Sunday, May 25, 2008

Goodbye Sam

Spring 1988 - May 2008

Sam died quietly today of old age after a good fight with the inevitable.

Stubborn optimist
Strong will in a white fur wrap
Companion for 15 years to my dear departed Nana
Ours for 5 more
Good reliable friend

Goodbye Sam. The house seems empty without you.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Offsite Excitement--Bathroom Vanity

A while ago we commissioned furniture maker Erik van Miltenburg to build a bathroom vanity for us. We first contacted him almost two years ago with high hopes of requiring his services in the next couple of months. About a year-and-a-half later, finally ready, we contacted him again. We've discovered, more than once, that a highly skilled local craftsperson can often build a custom piece of furniture for a lower price than a similar piece from a recognized manufacturer (barring IKEA, of course).

After searching unsuccessfully for a bathroom vanity, I designed one specifically for our space. N converted my pencil sketch to a accurate 3-D drawing in SketchUp (complete with texture mapping).

Here is my original working sketch (left) and N’s SketchUp version

Our bathroom vanity will be veneered in quarter-sawn white oak—a pale, grayish, highly figured wood, topped with a piece of marble and an undermounted enameled cast-iron sink.

Quarter-sawn white oak veneer

We were having some discussion about the curve I specified (as homage to French Regence style) for the bottom of the otherwise sleek-lined and spare cabinet. Yesterday, our furniture maker sent me this snapshot of the curve template, and actual curve (under all the clamps) in his shop.

The bottom curve of the bathroom vanity (template and actual)

I think it looks perfect. We are having difficulty reining in our excitement. I can’t wait to see the finished thing. Although this bathroom renovation project is about 90% complete, the remaining details are taking forever to resolve.

A request: If anyone in the GTA has had good luck with a supplier/installer of frameless glass shower doors, we’d love hear about them.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

We’ve Got to Get Ourselves Back to the Garden

Muscari bulbs awaiting transplant

Blog entries will likely be sporadic over the easy outdoor months when it’s so much more gratifying to walk out the door and visit my garden than type on this machine.

But May marks an anniversary I can’t leave unrecorded. We are celebrating the first year of our tiny formal gardens flanking our front brick walkway. Last year over a couple of weeks in May, N and I planted what we aggrandisingly refer to as our mini-Versailles (it was actually André Le Nôtre’s Vaux le Vicomte, not Versailles, where we took our inspiration, but since no one seems to know of Vaux le Vicomte, the reference doesn’t obtain). The gardens consist of two tiny boxwood-hedged beds along our brick front walkway, and another along the driveway, one with three stately fastigate European hornbeams--Carpinus betula ‘Frans Fontaine’, and all filled with narcissi and tulips in the spring. Our love of formal gardens has been creeping up on us since our first visits to France over a decade ago, but last year was our first real attempt to introduce some formality to our previously free-form gardens. Our house is no castle; it’s a modest Victorian, but we’re having fun echoing on a miniature, modest scale some of what Le Nôtre did on a vast one.

A true 'before' shot from April 2006

The formal front garden nearing its first birthday this May

Excerpts from last year’s wiki entries documenting the formal bed planting efforts (in our pre-blog days):

May 15, 2007

The weather was sunny and almost hot, then dramatically cloudy with theatrical thunder, lightning, and rain--light, then heavy and straight, then gusting--followed by the most dramatic winds we have ever witnessed from our front porch. Branches fell to the road. Leaves were blown off trees.

The storm would've made for good drama if it hadn't done such damage to our newly planted trees. All day we worked to plant our three lovely fastigate hornbeams in our narrow planting strip by the driveway. We laboured to make sure they were perfectly straight and evenly positioned. When the rain seemed immanent around 5:00 we enjoyed a beer at our back table on our new bench under our umbrella and surveyed our backyard from our new lower vantage point (without the deck) against the dark backdrop of storm clouds. The neighbour’s huge apple tree is covered in white blossoms which were very dramatic against the dark grey sky. Finally the rain came and we were forced to go inside where we looked at radar and realized more bad weather was still to come.

Aftermath: the once straight trees have a definite lean

Moments before the big winds hit we had been standing on our porch complementing ourselves on the straightness of our trees. Then, the wind struck and when the storm was over, our trees had shifted dramatically. We'll try to straighten them, but our hard work of today was definitely compromised.

May 26, 2007

(truck) bed of buxus

The hornbeams have been straightened and staked. Our truck is completely full of boxwoods: 126 one-gallon pots for our hedge. N is out looking for the right fitting to solve our irrigation system draining problem.

Underground drama--irrigation lines and drains

later the same day...

Planting in progress (and, how NOT to leave a rake)

Today we planted half of our hedge and we think it is beautiful. We enclosed the rectangular area next to the driveway. It doesn't look like an afterthought anymore, but like a purposeful garden. Tomorrow we'll plant the other side of the path. Unlike today's hedge which had hard surface guides all around, this one will require a bit of grading to keep the soil level even, and more accurate measuring. We seem to have bought more boxwoods than we actually need, so our hedge may go farther than we thought and enclose the bed between the driveway and the porch.
One side done

Back to the present

When we first began gardening about a decade ago, we loved natural curving lines. On our visits to botanical gardens, the underlying structure of gardens escaped our notice as we were captivated by the profusion of unruly blooms. Only gradually as we realized that flowers alone didn’t produce the gorgeous gardens we loved, did we begin to see past the blooms to the supporting forms of trees and shrubs, the edges on the beds and the definition of hardscaping elements like paths, fences, and rocks. Somehow, it took subsequent visits to grand Chateaux in France where the gardens are overtly formal, for the true possibilities of imposed structure in the garden to really occur to us. Gradually, in our own urban lot, we’ve been containing our garden areas—shaping them with boulders and paths and defined edges, but only recently have we been imposing a more calculated geometry. We are emboldened by early results. The definite architecture of clipped hedges and brick walkways make the gardens they contain look even more natural by comparison—like the perfect frame. Our garden will never be entirely formal. We have a native woodland garden on the west side of our house under the shade of tall sugar maples and a curving front bed anchored by a glorious red Japanese maple (Acer japonicum ‘Bloodgood”). The garden has more formal elements close to the house and becomes more informal as it moves away.

In our small city lot, it seems ludicrous to try to match the natural style of a managed woodlot like this one in Waterloo Region, where I hiked earlier this week

I will leave true nature to the gorgeous natural woodlots and protected tracts of land where I love to hike. In my own little plot I am bound and determined to employ all the art and artifice I can muster.

The fledgling formal garden (May 2007)

Friday, May 2, 2008

Las Vegas 2008 (a mini treatise)

The Palazzo Tower viewed from the pool

Las Vegas is an easy city to mock from a distance and it is indeed a strange place-- constantly destroying itself and rising again out of the ashes, more spectacular in every new incarnation. I am not a gambler, nor in the market for the kind of legal and somehow sanitized smut that Vegas sells. Las Vegas is a temple to Mammon. Though many people balk at paying their taxes for the greater good, Vegas seduces thousands into willingly pouring their incomes into slot machines and watching amazed as the golden palaces they have funded rise up in the desert.*

The construction never stops (the view over my shoulder at the Palazzo pool)

I have been accompanying N to a huge tradeshow for over a decade and I still don’t know entirely what to think. Vegas never would’ve been high on our list of destinations, but I confess we’ve enjoyed most of our visits. Tourist towns are often single faceted, but the tourists in Las Vegas are far from homogeneous and the city is more complicated than you’d think. Flying in over the impossibly vast desert, though, it is difficult to escape the sense that this glittering oasis surrounded by the harshest of landscapes, entirely dependent on imported food and water, is the very model of unsustainable consumption and perfectly poised for its very own Armageddon.

A slightly colour-enhanced view of the vast desert en route to Vegas

In the meantime, though, the world continues to flood in to Vegas--often not as pure tourists, but as business people attending the myriad tradeshows, not to mention new residents. Las Vegas is one of the fastest growing cities in the US

When we first went to Las Vegas a dozen years ago it was difficult to find a decent cappuccino on the Strip and now there are espresso shops everywhere, bakeries as fine as Thomas Keller’s Bouchon bakery, and many Michelin starred restaurants.

A perfect macaron--the croissant and beignets didn't last long enough to be recorded

Just 300 miles away, LA food lovers were alarmed this year that a restaurant in Las Vegas, Joël Robuchon (at the MGM Grand), and none in Los Angeles had been awarded Michelin’s highest three star rating. Some hotels (Wynn) have insisted that the big-name chefs actually be present in the kitchens of the restaurants sporting their names.

Images from Bouchon: encaustic tile floor, pain perdu, zinc bar, white aproned waiter

N and I have enjoyed many of our meals in Vegas. Our favorite have been in the beautiful room of Thomas Keller’s Bouchon in the Venezia tower at the Venetian—a quiet oasis far from the casino floor filled (by day) with sunlight from the courtyard and pool gardens beyond, a long gleaming zinc bar, gorgeous patterned encaustic tile floor, white-aproned waiters and sparkling glass and silverware. We’ve eaten breakfast and dinner there many times over the past few years. On one memorable evening, owls swooped over the courtyard as we dined on the terrace under the clear desert sky. The food at Bouchon is classic bistro fare—duck confit and steak frites, rustic pate with cornichons, artisanal cheese, and tarte citron. It’s the food we love. Accompany dinner with a bottle of Schramsberg sparkling Blanc de Noir and we are almost as happy as we are in France, but we have no illusions; we’re in Vegas and we know it. At breakfast there is ‘pain perdu’-style French toast, eggs gratin, and lovely, buttery, flaky, tender croissants and brioche in a basket.

Views from Daniel Boulud Brasserie at Wynn (left, right) assorted pickles with my pate (centre)

This year we also dined at the Daniel Boulud Brasserie overlooking the spectacular golden waterfall and temperate forest at Wynn (yes, perverse, but very seductive). The food was good, also French bistro fare, but the mood is much more lush and dark and much more about spectacle than at the classic crisp and sparkling Bouchon. We also had a passable dinner at Woo—a pan-Asian concept restaurant in the Palazzo (our luxurious hotel next to the Venetian--every room a suite), which offered far less of a culinary adventure than it purported to. We did enjoy a bottle of unfiltered sake there, though—mild and slightly thick. Though noisier and less romantic, I'd recommend Noodles at the Bellagio over Woo any day.

The Guggenheim-Hermitage and Vegas--a doomed seven year menage a trois

While great food might find a comfortable home in Las Vegas, some partnerships are too unholy to survive. For the last few years I’ve enjoyed visiting the Guggenheim/Hermitage Museum in the Venetian hotel, where I’ve seen some excellent exhibitions (two Van Dyke portraits being a revelation to me when seen for the first time in person). Unfortunately for me, the museum will close forever this May. I loved the small museum and its hybrid shows drawn from the collections of two of the world’s finest museums, but I guess I should’ve surmised, based on the fact that I was usually alone with the art and several security guards, that it would never last. For me, it was one of the most redeeming and incongruous features of Las Vegas.

The Palazzo lobby; the golden falls at Wynn; a view from the outdoor bar at Wynn

Another is the architecture. Yes, much of Vegas is terrible architectural pastiche, but nowhere in the world can you experience the soaring spaces exquisite surfaces and amazing craftsmanship (by imported plasterers, stonemasons, tile setters and other specialized trades) in such abundance—not to mention the constant spectacle of new construction, which is exciting in itself.

Rooftop intrigue out my window: the A-team deploys (right); and what happened here?

If you can abandon any quest for authenticity (usually a doomed pursuit anyway) and look instead for an atmosphere, a fleeting mood, I'm sure you can find a spot to love in Las Vegas. Like everything else in Las Vegas, though, the architecture is divorced from context—everything is trying to be someplace or something else—the ultimate simulacrum. And yet, Vegas clearly is itself; there is simply no other place like it. I think that’s the thing that has people so alarmed—the idea that Vegas could assert authority as its own particular place and not merely a pale imitator masquerading as something else. Vegas is beginning to mark its territory and declare its identity as clearly as the cities it takes as inspiration. Las Vegas is a self-referential alternate universe, constantly engaged in its own reinvention.

I haven't even started on the wonders of the surrounding desert, and I won't, at least not this time...

*We’re perfectly happy to pour our dollars into food, drink, car rentals, and accommodation, which probably makes us equal contributors--just worshipping at a different altar.

Thursday, May 1, 2008

Explaining the Long Hiatus

We were away for an annual trade show (N attending, S accompanying) and an early dose of spring in Las Vegas and Palm Springs. When we returned we learned of the death of a close friend, exactly our contemporary. In our grief, our attention shifted away from the largely frivolous topics of this blog to the existential questions of life and death and we found ourselves with little inspiration to write.
But the minutiae of life can’t be ignored forever. We have a house to renovate, a garden to tend, meals to cook and eat, friends to visit--and soon we will be glorifying all of the trivial details of our quotidian existence in blog prose once again. Plus, it’s spring, our taxes are filed, and we are ready to carry on.