Category Archives: Design

Sunshine and Shadow

It seems appropriate to focus on sundials in these waning days of Summer. I know, I know–there are technically several more weeks–but I am a college professor, so for me Fall definitely begins on Tuesday. There is just no question; it’s the least transitional of the seasons. Sundials have a long history and are aesthetically pleasing, but the main reason I like them is for their representation of another transition:  from the technological and practical to the simply decorative. A sundial sits right in the middle of my Colonial Revival garden but there is also one (in more portable form) front and center in one of my favorite Renaissance paintings, The Ambassadors by Hans Holbein the Younger.

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Sundial Holbein

Hans Holbein the Younger, Jean de Dinteville and Georges de Selve (‘The Ambassadors’), 1533, The National Gallery, London | Photograph ©The National Gallery, London

There’s a lot going on in The Ambassadors, but if you can get past the anamorphic skull and focus on the instruments on the table, your eye (at least my eye) focuses on the sundial, right in the middle of these two handsome Renaissance men. In their time, the sundial was already almost anachronistic with the coming of the mechanical clock, but still, there it is. Obviously, like the other instruments on the table, it had come to symbolize more abstract things: the ability to harness time and (conversely) the limited amount of time that is available to man, any man (or woman), even men as magnificent as these. This sentiment is very evident in a print from about a century later, Stefano della Bella’s cartouche for the funeral of Francesco de Medici, with the central image of a sundial and the emblem Umbrae Transitus Tempus Nostrum: “Our Time is the Passing Away of a Shadow”.

Sundials Medici

Stefano della Bella, A cartouche with a sundial, a skull with feathers on its head at top, from ‘Eight Emblems for the Funeral of Francesco de Medici’ (Huit emblèmes pour les funérailles du prince François de Médicis), c. 1640-1660, Metropolitan Museum of Art

These words, this sentiment, are expressed in multiple variations on sundials over the next centuries: shadows we are, like shadows depart, as a shadow, so is life, man fleeth as a shadow. When they were not strictly utilitarian, sundial inscriptions expressing morose mortality seem to peak in the Victorian era and then shift to the light, rather than the shadow: Robert Browning’s popular plea to Grow Old along with Me; the Best is yet to Be is certainly a more hopeful (and trite) inscription. Visually, sundials cease to be macabre and become romantic, associated not with death but with the pleasures of life and with a world that was slower-paced and less technological: the perfect symbol for taking time away from that busy world, in the garden.

Sundial Crane

Sundials Crane

Sundials Earle Cover

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Back cover of Walter Crane’s A Floral Fantasy in an Old English Garden (1899), available here; Front cover of Alice Morse Earle’s Sun-Dials and Roses of Yesterday (1902), available here. One of my favorite sundials, in the sunken garden of the Jeremiah Lee Mansion in Marblehead, Massachusetts.


Chrome Crush

I was not going to post on the (13th) annual Antique Car Meet sponsored by Historic New England’s Phillips House and held right here on Chestnut Street because I’ve been there, done that, but I changed my mind. It’s just such a great event: the cars are beautiful, the cars on the street are beautiful, the entire event joyous. This year’s meet was bigger and better than ever, and the spectacular run of weather that we have been having has put everyone in a great mood. But the main reason that I’m pushing cars is that I fell in love with one yesterday–and now nothing will ever be the same. I’m going to set the scene and give you some car context before I zero in on the object of my affection:  fully half of the street was lined with classic cars (and a few vintage bicycles too) for a good part of a glorious day, and 20th century machines cast in bright primary colors popped against the 19th century background of neutral Federal facades.

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All the cars had their particular admirers, but it seemed to me that the three-wheeled 1955 Messershmitt drew the most consistent attention. Very cute.

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But once I spotted it, the only red that I could see was another little German car, a 1958 BMW Isetta 600 Limo! I have no words for how adorable this car is: it’s cuter than a Bug (for which it was built to compete), literally. I really want one, even though I heard it referred to as “death on wheels” several times. I’ll just look at it–for the rest of my life.

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Floorcloths

There is one small place in my house where the dreaded fake brick vinyl flooring that once covered an entire hallway still lies: in my mudroom. I kept it there for sentimentality’s sake and because it is a mudroom, so it is mostly covered by sneakers, boots and flip-flops, depending on the season. But now “bricks” are tearing off and I think I’ve had enough: rather than replace with vinyl or tile, neither of which I particularly like, I might go for a custom reproduction floorcloth, based on a sample secreted under one of my china cabinets. I’m thinking this pattern covered the entire dining room, as this part of the house was built at just about the time that new “linoleum” (flax and linseed oil) floorcloths replaced the less durable cloth and canvas varieties following Sir Frederick Walton’s 1860 invention: despite his patent, these new “carpets’ often based on older patterns spread like wildfire on both sides of the Atlantic. My husband says the original flooring was wood, but then what is this little demilune patch of linoleum doing in the cabinet?

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I suppose he could be correct: this covering might date from the 1920s, when “linoleum rugs” seemed to be all the rage. Glancing through Frank Alvah Parsons’ Art of Home Furnishing and Decoration, conveniently published by the Armstrong Cork Company in 1919, I spotted “linoleum designs for every room” including several that are similar to my china cabinet sample. Floorcloths seem to evolve from area coverings to wall-to-wall “carpet” over the nineteenth-and early twentieth centuries, following Walton’s invention. And then wooden floors came back into fashion, and my little linoleum went into the closet.

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Floorcloth Crawford House BIG OLD HOUSES

Floorcloth 1919

Floorcloths from c. 1810 to 1920: the Drawing Room of the Craig House in Baltimore, c. 1810, a period room at the Metropolitan Museum of Art; the Captain David Crawford House in Newburgh, New York (from the great blog Big Old Houses); illustration of a living room from Parsons’ Art of Home Furnishing and Decoration (1919)

Whenever it dates from, I do like the pattern (though not the colors), and there are many floorcloth options out there; in fact we seem to be in the midst of a floorcloth Renaissance. One major manufacturer for both museums and individuals (out of her Vermont farmhouse) is Lisa Curry Mair of Canvasworks Floorcloths. There are all sorts of patterns on her site, available in different sizes, and custom options too:  I might request a reproduction of my linoleum patch in a less muddy color for my mudroom and something a bit more 1827ish (the year my house was built) for our entry foyer—now covered rather inconveniently with carpet.

Tumbling Blocks

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“Tumbling Blocks” and “Blocks and Scrolls” floorcloths from Canvasworks Floorcloths


Too Much @Terrain

I’m ashamed to admit that a relatively large part of my paycheck goes to Anthropologie each month or season, so as I became aware that I was in the vicinity of one of their rarer garden stores as I passed through Connecticut last week, I had to make a slight detour for the Westport Terrain. What a store–I was a bit overwhelmed, which doesn’t often happen to me in a shop scenario. Actually, it’s a combination nursery/garden store/ housewares store/gift shop/bar-restaurant–there was a lot going on when I arrived, too much for me! I certainly hadn’t planned on getting any plants as I was on the road (and I like nurseries to be a bit more dirty) but I thought I might get some planters–as I had never really replaced the ones that were stolen last summer. But there were too many planters to choose from! And too many watering cans, baskets, and vessels of all kinds–along with candles and lanterns and wreaths and everything else. Sensory overload–though I plan to return, better prepared, in the not-too-distant future.

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Willow Ware Redux

I am not fond of blue-and-white china (or anything blue, to tell you the truth), nor do I particularly like the Willow pattern, one of the most popular and replicated in the western world for several centuries. But I do love both the idea and the act of updating something that is classically familiar—even overly familiar–in a clever and creative way. So when I saw a little story about Calamityware, in which flying monkeys and flying saucers, along with robots and Renaissance sea creatures, are right there on the plate along with the traditional “Chinese” structures, figures, and landscapes, I went right to the source: artist Don Moyer’s site, on which his earlier drawings are coming to life (or pottery) on a Kickstarter-funded production line. So many things about these plates appeal to me (despite their color): they are blatantly anachronistic, purely whimsical, and perfect examples of my favorite fusion of past and present, traditional and modern, new and old. The flying monkeys were first off the line, and we may see kings and oligarchs later, though surely they won’t be as scary.

Calamityware

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Calamityware is not the first variation on the Blue Willow pattern; in fact it was inspirational almost from its inception–and wildly popular. I’ve got a bowl full of Willow shards uncovered in my back yard when I was digging out my herb garden. Willow ware was first produced in the late eighteenth century by Thomas Minton, an English potter who adapted designs featured on Chinese export porcelain for domestic production. There was no patent protection, and his competitors–Wedgwood, Royal Worcester, Spode–began producing their own Blue Willow, and continued to do so for the next two centuries. In an early stroke of advertising genius, a story was composed to sell the dishes: when a powerful Chinese lord discovers that his daughter has fallen in love with his lowly clerk, he locks her up in a secluded pagoda behind a fence and betrothes her to a rich and elderly duke. The young couple flee before the wedding, but are hunted down and killed (there are different versions of their deaths). True love prevails, however, as the gods transform the lovers into a pair of lovebirds which remain together forever, hovering above the willow tree that once shaded their clandestine meetings. The story expanded the reach of Blue Willow–beyond the pottery business and into popular culture: poems, books, textiles, and pictures told the Blue Willow love story over and over again in the Victorian era, and after.

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Spode Blue Willow plate, c. 1800-1820, Victoria & Albert Museum; Joyce Mercer (1896-1965) illustration, 1920s.

And now, Willow ware seems to be having a moment, once again. In fact, this “moment” seems to encompass the past decade or so, or perhaps the pattern, in all of its variations (and colors–I could go for the red), is always having a moment. And that, of course, is the definition of classic. In 2005 ceramicist Robert Dawson digitally-designed a line of “After Willow” dishes for Wedgwood, and more recently we have Pokemon Willow by Olly Moss (note the lovebirds, still flying above!) and there are more calamities to come.

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Gothic Visions, Realized

I have posted on Salem’s Gothic Revival structures before, but I didn’t really delve into the sources or inspiration for this mid-19th century romantic style, other than to reference Andrew Jackson Downing. While Downing and other outside influences were no doubt important, it is now clear to me (thanks to two scholarly papers* by Arthur Krim) that Salem had its own Gothic promoter, Colonel Francis Peabody (1801-1867). The second son of Salem’s most illustrious merchant prince at the time, the Colonel’s life and work mark Salem’s transition from Federal city built on maritime trade to “Victorian” city sustained by industry: he even had a statue of Queen Victoria installed in the truly Gothic “Banqueting Room” of the family’s Essex Street mansion. But it is important to note that Peabody was an energetic entrepreneur and philanthropist, not just a dilettante dabbling in design. He was colonel of the 1st Regiment, 1st Brigade, 2nd Division of Massachusetts Militia, the founder of the Forest River Lead Company (the subject of my last post), and the first president of the Essex Institute. He clearly had two passions, which seem very different but perhaps are related: technology including all of its potential applications and the public awareness thereof, and the Gothic style, interpreted quite conservatively–and widely. The colonel seems to have craved a Gothic environment not only for himself (encompassing the interior of the family home on Essex Street and Kernwood, his “country” estate in North Salem) but for much of Salem: he was the driving force behind the design of the First Unitarian (North) Church on Essex Street in the Gothic style by Boston architect Gridley J.F. Bryant as well as the foundation structures of Salem’s picturesquely-planned cemetery, Harmony Grove, for which he designed the “rustic arch” himself in 1839. Certainly it was not an impartial publication, but the successive editions of the Essex Institute’s Visitor’s Guide to Salem in the later nineteenth century proclaim that Peabody’s love of the beautiful in architecture has left a good influence in Salem in many way. His two pursuits, technological innovation focusing on the future and a design aesthetic focused on the “medieval” past are not incompatible: in moments of dynamic change like mid-19th century Salem (or Britain), reverence for the past, especially the rural past, seems perfectly understandable to me.

Colonel Francis Peabody’s Gothic Salem:

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Gothic Banqueting Hall Francis Peabody House 134 Essex 1850-1908

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The Peabody House, 134-36 Essex Street Salem, c. 1890, and its “Banqueting Hall”: photographs by Frank Cousins, Duke University Urban Landscape digital collection (the house was taken down in 1908 and replaced by the Salem Armory headhouse); Photograph of Kernwood, Peabody’s North Salem estate built on 66 acres, by Walker Evans, c. 1931, Metropolitan Museum of Art; Harmony Grove Arch, designed by Peabody in 1839 and taken down in 1960, quatrefoil, and Kernwood Gate and Gatehouse, Frank Cousins photographs, c. 1890, via Krim (1992); Harmony Grove chapel door and Peabody Family Funeral Monument; The gathering for the Colonel’s funeral, Harper’s Weekly, February 1870.

 

* Arthur J. Krim, “An Early Rustic Arch in Salem”, Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians, Vol. 51, No. 3 ( 1992), pp. 315-317, and “Francis Peabody and Gothic Salem”, Peabody Museum Historical Collections, Volume 130, no. 1 (1994), 18-35.


Patched with Plastic

I was planning a post on tax collectors for this Tax Day, but it got too overwhelming and too depressing: as one of Lucifer’s Four Evangelists (with the usurer, the banker, and the miller (???), the tax man has been reviled for centuries, and depicted in images and prose in all sorts of unflattering ways. I don’t think anyone wants to see paintings of tax collectors on the day their returns are due, even if they are the creations of Renaissance artists (who seem to have a singular obsessions with tax farmers). So instead, I’m offering LEGO art!

T, The New York Times Style Magazine has some interesting features in its latest edition, despite a thematic focus on minimalism (not my favorite style). There is a lot of texture in the magazine, and one particular photograph stopped me in my tracks: an ancient, crumbling wall, patched with plastic. The close proximity of very new and very old is my favorite aesthetic, so I had to see more of the work of artist Jan Vormann.

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Jan Vormann/© 2014 ARS, New York/VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn

At first glance, I thought the above image was photoshopped but no, as his website and this Daily Telegraph article make clear, Vormann travels the real world and places bright LEGO blocks in the midst of conspicuous decay, drawing attention to buildings and places as part of a “Repair Manifesto”. He wants onlookers to see the holes, question why they are there, and seek their repair–except perhaps where they serve as constant reminders, as in the case of the bullet and shrapnel destruction of Berlin. How I wish he would come to Salem! We need the colorful and constant reminders of our past, and the manifesto to repair.

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Lego “repairs” in Berlin, New York City, Venice and Vormann’s hometown of Bamberg, Germany: JAN VORMANN / BARCROFT USA and Dispatchwork.

 

 


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