Friday, 27 February 2015

Slightly Potty...

Ceramics have been uncovered dating from around 24,000 BC, while common ceramic vessels have been produced for more than 10,000 years.  In an age of mass production it is gratifying to know that  beautiful and useful objects are produced by the maker's hands.  Wandering through galleries, salesrooms and exhibitions there are constant discoveries to be made and coveted.  Here is the tiniest snippet of examples we've recently viewed...

Egyptian Chalice (siliceous faience) 22nd Dynasty, 945-715 BC Louvre.
Below, in ancient Egypt blue (irtyu) was the colour of the heavens, hence representing the universe.

A ninth century Umayyad unglazed Pilgrim's flask, Syria or Mesopotamia (Christie's Islamic sale)

Tenth Century Bowl, Earthenware with splashed three colour glaze and incised decoration, Iran

Unlike many museum quality objects, contemporary ceramics are accessible at all levels.  The first birthday gift I bought for my husband years ago was a pair of ceramic vases bathed in a deep azure glaze.  Their simple gourd form was both elegant and masculine.  Who could resist the lure of the potter's wheel seeing traces of the ceramicist's hands, something created from the very elements that make our earth in a potter's attentive hands?

I've long collected Mark Skudlareks' robust pots, plates and cups.  At the opposite end of the spectrum of museum pieces, his pots are affordable collectibles; his chief desire to create covetable ceramics.  He is prolific in order to fulfil this desire, achieved through seasonal firings in his kiln modelled on ancient Asian designs.

Pots for sale on the porch of Mark Skudlarek's Wisconsin showroom.
An honesty box is still in use for purchases.

Recently I attended The Potter's Guild group exhibition annual show in London at the invitation of artist and ceramicist Arabella Ross.  She displayed three pieces that were a conceptual tour de force.  Although I couldn't get a photo of the two fabulous framed pieces, here is a picture of the vessel she created with life drawings just visible both inside and outside the piece which give it an immediacy and vibrancy that was impossible to capture here.

Woman Vessel, Arabella Ross

Shoji Hamada, one of the most influential twentieth century studio potters, met Bernard Leach in Japan and travelled with him to England and America, eventually founding the Leach Pottery in St Ives.  Often sited as one of the most influential potters of the twentieth century the simplicity of his work belied its urgency and power.
Shoji Hamada at the wheel

A Hamada vessel which recently sold at auction

Gaia (Mark's wife) Skudlareks' grandfather, potter Michael Cardew, who abandoned his family's comfortable upper middle class lifestyle to train under Bernard Leach and eventually founded his own famed pottery in Cornwall. His rare and highly collectible jugs plates and other forms, are everyday utilitarian objects in the Skudlarek household, scrambled eggs and cassoulét consumed daily on these precious works.  Mine would surely be mounted on the wall out of harm's way.
A rare Michael Cardew stool, 1970
The hand built Skudlarek kitchen awash with precious pottery.

An art student's exploration in vessel making and glazes, an earthy appeal

Yet that is the incredible beauty of ceramics.  From the earth they have come and to the earth they will return - as fine white clay or heavy red clay and everything in between.  They are sometimes practical and useable and always works of art... encompassing both requirements of William Morris.  "Have nothing in your home that you know to be neither useful nor beautiful."  And whilst that makes for some truly uncomfortable and squeaky sofas and chairs in my home, it also makes for exquisite visual and functional feasts on my table and on various perches round the house.  Pottery and ceramics are truly where the worlds of domestic life and art collide in wonderment.

Friday, 19 December 2014


A few favourite images collected throughout the year of our design travels.  The season is a culmination of our hopes, dreams and desires and for many, dreams that have been shattered.
My contribution is a simple desire to express hope through beauty... to erase sorrow for a fleeting moment... to reignite latent dreams through inspiration....

Thanks to all our readers for another successful year of Raconteur.  We wish you all a peaceful and joy filled holiday season.  May 2015 be kind to you and your families.

There is something infinitely more intriguing about dereliction,
  the sense of what might have been, what was and what is yet to come
envisioned through the eyes of the romantic...

Charged with scarcely concealed emotion, a portrait of Mrs Mary Robinson,
Sir Joshua Reynolds,1873-84,  The Wallace Collection

Betimes Books, The hotly debated cover of their limited edition Christmas volume
which is an original drawing by artist Gérard Ramon.
I love the cover (as opposed to others in the office) and dipping into short stories.
Imagine my delight to find one is written by an author who is also my husband!

One from a series of panel of silk embroidery on linen depicting Mary and the angel
V and A exhibit

A winter brunch in celebration of my elder son's fifteenth birthday

A summer visit to Kew Palace.  This garden is my dream, intimate and romantic

On the same day at Kew, a passion flower photographed in one of the vast greenhouses.
Oh to have an orangery swathed in them...

A bride soon to appear at the doors swathed in roses; St Peter's church Winchester

Our darling Greta at her last picnic on St Catherine's Hill.
Mascot to the design business for fourteen years.  Oh, how we miss her...

The Nativity, Pierro della Francesca, 1406 at The National Gallery.
Like contemporary culture, this painting of the nativity shows the artist integrating myriad influences; from his own region of Italy with familiar scenic touches, from painters in the North of Europe with cooler tonal characteristics and the longer leaner human form, the use of oil paints instead of tempura, the imperfections apparent from "zealous over cleaning in the 19th century" according to the catalogue entry.  
Perfection made manifest in a fallen world.  

Thursday, 27 November 2014

Cars to make you smile

Get behind the wheel of a vintage Mercedes and I challenge you not to smile.  One of my first grown-up cars was a 1967 Mercedes 200.  I loved that car so much I did not notice the rusting bits around the rear wheel covers, the expensive petrol or the bouncy springs in the seats.  The minute I got behind the wheel, which was probably more akin to the experience of navigating a slow moving barge, I couldn't stop grinning and I still smile whenever I think of that lovely car with its faded blue naugahyde bench seats, its cream leather steering wheel, the side mirrors so wide they might have been made to pull a boat.

I spend most of my working day thinking about and planning interiors.  Looking back on my favourite cars I realise that the reason I loved them - or not - was ultimately because of their interiors and how I experienced them.

We had a Jaguar XJ6 when our eldest son was a baby.  My husband used to call this our gentlemen's club on wheels.  When we replaced it for a practical Golf, after one too many noughts at the petrol pump, our son actually cried, "I miss the Jag".  I distinctly remember the polished walnut panelling on the dashboard, the tightly woven woollen carpet and floor mats and the feel of the door; solid, heavy, safe, the quiet hum of the engine.  In comparison, any other motoring experience was bound to be a bit of a let down.

Another favourite was the 1986 Jeep Grand Wagoneer we drove when we moved to the States.  My husband bought it online from an antique car dealer in Atlanta before we left. I'll never forget it.  "Big Jeep" as it was known to our family, was special because of its rarity, the caramel leather interior, the early eighties fashionable shag carpet and even the partly unreliable electric windows, which made a wheezing sound as they meandered up and down.  We covered many thousands of miles in the Wagoneer across that vast country.  When we left and the Wagoneer went to a chic young couple who planned to give it a new engine and use it for the beach, my then six year old daughter chased "Big Jeep" down the street in tears as it drove away to a new life.

Slightly further afield, a bit more gratuitous motor eye candy courtesy of our mechanic and owner of Silchester Garage, Paolo. 

Another steering wheel ready for action.  Handsomely made in black and chrome with its gearstick on the column.

Racy bucket seats in my favourite faded caramel leather, the perfect contrast to the glossy cherry red exterior paint finish.

This 190 SL evokes images of Audrey Hepburn swishing around the curves in the Coté d Azur.

The combination of glossy red paint, fins and chrome is unbeatable.

The legendary Pagoda...  A removable hard top to die for... a little glimpse of red leather seats.

Surely the perfect Christmas gift for beloved?

Although Silchester Garage restore cars from all over the world they still keep our decidedly more modest estate car roadworthy... Thanks to Paolo, Matthew, Simon, James and Lynn for your mechanical magic... 

A 1954 Buick Skylark Convertible, sold at the Palm Beach auction in 2012 for $118,000 before buyer's premium...  I think of Eartha Kitt's iconic 1953 song Santa Baby

With that I'll say goodbye, slightly shame-faced for having mentioned Christmas before December (and on Thanksgiving to our American relations).  I simply could not resist that song....  Before that, I'd like to invite you to post comments and/or photos of your favourite twentieth century motor cars/interiors.  I'd love to share them.

Monday, 13 October 2014

Interior Design - Is it Fashion?

Yesterday afternoon I was introduced to a woman who is reinvigorating my IT skills, which may sound dull but was surprisingly stimulating.  To see the world through another person's eyes is always an opportunity to change the landscape if you will, of one's perspective. As we shook hands she smilingly said;  "So, you are an interior designer, you look like a designer."  She was referring to my dress; a vintage French tweed hacking jacket paired with a yellow and white broad pin striped Charles Tyrwhitt shirt, ancient polished lace up boots in cognac leather by Joan and David couture, a woven Turkish leather belt, a tortoise shell resin bracelet given me by a loyal client, a paisley Bora cashmere scarf and a pair of my elder son's cast off khakis!

A Charming illustration from The Gentleman's Gazette

It is a constant surprise to me that I can remember this laundry list for years, yet I may not remember most of what I was so kindly taught in two hours of private IT tutoring!  I will have taken just a minute or two lunging at my wardrobe, bureau and dressing table like a fencer, to retrieve these items because I don't like spending much time dressing, too much to get on with…  I'll grab a bag and an extra pair of shoes as I'm running out the door.  There's nothing original about taking tweeds out of the field and into the boardroom, or the drawing room for that matter...

A guest suite in a tower room we created for Mugdock Castle.
Note in the fore and background, the full tailored curtains made from Italian summer wool suiting trimmed with English Crewelwork.  A masculine and elegant solution.

The point of this peek into my wardrobe is that sartorial details inform the interiors we create.  Especially when looking at clients' homes or commercial spaces, these bits of information will filter back to be transformed into a design.  Apparently this is so for many designers as increasingly the relationship between fashion and interiors is blurred.  I'm not a slave to fashion in our interior design work.  One's interiors don't alter with the same frequency as one's wardrobe.  However, dominant influences in our environment do inform.  Fashion garners vast amounts of pictorial and conversational time/space.

Ted, Alex, Holly and Guy from Dashing Tweeds during the London Tweed Run, 
a fabulous contemporary take on a sartorial and interiors staple!
Some thoughts from this conversation… Many of us use suiting material for upholstery as it is strong, smooth, fluid and elegant.  Since I saw Nicholas Haslam's use of scarlet wool melton for curtains in an entrance hall in New Orleans I found myself longing to recreate this in a room.

His idea nods to designers like John Fowler who, after the war, had little more than their ingenuity and rationed and recycled fabrics to create interiors.

We've long appropriated Welsh blankets for curtains - or as in the twin beds in my daughter's bedroom vintage woven blankets from Harvey Nichols into pretty and practical bedskirts.

A recent joyful find, indeed the final spark of inspiration for the blog this month is a young bridal wear designer just embarking on her first collection.  The construction of a bridal gown is akin to making curtains for a Grade I listed house; many hours of engineering, followed by intricate construction and hand sewing and metres and metres of fabric, made to look effortlessly beautiful...

Nina Rose's first collection.  I adore the line of her gowns.

A John Fowler sketch for curtains at Brook Street.  Note the dressmaker details.  
As with all of our curtains, his were hand sewn...

Madame Gres trained as a sculptor before becoming a couturier. She opened her atelier Gres, in Paris in1942, and was known for the flowing structural drape of her gowns. Many were made in jersey, comfortable, cheap and easy to source after the war, like Coco Chanel.  She was often commissioned by Givenchy, and known for being a vociferous critic of the burgeoning market in ready to wear.  

The draping of her gowns was magnificent - how I'd love to wear one of her designs today

This photo is of of Watts of Westminster Jura, one of the sexiest, most sumptuous striped velvet fabrics we have ever used, here pictured in a somewhat faded version of its original exuberant colours, on a canapé in an issue of a magazine that I sadly cannot remember… I wish Watts still produced this!

Since its inception Prince Charles has been an advocate for and supporter of the Wool Council's "The Campaign for Wool", which has been a potent reminder of the suitability of this particular fabric for interiors use.  There was an excellent selling exhibition at Southwark Cathedral through last weekend during Wool Week if you had the chance to pop in…  Here a couple of favourites...

Tuesday, 9 September 2014

Cave dwelling with a difference

September always starts with a roar as we struggle to meld the soft patina of summer holidays in to the quickened reality of autumn commitments.  It is a month that demands a poised diary as every day is a mixture of deadlines, design events and new projects.  Feeling a bit like a Formula One Driver who can't slow down enough for the next chicane, part of me longs for the simple pleasures of summer, so I thought it might be worth a last look over our shoulders as we hurtle into autumn...

When on the super fast track, my thoughts most often turn backwards to a time and place where things moved necessarily much more slowly.  The ancient city of Matera, in southern Italy, is a place filled with constant reminders of ancient times, where in the sassi, the most ancient area of this fantastical place, the houses are carved into the soft tuff rock, cave dwellings, where these bizarrely hewn hollows have been continuously lived in for many thousands of years, as long ago as 15,000BC.

Ancient frescoes in the Crypt of Original Sin near Matera

Carved out of Tuffa, the ancient dwellings of Matera

The Museum in Matera, a series of galleries clothed in these incredibly rich faded frescoes 

A family in Matera before the government stepped in and moved them to public housing

A pair of timber doors recede into the scene

In our ever present curiosity about the world, we have turned even these most humble dwellings into modern fantasies of the simple life.  In the eighties, residents who had left as children came back as squatters and stayed as hoteliers with a twist.  A shining example of this is pictured below. Tony Perottett, in a winter issue of The Smithsonian, says, "You know that travellers tastes have come full circle when they are clamouring to live like troglodytes".  Whilst there is a shred of truth in this statement, I don't think the troglodytes would have enjoyed the luxuries of plunge baths, concierge service, starched linens and gourmet peasant cuisine on tap!   We have moved on a bit from the days of Dynasty where couture shoulder pads jostled with bottles of Cristal on Concorde to arrive in time for a party in the Carribean…  There are scores of eco holidays available worldwide where we applaud the reed bed drainage system, try to use the same towels all day to ease the burden of water usage and sing the praises of local cuisine.  It is big, responsible business.  I think it is more than a reaction to our wanton wastefulness in the seventies.  I think it is the body and spirit truly craving a closer proximity to the natural world.  And I think it is lovely.

A bedroom at Le Grotte della Civita in Matera, beautiful and authentic yet far more luxurious than any local would have experienced...

Therein lies my fascination with Matera.  Part of me yearns for a simpler life.   My own getting closer to the natural, primeval world was camping in Cornwall this summer, lingering late over the glowing embers of the campfire watching the sun set then stars emerge, or on the rainy nights cosy in the tent with a cup of tea and my book by torchlight.  Rising with the sun and slowing down as it set.  That is luxury in our post industrial world and it is also coming full circle.

A day at Lantic Bay

My Dream tent, courtesy of Ananbo Papier Peint Panoramique