Monday, November 28, 2011

Stephanie Grace

I was just reading about a celebration of small businesses in New York, "Small Business Saturday," this past weekend.  I want to celebrate the independent book stores and other small quality businesses that exist in my neck of the woods here in Los Angeles. One of my favorites is Stephanie Grace in Santa Monica.

I walked into her store recently and had a chance to talk with the lovely Stephanie Grace herself.  Stephanie is a party planner, floral designer and owner of one of the prettiest stores in West Los Angeles.  As we talked about her shop and all the entertaining and floral services she provides, I was happily surrounded by beautiful items for the home, fragrant fresh flowers and festive holiday decor.

I had a chance to chat with Stephanie and ask her some questions about the store, her event planning business, and her floral design firm.  With the holidays upon us, I wanted to get her tips for the best holiday parties.

Sunday Taylor:  Tell me about your store and the items you carry.

Stephanie Grace:  Stephanie Grace is an event production and floral design firm, with a boutique on Montana Avenue that specializes in florals and luxury home decor accessories.  We focus on creating your entire tabletop decor, from your centerpiece all the way to your flatware.  Our designers work with you to create the ultimate dining experience by coordinating your table linens with your centerpiece and your serving pieces.  We carry an extensive collection of designers:  L'Object, Michael Aram, Juliska, Simon Pierce, Deborah Rhodes, etc.

ST:  You are also a party planner.  Tell me about your process in planning parties.

SG:  My process in planning parties is to carefully listen to the vision of my clients and then create what they have imagined to the fullest potential.  Ultimately, designing a party is all about what the client wants when they walk in the door.  It is my job to listen, and then take their ideas and transform them into an exquisite event.

ST:  What are the secrets to a great party?

SG:  First and foremost, you have to cover your basics:  good food, good music and wonderful cocktails.  Second, you need to create the "environment."  Our goal is to create an event that unites the visual with the experience of the party, so that guest feels entirely transformed when they are there.  This type of event creates the most authentic "fun" and that is the essence of a great party.

ST:  You are also a talented florist.  What kinds of floral arrangements are popular for the holidays?

SG:  Each holiday carries with it a unique design aesthetic.  For Christmas, I find people gravitating towards two predominate looks.  The first would be to use fir and pine, mixed with more organic materials such as berries and pine cones.  The second would be to use predominantly florals, i.e., all reds and burgundies, to create a more lush feel.  I love the holidays because you can create a centerpiece simply by clustering ornaments together on a table or you can go all out and create a masterful arrangement of florals.

ST:  What are the five tips you can give us for setting a beautiful holiday table?

1. Pick a centerpiece or arrangement that works for your table.  Don't let the centerpiece overpower the table.  It should be a nice compliment to the table, but not spilling onto the plates.
2. Try going monochromatic...whether that is all silver's, or all red's or all gold's...your table will look stunning.
3. If you want to dress up your arrangement, go ahead and place a few silver ornament balls in your centerpiece.  It will make it "festive" in no time!
4. Instead of buying napkin rings, have your local florist create fresh ones using fir/pine or even hydrangeas (for an example of this check out SGD on HGTV Celebrity Holiday Homes).
5. Make sure your candles are dripless; nothing spoils a beautiful table more than wax.

ST:  Regarding the issue of hand-written vs paperless invitations, which do you prefer?  Do you still send hand-written invitations?

SG:  If money allows, I personally love mailing invitations the traditional way.  However, if you are hosting for a super large group, sometimes the electronic form can be much easier.  Ultimately, know  your guests and assess which they would prefer.

ST:  What are the most popular hostess gifts?

SG:  Candles are one of the most popular.  Everyone loves a beautiful candle and you can't go wrong!  A beautiful fresh bouquet is also a top seller.  At SGD we make the most amazing bouquets, so we often have our clients preferring to bring something unique like a bouquet instead of a more traditional gift.  A beautiful set of napkin rings is also a great choice.  These are often items we never think of getting for ourselves, so it is always such a special treat to receive a set of four as a gift!

ST:  How do you feel about assigned seating at a dinner party?

SG:  I have one opinion on this:  I love assigned seating at a dinner party, as long as I get to sit next to the person I came with (i.e., my spouse).  I love the idea that everyone knows where they are going, so it takes the stress out of "who is sitting where."  However, when a host splits up couples for the sake of creating conversation, I feel it actually impedes a fun night.  Great idea, just be thoughtful to your guests when placing them at the table.

ST:  Tell me about the importance of your store in promoting the other aspects of your business, as event planner and florist?

SG:  Fundamentally, all the businesses of SGD are integrally related.  The tools I use for designing someone's holiday table or designing their daughter's wedding are the same.  All the love and passion I have for design goes into every arrangement I create, or any table I help design, no matter what the scale.  The store has had the unique ability to unite these different aspects of design into a beautiful experience for our clients.  When someone walks into Stephanie Grace, their senses are exposed to everything we do:  from seeing the amazing arrangements we might be working on to hearing the team at SGD hard at work on someone's event.  I have tried to make the store a unique experience where customers and clients alike can share in the beauty of what we love to do!

Friday, November 25, 2011

Thanksgiving Weekend

It's the day after Thanksgiving and I am tired but happy to have had a wonderful holiday with my family.  It's always fun to go back and remember the moments just before everyone walks in the door.  We're lighting the candles, adjusting the table, putting on music, and of course checking the turkey. The actual event is always a whirlwind of visiting, cooking, eating, laughing, telling stories and reminiscing, and of course cleaning up.

The dining room table ready for dinner, with a view of the living room where we set up a second table 

This year was very special because my sister and my brother were able to attend.  They came with their children and we had about 10 cousins altogether.  My mother loves to be surrounded by her grandchildren and as I watched her beaming face throughout the night, I knew that this is why we continue these holiday rituals year after year.  I read something a long time ago about the comfort of our holiday traditions and that making a home for the holidays is an act of hope.  This concept felt very true to me this year.  

The living room table became a cozy little arrangement for the cousins

This was the first year that I set up a second table, and as I looked at it last night I knew that we had come up with the perfect solution for having a big crowd for Thanksgiving dinner.  We moved a few pieces of furniture out of the living room and created a cozy dining space.


I hope you had a wonderful Thanksgiving and that you are sitting with your feet up today and reflecting on a holiday filled with good food, quality time with your family, and great memories.  I am looking forward to one of my favorite weekends.  Hopefully we will see a good movie, start some Christmas shopping, and enjoy some of the Thanksgiving leftovers!

Monday, November 21, 2011

Making a List...

As much as I want to slow this period of time down, I have to face the facts.  The holiday season is upon us and I need to get busy figuring out what to give my family and friends.  I always start with books, selfishly I suppose, because that is what I love to receive!  There are so many good books out there right now to put on a wish list, either to give or receive for the holidays.

  Here are a few that I have my eye on


Lots of great home decor and entertaining books

This guide to decorating with books will appeal to the bibliophile in your life 

This one is perfect for the Anglophile who is crazy about beautiful old English homes

Katie Ridder's design book is filled with luscious photos and ideas to inspire anyone who loves to decorate their home

Another great book for the design addict, this book by Jeffrey Bilhuber has received great praise.
Each home within the book is presented as a story, relating the way in which the families live within the spaces.

Martha's newest book is gorgeous and filled with inspiring ideas for entertaining


Biographies and memoirs that look so good

This book by Diane Keaton about her life and the life of her mother is getting great reviews.  Diane works from the 85 scrapbook-like journals that her mother kept, and weaves her own life together with that of her mother.  I cannot wait to read this one about one of my favorite actresses.  

Another beautifully written book by Joan Didion on the topic of loss and grief, this time regarding her daughter.

This book about Hemingway covers so much more than the title implies.  The author Paul Hendrickson has written it as a reconsideration of Hemingway that begins after the Paris years in the 1920's.  After a year of reading many books on the Jazz Age and the Lost Generation, including "The Paris Wife," I am looking forward to this book and its exploration of Hemingway's unhappy and unsettled life.


Cozy cookbooks to curl up with over a cup of tea

"The Great Food" series from Penguin brings us some of the finest food writing from the last 400 years; this would be a great gift for a cookbook collector.  Here are three of the books in the series: 

 A treasure trove of culinary wisdom from the homesteads of a still rural, pioneering United States
Recipes from the eighteenth-century landlord of White Hart Inn in Lewes, Sussex

Before Mrs. Beeton there was Eliza Acton, whose crisp, clear, simple style and foolproof instructions established the format for modern cookery writing.  Includes such English classics as suet pudding, raspberry jam, lemonade, and mincemeat. 

Filled with beautiful photos of his vegetable garden behind his townhouse in the heart of London, as well as his creative recipes, Nigel Slater's new book is an ode to fresh produce.  Part gardener's handbook, part cookbook, it will have you craving all the luscious vegetable dishes he includes.

Sophie Dahl's latest cookbook is filled with cozy and nostalgic English food and absolutely beautiful photos.


New histories and novels

A magnificent biography of Catherine, Empress of Russia, and her quest for power and love

This is the companion book to the popular television series "Downton Abbey."  I bought it in England and it is a gem.  The author Jessica Fellowes writes about the the characters and storylines of both series (part two is coming out in January), the cast and crew, how the show was put together with costumes and locations, and the context of how life actually was at the time.  The series has a great script, beautiful location, and gorgeous actors and costumes.  The book allows us to look at it all in great detail.   There is sumptuous photography and period illustrations.  If you like the idea of immersing yourself in Edwardian England, this book is for you.  I am very excited about this one, since the second part of the series is airing on television in January!  

The great  mystery writer P.D. James has written a new book, a sequel to "Pride and Prejudice" by Jane Austen.  It is a murder mystery set in 1802 and is coming out in the first week of December.  Hopefully it will be a fresh and original take on a beloved classic.  It seems that if anyone can pull this off, it would be P.D. James.
A book for the mystery lover and Jane Austen fan rolled into one.

The new novel by Julian Barnes just won the 2011 Man Booker Prize.

Ann Patchett's newest book

I read "Middlesex" a long time ago and am looking forward to the latest from Jeffrey Eugenides

So many great books to give as gifts this holiday season.  I am looking forward to curling up here and doing some serious reading this winter.

What are you putting on your list this holiday season?

Thursday, November 17, 2011

A Woman of Letters

In my last blog post about the "American Christmas Cards, 1900-1960" exhibition at the Bard Graduate Center, I mentioned the absence of hand-written letters in our culture today.  As I was thinking about the great letter writers of the past, one name came to mind.  Virginia Woolf.  The image of her sitting down to write a letter  in her signature purple ink to her family and friends is one that is embedded in my mind.  I spent many happy hours reading her letters when they first came out.   I remember the milestone event many years ago when the  six volumes of her letters were published.  It was am important literary occasion made even more special by the fact that the editor was Nigel Nicolson, son of Vita Sackville-West.


I went back and looked at some of the letters that she wrote and once again marveled at the beautiful writing that they contain.  And I realized that if you want to learn about literary and artistic life amongst the bohemian group known as Bloomsbury, there is no better way to know it than through these elegant, witty, descriptive, and conversational letters. It's almost as if we are sitting in a room with Virginia Woolf and listening as she regales us with gossip and stories. She was known as a great story teller and though she often embroidered the facts, there was always a core of truth and illumination.  She was one of our great story tellers, in her books as well as in real life, making all that she described a bit more beautiful and magical by the way she recounted a story.  I think that our great storytellers add a glow and beauty to real life by their tales which are often imaginatively enhanced in the telling.

In 1922 Virginia Woolf writes to Gerald Brenan,
"Very stupidly I came away without your letter...and now I can't take it up and answer it as I had meant.  But no doubt that is just as well.  What one wants from a letter is not an answer."

Her letters were infinitely more than just answers; they were gifts.  Containing so much more than just an answer, they are offered up in the spirit of generosity.  In them she paints scenes, reports events, captures personalities, and evokes the general atmosphere of whatever she is describing.  She does all this for her correspondent in order to share her personal vision of life, "so infinitely desirable is it."  Letter writing is a lost art and it is illuminating to go back and read the letters of one of the masters at this art.  If as in the case of Virginia Woolf, these letters were saved by the recipients, we have them forever to give us an idea of the times.

To get an idea of what it was like to live in London and Sussex in the early twentieth century as a cutting edge female writer living amongst the bohemian artists of the time, pick up a volume or two of these letters.   She and her husband Leonard Woof were going to parties and literary salons and meeting Noel Coward, Gertrude Stein, Hugh Walpole, Edith Sitwell, Vita Sackville-West and Arnold Bennett.  As her fame increased so did the invitations from the reigning literary hostesses, such as Ottoline Morrell. There are snippets and vignettes of description that make the literary and social world of London come alive as vividly as any biography or memoir.

Virginia Woolf in the 1920's

To Lytton Strachey, one of her favorite correspondents, she conveys the sense of boldness and freedom of the time:

"Here we are...plunged into a mild form of me the climax of dissipation.  What with the approach of peace and the Russian dancers, the gallant Sitwells...Duncan (Duncan Grant) covered with paint...Robbie Ross found dead in his shirtsleeves...Oscar Wilde's widow bursting in dead drunk...all the things that invariably happen in London in October."

She captures the mood of giddy excitement felt by those involved in the Post-Impressionist art movement:

"Nessa (Vanessa Bell) left the room and reappeared with a small parcel the size of a large slab of chocolate.  On one side are painted 6 apples by Cezanne.  Roger (Roger Fry) very nearly lost his senses...Imagine snow falling outside, a wind like there is in the Tube, an atmosphere of yellow grains of dust, and us all gloating upon these apples.  They really are superb."

Lady Ottoline Morrell's flamboyant behavior lent itself easily to Virginia's love of dramatizing and exaggerating her friends' behavior:

"Ottoline has been in the grand order to catch Charlie Chaplin...She heard that he was to be at a party given by Wells (H. G. Wells).  She does not know Wells...She telephoned...She bought herself an early Victorian umbrella; put white feathers in her hair...reached Wells'; demanded Charlie Chaplin; But he had not come.  Whereupon she took up a commanding position in the middle of the room; Her influence is said to have struck people dumb...And the Wells' utterly disappeared."

She writes about Charleston Farmhouse, the home of her sister Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant:

"Belgian hares, governesses, children, gardeners, hens, ducks, and painting all the time, till every inch of the house is a different color."

On a personal level, she writes to Vita Sackville-West:

"You will say I am not stark, and cannot feel the things dumb people feel.  You know that is rather...rot, my dear Vita.  After all, what is a lovely phrase?  One that has mopped up as much Truth as it can hold."

Of the dinner party scene in To the Lighthouse, she writes:

"I think...the dinner party is the best thing I ever wrote: the one thing that justifies my faults as a writer ...I don't think one could have reached those particular emotions in any other way."

She writes to Vita about style:
"Style is a very simple matter; it is all rhythm.  Once you get that, you can't use the wrong words."

And after reading the writer Marcel Proust for the first time, she writes:

"I am writing in a state of amazement; as if a miracle were being done before my eyes.  How, at last, has someone solidified what has always escaped -- and made it too into this beautiful and perfectly enduring substance?  One has to put the book down and gasp.  The pleasure becomes physical -- like sun and wine and grapes and perfect serenity and intense vitality combined.

These letters read like an engrossing novel.  And if you want to read a biography of Virginia Woolf and get a taste of what life was like in London at the time, read the one written by Quentin Bell which is delicious and contains many excerpts from the letters.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Season's Greetings

Oh, to be in New York during the holiday season.  The decorations, the store windows, the tree at Rockefeller Center, the ice skating,  the shopping, the "Nutcracker."  And of course there are always interesting art exhibitions to see at this time of the year at the many museums and galleries in New York.  One that I would definitely go to is at the Bard Graduate Center --  "American Christmas Cards, 1900-1960."  This exhibition focuses on the images on American Christmas cards of the twentieth century.

I am a bit of a nut about Christmas and love almost everything about it.  What I crave is a Christmas right out of Dickens filled with all the old-fashioned trappings.  Each year after Thanksgiving I happily throw myself into all the rituals of Christmas --   the decorating, the tree, the music, the gifts, the food, and the Christmas cards.  I love the tradition of sending Christmas cards.  I have always felt that sending and receiving "season's greetings" was a warm and generous gesture, something that came naturally with the good tidings of the season.  My favorite cards are ones that look vintage.  And so when I got a look at this exhibition at the Bard Graduate Center in New York, I saw many images that had the nostalgic charm that I have always loved.

Flat Card, circa 1925

Surprisingly, this exhibition and the accompanying book is the first of its kind to study the images on American Christmas cards of the twentieth century and examine their cultural and aesthetic meaning.  For the first time these images are being studied in a scholarly fashion to enrich our understanding of American Christmas and also certain aspects of American culture.  This topic is a timely one since according to the exhibition the custom of sending Christmas cards is in decline and of course we know that hand-written letters are also in decline.  People rely much more on paperless communication.  I hope the custom of sending seasonal greeting cards is one that survives.  It's one of the few personal missives we still get in the mail.  Remember the days when we used to take the time to write letters?     

The exhibition presents twenty of the most outsanding classes of Christmas card imagery.  The images I have included are ones that are highlighted on the web page for the exhibition.  You can read more about it here.   According to the book that accompanies the exhibition,  these cards are a window into American Christmas and culture in the first half of the twentieth century.  I enjoyed looking at these seasonal expressions of early Americana and American Christmas.  I look forward to reading the book and learning about the conclusions and patterns seen in the cards taken as a whole and reflections by the author on the topic of Christmas cards as an art form of communication and communion.  

There is such an old-fashioned nostalgic appeal to these images and looking at them makes me smile.  I am enchanted by the warmth, innocence and celebration that they convey.
Modified French-fold card. ca. 1935
French -fold card, sent 1954

Calling Card, sent 1928

Augmented French-fold card, ca. 1930

Single-fold card, ca. 1925

French-fold card, ca. 1935

The curators of the exhibition argue that Christmas cards express more than simple sentiment and that examining their images provides information about deeper meanings of cultural significance.  Viewing the exhibition or reading the book promises enlightenment about Christmas cards as a meaningful art form.

The book that accompanies the exhibition

American Christmas Cards, 1900-1960 is the book that accompanies the exhibition.  I can't wait to buy it and learn more about this subject that until now has been largely unexamined, even within the art world.  There are 375 images and much scholarly information about the power of images and the appeal of Christmas.

I hope the charming tradition of sending greeting cards during the holiday season continues.  Walking out to the mailbox each day during the month of December and opening up these beautiful images with messages of peace and joy is a tradition that enhances the beauty of the season.  It is one of the joys of this time of the year and brings happiness to the senders as well as the recipients.  Looking through all my cards as they accumulate throughout the month and reading the messages inside is indeed a form of communication and communion that makes life a little sweeter.  I hope we can hang on to this old-fashioned tradition as one of the more meaningful and least commerical aspects of the trappings of Christmas.   As each day now builds towards the frenzy of the holidays, this little ritual provides comfort and takes us to a place of connecting with others.