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.

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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.”