In With The New

For generations, if you wanted others to know you’d made it in this town, you decorated in the stuffy Brahmin style. Not anymore.

By Rachel Slade | Boston Magazine |
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Montage co-owner Liz Cingari and her stepson, Erik Bates, have waited years for the modern revolution to take hold in Boston. / Photo by Jared Leeds

This city’s antiques shops used to thrive on the ambitions of an upwardly mobile class trying to replicate accepted standards of fine breeding and good taste—young professionals who filled their homes with period furniture, Oriental rugs, and crystal chandeliers. They’d spend crisp autumn weekends at auction houses or North Shore stores, hunting for a set of six Queen Anne chairs or a Victorian buffet that would work in the breakfast room. On Sunday evenings, returning from a fruitful outing, they might haul a Sheridan secretary out of the paneled wagon, or while the night away polishing watermarks off an American mahogany hunt table in the dining room. Some even turned their garages into amateur refinishing workshops. The link to history affirmed their station in the world. They followed the lead of the Brahmins, who had set the iconography of wealth and success in the region for centuries. “Antiques expressed that the homeowners had arrived, that they had substance behind them,” says the Cambridge antiques dealer and interior designer Heidi Pribell.

Old money, in other words, dominated the aesthetic here. Creaky and antique were highbrow, shiny and new were lowbrow. A beat-up Mercedes was more likely than a new one to signify a trust-funder with a museum wing named after his grandfather. You used inherited china and silver, because it would be wasteful to replace it (and if you hadn’t inherited these things, you pretended you had). Country clubs had parking lots full of jalopies with rotting sneakers and lacrosse sticks in the back seat.

It was a complete society based on not only money but also a reverence for the past, tradition, and a well-weathered look, not to mention a deep-rooted Puritan practicality. Sukey Forbes, of the Forbes family, says that as recently as the 1970s, her parents’ house in Milton was a study in shabby chic. But nobody ever thought about changing things. “You get married, receive a whole lot of hand-me-downs from different relatives, and then just live in that house, and you never really redecorate again,” she says. “Why would you buy a new one if the old one worked perfectly fine? I mean, that’s very much the kind of family that I grew up in. You know, the leg on the chair is broken, well duct tape, don’t—I mean, God, you bought a new chair? That’s crazy.”

Brahmin families like the Saltonstalls, the Forbeses, and the Endicotts preferred to hide, not flaunt, their wealth. “There was almost a level of embarrassment about having so much,” Sukey Forbes says. “Very often the richest person in the room was the one who looked the poorest. There was a great sense of reverse snobbery and pride in having things that were shabby.” You kept that piano you inherited from your great-grandmother years ago, no matter what state it was in. The reason, as Forbes’s cousin Beth Colt puts it, was simple. “It’s terribly out of tune, and nobody’s played it in 50 years, but it was Great-Grandmother’s, and she was an excellent player, and that’s why.”

Exclusivity, of course, was what gave that society such allure. If you were shut out, all you could do was try to adopt its look, manner, and styling, the better to impress others who’d been denied entry. Ralph Lauren nailed the aesthetic and built an empire in the ’80s simulating the look of old money. The Official Preppy Handbook (1980), written as a spoof, became a very serious primer for those new to the old-money game. Brands like J.Crew (1983) emerged, capitalizing on the “always been here” Brahmin mystique.

But Boston’s new power elite, part of the rising generation that has created the new economy, has now largely turned its back on all of that. Smart, driven, and plugged in, they strongly identify with the technology that made their wealth and lifestyle possible, and they want their homes to exude an innovative, worldly spirit. For them, says Ashley Mears, a sociologist at Boston University, “consuming a broad range of cultural goods is itself a mark of distinction.” In other words: They don’t care about history. They want a look that says new, not old.

“Everyone’s influenced by the branding of Apple,” says Heidi Pribell. “They want more Zen-like interiors. It’s the culture we’re living in.” Now anything that seems old-fashioned or archaic is out. “At one time, everyone wanted to have inherited items,” she continues. “Now it’s like, Ew, who wants to look like Grandma?

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Beacon Hill is the perfect place for contemporary living, say tech masterminds Jennifer Chayes and Christian Borgs, shown inside their gleaming white, gut-rehabbed townhouse. / Photo by Jared Leeds

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There’s no question Boston is changing, says Sukey Forbes, shown in her Weston home among her many heirlooms, including a desk given to her great-grandfather (the American ambassador to Japan) by Chiang Kai Shek and a massive Oriental rug from her grandfather. / Photo by Jared Leeds

This shift in taste thrills Liz Cingari. As a co-owner of Montage, the 10,500-square-foot modern Italian furniture showroom on Arlington Street, Cingari has been waiting for decades for the modern revolution to take hold of the city, so she can unleash European design on us all.

Last April, Cingari, who is 55, headed to Milan with her stepson, Erik Bates, bound for the 2012 Salone Internazionale del Mobile—the largest modern-furniture fair in the world. The annual five-day event packs 1,255 exhibitors into 1.5 million square feet of space, where buyers like her from around the world spend as much as $10 billion on ultra-contemporary furniture and accessories. Cingari is a straight-talking dynamo, which plays well in the land of strong female designers like Miuccia Prada and Donatella Versace. Small and buff, with honey highlights in her thick, shoulder-length hair and an appropriately high-fashion Italian wardrobe, she’s known all over Milan as the doyenne of the American market. When they see her coming, high-end-brand salespeople drop everything and hustle over for a hearty double kiss and an embrace. She’s been traveling to the country for years and knows everyone who matters.

At the 2012 Salone Internazionale del Mobile, Cingari power-walked from booth to booth, and then, after a fortifying cappuccino and cookies, she and Bates hunkered down at the Cassina showroom to spend some money. Eventually they decided to order an $18,000 sectional sofa for their store back home. “We’re not buying to sell things off the showroom floor,” she said. “We’re buying to show the idea”—high-end modern, that is. After about an hour of further discussion, Cingari chose a neutral gray fabric, but then Bates, who’s 39, suggested adding a bright-orange piping to the order. “Piping is too confusing for the customer,” Cingari said dismissively. Bates didn’t agree, they both held their ground, things got tense, and they left the showroom without having made a final decision. The cab ride back to the hotel was solemn.

Back in Boston, however, Bates convinced Cingari to go for the flourish. “Things are changing,” he explained a few months later, “and that’s why I’m bringing in color. I think everybody wants to see something new, different. They want to see progress and technology. They don’t want the same old thing.”


Over in Cambridge,the star realtor Gail Roberts is adjusting to the new reality. She now insists that her clients selling fusty Brahmin homes ship out the old furnishings and “freshen up” before putting them on the market. “No one wants to live in a museum,” she says. As a result, professional stagers are increasingly in demand, among them Pribell, who was recently hired to help sell an eight-bedroom Colonial Revival home in Cambridge that has languished on the market for a year. “Everyone would have wanted that place in another era,” Pribell says. “It’s the epitome of the Cambridge-Harvard home.” But not anymore: “It’s filled with antiques, and it feels like death. No one wants it. Young families with young children don’t see themselves with dilapidated antiques and mothballed rugs.” Pribell says she’s setting up the house’s entry hall to look like a hotel lobby—complete with reclining lounge chairs—and replacing all the Oriental rugs with modern adaptations of tribal rugs (not traditional tribal rugs, mind you).

The Wellesley-based interior designer Andra Birkerts is seeing much of the same. She says the people who use her services consider the Brahmin style a look for people “ensconced in their lives, traditions, and pedigrees.” Her younger clients, and her older ones who like to feel young, tell her they want a cleaner décor, something innovative and cosmopolitan. As citizens of the world, they’re less interested in local influences. Instead of spending weekends in vintage shops or auction houses, they’re traveling around the globe in a way that would have been inconceivable for the city’s elite just a couple of generations ago. While wealthy couples 30 years ago might have visited the big European cities a handful of times, their counterparts today are likely to have lived abroad at some point, to speak a second language, and to have touched down on every continent. Their bookshelves are stocked with dozens of travel books. Birkerts says they’re asking for concrete floors, open plans, lower platform-type beds—elements of design they’ve enjoyed in hotels in Singapore and Abu Dhabi, or while visiting expat friends in Hong Kong or London.

What’s happening in this city is part of a larger trend that sociologists have been documenting for a couple of decades. “There is a noticeable shift in cultural tastes among elites and middle-upper classes that sociologists describe as a trend toward omnivorousness,” says Ashley Mears, of Boston University. These people “increasingly value having a wide array of eclectic tastes, mixing high and low.” Focusing on one period or one look is considered outdated or, worse, unsophisticated. As Mears puts it, “Elites that cluster around homogeneous tastes are increasingly seen as outdated snobs.” Over the past decade, in fact, the so-called highbrow culture that once defined itself by its appreciation of the fine arts (a mark of high status in the late 19th century) has now been replaced by an all-consuming elite. That’s a development that Richard Peterson, a sociologist at Vanderbilt University, wrote about in the seminal 1996 journal article “Changing Highbrow Taste: From Snob to Omnivore.” Peterson found that a profound cultural shift was taking place at the end of the 20th century: Status seekers were no longer defining themselves by their depth of knowledge (how much they know about pieces from a certain period) but by their breadth of knowledge, taking pride in their eclectic, globally inspired tastes.

The new elite in Boston are transforming the city from the inside out. Consider the case of Jennifer Chayes and Christian Borgs, mathematical physicists who cofounded a major tech research center in Cambridge. The couple recently turned a five-story 19th-century townhouse on the flat of Beacon Hill into a stunning showcase for their collection of contemporary furniture and art. From the outside, the home looks like just another brownstone. But when the front door swings open, you can see clear across the foyer to a gleaming white kitchen. Throughout are a few heirlooms—a 200-year-old Persian rug here, a cabinet there—but the rest of the furnishings create an unabashedly modern assemblage of leather, glass, and steel. When the couple moved to Boston four years ago from the Seattle area, they hadn’t expected to find such a traditional city. “We always thought of Boston as this place where people were really pushing the vanguard of their fields—science, mathematics, technology,” Chayes says. “So we were surprised that this didn’t translate into people’s environments.” When they bought their home, it had already been gutted by the previous owner but left unfinished, which freed them up to reinvent it entirely from the ground up. Chayes now compares the house to a beautiful mathematical proof, in which everything is clear and nothing is wasted.

Rich Miner, a cofounder of the Android mobile operating system and now a general partner at Google Ventures, shares that aesthetic, even though he grew up in a traditional setting, in Natick. When he and his wife bought a tired 1950s-era house just off Cambridge’s storied Brattle Street a few years ago, they tore it down and are now building a large contemporary home on the property. The history of the place mattered less to them than the location. What was important was getting everything right for modern living. And today even Brahmins like Sukey Forbes are starting to feel the same way. “Someday,” she says, “I want to live in a very contemporary space with just a few of my most favorite pieces.” The move away from a regional aesthetic here in New England reflects a broader cultural change taking place everywhere in the country. One of the most powerful influences on our collective aesthetic is the clean, modern, simple-is-beautiful look championed by Apple. Another major influence is Ikea, the giant budget retailer that opened its first U.S. store in 1985 and that specializes in a famously contemporary look. Making modern design accessible is the company’s defining goal, and by selling inexpensive flat-packed furniture it has put Scandinavian chic within everybody’s reach. You furnish your dorm room or your studio apartment with Ikea stuff, and then later, when you’ve got more money and a bigger place, you upgrade to Crate & Barrel, Pottery Barn, or Restoration Hardware. A new catalog empire of the modern is taking over the country.

Not all of the country, actually. There is one place where the demand for antiques remains so strong that it’s keeping Boston dealers in business even as the rest of us go modern. All that weathered stuff we’re so busy replacing? It’s on the move—and a lot of it turns out to be headed for Texas. François Bardonnet, the owner of Beacon Hill’s Antiques Period, says that starting this year, about half of the high-style French and English antiques from the 18th and early 19th centuries that he’s sold online have gone to the Lone Star State. Michael Bruno, the founder and chairman of the international antiques-dealer website 1st dibs, attributes this migration to the “big house, big antiques” phenomenon. Texas McMansions, he says, can be cavernous and cold, and need truckloads of accessories and furnishings to warm them up. As New Englanders swap out their big sideboards, tables, and chairs, he adds, wealthy Texans and other southerners are gobbling them up. They’re even flying in to Maine, Boston, and New York specifically to find pieces with unique histories.

Does this mark the end of a Boston-specific style? Are we losing our sense of place as we run headlong into the future? It’s too early to tell. But Liz Cingari and Erik Bates, who for years have been swimming against the current in this city, couldn’t be happier that change is coming. “My father likes to say that we’re an overnight success,” Bates says, “and it only took 50 years.”

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