07/28/14
Barry Dixon's Magnolia Pod pendant debuted at High Point Market in spring 2014.

Allegorical Accents from Designer Barry Dixon

The Aloysius sectional by Barry Dixon through Tomlinson/Erwin-Lambeth.

The Aloysius sectional by Barry Dixon through Tomlinson/Erwin-Lambeth.

Certain aspects of being southern seem to seep into the skin through osmosis. It’s as if the summer heat wriggles into our DNA, the perspiration beading on the forehead a sign that the bloodstream has become infused with the ethos of lushness. Woodlands and pastures are in on the game, as are towering peaks and the undulant gashes of slow-moving rivers. Harbingers are disparate but strangely intertwined: torrential downpours that explode in violent rushes are of a piece with the wafting fragrance of magnolia blooms in the fog-laden air afterwards. Mornings are filled with birds that sing and wasps that sting, and from within great swaths of swamplands cicadas wheeze as long beards of Spanish moss sway in the breeze.

These elemental attributes are so pervasive they are exuberant characters in the fiction born in the region. In Eudora Welty’s story The Wide Net, it is the southern thunderstorm that rages as humans cower beneath “the leathery leaves” of a massive magnolia tree. Her character Doc has just declared it the loudest tree in a storm when all hell breaks loose:

  • The rain struck heavily. A huge tail seemed to lash through the air and the river broke in a wound of silver. In silence the party crouched and stooped beside the trunk of the great tree, which in the push of the storm rose full of a fragrance and unyielding weight.

In Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind, it is the antics of two of our most popular southern birds that give the nature beyond Scarlett O’Hara’s bedroom window a curtain call:

  • The mocking birds and the jays, engaged in their old feud for possession of the magnolia tree beneath her window, were bickering, the jays strident, acrimonious, the mockers sweet voiced and plaintive.
Barry Dixon seated on his Aloysius sectional.

Barry Dixon meets the media, seated on his Aloysius sectional with the Magnolia Pod pendant glowing in the background.

Either setting could have been wrested directly from my childhood spent languishing in Tennessee. I paid close attention to it all—as any writer would—so I am not surprised when references to a drawling Mother Nature crop up in my work. But I have watched another Tennessean in the design world for a while now and have been puzzled that his artistic endeavors are sometimes just as imbued with this flavor because he is far from the typical southerner who spent his formative years steeped only in the unhurried droop of time that permeates everything below the Mason Dixon Line when experiencing days from a child’s perspective. His name is Barry Dixon and he is as well traveled as a person comes, his parents making it possible for him to experience a culturally diverse world during his youth—a practice he has continued throughout his career, which I believe speaks to his capacity for executing such a panoply of sophisticated styles.

I knew he was a fellow Tennessean from reading his books, and I’d interviewed him for magazine features before but I never found the right opportunity to mention we shared the birth-state so I was excited to have a chance to finally speak with him about our roots in person. The occasion arose during an event at Tomlinson/Erwin-Lambeth as he debuted several new collections during the Spring Market in High Point, one of my favorite pieces in the showroom that day inspiring the snippets by Welty and Mitchell I chose early in this post. It’s a southern bellwether, which the authors included in their narratives—the magnolia tree. Famous for its aromatic blooms in summer, its autumn yield brings a less celebrated but equally important flourish in its seedpod, the symbol Barry used as inspiration for his Magnolia Pod pendant. The beautifully handcrafted lighting fixture calls to mind walks through fields spiked with goldenrod on chilly fall afternoons as wood-smoke permeates the air.

We were seated on his new Aloysius sectional as we discussed certain aspects of southern-ness, such as how ya’ll is as important a word to those of us who hail from the south as it is maligned in the rest of America. I had a clear view of the pendant while we talked and I was captivated by the fixture, which is manufactured by Avrett, a Charleston-based metal fabricator that produces lighting and furniture Barry designs in styles that range from classically minimal to lushly metaphorical—as is the case with the Magnolia Pod. Presented alongside his decidedly comfortable and roomy Aloysius, and his nods to Anglo Raj in his Yin and Yang chairs and nail-head studded ottomans, the fixture dangled jewelry-like in the space.

I suppose, as Barry and so many of our famous authors prove, being southern simply comes hand-in-hand with a mandatory sweet spot for the magnolia. Read on for details about Barry’s new releases and be sure to check back here next week when I will feature an exuberant post highlighting the books on Carmen Natschke’s (The Decorating Diva’s) summer reading list. Thanks to Barry’s lead, I’ve added a few southern authors to mine. What titles are you making your way through as the season progresses?

The Yin dining room chair by Barry Dixon at the Tomlinson/Erwin-Lambeth showroom.

The Yin dining room chair by Barry Dixon at the Tomlinson/Erwin-Lambeth showroom.

Design Details of Barry’s Spring High Point Market Debuts:

Barry Dixon designed the Aloysius to defy gravity by leaving its bottom edges cantilevered. He explained that this subtle but important detail gives the sectional a bit of heft, making it seem to hover. But, he quickly pointed out, “just because it levitates doesn’t mean it is delicate.” I can vouch for the fact that it is anything but slight. Having tested it, I would say the sectional easily handles anything from a catlike curling up with a cup on tea and a sable throw upon waking to a post-slumber-party free-for-all of passed-out tweens.

Many of his upholstered pieces, including the Aloysius, have wood accents, which can be finished with hues from Barry’s C2 Paint “Naturals Collection.” He illustrated how the change of color number can morph the style: “Pick pale gray for a Gustavian flair or dark brown for a Georgian look, or choose a hue mimicking red lacquer to call Chinoiserie to mind.”

Barry now has 14 dining chair styles with Tomlinson/Erwin-Lambeth, his entire repertoire including over 250 possible combinations thanks to the different styles of furniture, the C2 Paint options and a choice of fabrics he designed for Vervain. “I’ve been working with Tomlinson for seven years,” he explained. “We’re pretty much completing each others sentences by now!”

Barry Dixon's Magnolia Pod pendant debuted at High Point Market in spring 2014.

A close-up of Barry Dixon’s Magnolia Pod pendant, which debuted at High Point Market in spring 2014.

Where the New Products Can Be Seen*:

Barry’s new upholstery and Avrett releases can be viewed in person in the following showrooms: Tomlinson/Erwin-Lambeth in High Point; John Rosselli showrooms in the Decoration & Design (D&D) Building in NYC, the Design Center of the Americas (DCOTA) in Dania Beach, and The Merchandise Mart in Chicago; Hewn in San Francisco; R Hughes in Atlanta; Cory Pope in Dallas; the Shanahan Collection in Denver; and the Icon Group in the Boston Design Center. They are also available through the J. Lambeth & Company showroom in the Washington (DC) Design Center—look for the unveiling of their new space in the WDC on November 12, 2014, where you will find Barry’s designs front-and-center.

*Be sure to check with these showrooms before you go if you are not a design professional because many of them are to-the-trade only, meaning you have to be a licensed design professional to shop with them.

Footnote:

I’m looking forward to returning to High Point for the Fall Market as a sponsored blogger. I’ll be sharing news of the designers and manufacturers launching new products here on the blog once I’m back in writing mode. I am particularly excited I will have the opportunity to share new releases by Bernhardt and Ambella Home, my sponsors. Given how I fell head over heels for Bernhardt’s Jet Set Collection in the spring I can’t wait to see the products their talented design team has created for an October release; and I look forward to learning more about Ambella Home and their offerings. If you come across anything you think I should see, let me know. I’ll be there from October 16th through the 20th.

Text © Saxon Henry, all rights reserved. Saxon Henry is the founder of The Literary Blog to Book Movement, author of Home of the Brave and Four Florida Moderns, and an NYC-based new media strategist.

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07/14/14
Darryl Carter's Room 21 at Kips Bay

A Material Paradise at Kips Bay Show House

Darryl Carter's Room 21 at Kips Bay

Darryl Carter’s space at the 2014 Kips Bay Show House. Photograph by timothy bell.

“The house is one of the greatest powers of integration for the thoughts, memories and dreams of mankind,” wrote Gaston Bachelard in The Poetics of Space. What if that house is a mansion with excellent bones? And what if the person integrating its elements is a talented designer? Might normal dreams pale in comparison? If we are speaking of Room 21 at the 2014 Kips Bay Boys & Girls Club Decorator Show House, created by DC-based designer Darryl Carter, my answer is a resounding yes.

Darryl Carter's Room 21 at Kips Bay

My favorite space at the 2014 Kips Bay Show House, Darryl Carter’s “The Collected Home.” Photograph by timothy bell.

The charm of the third-floor camber, called “The Collected Home,” spoke to me above all the other rooms at this year’s show house, its chalky calmness enlivened by dark flourishes creating a magical chiaroscuro within the classical backdrop. I’m looking at the images as I write this and they don’t do the space justice. The feeling that doesn’t come through is how the deep-toned moments of gravity anchored the ethereal room without interrupting the breathlessness it stirred in me. I stood in its center, dreaming that I could curl up on the sofa or stretch out on the daybed and spend the afternoon reading. I wanted this so strongly, I had to force myself to leave.

I opened this essay with Bachelard because he was the first philosopher to help me see that those of us who were deprived of exemplary design during our formative years must “dream” our version of aesthetic pleasure into being by paying attention to exemplary examples. I’ve attempted creating my own ideas of allure during my adult life with varying degrees of success—a stone bungalow with a wisteria-draped arbor gracing the back of the home my finest endeavor to date; a clapboard cottage with bead-board framed windows opening to sweeping views of a meandering lake a close second. But each fell short when it came to the interiors. I blame this on distraction. Each time I nested into a new home, the urge to decorate held my interest only so long before my desire to write obliterated all other aspirations. I even went so far as to take a position as a project manager for an interior decorator when I owned the lake house, hoping it would help me learn enough about balance, scale and color to create exceptional surroundings. But the situation took me away from writing so I gave up the effort. It was a dramatic moment in my life because I was surrendering to the fact I would never achieve what Carter had; I simply couldn’t bear the idea of turning away from the thing I wanted most of all—to become a published author. There was no guarantee I’d have had the chops to be the best amongst the best, anyway, and I’m seriously happy I took the path I did.

Darryl Carter's Room 21 at Kips Bay

Darryl Carter’s Room 21 at the 2014 Kips Bay show house, my favorite of all the spaces. Photograph by Saxon Henry.

In his book, Bachelard doesn’t examine interior design, per se, but the philosopher’s ideas inspire thoughts of the subject when he points out that a “material paradise” (whatever that means to each of us) created in a home bathes us in nourishment while creating a compression of time that allows our dreams to take flight. This is what a truly great designer does, I thought as I made my way down the stairs to the entry of The Mansion on Madison and prepared myself for the cruel reentry to the cacophony of New York City. The peace evaporated the second I stepped across the mansion’s threshold, and dissipated further as I strode out of the courtyard it shares with The New York Palace Hotel to join the thousands of other commuters striding along the sidewalks of Madison Avenue. I can still pull echoes of Carter’s magic forward when I think back to the solace I felt when I stood within his space but there was a more important takeaway from the experience I’d like to share: being in that room helped me concretize the realization that extraordinary design gathers us to it in ways that feel preverbal.

If you’ve ever had a similar experience as I had at the Kips Bay Show House, how would you describe the difference between rooms that speak to your sensibilities and those which do not? If you are a designer, can you explain your ability to actualize the simultaneous feelings of serenity and buoyancy I experienced as I lingered in that room?

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07/6/14
Madame de Sevigne at Museo Glauco

A French Twist: Rococo Style in Italy

Parma Italy's Riserva Palace

An Historical Rendering of the Riserva Palace in Parma, Italy.

by Saxon Henry

If I told you the most surprising thing I found in Parma, Italy, was France, would you think I’d lost my mind? I’m not speaking in concrete terms, of course; I know my European geography. I’m referring to a remnant of the French aristocracy tucked into the Riserva Palace on Strada Melloni, one of Parma’s quaint Porphyry-paved lanes. The building, which dates back to the rule of the House of Bourbon, hosted important guests of the court and served as a casino for nobles and courtiers during its heyday. It now holds the central post office and a number of cultural organizations, including the Parma Literary Society and the Glauco Lombardi Museum, which is devoted to the relationship between Emperor Napoleon I and his second wife Marie-Louise of Austria. The nobles are honored there because Napoleon saw to it that his wife was given the duchies of Parma, Piacenza, and Guastalla when he abdicated the throne in the Treaty of Fontainebleau, making their son her heir as a part of the bargain. She took physical possession of her title in March of 1816, but the peculiarity I allude to in the title relates as much to design and another historic French figure as it does to her presence in Parma.

Interior of Glauco Lombardi Museum Parma

The Grand Ballroom of the Glauco Lombardi Museum in Parma, Italy.

The first curiosity was the dissonance between the ornate interiors of the Palace and the quintessentially Italian exterior architecture. If you compare the two images above—the top one an historical view of the building and the bottom one a shot of the Rococo style Grand Ballroom as it is today, I think you’ll see what I mean. The room’s original plasterwork, designed by French architect Ennemond-Alexandre Petitot and painstakingly realized by Benigno Bossi—a renowned Italian engraver, painter, and plaster and stucco artist—dates back to 1764. For the record, I see French and Italian styles as equally stunning on their own but they felt antithetical when juxtaposed so closely. I made my way around the high-ceilinged room, still feeling a bit off balance, when I came upon the second anomaly. I felt a sizzle of electricity course through my body as my eyes met the rather coquettish gaze of Marie de Rabutin-Chantal. What the heck is Madame de Sévigné, one of France’s most famous courtiers during the reign of Louis XIV, doing confidently posed within a museum celebrating Napoleon’s queen? I wondered.

Madame de Sevigne at Museo Glauco

Madame de Sevigne portrait at the Glauco Lombardi Museum.

It was my first in-person portrait sighting of France’s first lady of letters, especially unexpected given I was into my 16th year of my obsession with her era and I had yet to come face-to-face with her, so to speak. I’d come to know her quite well during my long investigation of her world through biographies and the missives she wrote to her coterie of friends that included some of the most powerful people in the French court during her time. I stood in front of the portrait for quite a while, puzzling it out, but I couldn’t connect the dots between the two women because Sévigné had been dead for over a century before Marie-Louise became the Empress of France. I wasn’t able to adequately translate my question to the museum’s staff so I left there unclear as to why Glauco Lombardi, who collected the memorabilia housed within the museum, included the painting in his homage to the Duchess of Parma. In fact, I’ve yet to unravel the mystery so if anyone reading this knows, I’d truly appreciate it if you’d leave me a comment.

Even though the experience of seeing her there was uncanny, this remains one of my favorite happy accidents because I was able to physically experience the sophisticated Frenchness of Sévigné’s world in a way I hadn’t felt when I visited her former chateau in Paris. This lack of je ne sais quoi in her residence in Le Marais was due to the fact the French have turned it into the Musée Carnavalet, a diorama-filled string of rooms celebrating the history of the arrondissement. This arrangement robs the part of the home I saw of the intimate feel that authentic period interiors would have provided. Her essence wasn’t there because the home no longer reflected the opulence or held the symbolism she experienced during her lifetime. Though it post-dates Sévigné’s era by about a century, there was enough commonality between the two periods that the mise en scène preserving Marie-Louise’s place in Parma’s history did. There is also something about the care with which the museum is being treated that made the authenticity feel so strong.

Marie Louise of Austria

Lefevre’s portrait of Marie-Louise of Austria, Empress of France.

Intricate symbols celebrating developments in music, theater, the arts and higher education floated upon the museum’s whispery pale aqua walls in bisque bas-relief. Cherubs were ubiquitous, as were oak boughs and ornamental shields festooned with Mercury’s helmet—all of these emblems of royal power perfectly maintained. A large portrait of the Empress painted by Robert Lefèvre in 1812 stood at one end of the room, depicting a young Marie-Louise posed in accordance with the strict canons of official portraiture. At the time it was painted, she was about midway through her brief four-year reign as the wife of France’s doomed leader. His portrait, painted by François Gérard, and a Pierre-Paul Prud’hon painting of the couple’s sleeping son, Napoleon François Charles Joseph, were also displayed there.

In the center of the room, flanked by the painting of the Empress and one of her evening gowns encased in glass, stood the Corbeille de Mariage, which Napoleon had given his fiancé as a symbol of his devotion when they became engaged. The grand object d’art was made by Pierre-Philippe Thomire and Jean-Baptiste Claude Odiot to hold what would amount to a treasure trove of jewelry and personal accoutrements. Arrayed in the glass-topped shadow-box tables flanking the space were examples of the spoils it would have contained, the jewelry and regalia glinting in the light streaming from the elegant chandeliers. The ball gown was from Marie-Louise’s reign in Parma, its long mantle embroidered in delicate platinum. I could see her slowly making her way across the stone floor, the waves of beautiful blue fabric, shot through with silver, flowing behind her as she greeted visiting lords and ladies, and foreign heads of state.

Imagining her sweeping across the room led me back to where Madame de Sévigné held sway. Many of the marquise’s letters I’ve read were written to her daughter, Françoise Marguerite. The lavish lives the courtiers led are evident in her descriptions, such as this excerpt from a letter she penned to her grown, married daughter from the family’s country estates in Brittany. This particular snippet exemplifies the type of celebration that could have taken place in the room I stood within two and a half centuries earlier: “After dinner Messieurs de Locmaria and de Coëtlogon, with two Breton ladies, danced wonderful passepieds and minuets with an air that our good dancers do not have by a long way; they do gypsy and Low Breton steps with a delicacy and precision that are delightful…I am sure that you would have been delighted to see Locmaria dance. The violins and passepieds at Court make you sick in comparison…”

Glauco Lombardi Museum

The museum as it is today, image courtesy of Wiki Commons.

I exited the museum and walked through the soft autumn light thinking about how vast history is and how important it is to be able to experience the dynamic physicality of it because this lends the past a forcefulness that is harder to grasp when reading books. I took a seat on a bench beside the towering façade of the Palazzo della Pilotta near the museum so I could record my impressions of the mementos I’d seen. What will I find when I plunge into the story of Maria Luigia Duchessa di Parma, as the locals referred to her upon her arrival? I wrote just before closing my writer’s notebook that day.

When I was finally able to delve into her history recently, I learned hers was a typical marionette-like tale of the female aristocrat of her time. Her father betrothed her to Napoleon when she was 18 years old to entice him away from marrying a Russian duchess he had set his sights on after he had kicked Josephine to the curb for failing to give him a son. The match was made because Marie-Louise’s father feared an alliance between Napoleon and Russia would be dangerous to his throne. When Napoleon lost power, this same father prevented his daughter from taking her son to Italy, and had his cronies in Vienna decree that the reign in Parma ended with her death because he couldn’t stomach a relative of Bonaparte’s holding power, even if it was his own grandson. So much for familial loyalty!

Marie Louise of Austria, crowned

Empress Marie-Louise of Austria during her reign as Empress of France.

The arranged marriage with Napoleon was kept from the young woman until it was a done deal, a situation I see as cruel considering Marie-Louise had been especially fond of her cousin Marie Antoinette, and had expressed derision for France and Bonaparte over the imprisonment and murder of her relative. How ironic that she is now forever linked to the country and its most famous renegade! I thought. From Marie-Louise’s autobiographical material I’ve read, it appears she was a genuinely kind woman, if a bit misguided by her desire to “reinstate the splendor of the Empire” within such beautiful Italianate surroundings.

To further along her plan, she brought a team of cooks and trunks of Limoges porcelain with her when she began her reign in Parma. She evidently had some success given I found a recipe for a dish exemplifying her gastronomic influence in the town to this day—Sweet Green Tortelli—as I was searching for information about her. The subject of food ends this essay perfectly because it brings me a fitting metaphor for the tour of the museum: I enjoyed the diversion for the hour I spent within its interiors but there was just something about it that felt like biting into a chocolate éclair when my taste buds had been prepared for tiramisu!

*As a footnote, if you’d like to see a sampling of unassuming design elements I experienced in Parma, take a look at my Pinterest board with images of the town’s artful door hardware I photographed while bopping around. My trip to Parma was made possible by Mercanteinfiera and The Antiques Diva & Co. If you have the opportunity to experience the lauded Italian antiques fair, I would highly recommend it. A Pinterest board I created, That Enchanting Face: Visages from Mercanteinfiera, is a testament to the remarkable furnishings and art sold at the show twice each year. In fact, any of Toma Clark Haines’ tours are masterfully planned and executed. My excursions to the Marché aux Puces and Porte de Vanves with the Diva remain some of my favorite Paris escapades to date. My other treasured exploits in Paris involve Patty Otis Abel, aka The Sultanette; and another trip to Italy—to Venice, in fact—wouldn’t have been the same without JoAnn Locktov’s delicious presence. How blessed am I to have such wickedly terrific female friends!

Sign at the entrance of the Glauco Lombardi Museum

Parma was filled with exemplary examples of metal artistry.

All text of A French Twist: Rococo Style in Parma © Saxon Henry, all rights reserved. Saxon Henry is the founder of The Literary Blog to Book Movement, author of Home of the Brave and Four Florida Moderns, and an NYC-based new media strategist.

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06/26/14
Streamsong Resort near Tampa, FL

Poem at Streamsong

Streamsong Resort near Tampa, FL

…the architecture of their communion…

I’m visiting Streamsong Resort near Tampa to experience the natural beauty and incredible architecture, the latter created by Alberto Alfonso, who was featured in my book Four Florida Moderns. It has been wonderful to be able to catch up with the visionary who co-founded Alfonso Architects. The experience has been delicious in every way, from the food and spa treatments to the richness of nature and the astuteness of Alberto’s designs. I was inspired to write a poem this morning, which expresses my feelings about the main lodge nestled within the wild beauty of its setting. I hope you enjoy it.

The Nature of Love

The slow simmer of a storm
on the western lip of the sky;
hummocks of shaggy grass
sprouting exuberantly in
articulated rows;
pools of light becoming moons
of shimmering emotion
within nature’s uncompromising gaze.
Snouts leave wakes in lakes
as the gators thread their way
through water, put in their place
by the steadfast posturing of his build.
Long and lean, a brute strength
thrums within him. He speaks to
the undulant embrace of the land,
boldly declaring he will remain
free of entanglements. She is patient.
She knows her wiles; is certain
her lushness will draw him to her.
And it does. His countenance softens
once he understands that he sees,
right before him, all the evidence
he needs to prove that love exists.
She opens to him,
her voluptuous being cupping
his taut bones to answer
all the questions
they never dared to utter–
the why, the when, the where;
but most of all, the whom.
Suddenly, he becomes that soul
at home with feet in her sand,
head in her heavens; a heart pulsing
so wildly it inspires passion
in all who enter into the architecture
of their communion.

I’d like to thank Streamsong Resort for comping my trip here and to say this had no bearing on the opinions I’m expressing in this piece. I’m thrilled to see Alberto continuing to push the envelope because it makes it clear to me he will leave one fine legacy when all is said and done. Take a bow, Alberto; yes, that is applause you are hearing!

Text © Saxon Henry, all rights reserved. Saxon Henry is the founder of The Literary Blog to Book Movement, author of Home of the Brave and Four Florida Moderns, and an NYC-based new media strategist.

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06/8/14
Groundbreakers at NYBG.

Beatrix Farrand’s Gardens of Delight

NYBG Groundbreakers.

The “Groundbreakers” exhibition at The New York Botanical Gardens.

by Saxon Henry

Powerful things happen in a garden. Beyond the miracle of riotous color and the vibrancy of burgeoning life, momentous occurrences have transpired on the garden bench through the ages—marriage proposals uttered, business alliances formed, treachery divulged, fatherhood revealed and affairs of the heart commenced (or terminated). As time telescopes into the past, the arrangement of the florae encircling a person becomes increasingly formal. Consider that as recent as the 1800s, the costume a gentlewoman wore for afternoon tea in the garden conservatory or on the loggia was merely a simpler-cut gown sewn from a less sumptuous fabric than the one she would have donned for her evening activities.

This is an era and societal stratum I’ve been studying for a while, the constraints of which Edith Wharton wrote about in novels like The Age of Innocence and The House of Mirth. It wasn’t until I began digging into Wharton’s papers that I learned she had niece who was a lauded landscape architect. Her name is Beatrix Farrand, and both women were such avid horticulturists, their letters to each other, which Wharton dubbed their “garden talks,” are filled with arch giddiness and downright despair over growing things. They so adored the mindboggling variety of plants they discussed in the decades-long correspondence, they anthropomorphized entire species of them. In June 1936, Farrand wrote to her aunt, “It amuses me to hear that Fulva has flowered well with you as she is usually a persnickety lady.” And Wharton wrote to her niece of her gardens at her Villa Ste. Claire in the south of France, “Every day for the last week I have longed for you, for your beautiful irises are in their glory. You will remember that when you were here you were disappointed that they had not made a more vigorous growth, and I was depressed because I felt that I must in some way have hurt their feelings, and that they were going to be sulky about it. But their only grievance was the cold wet weather, and as soon as the sun came back they burst into vigorous growth, and for the last few days they have been a glorious spectacle.”

How my explorations of their lively repartee would culminate had been percolating for a while as I read their missives, and it wasn’t until I visited the Currey & Company showroom during the High Point Market in April when the idea for this essay began to solidify. I felt it build as my eyes wandered over the company’s artful offerings from my perch on one of their Faux Bois benches. Bethanne Matari was explaining how Robert Currey’s love of horticulture had inspired their garden furnishings—something I hadn’t known even though I had admired their Faux Bois Collection since I first featured it in “Design File,” a column I produced and wrote for Distinction magazine, years ago. The showroom’s surroundings made my thoughts turn to the trips I’m taking this summer—to one of Farrand’s most famous gardens, Dumbarton Oaks in Georgetown, and to The Mount, Edith Wharton’s home in Lenox, Massachusetts. My visit to The Mount has been years in the making; the wish to trek to Georgetown is more recent, sparked when I saw the inviting benches Farrand designed for the property’s expansive allées and terraces.

Villandry Bench by Currey & Co.

The Villandry Faux Bois bench, new from Currey & Company.

I asked Bethanne why the company’s founder had become so smitten with a design technique reaching back to the 19th-century. She said it’s due to the organic quality of the style, which he sees as rooted in our primeval memories. I felt a strong reverberation as I ran my fingers across the striated curling arms of the beautifully finished settee and imagined it tucked into the culmination of one of Farrand’s parterres or nestled under the shade of one of her perfectly placed arbors. Mr. Currey’s sentiments echo Farrand’s and I will be thinking of both as I bench-hop (within lawful limits) in her gardens during the next few months. I will take a moment to salute professionals who understand that good design springs from an innate connection to history and time-honored materials as I move from teak, cypress and marble to limestone, redwood and fieldstone—all materials Farrand used to create her Dumbarton Oaks garden furnishings.

Moon Gate by Beatrix Farrand.

The NYBG exhibition recreated Beatrix Farrand’s Moon Gate.

She was the only female founding member of the American Society of Landscape Architects (though she preferred to call herself a landscape gardener than an architect), and she saw furnishings as an important element in her landscape designs, ideas she shared in an article she wrote for Scribner’s magazine in 1905 titled The Garden as Picture. “Breaks in the surface of the ground are also needed, like terraces,” she explained; “arbors to interrupt long walks by shadow, benches and balustrades. Here is where the old Italian gardens are so successful, their fountains and their statues, their benches and their vases are used as emphasis to give height or light or variation to a part of the composition which might otherwise be uninteresting.” She also believed that plants are to the gardener what a palette is to a painter, and I saw this philosophy come vibrantly to life in the exhibition “Groundbreakers: Great American Gardens and the Women Who Designed Them” at The New York Botanical Gardens (NYBG) this past Friday. As I rode the train to Bronxville, I anticipated a delicious dose of sensory overload, and I wasn’t disappointed. An uproarious display of blossoming forth exploded within the statuesque Victorian-style glasshouse christened the Enid A. Haupt Conservatory, the floral revelry an homage to the Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Garden in Seal Harbor, Maine. I highly recommend a visit if you are anywhere near the NYBG before “Groundbreakers” closes on September 7, 2014.

Waves of color swept me up in a continual unfolding as I meandered along paths flanked by a profusion of petals. I spent over an hour strolling through the lushness, photographing such a torrent of beauty I suddenly felt I had to rest my senses from the brilliance bobbing from every inch of mulched earth. I found a secluded bench and thought about the number of hours and depth of study, as well as the level of experimentation required for Farrand to have gained the knowledge she had amassed. I thought about her determination to overcome the judgment leveled against her for deigning to work—at the turn of the century, landscape gardening was considered more of a “black art” for a woman of her societal stature than her aunt’s career as a novelist had been.

Groundbreakers at NYBG.

Blossoms billowed at the NYBG exhibition “Groundbreakers.”

Though Farrand’s male counterparts in the field described her career as “a little work between cards and tea,” she forged ahead, embracing what she considered to be the ultimate expression of creativity. You can hear it in the Scribner’s article in which she compares someone maintaining a garden to “the leader of an orchestra,” saying, “he must know which of his instruments to encourage and which to restrain.” Both Farrand and Wharton saw an intimate connection between the written word and the landscape. Wharton wrote of a “secret retreat” within her where words and cadences “haunted it like song-birds in a magic wood.” She hoped “to be able to steal away and listen when they called.” Farrand said gardening was akin to “composing in French alexandrines with their measured rhythm and subtle caesura.” I look forward to exploring gardens created by these two immense talents during the next few months, as well as to finding my own way of expressing the intermingling of the literary and botanical arts. I promise to share the adventures with you in the fall. Farrand’s legacy includes a number of gardens in the United States—Dumbarton Oaks; the Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Garden; the Peggy Rockefeller Rose Garden at the NYBG; the White House East Garden; and sections of the Santa Barbara Botanic Garden.

She experimented throughout her life at her family’s residence in Reef Point, Maine; and has four extant gardens in Connecticut, one at Yale University, and a sunken perennial garden she designed for Theodate Pope Riddle at Hill-Stead in Farmington. She also collaborated with Wharton at The Mount, though her aunt didn’t always support this claim. Given the richness of Wharton’s exchanges with her niece, it’s no surprise the novelist wrote she had the desire to “wallow in flowers” all the year round. Trumping her competitive aunt, Farrand found a way to do just that, never tiring of the push for more knowledge, which she notes in the close of The Garden as Picture: “And after all this notice and study and care many of us may feel that the more we learn about gardening the more there is left to know…”

To see more of my images from my day in at the Garden, visit my Pinterest board, “Gardens of Earthly Delight.” And if you’d like to experience Italian architecture and the gardens surrounding beautiful villas, Wharton’s book Italian Villas and Their Gardens, which she co-authored with Maxfield Parrish is an excellent read.

Text and images of this “Leaving a Legacy” post (except for the Villandry Bench) © Saxon Henry, all rights reserved. Saxon Henry is the founder of The Literary Blog to Book Movement and author of Home of the Brave and Four Florida Moderns. Her creative writing blog is Improvateur and she posts snippets of design she comes across during her escapades on Saxon Summarily by Design.

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06/1/14
Tanner Hill Gallery Stephanie Wilde

Insiders at the Outsider Art Fair

Sterling Strauser nude.

My mysterious nude by Sterling Strauser.

by Saxon Henry

There’s a backbone of stubbornness running through the south. It skirts along the undulant edges of Tennessee’s Smoky Mountains toward the foothills of the Cumberland Plateau, fingers its way through the red-clay gullies of Georgia, and skinnies through the gulches of Western Virginia. It is independence on steroids, and it has left its unruly mark in a genre of art many a critic would argue isn’t art at all. It goes by the name of “outsider,” “naïve,” “folk,” “brut,” “raw,” and “rough.” Its creators are self-taught, usually prolific. There’s quirkiness to it—sometimes innocence, always an emotional point of view.

When I received Angela Usrey’s email telling me she would be in New York City at the Outsider Art Fair last month, I decided I’d make my way to Chelsea to see whose work the gallerist had brought to the show. She didn’t disappoint: Stephanie Wilde’s art she had hanging in her Tanner Hill Gallery booth was ridiculously appealing. I’m not at all surprised because I have enjoyed watching Angela’s refined eye since she introduced me to outsider art nearly two decades ago. Come to think of it, she’s to blame for my being bitten by the collecting bug. Should I send her a bill? Actually, it wasn’t completely her fault; the bite got a lot itchier after I met a number of the artists in the mid-90s, proving it’s dangerous to become besotted with the people creating art when you have a little money in the bank. Before I succumbed, I had heard collectors say they never forget their initial acquisition and it’s true. The evocative power of my first—a gift, actually—is a mysterious Sterling Strauser nude that hangs above my desk. It still gives me goose bumps of pleasure each time I look at it.

Tanner Hill Gallery Stephanie Wilde

Stephanie Wilde’s “Casandra” at Tanner Hill Gallery.

Never having met Strauser is one of my biggest regrets. He had died the year before my indoctrination during what you might call a grand tour of tiny towns in Tennessee, Virginia, North Carolina, Georgia and Alabama to meet the southern contingent of the self-taught. I traveled narrow two-lane roads to the homes of Georgia Blizzard, Homer Green, Jimmy Lee Sudduth, Charles Simmons, Howard Finster and Joe Light with dealer Jimmy Hedges. The people I met moved me in their genuineness and their deep authenticity.

This trip was during a time when six-figure sales were just becoming the norm and errant self-promotion was new; and artists like Green and Sudduth were still a bit baffled by the attention. Take a look at the video of Green (below) having his way with a visiting journalist and you’ll see what I mean. I received the full jokester treatment the day I went to see him and I wouldn’t give anything for the experience.

 

I came away from that trip with works by most of the artists I met, eventually adding another painting by Stauser, and works by Sybil Gibson and Purvis Young to my small collection. Young is another painter I regret not meeting because his frenetic imagery moves me tremendously. When I read T. S. Eliot’s lines, “You had such a vision of the street/ As the street hardly understands…” I felt he could have been talking about Young.

Chales Simmons angel of Saxon Henry

My Charles Simmons angel.

It’s as if Purvis saw life in fits of fractured movement—people and horses gyrating, and stars exploding on his canvases painted mainly on construction trash. I was surprised that I didn’t see much of his work at the #OAF. In fact only a few of the artists who were hot in the 90s were there: William Hawkins, Thornton Dial and William Edmondson, for instance, and Simmons, whose work Marion Harris had in her booth. Catching up with her was a highlight of the day. I hadn’t seen her since The Antiques Diva & Co. Mercanteinfiera trip to Parma, Italy, and I thought the art by Carlos DeMedeiros she had in her booth was fabulous—irreverent and intelligent while still being fun. Hmm: just like Marion herself!

One of my biggest surprises was a lack of work by Jim Sudduth and Howard Finster. I chalked this up to the fact I’ve not been to a show in years so they may have become passé by now. I was also in too big a hurry to ask if there were any smaller pieces or works on paper by them squirreled away in booth cubbyholes. I most wanted to see at least one of Homer Green’s guardian angels skulking around but I didn’t. I wonder what legacies these artists will leave in the end; wonder how the fickle eye of art history will view Green’s critters and the playful creations that Sudduth turned out using house paint and mud. I suppose it was a prophetic moment when I bought one of his pieces inspired by NYC’s Chinatown long before I imagined I would move to the city. A visit to Gotham had made a tremendous impression on him—not surprising given the scale of the architecture surrounding him in the rural south and the fact the loudest noises he heard at night were made by crickets!

Saxon Henry visits Jim Sudduth

Jimmy Lee Sudduth the day I visited him.

The piece I most regret not buying? A small Finster I had the chance to own the day I visited him. This was on the cusp of his family’s involvement and there were questions as to who was producing the work. Still, it would have been nice to have a piece with his name on it, especially since I recently noticed fashion is getting in on the outsider art act this year.

In fact, I predict everyone will be exhibiting their Finsters soon since Rei Kawakubo is treating his imagery to her brand of edginess in a collaboration between Comme des Garçons and Raw Vision. She’s taking material from the magazine’s archives and putting “a fresh” spin on it—Finster and Anne Grgich the first two she’s taking on. Paradise Gardens, the compound the Reverend created, is splashed across the Comme des Garçons homepage, taking me back to those serpentine dirt paths I wandered along one afternoon. I could have spent days winding through that complex, snapping photographs of the nooks and crannies holding his fanatical desire to sermonize. I heard Finster’s family has made it into a veritable theme park over the past two decades. Not surprising, I guess, given there’s money to be made from it, which is actually funny because initially it was never about money for the outsiders—it was about the dire need to express themselves creatively.

I wanted to make it back to the #OAF for the lecture on Jean-Michel Basquiat but the events surrounding #NYCxDesign made that impossible. Jean-Michel Basquiat: The Radiant Child, the documentary about his days combing lower Manhattan for refuse to use as his canvases, remains one of my favorites—his M.O. of painting on construction trash echoed that of Purvis Young’s, as did the pain he expressed in his art. Looking at their work is an exercise in somberness. It’s as if the darkness shot out of them, hurtling through whatever tool they used to daub the paint onto the appointed surface, and quivered there as it gasped its last breath. That’s the brut way of saying it, of course. Eliot put it so much more eloquently in his poem Preludes, which I quoted earlier:

…the night revealing
The thousand sordid images
Of which your soul was constituted….

Saxon Henry's Purvis Young painting

A detail of my Purvis Young painting “Night Dance.”

Such a nice thing to revisit a bit of poetry and art on this first day of June—thanks for the trip down memory lane, Angela and Marion!

Text and images of this “Leaving a Legacy” post (except the Stephanie Wilde photograph) © Saxon Henry, all rights reserved. Saxon Henry is the founder of The Literary Blog to Book Movement and author of Home of the Brave and Four Florida Moderns. Her creative writing blog is Improvateur and she posts snippets of design she comes across during her escapades on Saxon Summarily by Design. I’ve created a Pinterest board, Insiders in Outsider Art, with more images of art and my visits to the artists if you want to have a look…

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05/25/14
Corb's Cabanon

Creation is a Patient Search

Le Corbusier's Creation Patient Search

The title of this post references a book penned by the lauded Swiss architect Le Corbusier, first published in 1960. In all honesty, it’s more than a book; it’s a manifesto of everything the architect believed at the time he wrote it, and it is filled with depth and wisdom. I’ve owned Creation is a Patient Search since Alberto Alfonso, one of the architects featured in my book Four Florida Moderns, spoke of it so passionately when I interviewed him. I often find myself drawn to it when I am in need of inspiration so I’m happy I will be catching up with Alberto soon—touring his Streamsong Resort with him in late June. I’ll share with you how Corb’s ideas resonate in his work when I write a post about our day together sometime in July.

I decided to return to the pages of the book when I returned home from High Point Market because I had spied it on the shelves of the Bienenstock Furniture Library during my day spent researching there. One of my favorite chapters presents Corb’s beliefs about drawing. I’m not adept at the skill but I have always admired anyone who can draw or sketch ideas. It’s likely one of the reasons I am so fascinated with architects who maintain drawing and painting as disciplines that inform their work. Corb begins the chapter with, “We learn to see how things are born. We see them develop, grow, change, blossom, flourish and die…And the grain matures.” He maintains the fundamental principle to heightened creativity is “from the inside out,” stating, “Everything in life is in essence biological.”

I’m a writer who gets quite excited about conceptual ideas but when I first read the fact that he equates biology with the built world I had a tough time wrapping my mind around the notion. “Living, working, cultivating body and mind, moving from place to place, are parallel processes to those of blood, nervous and respiratory systems,” he writes, adding, “The value of all things lies in their purpose, in the germinating seed.” I have spent a good part of this holiday weekend steeped in germination, attempting to tease out a direction for my work-life that holds as much depth as possible, and I have taken Corb’s words to heart. I am working “from the inside out” in order to identify how I can make a difference as an author and new media strategist in a world filled with chatter.

I am grateful that I came across the book at the Bienenstock because it has reminded me how important passion is as I go through this process of re-visioning where I am heading as a writer and strategist. “Certain things have to be thought out in the abstract, to be debated in the mind or aloud, alone or in friendly (or unfriendly) discussion,” Corb wrote near the end of the book. Paired with his fluid drawings, the words filling the pages bring a holistic quality to his presentation of the creative process, which I find incredibly inspiring. He makes the point that he is 71 as he’s writing; that he’s been exploring architecture in some form or another for over 50 years having built his first house at 17.

Corb's Cabanon

The interiors of Corb’s seaside retreat, Cabanon.

“Poetry is in the heart of man,” he states. “I am a visual man, a man working with eyes and hands, animated by plastic endeavor.” As a writer, I believe that poetry could be at the heart of everything we do, including strategy for online platforms. This is what makes me want to push deeper into new territory as a content creator. As I make a map stretching into the future, I am inspired to ask, What is it we are building on the internet if not legacies and why wouldn’t we want to create the highest quality, richest presence we could tease from the great creative spirit within each of us? This is where I am going. Come along with me?

The interior of Le Corbusier’s Cabanon, a getaway he designed for himself in Roquebrune-Cap-Martin, France, was one of the places he delved into his patient search for inspiration.

Text of this “Leaving a Legacy” post © Saxon Henry, all rights reserved. Saxon Henry is the founder of The Literary Blog to Book Movement and author of Home of the Brave and Four Florida Moderns. Her creative writing blog is Improvateur and she posts snippets of design she comes across during her escapades on Saxon Summarily by Design.

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05/10/14
IFDA TAS entry Miss Welty.

Taking a Page (or Two) from Eudora Welty Books

Eudora Welty with family.

Eudora Welty with her mom and siblings.

“Why don’t you design a chair, Saxon?” My normal response to the question, posed by the inimitable Tamara Matthews Stephenson, would have been, “Pshaw; I’m no designer!” This means the only explanation I have for the insanity that caused the words “Why not?” to cheerfully slide from between my smiling lips is that I was caught up in the jet-wash of Toma Clark Haines’ and Justin Shaulis’ enthusiasm as they agreed to participate the #TakeASeat charity auction benefitting the New York Chapter of the International Furnishings and Design Association (IFDA). Eudora Welty quote.

“Why was I not even vaguely aware this was sheer foolishness at the time?” I asked myself upon waking the next morning as the full impact of the crazy move hit me. “I’m a writer, not a designer or artist; what the heck was I thinking?” Thankfully, the cogs kept turning long enough for me to realize my gal pal Pryor Callaway would be the perfect collaborator, not only because she is an artist and Pratt-educated industrial designer; she’s also a fellow southerner, which gave us some serious south-of-the-Mason-Dixon-Line shorthand to tap into as we discussed our initial ideas.

As we talked about lifelong inspirations, an obvious choice came springing to mind—one of our favorite southern writers and Pryor’s fellow Mississippian Eudora Welty, who said, “Don’t be like the rest of them, darling.” Since this pretty much sums up our personalities and the way we live our lives, we knew we’d hit pay dirt. The sexy chair that would serve as her design double was so quickly and easily nabbed from a midtown street (thanks ever so much for your wicked sharp eye, Scott Switzer!), the project seemed to take on a life of its own.

The most delicious part of the effort for me was having an excuse to reread one of my favorite Eudora Welty books, One Writer’s Beginnings, which contains three lectures the author gave at Harvard University in 1983. In the talks, she presents beautiful narratives about her childhood and the signs that proved she was developing the patterns of a writer, which she delineated as “Listening,” “Learning to See” and “Finding a Voice.” Though I read it in 1984, the book remains deeply important for me because it was one of a handful that inspired the writer’s notebook discipline I have maintained since.

In the chapter “Finding a Voice,” her description of a train trip she took with her father when she was a girl is as remarkable a depiction of experiential narrative I’d ever read, inspiring me to record a number of memories I might never have put down on paper, including a Sunday afternoon excursion I took with my family when I was twelve. The soupy Tennessee humidity comes rushing back as I write this—an irrefutable oppressiveness even while the wind pummeled me through the half-lowered windows of the candy apple-red Forty Ford my dad had spent months restoring. The roll-tucked vinyl upholstery of the back seat the size of a deep-cushioned sofa stuck to the skin on the backs of my legs as Hang On Sloopy thumped a plunky beat from the eight-track player dad had installed in the glossy burl walnut dashboard he’d created from scratch.

Before she was Miss Welty...

A, ahem, nude Miss Welty.

My favorite piece of Welty’s story was her description of the sleeping compartment to which she and her father would retire as the train trundled through the darkened countryside: “The swaying porter would be making ready our berths for the night, pulling the shade down just so, drawing the green fishnet hammock across the window so the clothes you took off could ride along beside you, turning down the tight-made bed, standing up the two snowy pillows as high as they were wide, switching on the eye of the reading lamp, starting the tiny electric fan—you suddenly saw its blades turn into gauze and heard its insect murmur; and drawing across it all the pair of thick green theaterlike curtains—billowing, smelling of cigar smoke—between which you would crawl or dive headfirst to button them together with yourself inside, to be seen no more that night.”

Saxon Henry wrapping Miss Welty

It’s all about the process…

I asked Pryor how Eudora had first inspired her and she told me Welty’s descriptions wowed her just as strongly as they had stirred me: “She could create conversation that made you feel like you were sitting on the porch with the characters, the same ‘glow’ of sweat on your brow as had popped out on theirs. She had a talent for capturing life in the small southern town and revealing it as if she was peeling back the layers of an onion. Southerners speak in a sort of code sometimes, with a politeness that is much louder if you know the language, and Eudora knew the language.”

Pryor’s descriptions of her childhood experiences could have been culled from the pages of a Welty story: “I grew up playing Old Maids with my grandmother after school until cocktail hour rolled around. Once the drinks came out, my brother and I would catch lighting bugs in Mason jars around the water oak tree while the adult members of the family enjoyed their libations on the deck. I guess you could say her stories of a southern life hit home.”

There were geographical ties between the two, as well. Eudora attended college in Pryor’s hometown of Columbus, Mississippi, and Pryor went to Millsaps College in Jackson where Welty was born and lived most of her life: “When I was at Millsaps, I lived three or four blocks from Miss Welty and I could shoot myself that I never knocked on her door!”

Pryor Callaway works on an art piece.

Pryor works her magic on Miss Welty.

I asked Pryor if covering the chair with Welty’s fiction had made her feel any differently about the author’s stories, and she answered, “I don’t think the chair has made me feel differently but the process certainly did. As we were laminating the non-consecutive pages from her 13 short stories onto the seat and back of the chair, I was looking for a line or two to highlight on the pages and I was just amazed that not even knowing the context of the story or characters, every page I picked up contained a little piece of art that made my southern heart smile. In fact, many of them actually made me laugh out loud!”

Given the authenticity and creativity this project inspired in us, it’s going to be a bit tough for us to say goodbye to our Miss Welty but we will be happy if she brings the IFDA NY and the Habitat for Humanity some beneficial funds during the auction, which will take place this coming Wednesday, May 14, from 7 to 9 p.m. at Room & Board (105 Wooster Street in the NYC Soho neighborhood). The vivacious Libby Langdon will be the auctioneer during the event, which is also sponsored by New York Cottages and Gardens. I hope you’ll buy tickets online and join us because this will be an incredible evening benefitting a seriously good cause.

In case you’re wondering how I feel about my foray into the decorative arts now that the deed is done, I’m happy to report I’m thrilled I participated. To be honest, and to my tremendous relief, it has been a remarkably fun project from concept to execution thanks to Pryor’s fearlessness with machine tools and finicky substances I wouldn’t have dreamed of being in the same room with much less using! Here’s to girl power of all stripes (and with a gamut of tools, including the almighty pen), right Miss Welty?

Drumroll, please: our lovely little lady, Miss Welty!

IFDA TAS entry Miss Welty.

In all her glory, the reigning Miss Welty!

Footnote: Pryor and I would like to thank architectural photographer Paul Clemence for photographing Miss Welty. As he captured her on film, the three of us spent a rousing afternoon talking about his projects—next up a panel discussion inspired by his latest book Here/After: Structures in Time, which contains his photography, Robert Landon’s poetic essays and a foreword by Terence Riley. In case you will attend the Venice Biennale and would like to go, the panel takes place on June 4 at 4 p.m. at the Istituto Europeo di Design, located at the historic Palazzo Franchetti on the Grand Canal, definitely a fitting venue for a discussion on time and architecture. If the panel is even half as inspiring as the book, it’s worth a plane ticket and the jet lag. Here’s to the legacy the intrepid architectural aficionado will leave!

Text of this “Leaving a Legacy” post © Saxon Henry, all rights reserved. Saxon Henry is the founder of The Literary Blog to Book Movement and author of Home of the Brave and Four Florida Moderns. Her creative writing blog is Improvateur and she posts snippets of design she comes across during her escapades on Saxon Summarily by Design.

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04/16/14
Megan practices her French.

Who’s That Girl? A Jet Set Fantasy!

I saw Bernhardt's Jet Set Buffet during High Point Market.

The Jet Set Buffet by Bernhardt.

by Saxon Henry

When the Bernhardt Jet Set Buffet flowed through the raucous column of my Tweetdeck during the #HPMkt Twitter chat on the evening of March 12th, I chased down the image until I could steady it on my computer screen. Then, I did what any self-respecting girl involved in a French fantasy would do: I RT’d and Tumbled it! The piece of furniture in its setting had the undeniable je ne sais quoi a stylish Parisian woman would have appreciated, and I found myself wishing I were ensconced in an airy space in one of the City of Light’s arrondissements.

The Jet Set Desk by Bernhardt.

Bernhardt’s Jet Set desk in hornback.

Three weeks later, Carmen Natschke and I were given a tour of the Bernhardt showroom during High Point Market and my fantasy deepened, shifting from the daydream that I was living amongst the Jet Set vignettes to imagining a quintessential French femme as she begins her week—the slim skirt with its flirty kick-pleat she would she be pulling from the wardrobe as she rushed to dress for her day; the unopened letter she hastily plucked from her stylish desk and tucked into the outside pocket of her clutch with little more than a pouty regard for the man who’d carefully pinned it in the hopes of a liaison.

Bernhardt's Jet Set Dining Table.

The Jet Set Dining table.

As the end of the week drew near, I saw her sashaying around the highly polished floors in her stockings in search of the necklace she’d hastily dropped onto her dining table the night before, the heavy gem encased in gold sliding across the Caviar finish of its top as she retrieved it. Finally, the elegant points of her kitten heels clicked along as she picked up the pace and closed the boiserie door behind her, the edge of her filmy scarf the last piece of her ensemble to disappear.

My musings flirted with actresses like Jeanne Moreau in Bay of Angles, the sexy couture she wore as she moved around that glamorous coastal setting the epitome of chic. Her vivid sensuality morphed to Catherine Deneuve in Belle de Jour, her attire the counter opposite as her slim figure was encased in the tailored lines of the clothing her refined life afforded her as she experimented with her sexuality. But there was a slight disconnect from those starlets to our modern times evoked by the materials and contours of the Jet Set collection, the textiles used for the upholstery and finishes on the wood are seriously au courant. I made my way through a short list of femme fatales that came after these two iconic actresses but I just couldn’t pin her down.

Jeanne Moreau stars in Bay of Angels.

Jeanne Moreau, sexy in “Bay of Angels.”

As I watched the debut of the final season of Mad Men this past Sunday night, I gleaned my strongest sense of her yet: she is a more confident version of Megan—not Megan Draper but Megan Calvet, the shier mademoiselle preceding the California girl we saw bounding from her convertible to retrieve her husband from the airport this past week. Somewhere between the leggy, toothy beauty Jessica Paré portrayed as she was stealing Don Draper’s heart and the vulnerable, apprehensive woman we saw on Sunday is the star of my musings.

Megan practices her French.

Megan sings “Zou Bijou, Bijou.”

I thought about how she would sometimes show up as the ingénue was being usurped by the determined actress. There were a number of transformative Mad Men moments: think her performance of “Zou Bisou, Bisou,” the short black shift with its billowing sheer sleeves and her highly teased bob hairstyle an earthy version of late 1950s French bravado. I have to say it’s a testament to Bernhardt’s design team, headed up by Ron Fiore, that the furniture and interior architecture could stand up to my fantasies running the gamut from classic French cinema to the “it” girl of modern-day Paris.

The Jet Set Collection by Bernhardt.

Bernhardt’s Nadine Chaise.

In case I’ve confused you: we’ve left the Midcentury Modern Megan, a lady of the Canyon, behind to find a self-assured young professional with big dreams curled up on her buttery soft chaise on a rainy weekend afternoon. There’s a winter chill beyond the windows looking out over the Tuileries and a steaming cup of tea sits on the chest beside her, misting the fog-muted air. She’s a bit restless as she pulls that unopened letter from the pocket of her velvet robe and pauses, still undecided as to whether she will open it or ignore it and book that trip to join her friends in Gstaad. That’s the Jet Set girl. She has choices. And they are all good ones!

I have a feeling this collection will be one of Bernhardt’s legacy lines due to the timeless feel of the furniture in it. I will be creating a Pinterest board in the fall when these beautiful pieces will hit showrooms across America. I’ll add a link to the board when I have it live. Happy Jet-Setting, everyone!

Text of this “Leaving a Legacy” post © Saxon Henry, all rights reserved. Saxon Henry is the founder of The Literary Blog to Book Movement and author of Home of the Brave and Four Florida Moderns. Her creative writing blog is Improvateur and she posts snippets of design she comes across during her escapades on Saxon Summarily by Design.

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04/1/14
Editta Sherman Grand Central Terminal.

He Who Seeks Beauty Will Find It

Bill Cunningham Facades

Bill Cunningham photographs his models on the steps of the New York City Courthouse.

In the documentary Bill Cunningham New York, a passionate observer is shown to viewers as the film crew trails him, sometimes at his desk at The New York Times, but often on one of 29 bicycles he’s owned over the past few decades (that’s the count when the film was made in 2010 after 28 of them had been stolen as he knelt at the curb with his camera raised or stepped inside one of New York City’s notable soirees—the number could certainly be higher now).

“The best fashion show is on the street,” he declared. “Always has been; always will be!” As he combed Manhattan’s sidewalks to tease out trends, it impressed me immensely that he never bought into the material world, even as he lived to capture its spirit. And though it would appear there were two versions of the photographer—the one in his duct-taped poncho on the street and the dapperly dressed gentleman at black-tie fund-raisers—he was genuinely no different regardless of the garb.

Editta Sherman Grand Central Terminal.

Editta Sherman poses in front of Grand Central Terminal.

When pressed to explain how it is he’s able to identify the trends he sees, he shot back, “I don’t decide anything: I let the street speak to me. In order to hear, you have to stay out there.” And stay he does, filling his “On the Street” pages with shots taken at such a rapid pace it seems miraculous any of them are clear enough to publish. Don’t forget, he’s in his 80s!

A maker of fashions before he became a taker of fashions, he designed hats under the millinery label of William J; then he began curating coincidences he saw as he rode around town—an entire page of varied shades of blue morphed to a page filled with cropped pants morphed to a page of similarly structured coats. Kim Hastreiter, the editor of Paper magazine, compared him to a war photographer who’ll do anything to get the shot.

“He photographs life,” said Annette de la Renta, wife of iconic fashion designer Oscar de la Renta. But it’s a somewhat parodied pastiche of life chronicled in a series of photographs on view at the New York Historical Society Museum and Library through June 15, 2014. The pairings of vintage fashion and architecture illustrate the exuberant artist’s eye and point of view. I trekked to the museum last Friday to see the images he had styled with outfits he found in New York City’s thrift shops and street fairs, calling on friends like Editta Sherman to model for him in front of some of the city’s most notable buildings.

He began his Façades project in 1968, just for fun, and spent eight years amassing over 500 outfits he photographed in over 1800 locations, jotting down details on the versos of many of the prints. On the back of a shot of Sherman in a velvet frock coat, vest and breeches, he wrote, “Our model appears in man’s clothes not as a joke but rather as a means of showcasing a historical treasure found amidst the trash of a second hand 9th Ave shop.” He was also keen on writing down what deals he snagged in these resale establishments—a 1770s mob-cap of white lace and taffeta the thrift shop mistook as a chair doily cost him $2; and an embroidered muslin Napoleon I dress with a shawl, circa 1804, was a steal because it had arrived as protective wrapping for a porcelain vase and no one realized its value.

Editta Sherman with the Guggenheim.

One of Bill Cunningham’s most playful shots of Editta Sherman with the Guggenheim Museum behind her.

I was glad I had watched the documentary for a second time the night before I went to see the exhibition because his spirit and authenticity that shone through in the film made the photographs feel so much more alive. As I walked through the rooms holding his images, I heard the emotion in his voice during his acceptance speech for the National Order of the Legion of Honour of France: “It’s not work, it’s pleasure. It’s as true today as it’s ever been—he who seeks beauty will find it.” He choked up as he said the last bit, his determination to create beauty with his pairings evident in his energy and the result, though not every shot an au courant take on attractiveness—it is his brand of beauty we see through his eyes.

He told the documentarians that he has gone to church most Sundays since he was a kid; that when he was young, he spent his time looking at the women’s hats—it was the rare photograph in the exhibition that didn’t come to its creative flourish by way of a hat. I loved watching him scribble in his reporter’s notebook and hearing him say he wouldn’t take money for his gigs at Details magazine because he didn’t want anyone to try to control his work: “Money’s the cheapest thing; freedom’s the most expensive,” he said. This wasn’t mere posturing, as was evidenced by the fact he pulled his heart medication from a folded NYT envelope he took from the pocket of his jacket in a Paris café. This was done so unselfconsciously I’d have a tough time believing he had staged it.

Editta Sherman on the Subway.

Editta Sherman on the Subway, photographed by Bill Cunningham.

Sherman was in many of his pairings in the show and I marveled at the image of her standing tall in that velvet ensemble as a salute to the tower of St. Paul’s Chapel; responded viscerally to her strong profile with the voluminous flowered and feathered hat imitating the statuary atop Grand Central Terminal; and giggled when I saw her pert posture as she hid beneath the puffy pouf of a hat mimicking the shape of the Guggenheim’s conical tower. I heard the final song of the documentary flowing forth as I looked at the edgiest photograph in the exhibition—Sherman seated in a subway car slathered in graffiti, her pale period clothing the antithesis of the dirty backdrop and crude black letters defacing the dented metal surfaces. It was the Velvet Underground with Nico singing Lou Reed’s lyrics “I’ll Be Your Mirror.” I thought it an excellent choice given Cunningham’s life is spent mirroring what he sees, and it brought tears to my eyes surrounded by his heartfelt photography project.

Cunningham was adamant that his projects are not about celebrity for him; they are about fashion. He who seeks beauty will find it, he said on the stage in front of that enrapt Parisian audience. “I find it hard to believe you don’t know/ The beauty that you are,” Nico crooned in her odd accent as the closing credits rolled. This doesn’t just apply to the self-effacing Mr. Cunningham’s images, but to the man himself. He was wont to poke fun at himself for his grand lack of fashion sense as he duct-taped his poncho and bought cheap electric blue jackets that became his signature but that’s exactly why he’s so precious—neither his own physical comfort or appearance matters as he sacrifices all for the effort in everything he does. I highly recommend you see the movie and view the exhibition as a dual exercise; the payoff will be tremendous!

Text of this “Leaving a Legacy” post © Saxon Henry, all rights reserved. Saxon Henry is the founder of The Literary Blog to Book Movement and author of Home of the Brave and Four Florida Moderns. Her creative writing blog is Improvateur and she posts snippets of design she comes across during her escapades on Saxon Summarily by Design.

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