Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Packaging Trompe-l'Oeil

Trompe-l'oeil is an art technique that uses extreme realism to create an opticial illusion that the objects depicted actually exist in space. Today it usually refers to decorative murals in restuarants or homes that depict fake scenery or windows. But I think these examples of trompe-l'oeil in packaging are far more interesting.

Of course this cup wouldn't fool the eye so convincingly if the person drinking from it wasn't a white woman, but I still love the idea. People are surprsingly vulnerable when they're taking a sip, and this cup seems to expose that just as it seems to expose a nose and upper lip.

Again, this bag wouldn't create such a convincing illusion in any other photograph, but what an illusion! This plays into our voyeuristic and exhibitionist fantasies. In fact, I'm not sure whose having more fun, the person viewing the bag or the woman carrying it.

These bags combine realist images of people with actual rope to create a striking illusion, but the best part is how they take advantage of a bag's own essential construction.

Many thanks to Eva for sending me these images. Do you have an example of great packaging or trompe-l'oeil? Let me know! Post a comment or send an email to

Monday, February 26, 2007


I thought this year's Oscars was one of the funniest and most entertaining in recent memory. Kudos to Ellen DeGeneres for keeping me laughing well past her opening bit, and to the organizers for clearly making comedy a priority for the presenters, if not for the nominations. But of course the real show was before the ceremony itself, on the red carpet. Here are some highlights.

Winning Ladies:
Helen Mirren won for Best Actress and Jennifer Hudson fulfilled everyone's Cinderella fantasies by winning for Best Supporting Actress. They both looked radiant. Mirren's gown by Christian Lacroix looked at once girlish and mature. Hudson's little jacket provided some flattering sparkle around her face, but I was glad to see that she took it off when she got inside. My favorite part about her Oscar de la Renta gown is the pockets! Both Mirren and Hudson looked elegant, comfortable, and pleased as punch to be there. I can't understand why there has been so much bad press about Hudson's outfit, or why she herself as renounced it.

Trains: Small trains were all over the red carpet. I like the cut and color of Gwenyth Paltrow's gown by Zac Posen (who also dressed Portia di Rossi, quite a coup for the young designer) but definitely don't like her unnaturally parted and iron-straight hair. Jodie Foster's dress by Vera Wang perfectly matched her eyes, but the real reason I have this picture up is to see Elisabeth Shue in the background! Her husband, Davis Guggenheim, won an Oscar for Best Documentary Feature for directing An Inconvenient Truth.

And more trains: A few ladies made even bigger statements with even bigger trains, and you've got to give them props for going all out. Penélope Cruz won the biggest dress of the night contest with a gown by Atelier Versace. I have to admit I like its ruffles, especially combined with the drop waist. Reese Witherspoon wore Nina Ricci by Olivier Theyskens. It looked much darker and vampier on TV, and certainly made the most of her petite figure.

The Two C/Kates: These two can't really go wrong anymore. Cate Blanchett was stunning in Armani Privé. Kate Winslet's Valentino Couture, combining a simple style with an unusual color (although Beyoncé also wore mint green), was actually one of the best gowns of the evening. The one-shoulder look was back in full force this year, and I can see why. It gives body-hugging sheaths like these a classical, more statuesque quality.

Men in Black: Daniel Craig looked straight out of Casino Royale in his tux. His companion, Satsuki Mitchell, looks wonderful in a dress of unknown origins. I love the combination of subtle shimmer and looser drapery. And I love, love, love that Alejandro González Iñárritu wore a black scarf so nonchalantly over his tux.

What was your favorite outfit of the evening? Post a comment or email me at

Thursday, February 22, 2007

The Under $100 Challenge

After my "Design Way Out of Reach" post, I wanted to prove that you don't have to pay DWR prices to get great design. But finding useful and good-looking furnishings under the arbitrary cutoff of $100 turned out to be surprisingly difficult. If you looked solely at furniture there turned out to be very little available under $100, if you looked at lighting there turned out to be very few interesting pieces, and if you looked at the wide range of "decorative accents," vases, frames, and so on, there turned out to be way to much to wade through. But here it is anyway, a first stab at finding some great design under $100.

These are familiar faces. Karin has a couple of Stefan chairs (Ikea $19.99 each) in her room in this warm red tone. They are incredibly sturdy, surprisingly comfortable, and double as side tables. The Helmer drawer unit, also from Ikea ($39.99), is also a feature of Karin's room. Ikea used to have a version with wooden drawers that I bought a while ago and use as my bedside table. The drawers are a perfect size, big enough for magazines, small enough that things don't get lost in them, and having so many lets you organize your stuff. I have a drawer for jewelery, another for stationary, etc.

Most of the items I found have a clear modernist aesthetic, but these are some more traditional pieces. The Ingolf chair (Ikea $69.99) is reminiscent of the X-back Klismos chair I discussed in "DC's Design Open House." It comes straight of the Swedish Gustavian tradition, so I would give it a coat of distressed white paint. The metal side table is from Target ($49.99) and copies Directoir-style end tables from the Napoleonic era onwards (which are examples of campaign furniture, also discussed in "DC's Design Open House"). The table's details are clearly not as fine as more expensive options from places like Restoration Hardware, but it gives a very stylish bang for its buck.

Stools are wonderful things to have around, especially if they also double as tables, like both of these do. Two of the Benjamin stools (left, Ikea $19.99 each) could sit flush to form a coffee table or be stacked out of the way when not in use. The tapered three-leg stools from West Elm ($89-$99) are actually marketed as side tables already, but they would clearly do for extra seating in a pinch.

I struggled to find a nice dining table for under $100 before discovering this piece at Target ($49.99). It's a wooden folding table, which these days is surprisingly hard to find, so it doesn't look half-bad without a table cloth. That makes it just as good for a card game as for a dinner party. I am a huge fan of nesting tables, such as these Klubbo tables from Ikea ($59.99 for the set). They can be strung together as pictured to form a coffee table, or separated to be used as end tables throughout a room, or nested together to create more room.

It's hard to say exactly which chair these scoop back chairs from West Elm ($79) are modelled after, because there are so many modern plastic-shell chairs with those curvy lines. Yet its that vagueness that makes them successful, if they tried to hard to copy a particularly famous piece, they'd probably just look cheap.

Minor details on these lamps put them a cut above the competition. The Kane floor lamp ($79.95) from CB2, Crate and Barrel's inexpensive arm, has a base that echos the Tulip Collection of Eero Saarinen (discussed in "Design Way Out of Reach"). The Swing Arm table lamp (West Elm $89-$99) creates practical task lighting but gives the familiar lamp design a fresh look with strict modern lines and a shiny chrome finish. The Dots Pendant Lamp (West Elm $89) similarly updates a classic design with a unique twist, circular cutouts that let it shine.

My favorite design buy under $100 might just be this Lack shelf from Ikea ($69.99), which has no lack (excuse the pun) of practical possible uses. It can stand upright as shown, with the architectural weight of a column, or be mounted horizontally on a wall, where it would look especially good above a sideboard, sofa, or bed. If you hung it at the proper height it could actually be a sideboard, with open storage for serving pieces. You could rest it horizontally on the floor and use it to store a flat-screen TV with media equipment below. You could mount casters or legs underneath and turn it into a storage bench. So simple, so ingenious.

Do you have an example of great design under $100? Post a comment or send an email to

The Mansion on My Corner

Months ago I was running a search for expensive townhouses on the New York Times Real Estate page, like I do, when I came across a floor plan that seemed eerily familiar. It was billed as the only free-standing single-family mansion in Manhattan, my heart began to flutter, could it be? I printed out a copy of the floor plan, took it to the corner of my block, and compared it to the building in front of me. There was no doubt in my mind. The mansion on my corner was on the market for $40 million.

Now that Brown Harris Stevens (is it a real estate or a law firm?) has posted an exterior picture of the property, my deduction has been doubly confirmed. The house is known as the Schinasi Mansion and was built in 1909 by William Tuthill, who also designed Carnegie Hall and a famous string of townhouses in Harlem, for a Turkish tobacco tycoon (nice alliteration!). It is an example of the French Renaissance style, which had a short lived heyday about that time among the wealthy for townhouses and country "chateaux" alike. The real estate listing informs us that the building is 41' wide and 73' deep, with approximately 12,000 square feet of interior space. It also claims that the house is "surrounded by private grounds" with approximately 3,400 square feet of exterior space, but unfortunately those private grounds consist of a narrow border of pavement all around the building. Still, the house occupies a corner lot on Riverside Drive, so it has a park-like feel. Best of all, its asking price has been dramatically reduced. The "European palazzo" is now a steal at $20 million.

Judging from that reduced asking price and the floor plan, I initially thought that the house had not undergone a recent renovation, as luxurious Manhattan townhouses so often have. The kitchen is tiny for a modern home of this size, clearly the butlers pantry pressed into extra service. The master bathroom doesn't connect directly to the bedroom. The basement rooms haven't been turned into wine cellars, media/screening rooms, or gyms. As it turns out the house was renovated about ten years ago by its owner Hans Smit, a Columbia law professor. It's unclear if he's still the owner, but if he is, and if the house can actually sell for $20 million, he's sure to make a whopping profit, since he bought the place in 1979.

Here is a view of what I presume is the dining room. The stained glass and wallpaper give it a very Aesthetic feel. Apparently its decor includes tobacco leaves as well as pineapples, a symbol of welcome and generosity since the Federal period. The floor plan shows the dining room being more or less open to the gallery/stair hall, perfect for dances. The library on the left side of the first floor is reportedly topped by a gold-leaf dome. At least one source claims that the house once had a tunnel to the Hudson River for bringing in tobacco (though it seems unlikely that its first owner would have used his mansion for a warehouse). This is the kind of house that requires a butler and chambermaids, perhaps even a governess. Either that or you would have to invite all your craziest relatives, a menagerie of exotic pets, and the neighbors over for regular games of bicycle polo. Whichever tack the new owners take, just remember that I'm right up the block.

Monday, February 19, 2007

DC's Design Open House

I spent the recent President's Day Weekend visiting my parents in DC, and on Saturday afternoon we went to an open house at the Washington Design Center. It was billed as a sample sale, and I was expecting a large convention room or warehouse full of miscellaneous pieces and vendors, but the Design Center turned out to be a kind of mall for designers, full of various showrooms for furnishings that would normally be available to interior designers only. Although on Saturday these vendors had some samples on sale, the real attraction was that they were open to the public at all. Most of the showrooms had very traditional looking pieces, and as usual I was attracted to antique-style furniture with clean lines, neoclassical influence, or a French 1940s flair.

A number of showrooms had gorgeous expandable round dining tables like this one. The outer band of wood actually consists of curved leaves that can drop down or be removed. This is the kind of table I search for in vain in catalogs, only interior designers can get the really good stuff. I also love the X-back chairs, a mainstay of neoclassic furniture design. Their saber legs and curved backs echo the ancient-Greek Klismos chairs.

I love modern wing chairs in general, of which these are both good examples. The very square upright one at left would look great at either end of a long dining table. The curvier one at right, with its nail-head trim, would cozy up well to a fireplace.

To go with that first wing chair, I would love a dining table like this one, evoking the glamour of 1940s French design. It is a rare dining table that looks good with or without chairs around it.

This chair also has a French 1940s feel, and it looks great with that three-drawer side table. The lamp to the right is similar to one I have in my apartment, which I keep even though it makes a weird buzzing sound when you turn it on. I just love these modern pharmacy lamps.

The chest of drawers on the left is actually a Biedermeier antique. Biedermeier is a style of furniture made in Austria and Germany in the first half of the 19th century, and it's remarkable for its neoclassical lines and exquisite use of wood, including wood inlays and veneers. In the foreground you can see another X-back Klismos-style chair. The chair on the right seems to be inspired by Biedermeier side chairs, which often had rounded tops and narrow necks that widened out by the base of the seat. This chair's strict lines, its total lack of applied ornamentation, give it a modern sculptural quality.

The shape of this chair also echoes 1940s French furniture, but in this case I'm more interested in the upholstery, which reminds me of the rose motif used by Charles Renee Mackintosh in wood (for both furniture and architectural details) paint, and fabric. It was also picked up in the fashion designs of Paul Poiret. To me, that rose motif definitively evokes the modern romanticism of the early 20th century.

This bookcase, which uses X supports to decorative effect, is reminiscent of campaign furniture from the Napoleonic era onwards. Campaign furniture was literally taken on military campaigns, so it had to travel well and could often be broken down and reassembled. These sorts of pieces were later used by Europeans when hunting or camping in their colonies, so for many they evoke romantic images of exotic locals and old-school travel.

This kind of sofa has been celebrated since the 19th century as surprisingly comfortable yet authentically antique in style. The design supposedly dates from the 15th century, but probably has more modern origins. The sides and back have large knobs on the corners so that they can be tied together with decorative rope. I'm a big fan of these shelter sofas, whether antique or not.

Friday, February 16, 2007

A Country House

In many of the old movies set in New York City, part of the action actually takes place at the Connecticut or Long Island retreat of one of the main characters. The country retreats in these movies are always long low sprawling farmhouses, where the front door opens into a big living/dining room with an open stairwell and door leading off to the kitchen. The room was always furnished with colonial antiques grouped into little conversation centers and reading nooks. I thought these charming spaces existed only on Hollywood backlots, but twice now I have had the pleasure of actually staying in one.

You enter this farmhouse through a lovely courtyard (above) with its outdoor fireplace, through a screen porch and into the kitchen, where the owners know how to rock the open shelving. They have a wonderful collection of painted pottery, which is one of several wonderful collections. The mantelpiece in the kitchen, for example, features an antique Delft tile in a gold frame topped by a navy ribbon, a china (eighteenth century?) clock, blue amulets, silver cups, and seashells.

French doors lead directly from the kitchen to this charming family room with a lofted study above. That English-style sofa is incredibly comfortable. When you sit on it facing the doors to the kitchen, you see the white armoir on the left. On the wall beside it are some lovely illustrations of jewelery. To the right of the french doors is that fabulous large mirror and cubby-hole bookcase.

Back through the kitchen we come to the sprawling living room. This colonial fireplace matches the one in the kitchen. When there are guests a dining table is quickly set up in front of it. One of the treasures in the living room is this window seat, a symphony of blue and green fabrics. Another treasure is the opium bed, from the owners' days in Indonesia. Through those corner windows you have a wonderful view of the pond.