If you thought “camp” involved tents, canoes and Allan Sherman singing “Hello Muddah, Hello Faddah,” think again. As the outré fashion on parade at this year’s Met Gala made clear, camp is a cultural term that embodies a style laden with humor, chutzpah, and go-for-it glitz. The gala marked the opening to “,” the annual Costume Institute exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. The show gets its name from Susan Sontag’s 1965 essay on what she described as a “sensibility.” For Sontag, “the essence of camp is its love of the unnatural: of artifice and exaggeration.”
Fashion can be campy, but Sontag also expanded her definition to include everything from Swan Lake to Tiffany lamps. In the world of interior design, nothing beat Art Nouveau, in Sontag’s view, for its campy theatricality (think Hector Guimard’s orchid-shaped Paris metro entrance).
In Siweb’s world, there is no shortage of camp—from Ken Fulk’s life-size black bear and giraffe-laden grand halls and staircases, to Jonathan Adler’s unabashed embrace of kitsch, to Sasha Bikoff's whimsical spaces, like the dining room pictured above. We reached out to some of our favorite designers for their take on a style that unapologetically straddles the line between good and bad taste.
Camp is an elusive sprite, a shape shifter that means different things to different people. My wise husband Simon Doonan, in his sizzling book Beautiful People, defined Camp as doing everything "as if" you're doing it, adding a layer of considered theatricality to every mundane activity.
Dramatic interiors are Camp. Auntie Mame's house (decorated by the fictitious decorator Yul Ulu, a great genius) is the gold standard of camp decor. Other camp decor icons: Tony Duquette, Erté, the Beverly Hillbillies. You see, camp can kinda' be whatever you want it to be.
As for my own interiors, I'm no stranger to theatricality. I think my most camp moment ever is the corner of my dining room which features an up-lit pedestal with an urn of ostrich feathers. It is a total fancy decorator move and, even though I see myself as a clay-spattered potter (tbh as I'm writing I actually have clay all over my pants), I've been known to moonlight as a fancy decorator from time to time. That camp corner in my dining room always makes me chuckle, both to and at myself.
As I just read on a Bergdorf’s shop window: Camp sees everything in quotation marks. It’s a Susan Sontag quote. When it comes to decorating, a campy room has elements that make you laugh or think twice—hopefully both at the same time. Humor is involved—and that is one of the key ingredients of every room I aspire to do.
Immediately, Tony Duquette comes to mind. He was the master, with an immense creativity, the father of recycling and repurposing in design. I’ll never forget his ceiling lined with egg cartons spray-painted gold, or the screen he made out of hubcaps.
The essence of camp is to make the rhinestone look like the diamond. That’s what I tried to do in my room at Kip’s Bay in 2011, which had bronze mirrors, a custom wallpaper that looked like Chanel quilting (I called it “Harry’s chocolate”), a huge giraffe, and a cobra-shaped floor lamp that once belonged to Elton John. To top it off, there was a bolster in haute couture fabric encrusted in rhinestones—or were they diamonds?
I like to think of camp in decorating as “over-styled.” It’s like when you drink too much you can say you were “over-served”. The word “camp” might imply tongue-in-cheek, but if done right it’s tongue in chic. I’m thinking of the rooms of people like Charles de Beistegui, the French-born Spanish decorator whose Chateau de Groussay has been mimicked by so many. His 1951 Venetian ball at the Palazzo Labia was described as “the party of the century.”
Dorothy Draper was a master of camp; her public spaces at The Greenbrier hotel in West Virginia are epic.
Of course, Tony Duquette was the master of this style. He camped up the Palazzo Brandolini in Venice during the time Dodie Rosekrans was renting it (making it the most memorable rental ever).
So many of my interiors are “overstyled” because I work for helplessly devoted collectors. My favorite is my own dining room in Sagaponack. It’s filled with many treasures I was able to buy when I had a Tony Duquette sale at my shop Homer. I have the light fixture from the Palazzo Brandolini that are coral branches made of Twigs, gold tassels made of resin and accentuated with crystal balls. And so many other of Tony’s extraordinary pieces.
Camp rooms combine decadence, vulgarity, humor, and drama. A campy room will consume and engulf your senses by mixing styles, colors, fabrics, textures, and materials in a way that will put your mind’s eye into overdrive. This wacky and whimsical approach to design is a complete fantasy; it’s purpose is to engage and inspire but also to tap into our psyche. It’s completely original in the sense that everyone has their own version of camp and can draw inspiration from anything.
Valerian Rybar and Jean-Francois Daigre’s mirrored sitting room at their Parisian townhouse on the rue du Bac is an excellent example of camp. The room is a complete fantasy entirely mirrored with gilded boiserie. William Kent’s massive shell bed at Haughton Hall in England is also camp. Jayne Mansfield’s Beverly Hills home with her heart-shaped pool and pink fluffy room is very camp.
Maison Schiaparelli at 21 place Vendome, where Elsa Schiaparelli worked and lived, is major camp as its inspired by Surrealism and Dadaism. Her home had cabinets that looked like lobsters and tables shaped as seahorses.
I have always drawn inspiration from camp as I have an affinity with anything that's fantastical. I believe interiors should transport you to a place you can’t even imagine in your wildest dreams and that is the essence of camp and what I strive for as a designer. Every time I design a space I want to tell a story that combines both our deepest passions and also our darkest secrets. It’s the type of thing that you either love or hate. I recognize that my designs are daring and controversial and in a sense I like it that way because at least they are not boring.
When it comes to camp, Louis XV at Versailles comes to mind—over-the-top, artificial, exaggerated, all those mirrors and pattern on pattern. A lot of people at the time thought he was nuts. I also think of Donald Trump: the gold rooms, the flamboyance of Mar-a-Lago. I think of artists like Jeff Koons with his balloon dogs, or Damien Hirst’s fake documentary about finding sunken treasures.
I created a room that I consider campy at my first Kip’s Bay showhouse in 2007. It was inspired by Big Sur, and I put embroidery and ceramics on the walls, and did poured resin floors that felt like walking on rubber. There was a serpentine sofa and it was all green and blue. Without a client, I let myself be edgy and colorful. The key to camp is to have just the right amount of fun spirit—to walk the line between carefree and clash. Sometimes it depends on what lens we are wearing that particular day.
All great rooms should have a sense of humor somewhere—a wink and a nod to let you know not to take yourself or your interiors too seriously. Tony Duquette and Renzo Mongiardino both crafted highly theatrical rooms—often over the top but always chic, exuberant, and utterly transportive. I share their illusions of grandeur and love of stage craft. Camp in interiors, like in fashion, is achieved with full awareness of the concept. It doesn’t happen by accident. You gotta own it! I think of the dining room which I designed at Carbone Las Vegas. It’s part La Scala, part Goodfellas. Total camp and total glamour.