Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Elegance Under Canvas

s I had mentioned before, I'm currently on the warpath for furniture for my new one-bedroom apartment. It's an exciting challenge, and I'm eagerly picking and choosing various pieces to create my own style that will, in the end, mix British Colonial with Arts & Crafts. What will be interesting is to see how this all comes together in a pretty modern space. I like both of these styles quite a bit; the Arts & Crafts furniture represents a solid, almost plain design that's a tad on the heavy side while British Colonial ( / Anglo-Indian) uses the same concept of natural materials while being a bit "lighter" so as to not be too overbearing in a small space.

Cover: Campaign Furniture
Back cover: Collapsed View
In my research of British Colonial furniture, I came across an amazing book entitled, "British Campaign Furniture: Elegance Under Canvas". I love the title, and I love the book even more. It's out of print and likely sought-after by interior designers, so be prepared to pay a somewhat hefty fee for a copy. British campaign furniture was designed during the days of the British Empire when the military services posted their troops all over the world for relatively long periods of time. The Brits, wanting a little bit of the comforts of home, initially tried bringing some of their own furniture. It was too heavy, too bulky, and quickly warped in the humidity. And thus they began designing furniture made from tropical hardwoods that could be disassembled and reassembled as their posts changed. Relatively small, not overly ornate, and well-engineered, collapsible furniture began to emerge from some well-known british furniture makers. And "British Campaign Furniture" was born. This is the kind of style that would fit equally well on an African safari as it would in the tropics of the Indian subcontinent.  The book exhibits some amazing, museum-quality pieces and has old photos showing use at the time (some really neat ones) and even includes a few of the original drawings of the design and construction.  The text is complete with a history and a listing of various manufacturers.  It's well worth it.

As for me, the concept of getting originals from antique stores and auctions is daunting.  I'm not made of cash, and yet I'm really not a big fan of reproductions.  Places like Crate and Barrel and Pottery Barn and Restoration Hardware have been imitating this style for some time, but with junk materials (see previous post).  So I need to be patient.  But you can imagine my surprise when I discovered that I might already own an original!  Yes, that is would I not know?

Some ten years ago, at an auction (my first, I think) I bought (and likely overpaid for) a game table from Syria.  It has intricate wood and shell inlay, and while I've seen some of the modern versions, this one looked old.  It was missing some inlay here and there and had some cracks on the base where the wood had dried over the years.  It was pretty small, but with a twist and flip of the top it turns from a side table to a card table.  Flip a hinged insert, and a checkers board is revealed.  Open that, and a backgammon board is in view.  The base is hollow and allows for storage of pieces.

I thought nothing of it, until I took it apart for the move. I found what appears to be an interesting sight before me:

Hmmm, looks familiar.  The Brits never occupied Syria, but the French did in the 1920s, and the French had caught on to the rage of campaign furniture (this was not relegated to the British only....they just started it).  The height is about right, the legs come off the base (and are marked so they can be put back on the right sides), the top comes off, and it stores into a pretty compact package.  So maybe - just maybe - I have a head start on this!


Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Code Words for Junk

was out shopping for furniture today. It was a dizzying experience; so many options and styles and shapes. I know exactly the kind of "look" I want for my new place, but you don't want to overdo it and have the whole thing look like one of those living room "sets" you get from Macy's. Each piece has to contribute to the theme while being somewhat unique on it's own. For some reason, the hardest item for me to find is a pair of bookshelves. Too wide, too tall, ugly finish, made of crap. Which brings me the the main topic of this post....

Not that long ago, manufacturers of ...well, anything.... we're pretty good about "calling a spade a spade" as they say. They didn't care; nobody read the labels. Fast-forward to today, and everyone is reading the label. And thus, things like rayon are becoming viscose. Here's that and some others I've recently come across:

VISCOSE: aka rayon. This is essentially a synthetic cloth that will melt, not burn. Like plastic....that you wear.

MDF: They used to label things as "fiberboard" and now they use this. It stands for Medium Density Fiberboard. No, consumers were not wondering about what the density of the fiberboard is, so we can accurately conclude that this is a coverup.

NATURAL FLAVORS:  ...come from natural products, but in ingredient-form they are far from natural.  While IFF (International Flavors and Fragrances) has made amazing progress in making things like cement taste like chocolate, I'd much prefer to just eat chocolate.
ENGINEERED WOOD:  I have a lot of respect for engineers; it took a lot to get to where they are.  But there's nothing they need to do to improve on wood.  Wood comes from trees that are cut down and sawed into boards.  No engineering is required.

ESSENCE:  ...shouldn't really be an ingredient for anything, because it's nothing.  So when I saw that black truffle oil contained "the essence of truffles" I was made instantly aware that a truffle had not been within 100 yards of this oil.....

VENEER:  In itself, veneer isn't all that bad if you don't mind chipping it from time to time thru daily use.  On the other hand, if it needs veneer it's probably crap underneath.  The type of wood is frequently used in the description, a la "..tropical wood veneers".  Tropical wood over what?

RENEWABLE:  Isn't describing library books.  It describes fast-growing trees that don't provide as much wood strength as the slower grown wood.  It's pretty much "farmed wood", which is still better than MDF by the way....



Thursday, October 14, 2010

Art of Shopping: Snotty Salespeople

ou go into a retail store, perhaps a high-end one like Bergdorff's or Prada. It's a beautiful store with nice products...and sometimes cold, snotty salespeople. Some stores are downright intimidating, with everything locked behind glass and no prices. Other stores like Harry Winston here in NYC have locked doors; you can't even get in without pushing a buzzer and being looked over (aka "sized up") by security or the salespeople.

Whatever. We are the consumer public and we have every right to oogle over anything we want whether we tend to purchase or not.

Pre-shop: Before shopping at some high end stores, dress for the occasion. Wear your nicest clothes, but in a way that makes it look like you always wear them. The casual jacket with jeans and dress shoes is good for guys. Maybe one or two items - the shoes or shirt or cufflinks - is a step above "nice"; a little indicator that you wear high-end clothes on weekends and that's perfectly natural.

First impression: First and foremost: Just because a store is ultra swanky doesn't mean that the salespeople are mean or snotty. And since we're all gentlemen here, you don't want to come off as a douchebag if you're being treated well. So step one is to size up the situation as quickly as possible. Here's some signs that you're in for some rough treatment:
  • You aren't greeted when you walk in. It's not because they don't see you....they're standing in a corner glaring at you.
  • The security guard follows you around the store like a KGB minder.
  • The first interaction comes when you touch a garment or take something off a hangar. The salesperson runs over (literally) asks if you need help, and then hovers when you say no.
  • There's other people in the store being helped. There's available staff, and you're NOT being helped.
  • You're being talked down to.  The salespeople ask you stupid questions ("Do you know what kind of weave that is?") or give you useless factoids ("That lapel was hand-picked in Milan...") to try to make you feel intimidated.
These are a few of the more non-subjective ways you can tell you're dealing with snotty people. There's other things like "looks" or the vibe or whatever. Be careful not to misinterpret those.

Dealing with it:  You are the customer and everything should be done to please you.  Don't be intimidated.  If you're holding something and someone comes running over, don't put it back as if you're going to get in trouble.  Take it off the hangar and really examine it.  Look at the stitching on the arm.  Examine the liner.  Grunt, as if displeased with the item.  Then, jump in with some pointed questions:  "Are these genuine mother-of-pearl buttons?"  (...because you only wear those, and nothing short of that will do.)  "Is this liner viscose?" (they almost all are) "...oh.  Do you have any jackets lined with silk?  I tend not to choose products with synthetic materials."  Put it back, and don't be too picky about straightening everything out. As you continue to look around, make it seem that you're not impressed. The lights are too bright, the texture of the clothing isn't quite right....and what's that displeasing smell? If the salespeople are some distance away, pick off an imaginary spot of lint and toss it on the floor. If you're looking at something in a glass case, squint and then wipe a spot off with your hand or sleeve. Ask to look at things in the case. Never be surprised at the prices they tell you. You'd totally buy that $10,000 watch if the weight wasn't off, or if the hands were black instead gold. The white dial is nice but you wanted porcelain and not steel. The jacket lapels are too narrow. The weight of the fabric is too thin; you needed winter weight not summer weight. Shirts should be single stitched and not double stitched, so that's all wrong. You're a discerning customer and they just don't have what you want.

"We can have that done for you." Many high end stores will customize things for you, sometimes at a cost and sometimes for free. If your goal was to just look around and have fun, you need to be able to deal with that. Time is a good first argument. Can they have that done for you today? Probably not. Well, you're busy and you need to walk out with it. For clothing, you really prefer to go bespoke (a term meaning that the garment was designed and built specifically for you) if they need to make those kinds of alterations. They offer bespoke services? That's nice, but you already have a tailor that you're happy with who has your trust and your measurements on-hand. You're in this store because you needed an item in a pinch.....but they just can't deliver. You'll try the place next door.

Final thoughts: Don't be rude. You have too much class for that. The idea here is to appear knowledgeable and discerning; you are the one asserting control of the conversation in order to ascertain if their products meet your standards, and you're simply letting them know that. Perhaps you'll call on them later when the new line comes out....when is that again?


Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Magnificence: Magnanni

few years ago I was trying to prepare for an interview when I had a sudden epiphany that suits sucked for interviews. While they represent maturity, class, elegance, and sophistication, they also represent a certain anonymity - homogeneous nothingness where one candidate blends in with the next. So two days before I ran over to Rothman's to find some sort of non-suit alternative interview-ware. I found an excellent Hickey Freeman jacket and a sweet pair of Canali pants (a combination to which the salesman found time to heckle me for) when I realized that I had no appropriate shoes for the outfit. I ran upstairs (the store was closing) and grabbed the first pair of tolerable shoes that caught my eye.

Unfortunately for me, I seem to have good taste in shoes - it wasn't until checkout that I found out they cost more than the sum of the rest of the order. Ack. I bit my lip and took them home. I had never heard of Magnanni, but I liked the style and they were incredibly light and comfortable shoes. What I think had caught my eye was the subtle variations in color in the leather, which is called the "grain" of the leather. This is typical of "aniline leather" where the leather is not dyed with a color, and therefore is not of uniform color.  The "imperfections" of the leather comes through, adding a roughness or rawness to come through, almost like a patina.

The interview didn't really pan out, but the shoes sure did.  Nearly five years later I just got them resoled and they have at least another five years left in them.  They are still as comfortable as ever, and along the way, I learned a little bit about Italian shoes and what sets them apart from British and American shoes.  There is much speculation and mis-information on the topic, so I thought I'd share the info.

Essentially, it comes down to differences in what each country needed for their circumstances.  The Brits, in their horrid climate conditions (rain, cold), required a shoe that would stand up to the elements.  So British styled shoes were built within an inch of their lives with stiffer leather and heavier, thicker soles where the sole was both stitched and glued to the rest of the shoe (known as welted construction).  The physical size of the shoe was larger to accommodate these changes.  On the other hand, Italians, with their warm, sunny climate wore slimmer and trimmer clothes so as not to overheat.  This style required a smaller, lighter, slimmer shoe; nobody wants to wear Bobo shoes with a slim fitting outfit.  They used a thin sole that was glued (not sitched) to the body of the shoe.  It was more about style than construction.  American style shoes attempted to balance the two, with a slimmer stlye than the Brits but with better construction than the Italians.  ...And there you have it.

So which is better?  Neither.  Both have their uses - just look out the window to figure out which is more appropriate for the day.  You choose your outfit for the weather, and your shoe choice should be no different.  And if someone tries to tell you that one is better than the other, you now have solid proof that they're clueless in the style department.

As for Magnanni - I don't know if all their shoes are this wonderful.  This pair was at the top end of their price point, and they've held up amazingly well.  I love them and hope very much they continue to deliver.

Update, Jan 19, 2012:  As the commenter below kindly pointed out, Magnanni shoes are from Spain, not Italy.  Thank you for this correction!