Monday, September 28, 2009

Uno Bello Uomo

The Divine Italian's father passed away unexpectedly this past weekend.
(Francesco Giramonti, 1932-2009)

We just saw him in August when he came down from San Francisco to visit us and we spent a wonderful two days with him. When he left, I wrote up a blog post about his stay with us, but never published it and I'm so sorry I didn't, because I know he would have been tickled. I do so now.

(Written August 8th)
The one and only Francesco ("Nino" to his legions of friends) paid us the honor of a visit to Hollywood this past weekend. We were thrilled. The man transports a bit of "la dolce vita" with him everywhere he goes.

Nino is in firm possession of his birthright: inimitable Veronese style. Piero and I have always considered him to be 50% Rossano Brazzi, 50% Marcello Mastroianni.
(Nino with sons Roberto (l.) and Piero (r.), 1970's)

Here he is holding Piero at his christening. Look at the cut of that suit. The Sartorialist would approve, don't you think? Piero's mother Adriana is the one stifling a giggle on his immediate right.
(San Francisco, 1964)

In the photo below, a dapper Nino is trying to coax a rebellious Piero back into the car where he will presumably roll around unharnessed on the back seat. (Remember those days?) I love the bold red scarf with the classic trench coat and of course, the over-the-shoulder camera/man bag is beyond.
(Piero and Nino, late 1960's)

Like a true Italian, Nino always cut a "bella figura" no matter what decade it was. Here he is in the 1970's, deep into a "Streets-of-San-Francisco-meets-Casino" style.
(Nino, 1970's)

I love this next photo of a garden party in Rome at Piero's aunt's house because it exemplifies everything I adore about my in-laws' chic, informal style. Nino is the one walking away from the camera, in the white jeans and green Lacoste.
(Roman holiday, 1970's)

Ti amiamo, Nino!
(Nino and Luca, 2008)

(Written September 27th)
When Nino was 49, he underwent a quadruple bypass and nearly didn't survive. After his recovery, he stopped smoking, rededicated himself to exercise and spent his last decades living with renewed zeal and energy. He did everything con passione, whether it was playing competitive tennis, mountainbiking on Mount Tamalpais, preparing a six-course feast, or debating the fine points of any and all subjects. Even loading the dishwasher became a task he raised to an art form -- he had his own highly choreographed method and tolerated no renegade volunteers. Food was the stuff of life to him. He was always there to pick us up at the airport and, after a courteous inquiry about our flight, would spend the remainder of the drive back to his house discussing what he would cook for us.

Everywhere he went, people looked at Nino twice. He was old-school cool, the kind that's in short supply these days. He had a gorgeous capuccino brown 1984 Mercedes 500SL that I drove for a spell and whenever I was behind that wheel, let me tell you, I felt like the star in my own private Fellini movie. From him I learned that while dressing well is important, real elegance comes from within, that a tidy kitchen is the key to a well-run life, and that a commitment to healthy eating shouldn't forgo having a little ice cream in the freezer.

We will miss him tremendously.

Thank You, Courtney

A massive helping of gratitude to Courtney over at Style Court who mentioned my home in her list of "Ten Good Things" for Canadian House and Home. I am humbled to be included among such luminaries and remain ever appreciative of all the incredible people I have been privileged to meet through this blog.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009


The Divine Italian is back from six days in London. I am so proud of him because after 13 years of marriage, he has finally realized how to guarantee himself a stress-free homecoming: Bring preserves.

If you have read my previous post on jam, you will know exactly how I felt when he opened his suitcase and pulled out these.
Five jars of Fortnum and Mason sweet jelly. Can you hear the angels singing?

First up was Lavender Jelly, "ideal for serving with shortbread or as an alternative to mint jelly with roast lamb." (Descriptions are from the F&M website, which I have practically memorized.)

Then came Rose Geranium Jelly, "an inspiring alternative to icing on cupcakes and surprising as a natural sweetener in homemade smoothies."

Then Pomegranate Jelly, recommended with marinated duck so that "it acquires just the right degree of sticky crispness. Or for pudding paradise, drizzle it over your favorite ice cream."

Then Violet Jelly, "for a sophisticated Victoria sponge, or scones and clotted cream."

And last but not least, Fortmason Jelly, a distinctive blend which "adds joy to fig and almond tarts and is also jolly good on pancakes."

I didn't know where to begin. On one hand, I wanted to pull an Augustus Gloop and greedily plunge my finger into each one. On the other hand, once opened, the jellies would have to be refrigerated. Considering the fact that our fridge was already bursting with preserves, I realized that adding five more to the shelves would not be an appealing prospect for my husband.

So I thought. And I thought. And after racking my brains and massaging my temples in an earnest attempt to think rationally, I decided to open just one jar.

I chose Lavender.
I gently unscrewed the top until I heard a heart-quickening pop that signalled the pressure seal had been broken.

There was no going back now.

I took off the lid and peered inside. There, floating in a heavenly suspension, were actual lavender flowers. I don't believe in paranormal phenomena, but I swear a shaft of light hit the jar at just that moment. (Cue angels.)

I took a tiny spoon and lifted a tiny spoonful to my mouth.

The effect was instantaneous. I was no longer in my kitchen. I was running through an endless field of purple flowers. I was encircled by a fragrant Provençal wind. I was cocooned in sweet sophistication. I was in la vie bohéme.

"Mom! Daddy wants to know if you're coming in the pool with us."

Reverie broken.


I carefully replaced the lid and carried it over to the refrigerator, giving it pride of place on the top shelf.

It would wait for me. And after I had exhausted its supply of pectinous magic, there were four others patiently waiting in the wings. Oh, but for life's small thrills.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

18th Century Open House

Come with me on a Hogarthian journey. We're travelling to Spitalfields in London's East End, so ladies, raise your petticoats when you tiptoe across the cobblestones (you don't want that nasty ordure clinging to your dress) and gentlemen, please don't forget to give a ha'penny to the crossing sweeper.

We're standing outside 18 Folgate Street. Dennis Severs' House. Go ahead, lift the knocker. (Long beat.) That's strange, I told the family we'd be popping by. Let's go in anyway. No, please, after you.

(A bit of background: Artist Dennis Severs (1948-1999) spent his life transforming this formerly dilapidated Georgian house into a living time capsule now open to the public. Half-eaten food on tables, the sound of footsteps overhead and echoed conversations all create the illusion that a fictive family of Huguenot silk weavers is living all around you.)

Look at this room, would you? Those bones. Those details. That artful disarray. It's like a "World of Interiors" spread.

Love the panelling in this room. And the way that jade-colored seat cover pops against all those orangey-red hues. And the rough texture of that beige fabric -- is it a curtain? The edge of a sleeve? I can't tell. But it makes me want to design a billowy hemp blouse to wear with jeans, boots and a big wooden necklace.

That chilly English light creeping in from the window has me at "hello." Especially when tempered with the warmth of an unadorned candle. It's so "Tristram Shandy."

Love the assemblage of tiles on that kitchen wall. (Delft? Perhaps.) Wonder what they made for tea...Venison? Syllabub? Posset?

The right photograph can make the most untidy of rooms look utterly inviting. This is that photograph.

Grace Coddington needs to convince Anna to let her use this location, don't you think?

Mental note: Garlands are for more than just mantelpieces and bannisters.

Pea soup green, cobalt blue and orange. Who knew?
Can't speak.

Really, just can't speak.

Click here for a virtual tour of the house and information on opening times. Monday evenings require booking as they tour by candlelight -- how divine!

(Photo credits: LightLocations. And thank you to reader Linda who alerted me back in March to this incredible find.)

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Cold At Heart

I'm half Celt, half Viking and, as such, my genetic heritage pretty much rules out any inherent attraction to heat. Give me a bout of inclement weather over a dose of sunshine any day. Layer me in wool and rubber, set me loose on the moors with a Kendal mint cake in my pocket (and a good pub within walking distance) and I'll wander over the heath until it's time for chestnut soup, Yorkshire pudding and a hot mug of lambswool.

So how did I survive the recent Hollywood summer? Easy. I stayed out of the sun, I read lots of English novels and when all else failed, I gazed at the watercolors of Eric Ravilious (1903-1942) -- his blustery landscapes always make me want to throw a sweater over my shoulders.

I think I just felt a drop of rain.
Chalk Paths
(Chalk Paths, Eric Ravilious, 1935 )

This next one almost makes me want to take up long-distance running again.
Wiltshire Landscape
(Wiltshire Landscape, Eric Ravilious, 1937)

Speaking of which, did you know Eddie Izzard just completed 43 marathons in 49 days for Comic Relief? Love him. (Yes, 43 marathons. No, I'm not kidding.) You can watch his video diaries on YouTube and see an awful lot of routes that look just like this (only more cars).

Come on, can't you just see yourself with your nose pressed against that window while your train rambles past the giant chalk drawings of the South Downs? My attention would be torn between the view and the upholstery: that icy green-blue velvet against the navy and red is completely swoonworthy.
Train Landscape
(Train Landscape, Eric Ravilious, 1938)

Brrr. Where's my sweater?
(My mother's handmade Norwegian sweater.
Purchased in the 1960's. Being worn now.)

Sunday, September 13, 2009

I Vitelloni

Saturday morning, 7:30 am

I share a house with three crazy Italians, that's all there is to it.

The first one, Fellini, slunk in from the garden like a truculent teenager, pretending as though nothing was wrong. It was the first time he had stayed out on the town all night and evidently there were to be no apologies. After engaging in a staredown with me to prove he wasn't tired, he immediately fell asleep sitting up.

Moving into the kitchen, my second Italian was standing in the middle of the kitchen looking utterly dazed. I threw myself into action mode. Before you could say, "uno, due, tre," I had a moka pot filled with personality bubbling away on the stove.

Just as the true indication of royalty is the inability to sleep on a pea, the true Italian undergoes a transfiguration when orally infused with caffeine. Sure enough, within minutes, my uomo went from from grumpy to garrulous to outright giddy.

Espresso coursing through his veins, he proceeded to whip up a batch of my father's famous Norwegian pancakes with such focus and speed that I was rendered mute by his prowess.

We were just sitting down to a breakfast al fresco...
...when loud thumping on the stairs heralded the imminent arrival of the third ragazzo in the house. Without a word to either of us, he stomped outside and plopped down by the pool.
Me: Good morning, sunshine.
Me: Are you hungry?
Me: Daddy made pancakes.

Anxious to prevent his sleepiness from mushrooming into churlishness, I realized I needed a game changer. Fast.
Me: Well, you're sitting awfully close to the pool and we're just about to eat breakfast, so be careful. I don't want you falling in. Do you hear me? Do. Not. Even. Think. Of. Accidentally. Falling. In. The. Pool. With. Your. Clothes. On.

And peace was restored to the land.

After all, pancakes eaten when wet taste much more delicious than pancakes eaten when dry.

And how was your weekend?

Friday, September 11, 2009

It Still Feels Like Yesterday

(via Huffington Post; click to enlarge)

This is the first photo I've found that shows where I was standing that day. (On the roof of that little orangey apartment tower to the right of the Empire State building.) We had just moved back to NYC that July and were were temporarily renting an apartment on 26th and 6th. I was six months pregnant. Piero was in Los Angeles for the Latin Grammy Awards and I slept in that morning, only waking up when the telephone rang. It was my sister in Michigan. "Turn on the television. What's happening?" she cried.

I took the elevator up to the roof and joined a group of people who were standing, shell-shocked, at the sight in front of them. Smoke billowed from the towers. I went back down to get my portable radio and when I came back up, the first tower had fallen. We listened to the reports of a plane hitting the Pentagon and another one crashing in Pennsylvania. The second tower fell. Fighter planes flew overhead. Looking down, all the cars coming from downtown were covered in debris. A tattooed construction worker next to me began to cry.

To to those who lost loved ones that day, to those who courageously volunteered with the recovery efforts and to those around the world who wept with us, my heart breaks again, remembering.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

From The Home Of...

(via here)

Despite the constant presence of email in my life, I still consider hand-written correspondence to be one of life's most important small luxuries. Taking time to write a note, place a stamp on it and send it via the USPS has taken on a strange old-fashioned allure these days, and I am always touched when I receive a well-penned letter in my mailbox -- it feels like a small gift.

A few years ago, I splurged on a supply of Smythson die-stamped personalized correspondence cards and it proved to be one of the most rewarding purchases I've ever made. I chose a pale green-blue color called "Three Crowns" for the paper and had my name engraved in bright red ink. The envelopes were lined in matching red tissue for an extra little surprise upon opening.

Using such precious stationery had the surprising benefit of causing my thoughts to rise to the level of the paper they were written on. Before Smythson (B.S.), I sometimes wrote hastily and without forethought; after Smythson (A.S.), by the time I touched ultra fine point Sharpie to watermarked card, my handwriting was neat and my points were pithy.

So here's what I'm considering now: house stationery.
When we moved to our present home in 2007, we had this slate sign fashioned so our friends and neighbors would know they were always welcome to pop by for a pot (of tea) or a pint (of beer). After all, what's life without a bit of cheeky humor? I'm all for adding a bit of personality to your dwelling. (Live in a top-floor walk-up? Call it "Clouds." Basement studio? Dub it "Down Under.")

Seeking ideas for page layouts, I wondered what kind of house stationery Bloomsbury luminaries such as Virginia Woolf or Lady Ottoline Morrell chose for their personal use and if any examples of it still existed today. Believe it or not, after a brief search, I found them on the Smith College Library website.

I provide them here for inspiration...

1. I like the two-pronged header of Virginia Woolf's Hogarth House stationery...and doesn't it make you wish that telephone numbers still had word prefixes?
(Detail, letter from Virginia Woolf to Katherine Mansfield, 13 February 1921)

2. Here's Lytton Strachey's personal stationery. Love the font...of course, it helps if you get to use words like "Pangbourne" and "Tidmarsh."
(Detail, letter from Lytton Strachey to Virginia Woolf, 9 October 1922)

3. This version of Virginia Woolf's stationery from Monk's House uses an elegant italicised script. I like the "near Lewes, Sussex" part. I suppose I could put "near Hollywood, California" on mine.
(Detail, letter from Virginia Woolf to Robert Spirra, 27 February 1929)

4. This stationery from Lady Ottoline Morrell's country house was available in all the guest rooms and replete with information, including the nearest train station (a chic idea for New Yorkers and other city dwellers).
(Detail, letter from Lytton Strachey to Virginia Woolf, 17 July 1916;
written 0n Lady Ottoline Morrell's house stationery.)

5. I love, love, love the art direction for Lytton Strachey's Hampstead home. That slanted telephone number is so arresting.
(Detail, letter from Lytton Strachey to Virginia Woolf, 17 February 1909)

6. Apparently, Virginia did too. Here's her London townhouse stationery three years later.
(Detail, letter from Virginia Woolf to Lytton Strachey, 6 June 1912)

Monday, September 7, 2009

The Alt-Rock Aesthete

The influences of the Bloomsbury Group appear in the most unlikely of places. Who would have thought that a former Smashing Pumpkin would commission a painstaking reproduction of hand-stenciled paisley patterns from Charleston House on the walls of his East Village apartment? Yet guitarist James Iha did just that. 

And it's glorious.
(Photograph by Joanne Chan)

I love that given Iha's sturm und drang-fueled, goth-rock musical style, his design sensibility extends toward a muted palette, antique furniture and a sedate country-house vibe.
(Photograph by Joanne Chan)

Here's a photo of the original room in Charleston House, decorated in the 1920's by Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant. Fabulous, no? The undulating pattern of apostrophe-shaped paisleys has a soft lyricism that still feels modern today. Even the curtain panels have a indie craft sensibility to them, and despite all the patterns on patterns, the room still reflects a sense of peace and tranquility. 
( Photograph by Alen MacWeeney from 
"Charleston: A Bloomsbury House and Garden.")

If you admire the lushness of those muted hues but don't fancy the idea (and cost) of having it hand-stenciled, don't despair. I think Cole and Son's "Egerton" wallpaper, seen below, shares a strong emotional resonance to the work of Grant and Bell. 
(Photograph by Max Kim-Bee)

I used it in my own bathroom and find it imparts a gentle awakening on those mornings in which my brain feels like a slightly dented gourd.


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