Thursday, June 23, 2011


Once in a while life brings you an opportunity to work on a project that goes beyond the work itself and ends with a much deeper level of fulfillment. There’s a couple we’ve worked with for almost twenty years and have known for even longer. We started out as co-workers where we quickly realized our joint backgrounds, then as designers and clients where we found our commonality, and finally as friends where we linked our lives permanently. It’s one of the perks of our profession. As a designer you are, by necessity, required to dig below the surface to find out what makes your client think the way they do, how they find comfort and solace, what gives them pleasure and what makes them the happiest. The relationship comes as close to therapy as any I know, and the process is a mutual one. You sometimes get the opportunity to even take the relationship beyond friends and can call it family.  That’s what happened with this amazing couple.
When we found out a member of their family had decided to hold their wedding in Madison we immediately offered to help. At that point I hadn’t met their niece, their niece’s sister or their niece’s fiancĂ©e. Now almost a year later we look on all three of these young people as extended members of an extended family.
Here ‘s an ode not just to the bride and groom but also to the family of people who came to help us make this wedding a successful work of love. In a new place with a new branch of our business sprouting like a new twig on our company tree, we had to rely on some new friends with a little more knowledge about the event business in Madison. Rick and I have never been short on ideas but implementing them in foreign territory was the element that made us dribble just a little stream of nervous pee.
In stepped Julie Moskal. Julie, a jack-of-all-trades, had saved our butts on more than one occasion and here she was to do the same for the wedding. In addition to sewing all of our table runners, knowing someone who could alter the bride’s dress, being able to direct us to the best donut maker in the area, Julie was also aware of the difference between oasis floral foam and a place in the desert where camels stop to socialize. Julie’s background included a family stint in the floral industry and that’s how the flowers came about.
The final production crew now included Julie, Rick and myself along with the bride’s overly generous aunt and uncle, who not only helped with some under the table assistance but they were there along with a couple of the bride’s cousins to help fold napkins, tie ribbons and scrape some pesky labels off of little tiny bottles of bubbles. Without their help and the help of the bride’s sister and a couple of my relatives the wedding would have ended up a redneck beer fest at the tavern around the corner.


I’m not a big advocate of organized religion. Faith to me is seeing the face of god through friends and family, but the Luther Memorial on the University of Wisconsin campus gave me a glimpse into architectural godliness. Our decorating approach to the church was minimal. We had only an hour before the ceremony to do anything and then the restrictions were lengthy. We settled for some bunting on the altar, a unity candle at the request of the bride and groom and a single rose tied to every other pew.
The church was decoration enough.

The white peonies arrived wilted, closer to their golden years than young exploding buds. We were ten chair covers short of a full set. The donut tier that looked so luscious online came as a folded limp cardboard set of disks and dividers barely capable of holding a cup of sprinkles much less fifteen dozen donuts. Then the time needed to pull all of this together when we thought we were going to be a mere crew of two made the expectation of a successful reception seem like a “what-were-we-thinking” moment.
Then the Memorial Union’s clock struck five and the centerpieces glowed from their lit inner pillars of candle light,
the ten missing chairs evaporated in the sea of one hundred and fifty chairs in sparkling white with their periwinkle bows and sprigs of lavender,
and the donut table scented the room with that sugary smell as fifteen dozen donuts sat on hand-blown glass tiered cake plates tied with lilac ribbon and wedding white roses, but the most beautiful part of the room were the smiles on the bride and groom’s faces, reward enough for a project that transcended the wedding itself and fulfilled on a much sweeter level.


Not all weddings have the opportunity to be equally beautiful and politically correct at the same time
Photo by Tracy Schnackenbeck, another sister looking for a beau with a shorter last name

Wednesday, June 15, 2011



We were thrilled that the women at Diane James Home decided to highlight our little atilier in Madison on their impressive blog, the Buzz,
These women, Diane and her twin daughters Carolyn and Cynthia, have crafted a niche in the floral design business of faux flowers so delicate and real their beauty has attracted a collection of devotees from Mario Buatta to Barbara Berry. Their verisimilitude so real even bees are deceived.
We first met Diane at the opening party for the Kips Bay Desinger Showhouse. If I remember correctly it was Diane who approached us first, one of the most elegant women we had seen, dressed in fire engine red and speaking gently about her floral designs. It’s one of those secrets of the trade, especially when doing something like a showhouse where your room needs to remain up and perky for an extended period of time. If you are not the landscape designer and you’re incorporating flowers or foliage in your room the cost of maintaining and refreshing your arrangements completely out-prices the use of an expert faux florist like Diane. Take a look at her work and then tell me: is it real or is it Memorex?

The selections from their online shop is superb and we can guarantee you won’t be disappointed in whatever you might chose to grace your home for season after season of floral artistry.

I have to admit I’ve become a bit of an addict at blog surfing. There’s so much out there in the interior design and decorating realm you could key through blog after blog 24/7 and never be able to absorb all of the talent and creativity out there. This week’s journey led me to Lori Gilder’s blog, Diary of a Renovation,
I scrolled through some recent posts and stopped dead in my tracks when I came to her April 26th post, “Interiors Fit For Royalty”. She started out with general information about the royal wedding but then went into some more personal information about the royal couple and their plans for their farmhouse makeover in North Wales. Here’s the gossip. Kate and Will have selected Beverly Hills Interior Designer, Kenneth Bordewick, a friend of Will’s father to redo the farmhouse in a casual and contemporary feel. According to Bordewick the couple said, “They want it to be casual and contemporary. It won’t be classical or old-fashioned. They know that the rest of their lives is going to be very traditional and want to let their hair down now with a typical young, newlywed house.”

Kenneth then went on to supply two images Kate and William had responded to as indicative of their taste. My jaw dropped when saw the picture of the skirted Emmy round side table front and center in the second picture. We’ve already dressed out American royalty with the Clinton’s master suite bed at their private residence in the Little Rock Clinton Library. What an honor it would be to cross the pond and dress out Will and Kate’s place as well. Kenneth, give us a call.


Linda Brazill and her husband were among the first to arrive at our grand opening. There are certain people who immediately imprint an impression on your retina. Linda is one of them. She walked into our opening looking like New York, a perfect blend of blacks, neutrals, linen and straw. We’ve been billing ourselves as the catalyst for bringing a bit of New York to Madison but this time New York came to us. We immediately found common ground to talk about and like the first page of a new novel where the words grab you and don’t let you go, Linda captured our attention with conversation and insights into Madison, design, pea gravel and the world. Her bio describes her as an artist by training, a journalist by trade and a gardener by choice.

Her blog: is as interesting as she is. I’m not a gardener, I’m not a writer, but I am able to appreciate beautiful flowers and artful writing. When Linda said she was going to include us as a post on her blog I knew the hype would inch the bar of our expected performance up several inches higher than we had anticipated. What remains is for us to work at warranting her kind words. Please visit her site over and over again. It’s well worth the time spent.

A series of email exchanges between Marcia Zia and Lee Melahn over a two day period

Marcia (as posted on my facebook wall):
I think Lee would look good in a fireman’s uniform

Got a very strange email with your signature. Something about how I’d look in a Fireman’s outfit. I think someone may have hacked your email. Did anyone else respond about a weird entry?
Love you guys,

Oh MY God. I don’t know how to say this but it was actually me. NOT that I am picturing you in a Fireman’s outfit!!! Oh Lordie. Sorry, Paul and I are laughing so hard right now!
EXPLANATION: It turns out that Facebook has a stupid new thing where they ask you a bunch of stupid questions about your “friends”. I am NOT familiar with Facebook at ALL and after getting a very strange email from someone else saying “Marcia accepts criticism very well” (odd, huh?) I clicked on the link to find out what the heck it was. It led me to Facebook and into the stupid question area where I kid you not, it asked me many questions including, Would Lee Melahn look good in a Fireman’s outfit? This would be one of the more Bizarre questions (thank God!) But at this point I was so frustrated that I just kept pushing yes to everything frantically!
I promise you it was nothing kinky or TOO strange, just Facebook trying to get people to interact with their friends. HOW embarrassing. This means that everyone else got an email too! Heh, heh. :( I hate Facebook. With. A. Passion.
Congrats on the store opening, by the way. So proud of you two. Any chance you were dressed like a Fireman? (I could just die)
Lots of  Love,

I'd do anything for the two of you including donning a fireman's outfit if this would make you happy, although I think it would only lead to disappointment and perhaps Firegate (if I were only that young, that fit, and that popular).

This one’s for you Marcia. You can pick which one you’d like to pin up on your wall
All my love,

Thursday, June 9, 2011



Every once in a while Rick gets a hair-brain idea that he just can’t get rid of. Like an itch you have to scratch, this one involved transforming the front yard into our mini Tuileries, two little plots of pea gravel bordered by a rim of paving bricks. The area in front of the studio is small like the bungalow itself.

Two plots; one measuring ten feet by fourteen and a half feet and the other twelve and a half by fourteen and a half. How much could it take to clear two small plots of land and fill them with pea gravel? We had all of five and a half days before the opening. I agreed to be the manpower. Rick would direct.

We started the process on the Saturday before the Thursday deadline. Saturday was scheduled for torrential rain. I thought, “What the heck, the rain’s going to soften the dirt and make it easier to push a shovel into”, which it did. It also, unfortunately, made the dirt a lot heavier…very heavy. Rick also wanted to use the excavated dirt to create a planting area along the driveway and fence on the west side of the property. We had put in a metal retainer wall. We didn’t want to rot out the neighbor’s fence. Rain soaked, I started carrying shovels full of dirt and sod from the front yard to the side planter. It was at this point that the  task went from doable to what-were-we-thinking. After six hours of going back and forth one shovel full at a time, I had skimmed a good two inches off of a third of the smaller plot. I was rain drenched and totally panicked that I could convert the remaining sod covered plots to 3” deep ravens. The upside: I was feeling a good five pounds lighter. Sunday, I could barely get out of bed. There wasn’t an inch of body muscle that didn’t ache, but again, always looking to the positive, I could feel by butt cheeks tightening to where they were twenty years ago. I’m always looking for the bright side and if the benefit of all this work was a pair of tight buns I’d continue the chain gang masochism, but it was going to have to wait till Monday.
I don’t know if you heard but Wisconsin was having a relatively cold spring. Cool working conditions was a bonus, but Monday hopped from spring to hot and humid summer. The temperature was well into the nineties. The manual labor had now gone from ideal to insufferable. I persevered for another eight hours before the weight of the idea of finishing became as heavy as the dirt itself. We were now down to two and half days until the job had to be finished. Rick was completely apologetic. My physical burden was only matched by his burden of guilty for coming up with the idea in the first place.
Tuesday brought panic but through panic inspiration sometimes rises. My cousin has a road construction business in Madison. I called Chris and in three hours one of his crew showed up with a Bobcat and a medium sized dump truck. Two hours and two trips of the dump truck filled to the brim later, the two plots were emptied of their contents and leveled to a perfect three-degree slope.

Wednesday we enlisted the help of friends who laid a lawn fabric barrier, constructed a paving stone border with stones we got at a close-out, and then shoveled three yards of pea gravel into the waiting beds of our French inspired front yard.

We then returned the antique cast-iron urns to their sentinel positions on other side of the entry path and voila – the front yard was complete with a whole half day to spare.

Estimated cost from a local landscaper: $1700 after the wholes had been dug and cleared

Actual cost:
3 rolls of 3’x50’ lawn fabric   $28
360 paving bricks                   $50
3 yards of pea gravel              $66
Gravel delivery                       $30
Total cost:                             $174



The front door knob is still missing its back plate, the exterior windows need a second coat of paint which means I haven’t taken the blue painter’s tape off of them and I can’t figure out how to unlock the back door so I’m unable to truthfully say our doors are now open. We are open for business but don’t try to enter by the back.
Thursday night, June 2nd, was our big party. I had intended on taking a bunch of pictures for the blog but as was the case with Gallery Night I got off a few pictures and my batteries died.

So although the pictures are few, know that the atmosphere was charged with well-wishes, the case of two buck chuck was emptied and discarded and conversation had reduced our voices to gravel (not the pea gravel variety). Now it’s time to get back to painting the windows, removing the blue tape and providing service and product to our new Midwest friends.


Children in the Palais Royal Garden, 1950
Robert Doisneau

Wednesday, June 1, 2011



Next to the east-west division of Berlin, New York City is the second most famous city to have a distinct separation of its east and its west. The Eastside of Manhattan has been known for generations as the place where wealth and social status is defined by your address. The Westside has always had a more laid-back reputation. Madison has also been defined by its east and west sides for as long as I can remember. In Madison the similarities to New York are somewhat the same but in reverse. Madison’s Westside has maintained the edge on the more white-collar, intellectual, university appeal. The Eastside has a more bohemian working class reputation. There’s no bigger reflection of this distinction then through its residential architecture. The older traditional homes of the Westside with their brick and stone facades evoke an era of little Beaver Cleavers with their horizontally striped t-shirts riding their Schwinn bikes while their mom’s vacuum their living room carpets dressed in billowing shirts topped by a string of pearls. The Eastside, on the other hand, is more a clapboard neighborhood.

Homes here tend to be more a blend of styles scraped from the rooming houses of the thirties and extending to the ranch styles of the post war building bonanza. It’s here among the population of old hippies and younger green- conscious families that a strange Madison specific phenomenon has risen - the purple house. This one used to belong to my sister. It's previous owner was the originator of the purple house. Once begun the craze caught on and now when a home has been touched by the purple wand its considered bad manners for subsequent owners to change the color.

Houses in all the hues of purple, from lilac to lavender, from the vibrant to the more subtle shades, a full range of purple homes can be found dotting the Eastside environs.

Having lived in New York City for several decades where the boldness in color selection stretches all the way from black to dark gray, the eye-straining anomaly of the purple house is both a welcome and unsettling experience. This time of the year, when lilacs are at their height, the Eastside of Madison turns into a wave of purple.

Now I have to admit that the purple houses, as eye catching as they are, frequently come with more idiosyncrasies than just their vibrant color. The use of Wisconsin’s state bird, the plastic flamingo, makes it’s presence know with the purple house.

And my favorite creative inspiration, the bowling ball garden, is a truly ingenious way of replacing flowers that would bloom and fade with a perennial planting that retains its color through all four seasons. Neither the debilitating heat of summer nor the frigid cold of three feet of snow can stop these artificial blooms from sporting their iridescent foliage.

I began to wonder if the purple house craze was some sort of cult, some group of purple worshipers who could give me some spiritual insight into the meaning of life. My first purplite was a young father out doing yard work in front of his purple three-story home.
I’d been sneaking photos of the purple houses from the safety of my car, not knowing if these purple worshipers would take offense at my picture taking and transport me to their alien infested planet in some purple galaxy far, far away, This time my curiosity got the better of me. I walked up to the young man and asked him, “What made you paint your home purple?”
With a big smile he looked up at me from the weeds he was pulling out of his front yard, “My wife likes purple.” It was as simple as that.

I tested the premise that there was no cult but just a love of purple with another purplite. Here the use of purple was a little more subdued, only showing up on the trim. The home’s owner, an older sixties hippie throwback, had come out from her driveway clad in what else, a purple tank top.  The question was the same, “What made you paint your home purple?” The response was the same too, “Well I just like the color purple.”

In all my research I never found any evidence of any cult link among these purple house owners. The only thing I discovered was a life of smiles brought on by the joy provided by this vibrant, kinky, unconventional color – purple.


For a flower with such a potent fragrance it's amazing how fragile they are once they've been cut. But for a fleeting few days our new studio, Pleasant Living, has been filled with the smell of lilacs. 


Purple Euphoria
John B Meuller, photographer