Wednesday, June 18, 2014

A new video featuring AW journals, boxes, stationery and table lanterns

Recently, we've been busy in the editing room and are happy to post a new video compilation of the first two seasons of paper products we've designed for Libretto Group of NYC.

The video runs just over two and a half minutes and showcases our boxed note and correspondence cards, hardbound journals, desk boxes, table lanterns, nesting boxes, and holiday items as well. Enjoy.

To locate a store near you, visit Libretto Group, or order at the AW online shop.

Sunday, June 1, 2014

A new video of our book
CENTRAL PARK NYC: An Architectural View

We are delighted to post this new video of our Rizzoli book, CENTRAL PARK NYC: An Architectural View. It runs two minutes and features numerous images, both our watercolors and photography old and new, that enrich the book's pages.


Wednesday, April 23, 2014

An ICONic Article

We are delighted to note that, this past Sunday, our work was featured in Welt am Sonntag, the Sunday magazine of Berlin's newspaper of record. In a rare honor, the watercolor vignette of A is for Acanthus from our Architectural Alphabet was featured as the cover illustration.

But of course it was Einkuss, Bernd's Belgian pug, who stole the show.

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Table lanterns, journals and boxed stationery now available at the AW online shop


Some weeks ago, we had announced that, after a much-too-long hiatus, our ever-popular table lanterns have returned, now distributed worldwide through Libretto Group. We are pleased to announce today that the lanterns are also now available at the Architectural Watercolors online shop for all those who do not have Libretto retailers in your area.

To accomodate these additions, we have reorganized the AW online shop, adding product categories for the table lanterns as well as our new lines of boxed stationery and hardbound journals.

We are also happy to report that Libretto will soon be releasing three new table lantern designs and several other stationery products for the spring season, and we will be posting about them shortly.

Below are photographs of these new AW products and hotlinks to them:





Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Help Save the Rizzoli Bookstore in Mahattan

The Rizzoli Bookstore and its iconic Beaux-Arts home at 31 West 57th Street in Manhattan has been slated for demolition to make way for luxury high-rise apartments.

We ask everyone concerned for historic preservation to take a moment to sign the petition here to ask the NYC Landmarks Preservation Commission to reconsider its ruling and to designate the 109 year-old structure and its sumptuous interiors as a deserving landmark--how could such a worthy building not already be landmarked?--for future generations.

 Prior decisions have been reversed but time is of the essence, and every voice does indeed count to bring enough public pressure to bear to save one of New York's most beautiful literary landmarks from the wrecking ball.

Saturday, January 18, 2014

La Maîtresse en Titre, an enduring French tradition

As the BBC is fond of calling him lately, "the man said to be the President of France" was—"perhaps"—infamously photographed in a crash helmet, leaving a purported love nest shared with a well-known actress while his chauffeur-driven moto waited at curb. The chauffeur of the Presidential Scooter, Closer magazine reported in an explosive seven-page exposé, also delivered fresh croissants in the mornings.

Hollande, a committed bachelor, has refused to explain himself, citing a longstanding French tradition of not delving too closely into the private lives of its public servants (with good reason), and the implicated actress has now sued Closer for libel, another longstanding French tradition for public figures who find themselves facing the unwelcome glare of unwanted publicity.

Meanwhile, in a dramatic development worthy of a soap-opera plot twist, the current Somewhat First Lady of France, Hollande's companion Valerie Trierweiler, has precipitously secluded herself in a Parisian hospital, suffering from "shock."

Unsurprisingly, President Hollande's abysmal poll numbers have rebounded by several percentage points, since en ce pays-ci respect is axiomatically accorded a virile leader, whatever his politics or abilities. With the latest revelation that he had managed to keep the alleged affair secret for over two years, including a hotly contested presidential campaign, the thinking goes that Hollande may indeed have hitherto unremarked managerial skills. And after all, Hollande presides over a country which actually has a name for the just-after-work hours so propitious for infidelity—l'heure bleue—and which also has a tradition of selecting iconic sex symbols such as Brigitte Bardot and Catherine Deneuve as models for Marianne, the official state muse.

During the Ancien Régime, mistresses, most famously Madame de Pompadour, lover of Louis XV, were routinely ennobled and held a high official rank—Maîtresse en titre—and often wielded great sway over affairs of state. Madame de Pompadour not only reigned over patronage of the arts in the Rococo age but also influenced the choice of ministers and the strategy of the Seven Years' War. Her brother, the Marquis de Marigny, was appointed to the coveted post of Superintendent of Royal Buildings and so oversaw all government construction in the realm. A woman of considerable acumen, Pompadour created the infamous Parc aux Cerfs, an exclusive royal bordello in the town of Versailles, to satiate the king's voracious appetites and secure her position once her own charms had waned.

After her death, Madame du Barry, a nubile denizen of the Parc, ascended to la Pompadour's position but never her station. (Below, François Boucher's odalesque of Jeanne Bécu shortly before she became a countess.)

But the quintessential concubine was Madame de Montespan, l'Athenée—well-born, clever, scheming, haughty and ambitious—who had bewitched Louis XIV in his early middle age (quite literally and scandalously with a love philtre procured from a satanist who also brewed very efficient poisons, but that is another story). The king sired four illegitimate children with her, all later ennobled, one of whom was later exiled as an insurrectionist. While in royal favor, "La Montespan" reigned as de facto queen, with a suite of rooms at Versailles that eclipsed those of the actual queen, the homely and devout Infanta, Maria Theresa.

Louis XIV's German sister-in-law, la Princesse Palatine, in her posthumous letters reported that during the Dutch Wars, Louis XIV dutifully spent much of each campaign season at the front, presiding over war councils and generally being deferred to, though “he took quite a long time dressing; he had his moustache curled and sometimes spent half an hour before the mirror arranging it with wax.“ (With victory in sight, the undertaking degenerated into showmanship and farce, as when the king invited his decorator and gardener to tour the siege of Cambrai in 1677, instructing his minister Colbert to pay Le Brun and Le Nôtre each 1500 livres for their pains.)

And it was at Cambrai—a jump-the-shark moment if ever there was one—that the king joined his armies with the queen and two mistresses in tow like a band of gypsy camp followers. German mercenaries heckled Madame de Montespan as they marched in revue, whistling and shouting, “Konigs Hure!" At dinner that evening, the king inquired how she had liked the maneuvers and Montespan replied, “Perfectly lovely, only I find the Germans far too naïve for insisting upon calling everything by its proper name.“

It was also understood that Madame de Maintenon, a late and pivotal mistress of Louis XIV, controlled state affairs by forcing all ministers and petitioners to pass through the gauntlet of her appartements at Versailles if they hoped to gain access to the king. She was known at court as "Madame de Maintenant" (Madame Now), and had doubtless married the king privately, though this was never officially acknowledged.

Like just about everything else during the Ancien Régime, the changing of the guard was also handled with aplomb. In one of those almost-too-good-to-be-true moments of history which are nonetheless true, Madame de Montespan, on her way out, and Madame de Maintenon, on her way in, first met on a staircase in Versailles. Madame de Maintenon was ascending and Madame de Montespan descending. The former remarked, "I see that you are going down, Madame, while I am going up."

Upon her fall, which was both spectacular and precipitous, la Montespan exiled herself to a nunnery and occupied herself with expiatory good works, in keeping with another longstanding tradition of discarded royal mistresses, as hospitals in that century were where the destitute were brought to die.

Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose.

Monday, January 6, 2014

Strawberry Fields

Following is an augmented excerpt of the chapter "Memorials and Monuments" from our latest book,
Central Park NYC, published this past September by Rizzoli.

Yoko Ono, John Lennon’s widow, conceived Strawberry Fields as a living memorial to her slain husband and dedicated the site on what would have been the singer’s forty-fifth birthday, October 9, 1985. The two-and-a-half-acre informal garden occupies a sloping triangle of land at Central Park West and 72nd Street near the Dakota Apartments, the family’s residence and the site where Lennon was murdered on the evening of December 8, 1980. Ono worked with landscape architect Bruce Kelly and the Central Park Conservancy to transform the parcel into a Garden of Peace with plants donated by over 120 nations.

The garden, of course, is named after one of Lennon's most famous Beatles songs, Strawberry Fields Forever, a haunting psychedelic reminiscence of his childhood secret garden, the grounds of the Strawberry Field orphanage in Woolton, Liverpool. The iconic Imagine mosaic, a simple round set in the pavement at the heart of the garden, has become a shrine to Lennon’s memory, collecting notes, flowers and votive candles from his myriad fans, and it is the site of annual vigils to celebrate his birth and mourn his death.

Though often described as interpreting traditional Roman patterns, the design is actually far more expressive than this reading allows and alludes to Lennon's uniquely provocative pacifism and strongly Buddhist leanings and worldview. (Above, Lennon and Ono staging their famous bed-in for peace in Amsterdam in 1969.) IMAGINE, the title of Lennon’s famous 1971 peace anthem, holds the center of an abstracted lotus flower made of thirty-two radiating segments, the number of Buddha’s virtues. (Below, Buddha on the lotus throne.)

In Buddhist traditions, the fully opened lotus, rising above muddied waters, symbolizes enlightenment, and a white lotus connotes purity of mind and spirit. The duality of black and white represents matter and spirit, the mud from which the lotus blooms and the blossom of understanding. And finally, the flower signifies rebirth in a figural and literal sense, entirely appropriate to honor a musician who integrated Buddhist mantras into his music and Buddhist philosophy and a Buddhist worldview into his life.

Disarmingly simple, a single word centering an abstracted flower, Lennon’s memorial owes an enormous conceptual debt to Maya Lin’s revolutionary 1982 Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C., which overturned traditional notions of a monument’s form and conceptual underpinnings.

However, the Imagine mosaic takes Lin’s abstraction a step further by renouncing three-dimensionality entirely and setting its single-word message into the earth, where it can be trod upon or reverenced—a wry and profoundly insightful evocation of Lennon’s humanity and spirit.
And finally, and as Buddha himself would have observed, there is nothing new under the sun and we find a remarkable conceptual precursor in the 18th-century French garden of Ermenonville, the Altar of Reverie—a simple cylindrical socle, artfully aged, inscribed with the invocation, "To Dream."

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Franco Maria Ricci's extraordinary labyrinth

On the fertile agricultural plain surrounding Parma, Italy, you can drive for days while visiting the region's spectacular Renaissance towns, churches and villas (below, the view from the terrace of the Castello di Fontanellato) without ever laying eyes on a single cow that gives the milk that is aged into its glorious Parmesan cheese, nor will you ever see one of the pigs that eventually yield its succulent Parma ham. One eats spectacularly well there, even by Italian standards, but exactly how this is achieved is one of Parma's small mysteries—though an occasional noxious breeze, pungent enough to strip paint, will assure you that these beasts do indeed lurk somewhere hidden in those wide green fields, just beyond sight. 

Franco Maria Ricci, the legendary publisher, lives on his ancestral lands in Fontanellato, which he has transformed according to his own unique aesthetic vision. He is the man who near single-handedly revived the work of the great neoclassical typographer, Giambattista Bodoni, who had made Parma his home in the late eighteenth century. Ricci comes from ancient Parmesan nobility and has dedicated his life to the cultivation and dissemination of all that is extraordinary, remarkable and beautiful, by way of the pages of his namesake magazine, FMR ("the most beautiful magazine in the world") and a host of magnificent publications. Fortuitously, pronouncing his initials in French yields the word ephémère, ephemeral, and it is this aura of felicity and harmony that this most cultivated of men has cultivated throughout his life, seemingly effortlessly.

This past summer, I spent several days with friends visiting Ricci and his charming companion, Laura Casalis, who graciously welcomed us with their generous hospitality. A warm, sunny day was reserved for visiting Ricci's estate, and after traversing miles of sun-struck, open fields with barely a poplar in sight, we passed a simple modern gate and drove down a long, shaded and sun-dappled allée of bamboo to find ourselves in another world—a verdant compound set in a bamboo glade that could just as well be found in Mexico. An old farm building has been converted into a contemporary entertaining space of impressive scale—an aerie looking into the bamboo canopy, with an inky-dark lake to one side. 


The contrast between the sun-struck fields without and the bamboo forest (or perhaps jungle) within was vivid and delightful; Ricci has crafted his own private world—even his own private micro-climate. Further on, Ricci has renovated the ground floor of the crumbling ancestral villa into an elegant suite of rooms with a barrel-vaulted, neoclassical library which houses the largest collection of Bodoni's printed works in the world. Like the vast, Barragan-esque patio compound, the neoclassical grotto beneath the overgrown ruins is a complete, shocking, satisfying surprise.

Further on, some ten minute's walk, lies the most remarkable of all Ricci's marvels, his bamboo labyrinth, covering 17.5 acres, by a factor of five the largest maze in the world. The labyrinth, of course, is an ancient cipher representing man's path through life; its circuitous course, from periphery to center, symbolizes life's journey from ignorance to self-knowledge and enlightenment.

The plan of Ricci's labyrinth, two overlapping squares, evokes Renaissance fortifications, and over a dozen species of bamboo have been planted to form its high, dense allées. Inside its precincts he has constructed a museum and study center which will house his library and collections, as well as a visitor's center.

The compound, built of warm rose Roman brick, is designed in a neoclassical vocabulary and laid out in a series of symmetrical, generously scaled courtyards, perhaps better called atria.

A triumphal arch greets visitors entering the compound, and the main axis culminates with yet another surprise, a pyramidal folly.

The scale of the undertaking is commensurate with the audacity of Ricci's vision. He chuckled when he said, leading us unerringly through the maze, that no one would be allowed to enter the labyrinth without a portable phone, but indeed the rule will be necessary once the kilometres of paths are opened to the public.

On a final note, Rizzoli has recently published Ricci's book, Labyrinths; needless to say, it too is exceptional.

Friday, December 6, 2013

Aux barricades, comrades!
France toys with its next revolution

Mon dieu! Where to begin? the French government, in a bout of historical amnesia, has decided to erect a nationwide network of electronic "éco-tax" barriers straddling its major highways (which have been privatized into corporate-owned toll-roads, but that is another matter) to collect an environmental tax upon the country's long-distance truckers.

Well, apparently this was the tax too far, the impot that broke the camel's back, and Brittany—that poor, agrarian and fiercely self-aware region that French nationalism never fully managed to tame—has gone into open revolt. Red Phrygian caps, or "red bonnets," symbol of the French revolution of 1789, have become all the rage, sported by enraged citoyens who gather to wave the Breton flag and to set fire to these newly erected electronic tax barriers, while the nation's truckers have organized to block the country's major vehicular arteries for the last several weekends.

Open revolt. That, in a nutshell, is what is currently brewing en ce pays-ci, which coincides with record levels of popular discontent with the government and a record-low approval rate for the Président de la République, François Hollande. Hollande has plumbed the lowest depths of approval (and conversely the apex of popular disapproval), reaching 16% overall approval in the latest national polling—just nine percentage points ahead of the US Congress.

In an unprecedented display of public discontent, Hollande was publicly booed and heckled while observing solemn Armistice celebrations at the base of the Arc de triomphe this past November 11. For the moment, civil disobediance and organized arson are reserved for weekends and national holidays, in the French tradition of protest as wholesome family entertainment. However, all this could change with further incitement, leading to an escalation to public strikes—another French tradition that even the leader of the nation's most leftist union has publicly disavowed, fearing to become the spark that sets off a mood that is "explosive all over."

Meanwhile, the country's préfets, akin to county executives, sent a confidential, leaked memo to the Elysée that stated in the starkest of terms that conditions in France are a "tinderbox," that the populace has never been more resentful of the unrelenting onslaught of increasing taxes and stagnating incomes, and that the government had better take heed of, and gingerly diffuse, this volatile situation or face a "fronde sociale," or popular revolt.

So, what did the government do? Why, it also decided to increase the national sales tax, or TVA, come the new year. Bonne année!  Only problem, fully 81% of French citizens find the current tax system unjust and want the country's finances completely revamped.

A few tidbits of history, to put all this in perspective. The last time France had a revolution, in 1789, it was incited by increasingly onerous taxation by a deeply indebted government, culminating with the construction of a physical Berlin wall of tax barriers about Paris, imprisoning the city's populace (we even blogged about it, here).

Also note the uncanny resemblance of President Hollande to Louis XVI, and the uncanny resemblance of his policies to those of the late, beheaded monarch: blind allegiance to the status quo in the face of increasing popular discontent during a prolonged period of deepening economic adversity. One should also remark that Hollande shows none of the creativity or intestinal fortitude necessary to reddress the mounting crisis of confidence in the competence and direction of the French government itself, to say nothing of a fundamantal realignment, overwhelmingly demanded by the citizenry, of its implacably oppressive tax structure. 

Today, the New York Times reports that the populist, far-right Front National is the most popular political party in France, with the Socialist Party of Hollande trailing badly. You do not need to be an oracle or a political pundit to divine that the present moment is about the absolute worst time for the government to re-erect a modern version of the tax barriers that incited the French Revolution. 

Willful amnesia, and déjà vu all over again.