Behind THE DESIGN Essays from The Nation 2007 - 2010
Brent D. Smith
Behind The Design
The following essays come out of a monthly column that I wrote for The Nation, an English business newspaper in Thailand, from 2007 to 2010. It all happened by chance while seated next to an editor from the newspaper during a press luncheon. She kept trying to get sales targets and investment money that we were making on a new store and naturally, I kept diverting, attempting to talk about lifestyle. By the end of the lunch, having given no facts and figures to her, only ideas about the way in which we live and how, in my view, we can improve upon life, she offered me a monthly column on lifestyle and design in the property section of their newspaper. 3
Seems rather odd that a young boy from Iowa would end up living in Tokyo, Los Angeles and now Bangkok and even stranger that this man is me. I have been afforded the most amazing opportunities to experience first hand, some of the greatest arbiters of design and style. All the while listening, watching and certainly taking mental notes. From the time that I left Iowa at the age of 22, bound for Tokyo, I always had a desire for the good life never realizing what those two words actually meant, but knowing that the world had much more to offer. It does seem like a lifetime ago that I was lucky enough to have had the opportunity to study from professors who were directly involved in the Iowa Writer’s Workshop or from the graduate students studying under them. Yes, I went to the University of Iowa where writing is a serious subject but I never dreamed of becoming a writer. A musician, yes. An artist, absolutely. But never a writer. Actually, I’m a marketer of luxury goods and lifestyle, another strange outcome for a boy who grew up in small-town Iowa. Perhaps it was Breaca and Annie who taught me about style and food when I was in school or my dear friend Nancy who always had great style, even as a child. Or perhaps it was the influence of great, unknown women from my hometown, like Helen and Dode who exuded style. I’ll never forget watching Dode stand
Behind The Design
up and give an impromptu speech in the school gymnasium at the annual high school reunion where she graduated somewhere around 1930.
Dode was tall, thin and had jet-black hair,
perhaps colored, perhaps not, tied at the nape of her neck with a bright crimson silk flower to match her crimson Chinese silk cheongsam dress. Her cigarette holder being held from her painted red lips and seeing her take a drag on her cigarette while enunciating in a cloud of smoke was the stuff of dreams and it all played out in front of a young boy, not more than 10 years old in Farmington, Iowa.
The Power of Design
While sitting at Bumrungrad Hospital last week, waiting for my doctor to give me my results of my latest checkup, I suddenly became aware of my surroundings. Of course, being in the design field, I certainly noticed the overall design and themes of the new Bumrungrad Hospital building, commented to friends about the lighting details and mentioned the lobbies and welcome centers. But I really never thought beyond the pure aesthetics to the deeper connections to the soul, to health and to overall well-being.
Behind The Design
So in my newly found 24/7 connected state, I started sending commentary and photos to Twitter and Facebook about what I was experiencing and how it was affecting me both on a personal level and on a political level since health reform in America weighs heavily on my mind. I was very surprised at all of the comments that came rushing in about my comments about design from who the design company was, to why Thailand has such good healthcare, to simply pure comments from people thousands of miles away on how the beauty of the photographs moved them. I commented to one friend on Facebook that humans should not underestimate the power of design to transform our lives. Iâ€™ve often heard Barbara Barry say this to me but what does it really mean? How can design have the power to change my life? And then I found Dr. Richard Farson from La Jolla, California and I awakened to the possibilities. Psychologist Dr. Richard Farson is the author of The Power of Design: A Force for Transforming Everything. He believes that most designers and architects approach their work as an effort to design spaces. Farson believes they should consider their jobs differently: They should focus on not designing spaces, but situations that modify and improve individual behavior. This, he says, is key to gaining the trust and respect of the public, which will allow architects to tackle societyâ€™s greatest challenges. 7
Farson calls this approach to design, “meta-design”; a higher calling of design that requires a deeper level of cultural engagement. Architects and designers have been exploring how design can bring about physical and social benefits, especially in healthcare facilities. But Farson thinks architects can go further, reaching deeply into the social fabric of the nation, mending it, and making it healthier, happier, and wiser through design. “Architects design not just buildings, but organizations,” he says, “not just houses, but family life, not just rooms or fashions, but experiences, not just interiors, but relationships. They can design traffic systems that reduce conflict, and landscapes that create better health. They can design a meeting room where people participate and become more creative. They’ve already influenced all that. Maybe they can reduce divorce, addiction, domestic violence, child abuse, and suicide,” he continued. “If you can reduce crime, mental illness, physical illness, and school failure, maybe you can improve marriage, enrich parenthood, and strengthen democracy.” A higher calling if I have ever heard one. That’s the power of design.
Behind The Design
On a recent long weekend, I decided to pack up the car and the bicycles and head to Pranburi, a small fishing village some 30 kilometers south of HuaHin in the district of Prachuap Khiri Khan Province. It takes nearly three hours to drive and the traffic can be maddening if not for the sheer amount of cars on the road then for the aggressive drivers as they plow down the road. How I dreamed of slipping into room #11 at Aleenta Resort and leisurely riding my bike along the deserted beach and country roads where the farmers continue to walk their cows lazily down the street and the cows munch on the roadside grass 9
ignoring anyone or anything passing by. Iâ€™ve been going to Pranburi since the first available weekend after I arrived in Thailand nearly four years ago and was immediately drawn to its charm and the feeling that I had somehow stepped into a place free from the city, in fact, a gentler way of life. On my first trip to Pranburi, I remember coming around the corner of the mountain and just before Wat Summanawas, I came face to face with a gigantic elephant lumbering along the road while the mahout laughed at what must have been very funny sight; a frightened foreigner on a bicycle who was only steps away from the giant feet of this beast and what I thought was surely my imminent demise. How times have changed. On this most recent trip to Pranburi as my friend and I were coming back from our first biking tour and just as the sun was setting, an Aston Martin convertible pulled up beside us, the driver looked down his nose and over his Prada sunglasses as if we were so ridiculous as to be riding bikes out in the country. We just smiled and let he and his security detail pass. Yes, you read it correctly, his security detail. SUV with blackened windows and lights blinking, just in case there were any rogue cows waiting in the shadows. We started laughing and then noticed a black Mercedes Benz with tinted windows flying down the road while kicking up dust at great speed. Had Pranburi changed so greatly, so quickly? And
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that led me to this conclusion, if Hua Hin is the Hamptons of Thailand, then the new Pranburi must be Malibu. In less than four years, Pranburi has gone from being tranquil to being red hot. It seems that, as Hua Hin properties are harder to get and beach front property nearly impossible to attain, the nouveau riche have settled in Pranburi. Newly built homes the widths of one luxury car length now sit side by side directly on the beach with only a slice of land between the properties and a tiny patch of grass to the rear of the house. Most are modernist structures and all have been named. Iâ€™m not saying that I despise it. I just want to know when is the Ralph Lauren boutique coming and can we please have a local taco stand?
Beige Me With Color
It is interesting how people when hearing that you work for an interior furnishings company ask the strangest questions in the most unexpected places. I constantly get asked to give my advice on design from random people I meet in restaurants or while waiting in line for my dark mocha frappucino. What color should I paint my bedroom? Or so and so famous designer is my favorite designer but sheâ€™s so expensive, can you recommend another brand to get the same look and feel without spending so much money?
Behind The Design
I used to have my standard answers ready to spill at a momentâ€™s notice. I used to always talk about keeping it simple, how the objects in your room should never completely tell the story of your life but rather, should reveal itself over time or that a person should never let the sofa shine brighter than yourself, always remain the star of your own party. So how did I become obsessed with color and pattern all of the sudden? And does this mean that perhaps my life has become a little less colorful and more beige that I can now accept color into my living spaces? The trend for a good decade, in some interior design circles, has been non-color, the absence of colorâ€Śwell, beige. Designers served up taupe, off-white, cream and warm grey with a touch of beige.
Some people require beige in their lives and I
completely understand where they are coming from.
people have so much stuff going on in their minds that they need the calm of an off-white room to relax and unwind. John Pawson, the famed British minimalist architect and designer who spent his early years in Japan and has constructed a few fashion monasteries and even a real monastery in the Czech Republic that now produces face creams and mustards, lives and breathes Wabi-Shaker minimalism, yet his wife Catherine, also an interior designer, loves color and pattern. While having dinner at their home in Nottinghill, London, an American 13
designer friend of mine opened a pious looking dining bench and out popped Catherine’s wings of patterned fabrics in the richest colors imaginable. My friend, the designer who created “beige chic” in the states, started laughing. Aha, there is a bit of color lurking below in each of us. Perhaps not always visible, but it’s there. So as you embark on discovering the color that lies beneath, live with abandon. Don’t listen to people like me telling you to keep it simple, do as your heart desires. If you want to live with a red sofa with leopard print pillows and accents of gold, by all means do so. As a famous designer once said, “Artists can color the sky red because they know it's blue. Those of us who aren't artists must color things the way they really are or people might think we're stupid.” Prepare to lose some old ideas and just beige me with color.
Behind The Design
The Sidewalk to Nowhere
While walking to breakfast in Greensboro, North Carolina last week, I recalled hearing an architect say that if the Thai calendar is five hundred forty three years ahead of the Christian calendar, is it not possible that we are, in fact, living five hundred forty three years in the future and therefore, can we not claim that Bangkok is indeed a futuristic city? Having just spent the past twelve days in the United States for the semi-annual High Point Home Furnishings Market I am coming to believe that this is truth and not simply conjecture. Is Sukhumvit what Wilshire Boulevard in Beverly Hills will look like in five hundred thirty four years? Is Silom what Chicago will resemble? 15
And so I continued walking to the local Waffle House along a sidewalk that abruptly ended. I stopped, looked up and I was literally two hundred feet from the parking lot of the restaurant where my crispy bacon was waiting. Granted there was a very nicely manicured lawn between me and the parking lot but I started thinking, who planned this and am I the only person to have walked on this sidewalk before? I realize that America is only 233 years old and has 310 years left to catch up with the Thai calendar, but aren’t Americans being a little short-sighted in their construction of sprawling suburbs, mega-box stores and chain restaurants that litter the American landscape. Literally in this section of Greensboro, North Carolina there isn’t a building more than, dare I say, 10 years old and it shows. Everything is brand-spanking new and smacks of unrestrained consumerism and yes, is an indictment of the less than forward thinking of America. The roads are all at least four lanes wide and most are at least six and even eight lanes wide. There isn’t a bike path in sight and as you now know, sidewalks aren’t even exactly a complete thought. The down-spin of the U.S. real estate market has not stopped. I have been to the states four times since this economic malaise began but only this time, did it really strike me that the economic landscape has changed but most Americans don’t want to wake up to it. It reminds me of having arrived in Japan
Behind The Design
in 1990 at the tail-end of the “bubble economy” and people were not ready to embrace the truth. Some of the Japanese were still living in the bubble economy years after it had imploded. I really was hoping to see a cultural shift in America, but I’m afraid it’s not going to happen. Where once Americans used to spend crazy amounts of money at better department stores, that has now been replaced by spending the same amount but more often at “off price” stores because they feel like they are getting a discount when, in fact, it’s the same merchandise at the department stores. When is enough, enough? America won’t be bouncing back as quickly as everyone had hoped because the first rule in therapy is that you have to admit your bad behavior, come to realize when it’s happening and stop yourself before getting caught up in the same cycle of irresponsible behavior. America is caught up in the blame game and no one wants to admit that it’s their fault and this is truly the “sidewalk” to nowhere.
Wanting To Be Couture
After having spent the last eight years working in the world of interior designers, Iâ€™ve recently been thinking about the relationship between interior designers and clients.
introduction to interior designers started over fifteen years ago with a simple letter sent to what was to become one of the most influential American designers living today. I look back on it now and agree it was rather gutsy but I would do it all over again if there were a designer I really wanted to meet. However, the letter was sent not in the hopes of befriending anyone, it was sent on behalf of another friend, a very influential Japanese
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graphic designer. One friend wanted to know the other and what has transpired is surely destiny. Having been introduced to interior design from the top has put me in a very interesting vantage point in which to watch the dance between designer and client.
Watching my friend
navigate the waters of a clientâ€™s desires coupled with her unwavering eye and attention to her aesthetic has produced some memorable quotes and scenes that will continue to be played out in my mind, and much to the chagrin of my friends, at many a boozy dinner party. So this week while reflecting on my experiences with designers and watching them interact with clients I always come back to the same nagging question; why can American interior designers exert such great control over their clients while Thai designers are basically treated like servants? True, American interior designers are feted and fawned on by their adoring clients and the design world in general, but is that such a bad thing? Why not celebrate the creativity of an artist? Itâ€™s time for Thailand to embrace designers and give them the freedom to create. But that takes great trust. The responsibility lies with the client as without clients of great wealth and vision to hire a designer to interpret their vision, whatâ€™s the point of hiring a designer when the client is, at every turn, looking over
their shoulder and dumbing down their design decisions by trying to get the look for less. And at the same time, itâ€™s the designerâ€™s job to lay the ground rules with clients. Yes, it takes time and confidence to set rules for clients, after all, they are paying the bill. But can you imagine walking into Chanel and asking Karl Lagerfeld to design a couture gown for you and once Mr. Lagerfeld has created his design, when presented with the bill, you say, I like the Chanel look but prefer to take the design down the street to be made from cheaper cloth and by the seamstress of my choice? Ridiculous. Why bother going to a designer in the first place? Because no matter how much you want it or how hard you try to imagine it, that Chanel couture gown, once designed for you by a great designer, when made of inferior materials and by a different atelier is simply a dress wanting to be couture.
Behind The Design
Cutting Through The Blue
I hate to admit it, but I guess time has passed me by.
could it be true that I hadn’t been to Koh Samui in twenty years? It was 1990 and having just moved to Tokyo, my bother and I took the first opportunity we had to leave Japan for a holiday in Thailand. We stayed at the legendary Oriental Hotel for a couple of days in Bangkok and then moved to Koh Samui. But in those days, it wasn’t quite so easy getting to Samui. We took flight TG261 at 10:30am on August 08, 1990 bound for Surat Thani with me happily ensconced in seat 14B anticipating the paradise that lay ahead. I don’t recall the flight or anything about it, but when booking flights a few weeks ago to return to 21
Samui, I happened to run across a neatly folded, yellowing flight stub tucked away in the back of my passport case from that flight taking us to Samui, nearly twenty years ago. You have to understand, that as a twenty-two year-old boy from Iowa, this was a dream come true. Traveling around the world, living in Tokyo and going on holiday to a remote island. All I remember from that trip was the long boat ride from Surat Thani to Koh Samui, the hippy wannabes living out there dream, the odd farang who had a hamburger stand at the end of the pier and the thatched hut that we stayed in on the beach. Oh how times have changed. Not necessarily in a bad way. Perhaps in a good way, but nevertheless, they have changed. This time around we took Bangkok Airways flight PG0121 directly bound for Koh Samui. I donâ€™t know why none of my friends have mentioned the airport on Samui but it is a model that should be required study for any warm-climate holiday destination principality thinking of opening a regional airport. It could have been very easy to build a monolithic glass shrine to the government or owner, but Bangkok Airways got it right. They thought of the tourist experience seamlessly from beginning to end. They didnâ€™t let the dream of going to a tropical island disappear as soon as you set foot in the airport. They keep it alive. They serve Thailand on a silver platter seen through the dreamy eyes of a tourist back to the tourist.
Behind The Design
Perhaps Suvarnabhumi Airport can take a lesson from the play book of Koh Samui and rather than being an airport that tourists have to endure to get to their final destination, become the first dream of Thailand to the world. While on the boat to Koh Samui all of those years ago and with youthful creativity, I scribbled on the back of the stained flight stub, this poem.
Cutting Through The Blue Perched on the bow of the boat, anticipating paradise. The bohemian blowing Yankee trail songs the deaf can’t hear. Blue, bluer, bluest…cutting through this to get to that. Little monkey faces float past, sometimes in twos. Is the floor lined with sunken faces that didn’t reach any destination? Cutting through the blue.
New Year’s Resolutions
As 2009 comes to a close, I can’t help but think of all of the ups and downs of the past year. It wasn’t easy, I’ll give them that, but 2009 started off with such a bounce of joy for most Americans and what I suspect to be a large part of the world with the inauguration of a new U.S. President who made new administration resolutions, which left us giddy with hope. An estimated 40 to 45% of American adults make one or more New Year’s resolutions each year. Among the top New Year’s resolutions are resolutions about losing weight, going back to the gym, and never smoking again.
Research shows that
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25% of resolutions are not kept past the first week, 29% of resolution are not kept past the second week and it drops precipitously from there. You have to ask yourself, what’s the point of making a New Year’s resolution if you are not going to make the changes necessary to accommodate them? Yes, scientists say that it is a good thing to make resolutions even if you don’t keep them. The researches say that people who explicitly make resolutions are 10 times more likely to achieve their goals than people who don't explicitly make resolutions. Well, as mere earthlings, may I suggest that we start off with bite-size resolutions, no grand plans for sweeping change, but simplistic approaches to everyday living that most of us too often forget. These are my resolutions for 2010: 1. Always open the door for someone and let him or her pass through before me. 2. Smile. In the land of smiles, I often forget to smile. 3. Give the person begging on the street my change. I won’t even notice and they will. 4. Leave generous tips at restaurants and hotels. These people keep this country’s economy moving and are rewarded very little.
5. Don’t live in the past or the future, turn off the noise in my head and be present right now. 6. When queuing, just be quiet and queue. 7. Listen. 8. Go to the park, have a picnic and walk barefoot in the grass. 9. Read a book about something other than business. 10. Tell someone that you love; I love you and mean it. Perhaps it sounds like a bunch of new-age speak, but in 2009, I read the German author Eckhart Tolle and he said, “Be present as the watcher of your mind, of your thoughts and emotions as well as your reactions in various situations. Be at least as interested in your reactions as in the situation or person that causes you to react. Notice also how often your attention is in the past or future. Don't judge or analyze what you observe. Watch the thought, feel the emotion, observe the reaction. Don't make a personal problem out of them. You will then feel something more powerful than any of those things that you observe.” This is my New Year’s resolution.
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Age Of The Tweet
I have been spending an inordinate amount of time trying to wrap my forty-something head around the latest buzz word in marketing circles, social networking. While I consider myself fairly current on technology, I must say, that my most recent acquisition of an iPhone has whipped me into the social networking fray at warp speed. Yes, of course, I joined Twitter the moment I heard about it exactly one year ago. But it just sat there idle with my first post, which said, what’s the point of this?
And yes, I’m on Facebook, where I have far too many
friends most of whom are people that I used to know when I lived in Iowa and haven’t seen for 25 years. They are nice 27
people, but the only thing we now have in common is the ability to go to Facebook and reach out to anyone whom we have ever met. And I have friends that refuse to join Facebook for fear of their privacy somehow vanishing or worse yet, a not so flattering photograph of them showing up on someone elseâ€™s page. And of course, I have a blog.
But now being able to upload
information to Twitter, Facebook and my blog, via mobile phone has launched me into a world from which I will never return. Who would want to? You can be connected 24/7 to your friends, deliver irrelevant news to them with photos, and always be catching up on The New York Times news updates even while sitting in traffic. Itâ€™s crazy how much information we take in on a daily basis. My mother would say that there is nothing like reading a newspaper from cover to cover. Well mom, while sitting at a traffic signal trying to get onto Rama IV for thirty minutes the other evening, I read the New York Times, checked what the White House was doing today, had a look at the latest fashion photos from the Sartorialist from the menâ€™s fashion shows in Milan and meandered over to TripAdvisor to consider where to go for dinner and wrote a review of a restaurant that I went to the previous night. Not a bad way to spend thirty minutes that used to be spent in a slowly building rage at having to wait.
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Many people believe that we have just come out of Social Networking 1.0 and are entering Social Networking 2.0 and the gazillion dollar question that weighs heavy on the marketers of products from diapers to diet pills is how do we harness the power of social networking to increase the bottom line and not simply be fun and games for bored people sitting in traffic. Some simple, quick rules about social media: 1. It’s not all about your brand...this is a two-way conversation. 2. Be consistent.
Don’t just get involved in Social
Networking by joining and posting, “What’s the point of this?” 3. Monitor the chatter.
I Dreamed A Dream
Nearly every weekend, while riding my bike to Benjakitti Park or as some people mistakenly call it Queen Sirikit Park; I always pass through the Thailand Tobacco Monopoly property. And what a large property it is. The Thailand Tobacco Monopoly land continues to baffle me. Why would you operate a factory in the middle of a city that occupies approximately 300 rai of land when a more modern and sustainable factory could be built out in the provinces? Thus, opening up a huge section of the city that was once “off-limits” to citizens starved for nature and space.
I’m a foreigner and have no idea of the political
implications and frankly, I’m not concerned about the political implications. I want to dream for a moment.
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While slowly peddling through the Tobacco Monopoly my mind goes into high gear and I envision a green, sustainable subcity within Bangkok. This village within a city, which was once home to a tobacco factory, is an urban planner’s dream. Call me silly, but I call that a rescue operation. Imagine if you will, a green oasis in the center of Bangkok where the former tobacco warehouses are artist’s lofts. Imagine these brick warehouses with long rows of industrial windows being home to local restaurants, galleries, local shops and a fresh produce market. Why not go all the way.
There is no central market, no
convenience stores only a produce stand, a meat stand, an egg stand…all small businesses that focus on doing one thing well just as they do at Ortorcor.
Imagine walking from your low-
rise condominium that has been built on the development, not in rows like tenement housing but situated so as to provide optimal shade, light and circulation, onto the clean street. Let your mind go. You’re walking to the market and decide to stop into the local coffee shop where there are no illuminated signs. After having coffee with your friends at an outdoor table you are actually able to walk home, in the open air without the smell of exhaust permeating your clothes and hair because car access is restricted to the outer perimeters of the development and automobile access to the condominiums is all underground. Gliding along the streets of this reclaimed city are electric 31
buggies and bicycles. If youâ€™re too tired to walk, simply call the electric buggy taxi service, which will zip you to the market or to the gallery opening. Or if you prefer, you can always walk underground from your car and use the lift that will take you to the surface and within walking distance to the soccer field or to just below a shade tree that leads to the entrance of the 130 rai Benjakitti Park where you can jog, ride your bike or sit under a shade tree and have a picnic. Go ahead and look up. You see nothing but blue skies, puffy white clouds and trees. Fantasy, you say? I say stretch your mind and imagine the possibilities. Go ahead. Dream.
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Truly Royal Design
Every Saturday morning at around eight oâ€™clock, I head out to Ortorcor, one of Bangkokâ€™s many fresh produce markets. Here I peruse the aisles and stands in search of the finest tomato or the most fragrant of lemons. After having visited the market for the past three years, Iâ€™m now considered a local and know which vendors have delicious product, which are selling the stuff that ends up in the grocery store and which vendors I want to support. When I was a newcomer to the market, everything seemed cheap. But last weekend even I gasped when the herb 33
lady told me that a handful of cilantro and spring onions was going to set me back sixty baht. However, after gaining my composure and thinking it through, I thought, oh dear, I have gone native. I’m no longer thinking in US dollars. But I smiled, handed over the cash and graciously said thank you without haggling over one single solitary baht. And then about two years ago I wandered into the building next to the outdoor market and voila, I had found food nirvana. The Royal Project Foundation store was sitting right there and I had no idea what was inside. Wow, talk about an impressive array of fresh produce. In 1969, during his visit to Northern Thailand's hill tribe villages, His Majesty the King discovered the conditions of the people living in these villages. He initiated sustainable farming with the aim of improving their living standards by introducing new agricultural methods while preserving the natural beauty of the environment. What I enjoy most about the Royal Project Foundation store is its seasonality. If lemons aren’t in season, I’m sorry, there are no lemons. If it’s too wet for basil, well then, no basil and the pesto plans will have to be placed on hold. The first stop in the market is always the fruit table. Only the freshest, seasonal fruit is displayed, no strawberries on steroids that have traveled a few thousand miles burning up fossil fuels can be found here. What I have found over the past year is
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beautiful figs, ripe and ready to eat. Fraises du bois commonly known as wild strawberries, tiny, succulent and very rare, very fragile and won’t last a day in refrigeration or a day sitting on the counter top. For a few weeks this year, I was nibbling on these tiny berries in fresh orange juice and was transported back to lunch in the garden at the Hotel Cipriani. I’m so looking forward to January again if for nothing else but for the berries. I could go on and on about the wonders of this foundation. Most of you will know it. Some will not. I trust that you will discover this very special store. Last month, while cutting up the first of the season’s figs, I was scrambling around the kitchen pulling out the Gorgonzola and aged balsamic vinegar and screeching with delight all while texting a Thai friend of my fig discovery at the Royal Project Foundation. A simple reply came back; my King has very good taste.
Personal Style Over Trend
Far too often, magazine editors and marketers try to sell you on the idea that it’s time to throw everything out of your house and start anew. In reality, how many of us can’t afford to do this and more importantly, what does that say about the choices that we made or continue to make when it comes to home furnishings. Yes, we’ve all made mistakes when it comes to choosing our own style. And we will make mistakes again however; I’m here to offer some help in trying to avoid making bad decisions. It’s always fun to think that we are trendy and cool but
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following trends in home furnishings will only lead to disappointment. Furniture has basically been the same shape and proportion for years. It works. Choosing poorly will only be a very bad investment and lead you down the wrong path to spending more, while trying to get it right. Choose less, but choose better. Think carefully when buying: •
A timeless sofa with appropriately time-tested fabric or leather.
A bed that is well built
A top-of-the-line mattress…you spend nearly one third of your life on it.
The best cotton sheets that you can afford…beware; thread count was devised by marketers (people like me) to sell more sheets at higher prices.
Real art…doesn’t have to be expensive. Just keep it real.
Accessories that mean something to you. Collect accessories on your travels and buy something that has meaning to you.
Good frames for your family photos. A few family photos are always good, but a home gallery is too much.
True style comes from within. It’s the culmination of years of trying to get it right. Having style doesn’t always mean following fashion, but it does mean being comfortable in your surroundings, your home and your life.
Wabi-Sabi Meets Americana
The Japanese concept of wabi-sabi was clearly on display at the months High Point Furniture Market in High Point, North Carolina. One can find anything and everything that one desires at this market along with a lot that one doesn’t care to see, from over-stuffed leather loungers to cutting edge sofas in designer leathers. However, the stand out theme for me this market was resoundingly, Wabi-Sabi. Finally, after years of trying to be over the top and bring the latest in “rich” upholstery and shiny lacquered finishes to market, the top American manufacturers have realized that what looks new isn’t always the best.
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Pared down to its barest essence, wabi-sabi is the Japanese art of finding beauty in imperfection. Wabi refers to harmony, peace, tranquility, and balance. Generally speaking, wabi means something, which is perfectly comfortable in itself and never craves to be anything else. Sabi refers to taking pleasure in things that have faded or have grown old. An abandoned barn, as it collapses in on itself, holds this mystique. Wabi-Sabi is flea market finds, not everything new; aged wood, not highly polished sheens; worn fabric, not jewel-toned silk. It celebrates cracks and wormholes and all the other marks of time. Perhaps the American economy has much to do with this new found embrace of all things appearing to be old however, it is a nice diversion from the super-sized American lifestyle. Style highlights were: • Weathered and distressed finishes from raw oak to driftwood. • Mix and Match finishes…walnut mixed with oak mixed with painted furniture in the same setting is finally acceptable. • Fabrics shown on the reverse to appear “worn-in and used”…think years of use by your grandparents and passed down. • Rugs that look faded and worn…sisal rugs that have been whitewashed and the paint is chipping. • Lighting that appears to have been made years ago and carries 39
the patina of having lived in a barn. Using pieces passed down from your family or buying funky finds at flea markets will put you on the road to discovering your own sense of style and embracing your inner Wabi-Sabi or imperfect perfection.
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Designing Displays At Home
Whether you are 24 or 64, accumulating a lifetime of collectable items that reflect your personality is only natural. However, understanding how to group those pieces together and display them in your home can be a challenge. So how do you create great-looking arrangements just like you see in stores and magazines? Here are a few tips and tricks visual merchandisers in retail stores and interior designers use to help you create perfect displays â€“ whether they are flea-market finds or family heirlooms. 41
Keep it personal.
Accessories, more than anything else, add
personality to a home. Your accessories tell a story about you and your life.
Striking the balance.
Balanced arrangements can be either
symmetrical or asymmetrical. Symmetrical creates a more formal atmosphere. Asymmetrical creates an informal look by balancing the visual weight of the objects.
Create groupings of objects. Display objects together in odd numbers. Combinations of three and five are best.
Place similar objects together.
Group according to color,
shape or design. Objects create impact when grouped together than when scattered throughout the house.
Alternate heights. Objects of varying heights add visual interest. Elevate small pieces with books or pedestals to highlight their presence in a grouping.
Alternate texture. Bring together objects of different textures
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for a unique look. Alternate shiny finishes with flat ones or hard objects with softer ones.
Create depth in your display. Alternate the objects from back to front instead of placing them in a straight line. Place three objects in a triangle, with the tallest pieces in the back. This creates depth and makes your display “come to life”.
Find the focal point.
Arrange your display around one object.
The human eye searches for and needs a place to rest. Think of accessorizing your home as accessorizing yourself. As Coco Chanel once said, “Take off one thing before you leave the house”. The same rule of fashion applies to the home, less is always more.
High Minded Park
Being an American and having spent a fair time in New York City, my recollections of the Meatpacking district were of Jackie 60, a nightclub deep in the bowels of a defunct meat packing operation that was literally and figuratively very underground, the drag queens at the door and of Florent, an all night diner where we went in the wee hours of the morning after leaving Jackie 60. As with all things nostalgic, time marches on and while the memories linger on, the reality is never as good as the memory. However, New York City has once again pleasantly surprised me.
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Last week, after having finished a breakfast meeting at Pastis in the now extremely fashionable Meatpacking district, my friend insisted that I check out the newly opened High Line, literally 1 block away. Leaving the Stella McCartney, Scoop and Diane Von Furstenberg boutiques behind and trying to recall which building housed Jackie 60; I suddenly looked up and discovered the High Line. Originally, the High Line was an elevated train constructed in the 1930s and the last train ran in November 1980. Since then, the tracks fell into disrepair, became overgrown and were slated for demolition. However, in 1999, the Friends of the High Line was founded and finally, in June 2009, the first section of the High Line park opened. When all sections are complete, the new High Line will be a mile-and-a-half-long elevated park. Yes, an elevated park.
Running through the West Side
neighborhoods of the Meatpacking District, West Chelsea and Clinton/Hell's Kitchen. I climbed the steps to the park and entered a completely new New York. In front of me lay a concrete platform sprinkled with wild flowers that sprout from re-furbished railroad ties and iron tracks. More than 650 trees and shrubs have been planted and are cared for daily by a team of gardeners.
The High Line takes you through the center of several buildings. There are benches and chaise lounges where people relax, watch each other and soak in the sun. At 14th Street there is stadium seating where at the bottom a glass wall over 10th Avenue provides a birds eye view of the traffic below. The High Line is credited with bringing new development to the West side. By the end of 2008, there were 1.5 million square feet of living spaces, offices, and hotels under construction, with an additional 2.5 million square feet in the planning stages. Frank Gehry, Robert A. M. Stern, Shigeru Ban and Renzo Piano have designed buildings around the High Line. New York City officials expect High Line Park to bring the City $900 million in revenue over the next 30 years and spur $4 billion in private investment. So if New York City can make a walking park out of old decrepit elevated train tracks, canâ€™t we find the vision in Bangkok to come up with green solutions that can enhance the lives of all citizens and actually improve the economy? wonder. For more information on the High Line:
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My friends will tell you that I’m always on the look out for the next best thing. Be it the new Nike trainer or new living quarters that I’ll call home, I’m a consummate consumer. I am a tad embarrassed to tell you of the number of times that I found “the perfect home” and quickly flew into planning mode, measuring for new curtains, installing new kitchens and baths or perhaps planning the new business for the ground floor of my new shop house. It exhausts me to think of the time and energy wasted on searching. I’m over it. Done. Finished. So, my loyal friends 47
were quite amused when I told them over dinner the other day that I’ve moved. Several friends asked if I was happy in the house in Aree. Another asked if I was enjoying the shop house in Silom. But they were shocked to hear that I had decided on the spot to move from the 250 square meter 3-bedroom condominium where everyone loved to come for Saturday evening card games, to a little under 140 square meter unit with 3 rooms smack dab in the middle of Saladaeng. All of the essentials were in place: •
Direct sunshine that floods the bedroom with morning light
A large open kitchen where I can cook for myself and friends
Plenty of closet space where I can hide all of the treasures that I’ve collected over the years
And Location, Location, Location
So, within one day I made the decision to move. And within the next week, I was moved. Only in Thailand can you organize a move so efficiently. Movers were hired, trucks assembled, cleaners were enlisted and voila, no sooner than saying yes to my new life, I was standing in my new kitchen with a friend sipping champagne while the furniture was moved in.
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Sure, it’s not perfect. But I’ve given up on perfect long ago. It’s not settling for less but settling into life as we’ll never find perfect and the search for that elusive perfection usually leads us down a lonely road of dysfunctional dissatisfaction with life. Life is too short not to compromise. It doesn’t mean that you have to give up your dream, but perhaps you have to slightly adjust your aspirations in order to accommodate something new into your life. Yes, there is the noise of the garbage men at 1am sorting wine bottles from the kitchen door of Zanotti downstairs but switching bedrooms easily remedied that. Compromise. The friend that was swilling champagne commented that my living room looked like a casino as I had too many tables. Out went half the tables. Compromise. And the mountains of pillows and down product on my bed that were sort of on display waiting for someone to move them from their side of the bed have been banished to roomier closets.
compromise, but I call it newly discovered resolution.
An Open Letter To Developers
If the kitchen is referred to as the heart of the home, then why are all of the new condominiums in Bangkok so heartless? There must people out there in Bangkok as fanatical about cooking and food as me. Walk into a home department of any department store and itâ€™s obvious that there is a real fascination with kitchens gadgets, utensils and cooking. This is lifestyle. So when are you, the developers, going to get on board with this trend? Of course there are those people who never cook. But there are plenty of us out there who do and we are looking for
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condominiums that match our lifestyle. More and more, activities are taking place in the kitchen including cooking, entertaining, work stations as well as a place for just hanging out. Luxury kitchens are not just for the rich and famous. Look to the Japanese for inspiration, they’ve created functional and beautiful workspaces in the smallest of kitchens. Two electric burners do not a kitchen make. If I had my druthers, I’d live in a 160 square meter white box. In this box, I’d make the kitchen the heart and soul of my home. And leave the rest open to true loft style living. In the modern world we live in, only our closest friends come to our homes anyway. So why create a showroom when you have the opportunity to create a “living” room. A few ideas: •
Create a shaded rooftop community herb garden.
Create a covered outdoor dining area by the pool that has refrigeration and a working gas barbecue.
Create marketing campaigns based around our lifestyle.
Take this advice from a marketer of lifestyle brands; this is an untapped market that has the potential to differentiate your company from the rest of the players.
Thinking About Color
I woke up this morning thinking about color, Jungle Red to be exact. Thinking about the way color influences our lives even if we are unaware of the impact that it is making on our psyche. Certain colors antagonize. Others calm. So why do I continue to sit in my living room staring at color blocks of grey, attempting to make a decision about which shade of grey to paint my walls? What to doâ€Śthe Christian Dior gray or the Tom Ford gray. Choosing wall color is no easy task. This is the background for all of the colorful people
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and objects of your life…not the obvious primary colors, but the white spaces, the black shadows, the gray halftones, the creamy beiges…personalities with stories. Love of color is an emotional matter, just as the love of music. Try to define it in words and most of us are lost as to what drives our likes and dislikes. The strongest, most intimate of feelings can derive from color. I have never felt more satisfaction than experiencing the colors of Kyoto or the autumnal foliage set against the winding Mississippi river in October. No one said, “That’s perfection”. However, my soul knew. We can take lessons from Nature, on whose library we can research. Nature gives us a palette of color plans perfectly presented with every conceivable nuance and variation. White and gray clouds on a brilliant blue sky. Perfection. Gray green moss on a black and brown stone wall. Heaven. The unlimited hues of green and brown of a gently waving bamboo forest. Mysterious. Talk about a master class in color theory. In this world we live in, Bangkok in particular, we must consider the effect of color on our nerves, our eyes, our moods. Our home is a sanctuary where we escape the world and a recharge for the next journey into the jungle. Jungle Red, anyone?
The Golden Mean Of Life
As I grow older Iâ€™m starting to understand my parents when they say they are happy with what they have. They have created a life that is right for them. A life that is devoid of extraneous luxuries that we urban dwellers have come to think of as necessity. They live in a 250 square meter home on 80 acres of land that is ninety percent forest. After nearly 50 years of marriage and nearly 80 years of living, they are truly happy. They have found that balance in life that some of us are searching for and theyâ€™ve discovered it on their own through trials and a few pitfalls along the way. When I was in the 7th grade, my father decided to sell our
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Victorian home with the grand staircase, wooden paneling and fireplaces for 80-acres of land with a tiny 4-room home sitting on top of large hill overlooking the Des Moines river valley. We thought he was mad. But, he had a plan. He no longer needed to have this large home on a postage stamp lot. He had vision. He knew that by buying this piece of land he was planning for the future and designing a life that he wanted to create for his family. My father, forever the teacher, was teaching us the principles of the Golden Mean. The ancient Greeks believed that beauty is made up of 3 balanced components: symmetry, proportion and harmony. They also believed that when any one of these components is not in line with the others, a sense of imbalance is created. And therefore, the Golden Mean is not achieved. As Plato once stated, "If we disregard due proportion by giving anything what is too much for it; too much canvas to a boat, too much nutriment to a body, too much authority to a soul, the consequence is always shipwreck." And so, my father went about building a modest 250 square meter home that incorporated everything that he felt was necessary to live the dream for which he was searching. Bedrooms for each of us that werenâ€™t too big or too small but human scale. Closets that were large enough for our clothes but not large enough to always be in need of filling it up. 55
Bathrooms that were small and above all else, utilitarian. So how do we strike that balance between having too much and too little? Of living beyond our means or within a reasonable limit? Of treading those shallow waters between doing something for someone else rather than always for yourself? In these times when excess is non-sense, it would be wise to remember the wisdom of the Greek philosophers taught to us by our fathers, too much of anything is a shipwreck.
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Let There Be Lighting
When it comes to light, I live in darkened rooms as if it’s the turn of the century. I always have. And I probably always will. There’s nothing quite like the flicker of a candle or the glow of an open fireplace. You look better, your guests feel better and the instant intimacy created by soft, warm light is unparalleled. So how do you go about creating intimacy and beauty with modern lighting? While the selection of modern lighting fixtures is limitless, most are simply over-decorated accessories. A lamp, wall sconce, chandelier or candlestick must be beautiful in itself…beautiful 57
by sunlight to be successful. The soft glow of evening light may make everything appear beautiful, but the ultimate test of lighting is the relationship with the furniture in the room in the light of day. There are no excuses for buying bad lighting. Here are a few tips to remember:
Lighting should be simple. If you want something really ornate, buy a Christmas ornament and dispose of it when you grow tired of it…because you will grow tired of it.
Choose shades that are well crafted. A shade or poor quality will show when illuminated and always turn the seam of the shade to be out of sight.
Buy lamps with dimmer switches. If your lamps do not have dimmers, buy extension cords with dimmers built in and voila, your lamp can go from 40watts to 100watts with a turn of a dial.
Be careful. Good lighting is not cheap. You can easily spend as much on lighting as on your furniture. You may change furniture several times in your life but a great lamp will last forever. If you are concerned about price, shop the lower priced stores, you may be surprised at what you find.
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Don’t leave lighting as an afterthought. Plan your lighting early in your design process remembering where you are going to put that desk or that side table. If you are building a new home, be generous with your electrical outlets.
Never use fluorescent lighting in your home. Ever. It’s just ugly.
Always buy lamps in pairs. Whenever I find a lamp that can serve both my aesthetic and utilitarian needs, I simply buy it and worry about where to put it when I return home. Whether you use them together or break them up into different rooms, you will always be glad that you have a pair of lamps that match.
Remember, in all of the choices that one must make in designing a home, nothing is more difficult than choosing proper lighting. Creating that balance of light that lends an ambience of beauty around a dinner table or a soft glow in a perfectly proportioned hallway is easily achievable but not easy to find.
Community By Design
Iâ€™ve just returned from Tokyo where I always choose to stay in a small hotel on the shopping street of a once inaccessible area where I lived for many years. This quaint little area called Azabu Juban was a bastion of solitude with tiny little shops that sell all of the necessities of everyday life and each shop focused on one theme. The electronics store. The pet store. The toy store. The Japanese sweets store. And the hand-made noodle shop. All owned and operated for generations by families that live either nearby or above the store. However, over the past few years the subways have come. Not a
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single line, but two lines that bring loads of local tourists with hats on head and maps in hand. And of course with the new train lines always come the new urban planning with the ubiquitous shopping mall stretched over countless acres of land. On this most recent trip, I was shocked to see so many local stores which lead to the brand new mall, shuttered or having been replaced by mega-chain coffee shops that serve up rewarding experiences but hardly a delicious cup of coffee. Watching the rumbling Ferraris, Lamborghinis, and Maseratis circling the streets of this once quiet enclave for a parking place where their car could be seen from every angle, I had to ask myself, when did I become so old as to dread progress or when did progress cross the line and become progressively problematic? Have I become so curmudgeonly and old-fashioned as to actually become saddened by the sight of an old “mom and pop” store being pushed out to make way for the mega shopping complex with the golden arched M which has now been usurped by the “golden” LV? As a marketer, I completely understand the desire for expansion but as a citizen, I can not for the life of me, understand the need for more of the same luxury handbag shop sitting side by side another hamburger outlet. As we look forward to 2009, my wish for Thailand is that land 61
owners and developers will resist the temptation to further add to the demise of the community at large and reconsider their plans for that mega-mall when what we really need is to create individual community malls where local residents can shop, eat, gather for leisure and well, just be a community. Perhaps developers of urban projects should be looking at virtual communities in cyberspace like Facebook and hi5 for answers to many of the questions confronting them. Therein lies the future consumers who will be supporting or not supporting your project. I’m far too old to be considered the target market for a shopping complex however, I believe that these new consumers don’t want mega, they want manageable. They don’t want to be dictated to, they demand discovery. And most importantly, they don’t need a circus when all they want is community.
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The Newest Deal
The other day, I picked up one of my favorite cookbooks that is now tattered and yellowed and worn at the edges. THE ALICE B. TOKLAS COOKBOOK had been sitting idly under a pile of far grander and gilded design books. However, when rediscovering it, I quickly recalled the recollections of a welldocumented life that had been influenced by musicians, artists and writers. Not a mere cookbook but a chronicle of bohemian culture born out of a creative mind and creative spirit. This time around for me, it wasnâ€™t so much the wonderful stories of Picasso and Hemingway coming to dinner and their likes and
dislikes, but rather what the book represents for me at this moment in time. In 1932, when the speechwriters of Franklin D. Roosevelt penned the phrase, itâ€™s time for a new deal; America was in the depth of depression. Three years after the crash of 1929, The New York Stock Exchange had lost nearly 90 percent of its value. Thirteen million people were out of work, and an estimated 34 million Americans had no income whatsoever. People in Iowa and Missouri armed themselves to prevent banks from foreclosing on their farms. And by the summer of 1932, some 25,000 World War I vets had descended on Washington, camping out near the steps of Congress and asking for money. Living life large was neither fashionable nor appropriate. But out of this New Deal set forth by FDR, an entire movement in culture was born. Art, music, cinema, product design and architecture initially faltered but then flourished as ordinary citizens looked for ways to escape from the grim realities of daily life. Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning, now known as great 20th century artists painted murals on the lobby walls of government buildings in the Federal Art Project. Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote their greatest works of fiction during this time. George and Ira Gershwin, Duke Ellington and Cole Porter created Broadway musicals that are now considered
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classics. Albert Einstein immigrated to the United States in 1933 and become a professor at Princeton. And architecture flourished as America set out to build skyscrapers that reached to the heavens giving the world hopes and aspirations that anything is possible. Everyday we read about more skeletons in the closet of banks that have been continuously bailed out of trouble. We hear about the fat cat executives who still have their Park Avenue apartments and continue to hold onto their weekend homes in the Hamptonâ€™s and their wives who have down-sized from their crocodile Hermesâ€™ bags to simple leather. Please. Enough is enough. In all of this doom and gloom there must be some inspirational stories of new opportunities? Some glimmer of hope for those young people who worked in large companies but constantly complained about corporate life. We can only hope that out of all of this right-sizing, young talent has been nudged out of the corporate nest and into a life, which they can claim their own. I suspect their stories are still being written. I need to hear their stories. The world needs it.
Design With A Conscience
Itâ€™s once again April and therefore, that means that Iâ€™m in the United States for the High Point Furniture Market, the biannual trade show where manufacturers launch new collections of home furnishings to dealers from around the world. The weeklong show covers everything from high to low from the outrageous to the simple and from very bad taste to the very tasteful. While the world reels from economic crisis, political upheaval and high unemployment rates not seen for many years, it seems a little silly to be talking about color swatches, silk tassels and decorative pillows. So, I went looking for smart-buys as well as
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designers that are attempting to execute good design with a conscience. In my opinion, one of the smartest buys at this market is the Darryl Carter for Thomasville furniture collection. Mr. Carter is an ivy-league educated lawyer turned interior designer which gives him a very different point of view as well as a highly intellectualized design sensibility that has lead to his signature look called The New Traditional. The New Traditional look pairs extravagant with affordable, perfect with imperfect, polished surfaces playing against pitted wooden artifacts and antiquities living in harmony with bold modern art. “In today’s climate” Mr. Carter said, “the intelligent way to outfit one’s home is with an absolute regard for the lasting.” In other words, gone are the days of disposable furniture. I cannot recall my parents ever buying a piece of furniture. My parents still have and use the first set of bedroom furniture that they purchased when they married nearly 50 years ago. Perhaps re-covered, perhaps painted but never something brand spanking new. Mr. Carter has also said, “Gone are the days of interiors being informed by a homogeneous assembly of furniture pieces that are all the same. This method of decoration is formulaic to the extent that homes began to take on the character of hotel 67
rooms.” In other words, stop buying matchy-matchy furniture and start building a wardrobe of furniture that you may perhaps collect over a lifetime. Bottom line, even if you are buying new furniture, purchase as if you are a collector purchasing the rarest antique. If you don’t feel that it’s worth it, don’t buy it. I also found a very interesting eco-friendly furniture collection by Craig Staton. The contemporary upholstery collection, called Natural, offers sofas, chairs and love seats that feature graceful curves, sweeping lines and perfect proportions, covered in natural fabrics. The upholstery pieces are made with 100 percent raw silk, wool, hemp and organic cotton and were chosen because the fabrics were the most natural while still being beautiful. The entire structure is made of organic and sustainable materials, which includes soy-based foam, natural cushioning fibers, goose down feathers, sustainable hardwood frames, and 50 per cent recycled metal springs made in the United States. As the Earth-friendly movement gains momentum around the world, we’ll start to see high-end designers embrace sustainable interior design practices, which hopefully, will eradicate the need for these furniture shows. Bravo, Mr. Staton. Finally, a designer who marries timeless design with a timeless conscience.
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Greening of the Soul
If life has taught me one thing, itâ€™s that I need to be near nature at least once a week. Trees, green grass and water replenish my soul from the previous week and rejuvenate me for the week ahead. Growing up in Iowa, I took it for granted that everyone had trees and green grass. But somewhere along the way, I forgot about such a simple thing. I took nature for granted. Having spent 12 years living in Tokyo, I never really noticed a tree or green grass. I occasionally would see a bonsai tree on someoneâ€™s balcony and comment about how cute it was. Of course there are parks in Tokyo, but somehow I got caught up 69
in the corporate life and somehow was not thinking about these “luxuries” and how they truly can heal you.
After living in Bangkok for nearly 3 years and recently moving to a new home on Saladaeng, I’ve finally re-discovered nature. Seems rather simple but what a joy to have Lumpini Park at my doorstep every weekend. Bangkok, what a treasure you have! What a treat to walk in the park in the early morning as the sun is coming up and hear the birds chirping mixed with the Chinese music coming from what sounds like transistor radios as women very diligently exercise with their bright red fans or passing by the groups of elderly gentlemen huddled around the mahjong table and hearing the laughing of what must have been a very bad strategic move on someone’s part.
Or hearing the
pants and shuffling from the throngs of joggers circling the park before the Thai sun becomes dangerously intense…this is life in the city of angels. Over this past weekend while riding my bike in Lumpini, I noticed how families use the park and little children run screaming with delight across the large expanses of green lawn. Oh, what a luxury! And watched as families take the swan boats out for a paddle around the pond. Oh, what happiness!
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There’s a small island in the middle of the park, a literal oasis in which most people never venture. Here you see groups of friends doing yoga together or a tai chi master with his pupils methodically going through their movements.
Also you find
the occasional couple out for a romantic picnic on the grassy banks of the pond. Isn’t this what life is about? These little luxurious moments of time that cost absolutely nothing. So as I look forward to another weekend ahead of riding my bike in Lumpini Park, I look forward to seeing the face of the policeman who took my bike for a spin and declared it a “Rolls-Royce” and the foreigner who always welcomes me with a good morning as he jogs around the park and my Thai “friends” who ride their bikes religiously every morning and always invite me to join them on their journey. Yes, this is what life is about: sharing, caring and welcoming people into your community even if you don’t know their name or from where they came.
Reproductions Arenâ€™t Always Copies: Experiential Design
This past weekend I went to Chiang Mai for the first time. I have always heard of Chiang Mai but never realized what a beautiful city was lying only one hour from Bangkok. What struck me the most was the creativity that I could sense in the air. That low-frequency energy that is indefinable but certainly palpable. Not the high-frequency caffeine buzz of Bangkok, but the complete and relaxed sense of creating for creations sake and creation for livelihood.
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From the mossy rocks of the mountain trails to the local craftsmen, I quickly drew comparisons between Chiang Mai and Kyoto. Both share the same honor of being the cultural home of their respective countries and both share the pride that is justly deserved.
However, while quietly strolling the long
monastic hallways of the Chedi hotel, I realized, from my point of view, the common thread running between these two historic cities is the presence of perfectly executed reproduction. This isn’t the careless reproduction of a designer sofa wanting to be recognized as authentic but this perfectly executed reproduction takes the original and injects new life into it. While I don’t condone blatantly copying or stealing a designer’s original vision however, in terms of culture, sometimes a reproduction is actually better than the original. It’s hyperreality. It’s the synthesis of viewing yourself from the outside and serving your product or your culture on a silver tray or in Chiang Mai’s case, a wooden tray perfectly carved from a single piece of wood and wrapped with a raffia bow. The Chedi hotel is no more Thai than the Tawaraya ryokan in Kyoto is Japanese. Both perfection, but hardly orthodox. And I don’t believe most people paying premium prices actually want orthodox or reality anyway. What they do want is an experience that has been tailored made and designed for them. The Chedi is a mix of several Asian cultures woven together to form a 73
feeling of Thailand with the Thai hospitality layered on top so that you walk away thinking, “Wow…that was the greatest Thai experience.” It’s the ultimate in experiential marketing, which completely elevates the needs and desires of your customers and delivers an experience that they won’t soon forget. The same is true at the Tawaraya in Kyoto. While there are not so many Asian cultures woven into the tapestry of life at this ryokan, it is definitely Japan as seen through the eyes of an outsider who wishes to view Japan from their memory bank of imagery. While it is not a fake, it is a reproduction. The flowers are just a little too grand, the individual guest soaps a little too fragrant to be Japanese and the futons just a little too thick. Fantastic theatre that is far grander than the original, but perfection, nonetheless. And after all, isn’t this the job of every designer whether they be an interior designer or a fashion designer, creating experiences that take the mundane realities of life and elevating them to daily rituals while acknowledging the past but never losing sight of the future?
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Hotel Living at Home
Why is it that the bed linens at most nice hotels are always so crisp and cool, yet smooth to the touch? And why is it that we occasionally end up in a hotel where we feel so incredibly comfortable that we never want to leave and want to replicate the experience in our homes? While living in Japan, I quickly learned that if I recreated the idea of a hotel suite in my home, I would be instantly comfortable in a smaller space as hotels are engineered for small-scale living. The first area I focused on was the bed linens. In true Japanese fashion, I was determined 75
to understand everything that there is to know about this subject. This is where I begin when Iâ€™m purchasing sheets. 1. Percale vs. Sateen: Two words that you should know are Percale and Sateen. Percale refers to the way the fabric is woven together and has nothing to do with the materials used. In my opinion, 100% long staple cotton percale is the best sheeting fabric and by definition will have a thread count of at least 180. The crisp, cool feeling you get when sliding into good percale sheets is to be experienced. Like percale, sateen does not refer to the material but how itâ€™s woven. Sateen is usually 100% woven cotton but is woven tighter which makes for a heavier and more satin-like feel. 2. Thread Count: In simple terms, thread count refers to the number of fibers woven together in one-square-inch of fabric. Thread counts can range anywhere from 80 - 1200. Although it's very important, thread count alone is not the only factor when purchasing a set of sheets. One must also consider the construction. 3. 1 to 1 Pick: I always ask whether the fabric is woven with 1 thread to 1 thread. If the person does not know, I go elsewhere to purchase sheets. Sometimes referred to as ply, the number of single fibers twisted together before it is woven into a fabric is a major consideration when buying sheeting. By twisting two fibers together, manufacturers can double the thread count of a
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fabric. By twisting three fibers together, they can triple it. Some 1000 thread count sets of sheets are actually 330-thread count 3-ply. The highest thread count that can be woven into a single ply is 500-thread count. Finding a set of these sheets is rare and will be wildly expensive, but well worth it. All 1000 thread count or higher sheets are at least 2-ply. Itâ€™s not the difficult to understand once you start exploring the world of sheeting. Just remember that a higher thread count doesnâ€™t always mean that it should be more expensive. The manner of construction and the weave is far more important in obtaining that 5-star feeling every night right in your own home.
Birthday Blues or Pinks
I was invited to a birthday party last week and as birthday parties go, this was an active event. You see, it was my friend’s baby’s first birthday and all of his “friends” had been invited along with their parents. There I stood, a childless middle-aged man in the middle of a sea of screaming babies with the mommies and daddies all scattered about on the floor, tiptoeing my way to the sofa trying to avoid any little fingers or toys. Don’t get me wrong. I like children. I just wasn’t prepared to see so many babies right at or under the age of one. But of course there should be lots of one-year-old children. What else
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would it be, a chic childless Sunday afternoon party with champagne and passed canapés? In these sorts of situations, I had to dig deep into my innerparent that lies somewhere between Joan Crawford and a German nanny and come up with small talk that would allow me to communicate with these parents. Is it a boy or girl? No, don’t say that. My mother always told me that you shouldn’t use the word “it” when referring to someone’s child. Would someone throw me a clue here? Why don’t parents dress their babies in blue or pink anymore to let the world know that he is a boy or she is a girl? Trying to find gender-specific clues in baby clothing is in fact, much more challenging than one thinks. And let’s be honest, babies at this age all look the same. And you really can’t move the conversation forward without establishing the gender of the child otherwise you look completely insensitive. So I sort of fumbled about sipping my juice from a tiny paper cup, mentally searching for conversation starters and quickly realized, I’m out of my league. I have nothing to talk to these parents about. The parents were nice. But I just couldn’t connect with them on a parenting level. Then I saw two little girls in party dresses walking around the house and immediately thought, finally, party dress, girls, old enough to walk…I can have a conversation with their mother about her children and seem genuinely interested.
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looked up and I couldnâ€™t figure out whether the woman with the little girls was their mother or grandmother. Oh, come on. Give me a break. Drop me into a cocktail party setting with anyone and I mean anyone, and Iâ€™ll find some common ground in the first couple of exchanges. But I was at a loss with this group. So I took clues from the universe and sat down, became a wallflower, bottle-fed the birthday boy, talked to a nanny and waited for the birthday cake to appear. And with that, I walked home thinking how the other guests were just doing what parents have always done when babies come into their lives. Their focus changes. Their priorities shift. Iâ€™ve been down this road before but simply forgot that my friends are just the same, but forever changed.
Behind The Design
Looking in the Rear View Mirror
It’s summertime in the U.S. and I’m currently in Iowa for a few days before going to the East Coast on business. Dropping into Iowa at the end of summer is really perfect. The grass is still green.
The days are warm, the nights cool and the last
remaining vegetables from the garden are ripe for canning for the winter. Having grown up in Iowa, I wanted to get as far away from it as possible when I was old enough. And that’s exactly what I did with my move to Tokyo that lasted for twelve years. There 81
were a few years that I never came back to visit. I guess I wasn’t ready or didn’t appreciate the upbringing of which I was fortunate to have. While eating lunch today at a cafe in a small village a few miles away from my home, the faint whistle of a freight train could be heard in the distance and as the sound grew louder and louder and the train clambered on the tracks only one block from where we were sitting, the memories of childhood came rushing back. Summer evenings where we would ride our bikes until the sun set which could stretch until nearly 9pm at the height of summer, placing pennies on the train tracks and waiting for the train to pass and always being amazed at how a train could flatten the penny and in later years, playing tennis at the train depot until all hours of the night with someone’s car stereo blaring and all of our friends gathered around. It was a different time. My parents had a simple rule in the summer; simply call and tell us where you are by 10pm and make it home before daylight. I’ve often said that growing up in Iowa in the 1970’s was like growing up anywhere else in the 1950’s. Iowa was twenty years behind. Iowa, perhaps, remains so.
People still wave at you while
passing them in your car just in case that they know you and don’t want to offend you by not waving a hello. Grocery stores are still family owned and operated. We continue to charge the
Behind The Design
groceries on the house account and then the owner sends the bill to my parents at the end of the month. The old gas station where my father worked in the summer while he was in university is now gone but I’ll never forget pulling up for gas, driving over the rubber hose which stretched across the width of the driveway which sounded a bell inside the gas station. Usually, Schmitty, the owner of the station would come out, fill up the tank, clean the windows and I’d be off. Once again, they would just charge it to my father, no signature required. Okay, so I’m being a bit nostalgic however, with a small town comes a sense of security. No surprises. No veering too far from the familiar path. Of course I’ll soon return to Bangkok, but sometimes it’s important to look in the rear view mirror in order to make sure that you are on the right road.
The Cobbler’s Son
It’s been said that a cobbler’s son never has a pair of shoes, well I’ve been looking around my house recently and I must confess, this marketer of luxury home furnishings is right in the same boat as the cobbler’s son. I should be a little more exact. It’s not that I don’t have nice things in my home but there are a lot of loose ends to be tied up. Last Thanksgiving, yes I somehow chose Thanksgiving evening for some unknown reason, I decided that the wall in my bathroom needed to be ripped out because there was some mold in between the painted plywood and glass.
Behind The Design
combination for any bathroom especially in the heat of Bangkok but I was not involved in the original design. So, with a few whacks of a wrench, the entire wall was reduced to shards of glass and the wall ripped to shreds by the building’s handy man. We are now eight months since the deconstruction and I am still looking at exposed brick every morning. So why am I so reluctant to listen to myself when I make decisions about design every day of my life? Don’t even get me started about the curtains. I just can’t make a decision. When I moved in there were some very old and rather sad looking silk numbers sort of hanging in the windows looking like wilted lettuce and come to think of it, they were nearly the same color. So, in a split second I said, “Get those old things out of here. I would rather have nothing than to have those ugly things hanging around.” Well, that was in February of 2009. I think some of the old curtains were shipped off to Hong Kong to tart up a friend’s weekend flat and the rest, I imagine they are hanging in my ex-driver’s home on Rama 3. So I live with liners to keep the sun out during the day and the lights of the city out at night. It’s time to get serious about the curtains. I originally thought that I would go with a safe neutral linen but then I thought, how boring. The next decision was to go really wild and use 8inch squares from my friend’s plaid silk collections that are 85
every color under the sun, stitch them back together and voila, you have “Burberry” hippy patchwork curtains. But no, I have changed my mind once again. This morning I woke up and said, “Call the handy man, I want the curtain rods painted and we have to go buy loads of linen. We are going to dip the ends in a blue dye and let it creep up the fabric sort of Yves Klein does batik look.” Who am I kidding? I’ll probably just keep on photo-shopping curtains whenever there is a photo taken in my home. It’s so much easier, less commitment and the upkeep is nothing. Now if I would just stop buying shoes.
Behind The Design
There’s No Place Like Home
I can’t help but be reminded of Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz singing a melancholy tune when Auntie Em tells her to go outside and don’t get into trouble. She steps out of their Kansas farmhouse and sings Over The Rainbow. She doesn’t actually sing this verse, but the original score went something like this: When all the world is a hopeless jumble and the raindrops tumble all around, heaven opens a magic lane. When all the clouds darken up the skyway, there's a rainbow highway to be
found. Leading from your windowpane to a place behind the sun, just a step beyond the rain. I may be going out on a limb here, but I’m going to attempt to guess the future and start predicting trends. No, I’m not going to be spewing off the hot new colors of 2010 or the “it” bag that you have to own but rather, I’m going to predict that for the rest of 2010 and perhaps into 2011, that you, the residents of Thailand, will begin to cocoon, yes that word from the 90’s, and you will come to care much more about your home, your safety and your families comfort. You will no longer feel the necessity of purchasing that tenth designer bag. And I’ll go so far as to suggest that you will also start looking deeper into what you and your family are eating and checking into where it comes from. I’m not suggesting that people will stop spending money. But I think where they spend their money will be much different than in the past. Do you really feel like going to a huge theater and sitting in the dark with people you don’t know? I for one, do not, thank you very much. I’ll wait until the movie comes out on DVD and watch from the comfort and safety of my home. I think you’d also rather sit at home in the privacy of your home theater with your family and people you love. Do you really want to go out and mix with people you barely know in the name of a store opening or a credit card launch? I
Behind The Design
doubt it. I have a feeling those days are numbered and brands will have to connect with you in the comfort of your home via websites, blogs and social networking sites and develop their instore experience not simply a staged event. I also think that we’ll see a huge upswing in the desire for comfort food and we’ll see the demise of many of these overthe-top temples to supposed haute cuisine with far too many tables and epic menus as people start to appreciate the food that brings back memories of their youth. We’ll also see a large “locovore” movement taking root in Thailand as people start eating locally produced food, which will extend to their community shopping malls and small retailers. Some people may try to click their heels and wish everything away, but we all know, there is really no place like home.
A Life Well Lived
I’ve been pondering what those four words really mean. A Life Well Lived. Is it the grandeur of living? Is it the newness of life or is it the simplicity of enjoying everything that we claim as ours? I’ve just arrived in Iowa after traveling for the past two weeks to the Milan Furniture Fair and High Point Furniture market and I’m beat. Yes, having drinks with this designer or dishing with that designer about some frivolous detail may appear glamorous, but believe me when I say, it’s not glamorous, it’s work. It’s
Behind The Design
basically two solid weeks of running around from showroom to showroom in pursuit of bringing the well-lived life to Thailand and somehow it all blurs together in a haze of flowery fabrics and flowery sales talk and in the end, I lost sight of my purpose. Just before arriving in Iowa, we spent a few days in New York City for a short weekend of dining, shopping and dinner parties. On Friday evening we were invited to a dinner party at the home of one of the sweetest couples that I know. He, an accomplished graphic artist / wordsmith and she, the creative genius behind one of the most highly regarded home living brands today. They are a power couple that appears to have figured out how to live a well-lived life. The husband was mixing up cocktails as we entered their home in the West Village. The wife was attending to the final touches on dinner while we met the other dinner guests; the professor who has written numerous books on historical preservation of landmark buildings around the world, the editor in chief of my favorite magazine and his charming wife who is starting a baking business after years of working in editorial photography, the fashion designer, the whiz kid computer geeks who gave us a crash course on everything iPad and what the future has in store for us, THE domestic goddess of America, her creative righthand man, a long-time Japanese friend and us. Wowâ€Śthe
conversation; the beauty, the lighting and naturally, the food were epic. At the end of the dinner after having talked and listened intently did I then start looking around the room and noticing the way it was decorated. The furniture and all of the decoration were subdued and played a supporting role. And then it struck me. It’s not about the furniture, the lamps, the rugs or the art but it is about the way in which we use these objects to enhance our daily lives. Nothing jumped out at me and screamed, “Notice me!” But rather, everything seemed to connect in the way that only a lifetime of travel and collecting can produce. From the photos of their children to the furniture chosen not for the designer name but for the comfort and what I suspect, the economies of life at that time.
It all worked.
importantly, it was real. Now there’s a life lived well.
Behind The Design
Essays written for The Nation from 2007 - 2010