The Tented Room


The guest bedroom, once the front parlour

The guest bedroom here remains little changed. Used for a while as our bedroom and then a study, it is square in plan with two double sash windows and high ceilings. In the original house it was the front parlour and it still retains a stately sense of occasion and proportion. Soon after we took over we painted the ubiquitous Softboard linings a light grey and filled the room with a selection of furniture, most of which had Biedermeier leanings. It is a lovely room and because of this it has always passed muster.

Most guests have been too kind to mention that the curtains were rather inadequate when it came to blocking out the nearby street lights but having experienced the room myself recently, new window treatments have become the first evidence of a plan to tackle this room. That I had a plan for these windows all ready to go, was because I’ve been thinking about it for a while, allowing the design to percolate away in the back of my mind.

The first room that really went through a lengthy design process like this was the little bathroom (see Building the Titanic, June 3 2011) with its panelled walls and ornate ceiling. The second was the library where every space was carefully designed on paper. These are to me the two most successfully ‘decorated’ spaces in the house.

The guest room is the last real décor project in the house. After this there is the rather mundane task of painting the small laundry – really no bigger than a cupboard and perhaps the conversion of the old tool shed into an additional guest space or office – but after that we’re looking at rather boring maintenance. At the same time guest rooms are very easy to ignore and to make dull because you don’t occupy them yourself. However I want the room to be memorable, an experience that a visitor remembers and not one replicated in their own homes or any other guest room they might encounter.

There is also one more thing I want to tick off my decorating bucket list – a tent room.

Parkier & Fontaine, Napoleon’s Bed Chamber Chateau Malmaison (see )

Tent rooms date from Napoleon Bonaparte but like most of his ideas the origins of the form are in Ancient Rome. However as far as the modern world is concerned it all starts when Empress Josephine commissioned architects Charles Perkier and Pierre François Léonard Fontaine to design rooms for  Château Malmaison a house redecorated to celebrate Napoleon’s military victories. The two architects, considered to be among the earliest interior decorators, created “tented rooms for Napoleon’s Council Room, his bedroom, and even for the château’s entrance.” The idea caught on particularly amongst the class of people whose exposure to a military tent in the field came with Empire furniture and rich fabrics.


King Freidrich Wilhelm’s spare room in tented form, Charlottenholf Summer Palace, Potsdam (1824-1826)

One of the greatest tent rooms of all time is that created for Crown Prince, later King Freidrich Wilhelm IV of Prussia, in 1824 by architect Karl Freidrich Schinkel at the summer palace of Charlottenhof in Potsdam. This was very much in the fashion of rooms that Josephine had established and which had spread through the palaces and aristocratic residences of Europe. The room, still extant, is a lovely room, simple, bright and graphically strong and something we made sure we saw on a visit to the many, many palaces of Potsdam about ten years back – which made me determined to have my own one day.

Two facts about the ‘tented room’ at Charlottenhof resonate with my current project. It too was designed as a guest room, primarily for Alexander von Humbolt a naturalist and friend of the prince (who had the room designed to remind Humbolt of his trips up the Orinoco river) and it was lined in ticking. Readers of this blog will know that ticking is a favourite material here. Not only for its strong graphic characteristics and its natural fibre (cotton) but because, unlike other traditional upholstery fabrics it is little changed, widely available and inexpensive.

So in many ways Freidrich Wilhelm’s occassional guest crash pad, is my model. Part military, part journey up the Orinocco, part guest room in a palace. I say that also because tent rooms made a comeback in the 1980s – in a blousy overblown version which will be avoided. When I approached the maker of my new curtains to ask whether she had ever sewn a tent ceiling – she said ‘yes once for a wedding’ not the look to which I aspire better, I think, to go with Schinkel.

There are a couple of challenges in a room of this sort. I have been asked, perhaps not irrationally, that the ceiling should be designed so that it can be lowered for the occasional clean to remove dust. Then as this is the last room in the house I don’t want to introduce either new elements but to repeat some of the previously used motifs so that this last room acts to bind the house together. This means using a dado rail (which protects the fabric from abrasion, reduces cost and links to the design on the adjacent hall) and the use of black and white ticking seen elsewhere will help.

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Sketches to determine yardage and hanging method

As it stands my concept, still in sketch form, is beginning to look a little like a foldout/flat pack tent. Imagine Napoleon travelling with a sort of flat pack wainscoting that he folded out against the fabric walls of the striped tent to give the lower half stability. This lets me tick another thing off the décor bucket list – boiseries – those simply moldings that provide rectangular frames for wall panelling. This should also moderate the extreme stripes of the ticking with a good base of off-white paint.

For now planning is moving into the technical realm with thinking concentrating on just how one might create a pattern for the ceiling and how it might all go together. I have enlisted the help of a couple of friends with experience of similar projects and the sketches are underway. This one will take a while but really it’s a great thing to have a décor project – all be it a tent – floating around in the back of your mind.


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