30 September 2010

Amusing British night light

This is the Martyr, designed by The Play Coalition.

It makes me laugh. It fits those enormous British wall sockets perfectly. I wonder if there's a North American version in the works.

Did Madonna ever get this kind of treatment?

Iowa State University at 12pm on the 27th of August:

29 September 2010

Having fun with stereotypes

The great Erin Loechner had something on her blog, Design for Mankind, the other day that I thought was hilarious.

She'd picked up a map created by Russian turned British illustrator Yanko Tsvetkov and featured on his blog Alphadesigner. The map Erin ran was one of series Tsvetkov made that illustrate the stereotypes Europeans have of each other and that Americans have of Europeans and I thought they were hilarious. Here are some highlights.

This is Europe according to France:

This is Europe according to Britain.

This is Europe according to Germany

Here's Europe as Italy sees it.

This is Italy as seen by posh Italians.

This is Europe as the US sees it.

And in a turn around provided by a link from one of Erin's readers, Here's the US as Europeans see it. This map came from the Swedish graphic designer Attila Toth and his website Attila.

Thanks for the laugh one and all.

Handpresso for when you just need a fix

I am gearing myself up for another trip to the Out Islands of The Bahamas next month. Ahhh, I can't wait to get back to my beach. I've written about my favorite retreat spot on Cat Island numerous times, so much so that The Bahamas is its own key word on this site.

When I'm out there on that isolated patch in the Atlantic, creature comforts are few and far between and such creature comforts there are have to be brought in. It's my usual routine to wake up with the sun and take a French press with me up onto the rocks to watch the sun come up. I took this photo two summers ago.

As enjoyable as a cup of coffee from French press is, I think I found a better solution.

It's the Handpresso, a hand-operated espresso machine from France. A Handpresso, a thermos of hot water and some ground espresso are all I need to make my personal sunrise service complete.

Here's a video that explains how they work.

Now all they need is a US distributor...

The Handpresso comes in a version that uses loose espresso and a version that uses E.S.E standard coffee pods if you're rather stale espresso. Regardless of the version, Handpresso machines are ushering in a new era of what the company calls "nomadic espresso." Anything that involves moving around and espresso has to be good.

Check out  the rest of Handpresso's website for more products and more videos of the Handpresso at work.

28 September 2010

You can't get a man with a gun

With apologies to the great Irving Berlin and his lyrics from Annie Get your Gun.
A man's love is mighty
It'll leave him buy a nightie
For a gal who he thinks is fun.
But they don't by pajamas
For Pistol packin' mamas,
And you can't get a hug
From a mug with a slug,
Oh you can't get a man with a gun.
Berlin Artist Yvonne Lee Schulz is putting Annie Oakley's words to the test with a series of hand-painted, porcelain pistols. While it's true they are tableware accessories, there's a lot going on here and what she has to say about gun violence isn't meant to comfort.
The Porcelain Pistols are replicas of James Bond’s Walther PPK and its contemporary sister, the P99,with friendly permission of Carl Walther Inc.The fragile weapon, hand-painted in the style of classic tableware motifs, liesnext to your coffee and cake, asking to be picked up. Its coolness andcomfortable grip increase the qualms of the user, leaving him in a quandary between the pleasure of luxury and violence.
Just as was the case with the graffiti china and china beer cans I've written about before, the heads up about these pistols came from the great David Nolan and his razor eye.

I love the idea of statement art being disguised as an everyday object and I would kill to see a tablescape blogger get her hands one a couple of these babies. What do you think? Too confrontational or not confrontational enough?

27 September 2010

Live! From London's Decorex! It's Johnny Grey!

Johnny Grey is a design world rock star who rose to prominence in 1980 when his unfitted kitchens stood out in stark contrast to everything else available when the London's Sunday Times wrote an article asking "Why this awful fixation with fitted kitchens?" In 1987, Johnny Grey licensed the Unfitted Kitchen (now with capital letters)  to Smallbone and they brought Johnny's work to the attention of design lovers in the US.

Johnny Grey Studios has offices in the UK and in the US now and they work on projects one at a time. All of Johnny's designs are site- and client-specific. No two of his projects look alike but there are themes that run through all of his work. A Johnny Grey project spares nothing as it serves a design. Despite his exacting standards, there's a knowing playfulness that settles over everything and the effect is engaging. There's no other word.

Decorex is one of the world's premiere design showcases and it started yesterday in the Chelsea section of London. What makes Decorex so unique is that its exhibitors are hand-picked from around the world. Decorex is committed to showing only the best and most inspired designs it can find and this year, Johnny Grey Studios is exhibiting free-standing kitchen furniture for the first time. In another first, the five pieces on display this week are available for individual sale. Chuck Wheelock is Johnny Grey Studios' US Design Director and a friend of mine. Chuck sent me the following photos of those five pieces and anybody not at Decorex is seeing them here for the first time.

The Tree  Corner Cupboard
All furniture starts out as a tree trunk and this natural shape and beauty is lost when sliced into rectangular sections. JGS’s tree corner cupboard is a basic construction, suspended from a tree and fixed to the wall. The design aims to bring nature back into furniture and celebrate its imperfections, variegations, incompleteness and subtle movement in shape. Fine stainless mesh allows air to circulate throughout while hidden internal lighting provides a ghost-like depth as the mesh takes on a patterned sheen.

Personal anecdote
Ever since the age of seven, when I made a workshop bench between three small trees, I have wanted to design a piece of furniture around a tree.   I cut down this 6” diameter holly tree to make way for a workshop at Fyning Copse.  It sat around for 15 years before I stripped the bark off and passed it over to furniture maker Chris Height. He suggested the butterfly handles and simple butt hinges. --Johnny Grey

Leila Ferraby and Johnny Grey worked on this piece.

The Cooking Island
The most essential item of furniture in a modern kitchen is a central island, where you can prep and cook efficiently, without moving more than a few paces.

When we found this piece of burr oak, it was clear that this should be the key feature for our evolved take on a cooking island, with its profile lit behind glass. The glass panels behind the burr panels are hand-cast, which blurs the impact of the concealed LED lights and gives a texture like captured water, matching the burr oak.  The un-coloured concrete is the same composition as used in garden sculpture and incorporates the colour variations and natural imperfections found in the mix.

Personal anecdote
The furniture makers Chris Thorpe and Adrian King made a huge impact using dramatic burr oak.  Our vision for the piece began as a series of wonky-edge planks with gaps as cladding. Imagine looking across a field at night and seeing an old barn with gaps between the boards and light peeping through. The mystery of what lies behind and the darkness all around provides both a comforting feeling and desire to know more. We tried to capture that quality in this design.  --Johnny Grey

Leila Ferraby and Johnny Grey worked on this piece.

The Sink Cabinet
This piece was inspired by the simplicity of rustic farmhouse scullery sinks.  The open construction is simply expressed with cast concrete flanges as supports and timber horizontal shelves with bolts to hold the centre section together. Coconut draining boards flank the Belfast sink and concrete backed countertop. The backsplash by artist Alex Zdankowicz adds a touch of artisan glamour to an otherwise austere piece.  Handmade willow baskets by Jenny Crisp were designed to allow cutlery to be moved easily between table, dishwasher and sink. Other shelves are left open so that you can see the beauty of functional kitchen utensils and cooking equipment.

Leila Ferraby and Johnny Grey worked on this piece with design guidance provided by Matt Withington.

The Plate Rack
Inspired by the plate racks Elizabeth David commissioned from French provincial makers for sale in her shop, this piece is simple and utilitarian with minimal use of material. We introduced stainless steel instead of dowels, which makes more room for plates as well as visually lightening the design. 

Chris Height made this for JGS.

Personal anecdote
I have designed 14 plate racks over the years. All of our kitchen clients are asked whether they would like one in their kitchen and the response always is strongly expressed; people either love or hate them. Elizabeth David said plate racks were a necessary companion to efficient washing up and asked me to design her one for her winter kitchen. That was my first plate rack design which is not unlike the one we have designed for this collection. --Johnny Grey

Leila Ferraby worked under Johnny Grey’s supervision on this piece.

The Light Dresser 
So many of the objects we bring into our kitchens have a real beauty about them –whether functional kitchen vessels or artisan items. We felt that a modern version of the traditional Welsh dresser could use light to magnify the pleasure and experience of seeing this object.  

We created a dresser that celebrates light, by creating a light box behind the back and the underside of the countertop.  The light dresser glows within the kitchen with the colour and brightness chosen by a remote control. 

Nigel Brown, an independent and distinguished cabinet maker made this piece.

Personal anecdote
When we first started designing the modern cottage collection we wanted to have each piece of furniture incorporate its own lighting, becoming a light experience itself. The dresser was the most serious attempt to do this. We were inspired by the film 2001; A Space Odyssey where the walls of the space station glowed, the lighting being concealed in the surface and the effect was close to enhanced daylight.

Miles Hartwell and Johnny Grey designed this piece with some help from Leila Ferraby.

You can get more information about  Johnny and Johnny Grey Studios on their website, where you'll find images of projects they've completed all around the world. If you find yourself at Decorex this week, please go see Johnny, Chuck and the rest of the Johnny Grey Studios team at booth E153 and tell them hello for me.

26 September 2010

Early fall reruns: Speaking of the Renaissance

In an effort to reserve some weekend me time, I'm running posts from my archives on weekends for the time being. This post ran originally on 12 April '09 and it's an example of the many, many times that I abandon my niche and write about whatever I bloody well please. I fancy myself to be an art history buff and few things get me as excited as the Italian Renaissance. It's impossible to overstate the effect the Italian Renaissance had on human history but also on our culture today. The great minds behind the Italian Renaissance loom very large and their shadows are all around us today. You just have to know how to see them. Anyhow, here's an off-topic rant about one of my heroes, Michelangelo Buonorroti.

It's Easter and nobody wants to read about kitchen design today. So, I'm going to take advantage in the lull and run my mouth some more about the Renaissance. Indulge me.

The piece I wrote yesterday about the colorized ancient statuary got me thinking about the Italian Renaissance in general and Michelangelo Buonarroti in particular. Michelangelo sculpted his David in what was supposed to have been a commission to outfit the the Santa Maria del Fiore cathedral with a series of 12 old testament figures. The block of marble it's carved from was already on site when the guild responsible for the commission was shopping for a sculptor. Many of the greats of the time were called in to look over the marble, including Leonardo Da Vinci, but no one really wanted to work with the piece of marble in question.

Michelangelo Buonarroti was 26-years-old at the time and he convinced the guild that he deserved the commission. He got it, obviously, and spent the next two years of his life bringing his David to life.

Michelangelo worked in the Mannerist style of the High Renaissance. A key concept in Mannerism is the exaggeration of the human form to make a statement. In addition to David being rendered in a Mannerist style, he's also in a Classically Greek heroic pose. He's standing in contrapposto, his body is turned and his weight is shifted back onto his right leg. This shift back throws David's spine into an S shape and the contrapposto is why David seems to be caught in mid-movement.

Contrapposto and implying movement didn't start with Michelangelo though. Here's a Classical Greek sculpture, the Doryphoros, from 400 BC. Michelangelo and the rest of the Renaissance greats would have studied the Doryphoros and other surviving statues from antiquity. Through their studies, they could recreate and re-interpret these classical forms to make something new and fitting for their own time.

Amazing. While I was rooting around the Internet and looking for images of David, I stumbled up a website that made a point I'd never considered. The site, Michelangelo's David Correctly Oriented is the work of J. Huston McColloch, an Economics professor at the University of Ohio.

When the David was completed, its unveiling was met with a hail of popular acclaim and it never made it up onto the buttresses of the cathedral where it was intended to go. Instead, it was put on display at ground level. It remained at the entrance to Florence's Palazzo Vecchio for several hundred years.

The David is a work of unquestioned genius and it's also a pretty powerful political statement. Unlike most depictions of the story of David and Goliath,  Michelangelo's David is unique in that it shows the young man at the moment he decided to take on Goliath. David was usually shown after he'd slain the giant. So David, in contrapposto, is turning to face down his opponent. Make no mistake though, David is a political statement. Arguably, Michelangelo is using the character David to make a political point more than a religious one. David symbolizes the Florentine Republic as the Medici sought to defend themselves from the more powerful Borgias. Michelangelo's David = Cosimo Di Medici, Goliath = Caesar Borgia. Everyone who looked at this statue understood this and they also know how the biblical story turned out. No wonder it was so popular.

The David was moved into Florence's Galeria della Academia in 1873 and has been in that same position ever since. However, the view everyone sees today and the image everybody knows is actually the side view. McCulloch's site has this image of David in its proper orientation. Due to the size of the nave where the David's currently displayed, this perspective is impossible to see without the help of some digital imagery.

That certainly puts him in a whole new light. He looks menacing and poised to spring here and his movement is just not possible to see in the side view. Fascinating. David-as-Medici is easier to see from this perspective as well.

As I mentioned before, David is rendered in a Mannerist style. The Mannerists took liberties with the human form to make a point. Michelangelo made David's hands out of proportion with the rest of his body. David's hands are disproportionately large to show his intelligence and strength. Similarly, his musculature and symmetry are perfect beyond human standards. That's because David is a symbol of the best of humanity, he's not a representation of an actual person. David is an ideal. In typical Mannerist style too, his genitals are scaled down to the point where they indicate his maleness but don't distract. Mannerist, shrunken genitalia shout that this is a serious work, it's not erotica. Most amazing to me is that David's eyes are pointing in two different directions. Here's a close up of his face.

His left eye is looking into the distance, sizing up his opponent. But his right eye is looking down at the viewer. This isn't possible of course, but again it's Mannerist symbolism. David is sizing up his opponent and at the same time he's telling his audience that this is their fight too.

The David has so much going on with it that entire careers have been made out of studying it. But why is this important? Well, it's important because art doesn't happen in a vacuum. No human endeavor does. All human progress is based on the work, thoughts and ideas of the generations before. Henry Moore's work exists because Auguste Rodin's work came before. Rodin's The Thinker drew its inspiration from Michelangelo. Michelangelo carved his David because Polykleitos carved his Doryphoros. Polykleitos drew inspiration from the Egyptians and Persians. And so it goes back to the very dawn of humanity when an early Homo sapiens looked at his hand and decided to draw it on the wall of a cave.

I say this stuff important because it helps me keep my life and my ideas in perspective. The life I lead and the thoughts I have (and the life you lead and thoughts you have) are the direct result of everyone who came before me. Nothing's original. Not my life, not my thoughts, not my likes and not my dislikes. 

So to sum it all up, does this look familiar?

This is an image of Hermes Kriophoros (the ram-bearer) from 500 BC.

Now where do you think this image below might have come from?

25 September 2010

Early fall re-runs reader question: What never goes out of style?

In an effort to reclaim something of a personal life, I'm re-running archived posts on Saturdays and Sunday until I'm good and ready to start writing seven original posts a week again. My archives go back pretty far and a lot of my earlier posts never see the light of day anymore and now's my chance to change that a bit. This post ran originally on 23 March 2009 and was a response to a question from a reader I received shortly before that.

Help! My husband and I are about to renovate our kitchen and I want to know what never goes out of style before we start spending money on this project. What style, in wood type and color never goes out of style?

Hmmm. I hear this question a lot and I'm going to answer it by not answering it. At least not yet. First, let's start by taking a stroll through some kitchen designs of the last 100 years. This is by no means an exhaustive survey of every kitchen style that's come and gone in that time period, but it will help me make my point so bear with me.

Here's a kitchen from 1921.

Here's one from 1931.

Here's 1941



Here's 1971

And 1981

Here's a kitchen from 1991

2001 already looks pretty dated already

And here's what's being billed as a traditional style right now.

As you can see, the words timeless and kitchen don't belong in the same sentence. Even the last photo, the "traditional" one, is pure trend. That layout, those appliances, that cabinetry... it's all very right now. It may take a page from some past styles, but in the era it's invoking (1910-1920), a kitchen looked nothing like that.

Contemporary kitchen design is new, regardless of the style of the room. The idea of a kitchen being the center of activity in a home was unheard of until 30 years ago. Pretend for a moment that it's 1955 and you're talking to your grandmother. Imagine her reaction to the news that you're planning to spend the equivalent of half your annual income on a kitchen renovation that will become the focal point of your home. She'd think you'd lost your mind and then she'd tell you to get out of the way so that she could get back to boiling the pot of diapers she'd been working on all morning.

Kitchen designs change because our culture changes, and it's not just a function of trends in taste. Social changes, technological changes, economic changes, etc., evolve and reinforce each other over time. You'd hate an authentically period kitchen because you don't live the way people lived 20, 30, 40 or 50 years ago. How things look is inextricably linked to how things work.

I say that there's no real answer to your question. Renovation and construction always look like the time when they were built or renovated. The minute you start swinging a hammer is the same moment that time stops and how you live right now gets preserved for all time. Or for as long as whatever you're building lasts. So even though I say that there's no answer to your question, here's some advice as you go about deciding how to spend your money. 

The first being that quality doesn't go out of style. Well-made cabinetry and appliances that are made to last will get you more years of use and satisfaction than cheap stuff will. In it for the long haul? Stay out of big box stores and get ready to spend some money.

Second, I'd advise you to avoid specialty finishes on your cabinetry. That means anything with a glaze, a distressed paint or anything intended to give new cabinetry or furniture instant character. Character has to be earned and that's as true of your cabinetry and furniture as it is about your personality. Short cuts to character don't work. 

Third, avoid adding colors that are right now to things you can't change easily. A good case in point is the light blue and brown color palettes that are still all over the place. Getting light blue appliances, a finish color available from Dacor right now, might look good for now but five years from now you will hate them. If you love that blue and brown palette, get blue and brown throw rugs, not appliances. A blue throw rug costs $20 a blue fridge $3000 to $4000. You tell me, which would you rather replace in a couple of years? So the lesson here is to accessorize with trendy colors, don't build them in.

Finally, do some research on where kitchen design has been and where the experts think it's headed. You cannot anticipate what's next with any degree of certainty, but you can take steps from getting yourself locked in the past too tightly. The idea that the kitchen is the center of a home in 2009 is not something that's going away any time soon. But this Old World style that can't go away fast enough is a recipe for heartache later. Where to turn for guidance you ask? Hire a professional kitchen designer to help you realize your dream. Explain very clearly to him or her what you want to do and have this designer be standing in your home while you do this explaining. Think this through and have a detailed plan before you start writing checks and you'll be a lot happier in 10 years than you would be otherwise. Whatever you end up with, be sure that it reflects your life, your hopes, your needs and your wants.

24 September 2010

Belcher windows

My great friend Tom Miller writes the blog Daytonian in Manhattan. Tom isn't an architect but he knows more about architectural history than anyone I've ever met. Tom's a 30-year resident of Manhattan and he's a consummate New Yorker. Every corner of that town has had something notable happen on it and I swear Tom knows every one of those stories. Last winter, he started a blog about Manhattan architectural history and five days he week he publishes a new story of a building.

On the 3rd of September he wrote a post called  The House the Circus Built --10 St. Nicholas Place. And in his post he told a story of James Bailey. Bailey was the Bailey of Barnum and Bailey. Baily's home from 1880 is still standing and in a remarkable state of preservation. What caught my eye about it particularly were the stained glass windows it held.

The Bailey House featured windows made by the Belcher Mosaic Glass company and these windows are some of the last surviving examples of the Belcher Company's work.

A Belcher Mosaic window from the Bailey House

Belcher developed a new technique for making mosaic windows rather than the standard stained glass techniques used since the early middle ages. Rather than using lead cames between the individual pieces of glass, Belcher patented a process where he'd lay out the pattern of the window between two sheets of asbestos. Then he poured a molten lead alloy over the whole works. The molten alloy would flow between the pieces of glass and make a stable window.

This process allowed Belcher to use much smaller pieces than most stained glass windows use and he could use pieces of glass that were in regular, repeating shapes --triangles usually but sometimes squares.

The Belcher Mosaic Glass Company went out of business in 1880 and a handful of these windows survive. I think they're fascinating. Almost as fascinating as I find Tom's blog. Check it out and if you're ever in Manhattan and you need a tour guide, I know the best one out there.

Julie Richey unveils La Corrente

One of the great joys of being a blogger are the connections I make with artists. Julie Richey is my favorite mosaicist working today and I met her through some work I was doing for the fine folks at Mosaic Art Now. Julie's become a pen pal, a Facebook friend, an occasional contributor to K&RD and a regular source of inspiration. Julie and I have never met in person, but one of these days we will. Hopefully, that meeting will take place in a trattoria in Trastevere where we'll dine on carciofi alla Giuda and pretend it's 2000 years ago.

Julie works in three dimensions as often as she works in the mosaicists' more traditional two dimensions and she sent me some photos of her latest piece the other day and I'm in awe of it. The piece is called La Corrente, which means The Current in Italian and it's her tribute to the Gulf of Mexico.

From Julie's statement:
My work utilizes the innate opulence of mosaic materials – 24k gold smalti, marble, semi-precious stones – to embellish sculptural forms in unexpected ways. The discovery of dentalia shells inspired the densly-packed and fragile under skirt.

La Corrente, (The Current in Italian) is about beauty amidst destruction. The sea kelp adorning her gown swirls in the strong gulf currents. Giant Asian Sea Kelp is an invasive species threatening the balance of plant and marine life in the region. While man overtly destroys the gulf with oil, pollution and fertilizer runoff, another destructive force creeps in with the current.
Here's the front of La Corrente.

And here it is from the back.

Dentalia are tusk shells, a common find along the shores of the Gulf, and she hand applied each one with tweezers. Here are some details photos.

And here's the finished piece in Julie's studio.

I'm awed by her ability to take an art form and push it in new directions. Mosaic is art and Julie's work proves that time and again. The sculpture as a whole tells a narrative that's moving enough, but the materials too pitch in to help tell the story. Much like the Gulf itself, underneath the beautiful form churns a gathering storm.

Brava Julie.

You can see the rest of Julie's work on her website and you'll be seeing more of this one. She's entered La Corrente in the 2011Mosaic Arts International and when it gets selected, it'll be on display at the Mexican American Cultural Center in Austin, TX beginning in mid-February, 2011. The photography featured in this post is by Dallas-based Stacy Bratton.

Julie's available for commissioned work (in two or three dimensions though she can probably handle four dimensions) and you can reach her through her website.