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Renovating Vermont’s Twin Farms

Buff Strickland The bedroom at Twin Farms' Aviary.

Photo: Buff Strickland

Most aging pop divas will tell you that when it comes to visual packaging, deciding between change and maintenance is the most agonizing issue they face. How much of a makeover will fans tolerate?Will they become bored with the same old highlights and abandon you for the rival with the luxuriant weave?Diana Ross famously chooses maintenance—Big Hair and bustier frocks with lives of their own—a sensitive reading of her constituency's needs. Cher has ground her way through a crazy number of coifs, but the message sent back by her public is clear: Keep it long, straight, and black. It may never have occurred to you, but hotels whose success lies squarely in their designer looks—such as Twin Farms in Vermont, the Costes in Paris, and the Mercer in New York—have a lot more in common with certain lady singers than is generally allowed. To evolve or not to evolve?

Few people ever make the connection between the loyalty patterns of hotel guests and Top 40 music enthusiasts, but the link is there too. From my own experience, I can tell you that something as seemingly small as a change in the old-fashioned square satin eiderdown at a favorite auberge in Brittany, or in the woven-straw roller shades at an inn I have been going to for years in Andalusia, can be enough to make me never go back. Sounds irrational, but is it?Hoteliers spend their lives trying to figure out just which decorative elements make their properties tick. Redo the entire lobby, and there's no drop-off. Switch the bed­ding, and you've lost a devoted customer. It's unguessable.

With the recent open­ing at Twin Farms of five new guest rooms—rooms that represent a chancy stylistic turnaround for the hotel—questions like these are swirling around the place like autumn leaves, making for the most uncertain, nail-biting time in its 12-year history. By voting for maintenance (the approach to the original Jed Johnson–designed spaces is as close to curatorial as you'll find outside a house museum) and change (the new Thad Hayes accommodations), Twin Farms is betting that it can hold on to its fan base while creating a new one.

Centered on a 1795 farmhouse, the hotel claims what must be the 300 prettiest acres in New En­gland, 10 miles from what even the proud people of Maine and Massachusetts agree is the prettiest town in New England, Woodstock. Twin Farms has wildflower meadows, apple orchards, pine forests, a lake, a private ski run­—the works. Someone once called it "summer camp for grown-ups," but forgot the crucial modifier rich. When the hotel buys a mailing list, everyone on it has a net worth of more than $5 million.

Hayes's rooms are in two strutting new buildings, the Aviary and the Farmhouse at Copper Hill, by Bill Gates's architect Peter Bohlin. In the context of Johnson's legacy, they have a lot to live up to. Raised in a small farming town in Minnesota, Johnson arrived in Manhattan in 1968, at age 20, with no money, no formal training, and an as-yet-unawakened affinity for the Arts and Crafts style. The rest sounds apocryphal, but it really did happen. While working for Western Union, Johnson delivered a telegram to Andy Warhol's Factory. This led to his being hired to sweep the floors, which led to his editing the film Women in Revolt and directing Bad, which led to his and Warhol's falling in love, which led to his doing Warhol's fabled town house on East 66th Street, which led to Johnson becoming one of the most important and original decorators of the past half-century, with clients from Mick Jagger and Barbra Streisand to Pierre Bergé and the Ronald Lauders.

"Jed's rooms never seem weighed down by a sense of importance, or by the smell of money, both of which can make a place seem cold and dead," Sandra Brant observes in the new monograph Jed Johnson: Opulent Restraint (Rizzoli). Brant helped finance Warhol's magazine Interview and employed Johnson on upwards of 10 projects. "If there was anything that marked his designs," critic Paul Goldberger writes in another of the book's essays, "it was a forthright determination to make space resonate, to make it glow with that peculiar form of perfection that comes when objects of great quality are well placed in carefully wrought surroundings."

With Johnson—unlike other residential designers who accept the occasional commercial commission—there was no question of shifting down, which is a nice way of saying dumbing down, for Twin Farms. Treehouse cottage has delicate white-birch fretwork between chunky ceiling beams of the same wood, chinoiserie toile pelmets whose sawtooth points end in tiny bells, and hand-carved ravens atop the posts of a barley-twist bed. Meadow cottage, a Maghrebian daydream of mosaic tiles, layered kilims, voluptuous banquettes, and trefoil window screens, makes the point that the only thing chicer than a tented ceiling is a trompe l'oeil one, realized in billowing plaster and painted stripes.

Johnson died on TWA Flight 800, which exploded over the Atlantic off Long Island in 1996. Because the company that carries his name is not only still in business but also retains some of the same people who initially collaborated on Twin Farms, many assumed the hotel would simply return to the firm when it decided to increase its inventory. The bet-hedging solution the property ultimately came up with is more nuanced, more creative, though not one that would necessarily work for songbirds who will soon be eligible for senior bus fare.

"We view what Jed did as art—it would be foolish to touch it," says Thurston Twigg-Smith, one of the hotel's shareholders. "Guests would notice, and they wouldn't be happy. Jed's rooms cannot be improved." The hotel takes its responsibility as guardian so seriously that it goes to the trouble, and expense, of using Johnson's com­pany—now run by his brother Jay—for most of the upkeep. The Delano in Miami and Wheatleigh in Massachusetts take a similar custodial approach.

"We purchased ten percent ad­ditional fabric when we designed Wheatleigh in 2001 so there'd be stock for re-covering," says Calvin Tsao of  Tsao & McKown. "We go up once a season and see what needs repair. And because we know how much housekeepers love to push furniture against the walls and pile amenities in a corner of the vanity, there's a room-by-room manual with photographs that shows precisely where everything goes. There's even a picture of how not to over­fill the cotton-swab bowls."

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