Category Archives: Design

New Condos in Old Ipswich

Shameless promotion of husband’s work follows. Ipswich is my second-favorite Essex County town, so I was thrilled when my husband got the contract to convert its former town hall into condominiums. The project was long and complicated but is now completed: I accompanied him to the open house last week to take some photographs, but in all honesty I’ll seize any opportunity to go to Ipswich, whose inventory of First Period and later antique homes is without parallel. The District Condominiums provide quite a contrast to this material heritage in terms of interiors, but the exterior restoration of the building is faithful to its second incarnation. It began its life as a (one-story) Unitarian Church in 1833, was considerably enlarged in 1876 when it was transformed into the town hall, and underwent a series of additional alterations during its service as administrative offices and a district court before it was sold by the town in 2004. There were hopes for a theater conversion, but eventually condominiums emerged as the only option for its preservation (visit the wonderful blog Historic Ipswich for a far more detailed history and lots of photographs). While the building has long presented a dignified silhouette along South Main Street, it has been vacant for a decade, so I hope residents are happy with the new residences. The building is on the National Register and the local historical commission holds a preservation restriction, so there were considerable constraints governing the construction process, most notably windows. As you can see, there were two windows added to the front facade, and smaller ones in the back and sides, but all the other windows had to be incorporated into the interior design, in one way or another.

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Ipswich town hall 1930s

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The former Ipswich Town Hall/District Court (today and in the early 20th century) transformed into condominiums–across the green, the Ipswich Museum @ the Heard House, c. 1800; and just a few steps away, the Ipswich River. 


Flame-Stitch

For antiques aficionados, August is all about Americana auctions (couldn’t resist all the alliteration!) and there are always Salem pieces to discover. Among the lots of Skinner’s upcoming Americana auction, a late eighteenth-century pole fire screen captured my attention immediately, not just because it was made in Salem, but also because of its flame-stitch embroidery. Flame-stitch is one of my favorite perennial patterns, characterized by its durability and adaptability: it spans the ages (from at least the Renaissance) and can be easily adapted by time and place. It’s somewhat obscure origins–according to the curators at the Victoria & Albert Museum, it is a technique also sometimes known as Irish stitch, Hungarian stitch, Florentine stitch and bargello stitch, the variety of names indicating the uncertainty of its origins–perhaps explains its mutability. It is one of those patterns that can appear both “antique” and “modern”: flame-stitch cushions, in particular, seem timeless.

Flame-stitch Pole Screen Skinner

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Flamestitch garden pillow

Mahogany pole screen, late 18th century, Skinner Auctions/ Flame-stitch pincushion, late 17th century, Victoria and Albert Museum/ Flame-stitch “Jasper” pillow, Jayson Home/ 18th century flame-stitched pillow, 1stdibs/ a faux flame-stitch pillow in my backyard.

In its modern incarnations, flame-stitch doesn’t necessarily need to be a stitch: the zig-zag, chevron pattern seems to be sufficient for the more general identification. No needle required, pattern without technique. The vibrant contrasting colors of flame-stitch fabrics past have also given way to more tone-on-tone variations of the present. I’ve always wanted to upholstery one of my couches in a flame-stitch fabric, and I must admit that both the Federal-era embroidered version (on the left) and the more contemporary variation (on the right) both appeal to me (although I really love the 18th-century embroidery fabric from a Newport-made slip seat–which might have originated as a pocketbook–AND the early 19th-century French and Lee Jofa chartreuse fabrics below).

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Flame-stitch Winterthur

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Flamestitch Lee Jofa

American Country Federal Sofa, Northeast Auctions/ Southwood Mahogany Flame-Stitch Sofa, Chairish/ 18th-century slip seat upholstery, Winterthur Museum Collections/ Woven early 19th century French flame-stitch panel, 1stdibs/ Lee Jofa watersedge fabric.

Two historic flame-stitch items that often pop up at auctions are men’s pocketbooks or “wallets” and stools. An extraordinary example of the former is included in the upcoming Skinner auction: a later eighteenth-century Massachusetts wallet featuring African-American servants, or slaves, well-dressed but definitely in service. This was featured on Antiques Roadshow a while ago, and so I was not surprised to see it come up for auction (with an estimate of $10,000-$15,000). There are so many (somewhat less singular) examples in museum collections and auction archives that I imagine every late eighteenth-century man walking around with a flame-stitch wallet! For women, there were flame-stitch embroidered shoes, from earlier in the century. Obviously there are endless variations of both the historic technique and the modern pattern, but I think the form that captures the cherished quality of flame-stitch best are bible and book covers, which were also produced in great quantity in the eighteenth century.

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Rare flame-stitch Massachusetts wallet featuring African-American figures, Skinner Auctions/ American silver-mounted pocketbook inscribed “Thomas Stubbs”, 1798, Bonhams Auctions/ Flame-stitch pocketbook, late 18th century, Cooper Hewitt Museum, Gift of Mrs. Rollin Stickle/ Flame-stitch Latchet Shoes, c. 1700-1729, Metropolitan Museum of Art/ Early 18th century French fruitwood stool, Bonhams Auctions/ Folk art painted stool with flame-stitch seat, Northeast Auctions/ Pair of mid-century modern flame-stitch benches, 1stdibs/ Bible cover, 18th century, Philadelphia Museum of Art.


She Wears the Green

I looked back through my posts of St. Patrick’s Days past and found: green cards, green plants, greenbacks, green fairies, and green men. Lots of men, in fact, but very few women, unless they were representing (rather negatively) envy or absinthe! So on this particular St. Patrick’s Day, I’m featuring only women, in more positive (though also rather frivolous) displays. I’ve recently discovered the short-lived and absolutely amazing Gazette du bon ton, a French fashion magazine packed with artistic illustrations which was published from 1912 to 1925. Was there a war in there somewhere? You wouldn’t know it leafing through these whimsical pages. The Gazette features lots of seasonal green, and it was also a favorite color of one of my favorite graphic artists from this same period, Mela Koehler. Perhaps these early twentieth-century representations of lively, festive green are meant to counteract the color’s toxic associations of the previous century? I am opening and closing my portfolio with two more serious real females, both anonymous: a folk art portrait from the mid-nineteenth century (featuring a woman who is hopefully not wearing an arsenic-dyed dress–though I fear for the anonymous artist), and a photograph of a (Salem?) girl taken by a Salem photography studio with which I have taken some liberties: I love her jacket so much I wanted to highlight it by “greening” it up a bit for the holiday.

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Green Dress Clover Girl Kirchner 1899

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Portrait by unidentified artist, 1838-40, M. and M. Karolik Collection of American Watercolors and Drawings, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; Dress and Coat, Costume Institute Collection of Fashion Plates, Metropolitan Museum of Art; Raphael Kirchner and Mela Koehler cards, c. 1910, Lauder Collection, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; Coles Phillips, Woman in green dress sitting beside tulips, 1912, New York Public Library Digital Collections; Illustrations from Gazette du Bon Ton, 1913-1920, Smithsonian Libraries; undated Salem, MA photograph.


Winter Dress

Another distraction; it happens to me every time I venture into a digital archive. This time I was looking for Lutheran “cartoons” from the early sixteenth century, and somehow I ended up fixated on a critical caricature of women’s winter dress from a century later: Wie sich ein All’ modo Monsieur im Winter kleiden solle (1629). I’m not sure of the exact translation—how the German gentleman should dress in the winter? (help!)—but I can tell it is a comical critique, as the three women on the right are portrayed as dressing a bit too mannishly (the one in the middle is even wearing pants under her skirt!) and badly-behaving animals are never a good sign. Even though the men look like dashing cavaliers, there is something “off” about them too; I’ve got to dig in and try to translate the accompanying text. Clearly something is rotten in the state of Germany, and it’s not just the Thirty Years’ War. Women are an easy target in early modern print culture because of their dress, in all seasons really, but winter is even easier: one of the more effective satires of flimsy Regency dress is titled Parisian Ladies in their Winter Dress for 1800, reprinted countless times over the next decade.

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winter-dress-1800 Wie sich ein All’ modo Monsieur im Winter kleiden solle (1629), and Parisian Ladies in their Winter Dress for 1800, collection of the British Museum.

The fashion plate dates from the eighteenth century and really thrives in the nineteenth; in these idealistic advertisements there is no judgemental “tone” even though some of the clothing appears almost as impractical as the garb above: light coats or little “mantlets” worn over the dresses of the day. Muffs can never be too big in the eighteenth century, or bustles in the later nineteenth.

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Fashion Plates from 1799 & 1888 in the collection of Claremont Colleges Digital Library.

The dashing, sporty but at the same time elegant “Winter Girl” emerges in the very last decade of the nineteenth century and first decades of the twentieth: cover girls on an array of contemporary magazines and cards. Just as idealistic as fashion plates, really, but more artistic.Two sides of this coin are below: a sporty girl from around 1906 and a very elegant Puck cover from 1911, along with “a slip of girl” cigarette card from 1901, because mockery is always in season.

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Cover and cards, 1901-1911, New York Public Library Digital Collections.


Perennial Patterns

There were several Christmas gifts that I gave to people that I wanted for myself–all books. It was very frustrating to me that two of these particular books were shrink-wrapped, so I couldn’t even leaf through them before I wrapped them up! One was even in its own impenetrable (without leaving a trace of attempts at opening) box. On Christmas Day, as soon as I saw my brother-in-law open up a beautiful book by Peter Koepke entitled Patterns. Inside the Design Library I knew I had to have one for myself–and now I do.

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This stunning book is an exploration of a small fraction of the vast collection of The Design Library, a collection which includes seven million samples and fragments of pattern design embellishing fabrics, embroideries, yarns and wallpaper, all stored (appropriately) in a converted fabric mill in Wappingers Falls, New York. The book features a representative sampling of patterns and a very interesting concluding section on how design professionals, including designers at such diverse companies as Calvin Klein, Colefax and Fowler,and Pottery Barn, have used the library for inspiration. This is probably just a coffee-table book for my brother-in-law, who has long worked with textiles, but for me, it’s almost like a beautiful textbook, as each pattern is classified according to four main families of design–Floral, Geometric, Ethnic, and Conversational–and myriad subcategories under these categories. I quickly learned that I’m not crazy about abstract, chaos, exotica, jazzy, jungle, kaleidoscope, or modernist patterns (much less “x-rated” or “yummy”), but I LOVE distressed, gothic, and quotidian ones, and REALLY love feathers and insects. This was not a surprise to me, but I love finding classifications for my preferences.

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From Patterns: Inside the Design Library: French hand-painted feather paper, mid- to late-20th century; French hand-painted insect paper, early 20th century; French distressed woodblock-printed wallpaper, 1770 & “gothic” printed fabric, also from France, late 19th century (these look like the characters in a 17th-century witch trial!).

I also like the patterns labelled “Oberkampf”, after the eighteenth-century textile manufacturing company Oberkampt & Cie, which produced fabrics with a revolutionary “rolling block press”. They seem timeless, somehow, as did several of the samples in the book–patterns that looked old, but were in fact quite modern, and that looked modern, but were in fact rather old. Those old sayings that “nothing is every really new” and “everything comes back again” are not always true, but they often are, a point that was really driven home in the last section of the book, “The Creatives”, in which designers reworked Design Library-sourced patterns for products as diverse as Lulemon leggings, Clinique packaging, and the chartreuse velvet coat which Mrs. Obama wore to accompany the President to Norway to receive his Nobel Peace Prize in 2009.

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Eighteenth-century Oberkampf designs from Patterns; the development of  Mrs. Obama’s coat by Francisco Costa, then creative director for Calvin Klein, based on velvets he found in the Design Library. 


Imag(in)ing Authors

I don’t think that there is any doubt that we used to glorify authors much more in the past than in the present: while the written word is still alive and well (for now) its producers are not the focal points of our popular culture that Nathaniel Hawthorne, Mark Twain, and F. Scott Fitzgerald once were, except for those long-dead but seemingly eternal celebrity scribes like Will and Jane. There is so much material evidence of author adoration from a century and more ago : portraits, pilgrimages to literary “shrines”, biographies, the various Victorian “Authors” games–first produced right here in Salem— designed to develop literary familiarity and appreciation from an early age.But that is not the literary or the material culture that we live in now, so I was kind of surprised to encounter two “Odes to Authors” prints while I was browsing around the website of Anthropologie, of all places. These are the work of artist Valerie Suter, who is apparently a voracious reader of twentieth-century fiction.

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Odes to Authors Virginia Woolf and Djuna Barnes by Valerie Suter, available here.

I went over to Suter’s website and found lots more authors: clearly they are her primary inspiration at this point in her life/career. She works in various mediums (including animation and clothing) and portrays her literary subjects in accessible and whimsical ways, occasionally doing something or in each other’s company, like the familiar subjects of A Moveable Feast  and Mark Twain playing pool, below. Lots of color, patterned backgrounds, interesting scale, and an almost complete absence of any formality or pretense bring these authors to life. I really want Josephine Tey, author of one of my very favorite books, The Daughter of Time (1951).

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Paintings by Valerie Suter: Ernest Hemingway, Gertrude Stein, James Joyce and F. Scott Fitzgerald in A Moveable Feast; John Steinbeck among chrysanthemums, Mark Twain playing pool, E.B. White, Joan Didion & Josephine Tey; Penguin Classic cover of The Daughter of Time. 


You are what you do/like

I was in an antique shop several weeks ago when I spotted some framed prints published by J.N. Toy and W.R.Lucas in Baltimore in the early 1830s. They were that odd kind of anthropomorphic mixture of human, creature, plant and/or materials that always appeals to me, so they instantly captured my attention. I wasn’t quite sure I wanted to purchase them, so I snapped some pictures, but the combination of glass and lighting did not capture them very well–later I searched for some better images and fortunately found them, or most of them (The Botanist below is under glass). These lithographs are the products of a short-lived partnership between two Massachusetts-born printers, George Endicott and Moses Swett, both of whom had worked at the Pendleton Firm in Boston. I’ve admired Pendleton prints  for a while, so that’s probably another reason why these odd little prints appealed to me. Apparently these are political caricatures, illustrating an increasing (threatening) feminine presence in these endeavors, but I think this is lost in the translation of time. To me, they just look like ladies who are enthusiastic about their various pursuits (except for maybe the fish lady).

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Lithographs by George Endicott & Moses Swett, published by J.N. Toy and W.R. Lucas, Baltimore, 1831-33, Collections of Winterthur Library and the Library of Conress.


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