London lite

BigBenI drafted this post before the Brexit vote, but now that the UK is on everyone’s mind, it seems more timely!

When I wrote about our recent travels, I did not add anything about the last few days of the trip that we spent in London. This was our third stop in London in eighteen months. Yes, we like London. A lot. It has been very easy to stop there on the way from other European cities and then fly back to Chicago.

Several years ago on our first trip, we tried to do as much as possible: the Tower, changing of the guard, the British Museum, etc. On subsequent stops we have enjoyed London on a slower pace, taking in a few new things (Kensington Palace, Hampton Court, and Greenwich) each time and revisiting a few favorites (The War Rooms, The British Museum) and, I think, savoring all of it. This is definitely not another travelogue, but I do want to tell you about a few places we have returned to more than once. And, interestingly, they are all evening stops.

The first is Gordon’s Wine Bar. This is not even remotely fancy, but it is fun and “atmospheric.” Established in 1890 and owned by the same family since 1975 (conveniently also named Gordon), the bar is in Kipling House, home to Samuel Pepys in the 1680’s. Rudyard Kipling was a tenant in the 1890’s. (Yes, history is everywhere.) The bar is located in the brick cellar and decorated with mismatched chairs and tables, all wobbly thanks to their age and the uneven stone floor. It’s lit by candles. The wine list is legendary, as are the cheese plates.  Once you have navigated the steep stone steps into this cave-like setting, order at the bar.

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Gordon’s is very popular with locals. So much so that you will have to search for seats, ducking your head as you go, around old, awkward brick walls and pillars. If you find a table, grab it or perhaps share with another group. You may have to look around for chairs too. Sometimes you find a table without chairs. It’s just that kind of place. I think one of the things we like most about Gordon’s is this casual, friendly atmosphere. And, of course, everyone seems to be having a great time.

Another favorite stop is St. Martin’s-in-the-Fields for Jazz in the Crypt on Wednesday night. St. Martin’s in the Fields is a stunning church on the North-east corner of Trafalgar Square (and not at all far from Gordon’s). There has been a church on this site since the medieval period, but the present neoclassical building dates to 1722. St. Martin’s is known for its architecture and its concert series in the sanctuary. It’s also known for its long-established mission. An early-twentieth century vicar began programs here for the homeless, and that commitment continues today, supported by a cafe, the London Brass Rubbing Center, and a gift shop in the crypt. But that’s not all…

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Jazz in the Crypt offers live music by professional performers in a fun setting (as in more brick vaulted ceilings, this time accompanied by three- and four-hundred year-old memorials under foot!). Tickets are very modestly priced. The entertainers we have seen here have been wonderful and the crowd enthusiastic (inevitably breaking into dance). There is even a simple buffet dinner available, as well as wine and beer throughout the evening. The audience seems to be largely local, although we have heard American performers. This is a fun way to end a day of London sight-seeing.

Finally, although this does not fit into the category of nightlife, it is an early  evening event. Most London tourists eventually find their way to Westminster Abbey, home of the Church of England and sight of coronations and burials, weddings and funerals, since 1066.

Somewhere along the line a few years ago, in a travel guide, we read that anyone can attend Evensong, a short, daily church service at 5:00 pm. On our next visit, I asked one of the guides about this and he explained that we just needed to return to a particular door at the appointed time. Evensong turned out to be one of our favorite London experiences. When you are admitted for Evensong, you are directed to take a seat (no wandering about to look at things and, alas, no photos), but just think. You are sitting in the same sanctuary where Queen Elizabeth and all those before her were crowned, where Diana’s funeral was held, where William and Kate were married! And that’s just the last several years of history!

Eventually, everyone is seated and the service begins. There are readings, but much of it is sung by the men’s and boys’ choirs. These are very select groups and the boys, in fact, attend school at the Abbey while they are choir members. I’m not a musician, but the music is stirring. I’m not especially religious, but the setting and the service are genuinely moving.

Most of all, like Gordon’s and Jazz in the Crypt, this is an accessible slice of English life. Isn’t that what we look for when we travel?

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The tale of my traveling wine glasses

Glassestable2People who know me know that I love to host a party — a birthday party, a graduation party, a retirement party. We often have friends for dinner, and I’m more than happy to host a book group or one leg of the annual church progressive dinner. For almost every one of our 40-plus holidays together my husband and I have hosted a holiday open house. I just like to celebrate the large and small moments in life, and sometimes even the non-moments.

All this partying has lead to a substantial cache of entertaining gear, not the least of which are “the traveling wine grasses.”

Technically, I only own half of them; 36 to be exact, acquired one fall more than 10 years ago when my husband found inexpensive glass wineglasses in their own storage crates. He bought one crate of 18. When I pointed out that our holiday party typically has more than 30 attendees, he agreed to pick up a second crate. Before he got a chance to accomplish that, my friend Sherry (another enthusiastic hostess) heard about his “find” and asked him to get two crates for her. Now, between the two of us, we had a total of 72 wine glasses! (The possibilities, we thought, were endless.)

These are not fancy glasses. They are stemmed, and they are glass, but they are on the small side, making them less desirable for true oenophiles or serious wine tasting. On the plus side, they eliminate paper and plastics or renting glasses for a large group.

Even if a guest grabs a second or third glass, the hosts aren’t likely to run out. These glasses are dishwasher proof, making post-party clean-ups that much simpler. The self-storing boxes they came in are just as easy to pop into a car to deliver to the next event. (This is what Sherry and I were always doing!) They stack easily on a shelf in my basement party closet.

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Hence the name, traveling wine glasses…

For awhile Sherry’s husband (also a writer) and I fantasized a bit about short stories we could write about the events the glasses “attended.” Perhaps the glasses would overhear some juicy gossip about a local politician or they could be serving wine at a family event where the entrepreneurial young nephew meets the host’s venture capitalist friend and together they end up launching the “next big thing.”

Could one of the glasses stray — along with a party guest — into a more remote room of the party house to steal jewelry from the hostess’s dressing room or perhaps critical files from a computer? (Hardly a possibility at my house where there are no dressing rooms, jewels or crucial computer files, but perhaps if I were writing a detective novel…)

I do know the glasses have attended family reunions and toasted 90th birthdays. At my own holiday open house they have overheard tales of family vacations, teen-age speeding tickets, and the angst of aging parents. They have commiserated over lost jobs, long-distance moves and health crises and then celebrated with us when careers and good health were restored.

I’d like to think they enjoy a good party as much as I do.

And so the traveling wine glasses have been merrily rolling along, until this summer’s tragic breakup. This spring my friend Sherry and her husband decided to downsize and move 600 miles to be closer to their daughter and new grandson! This move made a great deal of sense for them and they love their home and proximity to family, but they took half the glasses with them! (I feel a lot like my two-and-a-half year-old grandson, who readily traded all of his “binks” at the toy store for a shiny new fire engine, then at bedtime realized the enormity of what he had done and wailed, “My binks! She kept my binks!”)

So, I’m sure Sherry’s half of the glasses will attend plenty of parties in her new home. (In fact, I think they have already traveled to her daughter’s for a welcome party.) I’ll make do with what I have and rent what I need. But I’m really glad that all 47 appetizer plates are mine!

See you next time!

My first design crush

EclecticCountryCoverDisclaimer: Not everyone takes decorating their home as seriously as some of us. You may read this and think, “Oh, Janet has really gone ’round the bend.” Or, you may see yourself. I love this part of making a home: what goes on the mantle, how bookshelves are arranged, how to show off a collection of whatever it is you collect. That’s just me!

As soon as I discovered last fall that Mary Emmerling had a new design book out, Eclectic Country, I clicked on Amazon and ordered it. She was my first design crush, and I still love her evolving style.

Emmerling turned the design world on its heels in the late 1970’s when her New York loft furnished with rustic country tables and baskets alongside white slipped sofas was featured in House and Garden. From there she went on to become the decorating editor at House Beautiful and to write her first book. American Country, published in 1980. My design taste went right long.

Although I was not initially equating this style with one specific designer, I carefully studied this new country style that was so much fresher than my mother’s traditional Early American. (Sorry, Mom.) I was a young married with no budget but plenty of imagination. We lived in Central Illinois then, and garage sales and estate sales yielded a treasure trove of oak dressers, copper boilers, and old dishes. I hung quilts on the wall and used them as tablecloths (I still do this). I started collecting baskets.

Eventually I found the pages of Mary Emmerling’s Country Magazine and Country Living that featured her look and her first books told me how to use my early finds. I made curtains out of sheets and a shower curtain from a quilt top. I started collecting vintage tablecloths and fabrics, turning them into valances and pillow tops. I convinced Steve to cut down an old oak kitchen table to re-purpose as a coffee table.

I have no doubt that my family and friends found my style to be “quirky” at best, but I was learning a lot about scale and balance, about which pieces could be refinished and which couldn’t, about the power of paint and wall paper, about quality and trading up for something better. Some of those early pieces are still part of our household, like the coffee table and the quilts. Others I sold in favor of something I liked even better.

So, when her book came, I settled into my favorite chair and proceeded to enjoy the story of her evolving style, from the 70’s until now. Since then I have gone back more than once to enjoy her insights. When I started his post, I started re-reading some of her other books. Her ideas and insights are just as fresh today. In Quick Decorating Emmerling broke down her approach to arranging shelves. I have to admit I have read this many times and used her advice. It always works. The same can be said for her take on creating tabletop vignettes.

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This is a spread from Quick Decorating, describing how these shelves were arranged to be interesting, balanced and useful.

This is not furniture store or showroom decorating. It’s personal, and that’s the appeal for me.

One of the things I really appreciate about Mary Emmerling’s style is her willingness to blend both high- and low-end pieces, like the gilt-back chairs below next to wicker trunks. I realize this would be tiresome throughout a house, but the tension between the two is eye-catching. And I think occasionally pairing rustic pieces with formal makes the formal pieces more approachable. It also “classes up” the less formal. A silver pitcher of garden flowers on a pine table not only looks pretty, but allows you (me!) to use the silver pitcher!

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I love the gilt chairs and the candelabra on the dhurrie rug, with the wicker chests. From Quick Decorating.

Another thing I love about Mary Emmerling is her practical side. She shares her lists, not just of furniture and accents, but of practical tools, too. In Quick Decorating she describes her stylist’s kit, which includes pins, tape, scissors, etc. (In mine I keep various picture hangers and hardware, a tape measure, plate holders, and those foam pads to help you move furniture around. If you are going to start arranging or rearranging, you need to be prepared!) In Romantic Decorating her lists range from romantic fabrics (toile, velvet, etc.) to architecture (half-timbered walls, French doors) to movies (The African Queen, Brief Encounter, Casablanca).

But Mary Emmerling’s practical approach goes beyond tools. It’s about the way she has adapted her style to meet her changing taste and locations. She’s made her country look work in New York City, the Hamptons, Florida and Arizona. She tweaks it, adds and subtracts pieces, and keeps her “basics.” And I think it’s this versatility that her many fans appreciate. This is a personal look, with beloved collections, genuine pieces of Americana whether they are Navajo blankets or advertising tins, hay forks or crosses and Santos. It’s certainly not dependent on square footage.

If you’re a decorating geek like me, like country style, or just want to see what I’m talking about, try one of these books (or one of her others!). And have I mentioned that the pictures are always awesome? These are the titles i have in “my library.” There were more, but I have “loaned” a few out.

  • Mary Emmerling’s American Country South, text by Carol Sama Sheehan, photographs by Langdon Clay, 1989
  • Mary Emmerling’s American Country Cottages, text by Carol Sama Sheehan, photographs by Joshua Green, 1993
  • Mary Emmerling’s American Country Details, text by Carol Sama Sheehan, 1994
  • Mary Emmerling’s Quick Decorating, text by Jill A. Kirchner, photographs by Michael Skott, 1997
  • Mary Emmerling’s Romantic Country, text by Jill Kirchner Simpson, photographs by Michael Skott, 2004
  • Eclectic Country, text by Mary Emmerling, photographs by Reed Davis, 2015

What about you? Is there a design personality out there inspiring your living space? I’d love to hear about it!

See you next time!