Friday, March 26, 2010

Christopher Dresser: Industrial Design Pioneer

Considered by some to be the first industrial designer, Christopher Dresser (1834-1904) was a contemporary of William Morris and is best known for popularizing Japanese minimalism in the West. A designer who had also been trained as a botanist, Dresser was drawn to the simplicity and natural inspiration of Japanese design. Like Morris, Dresser was dissatisfied with the excessive ornamentation used in Victorian design. However, when it came to applying technology to design, Dresser and Morris parted ways.  
As you may recall, Morris was highly suspect of any sort of technology that removed production from the hands of the craftsman. While Morris' low-tech approach can be considered more romantic by some, it is interesting to note that Morris himself struggled with the necessarily high price of his designs. It was not until companies like Liberty began mass producing Morris' work that it became affordable to the general public.  Dresser, on the other, saw that technology would play a crucial role in design. His dedication to industrial production methods made his work more accessible and affordable.

A quick review of Dresser's design portfolio reveals numerous products that were far ahead of their time. Many appear strikingly modern, and it is difficult to believe that designs like this watering can (pictured above) were produced 134 years ago! 

In addition to his brilliant industrial design work, Dresser was an early champion of the notion of neutral backgrounds in interior design. After his tour of Japan, Dresser became convinced that walls and flooring should be done in neutral tones, and that bright splashes of colour should be reserved for accessories and accent pieces (Rompilla, 52).

A true innovator, Dresser's designs still seem fresh and new today. His design mantras, like "maximum effect with minimum means" continue to inspire contemporary industrial designers. Today, one of Dresser's philosophies--that design should address current needs with cutting-edge technologies--is more relevant than ever.  It's surprising, then, that (unlike Morris) Dresser is not particularly well known outside of design circles. Nevertheless, his work is worth revisiting, and I hope that museums will take note! It would be wonderful to see an exhibit of his designs. Please contact me if you know of one in the works!

Photo courtesy Please visit their website for more information, and for many more photographs of Dresser's work.

See also: Ethel Rompilla, Color for Interior Design (New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 2005).

Friday, March 19, 2010

Decorating and the Death of Ivan Ilych

While flipping through Pottery Barn Home the other day, I was suddenly reminded of Leo Tolstoy's short story, The Death of Ivan Ilyich. It was one of those tales I read back in University that had a lasting impact on me for some reason, though perhaps not for the reasons my Professor might have hoped.

You may recall (spoiler alert!) that Ivan Ilyich dies while trying to install some new curtains in his home. You see, Ivan has a desirable, bourgeois home he has filled with the sort of objects that the upwardly mobile fantasize about. Ironically, Ivan is completely unaware that the design choices he thinks make his home unique actually render it quite common. Worse yet, these decorating decisions ultimately lead directly to his untimely death (weekend warriors: you have been warned!).

Now, when I read Ivan Ilyich back in University, it made the sort of impression on me that such stories generally have on the young (I saw Fight Club the same year and came to the same conclusion): middle-class tastes are bad, if not downright dangerous. Perhaps this is what Tolstoy was saying, perhaps not. At any rate, these days I'm a little more hesitant about passing out judgements. I said nasty things about Ikea for years after watching Fight Club; today I'm a big fan.  I might not be fully in love with Pottery Barn, but their styles are quite pleasant, and as long as your life doesn't revolve around having the latest and greatest end tables, I don't see how it's harmful.

It could be that I'm a little older and wiser, or it could be that I've simply become a little more cynical. At any rate, these days, I can't help but think that Mr. Ilyich could have died just as easily while protesting globalization, and it wouldn't have necessarily made him a better person (thought it would have rendered him a more romantic character, to be sure).

My personal theory is that Tolstoy was tired of watching decorating shows on HGTV (or whatever the 19th century Russian equivalent) with his wife, and decided to exact his revenge by penning a scathing novella.

Now, back to Pottery Barn Home: it's a beautiful book. Yes, the interiors are the sort of thing you see everywhere. They are ubiquitous, tasteful and relaxing. I was definitely inspired by the lovely photographs. As I sat picturing the changes I would like to make to my humble abode, I was reminded of our friend Ivan:
Looking at the yet unfinished drawing room he could see the fireplace, the screen, the what-not, the little chairs dotted here and there, the dishes and plates on the walls, and the bronzes, as they would be when everything was in place.--The Death of Ivan Ilyich
 We all have a little Ivan in us, don't we?

Friday, March 12, 2010

Julia Child's Beurre Blanc

For the past few months, I've been a little more obsessed than usual about cooking. It started when my husband and I went to go see Julie and Julia a little while before the baby was born. We both loved the movie, and it inspired me to be a little more adventurous in the kitchen.

I've always loved to cook, but I've historically been rather timid when it comes to sauces. I tended to make a very good, but very safe, bechamel (and its variations) over and over again. This has changed! I have discovered that sauces are really quite simple, and so I've been charting new territory (for me) in the sauce department.

As part of my culinary inspiration, I've been reading Julia Child's My Life in France (even better than the movie!). If that book doesn't make you want to cook (or at least eat) really well, nothing will!

Sauce Beurre Blanc
1/4 cup white-wine vinegar
1/4 cup dry white wine or dry white vermouth ( I used a Sauvignon Blanc)
1 tablespoon finely minced shallots or scallions
Salt and freshly ground white pepper
8 to 12 ounces [1 to 1 1/2 cups, or 2 to 3 sticks]
chilled best-quality unsalted butter, cut into 16 or 24 pieces

1. Begin by boiling the liquids.
2. Add the shallots and salt and pepper to taste.
3. Continue to simmer on a low heat until most of the liquid has evaporated.
4. Remove from heat.
5. Add butter to this mixture a piece or two at a time, taking time after each addition to whisk the mixture vigorously until the butter has been completely absorbed into the sauce before adding more butter.

The secret to getting sauces right is having all of the ingredients prepared ahead of time! Now when I cook I try to always have everything chopped and portioned ahead of time in little containers - it makes a world of difference!

Now, beurre blanc is amazing with fish, and I had two sea bass fillets that had been sitting in the freezer for weeks. You see, I can count on one hand the number of times that I ate fish at home as a child, and I've always been afraid of it. It always seemed like it would be immensely complicated.

Sea Bass Fillets with Mushrooms- Inspired by Julia, but with some revisions.
2 teaspoons butter
2 Tablespoons minced shallot
2 fillets of fish
salt and white pepper
juice of 1/2 fresh lemon (Julia wants you to use 2/3 cup white wine and 1/3 cup fish stock)
1 c thinly sliced crimini mushrooms (I just think they look better on the fish than white mushrooms).

1. Set pan over medium heat and add butter.
2. Sprinkle shallots and cook slowly to soften without colouring.
3. Remove from heat
4. Season fillets on both sides with salt and pepper.
5. Lay in pan skin side down (where skin used to be - the skin should be removed)
6. Pour in lemon juice (should be enough to cover fish 1/2 way).
7. Lay sliced mushrooms over the fillets.
8. Put parchment paper over the pan.
9. Put on lid and bring liquid to a simmer and hold for 5 minutes. Make sure fish is cooked throughout. Serve topped with the beurre blanc.

Now, Julia's recipe (which is for sole) calls for fish stock and 2/3 cup wine, rather than the lemon juice. I'm sure she's rolling in her grave, but I didn't happen to have any fish stock lying around, and I wasn't about to use another 2/3 cup wine in the fish. Moreover, as I mentioned earlier, this was the first time I've cooked fish, and I've never had ANY fish that I really liked, so I thought the lemon juice might make it less fishy.

Well, I will stand by my own recipe for two reasons: firstly, I LOVED it. Amazing! If I do say so myself. I have no more fear of cooking fish! Secondly, even though I used the juice of 1/2 lemon, the fish did not have an overpowering lemon flavour. At all.

Now, I'm a lousy food blogger, because I have no pictures. It looked so good, and we ate it immediately. Well, almost immediately - I had my dear husband stand in the kitchen and stir the sauce for about 20 minutes while I fed the baby and put her to sleep! So, you'll have to use your imaginations, or better yet, make your own beurre blanc!

Oh, one more thing: this is a really rich sauce. I'm not sure how Julia managed to tuck into 1/2 cup of butter at a sitting, but we had a couple of tablespoons of sauce each and I ended up feeling just a wee bit ill. A cup of tea took care of that, but I'm going to have to work on my butter tolerance, as it appears I'm a bit of a lightweight in the beurre department.

Bon Appetit!

Friday, March 5, 2010

Ring House Nagano, Japan

I ran across the Ring House, designed by Takei-Nabeshima-Architects (TNA) the other day, and was enchanted. This blog tends to focus on the history of the Arts and Crafts movement, but I'm always on the lookout for modern design that reflects the principles of beauty, simplicity and utility that the Arts and Crafts movement celebrated.

Just looking at this lovely home is relaxing! Created from rings of glass and wood, the Ring House was completed in 2006 and has a 360-degree view of the forest. Because of the rings of windows, you are able to look directly through the house from every side to the woods beyond.

In his writings, William Morris continuously emphasised the importance of creating new architecture that celebrated the best of the simple medieval aesthetic, while discouraging historical reproductions (faux gothic and the like). In the past, I've struggled with this particular aspect of Morris' writing. After all, we've all seen pretty terrible examples of contemporary architecture. I've often asked myself, why not just reproduce things from the past that were beautiful and useful? I'm slowly coming around to a different point of view, however. In my view, the Ring House is an example of how we can live in and celebrate contemporary architecture while respecting the best of design traditions.

For more information, please visit the TNA website. Photo by Daici Ano courtesy