I'm certainly no history buff, I'm closer to a buffoon when it comes to remembering timelines. Unlike Rick who can tell within six months the last time Debbie Gibson had a number one hit on Casey Kasem's top 100 and if you know either Debbie or Casey you're already way ahead of me. So when my curiosity was peaked by a store I saw that verged on the edge of weird I got sucked in and I had to know more. I turned to my newest best friend, that little google window in the upper right-hand corner of my computer's desktop. I typed in curiosity cabinet and got my little history lesson on how this all started.
The idea of a curiosity cabinet began somewhere around the 16th century. I always thought the cabinet was a euphemism for the concept of displaying collections of oddities but the cabinet actually was a cabinet. It was usually made of wood with a series of drawers or shelves placed behind glass doors. The contents of these cabinets were the sideshow collections of the wealthy with a penchant for objects outside the normal sphere of every day life. These wealthy collectors showcased their private collections in their homes, periodically opening their doors to other members of the privileged class for a glimpse of a three headed baby goat, a rare grouping of precious gems, or Cleopatra's toenail clippings. Eventually it became prestigious to donate these collections to newly immerging public institutions. This was the beginning of our global network of public museums, places where the general public could come and see phenomenon never before available for their edification or amusement. Now it seems the curiosity cabinet or at least the collecting of the unusual, priceless, or the-not-in-my-house are making a comeback and I'm enjoying their return.
I remember the first time I took Emmy to Deyrolle, a curiosity shop that stretches the imagination even for the left Bank in Paris. Emmy has always had a soft spot for animals, all animals. She was six years old that summer in Paris, still small enough that I could carry her on my shoulders. We walked from our hotel to the metro and then to 46 rue du Bac the address for Deyrolle.
The façade is sweetly human sized but belies the enormity of the second floor shop. Walking up the creaky stairs there's a feeling of having been transported back to the 16th century where a private collector has housed his curiosity collection in a series of rooms too small to contain his passion.
Taxidermied polar bears and lions stand on cabinets along side exotic birds and forest animals. Cabinets house rare minerals and insects stabbed with pins. Emmy was fascinated and scared simultaneously. There was a glassy eyed mystification consuming her curiosity and leaving her, for the moment, speechless.
Joanna Ebenstein has made a career out of photographing the world of curiosities. She has searched the cobbled streets of London and the fifth floor walk-ups of the lower east side of New York chronicling the contemporary private collectors of taxidermied animals, medical anomalies, religious artifacts and really weird stuff. You can find her photographs through her exhibit Private Cabinets Photo Series.
She not only documents the collections of others but has created her own curiosity habitat that she calls The Morbid Anatomy Library. There's a strange eerie beauty that Joanna has uncovered in her photos. The macabre turns to art in her hands.
If museums hadn't come to pass, movie stars and the social elite would be trading their celebrity to garner tickets to view the home of Tim Knox and Todd Longstaffe-Gowan in a doggy area in London's East End. Portraits of Sir Arthur Hopton and his brother Sir Thomas Hopton by Van Dyck adorn one wall while an elephant skull sits on a table among various religious artifacts mostly depicting nuns.
The mix of art and curiosities is exactly what museums had in mind. It stirs the pot of imagination and inquisitiveness making viewers want to know, "What the heck?"
As if the west coast wasn't kooky enough David Wilson's Museum of Jurassic Technology in Culver City is out to raise the bar of California lunacy one notch higher.
Lawrence Weschler in his book, Mr. Wilson's Cabinet of Wonder: Pronged Ants, Horned Humans, Mice on Toast and Other marvels of Juraassic Technology, catalogues all of the items and then many more that appear in this store front museum.
I'm a sucker for shelling out money I don't have for things like string balls, 19th century medical charts and weekend painter's renditions of the surreal world. I have to draw the line on stuffed vermin but I get the appeal. I tend to look for my wacky and mystical treasures at flea markets, antique fairs, and estate sales but there are dealers all over the world that are willing to sell you human skulls, bleeding heart Madonnas or the tombstones of flesh eating serial killers (this last one we actually saw on a road trip through southeastern Wisconsin - as tempting as it was we passed it up). Here are a couple of places that deal in items worthy of inclusion in Mr. Wilson's Cabinet of Wonder.
Evolution, on Spring Street in Soho, specializes in everything curious. One look in their window has the effect of rubbernecking around a bad accident. Furry insects the size of your fist, the skeleton of a baby monkey and the tail feathers of a male peacock share space with an enormous nautilus shell and an entomologist's prize collection of mounted butterflies.
Inside the shelves and cabinets are stocked with curiosities you can purchase for a few a dollars or thousands depending on their rarity, or their scare value, or the size of your wallet.
It's only a short walk over to Kabinett & Kammer in the east village where the objects for sale when seen alone can seem almost revolting but when put together become breathtakingly beautiful and that's the point. The interest in the dead and stuffed, the religiously sacrilegious or phenomena of nature are the things that twist our heads around and make us think about their origin and their relationship to us as collectors or observers. These curiosities can make us shiver and cringe like audience members at a horror film or giggle like school children at the sight of an exposed breast. I for one, enjoy the charge these items spark in my imagination despite the chill it sends down my spine.
Interrupted Reading, Paris, 1999
Represented by The Edelman Gallery
I grew up in the fifties and like any other upstanding, respectable family of the era when buying or building a new house it was to be a long, sleek low, ranging 'ranch style' house. That is just what my father did when he built our house in 1957. It is a beautiful house and everyone in my family adored it, except for one thing, my sisters and brothers and I always longed for a two-story house with a staircase complete with banister kids could slide down when called for dinner. All my life I've wondered at beautiful staircases, straight, curved or spiraled. I don't know what it is, that allure. Is it the mystery of what lies above, the beauty and style of a slow, subtle curve, or the interest of intricate detailing? Maybe it was just the joyous bounce in a person's gait that always seemed to go with every ascent or descent. What ever it is, I find most staircases beautiful, prepossessing and gracious. Since I have such a great, unwavering love for this architectural marvel I've gathered a few to share; one straight, one curved, one spiraled and one that's just beautiful.
This is clearly not a staircase in a home with kids but its cantilevered beauty is undeniable. Steel planks seem to float out from a poured concrete wall. A metal railing follows the stairs encouraging its ascenders and decenders to keep to the safety of the wall. Practicality might have flown out the window but a simple strength of design floats to the top like cream in milk.
There are dangerous curves, hairpin curves, seductive curves, subtle curves that you can trace with your finger along the edge of a lover's face and curves that take your breath away traveling on a narrow road through the Alps. In this staircase by Ficarra Design the curves are nothing but regal. This double curve staircase exemplifies the height of elegance. The articulation of the ironwork, the perfect spacing of the rungs, and the traditional symmetry of the stairs all contribute to a showcase for the perfect entry. Let the cotillion begin.
Like the spine of a prehistoric reptile this mid-century spiral staircase snakes its way up from floor to floor. Each wooden step is formed like a vertebra from that long distinct monster, but like Beauty and the Beast that grotesque creature found love from the architect Patrick Jouin and transformed into this beautiful staircase.
Then there are stairs that can only be described as beautiful. San Francisco based Lindberg Design has created this spectacular staircase in a Pacific Heights residence. The sensual swipe of this simple form transforms functional form to art. Nothing else need exist in this space because nothing could compete with the sheer beauty of this form and the way it fractures space.
WHEN STAIRS LEARNED TO SPEAK
When the Science Museum of Minnesota built their new building they found a way to let people make music through a staircase that sings tunes composed from people stepping on the notes under foot. Each tread is a separate note and by walking up or down the stairs a new anthem arises and fades.
OUR ANDES STAIRCASE
The entry to a home generally says something about its inhabitants. When we began renovating our 1860's Victorian craftsman we found a local woodworker who using nothing but a set of planes could strip down the staircase to its original finish. We papered the walls with a William Morris wallpaper, found an old circular metal vent with the word Andes cut out in its center, had it installed and then filled the walls with pansy paintings. You can tell us what you think our entry said.
THE STAIRCASE AS PHOTOGRAPHIC ART
When you put one vertical plane up against a horizontal plane and then add light a dramatic contrast ensues where one plane falls into shadow and the other becomes bathed in light. Repeat the vertical and horizontal planes and eventually you have a staircase, steps that both rise and descend simultaneously. This juxtaposition of planes has been a prime subject for photographers since the inception of the art. There's a seductive quality to the brilliant compositions created by this intersection of two perpendicular planes.
At the turn of the century Jaques-Henri Lartigue displayed the curiosity and humor of a young man through the lens of his camera. He never considered himself anything more than an amateur photographer chronicling the life of his family and friends in France and making reams of photo albums. It wasn't until later in his life that he acquired the praise of the photographic world for his documentary artistry and his immense sense of humor. Here he flies his perfectly attired cousin off a set of stairs floating her through space as if everyone walked on air.
Repetition is one of the fundamental tools of good design. That's why staircases are so frequently seen in the art of photography. In Philip Trager's image of West 122nd Street taken in 1979 it's not only the repetition of shade and light with the stairs but the vertical repetition of the windows as well. Then there's that one sensually curved railing that winds down the middle of the image breaking the severity of the all those vertical and horizontal lines like the sweet curve of a reclining female form.
Andre Kertsz infuses emotion into his inanimate stairs in Chez Mondrian, Paris, 1926. It's only a peek at set of stairs leading to an unknown room, but there is so much one can read into those three steps, a lover's rendezvous hiding behind a wall lit by the joy of a single flower where her lover has left his hat and coat.
Fashion has constantly resorted to the photogenic beauty of a staircase. Here Rodney Smith uses the patterns made by this elaborate cast iron staircase to contrast with the simplicity of the perennial black dress. The ornate quality of the stairs with its perforated risers and intricate railing panels becomes so intense your eye can do nothing but be drawn to the model and her dress.
From the top of an entry staircase in Hyeres, France in 1932, Henri Cartier-Bresson snapped a picture of a bicyclist riding down a cobbled street. The speed of the bike left the cyclist in a blur but the staircase remained in complete clarity. Some will see the bicyclist and contemplate where he is going or where he might have been. I want to know where that staircase leads.
Sometimes a staircase photograph may only be attributed to anonymous, its one known quality being its beauty
BREAKING SOME RULES
Like so many subjective professions, interior design is filled with rules that can be more rewarding to break than to follow. Here are some images where rules were broken, where rebels rebelled and the results were worth their courageous rebellion.
The Rainbow House in London by DA Studios abandons the traditional means of getting from one floor to the next by replacing steps with a slide complete with a trap door. It works great for the kids but I'm not sure how likely I'd be to shove Grandma down the slide with her cane in hand, although it beats descending a normal flight of stairs on her butt. Grandma always had a sense of adventure. This is a true story
Let's call a spade a spade, the TV of today is as valid a piece of art as any Picasso or Rembrandt. So why not mount it on an easel the way an artist would with his most prized work. This easel on wheels has the mobility to run around the room catching the best light or projecting the best of Masterpiece Theatre.
The Farralone House broke so many rules I couldn't possibly list them all but who would care when the results are this breathtaking. No sofa, who cares. Putting four chairs in a soft aqua blue fabric facing each other makes the perfect conversation area. Then when you can't find the right rug at the right size why not use four rugs instead of one. Then lets look at the fireplace surround. It's asymmetrical in so many wrong ways but it manages to find a weird way of balancing itself making it more than beautiful. It's genius, just ask John Kennedy. This is where he allegedly shacked up with Marilyn Monroe when Frank Sinatra lent him the keys to the joint.
There's really no rule broken here, at least no rule I can come up with for creating a drapery wall but I love this solution to the age old question of what to do with all your junk. Since most of what all of us carry around is too large to sweep under a rug constructing a twelve foot high curtain to hide all the things we need to live but don't want anyone to see a solution I'm all over. Closed: it's sleek and clean and everything is out of sight. Open: it's well organized and handy. Hiding clutter is a rule well worth keeping.
ARCHITECTURE IN THE SNOW
Since there's been no real snow this winter I can romanticize about a cabin hidden under fir boughs laden with snow and a reed of smoke winding its way from the chimney to the sky without having to deal with the fact I'd have to park the car at the bottom of the hill because the drive hasn't been plowed and the three bags of groceries I'm going to have to tote up two hundred yards to the cabin are going to make my biceps ache so bad I won't be able to lift a spoon of cold soup (the electric heat would have gone out due the downed power lines from the weight of the wet snow) to my mouth. So while the beauty of snow is still a fantasy lets look at some romantic getaways made even more seductive dressed in their winter coats of snow.
In the snowy mountains of Washington State the design team of Olson Kundig Architects have built a 1000 square foot weekend cabin so cozy no one could possibly be upset by being snowed in.
The cabin has a set of shutters that can close the cabin up when everyone is away. This huge wheel can easily move the shutters into position but when the shutters are open the view of lace-draped trees is a delicate beauty to be savored like a fine hot toddy.
I don't normally think of snow when someone mentions Iran, ayatollahs and camels are a little further up the list, but Iran has mountains and these mountains have snow and the Iranian people are just as likely to don a pair of skis and a Versace snowsuit as anyone else. The Barin Ski Resort designed by RYKA Studio is a contemporary castle in the sky with every surface built like a series of ice blocks stacked in courses that wind there way through an interior snow storm.
Not to be out iglooed, the WhitePod Alpine Ski Resort in Les Cerniers Switzerland has rooms that look like real igloos thanks to the technology of Buckminster Fuller.
Inside each igloo the walls are fabric covered, plush throws wrap the beds while a little fire burns off the chill. Europe knows how to take advantage of winter. I don't ski and I wouldn't need to at the WhitePod with that view and the seduction of that bedroom.
America has its own winter wonderlands. We've got one right here in Wisconsin, the Seth Peterson Cottage. Designed by Frank Lloyd Wright. The cottage, designed in 1957, was one of the last commissions done by Wright. Located in the birch and pine forests along the shores of Mirror Lake the cottage can be rented out for a minimum two night stay. You can commune with nature and Wright in 800 square feet of history in the Wisconsin woods. Make your reservations early, the cottage usually books up a year in advance.
THE OFFICIAL END OF CHRISTMAS 2011
This year's tree ended up too dry and too big to try to drag through the living room and down the stairs without leaving a trail of needles so deep poor Buddy (our ten-year-old cock-a-poo) would end up leaving the living room looking like a green porcupine. Our solution to the needles was to have at the tree with a pruning shears. We threw the debris out over the balcony. A little sweeping, a once over with the vacuum, rearrange the furniture and we're ready for the new year.
Four Trees, Ferapontovo Monastery, 2004
Andrew Moore, Photographer
Represented by Yancy Richardson Gallery, NYC
There are times we're ahead of the curve and then there are times we're a little behind. Five years after we had collected a set of jadite dishes for forty-eight Martha Stewart showed up with a kitchen show, her glass cabinets glowing behind her filled with jadite. In 2007 we designed a table at DIFFA's Dining by Design for the New York Design Center where we used fabrics silk-screened with cursive text. The next year Restoration Hardware's shelves were lined with linen pillows printed with cursive text and upholstered chairs talking back to you with the lines from eighteenth century French poems. Way back on October 28, 2011 (2011 was way last year) we but up a post "Tangerine and Pumpkin". We do color stories every now and then, we did that tangerine post and we also added a tangerine dot to our logo. It's become our mascot color for Pleasant Living. Well who knew? Here comes the new year and what happens?. Pantone names Tangerine Tango (Pantone 17-1463) their color for the year. They say imitation is the highest form of flattery. I'm just saying. We're very flattered.
So to return the compliment we're going to do a story on Pantone's color of the year for 2010, Pantone 15-5519 - Turquoise, the color of the Caribbean, a color so beautiful they named a rock after it. You say the word turquoise and you can feel the water lapping at your feet, you can smell the mix of sand and coconut oil, and you can feel the soothing calm of tranquil turquoise.
Take the street less traveled where turquoise sets the tone of peace. The temperature outside might be hot and humid but the here turquoise can cool down a baking cobblestone path.
Little hotel shanties line up like cubes of ice in an arid setting. Forget the air-conditioner or the need for working windows; if this isn't literally cool it is definitely aesthetically cool. The washed out board and baton façade of unit 10 is more than enough to make me want to see what kind of room lies behind that turquoise door.
If we lived in the world of Harry Potter where a pup tent at the World Quidditch Championship can hide a palatial interior worthy of a Saudi Sheik then this might be the entry way behind that door at unit 10. Painting the furniture the same shade of as the walls makes the entry seem larger. There's a real sense of welcome here, an invitation to take your shoes off and come on in.
Who wouldn't want to sit their kids here, all three of them, and let them each have a drawer where they can keep their books and art supplies. The color palette should have them sedated to a mellow group of little angels. It's the power of turquoise.
It's almost as if this room was part of a miniature dollhouse where you could pick it up and slide it in and out of this dollhouse slot. There's a real sense of the surreal here but the room's for real. It's a stage where turquoise is the star. Not even the ceiling is neglected with turquoise covering every surface; floor, walls, and ceiling too, it's almost like being submerged under the sea in a glass bubble with all your books for comfort.
Turquoise is one of those colors that can have Jekyll and Hyde aspect to its personality. On the one hand it can possess a softness where serenity reigns. Even with that azure water beckoning outside it would be hard to pull myself out of this bedroom. I'd just as soon remain swimming in the turquoise waters of that bed's linen.
On the other hand turquoise can have a bold side where the coolness of turquoise can sizzle. By taking that tangerine we so clairvoyantly talked about back in October and pairing it with 2010's turquoise you've got an exciting space ready for a party where waitresses in vinyl boots pass out the trendiest signature drinks while guests discuss the intelligence level of Sarah Palin versus Rick Perry.
In the cold chill of a January winter it's a little comforting to dream of a warm turquoise sea.
MORE OR LESS
I have always contended that good design doesn't depend on money, at least not money alone. I've spent a career matching "the proverbial Gap T-shirts with Armani suits "or the decorating equivalent to that fashion trick employed by many even the ever stylish Sharon Stone in order to create beautiful spaces while trying to stay on budget. The trick here is to watch the quality quotient. Finish is usually the first give-away of a poor quality item. Wood should look like wood, stone should look like stone, and you get the idea. These days construction doesn't have to be flimsy to make something for a lesser price and veneers are used throughout the industry whether high or low. Just pay attention to how they are cut, glued up and used. MDF is not a four-letter word but particleboard is. Structure is important. Chairs, sofas and benches should support people of substantial size and tables should never wobble.
Robert Abbey Double Gourd Ceramic Lamp
JC Penney Double Gourd Ceramic Lamp
Club Allegro Fortissimo, Paris, 1990
William Klein, Photographer
Represented by Howard Greenberg Gallery, NYC