The paved road gives way to dirt and gravel several miles short of the Lauren house, which is surrounded by over 250 acres of rolling lawn and woods. Norman in style, stone and slate, it was built in 1919, and there is no reason to think it will look any different a hundred years from now. At 17,000 square feet it is big but not overwhelming; it feels appropriate and comfortable. The only clue to who is in house is the car in the forecourt, one of a collection of classic sports cars that look as they did the day they were delivered a half century ago.
As in an English “stately,” the entrance hall is not overly decorated. A grandly scaled George II side table and the first of many oil paintings greet you, as does the scent of lilies. Throughout the house there are dense, formal arrangements of romantic white flowers—hydrangeas, imperial lilies, calla lilies—with old-fashioned scarlet-red roses tucked into them.
The hall opens on the left to a library, a mahogany-paneled room that leaves an impression of brawny club furniture and perpetual late afternoon. The usual laptop and BlackBerry are nowhere in sight, though pads and sharp pencils are plentiful. To the right is the dining room, with a George III table receding forever across three pedestals, vermeil flatware and a dense hang of paintings and drawings against deep-green velvet walls. One end of the first floor is occupied by a classic English drawing room. The center table stands under a crystal chandelier by Osler; seating groups hug fireplaces at either end; and despite paintings propped against paintings, carpets layered upon carpets, and towers of books, the mood is light.
Certain themes keep appearing. Lauren likes his rooms deeply colored, highly dramatic and turned inward. He prefers mahogany paneling and Georgian furniture polished like glass, and Persian carpets on their way to threadbare. Tartan, which most interior designers regard as a novelty, seems natural to a fashion person and is used with abandon. The dining room draperies are like great fringed kilts; tartan pillows and throws and runners are everywhere; and there are many collections of antique plaid metal boxes and accessories.
Animal imagery, and the energy it imparts, is everywhere too, in pencil studies of lions and oil paintings of horses and leopards, and especially in the designer’s fascination with leather. Lauren collects leather the way an anthropologist collects bones. It is almost always what you find yourself sitting on. Old briefcases and schoolbags are used as accessories. Hide, suede, alligator and croc turn up in every possible condition: nicely mellowed, worn to a shine, darkened from a century of fingertips, shaped to the human form, crumbling to dust. This is a museum of leather.
The Laurens’ private quarters, a five-room suite opening off a paneled round hall, are upstairs. The bedroom, with walls of deep-blue baize that read like the midnight sky at full moon, has furniture somewhat dressier than the rest of the house. The bed is Regency, and on the table next to it there’s a pocket watch, tortoiseshell accessories, and crystal tumblers with a bottle of San Pellegrino. Next door is a sitting room, used primarily by Ricky Lauren, mixing tartans liberally with a very French desk glowing with ormolu. The bath, with the marble tub at the center facing an 18th-century mantelpiece, gives the illusion of an old bedroom converted when indoor plumbing was introduced a century ago.
In every house you must search a little to find the heartbeat. Often it is in the kitchen or library. In the Lauren house the life force beats strongest in the dressing room, with its green baize walls, highly polished mahogany and the luxurious hush of so much beautiful clothing. Stacks of luggage surround the room, like magnificent old saddles in a stable. There is a shelf of leather boots as interesting as any collection of Chinese vases, a wall of cashmere sweaters mostly in navies and grays, and another wall of nicely broken-in Belgian loafers, all monogrammed “RL.” Here Ralph Lauren says good morning to Ralph Lauren.