisting the temptation to buy superb examples of 18th-century chinoiserie furniture—which would be prohibitively expensive—Roehm commissioned Jonathan Sainsbury, a master craftsman based in Dorset, England, to carve exquisite facsimiles and suitable variations. After seeing a Chippendale-style fireplace in an obscure auction catalogue, she asked him to adapt an ornamental door surround she had admired at Claydon House for Chisholm-Alston House. The result is a florid Chinese-Rococo fireplace that rises almost to the room’s 13-foot-high ceiling, with pagodas, bells, Chinese figures, carved vines and antique mirrored glass.

The room’s green walls—painstakingly matched to the same shade used in the Green Salon at Drottningholm Palace—Roehm observes, are a “great background for porcelain.” She is planning to festoon the space with Blue Canton and Kangxi porcelain, both popular in Charleston during the 18th century, when large quantities arrived to the city’s port as ballast on ships from China. Roehm admits to a consuming fascination with porcelain.

“I’m to plates what Imelda Marcos is to shoes,” she jokes. Since buying her first piece of Blue Canton for $75 in the ’70s, she has amassed a vast collection that miraculously survived the devastating fire that left only the stone walls standing at Weatherstone, her home in Sharon, Connecticut, where she has lived for some 30 years. While rebuilding the house, she devised a room specifically to accommodate her porcelain.

Across the front hall from the Chinoiserie Room is the shades-of-blue Bird Room, designed by Roehm around a large 17th-century painting of brightly plumed birds by Paul de Vos, the Flemish Baroque painter, which she found in an antiques store while on a bicycling trip in Burgundy, France.

After researching pictures of 18th-century mirrors featuring Hoho birds—the mythological fowl regarded as a symbol of good fortune and longevity in Asia—Roehm commissioned Sainsbury to carve a replica to serve as a focal point above the fireplace. She is furnishing the room with delicate Gustavian sofas from Sweden, painted off-white, and a pair of armchairs that belonged to Syrie Maugham (the legendary British decorator who flourished during the 1920s and ’30s), upholstered with a blue-and-white zebra-stripe fabric from Quadrille.

The nearby Theater Room was inspired by Roehm’s visits to the sumptuous private theaters at Château de Groussay, outside Paris, and Ostankino Palace, near Moscow. The sunny-by-day, scaled-down version is built around four 18th-century French theater-set panels, nearly ten feet tall, that Roehm bought at Christie’s New York. Painted in grisaille and tempera on canvas, with faux-marble pilasters, they depict the four seasons. And though Roehm has worked intensely to realize an architectural vision that combines Sweden in the 1700s, Marie Antoinette’s Versailles and the antebellum South in modern-day Charleston, the necessities of 2014 still manage to creep in, particularly in the Theater Room, where the nettlesome question of where to hide the TV remains.

“I’m sick of all these black holes on walls,” Roehm says. “But I definitely want a big screen to watch Downton Abbey. I’m planning to make some kind of trolley so I can move and hide it.”

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