Saturday, January 31, 2009

Embroidery: Apartment in NYC

("Apartment in NYC", 2005, embroidery floss on linen, 
16 inches by 10 inches)
*click to enlarge*

I embroidered this piece in 2005, shortly after we moved back to Los Angeles. It took 3-4 months to complete and is based on a photograph of our apartment on the Upper West Side.  I enlarged the photo on a xerox machine until it reached the dimensions I desired.  I then taped the enlargement to a sunny windowpane and placed my piece of fabric directly over it.  (Yes, I'm sure there are more high-tech ways to do it, but I'm unapologetically old-school.)  Using a black micro Sharpie, I was then able to trace a basic outline directly onto the linen.  I didn't draw in too many details as I prefer to create them spontaneously with my needle and thread.  Once I had my rough design, I attached it to a portable loom to give myself a nice, tight surface and prevent the linen from stretching.

I am a DMC embroidery floss girl.  For a piece like this, I used either one or two strands, depending on the intricacy involved.  For the piece entitled "Mitch" that I posted last week, I used three strands as the dimensions were bigger and I wanted a bit more texture in the piece.

I wanted this piece to reflect my life in NYC, but I also wanted it to provide a sociological glimpse into interior decoration in the late 20th century.  To that end, I specifically wanted to embroider certain talismans of design that had become ubiquitous to that time.  Can you spot them?

The Jonathan Adler pillows, the Arco lamp, the Dosa ottomans, the Paul Frankl coffee table, even the Arne Jacobsen Oxford dining chairs in the background -- all reflect the organic/midcentury/modern mania that was popular at the time and to which I completely succumbed.  Although I have now moved on to a different style, I like to think that in 100 years, someone will look at it and get a sense of the way we all lived then.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

The Power of Jam

I am a jam lover.  I don't make this statement lightly.  Jam improved my marriage.  I had no idea of its relationship powers until last fall when the Divine Italian went to London and brought me back this:

I know what you're thinking.  "She's gone barmy.  It's nothing more than a pot of Gooseberry and Elderflower jam."  Ah, but that's where you're mistaken. 

My husband unzipped his suitcase in the foyer and tossed it to me.  "I didn't know what to get you, so I got you this." We were both a bit grumpy, him from 12 hours on a plane, me from a week of single parenthood.  I carried it into the kitchen and opened it immediately, as you would have too, if you'd read the description: 

"An extremely English marriage of opposites:  one tart, one gentler.  The result is feisty and wonderfully aromatic."  

I took a tiny spoonful.

Not only did the flavors sing to me, they spoke to me.  I had a sudden flash of insight.  My husband and I also had an English marriage of opposites.  I was the tart one, he was the gentler one.  Whenever he went away on business, I found it difficult not to resent all the glamorous places he went to while I stayed home and played domestic goddess.  I took another spoonful. The undertones of forgiveness in it were unmistakable.  I needed to celebrate our separate adventures as well as our shared ones.  Tartness belonged better in a jam than in a relationship.

On his next trip to London, he brought me back Strawberry and Fortnum's Champagne.
This time, the label read, 

"The union of a wholesome childhood classic with a proper grown-up treat.  The champagne is added to the finished jam rather than being stewed into submission.  Spread with considered abandon on toast and birthday afternoons."

The "stewed into submission" part rang a distant bell.  I have (infrequently) been accused of being (ever so slightly) bossy.  On these (rare) occasions, I have (once in a blue moon) been known to harp on a point until I get my way.  I blame it on my childhood, where as the oldest of five, my word was law.  It's been a hard lesson to accept that the outside world doesn't always feel that way. 

Was my husband deliberately choosing these particular jams to send me a message?  I strongly doubted it.  He wasn't that calculating.  But the words lingered.  Perhaps I was a bit too domineering at times. Perhaps I needed to take a back seat more.  Perhaps my husband and I needed to do more things with considered abandon during the afternoon, birthday or otherwise.

Whoever was doing the writing on those labels was starting to scare me.

Just before Christmas, the Divine Italian went to London again.  This time I took advantage of the opportunity and especially requested a pot of Rose Petal Jelly.  My fancy friend Max had sworn that ever since tasting it, no lesser jam would ever pass his lips.

I knew Fortnum's made some, but that it was only available at certain times throughout the year.  My husband returned from his trip and took his suitcase straight upstairs.  I thought I could detect a tell-tale bulge in the side seam...or maybe it was just a shoe.

I waited.  And hoped. 

Sure enough, on Christmas Day, the Holy Grail of jams was mine.  I held it in my hot little hands.  Would there be another message?  It read:

"A necessarily seasonal specialty:  roses are not in season forever - this jelly is made from fresh rose petals from a single garden in Oxfordshire."

I gasped. What could be clearer?  It was obviously a coded reference to Robert Herrick's famous poem, "To the Virgins, To Make Most of Time."  You know the one:

"Gather ye rosebuds while ye may,   
Old Time is still a-flying,
And this same flower that lives today,
Tomorrow will be dying."

Fortnum and Mason were exhorting me in no uncertain terms to embrace the present, to welcome opportunity and to treasure my loved ones because time holds no promises.

I put a teeny amount on the edge of my spoon and tasted it.  Of course, it was insane.  Subtle, sweetly fragrant and tasting of heaven.  I was a better person already.

When I last checked the website, there were still 18 more Fortnum and Mason jams left to try.  I'm going to London in March.  We'll see what I come home with....

Sunday, January 25, 2009

A Matter of Perspective

Whenever I'm travelling, I find myself inexplicably drawn to taking photos of doorways and windows, be they man-made or God-given.  I don't quite know what the pull is.  They feel powerful and mysterious and Narnia-like. 

(Gargunnock, Scotland)

(Macchu Picchu, Peru)

I almost believe that if I were to cross over the threshold, something magical would happen.
(Stirling, Scotland)

Perhaps what I see through my camera lens is a world full of possibilities.  The other side symbolizes limitless potential and hope, a Future Yet to Come.

(Udaipur, India)

Where I am, on the shadowy interior, is rooted in the past.  My body is motionless, trying to keep the camera still.  My breath is shallow.  My entire being is focussed not on where I am standing, but on where my gaze is looking. 

(Angkor Wat, Cambodia)

In these moments, I feel elated by the possibilities in front of me.  It's all out there, waiting.

(Gargunnock, Scotland)

Sometimes my gaze is fixed on something truly breathtaking.

(Agra, India)

Other times, it's the frame itself that equally inspires.

(Bruges, Belgium)

( Cuzco, Peru)

(Delhi, India)

I am a shadow seeker...

(Portrait of the blogger, Delhi, India)

...ever grateful to the two boys in my life who are always ready to take my hand and nudge me into the sunshine.

(Stirling, Scotland)

Friday, January 23, 2009

The One that Got Away

About fifteen years ago, I almost bought this book at a used bookstore in New York.  Actually, it wasn't even a bookstore; it was an old brownstone on Greenwich Street (somewhere south of Perry) in the West Village.  Once a month or so, for a couple of hours on Saturday or Sunday, an elderly man would sit on the sidewalk in a deck chair and sell books straight out of his dilapidated garage.  

Late one afternoon, on my way to meet a friend for a drink, I saw the open garage door and stopped in for a browse.  Although the owner tried to keep the space tidy, as the day wore on and people wandered in and out, it all became a bit of a shambles. I remember seeing the Arlen book on top of a hazardly-stacked pile of books and loving the provocative title.  I held it in my hands for a minute or two and leafed through it, but it was getting late and the price was a bit steep for a junior copywriter's salary (I think it was around $8), so I passed on it.

My neighbor never opened his store again.  At least not that I ever knew of.  I passed by his brownstone many times after that, but the garage door always remained locked, piles of books still visible through the small dirty windows.

Michael Arlen

Years later, I read Arlen's masterpiece, "The Green Hat", his tale of an English youthquaker in 1920's London.  The main character, Iris Storm, is the Edie Sedgwick of her day, a Bright Young Thing whose pursuit of wild pleasures cements her reputation as a "shameless, shameful" girl.  I enjoyed it immensely.  But the overriding feeling I had upon finishing it was a mixture of guilt and sadness that I had said no to "Hell!  Said the Duchess."

I've seen the book available since then, but for exorbitant prices that I would never consider buying it for.  At this point, I think my longing goes beyond the book itself.  Maybe it symbolizes my nostalgia for that period of my life in NYC, or perhaps for the fleetingness of time, or opportunities lost. Whatever the reason, I'm sure I'm not alone. 
What books have gotten away from you?

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Embroidery: The Fabulous Mitch

("The Fabulous Mitch", 1999, embroidery floss on burlap)

*Caveat:  I am in the process of restitching the piece onto a new 
background, hence the wrinkles and occasional loose thread.  
My apologies to purists.*

This week's embroidery is a portrait I did of my friend Mitch.  I met her when we lived in London years ago, in the era of "Cool Britannia", when both Blur and Blair were gods.  She and my husband worked at the same music company together and Mitch took us under her wing and made sure we knew everybody worth knowing.

Malcolm Gladwell would call Mitch a classic Connector.  She's one of those people with an extraordinary knack for bringing people together.  Show up at a party she was throwing and you'd meet everyone from rock royalty to England's top media elite to the best pasty-maker in Hampstead.  Possessed with boundless energy and a radiant spirit , she charms everyone she meets because -- rarest of qualities -- she is genuinely interested in everyone.

My brain short-circuits to think how extensive her network of friends is now that she has moved on from London and settled in Ibiza.  Given her proclivity for making friends,  I am confident that her future world domination is only a few killer smiles away. 

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

From XL to S

A Place to Dwell has done a wonderful post on the "not so big house."  Having moved a year ago from a big house into a house half the size, I was nodding my head emphatically at every word she wrote.

When my husband, son and I left NYC in 2004 and ventured to LA (the third such loop in 10 years, mind you, but that's another tale), we were stunned to discover that for about the same price as our Upper West Side apartment, we could purchase this 1928 Paul Williams architectural Mediterranean.  
At nearly 5,000 square feet, the idea was intoxicating.  My husband and I had never lived in anything so grand.  I envisioned my son and his friends running through the corridors playing games of "Hide and Seek"  that weren't just theoretical.  I saw dinner parties that would gravitate into the sexy beamed living room where everyone would have ample room to relax and spread out.  It was a no-brainer.  We pounced.

At first, living there was a marvel.  The house was beautifully preserved with countless original features and in good working order.  We threw some wonderful parties.  My husband and I would wake in the morning and rub our eyes to make sure we weren't dreaming.  It was everything we thought we wanted.

Then, in 2007, I had the opportunity to travel to India with two girlfriends on a three week tour of Rajasthan.  We visited bustling cities like Delhi and Agra, majestic towns like Jaipur and Udaipur and tiny rural villages in Northern Alwar.  I was overwhelmed not only by the country's rare and immeasurable beauty but by its harsh realities.  I came home profoundly changed by what I had seen...and wanting to return immediately.

Train station, Haridwar

Holy beggars, Rishikesh

Temple sign, Udaipur

Family outside their home, Ajarbagh

Village children, Ajarbagh

When I returned to Los Angeles after a month away, I looked at our house with eyes that had witnessed a new reality.  As gorgeous as it was, it no longer appealed.  I remember saying to my husband, "We live in a Hummer.  I want to live in a Prius."

I felt slightly sickened by it. Why did three people need so much square footage?  What kind of a carbon footprint were we casting?  When we were all in different rooms, we were so far apart we might as well have been in separate apartments.  All the space between us made it easier to distance ourselves from one another emotionally as well.  It was sooo not "A Bloomsbury Life."  

As luck would have it, a week later I drove by a 1935 Monterey Colonial for sale just two streets away.  This house was everything our Paul Williams was not:  snug, intimate, bijou-like.  As soon as I stepped inside, I knew it was right.  The floor plan was a classic French lanterne, running just one room deep the length of the house, with big windows and lots of light. Unlike the other house with its many separate wings, running into each other in this one would be blissfully unavoidable.  

When we made our offer to the owner, sitting knee-to-knee in her cozy kitchen banquette, she suggested we all grab hands and pray aloud for everything we hoped would come to pass: a swift sale for us, nice new owners, no contingencies, etc.  To humor her, we did.  Well, somewhere the spirit gods heard our supplications, because nineteen hectic days later we had closed escrow on both, handed over our house keys to a lovely couple and moved into the new not-so-big one.

Prayer offering to Shiva, Rishikesh

It's been a year now and while we feel thankful to have experienced life on a large scale, we count our blessings every day that we are in smaller digs.  We are closer, literally and emotionally.  Thank you, India.  Because of you, we are finally home. 

(A shout-out to ArchitectDesign,  as the lanterne link came through him.)

Monday, January 19, 2009

The Gorier, the better

There are so many wonderful hotels in London these days, but my heart definitely quickens whenever we check into the Gore Hotel in South Kensington.  The last time we were there, we stayed in this room. 
Depending on who's behind the front desk, it goes by either the "Venus Suite" or the "Judy Garland Suite" (apparently the gilt bed in the photo above belonged to her.) The wall paint is incredible. It's so pigment-rich.  It reads like a tarnished coppery-green, enveloping the room in a warm luster and throwing all the reds and golds into sharp relief.

On the afternoon I took this photo, my son and I had just returned home after a lengthy day spent perambulating around town. You can see my World of Interiors magazine on the marble table, along with the remnants of a much-needed glass of wine (for me) and a Pellegrino for him.

Okay, full confession:  being captive to the attention span of a first-grader didn't exactly translate into the leisurely day of shopping I had hoped for.  After a disastrous start, I calculated that I had a mere 5-8 minutes to whiz through the aisles of my favorite purveyors (Hatchard's, Liberty, Fortnum and Mason's) before the whining and foot-dragging began. After promising him a trip to the toy store if he would just let me look around a little longer, I was able to increase my browsing time to 15 minutes per shop --  and not a minute more.  Of course, when we reached Hamley's (the FAO Schwartz of London),  I became the one whining and dragging my feet, which I blame on a sugar crash from eating one too many Curlie Wurlies.

After a day filled with such intensive negotiations, we returned to the Gore where I collapsed into a heap, not unlike the nude in our window (albeit much less gracefully). 

Finally, we were in agreement upon something.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Friends I never met, Part One

I carry around a collection of women in my head.  They died long before I was born, but they continue to make quite an impression.  

One of them is Quappi, the second wife of artist Max Beckmann.  
("Portrait of Quappi in Pink Sweater", Max Beckmann, 1935)

Chic and pretty, she poses confidently in front of her husband, biding her time until they leave to meet friends for dinner.  Twenty years his junior, Quappi provided a welcome distraction to Beckmann's often-times tormented life.  By all accounts she adored him.  She loved to laugh and to have a good time.  I love her turban and her elegant style, not to mention the gorgeous navy tufted chair and the wall treatment in the background.  I only wish I could have seen the rest of the apartment.

Here's another lady I know I would have liked, journalist Sylvia von Harden. 
("Portrait of the Journalist Sylvia von Harden", Otto Dix, 1926)

Can you believe this was painted in 1926?  Except for the dangling cigarette, she could be sitting at Pastis, waiting to interview John Malkovich.  Although not a typical beauty, it's obvious she was completely at ease with her looks.  Unafraid, opinionated, she looks totally modern, the love child of Anna Wintour and Isabella Blow.  It would have been daunting to meet her, probably, but I bet if you could make her laugh, she'd be a fierce and loyal friend.  And you just know she was Grand Mistress of the clever retort.  I'd definitely want to sit next to her at a dinner party. 

Last but not least, I have a tender spot for this woman, whom I found on the internet without any credits (Aesthete, can you enlighten me?).  

In my fabricated version of her life, she was married at 17 to a much older man, bore him six children in rapid succession and lost her identity in the process.  It was not a happy marriage. Now widowed a year at the time of this sitting, she is starting to find her way back to the world of the living.  Time has erased any link to the pre-Raphaelite sylph she once was. Intertwined in her arms is a shawl her youngest (and favorite) daughter just sent her from Jaipur. She always longed to travel abroad, but her husband abhorred foreigners, preferring to stay home and tend to his dahlias.  A small smile plays across her lips. Her eyes flicker with the faintest gaze of hope.  Act Two of her life is about to begin.

Or something like that.

Friday, January 16, 2009

Embroidery: Perky Boobies

("Perky Boobies", embroidery floss on burlap,
4 ft. 7 in. high by 3 ft. 8 in. wide)
*click to enlarge*

I've gotten several requests to show some of my embroidery work on this blog and so I've decided to post them on an intermittent basis.

The above piece, part of my post-modern sampler series, came about after I had finally overdosed on all those addictive celebrity magazines (you know the ones I mean). After devouring about 1,000 of them, I realized that although the names and faces changed, there were really only three or four stories to be told: who's sleeping with who, who's breaking up with who, who's borderline anorexic and who's had plastic surgery.

The latter insight was the one that really stuck in my throat. It frustrated me that in today's world women are judged less on their talents and more on whether or not they are rocking a really great set of 36 D's.

Every stitch sewn in completing "Perky Boobies" was made as a small personal rebellion against a society which pressures women to be perfect and teaches men that the exterior is more important than what lies beneath.

Where do you stand?

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Thistles and Pistols

I recently renovated my kitchen and when it came time to choose a wallpaper and fabric for my built-in banquette area, my chief desire was that it somehow conjure up a cold August day on the moors in Scotland.  

And that it be ever-so-slightly slightly rock and roll.  

This is what I ended up doing.  The wallpaper is "Thistle" from Edinburgh-based design firm Timorous Beasties and the red tartan fabric I found at F&S Fabrics here in Los Angeles.  To me, it's pastoral with a punk edge.  
I can usually be found here for at least some part of the day, along with our kittens Twiglet and Fellini who have adopted it as their between-meal haunt, and my rambunctious seven year old who is apparently conducting a long-term study on fabric wear and tear. 

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Pocket books

I have books on the mind this week.  So when I spotted my beloved Travelman Short Story set on the library shelf last night, I felt impelled to introduce you to what I consider to be the most ingenious packaging for literature I've ever come across (yes, that's quite a bit of hyperbole, but read on and judge for yourself.)

In a nutshell, a Travelman is a short story that folds like a map. They were published in England when we were living there and I immediately bought the entire set. Each tale is complete and unabridged, and the catalogue includes such authors as Graham Greene, Saki, Dorothy Parker, Evelyn Waugh, Roald Dahl and many more. 

Gorgeously designed with elegant, arresting illustrations, they pop right into your pocket or purse. Best of all, they never need to be entirely opened as they're designed to be read consecutively, page by page.  I used to read mine on the Tube during rush hour and I'm pleased to say I never once annoyed the person sitting next to me.  On the contrary, they were quite the conversation starter.

Each work of classic or modern fiction is printed on a single sheet of paper and is color-coded into genres like Comedy, Suspense, Classics and so on.  Click HERE for a full list of titles (go to"Authors A-Z" at the top of the page).  I just counted at least 12 I don't yet own so it looks like the obsessive-compulsive side of me is going to want to do some ordering.

Over the years, I've purchased several sets as gifts for friends and the reaction is always one of delight and amazement.  They're so adorable, so unique and so highly collectible that any book lover in your life would be thrilled to own one.

The "More, more, more!" pre-recession me wants to buy another box set just in case something happens to the first, but the new 2009 me is going to calm down, take a deep breath and take good care of the ones I have.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Liquid dreams

So far, my son evinces none of the gustatory passion that my husband and I had hoped he would.  His culinary tastes range from Midwestern to solidly middle-of-the-road.  I can live with the fact that he doesn't like sushi or tempura or udon or hummous or cottage cheese (even though all his friends do).  But the kid won't even set spoon near soup.  Sometimes I think, how could I have given birth to someone who doesn't like soup?  It practically defines me.  The sad truth is that despite the valiant and continual efforts of my husband and I to expand the Little Prince's repertoire, we have made zero headway on the broth front.

But sometimes ideas lie deep and dormant, waiting for the right time to blossom.  So it was heartening to discover him playing with his friend Ava one afternoon when we were in Normandy this past summer.  They had stolen away to the children's manor house on the grounds of our chateau.
As I not-so-surreptitiously approached, the crunchy gravel amplifying my delicate footsteps into the sounds of a herd of buffalo, they didn't even look up, so intent were they on whipping up their batch of...
...flower soup.
It's a start, right?

Novel seating

When I made my pilgrimage to Charleston House in England last summer, bohemian home and meeting place to artists, intellectuals and eccentric friends of the Bloomsbury Group, I was completely enchanted by the Penguin deck chair sitting in front of the gift shop.
The Divine Italian and the Little Prince (aka The Little Pill) made good use of it while I took the docent-led tour of the house.  Try as I might, I was unable to convince either of them of the splendors that lay within. (Oh, the heresy!)  So while I and a gaggle of cardiganed pensioners tiptoed around the house in a fever of excitement, they whiled away the time munching on ice lollies on top of Virginia Woolf.

Well, I'm finally ready to purchase a cluster of them.  I love the idea of looking outside and seeing such literary giants as Graham Greene, Katherine Mansfield and Raymond Chandler huddled in conversation together on my lawn.  Available here, and they now ship to the US.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Mad about the Beuys

I don't know what it is about 20th century German artist Joseph Beuys, but he continues to fascinate me.  Maybe it's that he preferred to create his pieces from such basic materials such as felt, fur, fat, iron, honey and gold -- substances which to him held iconic and almost magical powers. 

His choice of found materials seems especially relevant today.  Maybe that's why I hauled in my beloved WWII-era iron horseshoe bench from the garden the other night and draped it with a goat fur cushion.  By itself, it was just a cool iron bench.  But with the fur, it feels both elemental and subversive, two qualities I can't recommend highly enough.  To Beuys, iron symbolized strength and the link between the bloodstream and the earth. Fur, on the other hand, was soft, feminine and protective.  
I think it will add a certain seditious element to my next dinner party.  At least I hope so.

(Top photo credit:  Ronald Feldman Fine Arts)

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Words are my drug

When I've had a stressful day, sometimes all it takes to feel better is to peruse my bookshelves. Glancing at all those old friends is so reassuring.  A friend once told me that he thinks I read too much.  I'm not going to disagree.
The minute I finish one book, I have a new one in my hands.  I've always been that way.
Sometimes I'm afraid I'll never have time to read all the books I want to.  This has led to me adopting a new philosophy regarding book completion:  I'll give a book 100 pages.  If I am not absorbed in it by then, out it goes.  I know this strikes some as heresy (my dear friend Hillary fervently commits to finishing every tome she opens) but to me, life is too short.  One must read for joy.  Would you date someone again and again if you knew you had no real interest in them?  No.  Books are like people; some you click with, some you don't.  I'm searching for soulmates.  How about you?


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