Sunday, July 29, 2007

Glass Act

Every kitchen has a collection of lone wine glasses. Pushed to the back of the cupboard, their counterparts broken long ago, these fragile survivors have remained out of some kind of attachment, some memory, a "maybe I'll need an extra someday" rationing. But now, thanks to Anke Rabba and Katrin Kuchenbecker of the Hamburg-based design firm, Dekoop, they may, once again, find themselves decorating the table.

Rabba and Kuchenbecker have developed parchment "lampshades" that work with nearly any size wine goblet. Drop a tealight in the bowl of the glass, roll up a shade and rest it on the rim. Instantly, those once-unused glasses are imbued with the charm of 1920s dinner theater table lamps. Rethink. Reuse. Cheap and cheerful never felt so good.

$20 for a set of three

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Gilding the Faded Lily

Flamingo armchair

Take two clever Swedes, one London studio, a smattering of neglected furniture and a fair amount of spare time, mix it all together et voilà - Jimmie Martin - a contemporary (well, sort of) furnishings line by Jimmie Karlsson and Martin Nihlmar.

Tulip wardrobe, designed for the April 2007 exhibition at Liberty

Starting with inexpensive items like revival-style chairs, tables and armoires, Jimmie and Martin come up with all sorts of ideas for unusual, one-off paint jobs. Most pieces are coated with a high-gloss paint, but each has its own surprise. From bright, contrasting colors, to graffiti scrawl to custom pet portraits - a Jimmie Martin design can be anything you desire.

Dog chair, the back rest upholstered with artists' canvas

Recipe arm chair, from a series commissioned for a new Gary Rhodes restaurant in Marble Arch

Orchid bench

What is surprising, though, is the approach of Liberty, one of England's most venerable and traditional shops, with a deal to exhibit their designs. Granted, they've stuck to the slightly safer pieces (some Jimmie Martin designs veer sharply in a goth direction), but kudos to them - and to the designers - for taking a risk and having some fun.

Gold cocktail cabinet
On display at Liberty, the gold-leafed cabinet is painted with a chandelier on the front doors. The bright-red interior is fitted with glass shelves and lighting.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Prague's Palace Gardens

Pražský hrad, or Prague Castle, crowns the city's skyline.

Descending the steps along the old, crenellated wall of Prague Castle (just visible in the upper left quadrant of the image below), one gets a very special glimpse down into what seems to be a series of private gardens. Steep terraces give way to grassy lawns, planting beds, fountains, stone passageways and secluded alcoves, but no certain entrance is visible.

Known as the Ledebour Garden, the Great and Small Palfy Gardens, the Kolowrat Garden and the Small Furstenberg Garden, the five consecutive areas form a beautifully linked expanse of green, open to visitors (for a small fee) from early morning to late in the evening.

The site upon which the gardens now flourish was originally a 13th-century complex of ramparts that surrounded the castle until about 1620, when the walls were demolished. The open area attracted a less than savory group of Prague's citizens and in order to clear out the area, city officials divided the area into parcels that were then sold to wealthy burghers.

The families cultivated their new plots of land, planting vineyards and leisure gardens in the popular Italian style. But in 1648 Prague Castle was captured by Swedish forces in the final battle of the Thirty Years War and the gardens were destroyed. They were later rebuilt in a more fashionable Baroque style, using terraces, statues and fountains, fanciful pavilions, and balustraded stairways. At that point in time, the independent plots were linked to form one rambling row of gardens, the plan that is essentially visible today.

In 1939 Nazi troops invaded Prague and the resulting oppression, compounded with the decades of Communism, took their toll on the gardens. By the 1950s they had fallen into such disrepair that they had to be closed to the public.

But the Velvet Revolution of 1989, which brought Prague's Marxism-Leninism government to an end, regenerated not only the nation, but the gardens, too.

The State Institute for Preservation of Historical Monuments stepped in and took over ownership and care of the gardens, aided by financial support from the Czech and other European governments, as well as the Prague Heritage Fund, established by England's Prince Charles and former Czech President Vaclav Havel, in the early 1990s. Slowly the gardens were completed and, one by one, reopened to an eager public.

Today all five gardens are fully restored and in bloom with roses, figs and wisteria. Each garden offers its own unique plantings, as well as its own special features and views of the surrounding city. The gardens also play host to classical music concerts on summer Friday and Saturday evenings.

In 2006, the Palace Gardens, as they are known as a whole, welcomed some 85,000 visitors - a record number - and one that is expected to climb, as the location becomes more well known over the coming years. As well, 2008 will see the unveiling of the sixth garden, the Great Furstenberg Garden, which, unlike the others, is owned by the city of Prague, which has been somewhat remiss in its restoration duties. (Nevermind the added complication of having to somehow squeeze bulldozers through the Polish embassy in order to gain access to the garden.) But alas, better late than never, and soon the entire string of pearls will be shining again.

The Great Palfy Garden's restored sundial is painted with the motto, "Claret in orbe dies, ac taetras, hora pete umbras" or "Let the day be clear over the world and chase away the ugly shadows."

Monday, July 09, 2007

Love's Labour's Kept

A Roman amphitheater on the Cornish coast? Nay, the foresight and hard work of theater-founder Rowena Cade (1893-1983).

In the southernmost tip of England, amidst Arthurian legends, the Eden Project and a town called Mousehole, is the tiny village of Porthcurno, home to one of Cornwall's most unusual attractions (and, quite understandably, one of Britain's 'top 10 places to propose'), the Minack Theatre. Built by Rowena Cade and set precipitously over the ocean, the theatre has been hosting productions since the 1930s.

The steep, stoney entrance leads down the cliff, to terraced grass seating, the stage, and Minack Rock, just beyond.

Cade was born in Spondon, Derbyshire shortly before the turn of the last century, to a rather well-to-do family, made such largely by her great-great grandfather, Joseph Wright (more commonly known as Wright of Derby), the famous 18th century painter. She lead quite a remarkable life even before the sirens' song called her to the coast, and for a time lived at Ellerslie, Sir Walter Scott's former home in Cheltenham, before training horses for the front lines in World War I. Widowed at a very young age, she purchased the headland at Porthcurno for £100, where she promptly set about building a stone cottage and cliffside garden to share with her mother. During the 1920s she became involved with the town's outdoor theater group and began sewing costumes and helping with stage design. Wanting to perform The Tempest in a dramatic outdoor location, the troop approached Cade with an idea: her cliffside gardens set above the pounding sea would make a most idyllic setting.

John William Waterhouse, Miranda (from The Tempest), 1916

Cade agreed, but the garden offered no seating, so she searched the surrounding bay for a most perfect spot upon which to create a theater space. That perfect spot along the rugged coast was the gully above Minack Rock. So there, over the course of six months and with the help of two local workmen, Cade, age 38, began the Minack Theatre. The Tempest, which opened in 1932, received a glowing review in The Times. And, as they say, the rest was history.

A circa 1930s photograph of Minack Theatre, which for early performances was lit by batteries, car headlights and power borrowed from Cade's cottage.

Over the years Cade continued to expand and develop the theater's dramatic setting (remarkably, the dangerous terrain claimed nothing more animate than a wheelbarrow) but her work was halted at the outbreak of World War II, when the site was taken over by a troop of a different sort - the British Army in need of a defense post. They secured the property with barbed wire... under which Cade would crawl in order to trim the grass and maintain the garden. At the end of the war, the Army's 'coastal clean-up' program nearly destroyed the theater, but Cade managed to intervene, even salvaging a gun post for use as a ticket booth.

Looking down to the stage and eastward, to the English Channel.

Looking westward, to the Atlantic Ocean.

The 1950s saw the full blossoming of the Minack, though the theater continued to run at a deficit, bailed out only by Cade's own savings. In order to cut costs, she began using concrete, rather than the more expensive granite she'd been using, to repair and expand the site. The new material allowed for a new level of detail and Cade incised much of the concrete with lettering and Celtic designs, as well as the names and dates of each play performed.

In the mid-1950s, Cade decided to build a proper backstage dressing area, and, to her luck, one day discovered twelve 15-foot beams washed up on the beach below the theater. Perfect! With her remarkable strength of body and spirit, she hoisted the beams up the cliff - by herself - only to then run into several customs agents on the beach looking for the timber, apparently lost from a Spanish freighter in the Channel. They asked if she'd seen the cargo, to which she admitted having collected a bit of firewood that morning. She diligently asked if they would like to come up and see it, but never believing she'd have had the ability to move them, they took their search elsewhere. "I didn't tell them a lie, now did I?" she's known to have asked her colleague, as they set about building the new dressing rooms.

The always-resourceful Rowena Cade.

Cade worked well into her mid-80s and upon her death, just shy of 90, she was still developing plans for the site. She left the Minack Theatre to a charitable trust, along with a nearby property and bungalow purchased several years earlier. With an increase in tourism, an extended summer performance season and a shop, the theater finally runs at a profit. The site is also open year-round now, too, visited mainly by the curious and garden enthusiasts who come to see the elaborate and thriving sub-tropical rockeries still blooming where planted, some 80 years on.

Below are images from recent productions at the Minack Theatre, which averages about 17 performances a summer, primarily by British acting troops, but by visiting troops from America, as well.

The Three Musketeers, performed by the Hertfordshire Players, 2006

Atmospheric effect, courtesy of Mother Nature, during the 2005 performance of Terry Pratchett's Wyrd Sisters by the Ilkley Players

A moonlit Macbeth, performed by Mad Dogs & Englishmen, 2006.

Cornwall becomes 1830s Paris for the 2005 performance of La Bohème by the Beaufort Opera.