Not Just Any Old 'Ankle' Strap

I love sandals, and when I'm not barefoot I very rarely wear anything else. Even my slippers are really mule sandals (or 'slides') of one kind or another. Slidey flip-floppy sandals are fine for indoors. But when I step out, I need ankle straps, to keep me in my shoes. And a sandal looks very different depending on the strap. I don't know what the shoe industry calls each of these styles, but here are the names I use:


  • The choker strap --> the least common of the three. Looks like a choker necklace or a clergyman's collar. 


  • The bridle strap <-- which is what I wear most often. Comfortable because it doesn't rub. Resembles a horse's bridle.


  • The halo strap --> aesthetically, my favourite. It's just super sexy and elegant.. It's like the choker but is suspended above the shoe like a halo, I think. All shoes are by Clark's, the British shoe manufacturer.




Graceless Graces

Rubens, 1639. Prado Museum, Madrid. 

Rubens, 1639. Prado Museum, Madrid. 

There are some painterly styles that I have never taken a shine to, and the nudes of Peter Paul Rubens are Exhibit A. I am not terribly fond of Michelangelo's, either, outside of his exquisitely gorgeous sculptures -- and even then, they can be problematic -- 'Night', the female figure in his Julius tomb project, looks like a beautiful male with lumpy breasts clumped on haphazardly over his masculine chest.

But the real effrontery comes not from the lack of a homosexual appreciation of the female form (which, given Michelangelo's staggering mastery of art, is surely the only reasonable explanation for that specific failure), but rather from the work of someone you would expect not only to know better but to sense differently, as well. We are told that Rubens's second wife, a 16-year-old at the time of the wedding, inspired many of his paintings, including The Three Graces, which in his hands is a celebration of cellulite and a study in bodyfat and emergent double chins. The women aren't just fleshy, they're knobbly and bobbly and out of proportion -- his Graces are an abomination of incoherent flab and unintelligible body bulges -- and they have small breasts, so unlikely on fatted-up women! Did the man never lay eyes on a taut smooth-fleshed woman with curves in the right places and feminine muscle? Apparently not. Whatever other attributes this painting has, I can never focus on them because of the repugnance I feel for all the misshapen lard.

One side... with two like bottoms on the other. Roman copy of a Greek sculpture, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

One side... with two like bottoms on the other. Roman copy of a Greek sculpture, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

That said, the gamine and rather characterless Graces painting that was once owned by Adolf Hitler is a step in the other direction: apart from the difficulty of assessing any art created with Nazi sanction, the women look too much like approved specimens for breeding who are presenting themselves to their masters' gaze. One wonders what would happen should they ever put on a pound or two -- or ever want a livelier, less airless atmosphere.

Fortunately, there is a middle way of perfection between the taut and the dysmorphic, and that can be found in ancient sculptures, but also more recently in the work of 19th-century artists, who knew what a fine figure consists in and could represent them without sinister undertones. Indeed, Antonio Canova gave us Three Graces who are inspirations to each other, and might just as well be unaware of the viewer: it is a sisterhood and mutual admiration society, and we look on without their asking our applause or approval. I think this works as a visually more intricate spectacle, but it also says something about the nature of the graces or goddesses themselves, since their qualities begin from within even though they might also have outward expression. The sculpture gives tangible form to the truth that no single quality is complete in itself, but gains from embracing others as well. Canova gives us girls that are slender without being hard, shapely without being excessively voluptuous, and charmingly charmed by their own charms. And even better, they are all smooth, the convention for refusing to sculpt female pubic (or axillary) hair holding strong. Who cares if the bottoms are ever so slightly droopy?

Antonio Canova, 1816, Hermitage Museum, Saint Petersburg

Antonio Canova, 1816, Hermitage Museum, Saint Petersburg



Nicola Sturgeon's style -- revisited

Photo: The Spectator (UK)

Photo: The Spectator (UK)

The suit jacket in the photo is off-base. It's a lovely colour, and I like the satin-y ribbon of the collar, but it brings too much attention to Sturgeon's waist, and the flare beneath doesn't serve so much to show her slimness as to give the impression of a bursting-out, on account of that one button. The fabric would be more flattering lying flat.

I don't know why more women politicians don't wear double-breasted suits. After all, they should suit them....

This cliche has had its day

In reviewing a film about a 1960s movie director and the actress he married, Tobias Grey in The Spectator writes of 'their May-to-December romance (Godard was 36 and Wiazemsky 19 when they married)...'. The fate of the romance is not the issue here: what grabbed my attention was the umpteen millionth iteration of that cliche, 'May-December romance' (here given an unneeded preposition).

This trope annoys me because it's sloppy.

If the man wasn't even twice the woman's age, how is he December to her May? January to May is five months inclusive. Double that and you get to October: at the most, this was a May-October romance. 

If a partner about twice the age of the other is 'December', what on earth does that make real geriatrics such as Mick Jagger (in his 70s, with a 30-year-old girlfriend) or the late Saul Bellow, who was in his 80s when he rather gruesomely fathered a child with his just-middle-aged wife? 

A ring for Sagittarians  

A ring for Sagittarians


Is Rowan Atkinson, a lithe and vital man as well as a money-bags celebrity, 'December' to his girlfriend's 'May'? Hardly: he's all of 62. If anyone dared to call me a 'December' type at 62, I'd remind them that the only way it fits is that I'm Sagittarius, at which point I'd offer to stick the arrow in.

Perhaps most writers can't do maths. But they ought to try, and make their figures of speech add up.

Diana's Dress was a Design Disaster

Photo: Harper's Bazaar

Photo: Harper's Bazaar

It's been nearly 36 years -- so let's confess. Diana's wedding dress was badly designed.


The whole thing was massively overblown. Apparently, knowing that millions of TV viewers (more than three-quarters of a billion, as it turned out) would have to tell her from the guests and from her groom, for that matter, the designer thought that her train should be 8 miles long and the gauze veil over her -- emphasizing her chastity? -- should be fountain-like in its volume, and that her sleeves should be layered and large enough to accommodate the biceps of an Arnold Schwarzenegger. Viewed from a certain perspective, the dress was a typically 1980s botch. Her bouquet was less a posy than an escutcheon, reaching down her dress in almost Little Shop Of Horrors fashion. It was a dress that seemed to emphasize her shoulders, while leaving her lovely neck bare of ornament -- and all at the expense of her chest, which no one was invited to notice. The rest of her was rendered as a triangular meringue. In short, the dress was fussy, frilly, unflattering, and out of proportion. Why did no one see this at the time?

Well, some did. As one Canadian journalist wrote just after the event, 'only a monster would suggest that the dress was too much'. Well, I am not a monster as my loved ones will attest, but when your fabric shoulders are broader than your groom's -- even with his uniform on -- you can be sure that your dress is far too much. No wonder she thought there were three people in her marriage: she began it by wearing enough for two of them!

Photo on Wikipedia: Bride or hide?

Photo on Wikipedia: Bride or hide?

Edit: In looking for another photo to show the enormousness of the gown -- is this a dress or a daybed? -- I saw this comment on Wikipedia, quoting an observer: 'the dress was a crinoline, a symbol of sexuality and grandiosity, a meringue embroidered with pearls and sequins, its bodice frilled with lace'. So I'm not the only one to think of the dress as a meringue, then!  

The lace, by the way, was hand-made and had belonged to Queen Mary. Possibly it had been worn as an adornment in a way that is utterly foreign to modern fashion, which is why it could be used to a new purpose without apparently despoiling any antique clothing. In Police At The Funeral, a 1931 detective mystery by the English writer Margery Allingham, we are told that the octogenarian matriarch had a closet full of lace, which she wore in rotation so that no one in several weeks would ever see the same lace on her twice.

Pretty In Blue

Photo: EPA, via the Daily Mail UK

Well done, Ralph Lauren. The new First Lady's outfit for Inauguration Day was perfect: not only is it one of my favourite colours -- baby blue, or powder blue if you like -- but it was a sleek and elegant design with a beautiful cowl-collar, three-quarter sleeves, and matching suede gloves that flowed from under those sleeves to encase her fingertips.

An outfit that brought off the incredible feat of being dramatic and modest at the same time. The garb of a high lady in any sense of the word.

The cashmere was soft, appropriately warm for a January day in Washington, D. C., and dressy without being flashy. She wore square diamond earrings that offset the matte curves of the outfit, and in my opinion she could have worn a brooch as well, without distracting from the simplicity and unity of the look. Certainly I would have worn one under the bolero (which Mrs Trump removed for the Inaugural luncheon). 

Photo: Reuters, via the Daily Mail UK

Photo: Reuters, via the Daily Mail UK

But what was not to like? Her unfussy updo was perfect -- perhaps the change from a center part was simply for the style of the day, and not an ongoing change, as Ivanka's new side part seems to be (personally I preferred the center part on her, but it was a bit severe and perhaps she wanted to differ a bit from all the other center-part Trump women). The only aspect of Melania's outfit that I would have done differently is the shoes: I am not partial to pointy shoes, with or without stiletto heels. Perhaps it's because I'm a dancer and a barefoot yogini: the thought of balancing on such tiny ludicrous supports disconcerts me. And the sharp points of those shoes just look painful to me. I like a more rounded, curvy, sumptuous shoe. Doesn't mean I'm calling for court shoes or ballet slippers. Just something less extreme and more beautiful than that. Given the simplicity of the lines of her outfit -- dress with bolero jacket over -- halo-strapped heels with a more natural toe could have looked ideal, in my view.

Hole in the shoulder: why NOW?

For decades I remembered a top my mother wore as a very young woman: I was so young myself, I was still wearing Mary Janes at the time (you know: that sort of baby shoe with a thick strap across the instep). The top was bright pinky-red and would have been sleeveless but for a bar of fabric that wrapped around each arm, just beneath the shoulder. I always thought it was a spiffing design. And I've never seen a top ever since quite like that. In fact, for almost a lifetime I never saw any so-called 'cold shoulders' at all. Everything had a sleeve or else it didn't: there never seemed to be anything in between. I missed that gap at the shoulder, frankly.

Marks & Spencer new offering for winter 2016.

Marks & Spencer new offering for winter 2016.

Why do I take this tiny trip down memory lane? Because the hole in the shoulder has been rediscovered -- and my goodness, it's here with a determination that we'll never, ever again forget! The trouble is that a sexily exposed upper arm only makes sense for warm weather clothing. My mother wore what was just a t-shirt in construction, with a cut-away in the sleeves. She was not seeking ventilation in winter. Why on Earth, for instance, would anyone want a sweater -- in cashmere, no less -- like this one? 

Anthropologie's offering: This top would be great in a nicer colour and without the long sleeves.A strip of below-shoulder fabric would have been more eye-catching and more suitable, since you could wear this on warm days. Which is the only time I want to expose my shoulders!

Anthropologie's offering: This top would be great in a nicer colour and without the long sleeves.A strip of below-shoulder fabric would have been more eye-catching and more suitable, since you could wear this on warm days. Which is the only time I want to expose my shoulders!

Marks & Spencer can't even decide how to categorize it: is it cosy or is it cool? Well, it's both! But in this case, when 'cool' is not merely a synonym for 'fashionable', the item in question doesn't strike me as 'cosy'. I happen not to like collars that crowd my neck. But if I did want a collar like this on a cashmere woolly because it was cold enough to appreciate the lack of draughtiness, why on god's green planet would I want a chilly shoulder?

I've always liked the idea of the fabric tease, but there is a season for it, and neither fall nor winter are appropriate. I'll wait for the spring and summer fashions to come forward. Perhaps by then there will an item in the style that will actually tempt me to buy it.

Voice Of America logo

Emblem or logo? I'm a bit of a stickler for definitions: 'logo' obviously refers to 'logos', the Greek word for 'word' (and the ancients understood that 'logic' itself is tied to speech). So a symbol for an organization or an idea that has no letters or words is not a 'logo'; it's an emblem. The peace symbol is an emblem, and not one that I admire, as I've said. But the Voice Of America symbol depends on the organization's name, so it qualifies as a 'logo'. You might not guess that the paint-brushy, impressionistic oak tree symbol represents the UK's Conservative party, but if you knew of the existence of the Voice Of America, you could guess from the top part I show above.

The actual logo removes all mystery by spelling it out underneath:

Screen Shot 2016-12-20 at 10.50.48 PM.png

And I like it. It has everything: the national colors. The representation of sound from a source -- from a speaker. The balance and upside-down symmetry of a good repeatable design: it's a pattern not just a signal: it has a beauty and order beyond the language it mimics. It's bold without being overbearing. It has almost an Art Deco angularity, confidence, and spareness. And the O, blaring its white light out beyond the framing letters, makes those framing letters more dynamic. Solid and unshakeable, yet dynamic: the USA. As a design, it's a complete success: I don't see how you could improve it.

Glass blocks in building -- what's wrong with them?

This kitchen could have been yours -- if the price was right in 1939.

James Lileks, American journalist and curator of 20th-century design and daily life, draws our attention to the sort of kitchen that you might have if you were buying new in 1939 -- and he comments in passing on glass-block walls. To wit: 'I never come across an old house that had a glass-block wall; wonder how popular they actually were'.

My answer is: not popular at all. Glass blocks seem like they ought to be a good idea, but the only time I really liked them was as a shower stall barrier in a 1970s add-on to a 16th-century cottage in England. It wasn't pretending to be a wall, much less a window, and it did let light bounce around a small space, while offering the stall occupant a measure of privacy.

But otherwise I don't like them. In a way it's surprising: I love glass, I love light and the play of light within or through glass, and I like privacy without wishing to drape everything in a burka. So why am I not fond?

An architect pretty much explains why.

Ellen Barrett's 7-Day Workout Challenge

So you're a fan of yoga-Pilates 'fusion' fitness, and you have a few questions about Ellen Barrett's latest. I'll try to answer them and offer a few other thoughts, besides.

Cover of the new release, with promotional description

Cover of the new release, with promotional description

Is it worth the $39.95 for the 'limited edition' DVD? Yes, very much so. There will be other ways to view it, but if you like DVDs (and I do), this will complete your Ellen Barrett collection, since it will be the last in this format.

Is it a strong entry in the Barrett oeuvre? Yes, and it's a highly representative program, a kind of summary of Ellen's best work to date. 

Is she right to ask that you follow each session consecutively, each day of the week? Probably. I'm sure that, as a movement professional (Barrett claims that 'movement' is preferred to 'fitness' these days, at least by some people), she has thought about the order very carefully. That said, I did Days 1 and 2 back-to-back on Monday; then I doubled up today again, and so my final session will be Friday (tomorrow) instead of Sunday. The nice thing about these sessions is that once you've done them all, you can mix and match them as you like -- according to your time budget for the day and the way that you wish to train. 

The new program, as viewed on my old-fashioned TV in my studio.

The new program, as viewed on my old-fashioned TV in my studio.

So much for the AQ (anticipated questions). The next question -- that you didn't ask but I will -- is why I'm commenting on the new release here in my Design blog. The answer is that all programs are designed, and that all design must take into account the audience, customer, or user. Ms Barrett is a veteran of the fitness video, and over the years she has produced a number in similar settings with certain familiar faces as the 'back-up singers' to her 'act'. These have been popular and successful. But clearly, Barrett wanted to offer a different experience in the creation of this project. We see completely fresh faces; a different studio; a new director. And the workout-per-day is also a new approach.

The environment we're looking at is all-important: it must be attractive, but allow us to focus on the athletes rather than the décor; it should be soothing rather than dull; it should be suitable for the type of activity the athletes are engaged in. And like a painting, there should be 'escape routes' for the eye so that we don't feel shut in or imprisoned while looking at it. An exercise video is essentially a still life seen from a very few, slightly different angles: it's not a motion picture in the usual sense of the word. 

The studio or exercise space has a lot of wood, which is not only excellent as a surface for yoga and calisthenics (especially on a yoga mat), but is also easy on the eye. There are two doorways: one shut, but white, bright, and having a similar effect to a window; and one that is an opening to another room, which looks as though it might be a minimalist reception room, with a large white window looming beyond. So even though the exercise space is limited, we don't feel 'shut in'. Just behind the exercisers is a large shiny gong, suggestive of a temple and the associated contemplation. That visually offsets the matte effect of all the wood, as well. And it relieves the monotony of squares and rectangles.

White and black, matte and shine, yin and yang....

White and black, matte and shine, yin and yang....

On the other hand, in a sea of black (mats; girls' outfits), white (windows, door frames, and Barrett's costume), and wood, there is no other colour except for the orange of what might be thick exercise mats. They don't relate to what's going on, and in my view they don't look right there. I'd like to suggest that in the place of the mats or steps should be a natural green plant -- perhaps a maidenhair fern: airy and delicate and not so tall or bushy as to distract attention from the girl nearby. There is also an off-white pot atop a slender wood-coloured pillar -- presumably a cabinet -- which might also be a suitable place for a trailing plant such as an ivy. Or, to 'balance' the first plant I suggested and to 'frame' the black-clad girls, another plant could have been put on the desktop around the corner in the room we glimpse beyond. This would have the effect of adding one extra subtle note of colour and (soothing) vitality, while softening the architecture. Interesting -- and not coincidental -- that the cover of the DVD package has green lettering, a way of supplying the green aspect that the actual studio is missing. But then, most spaces look better with a plant or two.

Alternatively, a floor vase (such as the one with bleached willow branches in my own studio) would have looked good just to the right of the wall ladder (seen at left) or to replace the orange and black slabs. In any case, I can see why in some sessions, the athletes all use green dumbbells (whether they are 2 lbs or 3). The room already had sufficient 'warmth', especially with the lovely performers in it. What it wanted, I think, is a dose of 'verdant' and 'fresh'.

Edit: I had watched the final 'Zen stretch' session once when I wrote this. Doing it again -- for only the second time; it is the others that I dip back to -- on my balcony overlooking the Smoky Mountains, I noticed that the mats had been changed to be more colourful, more rainbow-like. And in the middle is a vivid green! Somebody on set missed that green when the dumbbells weren't there -- and supplied it! I also noticed the man hovering as a silhouette in the lit distant window. One of the girls' father, perhaps? 



The peace symbol: a design disappointment

The so-called peace symbol is actually an emblem for the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, designed in 1958 by an English chap named Gerald Holtom. And guess what? I don't like it.

In the first place, it's harsh and angular. Supposedly there is an N superimposed on a D -- but who cares? It looks like surrender: a bird with its wings down rather than up. It looks like a Do Not symbol. It looks like fly eyes oddly bisected. It looks like death.

Peace deserves a better symbol than this. Let's invent one.

The Brilliance of the new Home2 Suites by Hilton

Dining table at left; kitchen (out of view) at right; work area where the broadloom starts, at right; sofa-bed & pouffe beyond.

Dining table at left; kitchen (out of view) at right; work area where the broadloom starts, at right; sofa-bed & pouffe beyond.

Design this good is not that common, and it deserves appreciation when you find it. 

We needed a place to stay overnight -- with our dog -- en route from the Smoky Mountains to our home. We knew nothing about this place but it accepted dogs, had a little kitchen (which we usually prefer), and was in the right spot just off our freeway. We pulled up outside the Hilton and were instantly delighted. The place opened in January 2016 and everything about it seems (and smells!) fresh.

In the first place there are plants among the cheerful pebbles that edge the car park and driveway. Before one reaches the lobby, one sees a portico with an outdoor living room -- comfy sofas arranged in a square -- to give those wishing to be outdoors somewhere nice to sit and be sociable. 

The lobby is decorated in a smart but warm fashion, with large colourful vases on shelves and an open, airy reception space. There is a breakfast bar that comes alive as a morning tableau of happy breakfasters but was decorously screened and darkened for the night when we arrived.

This is all very nice -- but the real brilliance, the sheer competence and flair of the design of this hotel became most clear when we turned from the fresh and pleasant corridor into our room.

The first thing that impresses is the sense of white and the presence of light. One looks around: it's crisp, modern, and everything is open to view. There is minimal colour, but the colour is essential and it is well chosen. The muted twill blue of the partition curtains by the door (ironing board space) and in the bedroom (suitcase space) offers a nice complement to the solid wood look and the polished metal of the fixtures. 

Everything is integrated and open to view, so that the bathroom looks into the bedroom and also into the eating-dining area. The kitchen has shelves rather than cupboards, so one sees exactly where the beer glasses, cups, bowls, and plates are. Men in particular seem to dislike looking for things, and want everything not only to hand but also ‘to eye’. They have it, here. The light wood Ikea-like desk pulls out as needed, so one can array on it whatever devices or papers one has.

Hints of brown and blue break up the dominant colours while still being restful.

Hints of brown and blue break up the dominant colours while still being restful.

But most of the space is given over to relaxation: the king bed that looks even larger with a tasteful white stitched bedspread — circles like bubbles that subtly soften the edginess of a rectangular bed in a rectangular room with rectangular headboard. The sofa, in grey with a light green piped edging, offers a subtle contrast to the green-and-white line-segment wallpaper, though the same green is picked up on the fabric portion of the bed’s headboard. The carpet is shades of beige and brown with a darker pattern in a rectangle in front of the sofa, which is woven into the broadloom but gives the visual impression of a rug.

So what is the effect of these colour choices, these selections of furniture? Well, it’s a home away from home (Home2, as the name suggests, for visiting when you leave your Home1). But especially, it’s a man’s home away from home. The cube in front of the sofa, being a dark brown vinyl, invites him to put his socks or even his shoes up as he watches the television — though there is plenty of light either side for reading — and the wallpaper behind him is evocative of the lawn that he has left behind at Home1. (It also substitutes for the live plants that would look so good in this suite but that naturally the hotel can’t provide.) In the middle of that wall behind him is a picture, of fireplace hues orange and red; but the picture actually depicts not a fire but skeleton keys, and the word for ‘house’ in various languages, popping up between these vintage keys like a collage. Home is where the lawn and hearth are, even if it’s only a suggested hearth and a visual stretch of imaginary lawn. 

Bathroom is large and open-feeling, with towels below the counter and hooks near the shower for toiletry bags etc. The soothing grass-green wall colour is continued in the bathroom in a subtle pinstripe pattern. But the zebra-stripe light strip offers a touch of pizzazz.

Bathroom is large and open-feeling, with towels below the counter and hooks near the shower for toiletry bags etc. The soothing grass-green wall colour is continued in the bathroom in a subtle pinstripe pattern. But the zebra-stripe light strip offers a touch of pizzazz.

There is also one other piece of art, over the small and probably not much used ‘dining table’ (most people eating alone would prefer to eat from their lap while being entertained). It is unframed, in a wraparound canvas style that immediately seems unfussy. It depicts an array of teaspoons, fanned out and splashed with colour so as to resemble a peacock’s tail. It’s a work that manages to be modestly domestic and kitchen-y in the right place, even as it is also clearly artistic and clever. Nowhere are we confronted with pointless images of places we’re not in (black-and-white photos of the Eiffel Tower, for instance) or generic floral trivialities that make a wall less barren without actually offering any visual interest. Nowhere is the aesthetic offering unpleasant for a woman’s eye, yet nowhere is it the least bit unmanly.

Lamp on 'glow' setting at the base.

Lamp on 'glow' setting at the base.

This is the only artwork in the place, not counting the sculptural sconce lamps that differ from the bedroom to the living room. This is a design that tries to achieve a balance between unity of decoration and a sense of separate functions and moods. In our view, it succeeds. No heavy fabrics; no particular dust traps; no extraneous items getting in the way. For instance, there is no cooktop -- just a microwave -- but if you want a plug-in skillet, you may get one upon request. 

Simple, strong, clean lines for the tap -- and who needs more soap than that for an overnight stay?

One of the benefits of the place is how uncluttered and economical it is, without losing that sense of ‘home’ which is part of ‘the sell’. The window covering lets in daylight while saving privacy: there is nothing to pull aside if you like it that way. The light-excluding blind over top of it is effective at keeping the room nice and dark for a good night's sleep -- always an important consideration in a building surrounded by lights. They haven’t done away with lamps: they’ve just halved them, so to speak, and stuck them up on the walls. They haven’t prevented you from making it cosy: they’ve given you the shelf space to put up your own pictures or objets d’art.

Even the bathroom gives a man (in particular) what he wants in a way that is both neat and economical for the hotel: a tiny but still useable bar of soap (who needs more for an overnight stay?) and two dispensers in the shower stall: body wash, and shampoo. It’s easy, it’s cost-effective, it’s smart. I even liked the melamine-type bathroom counter, pale and flecked like a lakeshore or a sandy beach, and sculpted round the sink like a natural feature. On the one hand, the bathroom seems ordinary enough; on the other hand, every aspect of it represents a decision. The counter could have been louder, with many coloured flecks, or designed so that copious visible quantities of silicone were needed around it, or fitted with a plastic tap common to cheap bathrooms everywhere for decades. Instead, the choices are just right. There is no pretension to anything grand, but there is nothing to disdain or wish were different, either. The brand of bathroom products chosen, by the way, is Neutrogena, which has a high-quality reputation and a satisfyingly unisex presentation.

Plenty of room for storage, and shelf space to keep clear or display your own knick-knacks.

Plenty of room for storage, and shelf space to keep clear or display your own knick-knacks.

Interestingly, the man of different moods -- not just the businessman at work -- is accommodated, too. In the bedroom there is a lamp with two settings: one turns on the bulb under the lampshade, while the other lights the base like a glow-ball. It is atmospheric lighting. Here is the recognition that someone might want softer more decorative lighting: for relaxing, or for a tryst. There's not much this designer didn't think of!



Power dressing

I can't help noticing what women in the realm of politics choose to wear. Consider Samantha Cameron of my native Britain. In the pictures I've seen, Mrs Cameron seems to have a fondness for solid-coloured dresses, with the occasional stripes for a change. But on special occasions, she opts for a peculiar style that is best described as a distinct colour change from top to bottom, with a complex geometric pattern printed on most of the fabric. This dress, worn just a few days ago, is a good example of what I mean:

Photo: Frankfurter Allgemeine

Photo: Frankfurter Allgemeine

The colours have an odd discordancy, and the pattern is not designed to flatter or otherwise make suggestions about the figure beneath. It's almost like a poster, like two-dimensional art. This impression is not altered by the strange blotches that in places obscure the pattern. On such a very slim person, it looks flat.

Here's a closer and more detailed view:


Photo: Andrew Parsons, I-Images

In the blue-and-black dress Mrs Cameron wore during the Scottish referendum, this blotches-on-diamonds-with-colour-change was even more pronounced:

Photo: The Daily Telegraph

Photo: The Daily Telegraph

It's as if someone has chucked a can of black paint over a more normal dress.

Less severely, below we have the smoky grey-blue-and-black blotch dress: this time, the colour is fairly uniform and only the 'dye-drips' and blotches are variable as we move from top to bottom, in strange bib-like layers:

Photo: Alan Davidson

Photo: Alan Davidson

Remarkably, the folds of the dress do their best to de-emphasize her bust. The shoes, which seem to be her favourite style, have extremely sharp points. Apart from looking very uncomfortable for the toes, they add to the 'edginess' of her look. I don't know who provides Mrs Cameron with her clothes, but she clearly wants a style that's all her own. 

Photo: Getty Images

Photo: Getty Images

Even in this example, where Mrs Cameron looks softer and more summery, the dress is a mash of contrasting colour blocks, made complex with stripes and indeterminate patches, with what looks like imitation scales to complete the view. The belt that insists she has a tiny waist -- perhaps desirable on someone with very narrow hips -- is again present. Rings, bracelets, or a necklace are not part of the ensemble, perhaps naturally, since they might be too much against the dress, or alternatively they might be drowned out by it. In any case, there are no florals for Mrs Cameron. Hers is a style particularly and idiosyncratically self-assertive. Its distinctive busy-ness suggests that she wants to project an image of non-traditionalism, of modernity and of colours and patterns that include everything and exclude very little.

We now turn to the head of the Scottish National Party, The Right Honourable Nicola Sturgeon. Ms Sturgeon is notable for her lack of ornament -- and it works. I'm not a student of her wardrobe, but whenever her picture appears in the news, she is dressed much like this:

Photo: Jeff J. Mitchell/Getty Images

Photo: Jeff J. Mitchell/Getty Images



She wears a simple dress, with or without a jacket over, each in solid colours, without even a belt (as Mrs Cameron seems always to wear). In this photo she appears to have a watch at her wrist, but no bangles, and she wears pumps that complement but do not exactly match her dress. She eschews entirely the 'power woman' choker of thick beads (one always wonders: if they aren't plastic, what are they?). The fabric is modern: it clings to her feminine form but is stretchy rather than sculpting: she may or may not be wearing a push-up bra, and there's no need for a slip. The dress says: 'I'm a gal on the go'. There is no need, either, for the pantsuit favoured by so many American woman politicians. This woman has power as a woman -- and a nice figure to go with it. There is nothing, dress-wise, to hide or apologize for. That is the meaning or the statement of her dress choices.

To scan or to photograph?

I am very far from expert on the ins and outs of photography versus scanning when creating digital images of art. But I have noticed a couple of things. Firstly, the photographic image always shows all the colours and textures of my work, while a scanned image can easily 'hide' them, depending on the angle of view and brightness one chooses. In a scan of one work, when viewed head-on it looks over-bright and a few colours and textures are missing. It's only when I turn the screen away from me that they actually 'come into view'.

Then there is the question of the contribution of lighting. To the right is a scanned image of mine, done on black paper with coloured pencils:

And this is the same picture, photographed on an overcast day in the out-of-doors:



So which is better? In a way, the sunlight one is better because it may be easier to see the details. On the other hand, the scanned one is preferable because it shows the luminous rich pink fringe in all its intensity, not to mention the black paper in all its blackness.

Scans don't have shadows or uneven lighting or sun-glare blighting them. Yet somehow they are not the same as a photograph whose effects I find easier to assess and control. I'll do scans if the size of the work permits -- but I'll take photographs for comparison, as well. 

Interior Desecrations

James Lileks is a lovely chap, but someone should have mentioned to him that, notwithstanding occasional American usage, what you see in the picture below is not 'plaid'. Plaid is a type of garment, and the pattern of the (properly woven) fabric is known as 'tartan'. The particular pattern of tartan is known as a 'sett' (see my tartan designs in the Decorate section of this website). 

pages 110-111 of Interior Desecrations

I know that there is a red and black basic check that is often called 'Buffalo Plaid' -- but I'm not the only one that thinks this is inaccurate. Before Christmas, Pottery Barn was selling an item in this pattern, and called it 'Buffalo Check'. The difference between 'tartan' and 'check' (or 'gingham') by the way, is that check is usually the most basic pattern of criss-crossing stripes, in one or more colours, while tartan involves a few colours (six or seven is about the tasteful and practical limit), and varying thickness of stripe, which creates a more sophisticated and eye-catching sett.

In any case, the book is good if eye-watering fun -- a brave look at the worst of 1970s interior design suggestions -- which shows that not everything is getting worse with time!

Jerry Hall's style

The Times has just announced that Jerry Hall, aged 59, is to marry Rupert Murdoch, aged 84.

Jerry Hall is famous for being the ex-lover of the talented Bryan Ferry, whose music I have just been giving a spin tonight, and of Mick Jagger, who apparently is always looking for something better (must be a curse). Murdoch is famous for being one of the richer billionaires and for marrying women much, much younger. Poor old Wendi Deng got the heave-ho not that long ago, apparently for the great crime of fancying Tony Blair. You may question her taste, but it does seem a minor provocation for divorce. 

There is nothing that can be said of Mr Murdoch's looks, for the simple reason that he doesn't have any, and apparently never did. The most that can be said is that he lacks the old person's parchmenty skin (a feature that was noted on that other late-marrying ladies' man, Saul Bellow). 

A center part can be soft rather than severe.

A center part can be soft rather than severe.

Ms Hall, on the other hand, is a famous beauty. But she is a strange case, being just as unclassically beautiful as the late Farah Fawcett, only without the fabulous hair. And it is odd that she chose her style decades ago and has never seen fit to alter it. Yet there is something about her hair that I notice instantly every time I see her picture, and what I think is that her hairstyle doesn't suit her. She has a vast and very high forehead, which the sweep from her side-part only emphasizes: it's the female version of a combover and just as unattractive. Why has she never tried bangs ('fringe', if you're English)? Or perhaps even better: a center part. Having hair part like a curtain in the middle would bring the viewer's attention down from her forehead to the place where it belongs: her lovely features. And a center part need not be severe: my own is natural, and because I don't part it like the Red Sea with a comb, it meanders softly. 

It's not too late to change your style, Ms Hall. Why not do it for the wedding?

Sir Henry Nelthorpe, heart disease candidate

In her 2007 catalogue raisonné, the lovely late Judy Egerton described the man in the first known portrait by the great English painter, George Stubbs, as looking 'hale and hearty'. Much as I trust and respect Ms Egerton's judgement, what I see is something other than a man in excellent if florid health.

Here is a somewhat over-lit Internet reproduction of the painting in question, Sir Henry Nelthorpe and his second wife Elizabeth, 1746.

The first things you notice: the wig, which in that era was clearly thought manly; the fleshy face with its double chin; the rather self-indulgent, self-satisfied facial and postural expression, and most of all, the enormous 'pregnant male' paunch. This man had fat. Lots of it. And it wasn't all subcutaneous fat (the kind that most women have, in addition to some fat around muscles and organs): it was visceral. And visceral fat, packed into his innards, is a strong marker for heart disease. Not to mention the fat that might have (must have?) been lining his arteries. The man looks like a warning poster for a stroke or massive heart attack.

And guess what? They know that this painting must have been done by June of 1746, since after that, he was dead.



Happy New Year! A remembrance of Columbo

And may I ring in the new year by looking privately forward and publicly back -- to 1968, when the first Columbo telefilm, Prescription Murder, changed the murder-mystery canon forever by giving us another great detective. Only this time, we didn't ask whodunnit. In the Columbo series, we really asked how. And above all, we wondered how our hero was going to discover both who and how, in one brilliant dénouement.

Here is a review I wrote some time ago. I also link to the soundtrack, which is one of Dave Grusin's great achievements, surely. The music is an integral part of a truly outstanding cinematic narrative (tell me it's a made-for-TV film if you can: it honestly looks like silver screen material, both in scope and in production values).

A young, neat, and dapper Columbo, with a glamorous backdrop and a briefcase like my English grandad's. His speech mannerisms also match my grandmother-in-law's -- but both of them were from Ossining, NY, so it makes sense. The weird thing is that he moved like her, as well!

A young, neat, and dapper Columbo, with a glamorous backdrop and a briefcase like my English grandad's. His speech mannerisms also match my grandmother-in-law's -- but both of them were from Ossining, NY, so it makes sense. The weird thing is that he moved like her, as well!

The year is 1968 -- except that it isn't, really, as this first appearance of Columbo on anyone's screen was filmed some time in 1967. There is something cool, strange, and ever so slightly fraudulent about 1967. And 1968, for that matter. Does this telefilm partake of that strange, colourful, compelling time? You betcha.  


For one thing, it's got a wonderful James-Bondsy jazz score (thank you, Dave Grusin, who is hard to spot in the credits). The scene near the end, when our villain, played by Gene Barry, drives his car to a place where Columbo is waiting for him, is a gorgeous aural interlude. (If you'd like to hear it, click on the soundtrack video below, and listen from the phone call at about 6:12.)

But it's not just the sound: it's the look. Think of Star Trek, the original and definitive Star Trek of the same era. Freeze any of the frames, and virtually every one could be a poster: the figure groupings, the lighting, the colours: the composition, in fact. That show wasn't just staged, staffed, and filmed: it was art-designed. It's a production of immense physical beauty. Some of the plots may have been ludicrous, and some of the  special effects would make the young-uns of today die laughing. But so what? Star Trek was sleek and it had something to say, especially in its more knowing political episodes. I mention this because Prescription: Murder has a similar designed feel: a similar beauty. It's not that we necessarily admire the characters' taste -- when were any of these lavish mansions really my style, except for the house of the conductor in the Cassavetes/Blythe Danner program, Etude In Black (1972), and the huge sun-room in the Ruth Gordon episode, Try And Catch Me (1977)? Rather I mean the look of the Sixties, in a general way, and also in the framing of the views. The extended moment when Columbo, his back to us, addresses in uncompromising terms the lovely young lady -- her back also to us -- in a film studio is really captivating. We don't see their faces, for that minute, and we don't need to: their expressive backs and his words say everything. And the mix of colours -- pink, dark blue, marbly lights; the warm brown of his briefcase; the sober grey of his suit -- makes the whole thing look gorgeous. A poster, if only you could print it and frame it.

And that's another thing: the framing. Woody Allen is famed for his visual framing: for instance, the bar of the car frame that separates the windscreen from the driver's window, visually dividing the people inside: at once an expression and confirmation of the division we know they're feeling. Allen is very good at this. But so was the director of Prescription: Murder. Note for instance the way the character of Joan Hudson, at her moment of crisis, seems to be visually pinioned between two blue square columns. A neat effect. It's there also in the very last scene, in which Columbo and another character are separated visually from the killer, by a sliding door bar very reminiscent of Allen's car frame. But a decade or two beforehand.


Soundtrack to Prescription Murder, by the fabulous Dave Grusin

How strange that women today try to hide their grey

while women of the 18th century, young and with hair in full colour, effectively greyed it with powder (which no doubt functioned much as 'dry shampoo' does today). 

Innumerable 18th-century paintings show these oddly grey, fresh young beauties.

There is, for example, Susannah Edith, Lady Rowley, who also sports a preternaturally ghostly breast (look right):

And then there is Lady Anna Horatia Waldegrave, looking similarly dusty (below): 

There is much about the 18th century, especially in England, which in general was a nicer place than France -- a bit less hierarchical, and much less given to bloody revolution that caused at least as many problems as it solved, never mind the Terror it chose to use -- that I adore. The clothes were generally admirable. The hairstyles (and wigs) could be flattering. The hair treatments, not so much. It's a relief to the costume historian when, in the late 18th century, in the pre-Regency period, men start to wear their natural hair (still long and lustrous) without wigs. Women also start to wear their hair more naturally, rather than teasing, coiling, and brushing it up and back to look like a wig. And the unisex requirement of powdering, whatever you wear for hair, begins quite rapidly to disappear. The pre-Regency (1790s or so) and the Regency period (into the 1830s, really, since fashions didn't change all that much just because and as soon as the Prince became George IV), represent an improvement for the naturally lovely person. The real slide down into ghastly beard bushiness and black costume (for men) came with the Victorian era, possibly my least favourite fashion-wise, apart from our own (jeans, t-shirts: dreck!). And the ladies,* with their plastered-down hair and over-voluminous body-covering Trojan-horse dresses, all frill and fuss and tedious buttons: I don't like that look, either. Oh well. It did give way to the Edwardian sensibility (even before the old queen died), and that was vastly better.

*This gallery of photos of various Victorian dates is fascinating. I like the lady with the natural updo in the first left-hand picture: but the corset still looks ouch!, and the strangle-hold collar isn't much better. She clearly had beautiful hair. I try to imagine it cascading down around her face and shoulders. Being Victorian must often have felt very constricting, any way you look at it.