Stairway to Heaven

Yeah, I know.  I had to.  I am a simple girl: our stairway was in a dire need of tender love and care and I had just the title!  Cheese or no cheese, I hope you will appreciate my next project that stands before you as a living-non-breathing-proof of the transformative power of paint:
It was dark.  It was dreary.  It was mahogany-tinted pine. 
 
I am of course talking about the tongue and groove panelling on the first flight of stairs leading from the entryway to our main living space floor above.  This particular section was poorly lit in the begin with, but the imposing hue of the pine was making the situation much worse by masking out the contour of our beautiful oak staircase as well as dating the space significantly.  Sure, we will be adding proper lighting to the landing area later, with the help of our trusted electricians, but in the meantime, replacing the whole panelling that was perfectly functional, just a bit depressing, felt like an overkill, hence James and I decided to give it a lick of fresh paint instead. 
 
The pine panelling was stained with a heavy hand and waxed to protect this lovely shade of drab.  It made the first flight of our stairs feel unwelcoming and dark and did no favours for the lovely oak stairs that blend straight into the dark background.
Having looked at a few colour charts we went with our usual: a tin of brilliant white.  With my pesky Nordic heritage and a taste for everything minimalist, it just felt like the right choice for this dark and narrow space.  As the panelling had been treated with both, stain and wax, I chose to use a Nuance Mono Créme multi-surface emulsion in matte finish.  Nuance is a French dupe for Dulux and this particular concoction is self-undercoating, thus sticks like shit to a blanket, fast drying and silly easy to use. 
 
As with any good paintjob, I started mine by sanding the panels.  One could use the good old sandpaper in medium grain, but I chose to fasten things up a little by cranking up my beloved electric sander.  To get rid of most of the old wax treatment, I needed to go over the area a few times before I was down to regular wood.  There was no need to bother getting rid of all the stain* as it sits much deeper than wax and my paint would cover it up easily with a few thorough coats.  Having cleaned the surface of all dust, I applied the paint with a brush.  A roller is certainly a more forgiving tool, especially for the beginner, but I do not like the way using one inevitably wastes paint.  The grooves of these panels and the fact I had to work with my hands behind the spindles of the staircase also made the brush a good pick for this job.   
 
*Stain is a generic term for (usually) water-based colouring that penetrates the wood highlighting the natural variation of wood-grain.  The more you apply, the darker or more vibrant your final colour will be.  It’s recommended you seal the wood after staining by waxing it or applying a coat of lacquer, oil, etc. to protect the finished surface and make it repel dust and dirt.
 
The tools of the trade: my beloved sander and wood, PVC and aluminum compatible paint – if these can’t beat the shit out of that faux mahogany, nothing will!
 I let my wall to dry overnight after the first coat, not because it would have needed it, but as it was getting a bit late.  Without my beauty sleep though, I could have been finished with the whole job in about three hours, including an extensive search for an extension lead my lovely husband had tidied away exactly where it belonged.  

Bastard. 

And here’s the results: Not bad I say!

 Having seen some photos of the new colour, he couldn’t believe how airy and open the corridor suddenly felt.  The fresh white paint is the best substitute for natural light in a space like this in my view and having erased the oddly red-ish mahogany tint, you can actually distinguish where our lovely staircase begins and the partition ends.  How clean it all looks certainly gives me hope when thinking about rehabilitating rest of our stairwell that is currently painted in varying shades of natural white with decades of dirty handprints and nicotine stains.  Yummy!

 

I’m not a great believer in art hung in narrow spaces, as normally I am too clumsy to risk it, but this little “home” sign felt appropriate here.  It was a housewarming present upon moving to France nearly three years ago now and will hopefully hang in our home, in this old house, for decades to come.

 
That’s it folks!  I think I can concur this was a small but transformative job – one that we would have tackled ages ago if only we had known how easy it was…  

Le Grand Balcon – Setting up outdoor space for the summer

It all started with a catalogue.  You know, one of those supermarket add-magazines soliciting variety packs of Walkers and the best deals on Birds Eye frozen macaroni bites.  We get a fair bit of those here in France, in fact they drop semiregularly into our mailbox, once or twice a week, from all of the major supermarkets in the area.  First I thought about putting a stop to it by attaching a small “pas de pub” note on the door like before, but as a homeowner, I thought why not give the catalogues a try.

Who knows, they may even have coupons, I remember thinking.
 
Little did I know that a mag from Casino was going to change the way we would use our balcony, a leaky, smelly and callous place, which at that juncture mostly served as a place to dump smelly bin bags.  Like a good little wife I browsed through each leaflet full of special offers and multi-buys, occasionally setting a few aside featuring decent beer offerings or a tasty coupon.  From this pile of domestic misery, James spotted a set of patio furniture, a modular sofa, armchair and a tea-table-combo, for a price too good to miss.  As the weather was warming up, we wanted somewhere nice to sit outside with our G&T’s and made a trip to the Géant Casino in Castres the very next weekend.

The near impossible-to-assemble patio set with our riggity old table and chairs.

As you would expect, the furniture was a real bitch to put together.  Made of composite plastic in charcoal-black and casted to look woven in, these sets are fairly commonplace.  We were attracted to this particular combination, not just for its price, but because of the modular nature of it.  The furniture is lightweight and can be made to suit various situations: it’s not ridiculously opulent for the two of us and in the fair occasions we have company, you can seat up to five people comfortably.  The detail I was not expecting to be pleased about were the cushions, which turned out to be nice and fluffy, machine washable and moisture repellent.

 
While James was putting the pieces together in a drunken rage, I contributed by removing the cushions from their protective film and complained about certain men’s inability to read instructions.  Happy times.
 
Having sorted out the seating as well as a pesky hole in the fugly-but-functional fiberglass roofing, our little terrace was coming together nicely.  We chose to prioritise other projects for the summer to come, therefore it made sense to repair rather than remove the corrugated fiberglass sheets keeping the balcony dry from the rain.  You see, the water had previously found its way through the concrete base of the terrace, all the way to downstairs and the only way to start managing this was to make sure the floor was staying dry.  Installed sometime over ten years ago, the fiberglass sheets were in a proper state, but seemed to be holding on fine enough.  After James replaced a missing sheet and bolted it in place, this issue was solved. 
 
 
This corrigated fiberglass had weathered so badly that on the first glimpse James and I both thought it was asbestos.
With relatively little direct sunlight filtering thought the dirty fiberglass into this north facing sitting area, we get to enjoy our stunning view without being burned to crisp – something I truly appreciate as a perma-pale Finn.  Sure, the roofing will go as early as we have the time and the money to replace it properly, but in the meantime, the situation could be a lot grimmer.
Our current collection of herbs and flowers.

The concrete base will also get dug up and replaced.  For the time being we are thinking about terracotta tiles, perhaps re-using some already in this house, but in the interim the cracked concrete was covered up with a “rug” of synthetic grass.  We used to have this stuff covering a few problem areas in our old gallery-rental and we both liked the playful nature of the material.  Our garden, still a bit of a project, as is everything else in this house, does not have any grass and likely never will, so putting down a piece of artificial lawn felt like a fun thing to do.

 
Rest of the apparent décor, the little table and chairs, the herbs and the accessories migrated into this place almost on their own.  A north facing balcony is not the best place to grow herbs, I know, but so far so good.  They add a certain je ne sais quoi to the place and grow close to the kitchen where they are needed.  My favourite of all things in the balcony is probably the large ceramic statue of a stork, given to us as a wedding present by a friend and made by her elderly mother who was quite of an artist back in her day.  The garland of LEF-bulbs is also wedding related: it was bought from a Scandinavian household-all-rounder Class Uhlson to light up the stage in our wedding venue.



 



Setting all things and furnishings aside, I am in love with that view.  How could you not!  In a clear day you can see the rooftops of Mazamet, over the valley and all the way to the forests of Sidobre.  You can sit comfortably under a blanket and spy how the weather here changes in seconds and when the night comes, you may sit back and admire the stars.  It never stops to amaze me how one view alone can be so engaging.  Hopefully we will manage to extend this panorama even further by opening up the left side of the patio by reducing the height of the concrete wall that luckily is not part of the supporting structure for the roof. 

 
 
A room with a view…
Having a balcony that functions as it should has improved our social life too as here in France, it seems, everybody smokes.  Now, even when it rains, our friends can enjoy their fag-brakes without having to trek downstairs to the garden.  And of course, eating out in our place really means eating out now.  Even with the occasional bats, wasps and ants, it’s a great place so sit down and relax with a hearty G&T.
 
There is a one last person in the family that is yet to embrace the transformation of our terrace: Rusty the pupper.  He seems to find the confined outdoors a bit of a drag and much prefers the comfort of his own bed.  Well, you can’t please everyone they say… but at least the humans of our unit love the transformation. 

  

Making of.. L’Atelier d’Art Part 1 – The Floor

With all this pesky home improvement I have seriously neglected my awesome day job: being an artist.  I don’t normally take time off my work like this, but we needed to get this old house liveable, move our gallery into new premises Chez Nous, and get married in Finland.  The house is in order now, somewhat, and we are hitched, so it was about time to get the studio sorted out.
Luckily, as most of you know by now, N°21 used to be a crèmerie and has a neat little boutique downstairs, just itching to be turned into an atelier d’art.  We loved our old rental atelier artichoc which had enough space for a big studio space and a huge gallery but those premises had serious downfalls: even after we got proper lighting installed, there were never enough wall sockets, no heating nor hot water.  All rather essential for an all-year-round event- and work space.  Even with a great landlord and good visibility, we felt like it was time to move on.
Before setting up shop Chez Nous, there was this teeny-tiny little detail to fix: a floor full of gorgeous turn of the century cement tiles dirtier than a loo at a lorry stop.  Dominantly white cement tiles.  Oh boy.  After the closure of the crèmerie, sometime in the late 50’s to early 60’s, the shop front was used as a garage.  Neglected and barely sealed, the porous tiles absorbed all the grease, grime and dirt for decades and were in a pretty grim condition when we got here.  
We came to view this house on a warm autumn day and the light filtering though the frosted glass was just amazing.  Even under a layer of dirt and grime, these century old encaustic tiles steal the show. 
Normally, antique cement tiles would not be my material of choice for an artist studio for an array of reasons: they stain easily, are incredibly expensive to replace if damaged and difficult to keep clean if not sealed properly.  But frankly, they were here before me, and if restoring and keeping these tiles would mean needing to take better care while working… so be it.  Paint spills and drips are a daily occurrence in a working studio, but with a proper sealant and a never ending supply of wet-wipes, I should be able to manage any destructive bursts of creativity. 
Having had next to no bother cleaning and sealing the other encaustic tiles in this house, I thought sorting this room would be a piece of cake.
Remind me never to be so naïve again.
These types of cement tiles do not really loose colour due to wear and tear as the pigment sits in the cement itself, but they do, however, loose their protective finish.  After the sealant is lost, the porous cement is receptive to dirt that can be incredibly difficult to lift by using your regular household products.  Take my word for it, Mr. Propre was a complete waste of time.  In fact, any off-the-shelf cleaning product, no matter how specialised, had little to no effect on the greasy marks embedded deep in the pores of these concrete tiles.
Heck, even the old de-greasing agent made no visible progress, although it clearly got rid of something as all I was left after a good couple hours of serious scrubbin’ was a pair of matching blisters on both palms and water as dirty as a sailors smile.  The clearest results were visible on the border tiles that still had their original sealant.  The centre tiles with a nice burgundy and grey pattern on cream white background remained stained and dull. 
The tiles after a somewhat unsuccessful attempt in de-greasing them: the border tiles on the left cleaned out a bit whereas the tiles on the right did not react much at all to the scrubbing nor the de-greasing cleaner. 
 This is where a lesser (to be read: smart) home improver would call the professionals, but not me.  No.  I did, however, bully James to call a few friends for advice and soon had another product to try: a professional grade cleaner for cement tiles and marble.  This stuff was PH neutral, smelled like lemons and came in a reassuringly boring plastic jug.  By design, you were to brush the product on with water, creating a soapy foam that would sit on the tiles without drying for 10-20 minutes.  In that time the foam would penetrate the pores of the tiles and lift up any dirt and grease before being brushed up and rinsed with plenty of water.
 
In reality this meant half an hour of intense brushing, letting the stuff sink in from anything between 30 to 60 minutes, followed by more rage-brushing, tears, and some more brushing and rinsing.  I repeated the treatment twice and hated every single second of it.  Although I could see the foam turn into a satisfying shade of Yuk! on each rinse, the achieved difference was near invisible to the naked eye after each wash.  Needless to say, I may have been a bit underwhelmed.
I did spy some results once the floor had dried.  The weather, although nice and mild for most parts of the year was not quite so warm and dry as it is now, thus prolonging the time it took for everything to stabilise.  It seemed I had managed to remove some of the worst stains as well as parts of the old sealant that had yellowed over time.  And this is where I decided to call it.  More brushing was only going to start damaging these tiles and the dirty ones were clearly beyond rescuing, so I went to my local hardware store and bought myself a big bad roll of wood-effect vinyl.
Kidding.  God… just kidding!  
 

 

I decided to live with it.  These tiles have been in place since 1910 and I don’t really need them to look now.  A few are cracked slightly and others still bare the marks of the space being used as a garage… but that is fine.  I never wanted this floor to look new, just less grotty and this is exactly what I think I have achieved here.  After three coats of fresh sealant, my studio tiles certainly have got their mojo back, and in a way, so have I.  After all, what is a cowboy without their horse, an artist without a studio?
 
These tiles are not new but they got a century’s worth of character to compensate.
 
TO BE CONTINUED… Next time on the same atelier time, on the same atelier channel, I’ll be ranting on about painting ceilings as a shorty, French neighbours and dog hair.  

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. 

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 Forssaback 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! 

My Modular Kitchen

 3eac6-my2bmodular2bkitchen
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.

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.