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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Counter Striking Stools

I have done quite a few kitchens now and the one thing that I strive for in all my kitchen designs is the island with seating on one side. It is as simple as that. Give the kitchen an island with seating on the long side away from the center of the kitchen triumvirate (range, refrigerator and sink) and voila, the first step to successful kitchen planning. When a kitchen project is done and it’s time to decorate, the first question had always been what kind of stool would go with the island. Counter stools generally come in two kinds: with back or backless.  If there is enough room, a stool with back is more comfortable.  When there is barely enough space to walk around the island or when the kneespace is too shallow, a backless stool is in order. Below are images of some of my favorite kitchen counter stools. I won’t have too much explanation for these stools as they would speak for themselves.

511dca1bd2fbe304a3661f34a4af73a02edbbeb4ab5dae65e90193a6fb5d9353Henson Wood Stools

0f5a3c5fff3d35f3214ab4e3eeebe93ede1b59efc2f8bbb5a9b7fe4e09218e0fSimple  iron zinc stool from India.

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aba5eb18f7ab952dd33e10e4ebd1dc49Rustic counter stool from West Elm

c9103cb2deb208330f8cd5c6fe65f3721f13bf01d93b0f62d28fd09f9c4a0aafChase stool from World Market

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Backless counter stool from AG Modern

Calligaris_Online_Bar_Stool_CS1002e30ca7c6fe6e7208ca0521e89cccca6bCalligaris On Line Counter Stool

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Marius counter stool

bdfc64a5aee7e3cfdee630bd8f0b83bdOviedo counter stool from Restoration Hardware.

b2ca694f41d195c5b8a793c334b896abYvonne Potter stool.

a6e1f2cf344bdac6c320992e7e621f3eeva_stool_1_bontempi_mediumBontempi Eva stool

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calligaris-even-leather-counter-stool-9Calligaris Even Leather stool

cb6fda779bed757b975fa9e989f84541Hay Hee stool

mood-stoolb5b28b5652e9ccadc28d981debc035dbCalligaris Mood Stool

picturecalligaris_air_counter_stool_cs57_01_1Calligaris Air Counter Stool.

c9b2202bd97c93699b1be1d14666f38c628d1f4a03c46e6622e3c13dfbfbcaefCherner Counter Stool.

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15df08c0bd7a52b6821f5870fcaeede8Series 7 Counter Stool.

a768d7d5ac71dd89afbb03a3f8971d2481856b020c1c1abb7cfe2afd0255f87bOnda Stool

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lem-stool-wood-seat-2.jpgLem Piston Stool

dc65495fed48fcd028d91e36fad00384knoll-jamaica-barstool_im_366Jamaica Stool.

82b45b37c869f00b08c3b73a32db9415705859Radius Counter Stool.

And then, there is always those wood block stools. Quite heavy to maneuver but, hell, they look good!

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Click on photos for source.

Halloween Eye Candies

Hallloween treats for those who have to curb their sugar intake like me tend to be feasts for the eyes only.  I scoured the internet for the most creative plays on the theme.  We, the “grown ups”,  have our own delights in the fun of coming up with ghoulish, freakish, devilish but goodish edibles.

Here are my kind of treats.

Speaking of eye candies…

These ones give me the frights.

Finger food…

Mummies from Mommies…

Unwrap me…

Dappling in apples….

Bite me…

Itching for witchings…

Hats off!

Mulling over skulls…

Webbing from Charlotte…

A host of ghosts or is it the ghost of the host?

Smashing ghosts.

Don’ t forget to invite a few of our favorite characters…

Can a grin be any wider?

Jack!

Frankie!

When in doubt, resort to packaging…

Go for pumkins with characters or are they cataracts?

Containers and cutouts.

Blackened food.

Rustic in black.

Candles go a long way.

Eeries in blues.

Basic Jack.

Sometimes, the thing to do is to invite yourself to a tete a tete with Miss Havisham…

Happy Halloween!  Cook up a hoot of a time!

Photo sources: click on images.

Rustic Moderne – The Art of Rustication

The look of rustic in design has seen a more modern makeover thanks to Belgian architects such as Axel Vervoordt and Pieter Vandenhout.  We see rustic unlike the western log cabin or  French country interiors but more like a winterized trend with grey overtones, whitewashed and minimalistic decor.  Restoration Hardware has even overhauled their traditional furniture look to reflect this new rustic trend with its grey wood finish, linen upholstery, pared down furniture and a few overscaled accessories.

The first order of the day is to un-clutter. When the look is sparse, the walls take over. We see lots of integral plaster walls or scratch coat plaster walls.

The second step is to decide whether to use a cool grey or a warm grey palette. Warm grey seems to be more popular thanks to the warmth it brings into minimalistic spaces. Cool grey, on the other hand emphasizes the more modern aspect of a place.

Salvaged wood on floors, ceiling or on the furniture is a constant thread that immediately whisper “rustic” to the most muted decor palette. The wider the board the better.

The lack of accent color gives it an ephemeral feel.

Adding accent color is quite easy. One sees most colors working well with greige, especially when used sparingly.

A more difficult task is using dark wood finishes. Few can pull it off but when it happens, the space is surreal.

Textured variations, not color contrast is the answer in some cases.

Extreme contrast between stark modern items set against a rustic envelope makes the strongest statement while the more popular way is to house rustic woodsy items in pristine setting.

The oversized item: when I first set my foot in the revamped Restoration Hardware store, I was struck by their overscaled mirrors and first reacted  with thoughts of how hard it would be to use them.  As I dug more into this rustic trend, I found that changing the scale to something bigger works when the decor is quite muted and uncluttered. A big piece in the room can be quite sculptural with a strong presence.

I find myself getting stuck with what to call this trend. Sometimes, from lack of a better description, I have explained to clients that it’s the Restoration Hardware look. That was the easiest and most efficient way to conjure up the images of this new rustic look. I see other blogs calling it Modern Rustic or Rustic Modern. Maybe I’d settle for Rustic Moderne or simply Rustication.

Hmmm, I need a client who would embrace this look. Any takers?

Photos via: Axel Vervoordt, Pieter Vandenhout, Brockstreet.blogspot.com, Rikstorms.com, cotedetexas.blogspot.com, thepursuitaesthetic.tumbler.com, Greigedesign.blogspot.com, 50cherries.blogspot.com, vtwonen.nl, bing.com, Belgianpearls.blogspot.com, trendhomedigital.com

Cupcakes Galore

I think the first time I saw a tray of cupcakes was at my son’s kindergarten class.  One of the students’ mom made cupcakes for her son’s birthday.  First, I must explain that I didn’t go to kindergarten in the States.  My mom didn’t bake and cupcakes were a foreign idea to me.  I remember thinking what a marvelous invention they were – mini cakes so you won’t waste time with cutting the cake, dealing with paper plates or making sure the portions are somewhat equal.

Now, we have Cupcake Wars on TV.  We see cupcakes at weddings, in food magazines and entire bakeries dedicated to the art of making cupcakes.  Cupcakes got themselves to a couture status.  How is it that they were able to take off in such wide array of directions and incarnations?  How are they different than doughnuts?  When doughnuts are expected to come in the few standard flavors, glazes, and fillings, cupcakes comes in a multitude of colors, cups, fillings, flavors and toppings. Doughnuts have not transcended being breakfast treats while cupcakes, so versatile and presentable, get served as desserts, tea time sweets, and seasonal treats.

Being cute is inherent in the concept of cupcakes. What’s cuter than cartoonish animal decorations? We find owls, chickens, bunnies and puppies among the most popular guaranteeing the brightest smile out of even the grumpiest of adults.

Flowers are natural decorations among cupcakes due for wedding celebrations, engagement parties, and valentine sweets.

Sometimes, it’s the cupcake liner that deserves the attention. The choices are endless.

Cupcakes in disguise are exercises in craftsmanship and imagination.

When presented in a grouping or a stand, cupcakes speak louder in sum given a chance for composition, theme exploration and story telling.

This group of cupcakes reminds me of my classmates.  It always amazes me how each of them could be such a unique individual and yet when we gather in one place, the blast of energy generated from our constant chit chat, non stop laugh and banter would prove sprightlier than the sum of our parts.

Simplicity has its strength. Let the flavor speak for itself. You might be surprised at how loudly it tastes.

When all is said and done, the cupcake that steals my heart is the one especially made for me.

Happy Mother’s Day to all mothers who have tried their hands at cupcakes and to all those who can’t bake but manage to treat their children with the sweetest of all treats – the knowledge that their children are the cherries in their bowl, the apple of their eyes and the tops of their favorite cupcakes!

An Afternoon in Longwood Gardens

I had a chance to go to Pennsylvania to visit Longwood Gardens at the end of October.  This extensive property was originally purchased by William Penn in 1700.  Subsequent owners have transformed it into one of the most important botanical gardens of the world. The most impressive feature of the garden has to be the conservatory of 20 garden rooms and 5,500 plants which graces the 1,050 acres land stretching as far as the eye can see and as nostalgic as your heart feels on a cloudy day.  On the day that I was there, the conservatory was adorned by chrysanthemums of all species.  Some were trained to bloom in an umbrella frame where each opening sported a flower. This “Thousand Bloom” training technique takes 15 to 18 months to achieve the dome shaped chrysanthemum showing off its 991 blooms in unison – the largest Thousand Bloom chrysanthemum in America!
There are many fountains and shallow ponds within the conservatory – each with its own distinct foliage encircling it.  The Orangerie has its exhibit of Thousand Blooms while the Exhibition Hall sports a large reflecting pool that will make anyone envious of any caretaker allowed to walk into that pool, to be surrounded by a myriad of criss crossing framework above and interlacing blooms and plants all around. The special exhibit was perfume and fragrance. There was a little desk where you can mix your own perfume which is quite fun. My true test came through when I picked jasmine, musk and citrus as my favorite combination only to find out later that my once preferred Kenzo’s Parfum d’Ete contains jasmine and musk. There was also a display of beautiful perfume bottles ranging from exquisite Art Deco Lalique’s to classics such as Shalimar and Chanel to more modern ones such as Jean Paul Gaultier’s female bust bottle. The conservatory lets us meander in and out of its courts and I happened to walk out onto the water lily ponds and marveled at the beauty of the large floating water platters with the occasional blooms. The zen of a lotus pond is in the effortlessness of the leaves and the purity of the lotus petals. Nothing  could seem more tranquil. One of the excitements for me in walking through the conservatory was seeing the combination of plants and their artful juxtapositions. One can definitely appreciate the intent of a good landscape designer when he or she “painted with plants”. Of course, no self respecting conservatory would do without an orchid room. The orchids are perfect, the varieties abundant and the visitors entranced. Outside the conservatory is the fountain garden designed in a classical plan. One can see the intent of the garden and enjoy the generosity of space it offers. Sometimes a large lawn does invite lingering. The topiary garden nearby is whimsical with its bird, fish and fun shape motifs. Nature molded by human hands does take on more character when imbued with wit and humor.

On the way out, I glanced back and captured the bridge with the fall foliage framing it. I congratulated its landscape architect and came home content to have witnessed such perfect symbiosis between nature and the human mind. If only we work that way everywhere else…

Photos: Orchid House photo via tripadvisor.com, Topiary photo via longwoodgardens.org, others by author.