James Swan: To All Despots and Their Decorators

March 4, 2014

“It’s complicated” is popularly applied to everything from relationships to political conflict. Since I am not in a relationship at the moment I have nothing much to share in that regard…though the state of singleness is remarkably underrated, usually by those anxious to end their perceived loneliness and be bound at the heart and hip to their soulmate du jour. I wish them well but am quite content to enjoy my bachelor ways and the freewheeling autonomy with they come.

Political conflict, on the other hand, offers an opportunity for comment, even by the humblest of decorators, particularly when the troubles of a nation are reflected with such vitality by the interior designs favored by a fleeing former (we think) leader.

I speak, of course, of the ousted Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych and the palaces (one completed and another under construction) which, until his hurried exit into his neighbor Vladimir Putin’s tolerant embrace, he called home. Setting aside the politics involved in the incendiary ramp-up to last week’s race to the border by Yanukovych, and the increasingly worrying events that have followed, the thing that’s got me twisted in well-designed knots is the question of aesthetic responsibility. To whom do despots like Yanukovych turn when seeking to capture their own unique brand of vanity and veniality in a pile otherwise known as a palace?

Even the most hastily conducted survey of quickly vacated despotic edifices—found in far-flung corners of the world and belonging to such varied characters as Duvalier, Ceausescu, Amin, Pot, Hussein, Jong, and now Yanukovych—shows that they bear a shocking similarity. Is this mere coincidence or does evil always manifest itself in pointedly vulgar displays of opulence? When left to its own devices, does despotic taste naturally gravitate toward the faux grandeur of unintelligible architectural composite topped with the showy, swagged, and gilded flourishes of Louis the Transvestite, or is there a guiding influence directing the tastes of the world’s most visible criminals as they memorialize themselves in brick and mortar, silver and gold?

As one who admires the simple virtues of symmetry, composition, and contrast, I find it hard to imagine how many suitcases of cash were required to enable the compiling of such uselessly complex schemes. It would be easy, sitting in my New England study with a fire popping in the fireplace, to judge the designer or decorator whose complicity helped birth these monumental travesties. But that is not my intended path today, for I’m quite comfortable knowing that the gods of decorating will distribute justice far more equitably than I ever could.

That said, I do find interesting the idea of some future despot (sadly we always have one or two around) throwing over the trappings of blatant vulgarity and extreme opulence in favor of subtly nuanced architectural details, elegantly edited interiors, and, dare I say, a more modern place to call home. I suppose I could imagine them to be kinder and gentler too…well, one can dream.

—James Swan

James Swan has worked across the United States for clients who have included captains of industry, movie studio heads, and investment bankers. He was recognized with the VOX/Out Designer of the Year award, and has been featured in House & Garden, House Beautiful, the Los Angeles Times, the Boston Globe, the Chicago Tribune, and the Miami Herald. Boston is now his personal and professional home.