Monday, 13 March 2017

Raiders of the Lost Tiles

As some of you might know, I had a summary of my modular kitchen-post published by ApartmentTherapy and as a direct result, the traffic on Chez Nous N° 21 has increased a fair bit.  It has been amazing to read AT community’s comments on our temporary kitchen solution, but it was our century old cement tiles, a detail that really sold us on this old house, that stole the show on the discussion-forum.  Having engaged in a conversation with one tile-connoisseur in particular, I was tipped of about the endless possibilities of Le Bon Coin, a local flea market site, with links to a couple of offers for antique cement tiles.  One of these happened to be advertising a lump of reclaimed tiles, not similar but identical to ours, and mere three hours away from Mazamet. 

Long story short, we went and got them.  We had to.

I was going to write about pictures and framing this week, but as this kind stranger pointed us to the direction of the best possible tiles for our future kitchen, you are getting Raiders of the Lost Tiles instead – a story about road tripping to an old Roman settlement and the perilous journey back with a boot full of cement tiles.

This was supposed to be a weekend of 6 Nations rugby and some serious gardening, but my husband wasted no time contacting the seller and organising a rendez-vous.  Until now every material we considered for the floor of our future kitchen had felt like a compromise.  This was really a once in a life time opportunity to replace the current 80’s porcelain tiles with something more courteous to the age and style of this house.  As we were already travelling over 200 kilometres to see these tiles, we decided to make a night of it and stay in a nearby city of Arles, an ancient Roman settlement on the river Rhône.  James hunted down a nice pet-friendly hotel close to the centre so we were able to take our dog Rusty with us too.   



Shut-Up Rusty, or just Rusty for short, is our third family member, adopted in January.  To fill you in, he is an Alsatian-cross who likes long walks on the beach, ham and plenty of belly rubs.  This was quite likely his first ever stay in a hotel and oh boy he was ever so well behaved.  Lucky us, he also loves riding in the car.  And speaking of cars… here’s a word of caution for any of those looking to pick up over 15m² of cement tiles.  They are heavy as hell; heavy enough to seriously damage your vehicles suspension or the axel if not balanced properly.  You’d be a proper bell-end not to hire a van. 

Naturally, we headed on our way in our humble Laguna estate.

The seller of these tiles was asking a “fair offer” for his reclaimed tiles and he accepted ours after a little haggle.  Each deal made on Le Bon Coin is different, but so far we had nothing but great luck with the things we bought and the people we have dealt with.  I kid you not, we found our house on Le Bon Coin!  The guy who showed us the tiles on behalf of his wife was very professional and really helpful to the point of coming to meet us in a traffic stop after their address turned out not to be on the navigator.  He even helped us loading up the Laguna.  Without trying to be disrespectful, (our offer was pretty damn close to what they were thinking about anyway)  I have seen these types of tiles go for nearly ten times that on dedicated salvage websites.  Driving three hours to view something you saw online may seem excessive, but for a deal like this, we would have done twice miles. 



And besides, Arles turned out to be beautiful!  We had the weather on our side, a high of 25 that day and not a single cloud on the sky.  Having packed up our new purchase we checked in to the Hôtel Le Rodin, a tidy little place that was more than happy to accept dogs as big as our Rusty.  The service was wonderful and the hotel was situated within walking distance of the city centre – our next stop as by the time we had fed our pupper it was pretty much beer a clock.  So we had a pit stop of dark craft beer and local cheese + a small plate of charcuterie, seated at the terrace of Picador, a bar with their own deli, near the old amphitheatre.


 
After checking out few of the main attractions, being hurried along by Rusty who was frantically looking for a grassy spot to do his business, we found a little restaurant called l’Autruche – the ostrich, which had just re-opened.  They, like most businesses in France to be honest, were happy to have a dog lounging in our feet as we tucked into their daily-changing set menu of locally sourced produce.  James and I both chose fresh asparagus, served with a soft boiled egg, a small salad and pureed greens.  A superb starter to go with our chosen bottle of organic wine, which James followed up with a combo of a lamb chop & tatties, and I with flaky white fish, steamed and seasoned, on a bed of green lentils.  Not normally a huge fan of the bio wines, I enjoyed this red – it was a lot lighter than expected, almost like the new season’s stuff, apparently due to the lack of sulphites that help to preserve the flavour in wine produced using the traditional methods.  The tipple came warmly recommended by the owner, who was really damn nice.  For a Friday night, it was pretty quiet everywhere.  We felt a bit like crashing a private party – everyone here was clearly pretty well acquainted…



But hey-ho.  We did stay for a second plate of cheese that day to end the evening. 

In the morning we were faced with a task of redistributing yesterday's loot in a manner that our Laguna wouldn’t brake in half during the hard drive home.  That meant fitting as many tiles as it was safely possible into the front passenger seat, thus seating myself in the back with Rusty.  DO NOT TRY THIS AT HOME, folks.  Just because we and our vehicle survived, it doesn’t mean it was a good idea.  As the bottom of our estate was nearly scraping ground all the way to Mazamet, we chose to favour the motorway.  Pity, as otherwise we would have taken a detour to see where the couple that built our house came from.

Based on the details they left behind, we have a reason to believe the original owners had a connection to a village called Blauvac an hour and half away from Arles.  Down to the design and colour, the tiles of our kitchen and the ones we just purchased are identical indicating they came from the same factory.  These types of encaustic cement tiles are still being manufactured by hand, using the traditional colours and patterns, most prominently in Marocco.  Our motif is pretty rare and typical to these parts of the South of France, so it is reasonable to assume there might have been a factory manufacturing them in the region. 



I couldn’t resist digging around online and it seems, indeed, that the biggest cement works producing encaustic cement tiles, Cimenterie Lafarge, was based in the village of Viviers in the department of Ardèche since 1850.  Their tiles were initially reserved for the bourgeoisie but soon became popular everywhere.  Sadly the production was ceased in France by the 1970’s; colourful cement tiles featuring intricate geometric- or stylised floral motifs, had fallen out of vogue in favour of ceramic tiles which were a lot cheaper to manufacture.  In 1910, however, when our house was built, encaustic designs were still all the rage.  It may be relevant to mention that Viviers, the centre of cement works in the South of France, is situated an hour and a bit from Blauvac as well as hour and a half away from Arles. 

I present my case: our tiles are made in France, not so far from where the builders of my house might have come from. 

They rest safely in out cellar now, waiting to be cleaned and re-sealed before being installed into the room downstairs that is to be our new kitchen.  It will not be any time soon – perhaps the summer next year, but I am glad we did not let this opportunity to slip through our fingers.


Random stranger from the Apartment Therapy forum – thank you a million times for finding out about this seller and his wonderful tiles!  We couldn’t have done it without you.  And an honourable mention for our Renault Laguna, you are the best. 

Tuesday, 7 March 2017

Little Bathroom of Horrors

Little bog,
Little bog o'horrors.
Little bog,
Little bog o'terror.
Call a cop.
Little bog o'horrors.
No, oh, oh, no-oh! 


Yeah.  This is where we were just a few short months ago - stuck with a gross loo and a bath that could make a grown man gag.  Luckily, after a deep clean, what had felt like a sick joke was revealed to be a pretty decent little bathroom with relatively new fixtures.  We then set out to make it, not just liveable but pretty, on a minimal budget and armed only with my painting expertise and James' endless trust in the power of DIY. 


This photo was taken on the day we first viewed this old house.  Something needed to be done.  Fast. 



From the long list of complaints, the mouldy wallpaper was first to go.  I can only ask what sort of a sick bastard would choose floor-to-ceiling wallpaper for a wet space in the beginning with - Jesus H Roosevelt Christ, it was even IN THE SHOWER!  The only thing keeping the plaster work dry was a layer of ancient gloss paint, in better-than-expected condition, but stained with god-only-knows-what.  We were lucky to find out the tiles, on the walls and the floor, were mostly intact and usable as was the bath, although all of the grout lines had been painted with the strangest shade of acid green.

I know.  And don't even get me started on the Asterix-stickers...  for shits shake. 

This is the only useable bathroom in the house so our only option was to focus on small changes to make this space more practical.  We patched all the holes, gave the walls a new lick of paint and replaced a few small details such as the mirror, the shower head and the toilet seat.  The layout could be more functional for a narrow space and eventually I want to do something to cover up the very invasive waste pipe coming down from the upstairs loo, but for the time being I am pretty happy with what we got here.

As if the frosty minty wallpaper was not ugly enough, all metalwork in this bathroom was painted in the strangest shade of acid green.  On the right you see a comparison of the wallpaper and what we found underneath; banged up and stained sage green gloss paint. 



Our aim was to create a fresh, modern space that would reflect the character of this old house as well as our taste, so we chose a moody shade of sage green, a bit darker from the original colour of the room, and paired it with a dominant, crisp white with hints of blush pink.  Sage is something we have going on a lot in this house and it felt like a good contrast for white that was used to bring light to this small and enclosed space.  Together with the grey of the exposed plumbing and the deep blue of the floor mosaic, I had a complete colour palette to work with.  James took a bit of convincing on the blush, but I think the finished article works rather well.




Choosing a über-trendy colour such as blush pink can be a bit risky, but if you truly love a shade, trendy or not, why hesitate?  Life is too short to fret about decor anyway.  On the flip side, it might be a good idea, before putting your money down, to think how easy a trendy detail is to change if and when the fab turns naff and how much it would cost you to do so.  As we were not ordering a custom kitchen or spending hundreds on paint, I felt comfortable experimenting a bit.  If we ever get bored with our little bathroom, repainting it would not bust our balls or our budget. 


  This was my check list for the project: 

- re-attach a few cracked tiles below the bathroom mirror
- patch holes in the plaster and a few on the floor 
- Replace the mirror - it was damaged as well as ugly
- fix or replace a broken shower head
- attach a rail for a shower curtain
- patch holes on the door and adjust the fit (the door did not close properly)
- Sort out all grout lines that have been painted over with that gross green gloss
- replace the toilet seat with something more comfortable
- create storage for toiletries, towels etc. 
- paint the walls, plumbing, tub surround and all trims
- Patch up the paint in the ceiling above the bath/shower
- attach a new towel rail closer to the bath/shower
- remove old towel hooks that were too far from the bath/shower
- decorate like a boss  

We did not have a set budget, but incredibly I ended up spending less than 300 euros on this update, bulk of if being the cost of paint.  As there was no plumbing or electrical work for the time being, I was able to do all of it myself, thus avoiding to pay for labour entirely.  Because we had to complete the painting while using the bathroom and wait to get the paint delivered, the whole process took a couple of months.  It could have been a week's project for somebody with the materials at hand and another shower to use but taking it easy gave us time to think what we really wanted from this mini-renovation; what was necessary and what was not.

The paint I used had to be oil based in able to adhere to the old gloss base, so I picked self-undercoating Dulux Trade Eggshell in Brilliant White for the long walls, and Dulux Valentine Laque in Sage 4 and Framboise 2 for the accents.  We were in luck to have a friend pick us up some British paint as it can be silly expensive here in France.  Some say it's not the same stuff either - and they are right; most Dulux paints sold in France are adjusted to the French taste in both colour and composition.  They are also largely made in France, therefore different from the ones sold in your average building supply store in the UK.  Not available beyond the French-speaking market, the Valentine gloss with a satin finish was pleasant to use and dried pretty quickly.  

So the painting begins... 


I did not need to use a primer when painting the sage accent walls as the transition between the old and new shades was minimal, but I did use a cheap white gloss I had left over from a previous project to go under the blush pink to stop the 90's acid green from showing through.  Applying a proper primer takes time, but I would always recommend using one when you are painting a new wall or transitioning between two very different shades, especially when going from dark to light.  Primer helps the paint to adhere to the surface you are transforming and stops stains or the previous colour from showing through over time.  Also, a layer of primer will save you time and money on the top coats by stopping the wall from absorbing the paint too quickly - you get better and more even results while using less paint.

Another thing to keep in mind when using any oil/solvent based products is good ventilation - this stuff can get your head spinning.  It is best to wear a mask when painting and take care handling any thinners or the paint itself as they are toxic enough to harm your skin.  Not to mention flammable.  You must clean your tools with white spirit or turpentine and dispose all left over liquids and paint by taking them to a collection point.  Public déchèteries accept paint scraps in France, but check the advice of your local council if unsure what to do where you are based.

As a general rule, you can use gloss over emulsion but never the other way around.  The emulsion or any standard water based product* will not adhere to a base painted in non-water-soluble paint - it will just crack and flake off.  Most household paints today are water-based and whole walls painted in gloss, such as those in our bathroom, are highly unusual.  Historic homes have their quirks, but as an average decorator, you are more likely to stumble on an oil based product on trims, window sills and baseboards.  Replacing gloss with gloss is easy, but by stripping the surface bare, followed by a primer, you can use any type of paint.  Modern emulsion paints are hard wearing and come in all sorts of finishes so you can achieve the look of old-style gloss without using a messy oil based product.  

* There are a lot of contemporary innovations that allow all sorts of witchcraft, but I am not an expert on those. 

The Dulux Trade Eggshell, like most professional products, is limited in shades, but it is excellent value for the performance you get.  I enjoyed using it and being a qualified painter of one sort, did not find it difficult to manage cleaning wise.  The scent of the product is stronger than of those aimed for regular DIY use and you need to clean all the equipment used with white spirit or another suitable brush cleaner.  You can buy the stuff without a trade license, but I wouldn't recommend it for beginners as there are plenty of products that get you the same results but are a lot more user friendly.  

The clean and neat AFTER shots.  I am very pleased how it all turned out. 


The manufacturer recommends two coats and I found this to be sufficient - even on a larger than normal surface such as my bathroom walls, where you really do not want brush marks or other imperfections.  I used a wide synthetic brush to save paint and enable me to reach behind awkward pipework, the radiator etc. and a smaller one for the wooden trims.  You could use a roller just as well, but for the most even results, choose one that is designed for oil based paints and prepare for a cleaning session from hell.

Thankfully, my James with his formidable 6’6 frame took over the roller in order to paint the ceiling.  This was a simple emulsion job and we chose to use Dulux Bathroom + that repels mould and is guaranteed to last a minimum of five years.

This unit used to be in our kitchen, now it hold all of our toiletries and a formidable stack of towels.  Not a shabby space for a spa day. 


Having finished painting the room we needed to decide on storage.  Not being a fan of open shelving in a wet space myself, we decided on a vintage unit bought originally for our kitchen in Bretagne.  The chest is just about narrow enough for this bathroom and has plenty of draws and shelves for our toiletries and towels.  The existing marble shelf above the sink was cleaned and kept for our toothbrushes and it looks pretty nice with the new mirror thrifted from a local depot vente.  The dark wood of the storage unit, a fancy new toilet seat (mahogany, baby!) and the mirror frame really tie the different elements in this bathroom together.  

The mirror is not currently fixed on the wall, but rests on a shallow marble self above the sink. 


The towel hooks that were inconveniently far away from the bath were taken down and replaced with chrome-finished towel rings.  Our old textiles such as the bathmat and the shower curtain were still in a perfect working order so we did not feel the need to replace any of them.  The accessories, too, were from our old hoard of stuff, merely repurposed to suit this bog.

Finlayson towels - this pattern is called Elefantti and it was designed in 1969 by Laila Koskela. 


I think it is justified to claim this Little Bathroom of Horrors has been completely rehabilitated.  As it stands, it is a clean, welcoming and sweet-smelling space – no mouldy wallpaper in sight.  No longer do I have to recite Hail Mary’s whilst seated on my porcelain.. ahem.. mahogany throne nor feel dirty after taking a shower!  And I cannot underestimate the importance of this update – after a functioning kitchen, bathroom is the most important room in the house for me; it is an oasis to escape to after a hard day of living on a building site. 

Or removing Asterix-stickers from other surfaces around the house.  Bastards. 

But going back to the bathrooms... my bubble bath is waiting! *Crabs the ice cold flute of Blanquet and turns up Steve Wright

Monday, 27 February 2017

The Great Curtain Cover-Up

In these few short months I have had the privilege to live in this charming old house, I learned a few practical lessons in restoration work, but most valuably, gained some patience to help me cope with the fact that we cannot start putting everything right all at once

As our beloved N°21 had been empty for over a decade, the first steps in restoring this house to its former glory were intended simply to make it habitable again.  Coming to the end of February, we have succeeded in crafting ourselves an adorably bohemian bedroom where there used to be nothing but dirt and dead bats, a dinky but functional modular kitchen and a two unfinished but comfortable rooms of living and dining space.  Not to mention the little loo of horrors we turned into the clean and functional bathroom it is now.

But after all of the absolutely necessary work is done – where do you go next? 

There is some structural work to be done in the next few years including patching up parts of the roof and insulating the entire attic floor as well as re-framing spaces to accommodate a few toilets and a large kitchen-diner.  All the plasterwork can be assessed and fixed once the frame of the building dries, most likely during next summer and the shutters, window sills and doors need to be painted before next year’s winter storms.



This is not a weekend project – we would love to be able to finish bulk of it in five years, but you never know.  Old houses are like hen-dos in Vegas; if you don’t keep your cool they can drain all your money, soon followed by your will to live.  So as we are still getting used to living Chez Nous, we are taking it easy, for now, assessing our priorities and harbouring an uncomfortably close relationship with Pinterest.

Don’t get me wrong, understanding our priorities won’t make me hate the rough edges of our dwelling any less!  On the contrary.  But before the time comes to start hammering out the crap, I must be creative in hiding what I can’t change in the interim.  From the long list of complaints, the time has come for the raw concrete scarring in our current dining room.  I can’t start plastering it out yet, nor is it sensible as we have plans to extend the existing French doors with a panoramic window.  The next best thing, naturally, is to hide the problem and pretend it does not exist – and this is exactly what I set out to do when I started sewing curtains for an imaginary window.

Our dining room before we moved in and after some light touch-ups, including partial wallpaper removal.  The bare patch of concrete sticks out like a sore thumb. 


Luckily I had plenty of fabric to cover up the whole mess.  While looking for décor for our wedding in Finland last December, we raided a Finlayson Outlet Store in my old home town in Forssa and picked up over 10 meters of their Kihla-fabric from a bargain bin of off-cuts.  Designed by Sami Vulli, the pattern is inspired by Finlayson’s graphic motifs from the 60’s and 70’s, and features stylised wedding rings*.  Although we needed to cut some of the cotton we bought in order to have enough table runners for the wedding, I managed to sew two sets of narrow panel curtains, one wider curtain and a new doggy bed cover for our Rusty with a good couple of meters still remaining.

*Although we did not know it at the time. I literally just googled the name of the pattern for this blog.
The happy nuptials: These snaps are from our very hand crafted wedding. We needed to cut some of the fabric for the table runners, but no-sewing was required, merely a creative hand wielding an iron.   


I have always been a fan of Finlayson.  To be honest it could not be avoided growing up in a city like Forssa where a large selection of their fabrics used to be made.  Comparing Finlayson textiles to other better known Finnish producers such as Marimekko, theirs were always the working horse of fabrics and soft furnishings, durable and affordable, but no less iconic from their rivals.  In the recent years they have re-introduced a load of their old classics, from retro patterns to the Moomins, and launched new lines that turned out to be amazingly popular such as the Tom of Finland collection.  As Finlayson Co is getting increasingly known overseas, especially in East-Asia, the prices have increased too.  We were able to rummage through their bargains and buy our Kihla-fabric for 15€ a kilo, but I would have happily dished out the full price (approx. 20-25€ per metre) for this lovely piece of thick cotton – in my experience it is hard wearing and washes well without losing colour.

But going back to the task at hand:  sewing curtains can be just as easy or as hard as you want and I made mine super simple.

I will be adding a white liner when these are hanging on an actual window, but for the minute I left the back side blank to enable me to adjust the length easily if needed.  Having zig-zagged all the rough edges to avoid fraying I pressed my seams before sewing them to make everything run as smoothly as possible.  Not really being a sewing-wizard myself, these curtains turned out surprisingly nicely.  



The most difficult part was to get the pattern match between both double panels, especially when most of these bits I used for the curtains had been half-arsedly ripped to size for the wedding.  The whole project took me around a day from ironing the properly ruffled up fabric to finishing the hems.  One of the panels is a tiny bit shorten than its peers and another still bears a faint ghost of red wine spilled at the merriment of our marriage ceremony, but hey, they’ll do fine for the job. The two picked our for this project were roughly the cleanest and just wide enough to cover that fugly wall.  So bye bye nasty concrete – hello retro vibes!

After: finished curtains in situ


I had the whole 6’6 of James helping me with the rods, thankfully.  Getting them somewhat levelled on my own would have been a mission impossible, especially as the ceiling in this room sags just enough to make everything look crooked regardless.  In fact, we had to fix them in place twice, perfectly level at first and then crooked to match the profile of the ceiling - now the end result appears somewhat straight.   

Tackling this little eye sore really came to show that putting things out of sight does get them off your mind.  Or I am just pretty good avoiding life’s little pitfalls!  Either way, this dining room is slowly but surely starting to feel like home. 





Sorry what... A G&T? Don't mind if I do! 

Tuesday, 21 February 2017

DIY Lightbox

I am about to take all the credit for it, but this DIY is really a creation of my darling James’ gadget oriented imagination.  In fact, it was he who salvaged this long forgotten print screen of mine when visiting family in Finland and thought about turning it into a light box.  The pattern, or more accurately, a negative of a pattern the screen was made for, would have looked nice enough on our wall without additional fiddling, but fixing an LED-system behind the frame really helped to bring out the beauty of this relic from my teenage past.

And making one yourself is dead easy; all you need is a frame of some description, covered with a material that lets light through and a strip of LED-lights.  We used a self-adhesive kit, but other kind of lights would do just fine.  

The light box in situ in our boho bedroom. 

Screens such as these are most commonly used in all sorts of printing from artist books to textiles such as T-shirts and tote bags.  This one, however, was a tool in producing large scale custom-patterned linen as a part of my Textiles and Printed Fabrics-course in the School of Visual Arts for Children in Forssa back in 2005.  My group was one of the first to use their brand new textile classroom and our mission was to design patterns inspired by the history of the area the school was based in - the grounds of an old Finlayson textile mill.

My pattern, depicting circular details found around the old spinning mill, manhole covers, factory lights and drains, was printed on linen in two variants; olive- and lime green.  I ended up selling some of the fabric, made a few tote-bags and, as most fifteen year olds would, forgot all about it until my mother dug out the last of it and turned it into a duvet cover set.  That turned out to be one of the most thoughtful gifts me and James received on our wedding day last December.

Our DIY lightbox made of a screen used in textile printing and our bed, made with textiles I printed as a teenager with this very same screen. 


The screen in its wooden frame, however, was forgotten a long time ago.  My mother did not want to throw it away – after all, it was rather expensive gizmo to buy for a fifteen year old at the time, and I am glad she did not!  Having finally found its home with us in France, we set out to find the best way to display it in our new home.  James thought we would have the best contrast of the blue (the medium used to transfer the negative of the desired image onto the screen) and white areas (the bare mesh where the ink would be able to transfer through) if we would light it up, thus he promptly went and bought a remote control LED-strip, normally meant to illuminate telly stands and the underbellies of cabinets.

As mentioned, the light strip was self-adhesive and attached easily to the back side of my wooden frame.  Although the strip could be shortened to length, I chose to wrap the whole 5 meters of it around the frame giving me almost 3 full laps of lighting power behind the screen.  For additional durability, I finished the job with a few staples on the corners and along the sides where the lights could come loose with time.  The kit set us back 15 euros at our local ACTION store, but you could find similar LED-strips either at a homeware store or online.  This model came with a dimmer and a remote controller which is a pretty nifty detail, especially as we both are proper lazy, but most importantly, so that I could hide the manual control panel, similar to those on common Christmas lights, permanently on the back of the frame.

The light box comes with a remote dimmer and an off switch - lazy sleepers dream! 


I am aware that printing screens are not that common to come by when searching for materials for your own lightbox, but a wooden frame covered with a loosely knit fabric such as lace would look pretty amazing too.  Holiday lights can be used as a substitute for the adhesive strip that I chose to use, but make sure you stick with the LED’s – old style bulbs, although tiny, heat up and can be a dangerous when installed too close to fabrics. 


Happy crafting! 

Thursday, 16 February 2017

My Modular Kitchen


This is just one of the quirks of the land o'baguette I suppose, but it is not out of the ordinary for houses, especially rentals, or ex-rentals such as ours, to survive on the most basic kitchen amenities: a sink in a corner and if you are lucky, a few rows of tiles.  Perhaps this is due to the French renters preferring separate pieces and their own appliances or because a fitted kitchen scores higher on the old tax bracket for the homeowners, but this is how it has always been.  As the French would put it - bof


Je ne sais pas

We were dead lucky that both of the rooms intended as kitchens in this house had, besides from the gorgeous porcelain sinks, not one but two cupboards! The second of these little kitchenettes could even boast with a small glass-fronted cabinet - a conversion of a blocked window, but neither had any counter space.  Choosing between the two was easy though: the second had more storage and a floor to die for whereas the roof of the first was leaking. 


I know... bof.  

Our tiddly kitchen before the deep clean:  This is a pretty typical set up in older houses in France, and we were lucky to have any cupboards at all.



But worry not, dear reader, as we knew how to deal with this kitchenlessness.  And no, I am not talking about Papa Johns!  We previously lived with a similar pseudo-cuisine in Bretagne and already had all the necessary components for a fully functional modular kitchen.  Engineered and tested by my dear James, perhaps the cheffiest gentleman on this side of the Montagne Noire, our set up is tight but works pretty damn well even if I say so myself. 

The biggest hoarder of space in this narrow kitchen is the fridge-freezer; the bastards only fitted in the middle of the room, but having a spacious fridge is something I would not want to compromise on, not even for the sake of good feng shui.  On the flip side, we do not have a conventional hob or an oven; instead we use a portable induction place that hides away under our make-shift butchers block counter and a non-fixed oven that is housed inside a trifted side table.  I believe the application sits on two pieces of mdf board, one of which is a discarded painting of mine. Recycling is good m'kay.  In Bretagne we lost valuable space for the microwave that used to sit on the counter, but we were able to place it inside a cupboard that was conveniently missing its door. Voilà! 



The hot plate normally nests under the butchers block and it's light enough to be lifted easily on top when needed.. let's say, when making a light mid night snack...
Our main work space is basically a modified architects table: a thick piece of pine, sanded, treated with danish oil and hoisted on a pair of adjustable legs.  The oven-side-table-combo  was originally designed to fit under this counter, with the hotplate being stored between the two but in this instance we needed a short piece of furniture to sit under the glass cabinet so we moved it around.  The additional prep space turned out to be useful too. 

The space savers: The antique unit on the far left holds most of our ambient food and the wine crate on top of it is the home of our spice collection.  The little oven is housed inside an old side table that fits snugly under the glass cabinets.  We lived with the "doors" of the converted window-turned glass cabinet at first, but chose to remove them for easier access to our goblets.  





This kitchen has a fair bit of open and exposed storage and although I am not generally a fan of clutter, the maximalist approach was the only realistic one.  We simply have too many things to tuck away neatly.  And there are examples of our hoard that I actually like to have out in the open, such as my collection of Finnish design glass and James' elegant set of copper pans, but some, let's say the scanky jar of Marmite that expired on the first half of 2014 should be meant for our eyes only.

Most of our cook- and tableware is stored in the built-ins where as the food hides inside the wooden art nouveau-ish cabinet.  Although we both prefer to fill our lives with trift-store treasures such as that, the space would not be as functional without the little acquisitions from everyone's favourite Swedish furniture giant.  The ever versatile Raskog cart deserves a special mention for providing a home for our extensive condiment collection.  The IKEA shelf dividers and trays set out places for our heap of kitchen crap, but this mini kitchen is, as many dinky interiors tend to be, still just one misplaced plate away from complete chaos. 


A place for everything and everything in its place. 











Having a place for everything is paramount in keeping a pint sized kitchen tidy.  Each module, each pot and every jar, in fact everything in this kitchen has their own set function.  Even the dishwasher, currently not hooked up, houses lesser used odds and sods.  And for us, it works just fine.  And we cook an awful lot, from elaborate Sunday lunches to quick weeknight bites and brunches.  Although this modular set up is temporary - we are planning to built a bigger fitted kitchen downstairs in a few years time, we chose not to compromise on the functionality of our cooking space in favour of a less crowded, airier cuisine.

Depending on your needs, a modular kitchen can be just as functional as a fitted one and it doesn't need to cost an arm and a leg.  As small space living is becoming increasingly popular, you do not need to be a carpenter to built a set up that works for you.  IKEA launched a tiny all in one-kitchen just last year and similar units can be found from most home improvement stores.  And the best part?  If you get bored or have a change or heart - bof.  All you need is a free afternoon and a bit of grunt to re-configure your units for a "new" kitchen. 

Sunday, 12 February 2017

the Forgotten Symbolism of Ornament

Time to get your tin hats on folks, as this week I'll be rambling on about the forgotten symbolism present in the turn of the century design in Europe, inspired by a particular piece of plaster work in my own historic home.  From the symbols of catholic saints to the marks of the funny handshake brigade, I will try to get to the bottom of the odd ornaments chosen by the people who built this house in 1910. 

Let us start with a little lesson in art history: 

Towards the end of the 19th century and as a counteraction to what was seen as the emotionally poor strife for realism in art, the symbolists wanted to get back in touch with the the invisible and the mysterious - their psyches.  As defined by Michael Gibson in his book Symbolism: "Less an artistic movement than a state of mind";, the artists and artisans inspired by symbolist ideas never formed a defined style or a movement, but greatly affected the development of others such as Art Nouveau in France, BeNeLux and the UK, the Jugend Style in Central Europe, Russia, Scandinavia and Spain and the National Romantic Movement, most prominent in Norway and Finland.  Idealistically exhausting itself by the beginning of the First World War, symbolism acted as a bridge between the impressionist and expressionist way of seeing the world, standing between the old and the new at the dawn of modernism.  

Examples of symbolist painting (left to right): Gustav Klimt Hope 1 (1903), Félicien Rops Pornocratès (1878), William Blake The Great Dragon and the Woman Clothed in Sun  (1806), Francisco Goya Saturn Devouring His Son (1819-1823).  Klimt and Rops representing similar symbolist ideas that Goya and Blake were pioneering in the beginning of the 19th century. 

Although painters such as Paul Gauguin were known to travel far and wide for inspiration, symbolism was predominantly a European phenomenon, mixing together old superstition and Christian iconography together with themes of the early industrial age.  Allegorical, biblical and often melancholic, symbolist artists` favourite themes were love and loss - especially the loss of innocence, dreams vs. nightmares, coming of age and sexuality as well as passing of time and death.  Although not necessarily by a conscious choice, it was a dominantly male movement that had reserved two seats for women they so often fetishised in their works: the seat of a mother or a femme fetale - a whore. 

On a completely unrelated subject, I'll firmly recommend reading about the history of syphilis after the industrial revolution in Europe.  Illuminating read, truly. 

Paul Gauguin Arearea (1892), Hugo Simberg, the Garden of Death (1896). The red fox in the first picture by Gauguin symbolises sexuality and coming of age. 




But enough about the artsy-fartsy semantics: long before the adaptation of openly symbolist language into liberal arts, our ancestors, mostly illiterate and superstitious, used symbols to decorate and to communicate - just think about the image of a skull and crossed bones that today is near universally understood as a sign of danger and death.  The typical heart shape, 
an ideograph of the heart, has been used to express the idea of romantic love since the 14th century.  Folk art, religious iconography and the art of illustration, not even discussing the complex mannerism of literature and the performing arts, had been shrouded in symbolism long before the painters of the 19th century took notice.  The exotic and intriguing language of symbols was all the rage in the Victorian England, too, as the mood turned melancholic in the hangover years after the industrial revolution. 

Decorative symbols, warning symbols, coats of arms, pictorial traffic signs, badges, logos... the list is endless, are an integral part of the cacophony of visual information we are bombarded with.  The meaning of popular symbols, however, is not always fixed.  For example, the swastika - the feared and loathed symbol of Nazism in today's Europe, is a popular symbol of the god Vishnu when drawn clockwise and a symbol of the goddess Kali when drawn anticlockwise in Hindu religion, dating back a millennium.  Due to its easily repeated form, the swastika has been a common ornament in decoration, especially in embroidery, since the invention of embroidery.  For more of a contemporary example, just think of the "save icon" on your computer and how it has evolved, in less than 20 years, from a literal depiction of the format used to store data, into a general symbol of saving information. 



The times they are a-changin'...


Naturally, countless of symbols get ignored or become obsolete, and after a time, forgotten.  How long will it take for our insignia, lets say a sign for a wheelchair space or the Starbucks logo, to start looking like meaningless decoration?  

My home, like most homes built before the wars, was decorated with an array of ornamental detail from plaster reliefs to marble fireplaces.  A leading Victorian authority on ornamentation, Owen Jones (1809-1876), sees decoration as a fundamental desire of man to create.  In his Grammar of Ornament published in 1856, he has this to say about the nature of decoration:
"Construction should be decorated. Decoration should never be purposely constructed. That which is beautiful is true; that which is true must be beautiful."
Built originally with a neo-classicist flair mimicking the grandiose houses of the bourgeoisie in Mazamet, my home is a typical example of a townhouse from the beginning of the 20th century in the industrial South.  It was originally a crèmerie, habited by a family of cheese mongers, complete with two beautiful cheese cellars, three floors of living space, a garden and an outhouse, situated on a street dominated by businesses on both sides and a large protestant church.  The leather and textile industry here was just starting to pick up speed, drawing people from the surrounding countryside and streets such as mine could easily be built up within a decade.




From the original detailing chez nous, the most intricate piece of ornamentation is hands down the surviving plaster work.  What would have been a thick, possibly ornate crown moulding was removed in the sixties in an effort to mod this place up, but two full panels of decorative plaster work were kept above the fireplaces in two of the grandest rooms.  These plaster reliefs were commonly arranged into a shape of a frame, and mine are loosely neoclassical in style, featuring motifs re-popularised by the renaissance revival.   


Arabesque-style frescoes in late renaissance-style from Owen Jones' the Grammar of Ornament 



This is my lounge, there are many like it, but this one is mine. 


The detail in our lounge, what would have been the original formal salon, is pretty well preserved.  Most of the ornaments in this frieze are typical examples of classicist flora and fauna; the top horizontal panel is decorated with foliage of anthemion, a motif of ancient Greek origin, interspersed with heavily stylised bouquets of acanthus, in turn popularised by the ancient Romans.  Tops of the left and right vertical panels, featuring a shallow arabesque-style detail, are capped off by a suggested Corinthian capitals, again, archetypal for the periods classical revival architecture.  





This decorative panel was built to house a mirror and is a typical, if not an ordinary example of a period feature.  Several examples, some more sophisticated, some not, in both wood and in plaster, can be found in townhouses of a similar age - except for the fact that ours has snakes in it. A pair of Caduceus' to be exact.  Nested between a pair of primroses and a stack of branches, the staff of Hermes - two serpents intertwined around a winged pole, rests above a pair of crossed arrows, hiding in plain sight.  Although beautiful, it is clear this part of the frieze meant something beyond mere fashion to the people who commissioned it over a hundred years ago. 

The Caduceus, although often mistaken as the Rod of Asclepius - the symbol of medicine, is a symbol for commerce.  A fitting touch in a house built by merchants.  Commonly depicted with a pair of wings at the top of the staff, the symbols association with trade comes from being linked to the Greek god Hermes (or Mars, the Roman interpretation of the same divinity) who, among other things, was the protector of merchants and tradesmen.


The interest in the civilisations of ancient Greece and Rome had been growing steadily since the renaissance, but the archaeological discoveries in the 19th century around the Mediterranean and high profile exhibitions of classicist art, such as the anglification of the so called Elgin Marbles from the Greek temple of Parthenon, made the study of the antiques incredibly fashionable and helped to popularise the various classic revival movements in applied arts all around Europe. 



It is evident the family that built my home also appreciated classical symbolism, but what is the meaning of the rest of this motif?  The crossed arrows, for example, is a popular mark of friendship today, especially in contemporary tattoos and illustration where the meaning is derived from native American symbolism.  In Europe, however, arrows, especially in heraldry, are knows to symbolise conflict and war; single arrow standing for martial readiness and an arrow with a cross representing affliction on the battlefield.  It is reasonable to assume the crossed arrows are referring to a military conflict and the direction of the arrowheads, here pointing upwards, could indicate a victory, general defiance or hope.

It's by no means an uncommon symbol: before being adopted by the hipsters, the crossed arrows were used as a pottery mark by a German manufacturer Porzellanfabrik Kalk from 1850 until their closure in 1976 as well as a Japanese dupe company in the 1950's.  It was also a central motif on the old Swedish ör coinage before the introduction of krona in 1873 Here, too, the meaning of the symbol must have stemmed from heraldry, but my further investigation drew a blank.  Heck - I even checked the known symbols of the freemasons. Another blank. So I decided to turn to God and read about the symbolism of catholic saints, knowing this would have been a catholic household.  Frustratingly, nothing obvious cropped up; St. Ursula is often seen holding an arrow and St. Sebastian pierced by a few more, but the connection felt too loose.  


There must have been a concrete reason why the crossed arrows ended up on the background of the serpents, but I couldn't seem to figure it out. 






Then, after referring back and forth with a guide of heraldic symbolism I finally checked the actual heraldry of this region... and BINGO!  Or may I say Blauvac.  A mere four hours away from here, in the department of Vaucluse, nests a rural commune with a coat of arms of crossed arrows with their tips in the air, on a bright green background.  Could it be that my family came from Blauvac?  Short look at the history of the tiny village tells me about the arrival of the first telephone connection in 1926, followed by the first power lines and electricity in 1928, indicating that the area must have been pretty damn deprived at the time my cheese mongers settled in Mazamet - one of the richest provincial towns in the South due to the immense wealth created by the industries of the Montagne Noire.  

A closer inspection of the wings on the top of the Caduceus reveal another interesting quirk - that they are those of a honeybee rather than the wings of a bird as normally expected.  An insignificant detail if it wasn't for the fact that one of the symbols of Mazamet is - you guessed it - a honeybee, prominently present in the Mazamet coat of arms as a symbol of the heavy industry.  If you ask me, it seems who ever designed this little crest and placed it so prominently on the centerpiece of the grandest room in the house was proud about their trade as well as their roots.


Coat of arms of Blauvac featuring crossed arrows, a sign of military power and conflict with the coat of arms of Mazamet, featuring a cock, a sign of  great courage in battle and honeybees that stand for of industry and creativity.  There are three bees in the crest, one for each dominant industry: textiles, leather and pelts.  The colours of the crests are equally important: green stands for freedom, joy, beauty and hope where blue signifies steadfastness, strength, truth and loyalty.  


The other plaster relief, in our current bedroom, is a 1920's addition and in poor condition.  The detail has suffered after being painted with heavy gloss over the years and some of the trims are crooked or asymmetrical.  Situated above a simple wooden fireplace surround, this ornament is Greek-revival style with a hefty nod towards art deco.  There are no serpents and no crests in this frame, in fact, no symbolism at all that would go beyond the aims of decoration. 




The Greek revival-mantel.  Note the beautiful portrait of my dear James - he's changed glasses since it was drawn. Thank Cheesus for that. 
I would love to think the revamp of the third floor salon/chambre, that we know was finished around 1924, was done by the couple that built this house.  Homes like these used to be passed down in the family alongside the family business, often while multiple generations lived and worked under the same roof.  We know the crèmerie was still up and running, along with many of the other businesses on this street, in the late 1950's, as confirmed by our plumber who was born on this street.  Today, the Caduceus might be the only visual clue of the family that once lived and loved here, but perhaps the more we continue to dig around, the more there is to be found about their lives here.

My father is a builder and regularly collects things left behind by builders like him generations before; packs of cigarettes, coins, items of clothing and scraps of paper, letters even, but this is a first time, in a domestic dwelling, where I've seen a message or a brand left behind by the inhabitants, encrypted in symbols.  I am convinced leaving traces such as these, little clues, is more common than people think.  Just like with us, the signs were always there, just hiding in plain sight.

From all the symbols in the world, the caduceus seems oddly fitting, thinking about us, the current owners of this house, being both self employed.  The shop downstairs has been empty nearly fifty years, but I have plans to re-open it for the summer, this time, reincarnated as an artists studio and a gallery.  Somehow I think the family of the crèmerie would approve.