January 22, 2015
Let’s make guacamole! Creating a good time—is an art. And as is true with most artistic ventures—as in life in general—some people do it better than others. Enthusiasm is infectious and it generates such greatness from its energy that is should be harnessed. It is about this that I write today.
So hearing the charge “Let’s make guacamole!” will be for some a really exciting, if not challenging opportunity, while to others it will suggest a rudimentary task and prompt eye-rolling. Those with a lack of enthusiasm or optimism, that everything can be fun with the right recipe, will be the eye-rollers thinking—what’s the challenge of making guacamole? Having done that a million times and regarding its mastery as already accomplished, will not look forward to such an opportunity.
It’s like all enthusiasm, the glass half empty or half full…and with that let me share with you a cooking class that was such fun that is warranted this blog. Despite the fact that the setting was in a tropical jungle, there were many options that day for activities that would blow your paradise-seeking mind. And with all those incredible options I was having great difficulty making decisions each of which eliminated one over the other.
Otherwise probably not to keen on the idea, but having been romanced by the paella lesson left to simmer on the open grill, I had half an open mind about the seemingly simple offer of a guacamole class.
So with a small herd of turtles in front of and behind me, we climbed the stone steps that wound through the lush green vegetation. Barefoot and still in my wet-suit from an educational and invigorating morning snorkel, I wondered if I should be returning to the beach or investing the precious time in the seemingly rudimentary guacamole class.
My reward was at the top of the hill…a statuesque chef donning his attenuated white hat graciously greeted us—welcoming us into a beautiful open-air palapa with its bony wooden structure beneath the layered palm thatch ceiling. There before us was a long rustic banquet table beautifully dressed with multiple molcajete vessels of various sizes filled with dark ripe round avocados, blackened/roasted plum tomatoes, grilled onions, blistered serrano chiles, freshly cut limes, red ripe plum tomatoes, fresh serranos, bunches of aromatic cilantro and pristinely peeled white onions. At the point of arrival, a bounty of various specimen chiles were presented on a large rust-colored clay barro platter and stacks of little barroware plates were in piles interspersed among the molcajete.
Giant steel stars pierced to allow twinkling light to dance at night painted turquoise for pop in the daytime hung at staggered heights from the center of the grand, voluminous palapa. Surrounded by verdant jungle and colorfully painted concrete walls, the room was expansive yet intimate. The chef in his starched white uniform embroidered with his name and proud logo of the establishment greeted us in his towering hat and welcomed us into this scene that dazzled the eye.
Guacamole I’m thinking…this looks like a bit more fun than merely mashing up some avocados!!! And with that he began his friendly introduction to the fiery cuisine of Mexico’s flavorful salsas! Presenting the platter of chiles he held each up for all to see asking the group if anyone could identify them. The replies came from all around “serrano, jalapeno, chipotle, banana, arbol—cola de rata, poblano, guajillo…” The rapt audience sat encircling the grand buffet on rustic wooden stools engaging in lively conversation as the chef spoke in his open and encouraging manner describing each of the chiles and their many uses.
Now we were invited to approach the table where spaced evenly along each long side were stacks of white linen—pressed aprons and chef’s hats for each one of us—how fun and what a nice addition to the otherwise casual scene. We donned our outfits with giggles and proceeded to admire each other’s instant transformation into the appearance of proper culinary participants!
The chef alternated each pair across the table from one another assigning guacamole for one pair and salsa molcajete for the next and so one down the line. This too produced camaraderie between strangers who at once bonded in the fun of the festivities. Oh, and did I mention that for those who chose to partake that delightful beverages were served of all manner of tropical delights from straight tequila shots to refreshingly poured on the rocks with lime to jaca, papaya, pineapple juices, and rum? All this as the chef assigned tasks for each around the table resulting in a chatter of conversation and progress reports as each tackled their portion of the process—dicing, mashing, mixing and squeezing. The action continued to unfold as the capable woman behind the counter made fresh corn tortillas and delivered them oozing with molten Oaxaca cheese—quesadillas ready to scoop up the magnificent fresh salsa and guacamole!! Smiles and groans of delight emanated from around the room.
So in summary…the recipe for creating a good time: Presentation, welcoming attitude, disarming graciousness, with the best representations/samples of the product around which the good time is based! Know your theme/subject and make it fun!
September 19, 2014
Black kitchens are sexy – as noted in the recent article “Cook in the Dark” by David A. Keeps, in the Wall Street Journal, last weekend September 13-14, 2014. And in 2008 when we created a dramatic statement using black custom cabinets contrasted against raw-meat colored granite to many it was quite daring, even astonishing – but everyone LOVED it! Yes, it was a man’s kitchen – but as his female friends can attest, it is genderless in its stunningly composed design. This particular interior remodel featured this striking kitchen and we celebrated the black further by painting all the base trim, doors and molding in a semi-gloss black. Contrasting creamy travertine floors and walls are punctuated by the black trim and monolithic two-sided black marble fireplace and flanking cabinets.
On the heels of that project, we found ourselves celebrating a stone fireplace installation from the 70s. Many thought it needed to go – but rather, we found the same slate stone in large format floor tiles and finished all of the floors throughout with this stunning natural material. All of a sudden the fireplace was at home in a new context. A completely new kitchen – enlarged with many added functions – was designed with black cabinets and iridescent mossy green granite counter-tops flecked and riddled with gold and black fissures. The slate stone flooring was mimicked in the backsplash with the same silvery slate along with a black and grey stone madras-like mix.
I was there in that second interior today as the client prepared with great focus and determination for a significant reunion of friends coming from all over the country – some not having been together for 40 years! A new commission of a martini alongside a copy of Flying magazine (the client is a private pilot), by celebrated artist Susan E. Roden – delivered today, sparkles with highlights of silver leaf next to the brushed stainless accoutrements. The bright red pops against the neutrals and black anchors of the dark toned bar and obsidian kitchen.
So it’s been fun to read the Keeps’ article and hear of this new craze in dark kitchens – we always knew they were sexy. Clients love being ahead of the trends. But as is always the case – when the trend takes hold, the industry provides a new array of offerings for designers to incorporate. New materials, new finishes – the challenge is to think a bit off from the norm and create before the palette is presented on the industry’s silver platter. Remember though – that good design always transcends trends!
July 21, 2014
While innovative highways channel thinkers racing in an infinite world of hi-tech competition and dizzying speed – who will build these innovations? Just read an interesting article and it spurred thoughts around an old subject about which I have passionately expressed urgency in the past. A subject addressing our preoccupation and emphasis on hi-tech advancements at the expense of, rather than in concert with, the trades. Let’s examine why the following might be applicable in every community where intellectual design creatively and successfully melds with tangible old-style craftsmanship. INTERNATIONAL NEWS FLASH from Istanbul – Kerem Alper – whose brain works on both sides of the fence holds dual Masters from Stanford in both design and business. Alper obvserves, “We’re seeing a hybrid world where digital and physical design collide, which could be called “physical computing” or “embodied systems” or, as we say, “sensitive products” (because “smart” implies only the left side of the brain) but it all hints at: If you’re doing an app or a website, what is the physical counterpart of this? Partner with dual degrees also from Stanford in architectural design and structural engineering, Paired with a degree from NYU in media arts Engin Ayaz, address why Istanbul is ripe for collaboration between the high tech intellectual design and hands-on design fabrication: “One factor is convenience. We can work closely with craftsmen and makers here; they still reside in central areas of city and they have a lot of know-how in the techniques of making. They are the last generation of their kind, so we treat them as precious collaborators for our projects. IMPORTANT lesson for all listening: to nurture a partnership between the trades and the fast-pace of the innovations of our technological world with all productive members of our society – emphasizing each ones strengths and contributions and cultivate expertise and pride in all work. Lest we be reliant on other countries to fabricate our dreams.
February 16, 2014
Presidents’ Day – and what is the more significant focus for interior design on this day that celebrates the preeminent leaders of our country and the world? Well, the relatively modest (by some country’s standards), but significant home in which they reside, the White House.
Many years before I had a glimmer of interior design in my purview, I remember the buzz of my mother and her peers surrounding the exciting and noteworthy changes that Jackie Kennedy was bringing to her White House. The exhilarating tone of that time was super-charged with the young, beautiful Camelot couple who made such an indelible impression on all they touched. I sat on my father’s shoulders on November 17, 1962 at the dedication of Dulles airport – Washington’s “jet airport” watching and listening to President Kennedy describe this “distinguished ornament of a great country.” At the same time he recognized the value and beauty of historical properties that warranted restoration and protection. Back then it was a little too much for me to digest, but their sensitivity and appreciation regarding the importance of good design and their influence on the world of fashion and design was astonishingly profound. Everyone was touched by their style and discriminating sense of all things surrounding art, architecture, fashion and interiors.
Having graduated from Mount Vernon College in Washington DC in the first graduating class that was a model for FIDER accreditation in Interior Design, I was surrounded by architectural history and American decorative arts. From the State Department to the Winterthur Museum in Delaware, Washington, DC to Williamsburg – we had an exhilarating education that mere books cannot convey.
Aileen Mehle wrote in Architectural Digest of the first ladies and their very public opportunity to leave their mark on many elements of popular interest not the least of which is the most famous residence on earth. “As the wife of the most powerful man on earth, she commands the attention of the world, placed under a sometimes unforgiving microscope, dissected. From the top of her hairdo to the height of her heels, she is fair game. People want to know: What does she eat, drink, think? Does she like red, pink, mink? How and who does she entertain? Above all, what in her eyes is it like to be the chatelaine of the White House, the most famous house in the land? What mark will this woman make on her surroundings? What evidence of her personal taste and style will she leave behind, hoping that her loving imprimatur will last longer than the few years it was her temporary residence?”
Mehle narrowed the field of focus by highlighting two of the most effective first ladies in what I like to reference as the Department of Décor. She stated that “Jacqueline Kennedy and Nancy Reagan were two of the most remarkably caring first ladies of the 20th century. Previously they had both enjoyed brilliant lifestyles.” She notes that both women “were chic and stunning, refined and impeccable. They brought these personal traits to bear almost from the moment they walked through the door of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. How lucky (for their eras and posterity) that they cared so passionately about history. That the White House looked much more authentically beautiful and harmonious when they left than when they arrived is a testament to their exquisite stewardship.”
Jackie enlisted the internationally recognized French interior designer Stéphane Boudin, regarded as a “master of the grand and the opulent” regards Mehle. “He was the star of the renowned Paris decorating firm Jansen” and it was with his brilliant guidance that they transformed many of the more relevant rooms of the White House into exquisite statements of period elegance with timeless good design.
Catrin Morris reviewed Jackie’s fine work and quotes the White House Museum, as stating that the then new First Lady’s appreciation of antiques and fine art prompted her to “not merely redecorate but to restore the White House to a grander, more authentic period look appropriate to its role in American life.”
Decades later, Nancy Reagan, a stellar woman well recognized for her exquisite sense of style Mehle observes “left her own individual mark on the second- and third-floor private quarters of the White House, the Yellow Room, the Treaty Room, the Lincoln Bedroom and the Queens’ Bedroom. Ted Graber, a personal friend and noted decorator in the Hollywood scene was selected by Nancy to work to create an atmosphere bringing “beauty, color, graciousness and comfort.
It was during her reign as matriarch of the White House’s Department of Décor that I had the good fortune and extraordinary opportunity to have a private tour behind the scenes of the White House. It was in the middle of my career and the wives of a visiting NFL team had just been through earlier that day and although velvet ropes cordoned off many areas beyond which tours could not step, we were escorted by a longtime family friend to get behind the scenes and experience an intimate exploration of the stately rooms. President and Mrs. Reagan were not in residence that weekend. I remember touching Dolly Madison’s tea service and remarking how incredible that felt. Priceless decorative arts – significant artifacts of history were not only on display but presented in a way that suggested that the past Presidents and their wives were still present as following Presidents and their families passed through the halls. This melding of an ongoing, living history is quite unique and inspiring to witness first hand. From the Oval Office where a dutiful agent sat behind an outer desk granting us access to peek inside this dauntingly important headquarters to the spotless stainless steel subterranean kitchen…we explored it all.
Although our tour was limited to a daytime excursion, at that time, any guest privileged enough to stay overnight Mehle offers “might sleep in the Queens’ Bedroom, where five visiting queens have slept in the canopy bed. All was pastel—the Turkish rug, the striped silk taffeta on the bed and at the windows. The 19th-cen-tury painting and mirror over the antique mantel was a gift to the U.S. government from Queen Elizabeth when she was still a princess. Nancy kept intact the cerulean-blue fabric that covered the walls of the adjacent Queens’ Sitting Room.” Such extraordinary history of our fairly recently established great country preserved and made available for view in this exceptional context!
Mehle also tells readers that “many of the furnishings were authorized gifts from the Reagans’ devoted friends and others who loved and respected the White House. In nearby rooms, she kept her own collection of Battersea boxes, blue-and-white porcelain and jade on small tables. Paintings by Cassatt, Cézanne and Peale adorned other spaces in the private quarters.” Said Graber, “She was responsible for its same elegance and easy charm she herself epitomizes.”
Alas, despite the discriminating efforts of these extraordinary First Ladies, much of their fine work has since been modified as is the prerogative of those who follow. Historians have recorded the periods and transitions while history will determine and confirm the contributions of all who have the key responsibilities for the contents and presentation of the treasures within these walls. Beauty may be in the eye of the beholder, yet in the final analysis, good design reads through and hopefully transcends attempts at transient change for mere ego. The value of sensitivity is priceless.
February 10, 2014
Creating a romantic and interesting table for a special Valentine’s dinner offers so many opportunities for presenting your heart-felt feelings. With a little effort to select some key pieces to dress the table and by selecting some simple yet scrumptious delights, you will have a wonderful memory to cherish. Here are some suggestions and a couple of easy menu ideas too!
We’ve heard the truism of “The way to a man’s heart is through his stomach.” But the same can be said in reverse as there is something irresistible about a man in control of his kitchen. Pairing the two is the ultimate love cuisine when a couple cooks together sharing the tasks, sipping cocktails and enjoying the process.
The recipe for a romantically successful Valentine’s Dinner at home is so easy. Realize that you don’t have to drive – thereby eliminating that concern after enjoying your cocktail and bottle of wine over dinner. Not to mention the after dinner sip of brandy or bubbly.
Starting with cocktails and hors d’ oeuvres, go to your favorite online foodie place for recipes for things such as stuffed ripe red cherry tomatoes – luscious and sensuous. For the carnivores, a rich and savory pate with toast points is a delectable treat. Maybe shrimp cocktail – easy cooked shrimp with a spicy valentine red cocktail sauce. It’s fun to have your appetizer someplace other than at the dinner table. If you use different places to enjoy the different phases of the evening, it will create more interest. So perhaps around a coffee table or at a bar counter-top.
Consider taking a walk after the cocktail hour before you progress into dinner. Whether freezing or mild, as long as it is not terribly windy, the temperature shouldn’t matter. Strolling under the darkness of night – perhaps moonlight – is a great way to transition through the phases of the evening.
Candles are a must. There cannot be too many. They don’t have to match. They can be tall tapers, multi-height columns, squat votives or all of the above…Obviously, on the dinner table…but don’t forget other end tables and cocktail tables, fireplace mantles, window sills, bookshelves, counter-tops, bathroom counters or shelves. Watch what’s above – or use artificial candles to avoid burning an upper shelf or art above them. Any light fixtures should be on dimmers. Avoid over-head lighting as it is generally not flattering, casting unpleasant shadows that can ruin the mood. Lighting is like a paint color – it bathes the space with ambient light and also task specific spots – getting the right balance controls the mood.
Main courses are easiest by minimizing time in the kitchen. Grilling is perhaps the least complicated. To make it special, select something that is a little different from your norm like lamb chops or bone-in rib-eye steaks. Potatoes are classic in many forms baked, twice baked, mashed with various herbs, but don’t forget something fast and festive like quinoa. It is a fabulous grain-like nutritional bead that cooks in less than 15 minutes! Vegetarians might grill a shish-kabob of goodies like zucchini, mushrooms, cherry tomatoes, sliced turnip…limitless possibilities – great with quinoa too! Salads fit the bill and can be varied according to your taste, sweet cranberry or strawberry laced greens or garlicky Caesars – the possibilities are endless. By putting the salad on the main dinner plate you eliminate the need for a veggie on the plate. If you prefer the more formal setting of a separate dinner salad, the veggie can also be an easy piece of the program with steamed Brussels sprouts or broccoli which take so few minutes, slathered with butter and voila!
Of course you can make the cooking more complex and complicated – but here the idea is to DO IT and not be intimidated or worried about making things too difficult to tackle! Focus evenly on a simple but romantically fun themed table dressings, menu items, and schedule for the evening and it will be easy and successful!!!
So pick up some red plates or smaller dishes or bowls for salad or dessert to layer on your existing white ones, find some fun cocktail glasses, wine stems, clever cocktail napkins, a great serving platter for hors d’oeuvres, heart-shaped confetti or rose petals to sprinkle on the table and dare I say, between the sheets?
Find a great vase in which you cluster fresh flowers for the dinner table and perhaps another primary surface like the cocktail table or bar. Buy or make a great card and/or a memorable gift.
An extra thought for this holiday…Can you think of someone with whom you would not usually exchange Valentines’ but who would be cheered by your gesture? Pick out a simple token to mark the day for someone you know.
January 13, 2014
The soft diaphanous salt air wafts through the open concept of this simple yet effective architectural design – would that it had gauze draping the sides to illustrate the motion of the ever so soft breeze. Thatch top still green from the recent construction, sturdy crooked legs like that of the broken men who braved the seas and might have found themselves beached here to build this primitive, yet artistic structure. It was picture perfectly inspired dwelling on this glorious tropical day.
Here we are lolly-gagging along…shelling, exercising, making our way across this pristine stretch of fine sand exaggerated in girth by the low tide that allows the seemingly unrestrained beach to read with expanded proportions when we come upon this precious little structure.
What a find! When you least expect it, you often encounter the best opportunities – like this one – strolling down the beach and encountering this creative little casita – beachfront for sure – organic, open and airy!!! Surfers? Nomads? The possible stories of our imagination are limitless within the physical parameters of this delightful discovery.
The roof allows filtered light in and open sides allow the sea breeze to flow through…organic material used to create these authentic and so very contextual furnishings speak volumes about the focus of the fabricators. Nestled against the out-cropping of jungle trees and wild flowers spilling onto the sand, the scene is more magical than Gilligan’s – maybe even more so that Robinson Crusoe!! Tom Hanks would have thought he had stumbled into the Ritz! Yet, the simplicity of it all was the emphasis of less is more – spare and understated – it pared down the essential elements to create this special little one room accommodation.
The furnishings are minimalist – yet so very functional. The sofa is crafted from a log supported, and suspended above the beach sand – quite comfortable and ergonomic as a seat structure. A triad coffee table is comprised from three logs topped with three handsome flat stones. Perfect! And a sculptural, beautiful branch of driftwood sits off to the side reminding us that beauty without function is essential.
Take a walk in the woods…of into the fields…onto a wild untamed beach and discover the natural elements that were the primitive beginnings of our interior design – the modified native habitats that we reside in today. And see that stretch!!!!! Evolution can reverse its course as we investigate and appreciate the value and beauty in simple things…
January 5, 2014
When in doubt – go for the gusto! The easy options were just that – too easy and after envisioning all of the obvious options it hit me. I adore color and texture and the varied effects of bits and pieces making a whole. Fragmenting and reconstructing, creating and melding, mixing and matching…mosaic is magnificent. Taking disparate shards and creating a scene, combining a collage of materials and making a mosaic of their complimentary shapes and textures.
Architecturally, walls are faced with murals of mosaics on grand scales that pull the public eye into fantasies of fine, fragmented details.
Inspired for years with this colorful, playful and loose art form, I recently attacked my fireplace surround. Why not break convention from the traditional use of material such as tile, stone, perhaps glass and use ALL of these materials in a bold collage of color and make a statement that lasts!
Mostly broken tiles from a variety of sources along with simple glass stones, broken ceramics, and even treasured polished Atlantic beach stones that my father collected and took to the glossy, glassy high polish of his tumbler that spun in the garage day and night with the different frits to gradually transform the smooth pebbles into those highly polished prizes. This sort of project can be an intensely personal collection of fragments and memories.