I Captured the Loire Valley Chateaux

For me,  the most romantic image of a castle had always been that of Chenonceau with its gallery/bridge spanning across the Cher river. Surely, it was not as fanciful as the Neuschwanstein Castle in Bavaria, nor as grandiose as Versailles and nor as meticulous as Vaux Le Vicomte but its singular broadswept gesture across the river put it on top of my list. It was that arched bridge structure that prompted my urge to visit the Loire Valley and its castles. The other castles didn’t disappoint but broadened my appreciation of castle art. Each of the castles I visited had something unique to impart on my novice eyes. I wished I had seen more castles so I could make more comprehensive notes but alas, I only had three and a half days for visits. I knew I missed out on many other castles but a vacation cut short was invitation for a return. A feast would only be better enjoyed if there was room for more. I certainly had room for more of the Loire Valley …

Chenonceau

I was so anxious to see Chenonceau that it was the first one we went to as soon as we set foot in the Loire Valley.  As well photographed and documented as it was, it had a few surprises in its offerings.

The most popular view of the chateau seemed to be the west approach with its bridge on the right side of the castle. I discovered that there was an inlet for boat landings, a little quay so to speak, to the left of the main building. It was nested between the main walk to the main entrance and Catherine de Medici’s garden. Its meandering wall served to lessen the formality of a castle and made it even more endearing by its form following function rather than a need for grand symmetry.

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The view from the east was no less beautiful but what was missing from photographs was the Diane de Poitiers garden.

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The bridge itself showed a clever trick to make it seem even longer and more gracious. It had two main stories between the steep roof with dormer windows and the closed spandrel arched bridge with its cutwater piers. The main floor gallery received less ornaments than the Medici Gallery (second floor) enclosure complete with identical arched pediments over each well cased window accentuated by even more molding patterns between the windows. The result were emphasized horizontal bands of seemingly different treatments for each floor which stretched the building longer. This was probably due to the fact that  Catherine de Medici had the gallery  built over Diane de Poitiers’ bridge. The Italian Renaissance building generally had more horizontal emphasis while French Castles dwelled on verticality by the alignnent of windows.
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One couldn’t disclaim the Cher itself being very much part of the attraction. Its languidness flanked by a dense forest invited further exploration. The bridge reflection on the water made the piers seem longer and elegant while the cutwater sharp angles lessened the  piers’ girth.
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The view of the exterior was breathtaking from all angles whether from far away or from inside looking out.

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The interior was just as tastefully furnished and detailed. The two galleries were spectacular in their pristine white walls, checker board floors and the repetitiveness in their arched window openings. The stone carvings were abundant and deliberate in the stair wells, the ceilings, and the fireplaces. The most remarkable room was the Louise de Lorraine bedroom where the walls were painted black with white designs of symbols of mourning. How befitting that a castle began its illustrious career as a gift from a king to his beloved mistress and ended with the last queen to reside at the castle mourning the love of her life, King Henry III and painted her bedroom walls black with symbols of mourning, tears, feathers, bones and gravediggers’ tool. Diane de Poitiers might have had her signature black dresses but Louise de Lorraine gave us more a lasting impression with her black room.IMG_8225

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Amboise

Once we had our fill of Chenonceau, we visited Francois I’s main home at  Amboise. Here was the King who had catapulted the Renaissance era castle business in the Loire Valley. Amboise first fell into royal hands in 1434 and quickly became many kings’ favorite homes. The castle had more High Gothic styling than most castles and received some of the earliest Renaissance motifs in French architecture.

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The chateau was built against a tall embankment. One could look down and see the town of Amboise with its uniform slate roofs.

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I was most intrigued by the stone carvings inside and outside the building. The figureheads in the gargoyles, column capitals and various corbels were quite expressive with a slight humorous naivete’.
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The garden that we saw was not the original lattice enclosed garden but the twentieth century parterre and bosquet was quite intriguing in its modern minimalism.

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Francois I who was raised there had brought the castle to its pinnacle. He brought Leonardo da Vinci to Amboise, built an underground tunnel to Da  Vinci’s home  to visit him on a daily basis and enjoyed bringing French Renaissance to its peak. The chapel Saint Hubert where Leonardo Da Vinci was buried was a beautiful gem of carved stones and arches.
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The town of Amboise was a very lively town with its shop at the foot of the castle. The Sunday market brought all types of food stalls to town. We found fresh mushrooms, piping hot paellas, artisan breads, succulent charcuterie, all manners of goat cheeses and the Pave Royal (nougat cake from Tours).

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Clos de Luce’

Clos de Luce’, Leonardo Da Vinci’s last home was nearby and proved to be a worthwhile visit. The castle had a great exhibit of models of the Renaissance man’s engineering designs, his garden and a park showing larger scale models.

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Cheverny

Cheverny, known for its interior, was quite enjoyable. While the other castles were royal castles complete with stately throne rooms and bedrooms, Cheverny was a castle for an aristocrat family who might have lead a more “normal” life without too much pageantry. Even Herge’ thought that Captain Haddock could have lived in such a residence. Herge’ removed the two outer wings and renamed it Chateau de Moulinsart. Alas, I didn’t find any treasures in any cellar when I toured Cheverny though I made a point to re read Les Bijoux de la Castafiore to see if any of the illustrated interiors and castle grounds would look familiar.

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I liked that there were a kitchen conveniently located next to a family dining nook, a very usable living room, a decently sized but not too large formal dining room, children’s room, and bedrooms with adjacent baths. The castle was completely livable as a very large mansion.

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The grounds had a modern garden, a stable, the hound house for 70 hounds, and a very nice vegetable garden.

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Chambord

Chambord, with its beautiful rooftops and spires and famous double helix stairs, was breathtaking as a unique blend of medieval castle forms and Renaissance details. I was quite drawn to the funnel shaped roofs, the multitude of dormers and circular building shapes interspersed between rectangular wings.

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The climb to the rooftop was worth it for it gave me so many vantage points to see the play between the roof forms, the dormer details and the intricacies in the stone carving.

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The interior of the castle, besides the famous stairs credited to Leonardo Da Vinci, boasted an extensive series of exhibit showing the history of the French Bourbon kings down to Henri, Comte de Chambord, the last Bourbon claimant of the French Crown.

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Villandry

Though known for its beautiful gardens, Villandry castle itself was a marvel. The courtyard plan was spared from monotony in symmetry when the wings are not quite equal, the windows alignment didn’t really center on the facade, the angles were not quite 90 degrees and the widened moat on the left side gave quite a reflection.

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One of the loveliest dining room graced the castle in its entirely pink color. The rustic kitchen could easily be inserted in a home in the Bay Area, The staircase was simple but beautifully detailed in its limestone and wrought iron handrail. A Moorish ceiling was imported from Spain to decorate the Oriental drawing room.

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No wonder the gardens were a Unesco Heritage Site. The knot garden had four patterns for the many aspects of love.

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The vegetable garden was a clever display of edibles among cutting flowers.

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The water garden was unassuming but generous and serene in its layout. The fountain that connected the water garden to the moat was in the form of stairs under a bridge producing a lovely the cascading effect.

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There were many castles I would have liked to have seen. Blois and Chateau d’ Usse’ came to mind. I saw Azay le Rideau but it was covered with scaffolding so I didn’t list it in this post. The one thing that stood out was that when I was at the castles and looked out on their surrounding, there were not a modern building in sight. The view from the castles were practically the same view the castle owners had. If there was a view ordinance in effect, the effort was worth it. I couldn’t imagine seeing anything modern that would destroy the magic of the Loire Valley. When I was on top of those castles, I could see forever just as it should be – happily forever after.

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I came home not a wearied traveler and was already thinking of another trip. When we travel, separated from all comforts of a home, having to navigate a foreign language, and to plan a bit more carefully where to take our meals, we face a  strange mixture of uncertainty and spontaneity. In that wonderful state of being, we are rendered more aware of the people, the surrounding environment and the culture of the place we visit. We stop taking things for granted, we ask more questions, we question lots of answers and we re-engineer our way of living. We should do the same when we return home and resume our daily routine. After all, isn’t life also a journey for which we have to plan the itinerary?

Conquest in Normandie

Normandie – the region begs to be travelled to and yet it took me this long to finally make it over there. When said and done, I admit I was thoroughly conquered by this lovely region complete with its happy cows (yes, I believe its cows are even happier than California cows), apple orchards and half timbered houses.

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I felt that it was only appropriate that the first major sight we went to was Bayeux. We arrived late in the day to see the Tapestry with its great exhibit and thus was given our very first glimpse of the glorious history of Normandie. The nine centuries old Bayeux Tapestry in real life was more magnificent than any photo or history textbook could describe. One had to see in person the intricacy of the embroidery stitches, realize the length of the piece, appreciate the beautifully preserved linen, and revel at the animated faces of the characters and the almost comic like quality that exuded honesty and straightforwardness in the retelling of an epic story. The audio aide that was part of the exhibit gave a very thorough description of the scenes. Afterwards, we enjoyed a great dinner at L’Asssiette Normande and went to see an interesting light show at the side of the Cathedral.

Bayeux itself is a very quaint town. The Cathedral, rebuilt in the 12th century in Gothic style, was quite regal and majestic. One could spend an entire day at the town.

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Our next stop was Colleville sur Mer to visit the Normandie American Cemetery and Memorial and Omaha Beach. The exhibit at the Memorial Pavillion was very well designed and informative. The most moving experience for me was the first time I saw the white crosses and stars of David laying across the lawn in an unending vista. I had approached them by the side and didn’t yet have the view of semi circular the colonnade nor of the reflecting pool nor of the mall. Just a view of sky, trees and white crosses. My mind quickly replayed images of young men on the beaches , on the sand, on the landing grounds without fanfare, without glorification. That was when the meaning of “so much owed by so many to so few” hit me. The definition of courage and valor had a new setting for me- that of a small stretch of beach facing a tall cliff between the sea raging behind and artillery shelling in front.

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I was grateful to see the grounds so well taken care of. I was moved to learn about Les Fleurs de la Memoire Foundation which had enlisted French families to adopt the US graves and promise to visit the graves once a year to lay flowers on the graves.

For dinner, we went to a restaurant named La Maree by the boardwalk at Grand Camp Maisy, a nearby town and enjoyed a spectacular sunset. All throughout the trip, we sampled a lot of local delicacies and didn’t have a meal we didn’t like. There was always an apple tart ordered and well finished. We took a tour at a Calvados distillery. We had confiture de lait for breakfast on crepes, on bread and french toasts. We nibbled on caramels d’Issigny and thought the apple flavor caramel was a good combination. We had oysters and seafood platters and gorged on mussels and french fries. We encountered Camembert, Livarot and Pont l’ Eveque cheese done in a dozen ways – on croque monsieur, as desert cheese, in omelettes, au gratin… I came across a creamy cheese with truffles and had it for breakfast everyday until it was gone. I had a perfect Souffle au Calvados at Le Dauphin in Breuil en Auge. With regret, we missed out on lamb from salted marshes at Mont St. Michel. We were one day behind a tour of 300 people who ordered the entire restaurant’s larder.

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Honfleur was our next destination. The old town was quite charming. The marche’ near the harbor was full of life. The wooden church Ste Catherine, built like an upside down ship’s hull, was simply beautiful in its structure and details.

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On the way back  from Honfleur, we stopped by Deauville and Trouville. I imagined jersey dressed ladies walking out of Coco Chanel’s boutique and bathing houses…

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There were many towns that were delightful and were perfect for overnight stays. We thought Pont L’ Eveque was such a town with the right amount of shops, restaurants and interest. We loved Beuvron en Auge and spent almost an entire day at Pont Audemer.

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One couldn’t go to Normandie and not see Rouen. The Rouen Cathedral was such a monument that inspired many paintings by Monet and Pissaro. This building survived fire, lightnings, and was the tallest building in the world from 1876 to 1880. Richard the Lionheart’ heart was entombed there. This was a church with impressive credentials!

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The well reviewed shops at Rue du Gros Horloge didn’t disappoint. We had macarons at Grand Mere Auzou and I discovered an ingenious savory combination for macarons: foie gras macarons.

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D Day for our Normandie trip was Mont St Michel. We made a point to arrive there before 10 to avoid the crowd and good thing we did.  From the top perches, we could see the salt marshes extending uninterrupted to the horizon. I was overwhelmed by a sense of humility being surrounded by the calm vastness blurring the line where the sky met the salted water. Through the winding walks and steps, we toured the abbey among the simplicity of the abbey’s hall, the bareness of the courtyards and stone walls contrasting nicely with intricate quoin vaulted ceilings and ornate column capitals.

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Other notable towns we visited were as memorable. The houses were the typical half timbered houses. Some had bricks, some had plaster between the timbers. My eyes never got tired of the textures, the colors and the shapes.

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We left Normandie with a greater appreciation of the glorious history that people have managed to record and preserve, a deeper gratefulness for the young men whose lives were struck short for the humane continuation of that history and an unrelenting reluctance to go back to our everyday routines.  If only time stopped when I caught this image…

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Simply Shaker

Last year I had the chance to visit one of the few remaining Shaker villages in Massachusetts, the Hancock Shaker  Village.  The village boasted one rare building form in its round stone barn.  The siting of this barn construction was just ingenious. The walk through really gave me a glimpse  of the  spirit of the community.  The variety of building materials and the variations of the same simple forms in buildings and details were proofs of how creativity in its streamlined discipline could be divine!

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This was the third community out of the 19 major villages that was established in the United States. The thousand acres property existed as a working community from 1791 to 1960 when it became a museum. The inhabitants were dairy farmers who made quite a good profit with the garden seed selling business.  At its most prosperous time, the village owned 3000 acres and had 300 occupants.

Its most outstanding structure was the 96 ft diameter round stone barn that one could see imposing its presence over today’s 5 acres site open to visitors. The design was a most effective solution to having 70 cows being fed and milked, having hay stored and distributed while wagons would be driven in one way and ridden out another way without ever having to back up.  It consisted  of four concentric rings for ventilation, hay storing (up to 400 tons of hay), hay distributing and cow feeding.  A clever entrance was introduced to the second story of the barn via an exterior ramp. The structure was completely exposed on the inside with the rafters radiating from the cupola, the balconies support, and the floor gridded to allow the sweeping of cow manure down to make compost.

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There was a sample garden on the site showing the variety of crops, flowers and vegetables that were planted by the industrious villagers. The Shakers were major medicinal herbs suppliers in the 1800’s. Their community had a catalog offering some 300 herbs with almost 200 fluid extracts in the forms of essential oils, vegetable extracts, fragrant and distilled waters and ointments.3ae13fc0e86fc362115ca445601d110b

The brick dwelling, the community’s dormitory, was another marvel with indoor piped water, dumbwaiters, slanted windows for more light, all the while maintaining separation between the sexes in their daily activities and sleeping accommodation.

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The accessory structures to support the villagers’ livelihood were the ones I was  most drawn to.  There was the ice house with its triple pane windows. The simplicity of its design involved a basement to keep cool and a ground level access to retrieve ice.  Careful thermal management went into an upper food storage area with vents from the ice storage below and a cupola to let the warm air out completed with double hung doors.

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The use of exterior cladding materials were quite inventive and varied from building to building.  The recurring building form of a rectangular shaped house with the gable roof presented itself in a myriad of variations of the theme.  There were brick over a stone base, siding over brick, small bevel siding over large coursed siding, and yellow, white, red painted walls etc…

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Here was a community that gave us the circular saw, the clothespin, the Shaker peg, a wheel driven washing machine, packaged seeds and numerous inventions.  All in all, the lesson was quite implicit in its message: there will always be individuality in a entity which aims for conformity and is even singular in its goal.

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Fence Minding

Fences are usually the final touch one puts at the end of the project, when the contractor has done his last heavy hauling and when it’s time to close the house in and start enjoying it. By this time in the project, we are tired. Our brain has stopped wanting to make yet another design decision. I am gathering a list of favorite fence designs to make this process easier and here come the fences…

Modern fences come in simpler designs. If they are wood, they tend to be horizontal slats.

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For more organic looks, twigs and grape stakes are used.

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Arts and Crafts and traditional homes mostly have wood fences. They are easiest and fastest to build.

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Brick walls. Exercises in pattern are de rigueur for stately homes.

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Stone fences for a more substantial look. Stacked ledge stones, ruble stones, ashlar, cobblestones…

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Solid fences for more privacy- They can be stucco over concrete or cast concrete.

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Plastic and translucent fences

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Artsy fences for personal statements.

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LAST BUT NOT LEAST, SOME FAVORITES…

A wall to showcase bonsais.

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A meandering fence along a row of trees.

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A stone wall  promising wonders beyond its gate.

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Better and bluer things on the other side of the fence. a9be8de41e8f084871f1f8bb50bf05b2

The Art of Food Plating

I am a so so cook but there is nothing more appealing to me than a well composed plate of food. This post is dedicated to the many ways well known cooks present a dish. I’d leave the cooking technique to other’s posts. First, we get to feast with our eyes and then surrender ourselves to our visual senses. These are dishes that have me at hello. With my tendency to make list and sort things to categories, I will try to do the same with this art.

The Zen composition.

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d0f54c549c839ffe674ce18d43e21c3cBrushstrokes of sauce, spare use of colors in food.

The tower – piling ingredients, one on top of another.

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fc4dc604d652a567e99ccebd105cd72bAlways top the tower off with something eye catching!

Some food just want to be the lone island.

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The spring garden- gather a concoction of greens and bright colors.

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Food Trinity. The foodman always rings thrice.

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f4a0bc9e6d60f746f7564f59719db3deTrios are never de trop. The first bite surprises, the second confirms and the third is savored.

Slices– They stack, they layer, they fan out.

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965ba004b2744d4003b9ca825504a324Sliced them thin, mix them  up, roll them up, pile them on…

Triffle style presentation. Use  nicely shaped glassware and voila.

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Hangar-7; Smart Food; Smart Drink

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Pure geometric shapes serve well as focal points. Cubes, egg shapes, cylinders, spheres…

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Parallel lines – A nice graphic trick.

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Swirls, twigs, tuiles, curls, foam and spun sugar. This is how to pop a top.

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Artful dishware will always do the trick.18f8b7a2d5a88316ab095c54c38620a6

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Are we hungry yet? Don’t bother trying these at home…

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402b8060cd608d42fb949de972fe0e04

4cbfa1a6a39c299f33a57e60e99586edSometimes, a limited palette of colors can do more for the eyes.

And finally, my version of heaven…

2a63b77da8da8bdfb8699d830b2bc3a3Foie gras Cotton Candy.  Sigh sigh sigh…

Click on photos for source

Live Edge Repertoire

Live Edge is the new black in furniture. As old growth lumber are rarer and rarer, there is a growing appreciation for live edge wood slabs used in furniture design. The sinuous lines of live edges  are hard to resist. They speak of fluidity in nature and grace in parallel grain lines that meander in river like patterns. They represent bold strokes in a singular sweep – the larger the piece the more striking. Put a slab in a room and it dominates and takes over the room.

There are quite a few clever uses of this material. One has to agree that the simpler the vessel that carries the slab, the better looking the ensemble.

The most popular use can be seen in dining tables which give us the excuse to show off a large slab.

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Another way to use a large expanse of slab is found in bed headboards.

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live edge slab headboard

Other slabs found their way in kitchen island countertops where they reign and command the view.

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Shelves are easiest to plan with wood slabs.
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Vanities- a good use for a smaller slab.

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Coffee tables.

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Benches.

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Smaller examples of live edges found in home accessories.

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And when mere furniture is not enough…

Back CameraUse them on window sills.

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b8b4a8ddb72be2ebe60ac67af07bc0b2Have live edge horizontal siding. You will have to make sure you have enough…

acd186dedd0ed7741dd4c9243f398a9cSplurge on an entire wall of cabinets.

live_edge_1Line them up along a wall.

4c83203200207762e2813ee09f28800fUse them on a curvy staircase.

55f57f8389791c332d1e43aa7d4ff8b6Make a quirky door.

0462abc076f0ddce373190abe89cdefeFinally, when nothing would suffice, make a throne.  You deserve a thoroughly royal break!

For source, click on photos.

I Dream in Technicolor

When the weather gets worse and the mood strikes low, my mind drifts to images of impossibly beautiful places. This post is dedicated to those visions that have served me so well in letting me relax, think of good things only and revel in the wonders of life. I find that the common threads which attract me to the images are simplicity in colors, single mindedness in theme and calmness in composition. I love imagining myself inside them, savoring the weather, the light quality and the soothing impact. How therapeutic, how lounge-lazy is that? The most obvious theme would be nature. Nature brings us back to our inner instincts of self preservation. Images of immaculate natural settings do wonders to spearhead movements to save the earth. The following are my dreamscapes…

Trees- Save a tree

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Actually, while we are at it, we should save the forest- why stop at a tree.

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After the trees come the waterways. I am always attracted to waterfalls with its epic power, silent swishing and constancy. Their loneliness seems to permeate their surrounding  and accentuate their majestic existence.

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d8c477c5f5354fc22b6137a3b5aed199Beyond waterfalls, there are caves. One chances upon a cave as one opens a surprise gift. Caves are nature’s gift boxes. Handle them with care!

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312b8f5aaf7f7e624315f59868f68c2f 820d62ef8e58d513e9e93913ad628983 Rocks. Rocks are not that hardy. They can erode, people can blow them up in quarries. We have to got to see them before they no longer grace our earth. fdfc62b3b80fcc6b70deff68ca2bd386 0c3125b38b1b4db9edb47341a11004cf 0ba5a6abf7ded45e40c9ca2fe1411695 c4b10e4afae25d6547aaad8655ae2ba4 a790fdacec8094b31b52a64ac9267fb9 e4d5864bfb7836a18cb0a963a3f44d8d d5d539e137c2a0b37a989d5e9f099f28 da6c969b92eb862674fb8ed16c247f77 We must not forget how seasons affect our landscapes and really appreciate the various caprices they offer. GDT Nature Photographer of the Year 2013 7506b997a74a4cb015a0bac0a8a46802 4b8a1985b82f533961e5c69294b5950f

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To travel  in one’s mind: perchance to dream- ay, there’s a rub…

Click on photos for sources.