Friday, August 28, 2009

The Garden of Vreeland

We fell for our house the moment we saw it. We knew that with love and labor we could turn it into our very own little manor house in the city. The backyard, however, was unprepossessing. A key selling point of many houses in Los Angeles is a city view; we didn't have one. On the contrary, our yard was completely boxed in. We had sky, but no skyscrapers. To a lot of potential buyers, that would have been a dealbreaker. (In fact, it had been on the market for a while with no takers.) The lack of a vista didn't bother me, however; the ever-present sight of a rumbling, grumbling city from my windows has always set me slightly on edge. I thrill to its charms from the rim of a champagne flute at the Tower Bar, but at home I'm much happier pretending that I live in the middle of the countryside. 

Why else do you think I read books like this? (It's great, by the way.)

So, faced with an exceptional house and completely ordinary back garden, what were we to do? The Divine Italian was temporarily stumped. So I did what I always do in uncertain times: I turned to Diana Vreeland. 
(Photograph by Bernard Gotfryd)

She's one of the mentors I carry around with me in my head. (Some of the others -- Cecil Beaton, Vita Sackville-West, Beverley Nichols, Vanessa Bell -- you're familiar with if you read this blog.) Well, I started thinking about the fact that this incredible fashion superstar was born with a profile slightly reminiscent of an Easter Island statue, but instead of trying to work around it, she owned it. She wore minimal makeup, a severe hair style and a commanding gaze. Everything was designed to draw the eye to the face, not away from it. She celebrated her look to such an extent that she became an iconic example of elegance and style. 

And presto, there was my epiphany.

What we needed to do was transform our garden's weakest point into its greatest strength. So what if we had no view? What we needed to do was really have no view. We needed to completely erase the outside world from our entire backyard and turn it into our very own secret refuge. 

(Highly recommend, by the way.)

It would need to be a mini-garden of enchantment, surrounded by huge hedges to guarantee absolute privacy, filled with climbing vines, flowers, follies and more. It would need to incorporate our "cocktail" pool (so-called because you're never more than a stroke away from one), our future summer house, and have enough green grass left over for games of badminton or croquet. It would need to be part Frances Hodgson Burnett, part Sissinghurst and part Lewis Carroll.  

It would take time. 
It would take money. 
We would do it in phases. 
The trees arrived yesterday.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Danish For Beginners

One of my good friends and neighbors, Nicole Hirsch Whitaker, is a director of photography and just finished a six-week long Nokia campaign that shot in Portugal, England, Iceland and Denmark. Whilst at her house on Sunday, I was so taken with her photos of a dinner party she attended in Copenhagen last week that I asked her if I could post them. She kindly agreed.

They serve as a personal reminder to me that creating a magical evening doesn't need to involve fancy table settings and a time-consuming elaborate menu. The nights I remember most are the ones in which the dining table became a private repository for laughter, recollections and sharing future plans. I departed feeling that my soul had been nourished, not just my stomach. 

Let's look and learn, shall we?

1. Less fuss = less stress.
The unadorned wooden table, the casual relaxed atmosphere, the rustic pleasures of sharing an informal alfresco meal with friends  -- it's enough. It's more than enough.

2. Food-wise, keep it simple. 
Stick with fresh and seasonal. Here, freshly-baked bread, lettuce from the garden and homemade chili followed by gigantic bowls of caught-that-day crayfish did the trick and more.

3. Never underestimate the power of fading light.
Dusk is a dinner party's golden hour. People lean in closer, secrets are shared, friendships are forged. Everything becomes more intimate. These unselfconscious moments are what your guests will remember the next day, even more than the dessert.

4. Let the dishes be.
Conversations over the remains of a meal are always the most memorable. I don't know exactly why this is, but it is. Once the plates are cleared away, so is the mood.  

5. Candles, always.
(All photographs by Nicole Hirsch Whitaker)

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Sunday Gratitude

Some of you have already commented on my new header for "A Bloomsbury Life." It was created for me by supremely talented graphic designer Hillary Weber. I love it, plain and simple. Using photos from my life, she created an artful montage which feels both personal and full of personality. Hillary, thank you so much for your artistry, your unerring eye and your ability to perfectly distill the essence of my blog into 650 pixels.

(Enchanted path, Normandy, France, 2008)

On another note, I've been writing "A Bloomsbury Life" for about six months now and I want to thank everyone who continues to pop by. Honestly, I am so grateful. From Oman to Ohio, from Finland to Peru, from Scotland to Tasmania, I never cease to be amazed by the breadth of places that my readers hail from. And I so appreciate all of your comments and recommendations. I love when you recommend books for me (A Super Dilettante, I just ordered "The Englishman's Room", thanks to you) or inform me that my heraldic crests hail from Spain (gracias again, "Rocio") or send me a link to a country house you know I'll drool over. I started this blog for a variety of reasons, but one of the most rewarding results has been discovering that the world is full of kindred souls. Eccentricity and idiosyncrasy are highly prized on this site, and I love that no matter how unconventional one's tastes, through the miracle of cyberspace I can meet people who not only share my passions, but who can lead me even further down enchanted pathways of discovery. 

Friday, August 21, 2009

Goldilocks And The Three Houses

Once upon a time, there was a blogger with a forelock of chemically-enhanced  yellow hair who loved nothing more on weekends than to idly peruse the Period Property section of the London Telegraph. She would sip her tea and daydream about which country house she would purchase on the day she received word that an aged and unknown benefactor had bequeathed her his fortune.

She liked this one but it was too big.
(Welcome to Great Maytham Hall in Kent, England. Marvelous, isn't it? Frances Hodgson Burnett thought so. During her stay here in 1898, a robin led her to a rusty gate nearly hidden by ivy; on the other side, she discovered a walled garden overrun with roses. Years later, she wrote a book about it. Yes, that book. It's since undergone an apartment conversion; private flats start at £245,000.)

She also liked this one, but it was too small.(Interested? It's a timber frame home built especially for members of the canine persuasion, replete with mortise-and-tenon joints, antique beams and an authentic thatched roof. The antique glass windows are kept in place by -- wait for it -- bone-shaped latches. The house is currently occupied, but the book, "Barkitecture", is available to all.)

Then she saw this one and thought it was just perfect. 
(And...breathe. Isn't it to die for? Built in 1822, it's called Hill House, it's in Norfolk and it's for sale at £595,000. It boasts a sweeping driveway, classic Georgian details, a secluded walled garden and endless lawns apparently "bursting with copper beech, oak, yew, holly and apple trees." Can you see Emma Thompson and Kate Winslet in the upper windows? No? Squint harder.)

I'm giddy with love. Who's going to buy it and invite me over?

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

How To (Not) Add The Finishing Touch

(A postcard from my new favorite store)

Whose home out there is done, decorated, "finis"? Anyone? If you raised your hand, put it down and I'll pretend I didn't see. In my opinion, rooms should continue to evolve, just like their owners. Whether you add a bibelot to a mantelpiece or move the furniture around or merely tuck a favorite postcard onto a mirror, these small changes will keep your personal spaces feeling vibrant and soulful. 

I know of a beautiful home that was decorated to the hilt about five years ago and since then, not an objet has been moved and not a personal touch has been added. I was there recently and while still decidedly elegant, it felt airless and oppressive, as if all the life had drained out of it. 

Don't fret if your style keeps shifting or if a room in your house is still "finding itself"...umm hello, aren't we all on that journey ourselves? Ceaseless change is pretty much the modus operandi of life. Are you restless by nature? Good. Do your enthusiasms metamorphose by the day? Even better. Interesting people never lose the itch to discover. They fully embrace the shifting nature of their passions and revel in new experiences, whether they be via books, friends or adventures. A room that reflects your particular fervor du jour will always feel alive.

(My fervor du jour is an amp in the living room for impromptu concerts)

So when you flip through all those resplendent homes in all those wonderful magazines, perfect tablescapes on every surface, each designer pillow plumped within an inch of its well-bred life, take a deep breath and don't freak out that your rooms aren't "done" yet. 

If you're lucky, they never will be.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

In The Footsteps of Dame Helen

(Photograph by Lord Snowden for Vanity Fair)

On Sunday I had the pleasure of attending an intimate lunch at Helen Mirren's estate in the hills of Old Hollywood. She wasn't there. Two good friends of ours have been leasing her house for the last year and, on the cusp of their departure to the East Coast for an end-of-summer idyll, had a few friends over to enjoy the afternoon.

I can offer no photos of the house or of my hosts as they treasure their privacy, but I'm sure they wouldn't mind if I try to paint in words some of the images emblazoned in my head.

The house sits in the midst of what must be acres of land. You pass through a series of impressive security gates into an endlessly long and curving drive and become momentarily disoriented: the city falls away and you could swear you've suddenly been transported to Antibes or Juans-les-Pins. Luca, of course, was agog at the lushness of the landscape. He asked if it was the LA Zoo.

After a winding climb, we passed a 19th century hunting lodge on the grounds and parked in front of the main house, which is large and honey-colored with wooden shutters painted dark teal. Built in the early 1900's, it has the Jazz Age elegance of the grand villas in the south of France. The front door was open and we walked into a cool dark entry hall with ebony stained floors and white walls. A wrought-iron balustrade gracefully wrapped its way up to the second floor. As my friends are in the process of moving to another permanent home, most of the furniture had already been removed and the rooms were bare except for a few pieces of Helen's carefully tucked into corners. In the grand salon-cum-living room, a framed portrait of her hung on the wall, her eyes imperturbably fixed on the jetliner views of Hollywood. 

A simple, delicious buffet was laid out for us by the house staff on a long center table in the living room. We loaded up our plates and ate alfresco in the shade of the stone terrace under a small grove of trees. Far below us, the vague lilac mass of the city vibrated and rumbled. Dogs and children roamed freely about, babies napped and occasionally, a nanny's voice could be heard corralling her charges. After lunch, platters of fresh berries, butterscotch brownies and homemade tarte tatins were offered round. Luca was in absolute heaven.

We spent the afternoon there in total contentment, as you can imagine. I tried to imprint the loveliness of the house on my brain as it was the last time I'll probably ever go there (my friends are moving out imminently). If you don't know Los Angeles, it may sound surprising that houses like this still exist here...but they do. There are hundreds and hundreds of them, architectural grande dames that bore witness to the Golden Age of Hollywood and now have become historical landmarks in their own right. It's part of why I fell in love with this town; the glamour of years gone by is still such an indelible part of daily life here.

My Top Five Old Hollywood Haunts...

2. Musso and Frank Grill, opened in 1919

3. Beverly Hills Hotel, opened in 1912

4. Tower Bar, opened in 1931

5. Pacific Dining Car, opened in 1921

Monday, August 10, 2009

Say It With Flowers

There is something so quintessentially English about having your portrait taken in the garden, don't you think? I need a good photo of myself and am considering such a setting for mine. In the spirit of research, I've culled a few of my favorites for inspiration. 

I have always loved this photo of Lady Rhoda Birley (1900-1980), glamorous Irish beauty and unbridled eccentric by even the strictest of standards. 
(Lady Rhoda Birley, photographed by Valerie Finniss)

If it looks like the plants are craning to be close to her, it's probably not an illusion. According to her daughter, Maxime de la Falaise, she would often bake lobster thermidor and feed it to her flowers: "She would forget that she was making it for the garden, and add a bit of cognac, some garlic and spices. The roses would almost cry out with pleasure." (Let's all take a moment to compose ourselves after reading that, shall we?)

Moving on, this photo of actress Emma Watson effortlessly captures her irrepressible enthusiasm and youthful joie de vivre. The masses of flowers strewn everywhere, the worn rug on the ground, the colorful chair and her crazy fabulous outfit create a multi-layered scene illustrating my favorite design principle -- the charms of disorder.
(Teen Vogue, August 2009, photographed by Arved Colvin Smith)

There's more unkempt luxury in this next portrait: the profusion of roses, the striped sofa, the crumbling brick wall with those lovely vines trailing down...and Miss Chloe Sevigny in the midst of it all, soignee and smiling. I felt a strange twinge of deja vu when I saw this photo and after a brief search through my images, realized why. 
(House and Garden, January 2007, photographed by Francois Halard)

Am I crazy or does this pairing of fabrics from the Cecil Beaton Fabric Collection perfectly capture the spirit of the photograph?
(Ashcombe Stripe and Beaton Rose, via their website)

Continuing the Cecil Beaton theme, here is Tim Walker's 2005 photo of Madonna at Ashcombe House, Beaton's former home. Looking at it now, I find it slightly unsettling. Surrounded by elegance and beauty (and all those loose petals), she seems nonetheless at a slight remove from it. 
(Vogue, August 2005, photographed by Tim Walker)

Interestingly enough, faded roses symbolize transience, a fact that seems prescient when you consider that the house now belongs to her ex-husband.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Home Is Where You Put Your Elbows

The Divine Italian is desperate for armchairs in the dining room. I have promised him two, one at each end. I am currently out of love with matching sets and the idea of having different chairs around the same table completely appeals to me. A successful dinner party hinges on a scintillating mix of personalities; in my view, the chairs you sit in should be granted the same privilege.

To be able to read the newspaper with your elbows decadently resting on the sides of an armchair instead of dangling in mid-air is one of life's sweet luxuries. It's one of those things you never count as important until you have to do without it. 
In my dining room, the horseshoe chair flanks one side of the table...

...and the ikat bench has pride of place in the other (it's promoted from the foyer during dinner parties).
The two armchairs which I have yet to find will replace the woven leather ones in the above photo.

I love these leather peacock-blue ones from Cecconi's in West Hollywood because they're exceedingly comfortable, not overly large and their low profile means they don't take up much space. 
(photo via Cecconi's website)

These upholstered tub chairs (in background) from the Covent Garden Hotel in London would also work. During my last visit there, I was so content sitting in one that I kept prolonging the lunch by ordering more refreshments so we wouldn't have to leave. 
(Covent Garden Hotel, London, 2008)

Dainty little things, aren't they? And look, they're ever so slightly knock-kneed which makes me adore them all the more.
(Covent Garden Hotel, 2008)

Armchair: A snug refuge, an invitation to lassitude, a rest stop for weary triceps. 

The search continues.

Monday, August 3, 2009

Hungry, Dahling?

Saturday, August 1st
Up betimes. Crept downstairs so as not to wake the sleeping prince, put on the kettle and fixed myself a frugal breakfast (bread, cheese, tea, cherries). I was eager to get the mealtime ministrations out of the way so I could concentrate on my newest infatuation.

That would be Sophie Dahl's new cookbook memoir, "Miss Dahl's Voluptuous Delights."

It arrived on Friday via (It will be published here in 2010.) Based on stellar reviews and recipes excerpted in the Daily Mail, I was not prepared to wait that long. I will just have to make the gas mark and imperial pint adjustments on my own.

The Divine Italian returned home from his morning bike ride just as my excitement reached a fever pitch. I needed to share with someone how fab this book was. Sly minx that I am, I waited until he was in the midst of his post-ride yoga stretches. He's a captive audience then. I plonked the book down in front of him.

Him: (suspiciously) What's that?
Me: Sophie Dahl's new cookbook.
Him: Who's Sophie Dahl?
Me: Roald's granddaughter. Former zaftig supermodel. Used to date Mick Jagger. (rolling eyes) Sometimes you are so straight.

I opened the book to this particularly luscious-looking spread. His reaction was swift.
Him: What's that?
Me: Omelette with carmelized onion and Red Leicester cheese.
Him: I'm starving.

I turned the page.
Me: Isn't the photography amazing? I love how everything is styled. Look at those rumpled linens tied with twine.
Him: Hmmph.

Me: And this tablecloth. It's quasi-Anthropologie.

Me: And that dress. She's like a Persephone Books heroine come to life.
I was losing him.
I quickly turned the page.
Him: Stop. What's that?
Me: It's called "Paris mash."
Him: (mid-contortion) Read me the recipe.
I did. It involved Puy lentils, red onions, spinach, vegetable stock, mache, creme fraiche.
His pupils dilated slightly.
Him: I bet that's delicious.

I honed in for the kill. Very casually, I turned to this gorgeous spread.
Him (eyes bulging): What. Is. That.
Me: Beetroot soup. She says it's Norway in a bowl. You can eat it hot or cold. (beat) Probably perfect for today.
He stands up, does one final stretch.
Him: I'm going to Whole Foods. Can I take that book with me?


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