Category Archives: Design

Tumbling Blocks

It’s an old, old pattern, utilized in ancient Greece and Rome and maybe before, revived in the Renaissance, Baroque, and Victorian eras. Actually “tumbling blocks”, also known as rhombille tiling, reverse cubes, or cubework, probably never went away. It’s got to be one of the most popular–and most effective–optical illusions used in tile and textile design–both in the past and the present. I’ve always loved this pattern, and after I saw it on some chairs in one of the bedrooms in the newly-restored Joshua Ward House, soon to open as The Merchant, I started thinking about it and looking for it and it was suddenly everywhere. I always knew it was ancient, but my first introduction to tumbling blocks came via an amazing and influential eighteenth-century pattern book,  John Carwitham’s Floor-decorations of Various Kinds, Both in Plano & Perspective: Adapted to the Ornamenting of Halls, Rooms, Summerhouses (1739). Carwitham’s 24 plates, including several three-dimensional patterns “compos’d of three different kinds of marble, as white, black and dove-coloured, which are so disposed of, that in the dark of an Evening they both appear as if they consisted of a number of long cubes, lying with angles upward, forming of ridges, like the roofs of houses…..”, were apparently very influential on both sides of the Atlantic. I wouldn’t be surprised if Joshua Ward’s beautiful Mansion House, built less than 50 years later, did not feature some surface in the tumbling blocks pattern, so it seemed very appropriate to see it reappear on a pair of modern slipper chairs in 2015.

Tumbling Blocks Pompeii House of the Faun

Tumbling Blocks Carwitham 1739

Tumbling Blocks Firescreen V and A

Tumbling Blacks Quilt crop NMAH

Tumbling Blocks Tunbridge Ware Box

Optical Illusion Below Getty

Tumbling Blocks Bowl Jayson

Tumbling blocks

Merchant Salem

Tumbling Blocks:  House of the Faun at Pompeii; plate for John Carwitham’s Floor-Decorations of Various Kinds (1739); Victorian firescreen, c. 1865-1875, Victoria and Albert Museum Collections; Connecticut Child’s Quilt, c. 1860-1880, National Museum of American History; Tunbridge Ware Tea Caddy, c. 1860, available here; floor of the Getty Villa; bowl at Jason Home; Anthropologie Diamond Interlockrugs; guest room corner at The Merchant, Salem.

Holding the Sun

I suppose I should be writing about the (super)moon, but yesterday I became captivated by the sun: not the real sun, but a stylized image of a sun in the hands of a “medieval” king on a very cool chair by the twentieth-century Italian architect and designer Paolo Buffa. Said chair, with its mate, was featured in the pages of T: the New York Times Style Magazine yesterday, in an article on French designer Vincent Darré’s whimsical Paris apartment. There’s always something that catches my eye in this well-curated periodical, and this weekend it was the Buffa chair, or more particularly the image on the back of the chair: I tried to find its source–to no avail; I suppose Buffa must have sketched it himself–it looks “traditional” and “modern” at the same time, like many of his designs.

Darre apt Buffa Chairs

Darre Study

The Buffa chair in Mr. Darré’s study, in multiples: photograph by François Halard for T: The New York Times Style Magazine.

I love this chair! I want this chair! But I imagine it’s well outside of my price range (a pair of much less distinct chairs is priced at $5500 here), so after considering the style for a while I moved on to the substance. Because of its obvious splendor, the sun has been utilized by kings and queens projecting their power and magnificence from time immemorial and all areas of the world. The sun is generally utilized as a visual reference–either as accessible symbol or allegorical emblem–but it is actually held, or brought to earth, surprisingly seldom. It takes bravado to do that, like that exhibited characteristically by the Sun King, Louis XIV. From early on in his reign he utilized the sun in myriad ways: basking in its beams, driving its chariot, holding and eventually evolving into it. He was identified as the sun by both his supporters and his enemies–among them the persecuted and exiled Huguenots of France who projected him as a sun-inquisitor following the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes in 1685.

Sun King Ballet Costumer 1660s

Sun King Protestant Perspective Nantes

Sun King Indictments LC

Louis XIV  in the costume of The Sun King in the ballet ‘La Nuit’ c.1665; Protestant caricature of King Louis XIV as inquisitor, illustration from ‘Les Heros de La Ligue ou La Procession monacale, conduite par Louis XIV, pour la conversion des protestants de son royaume’, Paris, Chez Pere Peters, a l’Enseigne de Louis Le Grand, 1691; Calendar of Indictments against Louis XIV, 1706, Library of Congress.

But sun symbolism was not always so straightforward, and certainly not in the seventeenth century, when it could represent not only a king and his mastery of all before him, but also faith and reason: the light of both spiritual and scientific understanding. In the very important emblem book of Georgette de Montenay, Cent emblemes chrestiens (1615), the sun goes dark when held in the hand of a philosopher who has abandoned his faith for false theories while conversely another woman–from a bit later in the century, after Galileo’s very public defense of heliocentrism–holds the sun-light of understanding in her hand.

Sun Emblem

“Lacking Light”, Georgette de Montenay, Cent emblemes chrestiens (1615), Glasgow University Emblems website; A woman holds a sun in her hand; representing the faculty of understanding. Engraving by T. Jenner [?], c. 1650, Wellcome Library, London.

The Cartography of Entanglement

Today’s post is a perfect example of how my mind works and why looming deadlines force me out of my home office and into my university one, or to the library, or anywhere but home. I was very quietly reading a great book about English migration in the seventeenth century, in preparation for my upcoming graduate class, when my mind started to wander to maps: first to maps of the Atlantic world, then to maps of the early modern world, then to nineteenth-century imperial maps, then to allegorical maps, then to propaganda maps, then to maps which had spider motifs. This wandering started with the title of the book, The Web of Empire, but it was definitely prolonged by my materialistic instincts, as I have finally ejected my husband’s saltwater aquarium from the lovely little room that I used to call my “map room”, and will again. This room was very damaged by leaks from ice dams this past winter, and has been recently been re-papered and -plastered, so I’m in redecoration mode. I had several old maps and globes in there, but even before our fierce February they were threatened by the vapors emanating from that old aquarium, so now that it is out of there the maps are going back in–and I want more. I’m a huge fan of allegorical and pictorial maps (see here and here and here), so I thought, why not spiders? They’re not quite as obvious a metaphor for world domination as the octopus, but a close second.

Web of Empire Games

I started my search for arachnophobic maps with the early nineteenth century and Napoleon: Thomas Rowlandson had very famously portrayed the little general as “the Corsican Spider” and I figured some contemporary cartographer would be inspired to create a vision of Europe caught in his web. No luck, and nothing from the Victorians either, although one of Lillian Lancaster Tennant’s whimsical maps depicts the old legend of Robert the Bruce and his inspiring spider. This is hardly the arachnophobia I was expecting, or looking for: it will take the ferocious World War I–and the polarizing imperial strategies of the rest of the twentieth century–to produce those kind of images.

Napoleon as Spider

Web Map Scotland Barrons

Thomas Rowlandson’s The Corsican Spider. In his Web. (1808), Royal Collection Trust; Bonaparte with a spider web as a medal, having devoured Russia (1814), Jonathan Potter, Ltd.; Map of Scotland from Stories of Old (1912) by Lillian Lancaster Tennant, Barron Maps.

And so that brings us to probably the most famous spider map:  “L’Entente Cordiale, 1915”. This propaganda map represents the German perspective on World War I, with Britain portrayed as a giant spider literally eating France while the US is entangled in its web in the background and an unfettered German eagle overlooks the scene. This is a mockery of the alliance made between France and Britain  in the previous year, which clearly did not aid/save France. I found several other British spiders in various collections of German propaganda from the Great War, including the map below from (of all places) neutral Sweden, and the “Europa 1915-1916” map which depicts the insect extending its legs across the Channel while Germany is (quite literally) steamrolling the Russian bear: this view conforms to the German rationalization that it was Britain that had woven a web of empire, spanning the globe.

Lentente Cordiale LOC Bordered

Swedish Propaganda Poster 1918 CUL

Europa 19151916 IWM

l’Entente Cordiale, 1915, Library of Congress; England Världens lyckliggörare, 1918, War Reserve Collection, Cambridge University Library. (I’m not entirely certain that this Swedish poster is not depicting an English octopus: there is no web, but it does look quite furry); Europa 1915-1916, Imperial War Museum.

The spider allegory is unleashed in the 1930s and 1940s: Nazi Germany produced many anti-Semitic and anti-Communist pamphlets and posters (and combinations thereof) employing the spider, and then we see all the participants portraying the enemy in arachnidian ways once the war began. The U.S.S.R. is portrayed as a menacing spider by both the Germans and the Americans in the space of five years, and then of course Hitler/Germany becomes the most menacing spider of all. I’m including a well-shared image of “The American Spider” which is dated 1943 because it’s a perfect fit for this post, but I’m not sure of the source: tumblr-and reddit-land never credits! I’ve searched all the usual repositories and come up with nothing, but I would love to know about more about this particular spider map.

Bolshevik Spider 1935 Hoover Institute

Spider Russia Cold War

Nazi Spider Map 1943

Spider Map US WWII

Germany struggles to keep Europe free from Bolshevism, 1935, Hoover Institute, Stanford University; The Russian Spider Sits atop the World and Watches for more Victims, Los Angeles Times, January 7, 1940 (during the brief German-Russian alliance), Barry Ruderman Antique Maps, Inc.; One by One his Legs will be Broken, 1941, Imperial War Museum; The American Spider, 1943, source–Vichy France?

The spider need not be so malevolent. Another map from this era, published by Ernest Dudley Chase, one of the most prolific and creative pictorial cartographers of the mid-twentieth century based right here in Massachusetts, features a spider web as a sort of overcast underworld. Following in the wake of “A New Yorker’s Idea of the United States of America” and “A Bostonian’s Idea of the United States of America”, Chase’s “The United States as viewed by California (Very Unofficial) Distorted and Drawn by Ernest Dudley Chase”, contrasts a distorted two-thirds of interwoven America with a very sunny, happy California. I’ve included a quote from another of Chase’s maps for parity’s sake. And because our own twenty-first century view of the web is quite different from that of the previous century, I’m ending with this great “Age of Internet Empires” map from the Oxford Internet Institute. I could go on–rail transportation maps are often called “spider maps”–but I think I’ve been entangled enough!

Ernest Dudley Chase

Ernest Dudley Chase Map NE


Ernest Dudley Chase maps, Boston Public Library Leventhal Map Center; “Age of Internet Empires Map”, Oxford Internet Institute.

Old Homes Made New 1879

After I came across a little book named Old Homes made New. Being a Collection of Plans, Exterior and Interior Views, Illustrating the Alteration and Remodeling of Several Suburban Residences, published in 1879 by architect William M. Woollett, I really understand the “alterations” made to my 1827 house by its owners in the later nineteenth century. Like the simple colonial and Greek Revival houses used as Woollett’s “befores”, my own house must have been far too spare for the exuberant sensibilities of my Victorian predecessors, and so they added bay windows, French doors, arches, etched glass, a curved mahogany banister, and lots more space–up and out they went, into the attic and out back: I guess I should be thankful I don’t have a tower or a turret! The 1920s owners of the house attempted to restrain the house’s exuberance under their stewardship, but I bet they liked the light provided by the bay windows and I know they needed the space: they had 12 children!  And so what remains is an amalgamation, just like Stonehurst, and most houses, I suppose.

oldhomesmadenew cover


Old Homes made New 1812

oldhomesmadenew 1812 remodeled


oldhomesmadenew 4

oldhomesmadenew 5

oldhomesmadenew modernized hallway

“Modern” houses, a modernized hallway, and a modern man from William Woollett’s Old Homes Made New (1879).


Waltham, Massachusetts is a bustling little city just west of Boston that manages to be urban, suburban, and rural all at the same time, depending on what sector you find yourself in. There’s a lot there: an impressive industrial heritage, two universities, Bentley and Brandeis (where I got my Ph.D.), a pretty vibrant downtown, lots of corporations along the Route 128 beltway, and three historic “country” estates preserved as house museums: the Lyman Estate (also known as “The Vale”, built in 1793 and owned and operated by Historic New England), Gore Place (built in 1806 and saved in the 1930s by the Gore Place Society), and Stonehurst (completed by 1886 and owned and operated by the City of Waltham since 1974). Because of my predilection for early American architecture, I have visited the older houses many times: Samuel McIntire designed the foundation structure of The Vale and Gore Place is just about the most elegant Federal house anywhere (outside of Salem, of course). But despite the fact that it is the product of a collaboration between two giants of late nineteeth-century design, architect Henry Hobson Richardson (1838-1886) and landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted (1822-1903), I have to admit I have dissed Stonehurst: I saw it long ago and never returned. The other day I was driving home along Route 128 at just the wrong time on a beautiful day: it was rush hour(s) and the northern lanes were jam-packed. I just had to get out of the car, and as I happened to be in Waltham, I thought I’d go look at the Lyman Estate for a bit and wait out the traffic. After I turned off the highway, however, I saw the sign for Stonehurst and remembered that it is situated on far more land: 109 acres of Olmsted-designed walking trails, to be precise–and I needed some exercise. So there I went, but got slightly distracted by the house, which is a bit……………intimidating? perplexing? provocative?

Stonehurst 002

Stonehurst 005

Stonehurst 018

Stonehurst 023

Stonehurst 010

Stonehurst 060

Stonehurst is really a combination of two houses built for Robert Treat Paine, a Boston lawyer, philanthropist, and advocate for workers’ housing (scion of a real Brahmin family: his namesake grandfather was a signer of the Declaration of Independence and Massachusetts’ first Attorney General) and his wife Lydia Lyman Paine: her father had financed the Second Empire house that constitutes the western end of the structure, which was later deemed too small for their large family. So Paine (who served on the building committee which oversaw Richardson’s masterpiece, Trinity Church in Boston) commissioned the architect to relocate the house and integrate it with a structure of his own design. The exterior (again, to my untrained eye!) is therefore quite an amalgamation: of the pre-existing Second Empire house, combined with Richardson’s more organic “Richardsonian Romanesque” and Shingle styles. I found the interior far more integrated, with large rooms that related to one another (and the outdoors) in a very pleasing way, and lots of crafted built-in features: window seats, benches, bookcases, mantles, staircases, mouldings: a warm and inviting Arts and Crafts house encased in a somewhat more imposing envelope.

Stonehurst 026

Stonehurst 032

Stonehurst 029

Stonehurst 036

Stonehurst 038

Stonehurst 056

Stonehurst 039

Stonehurst 050

Stonehurst 051

Stonehurst 046

Stonehurst 061

Interior of Stonehurst and a trail not taken; the line inscribed on the second-floor landing mantle, “Build Thee More Stately Mansions, O My Soul” is from the Oliver Wendell Holmes poem, The Chambered Nautilus.

Melting Pot(tery)

I think I’m the last person on the internet to discover the work of London-based Chilean artist Livia Marin, but I don’t care: I must feature these examples of melting ceramics (in the classic Willow pattern) because they are just so cool. We have a healthy tea culture here in Salem, and I can just picture a tea party with whole pieces on my dining room table and a display of these pieces on the mantle. According to the statement on her website, Marin “employs everyday objects to inquire into the nature of how we relate to material objects in an era dominated by standardization and global circulation” in order to “offer a reflection on the relationship we develop with those often unseen objects that meet our daily needs”: a much more thoughtful approach to my own preoccupation with the art (and history of course) of the everyday. I suppose I could come up with a long essay on how these objects are emblematic of the China Trade and all the myriad consequences of European imperialism, but really, I just like the way they look.

Melting China Livia Martin




via Livia Marin.

Spider Web Windows

Sitting on the huge back porch of my parents’ house in York Harbor the other day, I became fixated on the spider web design of the windows of the house next door. This house (unfortunately) blocks quite a bit of our view of the ocean, but is (fortunately) a magnificent creation: large and white and gleaming, with lots of architectural details. It has the appearance of a Colonial Revival house and I know it was built after our Shingle “cottage”, so the dates fit–but the spider web windows do not: they look a little whimsical for this classically-constrained house. I’ve been looking at these web windows my whole life but never really considered them before. Years ago my mother transformed a small window in the front of our house into a stained-glass mosaic in the design of a web; I doubt she was inspired by the web windows in front as a veritable forest existed between that house and ours at that time.

Spider Web Windows 4

Spider Web Windows York

Spider Web Windows 3

Apparently the spider web was a prominent design motif of the Arts and Crafts movement, along with the dragonfly, the firefly and the crane, all indicating the influence of Japanese visual culture in the later Victorian era on both sides of the Atlantic. Just a few minutes of web research brought me to the spider web windows in the famous Winchester Mystery House in San Jose, California, and more interestingly (to me) to the work of Chicago-era architect R. Harold Zook (1889-1949), who incorporated spider webs motifs in all of his houses and even as his trademark. I had never heard of Zook before: wow!  And just to illustrate how ageless and universal the spider web window can be I’ve included a charming little pane from the Zouche Chapel at York Minster, dating from the late medieval era and encased in a chapel panel in the sixteenth century.

Spider Web Windows Winchester Mystery House

Spider Web Window Zook House

Spider Web Window

Spider Web Zouche Chapel York Minster 16th century

A great site for R. Harold Zooks Houses, both lost and surviving.


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