Tuesday, December 15, 2009


Time to get excited.

Here's an antique term that's not only impossible to pronounce, it's impossible to spell, and also impossibly obscure. It's the perfect trifecta (pronounced try FEK tuh)--which is not our word for the day but (in case you're curious) means when a bettor at the track wins by selecting the first three finishers of a race in the correct order of finish.

But trifecta is not our word of the day. It's oeil-de-boeuf (pronounced "er-duh-BURF" and sounds like something you'd say "excuse me" after you did it at a dinner table). But it's actually not a bodily function at all.

It's a term for a small circular or oval zinc window that you see all over Paris, like this one:

Literally, the term oeil-de-bouf means "eye of the bull" and it looks kind of like that, huh?

And here's a pair that we at C. Mariani Antiques fitted with antiqued mirror plates--they make wonderful and architecturally striking mirrors, don't you think?

And while we're on the topic of "burffing," let's also cover "sang de boeuf", pronounced "sahn duh BURF."

This term in French means "blood of the bull" (ick) and describes a deep red color that you often see on porcelain pottery, both new and antique pieces (made in China during the K'ang Hsi period, 1662-1722 and thereafter). It's also sometimes called Lang Yao (oddly, also the name of a girl I dated in high school....).

Here's a sang de boeuf vase:

And here's another example of sang de boeuf, this one a porcelain longneck bottle vase:

And for you really astute Type A people out there (like me) who are wondering "How come oeil-de-boeuf is hyphenated but sang de boeuf isn't?" I have no idea. But if you find out, lemme know.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009


When I first heard of a "bras de lumiére" (pronounced "brah duh LOOM myair"), I figured it was one of those kinky LED brassieres that lights up in the dark. I remember thinking "What WILL Parisian couture come up with next?!"

So this is a multiple choice question. WHICH OF THE FOLLOWING IS A BRAS DE LUMIÉRE?

The answer in a moment.

So later I grew up and learned more about how brassieres differ from antique lighting. One factoid I learned was that a bras de lumiére is not an undergarment at all (go figure) but rather a type of sconce; so the right answer is "B".

But now you're probably wondering "Well that's just ducky Buzz, but what the heck's a sconce?" Good question.

A sconce, pronounced "skahnz", is a wall mount that is fitted to hold a candle or candles. Here's a typical pair of 18th century Italian giltwood wall sconces:

And here is another example, this one an amazing set at our gallery:

Aren't these wild? I love 'em.

When a simple wall sconce has multiple candles and is more elaborate and complex in design, it's called a bras de lumiére, as seen here:

And they can become way more foofy like this Empire one, part of a set of six at C. Mariani:

But people in the trade use the word "sconce" to mean a whole variety of things that hang on walls. Most of these items are properly called wall appliqués (pronounced "AP luh kays") since that's the generic word for just about any item that mounts up on a wall.

A good example of an appliqué that everyone calls a sconce would be this bracket/shelf and others like them:

These types of pieces are more properly called wall brackets and, although they were indeed used to hold free-standing candlesticks, they were more frequenty used to display porcelain vases, figures, girandoles (I'll cover girandoles in my next post!), other objet virtu etc.

Here's another set of these versatile brackets that are great for flanking mirrors or to embellish a small wall area:


Just in case you missed my interview with David Phoenix on Decorati:

I met David Phoenix in 2002 when he was already at the top of his game in the Los Angeles high-end design market…

Back then, I went to LA to see him because many of my designer clients told me “He’d be a great client for C. Mariani Antiques and Custom Work-he’s getting all the big jobs these days.” I found David to be charming, elegant, chic and absolutely not interested in anything I was selling. But I was still happy to meet him and continue to adore his work. Over the years, we’ve bumped into each other and he was always dressed to kill, and I was usually rummaging through dusty antiques and looked like “Pig-Pen” from Charlie Brown. But he was always gracious, kind, and the perfect gentleman.

Then a couple of years ago, I noticed that David wasn’t around as much and some designer clients of mine asked me “What’s David up to these days? We haven’t seen him in the showrooms like we used to.” I said “dunno” since I hadn’t been seeing him at all the usual places either. But I did know that his office was open since I stopped by one day while in his neighborhood. I do recall that David was offsite that day. I figured he probably high-tailed it to Portofino, Gstaad, or some other impossibly fabulous spot for some R&R.

Last month, I decided to give him a call to see if he wanted to do one of my interviews for Decorati, and he said “Definitely!” So we met for breakfast at the Bel Air Hotel and he was just as striking, sophisticated, and charming as ever. Except he looked even better, I think it was the lighting, but I noticed he had the greenest eyes and the same full head of hair (I think it’s the one I had but lost about 30 years ago. Coincidence? Hmmmmm.) So then I asked him to “entre nous” share with me the exotic and secluded resort he’d been at last year. And then he dropped the bomb on me…

He smiled and said, “Actually I was diagnosed with cancer.” He took time off to treat it and beat it, and that’s exactly what he did. In fact, he’s been cancer-free for more than a year, looks better than ever, and throughout this whole ordeal kept his business fully running and staffed. Every project was completed during that time… something David wanted to fulfill. Amazing, huh?

Let me just say that David’s last name is prophetic: just like the mythological phoenix, he rises from fire and apparent destruction to emerge even stronger and scale even greater heights than before. Talk about Phoenix rising, David is one for the books.

So I wanted to start my interview with a somber question that had lots of gravitas:

Buzz: Is it true your idol was Dinah Shore and you never missed her talk show?

DP: {David laughing}. Yes, that’s true! Through Dinah’s show I saw beautiful, sunny LA, and felt the need to move there. I loved Dinah’s personality. She was always warm with her guests, and charming, and one of the reasons I moved to LA was to be a part of that feeling. And believe it or not, I was inspired by her white sectional on the show too!

Buzz: Is it also true that you somehow got her famous brownie recipe and would you bake a batch for me?

DP: Yes. I coincidentally made a friend in LA that worked for Dinah, and I persuaded him to introduce me. Fast-forward, I found myself at her home and in her kitchen… we sat, we chatted, and I got that secret brownie recipe. As for baking a batch for you, of course!

Buzz: Speaking of cooking, I also heard you’re a great chef, and that you worked at a number of restaurants including La Cote Basque in NYC?

DP: Not exactly. As a child, I wanted to become a chef. At 18 I was offered an apprenticeship at La Cote Basque and I took it. It was actually the experiences I had working in kitchens day in and day out that made me realize that the culinary world was not my true calling. After that experience, I was only sure of one thing: I wanted to make beautiful things.

Buzz: True or false: you didn’t go to design school and are completely self-taught in interior design?

DP: Very true and having left home at 15, I never went to college at all. Experience has been my teacher. And I am blessed to have had many people believe in me and my work.

Buzz: So how did you transition from a baker to one of the top designers in the country?

DP: By chance, I heard of a position for a sample librarian at +gies of fabric, in the Pacific Design Center, and my design journey started from there.

Buzz: Describe your design style in three words or less?

DP: Comfort and quality.

Buzz: Tell us more about your style. Tell us why you tend toward the traditional versus the modern?

DP: I believe that you are your experiences. My aesthetic draws from both the timeless design traditions of American aristocracy and the laid back luxury of the West Coast. My projects are inspired by the diverse landscapes of New England and California. As a native Bostonian living in LA, I tend to meld a dual design perspective… spaces that are relaxed yet elegant.

Buzz: Some designers find a fabric they love and use it in multiple interior projects. Thoughts?

DP: I almost never use the same fabric on different jobs. There are so many amazing fabrics out there, and it seems like more come out every day, so there’s no need to reuse the same fabric.

Buzz: What are the essentials of a warm and welcoming space?

DP: An intuitive arrangement of seating and objects. When you design with comfort in mind, the end result is warm and welcoming for the person using the space.

Buzz: Who has been your most inspirational design mentor and what influence did that person have on your own design style?

DP: There are actually two, the phenomenal Michael Taylor and also Kalef Alaton. Michael’s sense of scale and the materials he used were perfect. And Kalef I admire for his use of antiques. He and his interiors were so glamorous and chic.

Buzz: On any decorating project, what is the absolutely first thing that needs to get done?

DP: A master plan between you and your clients.

Buzz: What do you think is the biggest mistakes most clients make before they hire you?

DP: They go out and buy all their rugs and they’re invariably wrong. People think “I’ll save the designer mark-up” and in the end it costs them more.

Buzz: When you walk into a home, what are the biggest mistakes you typically see?

DP: Bad seating arrangements and non-functional pieces. I’m big on comfort and spaces that are comfortable for people to live in. An intuitive seating arrangement - the right chair in the right place - will make the person feel more comfortable in their home.

On the Spot…Buzz: What is your FAVORITE:

Color: GREEN
Magazine: ELLE DECOR
Room in your house: BEDROOM
Room to design: KITCHEN
Hobbies: Other than cooking, SPENDING TIME WITH FRIENDS
Vacation destination: FIJI

Buzz: You often work with antiques in your projects and what draws you to antiques?

DP: Each has a different story to tell.

Buzz: What is the single most important antique that you’ve incorporated into one of your projects?

DP: For the late Eunice Kennedy Shriver, I used a rare pair of 18th century Irish Chippendale chairs. They were magnificent and she adored them.

Buzz: What are your favorite antique accessories that you buy for yourself?

DP: Boxes: alligator, tortoiseshell, wood, I love them all.

Buzz: What is your favorite antique and why?

DP: My favorite piece of furniture is a lamp that belonged to my great grandmother. It was an Italian majolica urn lamp and it was in her front window. Every time I visited her she would wave goodbye to me with a warm smile and that lamp sitting there. I always told her I loved that lamp and one day she gave it to me. Now every time I look at that lamp, I remember her and her smile and it’s a great feeling.

Buzz: Has your health ordeal and recovery changed your attitude about issues that come up at work?

DP: Absolutely! I learned that YOU DON’T HAVE TO BE RIGHT ABOUT EVERYTHING. Be honest and authentic in your work.

Sunday, October 25, 2009


Eglomisé, pronounced "ay glow me ZAY", also called 'verre eglomisé' ("vair ay glow me ZAY"), is a decorative glass technique where the glass is painted or gilded on the underside and then backed wih a metal foil. Shown above is an 18th century German red and gold verre eglomisé mirror.

If I ever catch someone trying to steal one of my eglomisé antiques, I plan to yell, "LEGGO MY EGGLO!"
That'll scare 'em.

Below is another example of eglomisé, this one an 18th century Southern European panel showing a kneeling figure accepting a bishop's mitre and crozier from the archangel Michael with an attendant angel:

Champlevé, pronounced "shahm pluh VAY" is a decorative metal technique where metal is etched or hollowed out and then filled with enamel that's fired. Some people confuse this with eglomisé (see above) or cloisonné (see below) but they're very different. Here's a good detail of a champlevé surface:

Champlevé was often incorporated into elaborate antique boxes or reliquaries like these:

Finally, there is cloisonné (pronounced "cloy zuh NAY"), a different decorative metal technique. In cloisonné, metal wire is attached to an object like a vase, with the wire forming an outline of a design and then the empty spaces are filled with enamel, fired, sanded down and polished to create a very different look and feel.

Here is a cloisonné vase:

And here are some other examples of cloisonné, the first with garnet glass and the second of a Chinese dragon:

With cloisonné, the surface is mainly enamel and the metal wire gives it a filigree look. With champlevé, the surface generally shows more exposed metal.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

The Buzz on James Lumsden: Back to the Classics

Just in case you missed my interview with James Lumsden on Decorati:

The morning I interviewed Los Angeles design icon, Jim Lumsden, I forgot to eat breakfast and had low blood sugar. So when I arrived at his gorgeous home and office in the Hollywood Hills, I was feeling a bit woozy.

When I arrived, one of his staff offered me coffee, asked me to take a seat in the foyer, and let me know that Jim would be right down. So I sat in this wonderful antique armchair that had the most unusual lumbar pillow. It was a small and wonderful landscape painting in a gilt frame and wrapped in some sort of gauze.

How unusual right? That’s what I thought until I sat down, felt the mirror frame dig into my rear and realized I had just sat on a painting that was in no way part of the antique chair.

Thank God, just before Jim came down to greet me, I jumped up, examined the painting for damage, readjusted its place on the seat, and tried as hard as I could to look casual and collected while enjoying the excellent cup of coffee.

Note to Jim: Sorry I didn’t mention this when I saw you but I was afraid you’d throw me out the second story French doors.

How best to describe Jim: charming, natty, fit, funny, and just generally someone who has tremendous class. Not to mention talent both as a professional architect and interior designer. His traditional interiors and designs have dazzled me for years. To me he is the classicist designer personified. His work is truly timeless. Plus he was a lot of fun to interview.

BLK: True of false: you’re an interior designer as well as an architect?

JL: Very true.

BLK: Which came first then, the chicken (designer) or the egg (architect)?

JL: Neither. When I was growing up I always knew I was going to be an architect and had the distressing habit of creating a minefield of cardboard houses and building layouts all over the Living Room floor, planning houses and towns, all in traditional styles. I love traditional architecture and wanted to make that my career.

So I enrolled in architecture school. But to my horror, one of the first things they “taught” me was that the then-prominent Mid Century modern style was the future of architecture. I was so appalled; I fled to UCLA’s, picked up a couple of degrees in Economics and went on to get my Masters in Interior Design.

BLK: So you’re a classicist?

JL: Yes.

BLK: But have your thoughts changed on Mid Century Modern now that it’s become so old that it’s now a “retro” design trend?

JL: No, I just hope this retro trend is over soon. Think about it. When you drive down a street of houses built over the last fifty years it is the ones that are essentially traditional in style that are still good while the supposed modern ones look horribly dated and, frankly, a bit cheesy. The same goes for the interiors. In my out of the mainstream opinion, only a few of the furniture pieces designed in that period have held up. But, having said that, I have owned a few of those and will use them in projects.

BLK: Ok, well let’s get back to your formal training for a moment. So if you got your degree in interior design, then where did you get your skills as an architect?

JL: I’m essentially self-taught as an architect. One day, several years into my interior design career, a client told me he was having trouble getting a Williamsburg style addition designed for his authentic Williamsburg house by any of the architects he engaged (the dreaded Mid Century style having decimated the ranks of the traditional architects) so I stepped into the breach and added traditional architecture to my practice. I always work with a licensed architect or engineer so as not to claim to be something I am not.

BLK: You made me laugh when you told me that every client these days says they want a “Tuscan” look but really mean something else. Can you explain?

JL: Tuscan has become a buzz (no pun intended) word for real estate agents and bad spec builders. Anything with a tile roof seems to qualify.

My approach when asked for that style is to show clients reference photos of houses of all sorts and have them point to what they like, or dislike. Visual speech works best here. Usually, what I end up with is not a formal villa or a rustic farmhouse but something with elements of both, as if the whole affair had grown over the years.

BLK: Many top designers today revel in saying “I don’t take on projects for less than a million dollars.” But your philosophy is quite different. Can you explain?

JL: Oh, please. How grand can you get? I tend to stay busy during both good times and bad, probably because my clients know I don’t make such ridiculous demands. Besides, we’re are supposed to be professionals, not divas, and I believe that professional designers should accept any project that excites their artistic juices. I only have one condition: that the clients are nice people. If not, I “realize” I have an out of town project that conflicts with theirs and respectfully decline the job.
If someone calls and asks if I could help them do over the guest bedroom, I am on my way. The fun of it is sitting down with a blank paper and working out a new, usual and exciting solution for what might have been a dreary back room. I recommend that designers adjourn to the cocktail napkin of the local bar where, as is well known, we probably do our best work.

BLK: When you dream of your ideal design project, tell me what it’s like?

JL: A client who gives me the freedom to create something truly special, and tells me to plunge ahead. A long-time client handed me a topo map of a lot he had purchased in Pacific Palisades, told me he wanted a Spanish Colonial Revival house for him and his growing family and left for Hawaii. A month later I handed him the plans. That’s a dream client.

BLK: When you take on a design project, what are three things that you can’t live without?

JL: Sorry, Buzz, but I never know how to answer that question. I think the right answer is food, water, and a deposit. But designers being interviewed never say that.

BLK: But you just did and that’s a great answer. Ok, let me think of a harder question. What design style do you feel is completely overdone?

JL: I’m not sure if you can call it a style, but all those overbuilt houses with tall, double doors that should only be on a bank. Don’t they know it’s better to enter through a door that’s in proportion and then be blown away by a dramatic, unexpected space inside?

BLK: Where’s the most exotic venue where you’ve had a project?

JL: Not exotic in the way you are thinking but unusual for a Los Angeles designer. I’ve designed several houses in a small East Texas town where oil was discovered and the people are so nice you can’t believe it. My clients there are amazingly open minded and interested in trying new ways of doing things. I really enjoy working there.

BLK: Is there a location that’s most inspirational to you or that you visit again and again for new ideas?

JL: Have you ever visited the California missions? Spend some time in one of them and you cannot help but understand the basics of California design. Strong, elemental, but with flashes of whimsy and charm in the painted detail. I always go away inspired.

BLK: What is the singular most beautiful room you’ve ever designed?

JL: Every room that I completed years ago but still looks as chic today as when it was first completed. That’s one reason I don’t do trendy.

BLK: What happens if you design something for a client and the client pulls an “I’ve changed my mind about the color and the design, so we need to redo the work you’ve done so far.” How do you handle those awkward situations?

JL: I really don’t encounter that because I work closely with my client in a genuinely collaborative way. I think it’s very important to really listen to what the client says. If they want a green bathroom, then give them a very stylish green bathroom. You can’t go too far wrong giving people what they want, can you?

I am also fortunate that I have a lot of clients I have worked with for years so I am familiar with their life-styles and needs and we have built up trust over the years and we can go right to work.

But when I start with a new client I spend as much time as possible interviewing them about how they live and maybe more importantly how they would like to live. That’s where the designer comes in. Take the raw material and invest it with style. Otherwise, why bother?

BLK: At C. Mariani, we’re famous for the grandest antiques. In order to avoid a “museum look”, what do you incorporate into your ultra-luxe rooms that counter balance antiques?

JL: I agree. The museum look will put you right to sleep. Start with one really strong antique, hopefully something outrageous and over the top. The kind of thing elevates the room and gives it importance and interest. Then, make sure to give the piece lots of breathing room and add complementary pieces from diverse periods and styles. My mantra is to keep it light and don’t lose your sense of humor.

Actually, I have a second mantra: use color and don’t take yourself too seriously.

In one such room I recently completed I started with a French Directoire mantle clock, placed it on a classical millwork background of my design, quite alone and a bit stark. Then I collected an Art Deco settee, an insanely important 18th c. Venetian tray table that I found at the Biennale in Paris and a bold ivory- inlaid Anglo Indian table. Then I took all of these pieces and presented them on a reproduction rug from the Louvre which I had made in the original bold vermillion, turquoise, black and white, not the faded genteel colors we see so much these days. The result: a room that’s not stuffy and so inviting that everyone gravitates towards it at parties.

BLK: What role do antiques play in your design philosophy?

JL: I think a house without at least one fairly good antique is not complete. Even if you have a Mid Century house, place one smashing antique in the entry hall and the severity of the rest makes sense.

If you can afford it, some insanely crazy piece of 18th century European excess can make the room.
Bland perfectionism simply doesn’t hold up over the long haul. You need the patina and the oddity to maintain your interest. Makes you want to walk by it every day to get that jolt of inspiration.

I recently found a pair of 17th Century southern Mexican columns that the maker, in some dream, thought were going to be Ionic, if you can picture that. They have the strangest proportions and I couldn’t live without them. They made the room.

BLK: What turns you on about antiques? Is it their drama, the fact that they’re hand made, or something else?

JL: I love antiques when they are “off”. Something that makes you wonder what on earth was the artisan thinking. And, as you suggest, the drama is a critical element in their appeal. One smashing antique can save a room otherwise made dull by minimalism or too many so-so reproductions.

And don’t restrict yourself to European antiques, as glorious as the really good ones are. Explore the wonderful furniture made by local craftsmen in the New World. I’m very fond of the charm and naiveté of furnishings invented by simple local carpenters in emulation of the grand European pieces back home. The rustic appeal of a Chippendale chair seen through the eyes of a 19th C. carpenter in rural Mexico or one of the grand, lush Spanish Colonial extravaganzas from early Peru are irresistible.

BLK: What I love about antiques is that each is unique, reflects the artisan’s unique style, is IMPERFECT because it’s made by hand, and each has a story to tell just from examining it’s details. Agree?

JL: When I shop for antiques I avoid “correct” pieces. They simply do not call to me. I really like the one offs, the really unusual. Unfortunately, these tend to be world-class items and the prices can run up a bit.

And if you find a piece that you can’t afford keep looking, because you never know what you might stumble onto. And when you find it and it’s in your budget immediately write the check. You won’t find it again.

BLK: Tell us about a great antique that you repurposed for a use that it was never intended for?

JL: I found a huge Dutch cabinet, 19th century, black polychrome with golden stain trim that I had refitted to hold my collection of wine glasses that became necessary to hold my head up with my wino friends. The interior is a series of separate compartments designed to hold specific glasses as well as candles, votives and other entertainment supplies. I had the interior lacquered in Chinese red so when you open the cabinet to retrieve a glass you get this great blast of color. And all the crystal looks great against it.

BLK: If I walked in to ten Jim Lumsden homes, would there be a common thread or characteristic that might see in all of them?

JL: Yes, there’d be a sense of architecture, even in a drywall box of a room and certainly the use of color. My interiors don’t go out of style and I’ve gone back to old clients’ homes twenty years later and been very happy with what I see. They tend to bring out the sketches of the rooms that I did back then which also makes me feel very good.

BLK: How much preliminary work do you do interviewing clients about their lifestyles and how do you incorporate that information in your design.

JL: I try to have multiple visits, as sometimes at the first meeting they really haven’t thought about some of the answers to the questions I ask. I tell them to tear out pictures from magazines and show me anything they like and also things they don’t like. This is the most valuable kind of communication, as words often do not bring to mind the same pictures for everyone.
By the second or third meeting we usually have developed a very clear direction.

BLK: Are there any color trends you particularly gravitate toward right now?

JL: Absolutely not.

The manipulation of color is one of the great joys of designing. The tiniest tweak and suddenly you have something great. Of course, your client has to be willing to wait until the whole thing falls into place. I no longer worry when a client walks into a newly painted empty room and exclaims they cannot live with those orange walls! Once the paintings and furnishings are in place they call to say they cannot bear to leave that room.

The right and fearless color creates the best background for what is to come. Timidity will result in something not quite as good but you had better know what you are doing. Would it be obnoxious of me to say that I am rather good at color so I have had very few mistakes?

BLK: When decorating a room for a child, what are your primary considerations as to color, safety, themes, furniture, paint, and durability? When I was a kid, I drew clowns on all four walls and my parents wanted to send me to a circus. Isn’t it true that now you can buy paint that just wipes clean like a blackboard?

BLK: Do you like it when clients have favorite colors and how do you incorporate them into the client’s interior.

JL: When a client has a favorite color that not only tells me a lot about the client, if forces me to open up my thinking and invent some new combinations to go with it. And, often it is a huge and unexpected success. I think this is what they nowadays call a win-win.

BLK: What elements of an interior design project should NOT be skimped on even with a limited budget?

JL: The thought process. The experience and talent of a first-rate designer is the cheapest investment you will ever make.

BLK: What makes for good taste? I know that’s a ridiculous question, but I’m dying to hear what you think?

JL: Suitability.

All photographs by Don Lewis Photography.