Ralph Lauren remakes Thomas Jefferson

Ralph Lauren's Monticello makeover

4 minute read
Prior to his recent makeover of Thomas Jefferson's country house, Monticello, much applauded in Elle Décor's July/August issue, Ralph Lauren made no claim to fame as a restorer of historic sites. But now his team has turned Jefferson's Wedgwood-blue dining room into a shocking chrome yellow "total environment."

That's the phrase Lauren's publicists have applied to each of the faux upper-class designer's previous Lauren Collections"“ a line of furnishings that has included "New England," "Thoroughbred" and "Jamaica," among others.

As Witold Rybczynski observed so astutely in Home (Penguin Books, 1986), Lauren has made his mark not by designing real interiors but by peddling romanticized ideas of upper-crust lifestyles— backdrops designed to promote the sale of fabrics, table wares, and bedclothes. In the past, Lauren's métier has been contemporary imagery that invokes Old World charm. But now his company, Polo Ralph Lauren, has made a surprising move into early 19th-Century Virginia, giving "a generous donation" (as Elle Décor put it) for the restoration of Jefferson's dining room.

Jefferson's personal vision

It's important to note that the third president of the U.S. and author of the Declaration of Independence was also a homebody who spent more than 40 years designing, building and refining Monticello, inside and out. There Jefferson created a totally personal environment of unsurpassed beauty. So Lauren's appearance at Jefferson's country home is cause for comment and speculation. Is Lauren gathering ideas for a "Monticello Collection"? Or is this dining room makeover Lauren's first step toward remaking Monticello in Ralph Lauren's image?

Last fall, Lauren announced the relocation of his distribution center to West Virginia. Then, according to Lauren's RL Magazine, Lauren set his sights on Jefferson's work at both the University of Virginia and Monticello: "When it comes to fashion, Charlottesville draws on its heritage "“ it's one of the last bastions of truly classic American dress…"

Whatever Lauren's intentions, the work completed in Thomas Jefferson's dining room cannot be called a restoration, since the Lauren team isn't just preserving and refreshing original furnishings. The newcomer has substituted his own reproductions, and even some totally contemporary objects.

Before and after

In Elle Décor, you can see the before-and-after: Jefferson's original table has been covered to the floor by Ralph Lauren's black-and-white-striped tablecloth, "made truly modern and appealing with a mix of contemporary china and other tableware" (according to Elle Décor editor Mitchell Owen).

What's more, Polo provided a reproduction sideboard and a spotty taupe "interpretation" of Jefferson's Abbeville carpet. And Jefferson's personal art collection has just been arranged in characteristic Ralph Lauren style: Thick black modernist frames are bunched together. Paintings and prints "now pop into view…crisp against the bold yellow."

Replaced by wallpaper

Chrome yellow is the historical hook on which this conversion hangs. After living with plaster-white walls for more than 30 years, in 1815 Jefferson did in fact paint his dining room walls chrome yellow, a new pigment discovered by Louis Nicolas Vauquelin in France. What the Elle Décor article fails to mention is that the pigment was made of crocoite (lead chromate), a substance that oxidizes and darkens on exposure to air over time. Not surprisingly, the yellow was replaced by wallpaper (as were a number of other rooms in Monticello). Either at the end of the 19th Century or in the early 20th Century, depending on which sources you believe, the dining room was painted blue.

Given all these factors, and the popularity of the Wedgwood blue version that so many associate with the room, in truth it's a challenge to say which hue is most appropriate for a restoration. But one thing is certain: The color palette in a national historic monument shouldn't be selected on the grounds of contemporary chicatude. Fashion should never dictate a real restoration"“ and "fashion" is what Ralph Lauren sells.

I certainly agree with the Monticello Foundation's stated mission: to protect historic resources in order to provide education and inspiration for our society's future. Unfortunately, Ralph Lauren's much-publicized modernization of America's most cherished private residence sends an entirely different message: Money can buy anything.♦

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To read a follow-up by Caroline Millett, click here.

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