Sarasota architect Guy Peterson's Theisen Residence from my book "Four Florida Moderns."

The Sense of Beauty

Saxon Henry article for PBC&G

Some of my most beautiful clips are from pieces I wrote for Palm Beach Cottages & Gardens magazine.

I am guessing this will not come as much of a surprise to anyone but me. As I was digitizing the majority of my design and architecture clips—all 400 of them—during the past few days it occurred to me that my twenty-year career as a journalist and author has been focused around the subject of beauty. As the images transcended the scanner bed, morphing almost magically onto the monitor, I recognized just how much time I’ve spent investigating the particulars of the perfectly designed space, the aesthetics of exemplary architecture and the precision of product design. I was also reminded of all of the incredibly talented people I’ve had as collaborators in this effort—from astute editors and art directors to brilliant web designers and accomplished photographers (a number of whom I am thrilled to say have become very close friends and long-term colleagues).

Sarasota architect Guy Peterson's Theisen Residence from my book "Four Florida Moderns."

Sarasota architect Guy Peterson’s Theisen Residence from my book “Four Florida Moderns.”

Today, I begin an exciting new project as I conduct my first interview for a monthly column I will be crafting for Architizer. Drumroll, please: I have the privilege of visiting the New York studio of Daniel Libeskind and interviewing the visionary architect! I will feature him in October in my debut piece exploring the emotionality of architecture, and I am tremendously excited (okay, and a tiny bit intimidated) to have the opportunity to speak with him about this subject. Thank you Paul Clemence for sparking the idea of including him in my line-up.

As I was journaling this morning about this afternoon’s expedition and my review of the articles and books I’ve penned over the years, I thought of all of the passionate explorers who have tackled the subject of beauty in their writings through the ages. One of my favorite touchstones is Plotinus’s Enneads, which he wrote in the third century (AD). The first Ennead contains the “Sixth Tractate” devoted entirely to the subject. “What, then, is it that gives comeliness to material forms?” he asks as he questions whether there is one principle from which all grace derives. It’s staggering to think of the number of philosophers, designers, architects and writers who have devoted untold hours of exploration to the questions he posed so long ago.

It was a reading of The Cantos of Ezra Pound that first inspired my own consideration of beauty as a subject worthy of serious contemplation when I came across a refrain the poet attributed to Aubrey Beardsley. The phrase “beauty is difficult” first appears in Cantos LXXIV and a version of it resurfaces in Cantos LXXX when Pound relates a conversation between William Butler Yeats and Beardsley. The idea that someone could consider such a subject as anything but serene made my mind explode! Yeats records the comment in his Memoirs, writing, “Mr. Beardsley created a visionary beauty in Salome with the Head of John the Baptist, but because, as he told me, ‘beauty is the most difficult of things,’ he chose in its stead the satirical grotesques of his later period.” These works may have been considered “horrors” in their time, as he goes on to note, but when we look back at the Art Nouveau age, Beardsley’s work is still celebrated as alluringly illustrative of the era. I confess I could go on for quite a while, and I will be returning to this subject soon without doubt, but duty calls and it is time to make my way to lower Manhattan.

In closing, I celebrate this afternoon’s excursion with an architect’s thoughts on beauty. Le Corbusier, who wrote so passionately on the subject in Towards a New Architecture, provides the perfect finish: “The architect, by his arrangement of forms, realizes an order which is a pure creation of his spirit; by forms and shapes he affects our sense to an acute degree and provokes plastic emotions; by the relationships which he creates he wakes profound echoes in us, he gives us the measure of an order which we feel to be in accordance with that of our world, he determines the various movements of our heart and of our understanding; it is then that we experience the sense of beauty.”

Saxon Henry on the Dorchester Group's Coworth Park for "Interiors" magazine.

One of my all-time favorite travel/design pieces was on the Dorchester Collection’s Coworth Park for “Interiors” magazine.

This is a post in my DesignSalon Series; to see others, search the blog by typing “TrendView” in the search bar. 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.

Boothbay Harbor Flowing Tide by Saxon Henry

The Rocky Coastline of Downeast Maine

Pemaquid LightHouse by Saxon Henry.

The Pemaquid Lighthouse on the rocky coastline of Downeast Maine.

I can’t believe summer almost flew by without a trip to the rocky coastline of Downeast Maine! I am missing the beautiful landscape I wasn’t able to enjoy this summer due to a complex project for a client so I am thrilled to be heading there today. In preparation for my reentering the state’s abundant natural beauty, I’d like to share a riff about one of last year’s trips that celebrates an expressive writer and soulful environmental activist.

The friend I am visiting, Zina Glazebrook, has moved up the coast a bit and is now near the Pemaquid lighthouse featured in the lead image in this post. We took a trip to the spot along the shore where the waves blast onto land last year when she and her darling dachshund Iggy were living in Boothbay Harbor, which is where this musing takes place one deliciously drizzly afternoon. I knew it would be a perfect day for cozying up to the fire so I made quick work of moving a wing chair to a spot where I could enjoy both the warmth flowing from the fireplace and the view. I propped my feet up and gazed at the boulder-strewn shoreline, my writer’s notebook in my lap, thinking about how many times I have made this exact move—from Tuscany to Lake Como and Paris to London. There’s something about sitting and staring out a window to take in one’s surroundings that serves as an important act of settling in.

It is also an integral a part of the creative process for me as a writer that I call making friends with a place. That day, as the harbor fingered landward, I made note of how it narrowed to end in a crescent pocked with rotund stones cresting the silvery liquid even at high tide. At low tide, a squidgy-looking silted floor revealed itself, the muck pocked with clumps of mossy green seaweed. Sans water, the grasses were relieved of their ability to undulate poetically, slumping to form globs of sludge that melded with the gunky floor. At first I thought to describe the bottom as moon-like, a world where craters fill with water, but it was friendlier than that.

Boothbay Harbor Ebbing Tide by Saxon Henry

Boothbay Harbor with an ebbing tide.

As in most coastal communities, there was the normal jumble of human-activity gear marring the natural beauty, perhaps the worst offender an above-ground hot tub set within an outcropping of land off the parking lot of a nearby hotel. The whirlpool’s ugly exterior was the counter opposite to the aged stone that surrounded its platform—the walls, which disappeared into the harbor when the tide sluiced in, pocked with patches of mustard-yellow organisms of such a bright hue I couldn’t believe they were natural. As I stared at a circle of plastic Adirondack-style chairs and occasional tables in the most garish colors imaginable, I wondered, Why is it some humans choose to buy such ugliness rather than opting for furnishings that manifest natural beauty and are inherently sustainable due to their classic features and well-made longevity? Set against the lush tones of lawns effervescing from a solid week of rain and the beautifully hued lichens, these machine-made artificial atrocities were downright offensive.

Conservationist Rachel Carson, who left such a valuable legacy in her activism, also left a beautiful one in her writing. The prose she penned includes some graceful meditations on Maine’s landscapes (including a mention of the bright plant-life I noticed for the first time during that trip to Maine) in her book The Sense of Wonder: “A rainy day is the perfect time for a walk in the woods. I always thought so myself; the Maine woods never seem so fresh and alive as in wet weather. Then all the needles on the evergreens wear a sheath of silver; ferns seem to have grown to almost tropical lushness and every leaf has its edging of crystal drops. Strangely colored fungi — mustard-yellow and apricot and scarlet — are pushing out of the leaf mold and all the lichens and the mosses have come alive with green and silver freshness.” What I love about this narrative is how it illustrates what a lyrical writer she was. It’s not the first notion most people call to mind about her due to the fact that her book Silent Spring set the environmental movement in motion, but it’s how I remember her.

Boothbay Harbor Flowing Tide by Saxon Henry

Boothbay Harbor with a flowing tide.

As I watched a sudden swell in the water toy with a dock holding shiny yellow, orange and red kayaks, I had to wonder what she would think about the environment’s further decline and the added threat that plastics bring to the dilemma were she still alive. This pier sliced into the scene, culminating in a floating segment that moved at the bidding of the rising and lowering tides. As I watched its edge wobble, raindrops began stippling the water with their nimble points, circles of movement radiating out to interrupt the reflection of the cloud-choked skies the sun was trying its best to penetrate. The gulls keened as they pirouetted in the air and dropped swiftly to skim the surface of the shallowest waters. A large crow lit on the crossbar of the structure separating the anchored section of the dock from the fluctuating platform and began cawing from the frame as if he sought entrance through this veritable doorway at the land’s edge. On that Independence Day, I found that what nature was saying was more interesting that what people had to say; I found that the elemental effects deposited in the beautiful setting seemed so much more relevant than the things people decided were necessary to outfit their frantic vacation days filled with sport and relaxation. As I closed my writer’s notebook to move my chair closer to the fire, I wondered, Is this really the legacy we want to leave?

Carson had some powerful advice for parents who want to ensure their children learn how to truly care for the environment. The narrative is also from The Sense of Wonder and I include it here because I do believe it is our future generations who have even a ghost of a chance to save the earth (if it’s not already too late): “I sincerely believe that for the child, and for the parent seeking to guide him, it is not half so important to know as to feel. If facts are the seeds that later produce knowledge and wisdom, then the emotions and the impressions of the senses are the fertile soil in which the seeds must grow. The years of early childhood are the time to prepare the soil. Once the emotions have been aroused — a sense of the beautiful, the excitement of the new and the unknown, a feeling of sympathy, pity, admiration or love — then we wish for knowledge about the subject of our emotional response. Once found, it has lasting meaning. It is more important to pave the way for the child to want to know than to put him on a diet of facts he is not ready to assimilate.”

Studying those ghastly chairs, I began to wonder what initiatives the design industry has in place to marginalize impacts on the environment. I will be doing some investigating in the months to come. If you know of any, please leave me a comment so I can include them in future writing, okay? If you enjoyed Carson’s prose I included in this post, I highly recommend her books for the very last of your summer reading list. In case you’re unsure whether her writing is expressive enough to count as escapist prose, I leave you with this musing about sanderlings she saw feeding on an island beach in Maine before they flew away to northern climes. It’s from her book Under the Sea-Wind:

Sanderlings on a beach by Saxon Henry.

“While the tide was still ebbing, the sanderlings fed on the island beach…” Rachel Carson.

“Before sunset, the skies lightened and the wind abated. While it was yet light the sanderlings left the barrier island and set out across the sound. Beneath them as they wheeled over the inlet was the deep green ribbon of the channel that wound, with many curvings, across the lighter shallows of the sound. They followed the channel, passing between the leaning red spar buoys, past the tide rips where the water streamed, broken into swirls and eddies, over a sunken reef of oyster shell, and came at last to the island. There they joined a company of several hundred white-rumped sandpipers, least sandpipers, and ring-necked plovers that were resting on the sand. [...]

“About an hour before dawn the sanderling flock gathered together on the island beach, where the gentle tide was shifting the windrows of shells. The little band of brown-mottled birds mounted into the darkness and, as the island grew small beneath them, set out toward the north.”

Footnote: I consider Carson as much a groundbreaker as Beatrix Farrand because both of these women devoted their lives to aspects of the natural world, though very different versions of it. If you would like to read about the garden design visionary, I featured the Groundbreakers show at The New York Botanical Gardens, which honored her legacy, on the blog earlier this summer.

This is a Wanderjahrlot installment in my series of DesignSalon posts. To see others, search the blog by typing “Wanderjahrlot” in the search bar [I dare you to keep a straight face while doing so!]. Text and images © 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.

Center stage in this image is a Sheffield Plate Beehive Tea Machine; image courtesy The London Silver Vaults.

The Jane Austen Era: Silver for Sale

A pair of antique silver neo-classical sauce boats by William Holmes, circa 1781; image courtesy The London Silver Vaults.

A pair of antique silver neo-classical sauce boats by William Holmes, circa 1781; image courtesy The London Silver Vaults.

by Saxon Henry

If you are a fan of movies inspired by the novels of Jane Austen but you haven’t read her books, you may be surprised to know that the beautiful period backdrops achieved in films like Emma are not the work of the novelist herself. Though highly emotional in a way that brings all of her characters to life, her narratives are quite limited in the concrete details that film companies like Miramax achieve in the grand productions they create to emulate England’s historical periods, such as the Victorian and Georgian Eras.

Cast Silver Rococo Candlesticks by Richard Gosling, circa 1769; image courtesy The London Silver Vaults.

Cast Silver Rococo Candlesticks by Richard Gosling, circa 1769; image courtesy The London Silver Vaults.

This means serious research is involved to illustrate the way life was lived during the time these characters moved around in their worlds. The work of talented set decorators make these fictional constructs ring true (or not), as do historians and knowledgeable purveyors of fine antiques. When an email from Pippa Roberts landed in my inbox regarding Might & Magnificence: Silver in the Georgian Age, I thought this would be the perfect opportunity to highlight how the design world, and those who provide it with the wares that populate its realities, makes such an impact on films produced the world over.

The sale, which continues through October 4, 2014, is being held at The London Silver Vaults on Chancery Lane. Guest Curator Philippa Glanville has drawn from the inventory of the 30 shops in the complex to illustrate each of the major design trends that held sway during the Georgian Era—from embellished Rococo to neo-classical, which then read as a more restrained style given the aesthetics of the time, though we now think of it as being fairly ornate. I wish I could make my way across the Atlantic and see the grandeur for myself given Glanville’s resume, which includes a position as the former Keeper of Metalwork at the Victoria and Albert Museum, especially since each piece she’s chosen is for sale. In case you’d like to benefit from her knowledge, Glanville has a number of interesting books available, many of them relating to silver and all of them excellent additions to a design bookshelf.

Center stage in this image is a Sheffield Plate Beehive Tea Machine; image courtesy The London Silver Vaults.

Center stage in this image is a Sheffield Plate Beehive Tea Machine; image courtesy The London Silver Vaults.

To illustrate my opening salvo today, I thought it would be fun to juxtapose Austen’s novel Emma against the 1996 version of the film based upon the book. Snippets from the novel prove how the author resolutely lets us under the skin of her characters through pointed dialogue while leaving the backdrop to the imagination. The film—directed by Douglas McGrath, and staring Gwyneth Paltrow and Jeremy Northam—does the heavy lifting in illustrating how life could have been for the inhabitants of Highbury Village, down to the silver tea urn placed commandingly in the center of the scene in the video below.

Now that you’ve watched the scene, here it is taken directly from Austen’s novel:

“I do not ask whether you are musical, Mrs. Elton. Upon these occasions a lady’s character generally precedes her; and Highbury has long known that you are a superior performer.”

“Oh! no, indeed; I must protest against any such idea. A superior performer!—very far from it, I assure you. Consider from how partial a quarter your information came. I am doatingly fond of music—passionately fond;—and my friends say I am not entirely devoid of taste; but as to any thing else, upon my honour my performance is mediocre to the last degree. You, Miss Woodhouse, I well know, play delightfully. I assure you it has been the greatest satisfaction, comfort, and delight to me, to hear what a musical society I am got into. It is a necessary of life to me; and having always been used to a very musical society, both at Maple Grove and in Bath, it would have been a most serious sacrifice. I honestly said as much to Mr. E. when he was speaking of my future home, and expressing his fears lest the retirement of it should be disagreeable; and the inferiority of the house too—knowing what I had been accustomed to—of course he was not wholly without apprehension…”

Emma and Knightley have tea.

Emma and Knightley have tea in the 1996 version of the film “Emma.”

The above image illustrates a scene during which Emma, played by Paltrow, and Mr. Knightley, played by Northam, disagree over the appropriateness of the match between Harriet and Robert Martin. It’s a perfect example as to how central silver was to the custom of having tea during Jane Austen’s era. In the film, the pair had just been shooting a round of archery so the tea was set up on the lawn, silver and all. In the book, the conversation didn’t take place out-of-doors but the gist of their argument mirrors the book’s point of view perfectly (just in a sumptuous setting that the novelist had not scripted). Here’s how Austen fleshed out the heated exchange in the story, foregoing any set direction:

“Emma made no answer, and tried to look cheerfully unconcerned, but was really feeling uncomfortable and wanting him very much gone. She did not repent what she had done; she still thought herself a better judge of such a point of female right and refinement than he could be; but she had a sort of habitual respect for his judgment in general, which made her dislike having it so loudly against her; and to have him sitting just opposite to her in angry state, was very disagreeable. Some minutes passed in this unpleasant silence, with only one attempt on Emma’s side to talk of the weather, but he made no answer. He was thinking….” After he gathered himself, he expressed more of his exasperation and then hastily left. “‘Good morning to you,’—said he, rising and walking off abruptly. He was very much vexed…”

I hope you found this comparison of the literary and the cinematic as interesting as I did given how film productions that create microcosms of design significance are so driven by historical context.

Regency-influenced designs in silver; image courtesy The London Silver Vaults.

Regency-influenced designs in silver; image courtesy The London Silver Vaults.

This occurs in television, too. Though the series doesn’t take place during the Georgian Era, productions like Downton Abbey are equally dependent upon superb set decorators and historical accuracy (the series’ creator Julian Fellowes is famous for being a stickler for accuracy). The Emmy’s are coming up in a few weeks (see them on NBC at 8pm ET on Monday, August 25th), and Downton is nominated for an Emmy for Outstanding Art Direction for a Period Series, Miniseries or a Movie (Single-Camera) for Season 4/Episode 8. Their most lavish episode to date, it is the piece of the Grantham story when Rose is introduced into society (and last season’s finale). Congratulations to production designer Donal Woods, art director Mark Kebby and set decorator Gina Cromwell for the nomination and good luck!

Cora (Elizabeth McGovern) and Lady Rose (Lily James) prepare to meet the royal family; image copyright Nick Briggs/Carnival Film & Television Limited 2013 for MASTERPIECE.

Cora (Elizabeth McGovern) and Lady Rose (Lily James) prepare to meet the royal family; image copyright Nick Briggs/Carnival Film & Television Limited 2013 for MASTERPIECE.

To see a broader array of silver for sale in The London Silver Vaults, visit this Pinterest board filled with the magnificent artisanship that held sway during the Georgian Era. If you happen to travel to London for the show, let me know what you find for your collection, will you?

This is a Novel Ideas post in my DesignSalon Series; to see the others, search the blog by typing “Novel Ideas” in the search bar. 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.

Vassili P. Stasov used cast iron to compose this staircase in the chapel wing of the Catherine Place at Tsarskoye Selo (circa 1820), image courtesy of The Vendome Press and Emmanuel Ducamp.

The Summer Reading List of Diva Carmen Natschke

Carmen Natschke shares her summer reading list with Saxon Henry, image courtesy of Annabel Campainha Photography.

Carmen Natschke shares her summer reading list with Saxon Henry, image courtesy of Annabel Campainha Photography.

For those of you who think Carmen Natschke, of The Decorating Diva fame, is merely a glamorous gadabout holding court in the design stratosphere, there is a well-read brainy girl behind those fashionable shades. I’ve had the privilege of getting to know her during the past several years and I am fascinated that she maintains such a stringent intellectual life—her mastery of languages (she’s learning a number of them as we speak) as admirable as her annual reading list (she pencils in 50 each time she sets her goals for the next year come fall).

I am aware that I have a reputation as a fecund writer but covering the number she’s checked off her list to this point in the year would make for too lengthy a post even for me, so I asked her to whittle it down to a few plums on her summer reading list. I thought this would give us a sampling of what she’s gleaned thus far. I hope you enjoy taking the excursion as much as I relished conducting it!

SH: How do you choose the books for your annual reading list?

CN: It’s random, really. I like to explore and discover new things, so much so that I have realized I have a voracious thirst for knowledge. When I choose books, I look for a challenge and for something that will take me outside my world. The subject has to be new in some way. It’s a diverse list because I love learning and I love reading. I told my husband Steve that I’m afraid there’s no way I’ll get to do everything I want to do before I die and he informed me I should completely give up that notion given my desire to be continually pushing into new territory!

SH: As you have carved more of an international presence on the design scene, has your taste in what you read changed?

CN: It has. I continue to read similar books design-wise—it’s part of my work to know what’s being published so I can pass the information along to my readers on The Decorating Diva—but I think I’ve become much more critical about what passes for design or art than I used to be. When I study design from a historical perspective, it helps me be more astute about what I’m seeing.

The chapter of “Staircases: the Architecture of Ascent” covering 1600-1800 is titled “A Theatre of Power” and illustrated with this sumptuous image of Jean-Léon Gérôme’s “Reception of the Grand Condé at Versailles” [1878], courtesy of The Vendome Press and Musée d’Orsay/Hervé Lewandowski.

The chapter of “Staircases: the Architecture of Ascent” covering 1600-1800 is titled “A Theatre of Power” and illustrated with this sumptuous image of Jean-Léon Gérôme’s “Reception of the Grand Condé at Versailles” [1878], courtesy of The Vendome Press and Musée d’Orsay/Hervé Lewandowski.

SH: Given the international component in your career has ramped up, has this made an impact on the list you compile each fall for the next year?

CN: I wouldn’t say so, but only because I was born in Spain and I have never lost touch with my European roots. I read books in French and Spanish, and I’m struggling through a book in Italian. Reading in different languages keeps my brain sharp.

SH: What is your favorite way to learn languages?

CN: It’s a mix—I have tutors; I take classes; and I love Babble.com. I’ve been speaking French since I was 13—my mom and my aunts are fluent so I was constantly being exposed to it growing up. Italian seems to be coming fairly easily because Spanish is my native language (I didn’t come to the United States until I was four).

SH: Would you say your summer reading list is mostly for pleasure, for inspiration, for personal growth or for career learning (or a mix of all of these)?

CN: I would say it’s all of them. When I was growing up, I was continually being told that reading keeps your mind vibrant; that engaging with a book does for the brain what exercise does for the body so the best thing you can do for your mind is to constantly be learning. I am so happy it was drummed into me when I was young because it has helped me avoid becoming intellectually stagnant as an adult. Each November and December, I tackle my goal setting for the next year and I pick 50 books knowing I will likely make it through about half of these. I think the exercise for me goes deeper than just plowing through a list of books, though; it’s about aiming to stay fascinated. This means if I’m disappointed with one, I don’t hesitate to stop reading because I see that it is not worth the investment of time to continue on.

SH: Where do you tend to come across your choices?

CN: Steve and I both love to read, and we will buy books when we see them—when we are traveling, for instance—and put them in our library. We have amassed a very good selection and I’ll take time to go through the books when I’m planning what I want to read for the following year. I’m often surprised when I scour the shelves and come across books we’ve bought that I’d forgotten about. I just seem to know when it’s time to delve into each one so it’s actually very organic.

Vassili P. Stasov used cast iron to compose this staircase in the chapel wing of the Catherine Place at Tsarskoye Selo (circa 1820), image courtesy of The Vendome Press and Emmanuel Ducamp.

Vassili P. Stasov used cast iron to compose this staircase in the chapel wing of the Catherine Place at Tsarskoye Selo (circa 1820), image courtesy of The Vendome Press and Emmanuel Ducamp.

SH: Let’s talk specifics and highlight a selection on this summer’s list that you’ve finished. I was particularly interested in the one you were discussing with JoAnn Locktov on our recent press trip to Streamsong ResortStaircases: the Architecture of Ascent by Oscar Tusquets Blanca, Martine Diot, Adelaïde de Savray, Jérôme Coignard and Jean Dethier—which I believe you’d just completed at the time. Which part of your life did this one feed and what is your take-away from the book?

CN: This book belongs in everyone’s library, and not simply because it is beautiful but because it’s so well written by the authors, who are architects, and art and architectural historians. When you think about it, they’ve taken such a simple thing as a staircase—which is so important to us as human beings—and pinned the evolution of it into a historical frame of reference. It’s rare to find a book that has both exemplary visual and contextual elements, bringing them together in such a comprehensive way that leaves you wanting more.

This is one of those choices that appealed to both my design sense and my thirst for knowledge. What I learned is that man is incredibly innovative in his never-ending quest to make things better for himself. If you look at the book, stairs were mostly in public spaces (like churches) when they came into being. They weren’t in private homes until The Middle Ages when they popped up in the residences of the affluent—remember; this was a time when wealth was just beginning to trickle down and stairs were seen as a sign of stature. Because they were additions early on, staircases were built on the outside of buildings. Once the fad had taken hold, even those who could have built them in the interiors sometimes built them on the outside for all to see in order to declare their home was one of prestige.

As I was reading, I found myself pausing and thinking back to places I’d traveled, and it suddenly clicked that some of the historic places I’d seen had these exterior staircases—the fact I’d seen them in person made me so excited! Take Versailles, for instance: there is an incredible staircase climbing to the orangery there. It was not only built as a functional means of ascending, it represented the great wealth of the king and queen, as well as the formidable power of France. The book also taught me that Michelangelo and Da Vinci were commissioned to create the type of staircases they were building in Italy in other parts of Europe. We take for granted how information moves so quickly now; communication was so slow then, it might be years before word would spread that there was this great thing going on somewhere else.

Isn’t it remarkable that we see staircases as functional things when initially they served as such signs of prominence? Now, we take them for granted, and in many buildings stairs versus elevators represent the low end of wealth. This is because humans figured out how to build them more economically, which caused them to decrease from status symbols to mundane elements in buildings, and technology brought us even more prestigious ways of reaching higher floors.

Paris’ architect to high society Henri Parent, designed this grand staircase for the Hôtel André (1868-76), now the Musée Jacquemart-André. Photo courtesy The Vendome Press and Marc Walter.

Paris’ architect to high society Henri Parent, designed this grand staircase for the Hôtel André (1868-76), now the Musée Jacquemart-André. Photo courtesy The Vendome Press and Marc Walter.

SH: A few other books Carmen has on her list to read this summer and why:

Bonfire of the Humanities: Rescuing the Classics in an Impoverished Age by Victor Davis Hanson, John Heath and Bruce S. Thornton

I was drawn to this book because it is written by three university professors talking about how we’re losing some of the greatest works in universities over time for a variety of reasons. I experienced this on a personal level because I had to read classics I wanted to experience, such as The Iliad, The Odyssey and Beowulf, outside of coursework in high school, and I felt this was just wrong. I will be interested to see how they address the state of education from an academic point of view. The main point that inspired my choosing this book is that important works are slowly being squeezed out of curricula and it’s a cultural loss for our country.

A History of Prussia by H.W. Koch

This book is from Steve’s library. He’s of Polish/German descent, and one of my goals during the next five years is to learn Polish so I will be segueing from this book on Prussia once I read it this summer to the history of Poland this fall. I feel these will prepare me to learn the language and will also open up my point of view by helping me understand parts of the world I’m not familiar with in the historical perspective. Steve has another book that speaks to how important Prussian history is in the context of American history because they helped us during the Revolutionary War (on the down low, of course; they “officially” sided with the British). I think these are things we need to know as Americans.

SH: Do you read in the mornings, evenings, mid-day or just when the mood strikes?

CN: Honestly, I read whenever I can. I don’t have the luxury of long stretches of time during the week so I make do: wedging a bit of reading time in when I am waiting somewhere, for instance, or when I travel. I’ll pull out my tablet and read for a few minutes any time I have a chance. I don’t have set hours so I might find myself with 15 minutes to read during an afternoon before a conference call, for instance. My favorite scenario is the rare, beautiful weekend when I have the chance to read a book from cover to cover.

The gracefully ornate external staircase sweeping from the home of violinist Ole Bull, at Lysøen, Norway, built in the 1840s. Photo courtesy The Vendome Press and Bastin & Evrard/Brussels.

The gracefully ornate external staircase sweeping from the home of violinist Ole Bull, at Lysøen, Norway, built in the 1840s. Photo courtesy The Vendome Press and Bastin & Evrard/Brussels.

SH: Are you a fast reader?

CN: I speed-read, a skill that came naturally to be as a result of coming to the United States when I was so young without any experience reading in English. When Mom enrolled me in school, they felt I didn’t belong in the first grade because of this. But she is one determined woman when she is convinced of something and she was certain I was way too advanced for kindergarten. Thanks to her efforts I was put into first grade, but I was lucky in that I had a progressive and open-minded teacher—it could have gone the other way but it didn’t so I see her as a godsend. She knew I was in a challenging environment and that I had to figure out how to communicate so she introduced me to the perfect books in English and told me to read as much as I could. I took her words to heart, and I read and read and read. By the end of the school year I was speaking perfect English.

She was one of the best gifts I’ve had in my life and the encouragement she gave me is one of the things that cemented my real love for reading. It also gave me such an appreciation for how language helps you to communicate on the most basic level. I am happy that my mom pushed because the outcome is that I have fortified my intelligence though books, so much so that by some point in junior high I was reading at college level. The thing I’ve learned from all of it is that when you love something you hone that skill. And I don’t think you can write well if you don’t read. Also, reading adds another layer of richness and understanding to life. It teaches us what came before and what is possible for the future.

SH: How do you feel reading for pleasure informs your point of view for your curatorial role on The Decorating Diva?

The undulant meta-modern external stairway on the new City Hall, the headquarters of the Greater London Authority, built beside the Thames and designed by Norman Foster (2002). Photo courtesy The Vendome Press and Corbis (Peter Durant/Arcaid).

The undulant meta-modern external stairway on the new City Hall, the headquarters of the Greater London Authority, built beside the Thames and designed by Norman Foster (2002). Photo courtesy The Vendome Press and Corbis (Peter Durant/Arcaid).

CN: I’ve become much more critical and discerning because I continue to educate myself no matter what I’m reading or why. I read quite a lot about design even before I began The Decorating Diva but my choices have become more critical since then, and I think the reading has educated me toward the finer points in all the design disciplines. I’ve gained a historical perspective that informs me about trends. Any time I see what people are impressed by, I look back to the past and I ask myself, “Knowing what I know from the historical perspective, is this really so new?” Often, it’s just a reiteration of an invention that’s come before. For instance, the Tiffany book I will be reading soon will inform other things I’ll be covering in the design world this fall—there is always at least one “aha moment”!

It is sometimes a bit disconcerting because I see that nothing is really new anymore, but to be honest, I’ve realized that this is an important perspective to have because it shows us that things from the past inform what’s happening now and what will happen in the future. There’s a trajectory to design and we are merely pieces of a larger puzzle that defines this course, which will go on long after we are gone.

I would like to thank Carmen for giving us a glimpse into her intellectual world. For art lovers, she also has Delft Masters, Vermeer’s Contemporaries: Illusionsism Through the Conquest of Light and Space by Michael C. C. Kersten, Danielle H. A. C. Lokin and Michiel C. Plomp on her list for the summer. If you enjoyed this post and would like to see more reading lists choreographed by design visionaries, please let me know and I’d be thrilled to make this a series. Happy reading, everyone!

This is a TrendView post in my DesignSalon Series; to see others, search the blog by typing TrendView in the search bar. Text by Saxon Henry (content © 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.

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.


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.

I’m tapping the Magnolia Pod pendant as a Signature Piece for the home in my DesignStudio series; to see others, search the blog by typing “Signature Pieces” in the search bar. 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.

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?

I’m designating Darryl Carter’s space one of my DesignLabs picks for the chiaroscuro effect he achieved; to see the others, search the blog by typing DesignLabs into the search bar. Text of this post by Saxon Henry (content © 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.

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.

This is a Wanderjahrlot installment in my series of DesignSalon posts; to see others, search the blog by typing “Wanderjahrlot” [I dare you to do so with a straight face!] into the search bar. 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.

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!

Due to the experimental nature of giving architecture a poetic voice, I’m designating this a DesignLabs post; to see others in this category, type DesignLabs into the search bar. The 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.

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 the Bronx, 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. I’m tapping the Villandry Faux Bois bench as a Signature Piece for the home (or garden, in this case) in my DesignStudio series; to see others, type “Signature Pieces” into the search bar.

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.

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! I’m tapping Stephanie Wilde’s “Casandra” as a Signature Piece for the home in my DesignStudio series; to see others, type “Signature Pieces” into the search bar.

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…