This article is part of our Design special section on making the environment a creative partner in the design of beautiful homes.
Interior design, an art form vulnerable to owners’ changing tastes and the frailties of fabrics and wallpapers, is often appreciated only fleetingly, or in retrospect. Several recent books capture this evanescence in the ghosts of an abandoned crafts community, the inspirations of a 20th-century maverick decorator, the rocking decks of floating homes and the ever-evolving ambience of plant-filled rooms.
Viking ship prows and Scandinavian wildlife were among the favorite motives of a short-lived artisans’ collaborative called Elverhoj (pronounced el-ver-hoy), founded in 1912 on the Hudson River’s western shores just north of Newburgh, NY “Elverhoj: The Arts and Crafts Colony at Milton-on-Hudson” (Black Dome Press$35, 218 pp.), by the scholars William B. Rhoads and Leslie Melvin, is the first in-depth study of this ambitious, long-forgotten venture. Led by Anders H. Andersen, a Danish immigrant, Elverhoj’s residents built themselves ramshackle cottages and offered copper work, silver cutlery, opal-studded jewelry, leather book bindings and textiles, among other products. They ornamented chandeliers with dragons’ heads, molded oak leaves and plump petals on metal teapots and inkwells, and wove portraits of polar bears into tapestries. Ruins of the colony’s buildings can be found in the forests, and among the poignant surviving archival material is Mr. Andersen’s sketch from the 1930s, as bankruptcy loomed, of a trio of creditor trolls wielding daggers.
“Frances Elkins: Visionary American Designer” (Rizzoli$65, 304 pp.), by the historian Scott Powell, explores about 60 commissions that the Milwaukee-born manufacturing heiress realized between the 1920s and 1950s. For commercial, institutional and residential customers, she covered walls in goatskin and edged fireplaces in mirrors and lapis slabs. She collaborated with luminaries like Syrie Maugham, Marion Dorn, Dorothy Liebes, Alberto Giacometti and Jean-Michel Frank to specify teal and tangerine upholstery, mermaid murals and creamy ridged carpets. She turned glass pillars into gossamer balusters and spiraled a crimson-carpeted staircase around a stack of clear plastic balls. Plaster hands served as holdbacks on her fringed, plaid curtains. Male colleagues dared not disagree with the inventive, intimidating businesswoman. “She’d run over you in nothing flat,” one architect told an interviewer, years after he and Ms. Elkins filled a boxy San Francisco house with red carpets and black-and-white leafy textiles.
in “Making Waves: Floating Homes and Life on the Water” (Thames & Hudson$40, 224 pp.), the British stylist Portland Mitchell reveals the upsides and terrors of occupying dwellings offshore. In her 20 case studies from 10 countries, homeowners described avoiding swells from ferry traffic and surviving typhoons “when the sea is flying all around you.” Basic chores, such as cleaning hull rivets, can lead to spurting leaks and fears of sinking. About one third of the residences in the book were built for habitation, and the rest were converted from barges and other seaworthy crafts. The compact rooms are lined in blond plywood, recycled teak, metal plates or psychedelic textiles. The interviewees share tastes for memorable house names such as Soggybottom Shanty. They also unite in their affection for light fixtures hung from plumbing pipes and wraparound decks for wildlife watching. “One time we saw a gray heron surfing on a magpie,” recalls an inhabitant of a former speedboat in Germany.
Hilton Carter, a plant and interior stylist, artist and author, wittily explains parallel patterns found in nature and furnishings in “Living Wild: How to Plant Style Your Home & Cultivate Happiness” (Cico Books$45, 224 pp.). In his family’s Baltimore house and his projects for residential and commercial customers, speckled begonias and leathery philodendrons play off bouclé and cowhide upholstery. Striated monsters are set on marble mantelpieces and pedestals, and planters on wheels make it easy to move flora wherever they can drink up to sunlight. Amid his step-by-step instructions for greening thumbs — for example, by topping soil in sharp pebbles to deter curious cats — he points out his visual puns and shares joy in his profession. At a restaurant famous for fish tacos, he hung a fishbone cactus resembling a piscine vertebrae in a terra cotta pot from the ceiling, “allowing its serrated, zigzagging foliage to tumble downward.” By installing a coffee plant on a kitchen counter, he writes, “yes, I went completely literal … But wait, I’m not done. I also made sure the planter was cream colored. Oh yeah, watch me work!”