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A Sense of Parade


Posted on September 13, 2011


A Sense of Parade
Keith Irvine aka Kitty,
Duchess of Malminster

Photo by Alex McLean, ballroom entrance

Is there a Scottish version of the phrase joie de vivre?  

                             Then, how about its living embodiment?

This past May, the Decorating Arts lost one of its most vital and exuberant practitioners, the admired and beloved Keith Irvine (1928-2011).

This was a decorator who articulated the artist's eye with a passion to every surface he saw.

Kips Bay House, 1980

In the words of his partner and collaborator of more than 50 years, his wife Chippy, he was creating a "sense of parade" on every project he undertook.


Parade! Tableau! Flourish! Noise! Colour! Activity! In

a word... FUN! And with Keith’s wicked wit and loathing of "the stuffed shirt", he later styled himself, and signed in every posh guest book presented to him, "Kitty, Duchess of Malminster," a wild character from a British TV series.

Lizzy Himmel, Kips Bay House 2005

Photo by Karen Radkai. Sunroom of Bill and Pat Buckley

Yet... his work was deeply rooted in historic scholarship and it was inspired with a beauty arising out of honored English and Scottish traditions. Keith's education in English design began by accompanying his father, a lover of English and Scottish history and its grandeur, to dozens of old, stately houses and castles in the UK and his love of decoration gloriously bloomed.

Keith worked at Colefax & Fowler in the days of Nancy Lancaster and John Fowler. He launched Clarence House in 1961 with Robin Roberts and then founded Irvine & Fleming with Thomas Fleming with clients from Katherine Graham to almost all the Kennedy family.


Photo by Michael Muddy, Dining Room of Mr. & Mrs. Philippe Daunan

Photo by Simon Uptown, Michael Both, Nantucket House

An overused word to describe decorating is "whimsey," but accurate when used for Keith. Whimsey is inspired by "sprites", by "magic," by decorating "alchemy," or GLAMOUR (There's a Scottish word!)


– the effect is young and charming and delightful. Why use two wallcoverings – wall and border – when five or six will produce an effect of pleasure? And the notion that each room has SIX walls? The ceiling, of course decorated with stars or small medallions – something to pull the eye upward.

Photo by Lemeau, Guest House with Basket Collection

Keith embraced "The brilliant magazines and the fabulous movies. ‘Conde Nast and Warner Brothers."

From it is this description, "For the next four decades, Irvine and Fleming's traditional mode of decorating developed... but never really changed, despite shelter magazines' and most of our competition's design swings through Italian modern, English country house, Scandinavian stripped-down pine, postmodern, high tech, overrich opulence, shabby chic and.... high-priced minimalism.

We went on producing personal, comfortable spaces. Rooms our type of client understood.

Playbill Guest Bathroom

Keith's passions?  BOOKS!

It was a purposedly "relaxed and more theatrical view of Englishness and its suave ECCENTRICITY." 


Keith Irvine books stacked everywhere

Miles of bookcases to house them.  And he and Chippy wrote  A Life In Decoration together in 2005 for The Monacelli Press. 

Private collection of Chippy Irvine, Keith's Office

Photo by Alex McLean

Alex McLean, Palm Tree Reading Hall

-Talk about eccentricity...

Keith and Chippy's house in upstate New York --- a doorway lined with narrow panels of mirror inspired by Sir John Soane,  a museum of which Keith was proudly involved and onetime president.


A magnificent Ballroom of mind-boggling proportions with towering columns, split staircases, family portraits and a grand mantle. 



Alex McLean, Connecticut House, Elsie de Woolf Memorial Library

Mr. & Mrs. Howard Ross, paneled mahogany drawing room, House Beautiful 2005

   Their house is a

deeply personal expression of two lives and two loves actively intertwined. 

Keith was an unabashed "royalist," with a love for Bonnie Prince Charlie –– reveling in the pomp and "costume-ness" of it all. And none of it too serious -- pomp clearly without pompousness -- now that is a trick to pull off.

Thibault Jeanson, Mr. & Mrs. Leslie Rose Sitting area in Master Bedroom

Photo by Karen Radki, Drawing Room of Mr. & Mrs. Rotenstreich

Valuable pictures


Small, not-valuable pictures everywhere.

Photographs of their life together in the theatre. Everywhere.

BOOKS everywhere.

Baskets everywhere.

Hats everywhere.

The whole splendid amalgamation

of a spirited and private vision of humor.

Keith in his fabulous ballroom. Photo by Michel Arnaud

One finally understands the brilliance of Keith’s STAR… his style, his  eccentricity, his whimsy. All worth following. And when one considers the names of the brilliantly-talented assistants who worked at one time or other at Irvine & Fleming, one is not surprised. From Mario Buatta, Richard Keith Langham, and Jason Bell and, of course, Tom Fleming. Irvine & Fleming – The Gang of Two.


Or was it really Chippy & Keith?

Photography, except where already credited, is courtesy of 'A Life in Decoration' and/or the private collection of Chippy Irvine.