Monday, April 30, 2007

Branches in Bloom

My favorite part of spring is watching the parade of flowering trees and shrubs bloom in succession, from forsythia and cherry blossoms to dogwoods and azaleas. Since I grew up in the cherry blossom culture of DC, seeing branches in bloom always reminds me of home. Here are some I saw during a recent walk through Central Park.

The formal gardens at 106th Street begin with this large lawn flanked by two alleys of flowering pear trees. White and fluffy on the outside, they remain cool and green underneath.

The dogwood is one of my favorite flowering trees. In DC they come out at the same time as the azaleas and are often planted together. Supposedly they are called dogwoods because it looks like a dog has nipped the center of each petal, giving it that characteristic brown notch.

Pink flowers are particularly cheerful. I'm guessing that the ones on the left are some sort of cherry blossom while the tree on the right is a magnolia. Both look remarkably lush.

I always think flowering branches look terrific in arrangements, but it helps if you're working in a large-scale setting, like the entrance hall of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which is well known for the larger-than-life arrangements it presents in these sculpture niches.

On the left a large lilac frames a Japanese maple and some sort of chartreuse shrub. The tree on the right may be a cape myrtle, or at least it has similar magenta blossoms. Although we see them every year, the electric colors that nature produces continue to surprise. I don't suppose I'll ever tire of watching this parade go by.

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Cocktail Culture

It's hard not to notice that in the past decade cocktail culture has been on the rise. Vintage cocktail shakers seem glamorous and sophisticated, so much so that companies like Pottery Barn and Restoration Hardware sell reproductions of shakers and bar tools. Martha Stewart Living even had an article on collecting vintage cocktail glasses, the kind painted with decorative patterns or animals. Bookstores abound with books of cocktail recipes or tips for hosting a cocktail party.

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My question is, are we actually drinking more, let alone more cocktails? According to a Gallup poll from last year, we are drinking alcohol more often. The percentage of Americans who say they drink, about 64%, has remained about the same since Gallup first began polling in 1939. But those drinkers are drinking more often then 10 years ago, with 71% of drinkers saying they had a drink in the last week, and the number of drinks per week averaging out at 4.5. But 41% of Americans drink beer most often, compared to 33% for wine and 23% for liquor. Does that 23% really justify all this new (or old, or just old looking) equipment? It seems to me that we prefer looking at cocktail paraphernalia to using it.

I'm as guilty of this as the next person. My cocktail collection began with a vintage set of bar tools, housed in a wooden box topped with a swanky tile that can be used as a cutting board. The tools, a long-handled fork, paring knife, corkscrew, bottle opener, and bar spoon have matching wooden handles. I bought the set at a boutique in the meatpacking district, with every intention of creating a collection of vintage bar equipment.

My collection grew when I acquired this shiny chrome (reproduction) cocktail shaker. I love the tulip shape of its base and the bell curve of its strainer/lid. The top-most lid has ridged and is also, of course, a shot measure. The frog pitcher is a gift from my mother (from none other than Restoration Hardware). It's perfect for mixing up a batch of Pim's Cup or practically any other concoction. But since the number of cocktail parties I've actually hosted in my life comes to a grand total of one, I have found other uses for these shapely vessels. The frog pitcher is currently housing some left over dried thistle, while not long ago the cocktail shaker proved to be the perfect vase for some striped mauve tulips.

Are we all secretly using our drinking paraphernalia as bookends? If we are I suppose it only proves how much aesthetic value these objects of design have always had. Their appeal is no doubt linked to the nostalgia for a cocktail culture that they use to serve, but at the end of the day we don't find ourselves mixing a cocktail to unwind, we just find the cocktail shaker beautiful.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

The Frankfurt Kitchen

When I was at home for Easter, my family and I went to the Corcoran Gallery of Art to see the exhibit on Modernism: Designing a New World 1914-1939. The exhibit was originally created by the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, where I recently interviewed for their MA program in the History and Theory of Design (and was accepted, without funding), put according to local critics it was laid out even more impressively at the Corcoran. And it was an excellent exhibit, both aesthetically and educationally, full of architectural models and videos that really showed you what modern design looked like, how it was used, and why it was so revolutionary.

The exhibit had many highlights, but among them the Frankfurt Kitchen, pictured above, stands out yet again. Although it was not the very first fitted kitchen or the earliest modern one, it was the first one to be mass-produced and enjoyed great success and influence. Ten thousand units were installed from 1926 to 1930 as part of an ambitious citywide housing project in Frankfurt, Germany that was initiated by Ernst May, the city architect, to provide low-income housing for some of the two million soldiers returning to Germany after the 1918 Armistice, as well as thousands of war widows. To assist with this Levittown precursor, May brought in the Viennese architect Grete Schütte-Lihotzky (1897-2000). Schütte-Lihotzky was probably the first female student of the school now known as the University of Applied Arts, Vienna, where she studied under the celebrated architect and designer Josef Hoffman as well as the painter Oskar Kokoschka. Gustav Klimt wrote her letter of recommendation for the school. She was one of the first generation of female architects and was active in the Nazi resistance.

The design of the Frankfurt settlements aimed to save time and money through the principles of rational organization and standardized building units. The Frankfurt Kitchen went further in seeking to save time and energy for the woman doing the housework. Schütte-Lihotzky studied catering in airplanes, trains and ocean liners as well as time motion studies to minimize unnecessary movement within the kitchen, provide labor-saving devices and increase physical comfort. Among the kitchen’s many innovative features were integrated sinks, continuous work surfaces, an adjustable ceiling light, a concealed pass-through, and a drop-down ironing board. A worktable for preparing food was set under a large window adjacent to the sink, both set at a lower height so the woman could work while seated at the provided stool. Some worktables included a chute for food waste. Another feature was the series of built-in storage bins that had handles and spouts for pouring dry staples.

Many of the kitchens were painted a colonial blue after research showed the color repealed flies.

The exhibit at the Corcoran included an installation of an actual period Frankfurt Kitchen, very similar to first one pictured above, as well as a promotional video from the 1920s that showed how much more efficient this modern kitchen was. Take a look at the video on the V&A's website. It was amazing to see on film so many things from contemporary life side by side with so much that was unfamiliar.

The Frankfurt Kitchen left a lasting impression on me, so imagine my surprise when it was suddenly staring me in the face from yet another online Sotheby's catalog (this one for Fine 20th Century Design and an Important Collection of Art Deco Figures).

This example was built in 1929-30 as part of the housing for psychiatric professors at the Neiderrad Hospital near Frankfurt. It is estimated to sell for $30,000 to $50,000 and includes an ironing board, sink, side unit, stool, towel rail and sideboard, the latter with three cupboard doors above ten aluminium storage scoops and two frieze drawers, the lower section with two further cupboard doors flanked by open shelves. The storage scoops are marked with various dry staples, including 'Zucker', 'Reiß' and 'Nudeln' or 'sugar,' 'rice' and 'noodles.' However, this Frankfurt Kitchen is unusual in that it is larger than other examples. The management of the hospital was thought to require more comfort in their accommodations and so slightly more space was allowed than in other projects. As a result the main sideboard is larger and can be used as a free standing unit. In this kitchen the cabinets were also installed onto a back panel rather than directly onto the wall, which makes it much easier for Sotheby's to sell it as a discreet unit.

I assume that only a museum, and not an art collector, would be interested in buying this or any other Frankfurt Kitchen. Schütte-Lihotzky's design does embody the modernist aesthetic, with its monochrome scheme, clean lines, and general minimalist air. But the Frankfurt Kitchen is not a discreet work of art, designed to be viewed from afar with rapt attention and awe. It was designed to be worked in and used. The original Frankfurt Kitchen is of great interest as a period room in a museum exhibit, but its greater legacy is to encourage us to look forward rather than back. To use every available resource, material or technology, to improve the way people live their lives is the spirit of modern design that the Frankfurt Kitchen embodies.

Thursday, April 12, 2007

Vampire Kits

I get email updates from Sotheby's informing me when an auction catalog I might be interested in is available online. I recently received one for the sale of Nineteenth-Century Furniture, Sculpture, Ceramics and Works of Art Including Property Formerly from the Palacio Ferreyra, Argentina, and began browsing the catalog without expecting to find anything much of interest. But you never can tell. Right there on the first page an image caught my eye. I thought it was a writing box, complete with old pens and inkwells, but it turned out to be a kit that Buffy the Vampire Slayer's nineteenth-century incarnation would have been proud of.

To be specific it is a French vampire kit, circa 1900, whose description reads "the box in solid mahogany, the hinged lid with a copper cross to the front, opening to a compartmentalized interior comprised of an ivory inlaid crucifix-shaped gun bearing the date 1591, lead bullets, a small glass bottle, a small power keg, a metal bullet mold, and a mahogany stake, with original paper label stating an attribution to Nicolas Plomdeur."

It's estimate of $4,000-$6,000 delineates it as slightly more valuable than the other vampire kit offered in the sale. Estimated to sell at $3,000-$5,000, this second kit is smaller and lacks the make-your-own bullet mold.

I had never heard of a vampire kit, but then my knowledge of vampires came entirely from the aforementioned Buffy the Vampire Slayer. I remedied my general vampire ignorance through Wikipedia, but unfortunately their vampire article doesn't mention slaying kits. A debate about them was sparked on when one man claimed to have created an "antique" vampire kit as a hoax in the 1970s and thus to have invented the entire genre. I once heard someone claim, in all seriousness, that they were the first one to write "Happy Holidays" or "Season's Greetings" instead of a religious message on a Christmas card, so I try to never underestimate the power of selective memory. But the Mercer Museum also has a vampire kit it claims was made as a hoax in the 1920s. Were these things ever made as serious safeguards against vampires? Even if the examples from the Sotheby's sale really do date to 1900, were they made at that time for true vampire believers or only as gags? Or were they made by people who didn't believe vampires really existed but who wanted to profit nevertheless from other people's fears?

Ironically these kits' lack of usefulness adds to their appeal and even to their aesthetic power. They seem quaint and nostalgic, a testament to craftsmanship and care. Antique gun sets have a similar charm, but these vampire kits go farther. Their association with the supernatural almost gives them the status of religious icons. I like to think that someone somewhere used these objects to ward off evil. And the power of that protection seems all the more beautiful for being so literally incredible.

Monday, April 2, 2007

Easter Bonnets

Every year my sister Laura and I wear hats to church on Easter Sunday, and every year we are two of only a handful of women who do so. We've done this ever since we both worked at a hat store called Hats in the Belfry, many many summers ago. The job's only perk was getting to try on the hats, and most of them were not anything I would wear in public. Baseball caps, silly costume hats, and overly decorative horrors crowded out the gems. And doing a bit of an Internet search just now I was overwhelmed by how many truly terrible hats there are out there. No wonder no one wears them anymore. Here are some I actually would wear:

On the left is a sort of modified picture hat that looks good on everyone. It frames the face without hiding it and it's not too big to overwhelm a smaller frame. The hat on the right reminds me of one I have at home (only it has navy trim and fewer flowers) and seems a quintessential Easter bonnet, decorative and floral but not too fanciful.

Nothing is as glamorous as a wide-brim hat. The asymmetrical sweep on the left keeps the face well in view. The quintessential picture hat on the right does so with a pulled-back brim.

The cloche is my favorite hat of all. The navy straw cloche on the left with its petite floral decoration would do very well for Easter. On the right is another classic style, the fedora. Both shapes have a retro charm.

These unusually flat hats are rather fun. On the left is a style that has popped up throughout the twentieth century in fashion plates, but has anyone ever worn won? On the right is its floppy white embroidered cousin, a bridal hat perhaps?

Asymmetrical hats often catch my eye, I suppose I find them interesting without being fussy. On the left a petite bow gives some French school-girl charm. The hat on the right, with its height, embroidery, and dashing feathers, looks like something out of a 1940s Hollywood extravaganza.

I have been secretly rooting for turbans to become fashionable again, even though they haven't been since the 1810s and I'm sure that even then many people found them silly. My desire to have them come back into mainstream circulation stems from how fun it is to put your hair up in a towel when you come out of the shower and, incidentally, by how flattering it looks on round faces like mine. The weight of the towel must pull back your skin a bit, and then all that height detracts from ugly chins. I think to be really flattering they would have to be a rather larger than the kind shown here, so as to take the place of one's normal mass of hair.