I have always been interested in curated literary space—that is the elegant transference of story into three dimensions through the arrangement of objects. Next month, I have a forthcoming essay in Asymptote Journal on Orhan Pamuk’s recently opened Museum of Innocence, an actual museum in Istanbul that enacts a fictional museum in his novel of the same name.
Today I visited another gem of curative storytelling, 18 Folgate Street in Spitalfields, London, designed by the eccentric and beguiling American Dennis Severs (1948-1999). Severs bought and renovated an 18th century row house and then spent years crafting the intricate, ten-room domain of the Jervises— an invented Huguenot silk weaver family with more than a few skeletons in the closet. To walk into 18 Folgate is to walk into a domestic scene recently abandoned; the candles are still lit; the chamber pots are still warm; a pipe has recently been emptied into a used tea cup. You always get the feeling you just missed the family, who were there moments before you arrived. Footsteps echo from somewhere above; there is the faint boom of cannon (?), a voice mumbling an inaudible farewell. The house is so effective for the gesture at what might have been—like the frame around a picture, you are only given part of the story—the rest has just departed, and it is this departure which guides you hungrily from room to room in search of a story that will never be completed. The house thus is a kind of play in ten acts, a poem in ten stanzas, without beginning or end. Make sure you spend time in the crumbling attic, filled with carefully arranged dust, discarded undergarments, expired candles, and a desk where countless novels were no doubt started in earnest and then just as quickly abandoned.