Saturday, June 28, 2014

Summertime Patriotic Tablescape

The most common summertime celebrations are patriotic. Summer kicks off on Memorial Day;  is marked in the middle by Fourth of July, and concludes with Labor Day. This week we celebrate our nation's birthday.

For our Fourth of July celebration, I created a new tablescape with a paisley blue and white tablecloth and red accents.
The chinese lanterns provide height for the table without obstructing guests' views. (The rule-of-thumb is to keep the centerpiece under 12 inches high. Another option is to use a clear vase with flowers starting above 24 inches to permit a clear sight line between guests.)

Between my lanterns, I plan to float white magnolia blossoms in a low bowl.

The starfish will be my nod to the stars and stripes.
However you decorate your table, please remember to take a moment to pray for our nation and its leaders. Happy Fourth of July!

Monday, June 23, 2014

Picnics Made Easy

Life and entertaining are easier in the good old summertime. To insure no-fuss I keep supplies in my picnic basket ready at a moment's notice. Then, when the weather cooperates, I can set a summertime table without any hassle. 

Several outdoor tabletop products have resurfaced this summer that you may remember from picnics with your grandmother. I believe that enamelware, melamine, and rattan have come back into vogue, because they contribute to easy entertaining. 

At the core of my summer place-setting is enamelware and cutlery made by The Golden Rabbit. Years ago, I purchased the set because I knew that someday--in the far distant future--the whimsey of the ants crawling across the plates, knives, forks, and spoons would capture the imagination of grandchildren. The far distant future is now, and I was right! The plates and cutlery are favorites of the little people in my life, and they are unbreakable!

Enamelware originated in the mid-1700s in Germany; then it grew in popularity here in the mid-1800s. Do you remember your grandmother's spatterware tea kettle? Well, today, enamelware is manufactured in China and Indonesia, but can be purchased in the United States anywhere from Walmart to Neiman Marcus. 

The Golden Rabbit company no longer makes my pattern, but they have replaced it with a vintage-looking spatterware pattern,

as well as more contemporary patterns. 

A number of companies make enamelware, and the public has jumped back on this bandwagon. No wonder; being shatterproof, it is perfect for outdoor use.  
MacKensie-Childs enamelware available at Neiman Marcus.

A second easy-to-use staple I have added to my picnic basket this summer is melamine.
The Food and Drug Administration has pronounced melamine safe for kitchen use
with the caveat that it should not be microwaved or used for acidic substances.

Neither big kids nor little kids can break these "glasses". However, these aren't your grandmother's melmac dishes. No, they are thinner, have more texture, and come in prettier colors. Actually, they are quite current. I have seen melamine plates and glasses in almost every store carrying summer tableware. Again, this is no surprise. Melamine is light-weight, dish-washer safe, and perfect for easy entertaining.
Rope pattern melamine on sale now at Pottery Barn.

Finally, the last items I added to my picnic basket this summer are rattan chargers. Nothing says summertime quite like wicker and rattan. Let me encourage you to stick woven chargers into your picnic basket. They add a layered dimension to your table without adding to your laundry basket. Ah, the simple life.
The best chargers for quality and cost can be found at World Market. 
They are well-made, sit level, and are reasonably priced. 
So far, on the east coast, summer 2014 has had perfect picnic weather, and my no-fuss picnic supplies have allowed me to easily entertain out-of-doors. Alfresco dining done simply fits the lazy, hazy days of summer!

Saturday, June 14, 2014

"Tricking-Out" the Garage

What do you give a man who has few wants but is having a BIG birthday?  A garage make-over!  

When one of our garage doors stopped working, we decided it was time to replace them. The old ones were not insulated; one was dented, and they were the low-end, builder's-grade doors from the get-go.

Once we decided to replace the doors, we started looking at various types. We wanted to find doors that would compliment the barn in our backyard. 
We found a wonderful local company, Signal Garage Doors, that sells carriage-style doors with a traditional profile, lots of detail, and a great R-value.

I think these doors
do a great job matching the barn doors.

Next we emptied the garage--no small task as I had a couple of racks of clothing waiting for a garage sale, a number of boxes of photos I had not sorted after our flood displacement, lots of gardening equipment in buckets, and a bookcase stuffed with tools, paint, insect sprays...

What we didn't throw out was taken to the barn until the project's completion. (Full disclosure: My husband moved the boxes of photos to the basement where they still await my attention.)

Next, we swept out the space and had the walls painted Benjamin Moore Revere Pewter. 

Then we had another local company, Commonwealth Garage Flooring, epoxy the floor. The topcoat  makes the floor "shine like the top of the Chrysler Building".

Once the walls were mark-free and floors were squeaky clean, we "tricked-out" the space with garage-organizing products. At Walmart, we found oil-catch pans for underneath our cars.
 They turned out to be the perfect size for our garbage cans and recycle bin as well.
Then at Target, I found a tray for keeping our wet snow boots and dirty work shoes.

For Father's Day, I wanted to complete the garage redo by getting my husband a tool cart. After much on-line research and in-person looking, we settled on one from Harbor Freight. At a local store, we spied an un-boxed cart at a huge discount!

Ever the optimist, I was ready to buy it on the spot. My husband, being the practical one, wasn't sure if it would fit in the back of my small station wagon. It took three strong young men and an hydraulic lift to heft it into the car. With the wheels off, it just fit. We headed home feeling quite happy.

Not far down the road, we both began to wonder how were we going to get it out of the car by ourselves. Maybe I would be driving around with a huge, red tool cart in the back of my car until we had some strong and willing guests who could help. Oh dear...

However, once home, my husband came up with a solution: use a heavy piece of plywood as a ramp. So, he carefully nudged the 250-pound cart out of the back of the station wagon and onto the makeshift slide. Then, making sure our feet were clear of the cart in case the whole thing collapsed, we carefully slid the hunkin'-big box down the slope. Fortunately, it made a graceful descent. Finally, we turned it on its end and reattached the wheels. Whew…disaster avoided.
 Lastly, we installed more hangers for rakes and brooms and organized the corner cupboard. What a feeling of accomplishment.

I so enjoyed doing this for my husband. He so faithfully keeps our yard "as neat as a pin." He comes by this clean-gene honestly. His grandma had the cleanest garage in a county known for Dutch-cleanliness. She "wiped-down" the garage walls every spring and fall. Truly, you could eat off her garage floor. Now our garage would rival hers. The real trick will be keeping it this way. ;)

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Downton Abbey Costumes Visit Winterthur

Recently, friends and I made a pilgrimage to see "Costumes of Downton Abbey".
No, we did not cross the Atlantic. We merely drove past Amish farms in southeastern Pennyslvania, through the rolling hills of the Brandywine Valley, until we saw the white-fenced estates of Wilmington, Delaware. Our destination was an American counterpart to Highclere Castle, Winterthur.

This magnificent 175-room mansion on Henry Francis du Pont's 1000-acre estate is where the 40 Downton Abbey costumes currently are on display. What an interesting exhibit it is! Seeing the beautifully constructed, historically-accurate clothing in person, illustrated for me how important costumes are to theatre: They define characters, enrich scenes, and reflect culture.

After viewing the costumes, I could see how--at least in film--clothes do make the man or woman. Each costume conjured up an image of the character who wore it. Let me illustrate.

First, the upstairs servants dressed for their roles. Even on a mannequin, you can almost hear the rustle of this black tone-on-tone dress as the efficient housekeeper, Mrs. Hughes, moves about keeping Downton running like clockwork.
Then looking at this simple cotton dress and apron, you can visualize Mrs. Patmore wiping flour from her cheek as she directs traffic in the kitchen downstairs?

A third example of a costume defining a character is the navy velvet gown worn at a formal dinner by the Lady Violet Crawley. It suits Dame Maggie Smith as Dowager Countess of Grantham to a tee. 

But, perhaps the most striking example of a costume embellishing a character is the outlandishly lavish brocade, fur-ladened coat worn by Shirley McLain. Doesn't it epitomize the flamboyant, wealthy American heiress? Can't you picture Countess Cora's American mother sweeping out of a hired car in this over-the-top ensemble? Did she wear the coat and hat, or did they wear her? I would say, "Both". The costume embellished the character, and the character colored the costume.  


Besides magnifying the personalities, the costumes also amplify scenes in the intriguing miniseries plot. Four scenes illustrate the synergy between clothing and scenery. 

First, wouldn't you agree that the hunting scene was memorable in large part because all the actors sported wool shooting ensembles?
Second, the summer frocks and garden-party hats on display amplify the jarring dissonance between the scene's frivolity and Lord Grantham's reading of the ominous telegram: "England has declared war on Germany."
Thankfully, the exhibit also reproduced happier scenarios. In the snowy, snowy night scene Matthew, wearing an elegant tuxedo, properly proposed to the Earl's eldest daughter, Lady Mary, who was dressed in a shimmering jewel-red, silk costume. Without a doubt, the clothing warmed the entire scene. 

Alas, happiness was not in the cards for all the Crowley daughters, and the costumes symbolized this.  Even the most jaded among us, pitied poor Edith when she was jilted at the altar. The blue sister-of-the bride's dress and the draping wedding gown perfectly suited the tragic events.


Yes, costumes enhance characters and scenes, but they also reflect changing times. For me, the exhibit crystalized the seismic shift in cultural mores from World War I to the Jazz Age.

The highly-structured, lady-like garments from the first season of Downton Abbey reflect the Victorian Era's lingering effect on style and compunctions. For example, Lady Crowley's purple evening dress would have required a tightly cinched corset, but the next generation's Edwardian-style loosened restraint a bit.

As modern times bore down on Downton Abbey, the culture was transformed as quickly as motorcars replaced carriages. The costumes of the Emmy award-winning miniseries reflect this rapid change. Remember shock reverberating in the room when Lady Sybil appeared at dinner in harem pants?
Finally, by this last season, corsets and conventions were tossed to the wind. The young, high-spirited cousin Rose exemplified the loosening morals as she flaunted herself in a gorgeous apricot-colored, velvet flapper-style dress (my favorite of the exhibit).

Rarely, does so innocuous and seemingly frivolous an exhibit capture the character, enhance the flavor, and reflect the values of such a sweep of history. If you live anywhere near Wilmington, Delaware, I would highly recommend that you get tickets and go to see "Costumes of Downton Abbey" before it closes on January 4, 2015. It is well worth the pilgrimage.

If northeastern Delaware is too far for you to travel, perhaps Asheville, North Carolina will be more convenient. From Febrary 5 through May 25, 2015, the 40 costumes will be exhibited at another grand  American home, The Biltmore in Asheville, North Carolina.