Category Archives: Design Vocabulary

Design Vocabulary: Greek Key

First, let me say that I’m a little biased about today’s Design Vocabulary term. I was lucky enough to work in Greece a few years ago and this design motif, although not new to me at the time, now reminds me of the lovely time I had in Athens and of the kind friends I made while I was there. (If you ever have the chance to visit Greece and make friends locally, I highly recommend it.)

Design Form

You may already know this design motif or have seen it around. It is just about as old as they come when you look at design and architecture history. Here is the basic Greek Key pattern, shown in gold, on this beautiful antique bowl:

Image courtesy of the Bristol Blue Glass SW Glass Museum

The Greek Key is defined as a continuous line that frequently doubles back on itself, then reverses course to move forward again. It is believed to come from a geological phenomenon that pops up all over our planet.  This phenomenon is called a “meander”. “Meander”, in modern English, generally means to wonder somewhat aimlessly, but geology defines the word as a river that carves a loop or bend in its path that almost, or sometimes completely, doubles back on itself. Here’s an example of a geological meander in Serbia:

Uvca canyon, Serbia Image courtesy of Wikipedia

Can you see how the Serbian river’s footprint is similar to the Greek Key pattern? There is also a river in modern-day Turkey named the Meander, which is, appropriately, full of meanders:

Meander river course satellite photo. Image courtesy of & Google Earth

This river was well-known in ancient Greece as the “Maiandros”, or “Maeander” river, named after a Greek river god who was its supposed patron. Which came first: the river or the name? We may never know for sure, but there are great examples of river meanders to be found all over the world today, such as this one in England…

River Cuckmere, image courtesy of Wikipedia

… this important river delta in the Africa…

Okavango River Delta, Botswana. Image courtesy of

…this river in Asia…

Songhua River in China. Image courtesy of Wikipedia

…and even our mighty Mississippi. It has meandered extensively over time, as you can see in this map created in a 1944 geological survey:

Alluvial Valley of Missouri and Louisiana, USA. Image courtesy of

You can see that this meandering is a worldwide, not-so-unusual river pattern, if you look for it. The “Greek” part of this motif’s term, I believe, comes into the symbolism of this pattern. In Greece, the Greek Key pattern is believed to be an expression of long life or eternity. This makes a lot of sense when you think about how long it might take a river to carve out a geological meander, but the Greek use of the word and pattern is more of a philosophical one.

There is something classical in the motif because it is used to mark eternity. Maybe there is a larger lesson, a “key”, if you will, from the ancient Greeks to be learned about life in this pattern. Go forward in life, look back a little if you have to, but keep moving forward. Greek civilization is still omnipresent in our everyday lives, so they clearly had some timeless ideas.

Design Examples

This historical origin goes a long way to explain why you can find the Greek Key repeated in so many forms and structures of home design over centuries. Like the river meander, the popularity of the motif doubles back on itself and moves forward. Pictured below are just few examples of the Greek Key at use in home design and architecture:

Cornice molding, image courtesy of

Antique art glass lampshade and base, image courtesy of

An inlay border of a parquet floor, image courtesy of

Modern tile border, image courtesy of

Elegant upholstery trim, image courtesy of

A 1930’s fireplace mantle, image courtesy of

Decor Mood Board

Do you like the Greek Key pattern? Would you like to find some more? Well, I threw together a little decor mood board to help you find some great sources for you home. You can add a little or a lot of pattern to any room with the Greek Key. Take a look and do a little window shopping…

Where can I buy these items? Just click on the links below to jump right to the retail pages…

1. Handmade in America, this elegant throw pillow cover is only $16.95, on Etsy

2. Serve up something delicious from the Wedgwood Dynasty collection, with pieces starting at $20, from Wedgwood

3. Add some Art Deco glamour with this Glossy Black Greek Key Mirror, $249, from Shades of Light

4. One of these 50 x 70- inch knit throws would look great on the end of a bed or chair, $175, at Labrazel Home

5.  Sleek black lamp with a modern Greek Key shade, available in several color options, $99, at Lamps Plus

6. Use the Greek Key pattern as a frame from your bedding with this modern metal sofa daybed, available in two finishes for only $314, from Amazon

7. Add some subtle depth to your wall with this beautiful taupe wallpaper, $250, by style maker Jonathan Adler

So what do you think of the Greek Key motif? Have you noticed it around in stores or other decor sources? Is it fresh and modern, old and traditional, transitional? Do you love it, hate it or meh? Share your opinions in a comment. All opinions and conversation are welcome!

If you liked this post, you may also enjoy some of the other post in my Design Vocabulary series. You can browse around and read from the complete list by clicking right here.

Design Vocabulary: Acanthus Leaves

Today’s Design Vocabulary term is hiding in plain sight. Once you understand what this term means, you’ll realize that you can find this motif everywhere.

Image courtesy of Wikipedia

We’re looking at Acanthus leaves today (pronounced “Ah-CAN-thus”). And you can find them in all sorts of places, both inside and out. That is the flowering variety in the picture shown above, which is rather pretty. You can see the plant has very sharply edged leaves at the base of it. Those are what we are going to go looking for today. Here is a different variety of the Acanthus plant that shows a larger version of those leaves. Take a good look:

Image courtesy of

These leaves had been popular as a design motif for centuries. I can even say that they have been popular for millennia. Let’s look at some of the roots of this plant to see why it is so popular over time. (Oops. Sorry about the pun in that last sentence. Just happened.)

Paging Molly Ringwald

The Acanthus plant is supposedly named after “Acantha”, a minor female character in Greek mythology. She was attractive enough to catch the eye of  Mt. Olympus’s original god-as-a-gift-to-women character, Apollo. Apollo rarely met a woman that he didn’t like and he also didn’t like to hear a girl say the word “No”. He’s kinda like the smart, rich, cute guy you see in all the party scenes in classic John Hughes films. He may seem fun while he’s flirting with you, but you still have that gut feeling that this is not going to end well for you if it goes any further.

DUDE! You just know that missing arm was holding out a beer, don’t you? Image courtesy of the University of Texas

Anyway, Acantha, smart girl, apparently told Apollo “No”. But, since he was a god and all, Apollo couldn’t have his reputation as playboy-deity-of-the-civilized-world diminished, so he did what most jerky gods did in those days to people who stood up for themselves. Her turned her into something else. A plant. With almost-off-putting sharp leaves. “Acantha” now roughly translates from Greek to English as “thorny”, which you can kinda see in those spiked leaves shown above. (Is this Apollo’s way of calling her an ugly name for all eternity? You be the judge.)

So, now you can see how the plant supposedly got its name and we are waaaaay back in ancient Greece.

Slap Some Decor On That Building

Now we all know that the ancient Greeks were brilliant at building. Cities, streets, civic spaces, temples. You dream it, they could build it. And it lasted pretty darn well. Pictured below is an ancient Greek column, in modern-day Athens:

Image courtesy of Wikipedia

See those leaf things growing up from around the top of the column? Those are our Acanthus leaves. The Greeks figured out that with a little sculpting those common plant leaves were actually very decorative as a natural motif on their sleek new buildings. (Take that, Apollo.)

By the way, if you are a long-time reader of this blog or have already perused the Design Vocabulary archives, you absolutely get extra credit if you can also identify the Egg-and-Dart motif on that column above! (Or you can read more about that right here.)

Leaves Going Viral

Ancient Greece was a popular marketplace for all sorts of trading. So, other cultures picked up the Acanthus leaves motif, too. You can easily find it embedded in Byzantine architecture and ALL OVER the work of the ancient world’s original copy cats…the Roman Empire. The Romans took the very best of every culture they conquered and claimed it as their own.

Greek and Roman architecture had a great revival in the 18th century. Most of the world calls this period’s architecture “Classical Revival”. In America, we also call this period “Federal”. You can find Federal style buildings all over the US in the form of government buildings and important institutions. Here is a very famous American building in the Federal style:

Image courtesy of

See those familiar leaves, now curling, at the tops of the columns on the left? Those are our acanthus leaves, back for another round of popularity. And they weren’t just used outside, either. The 18th and 19th century loved “Classical Revival” motifs so you can find great versions of those leaves in sound a house, too. Here’s a bit of pretty reproduction architecture of that period, pretending to be structural support in a doorway…

Image courtesy of

…and here are our leaves hung in a decorative swag on a piece of Wedgwood pottery:

Image courtesy of

There was a famous English style-maker of the 19th century named William Morris. He loved to use botanical themes in his popular wallpapers, many of which still survive today, as does his company. Acanthus leave show up in a lot of his designs, whether they are the focus of the design…

Image courtesy of Morris & Co.

…or play more of a supporting role for other flowers and nature patterns:

Image courtesy of Morris & Co.

Today, you can still find acanthus leaves showing up in home furnishings, including everything from custom tiles…

Image courtesy of

…to modern area rugs.

Image courtesy of Dalyn Rugs

See the curl of the acanthus leaves as it reaches out toward the flowers? This is the same curl we can find in architecture of ancient Greece and Rome. Can you see what I mean when I say these leaves are hiding in plain sight?

How many times have you looked at an American government building and never noticed the acanthus leaves? Where can you spot them in your part of the world? Leave a comment and share your sightings!

Coming tomorrow: Kitchen tools that give you more space!

Design Vocabulary: Shagreen

These are some of my favorite types of posts to write. Partly because I love interesting trivia and history and partly because I love sharing the “What is that?” of the many parts of interior design. Today’s Design Vocabulary word is a great example of the interesting details I love. It is a very old leather that is back in style again.

Leather, as you know, comes from the outer layer of an animal’s skin (the “epidermis” for you science fans). Cow leather, which is arguably what we Americans think of first when we think of “leather”, is traditionally stretched and tanned before use. Shagreen (pronounced: shah-GREEN) is an untanned leather. “Shagreen” used to primarily refer to horse leather, but horse leather has become much less popular in the last century. Nowadays, shagreen almost exclusively refers to shark skin, which looks like this when it is applied as a leather:

Image courtesy of

The above picture is an antique toiletries kit wrapped with shagreen. Shagreen was a true luxury item in past centuries. Imagine how hard it would be to catch, haul in, skin and delicately preserve a shark when out at sea in a ship during the 1700s. Herman Melville eat your heart out. Being able to own and display just a little bit of shagreen in your daily life (“What? This old thing?”), was a real sign of refined taste.

I also chose the above picture to make another point about the term’s origins. Follow me on this little tangent. Those of you who took French in high school might notice a similarity to between “shagreen” and “chagrin”, the latter of which means “embarrassment or anxiety” in French (and now also English). When you consider how “rough”, “coarse”, and “unfinished” can be used to negatively describe something like manners, as in “Your coarse manners reflect your country upbringing.” you can see how the word “chagrin” is clearly a derivative of this unrefined leather. Sneaky, huh?

Fashion forward and backward: a 2012 shagreen handbag Image courtesy of

Shagreen was also used throughout history as a covering for things that could get slippery. Today, we would design something that needs a good grip to have some sort of rubberized wrap around it, like a tennis racket. When your hands get sweaty playing tennis, you don’t ever have to worry about dropping the racket because it has a firm, dry grip.

So, what if you lived in an era that didn’t have rubber or silicone as an option, but you really needed to hold something very firmly, like a toiletries kit, or something more dangerous:

19th century (Edo period) Wakizashi, National Tokyo Museum Image courtesy of Wikipedia

This sword, called a Wakizashi, was used exclusively by the Samurai, the elite class of nobility warriors that served the ruling dynasties of Japan for centuries. And if you look closely, you’ll notice that the handle of this sword is covered in shagreen. (Because who wants to drop their sword in the middle of a battle?)

Shark skin, by its very nature, performs well in moisture. The early sword masters of Japan were using smart technology when they chose this textured material as a standard in their designs. And now, thanks to the renewed interest in shagreen as a modern design element, you can use it to hold onto things you don’t want to drop either:

Cell phone cases Image courtesy of Bergdorff Goodman

Now, I’m not suggesting that everyone go out and buy real shagreen again. (No angry letters from PETA, please.) Sharks are now an endangered species and we all need to act responsibly as custodians of our planet. However, I want you to understand the history of this design element so you can make respectable choices if you like the pattern and texture as it has evolved in today’s design market place.

And evolved it has! Check out these beautiful new bath tiles from designer Ann Sacks:

Image courtesy of Ann Sacks

Can you see how she mimicked the original organic texture in these tiles? I think they are beautiful. How gorgeous they must look when they get wet in a shower. No animal was hurt in the mass production of these tiles, yet we all get to admire the design genius of Mother Nature.

You can also find shagreen applied to more traditional uses again, such as these sets of decorative boxes…

Love these? These sets of boxes are now on sale! Image courtesy of West Elm

…and this large-scale application of shagreen on the surface of a coffee table.

Image courtesy of DwellStudio

Have you noticed any shagreen in the stores lately?  Do you like an animal-based print or texture in home decor?  Where could you see using a little shagreen in your home? Leave a comment!

The life of spice

I thought of the subject of this post months ago, but I decided I would save it until we were into the cooler Fall months. As the summer months pasted, I thought of more and more topics to include in this post. So, now that it is time to write this post, I can’t decide what category this post should fit into on this blog. My choices seem to be between:

  • Design Vocabulary
  • Organization
  • Furniture
  • Food topics

So, I have decided that the answer is: Yes. All of them. We’re talking about spice today. Just like any good spice that can be used in multiple dishes, this subject is a part of many larger topics.

Image courtesy of Wikipedia


In the 16th century, finding islands with exotic spices was the Space Race of it’s day for sea-faring European countries. Massive fortunes were made or lost on the success or failure of a trading company’s ability to get its ships around the world and home again with a full cargo of spices to sell.

City states like Venice and countries like Portugal and Holland invested heavily in ships and trading ports designed to get spices back to their own European markets. Spices were in high demand to give flavor to foods and to work as preservatives in kitchens from every class of the European population.

"MAURITIUS off Rotterdam" in 1601. Image courtesy of


Because it took so much work to bring the spices to the European markets from far away places, often a distance of over 6,000 miles, spices were expensive. With the experience gained from these arduous journeys, spice merchants quickly learned how to ensure that their precious cargo arrived as fresh as possible. No one wanted to pay for an expensive spice expedition and have the product arrive stale months later.

What the spice merchants learned is that heat and light are the most dangerous enemies of any spice. Whether it was an common black pepper or and elusive cinnamon, exposure to heat and light dried all of the flavor out of them. As a consequence, spice ships were large, with deep, dark holds for hundreds of thousands of pound of spice that were undisturbed on the return voyages.

Spice merchants around the world also needed to keep their merchandise fresh as they sold it to customers. We can see a common solution to the light and heat problem, on a shopkeepers display scale, in this example:

Image courtesy of

This spice chest, or apothecary chest, is from Asia, where spices were used for both cooking and medicinal purposes. Each drawer contained the spice label on the drawer’s front and was kept behind a store keeper’s counter to keep the costly spices protected.

Have you ever thrown away an old bottle of spice, well past its “use by” date? It always makes me rather mad at myself when I have to do it. In 16th century homes across Europe and, eventually, the New World, caddies and mini spice cabinets where carved to store these luxurious pantry items safe and functional for as long as they could be kept. These could be ornate and crafted by high-profile cabinet makers, like this Regency-style spice cabinet:

Image courtesy of

or they could be simple and functional in a classic way, like this Shaker-style spice box:

Image courtesy of

With the progresses in ceramics technology, canisters were eventually developed to keep storage functional (no light or heat!) yet still be decorative for the display of such luxury items. Here’s an example of a common spice canister shape:

Image courtesy of beetle2001cybergreen's photostream on

Modern Storage

With the development of refrigeration techniques in the 19th century, spice demand dropped significantly. There were no longer needed for food preservations, but primarily food flavor. As transportation systems advanced, the lengthy travel routes to obtain the spices also became obsolete, causing a sharp drop in prices.

However, the two old enemies of spice are still around, yet we seem to have forgotten about them. Exposure to light and heat can cut the flavor and effectiveness of spices in your recipes by half their natural lifespan. That means your spices could only be good for 3 months if you are storing them in your kitchen like this:

Image courtesy of Amazon

Or some variation of this:

Image courtesy of Amazon

As a person who loves to cook, I hate to see this kind of waste in a kitchen. As a designer, I want to get the word out to help clients and blog readers to remember  the wisdom those spice merchants learned all those years ago.

There are so many great, affordable spice storage options available today that keep our spices handy yet still protected. Here are just a few examples from online retailers:

"Expand-a-drawer spice rack", is only $18 on Amazon

"Super Spicestack", $35 on Amazon (These hold 27 bottles each and can be stacked in multiples.)

"Copco Non-Skid 3-Tier Cabinet Organizer" only $10 on Amazon

"OXO Good Grips Rotating Spice Organizer", only $20 on Amazon

The round parts of that Oxo organizer are turntables, to make it easier to browse your spices. Nice design!

Wanna see my solution for my own kitchen. (I practice what I preach, my friends!) I use the high cabinets above our sink for spice and baking supply storage. Mr. CARO and I are both rather tall, so we can reach these shelves easily.

I bought several bins and broke down my most commonly used spices into four sections of the alphabet to label the bins. The best part is, these bins weren’t designed to be spice containers at all. They were designed to be locker bins for high school students. I found them on clearance for $1 each after the back-to-school season years ago.

I love that these bins are easy to clean and I can tell at a glance if I am out of something. All I have do is label the tops of the bottles and toss them in their bins, although nowadays, many bottles already come labeled.

Kitchen Design

While we’re on the subject, and this was one of my points of inspiration for this post, there are a lot of custom cabinetry option returning to popularity again in new kitchens. Cooking fans have some beautiful and creative solution options that those spice merchants of old would be envious of…

Image courtesy of

FYI: All of our cooking oils and vinegars like a cool, dark place for storage, too. They last longer and keep from going rancid it you store them with the same care that you store your spices.

I am a big fan of this design of built-in spice storage:

Image courtesy of

But whatever you may choose to do with a built-in spice rack, DON’T do this:

Image courtesy of

Right by the oven?! Heat!!!!

Also, avoid putting a built-in spice rack by your dishwasher, which also generates a lot of heat on its side panels. Better to put your pretty and practical spice rack somewhere else in the cabinetry line up. Like this example I recently snapped in Home Depot:

Now you see it, safe, dry and cool next to the sink…

…and now you don’t. Beautiful, practical and functional.

Have you ever thought about how you store spices in your kitchen? How many bottles of spice do you use regularly use in your home? (Just guesstimate.) Do you cringe, like I do, when you have to throw away a wasted spice? Anyone out there have a creative way to store spices in their pantry? Share your spicy-ness in a comment!

No braces required

We’re talking today about dental molds.

Image courtesy of

Wait. That’s not quite right.

Same root word, but rather different meanings.

We’re talking today about “dentil molding”, which looks like this:

Image courtesy of

Can you see the similarities between those two pictures? They both have orderly rows of square (or square-like) silhouettes that stand out from the backing they are attached to, giving them some depth.

Like the decorative molding we discussed last week, you can find dentil molding in all sorts of places that need a decorative trim or detail. Here’s a great example of dentil molding dressing up an architectural facade:

Image courtesy of Wikipedia

Here’s an example of dentil molding dressing up some cabinetry:

Image courtesy of

Here it is again, combined with some egg and dart molding, decorating an elaborate mantle:

Image courtesy of

Can you see the dentil line right up at the top of the carved rows? Dentil molding is a very popular motif because it can be used with very traditional styles, like the mantle above, and more modern decor. You can find it in some rather prominent places that you may not have even noticed before now, like on this famous residence:

Image courtesy of

Think you can spot dentil molding when you see it now? Do you have some dentil molding in your home? What other motifs are in your home that you need to identify? Leave a comment describing them for me and we’ll discuss them in a future post!

Want more Design Vocabulary? You can see everything we’ve talked about so far right here.

Egg-cellent design motif

How do you like your eggs? Sunny side up, over easy, scrambled, soft-boiled, hard-boiled, poached, coddled? I like them just about every way except hard-boiled. Unless the hard-boiled eggs are part of something larger, like a salad or a sandwich.

I especially like them over easy or poached. I love the runny yolk that can be sopped up with toast. One of  Mr. CARO’s kitchen specialties is Eggs Benedict, just like you see in the picture below. He makes this breakfast so well that I never order it out anymore because I know his is better. (Is anyone else craving breakfast foods now?)

Image courtesy of

Okay, back to my real subject. We’re going to look at an entirely different type of eggs today and add to our Design Vocabulary. In fact, if you bite into these eggs, I can almost guarantee that you’ll require some serious dental surgery.

We’re talking today about the design motif called “egg and dart”. This decorative pattern dates back to ancient times, as in ancient Rome, Greece and Egypt, and is still produced today on everything from architecture to housewares. Here is a close-up example:

Image courtesy of

Can you see where the motif gets its name? Here is the “egg”:

And here is the “dart”:

(My graphics are dazzling, I know. Try not to swoon.) The “dart” often looks like more of an arrow. You may even, occasionally, hear this motif referred to as “egg and arrow”, but the more common term is “egg and dart”.

You can find the egg and dart motif in many places that need some sort of decorative border or edge. Such as this historic cornice molding on the ceiling at Thomas Jefferson’s home in Virginia:

Image courtesy of

Or mixed in with other popular design motifs on this mantle piece:

Image courtesy of

Or these two products…

..both of which are available now at Home Depot. (Yep, Home Depot!) This motif is still in demand, especially if you are restoring an older property. Great examples of egg and dart on housewares include this clock:

Image courtesy of

And the edging around this antique tray:

Image courtesy of

Some talented artist even used the egg and dart motif as a focal point decoration on this modern custom park bench:

Image courtesy of

I love this example! It just goes to show you how a great ancient design can still be versatile and modern with a new application. Nowadays, you can even find new items being made to look older by just applying older motifs. This lovely cornice box looks like it has some very fine carving of the egg and dart motif, but is actually just painted on by a talents artist in the UK.

Image courtesy of

That is beautiful work, isn’t it?!

Is there an egg and dart motif on something in your home? Are there older buildings in your area that sport the egg and dart pattern as part of their architecture? While we’re at it, how do you like your eggs? Leave a comment below and join the conversation!

Like to learn more Design Vocabulary terms like this? You can click right here to see all of the terms we’ve covered so far. Happy reading!

Dinner is served

Have you ever struggled to decide what to make for dinner? Well, today’s post has two Design Vocabulary terms that should change the way you ever look at dinner again. We’re talking about two very different styles of serving dinner in the last two centuries and what prompted the change. But first, I have a guest hostess helping me with this post…

A most important introduction

Allow me to introduce you to Mrs. Isabella Beeton:

Image courtesy of Wikipedia

Her husband was a successful publisher and in 1861, Mrs.Beeton published her own book with his firm. The Book of Household Management, more commonly referred to a “Mrs. Beeton’s”, was a best seller from its first publishing well into the 1920’s.

While there is now detailed evidence to suggest that many of her 100+ pages of recipes and much of her detailed household advice came from others, including her own servants, there is no question that her book was ground breaking as “a guide of reliable information for the aspirant middle classes”. In short, she was THE original Martha Stewart.

Mrs. Beeton is helping me today by supplying most of the images in this post from the many editions of her book. Like Martha Stewart, Mrs. Beeton included beautiful displays of finished recipes in her book to inspire her readers. While some of her dishes may seem a little frilly or even impossibly over dressed to our eyes today, the images provide valuable insight to what was stylish and desirable to hostesses of earlier eras.

And oh, sooooo many dishes were needed! Let’s grab a seat at the table to see what’s going on…

À La Française

Pronounced “ah-la-frawn-SAYS”, this was the style of serving dinner for many centuries across Europe. What was once the style of dining for nobility and the aristocracy had trickled down from the Middle Ages to be common in all middle class homes up until the mid 19th century.

The goal for this serving style was to show a bountiful display of food which, in turn, attributed wealth and hospitality to the host and hostess. This is the most important thing to remember about the “à la française” dinner service. The show of the food for the guests was essential.

To this end, multiple dishes of food were prepared, well beyond the quantity that would seem appropriate to us today. A dinner for six to eight would require a minimum of four courses and include the following quantities of food.

First course: (on the table when the guests enter the dining room)

  • Hare soup
  • Pigeon bisque (soup)
  • Oysters
  • Oyster sauce
  • Cod’s head and shoulders
Second course:
  • Boiled turkey
  • Mashed potatoes
  • Asparagus tips
  • Saddles of mutton
Third course:
  • Cheese fondue
  • A joint of beef, garnished with pasta
  • Spit-roasted ham
  • Two salads
Fourth course:
  • Covered cream pie
  • Punch jelly (from a jelly mold)
  • Brace of partridges
  • Warm paté
While you may not recognize the names of some of the above dishes, you can certainly see how much food this is for only eight people. And this isn’t a menu for a big Saturday night dinner party, either. This would just be a husband’s business or networking dinner party on an average Wednesday.

All of the dishes in each course would have been carefully and symmetrically put on the table simultaneously by servants, so as to show off the quantity the food. There is a whole separate list of rules about where on the table which food could and could not be placed in relation to other foods. It’s enough for a whole other post on this topic, but just take it from me, it is quite fussy.

Then the food would be carved, plated and served to each guest by the host and hostess at the heads of the table and passed to each guest’s place by other guests. This often meant that your portion of food did not arrive on your plate warm, but this was the norm. Did I mention the garnishing? Well, you can’t just place pork chops on a large platter! You have to dress them to look extraordinary:

It was not expected that everyone eat or even sample every dish placed on the table, but that the guests could pick and choose to suit their own tastes. You can probably imagine the havoc this could wreck on a household budget. We take it for granted that our food costs today will be significantly lower than our housing costs. In 19th century Europe, those household budget percentages were much closer together.

To make ends meet, a good mistress used what we all use today to make her food budget stretch further. Today, we call them “leftovers”. In fact the most common household family/non-dinner-party meal of Victorian England appears to have been nothing but creative courses of leftovers. The average middle class family was said to enjoy only three “fresh”/new dinners a week. There were even popular recipes in ladies magazines with detailed instructions on disguising the leftover dishes in ways that a hungry husband won’t complain about them.

Now imagine being a household cook, “below stairs”.  You must have your recipes memorized because “Mrs. Beeton’s” is really for the mistress of the house to read and use to direct the servants. At every meal, you must time all the dishes of each course to be served together.

Then, while preparing the next courses you must wait to see if the family and any guests at least try all of the dishes, thus proving them to be appetizing and therefore good work to your boss, the mistress of the house. A good cook was the pride of any Victorian household staff and a very highly coveted commodity among ladies of society.

Soooo much work for everyone from the servants to the guests, and so much money spent! When a change from this very expensive dinner service arrived, it caught on fast.

À La Russe

Pronounced “ah-la-ROOSE”, this “new” style of dinner service first made its appearance around the 1830’s when a Russian prince began entertaining guests in his Paris apartment in the style of his homeland. (“Russe” is the French word for “Russian”.)

Paris and its social elite quickly adapted this dining style as their own. And since Paris was the fashion and diplomatic center of the world in the 19th century, reports of the style soon spread to other world capitals. The actual arrival of this dining style in Washington D.C. (at The White House, no less!) was the talk of the town. By the late 1880’s, the “à la Russe” service was considered standard everywhere.

You, dear reader, are already familiar with dining à la Russe. See if this sounds familiar:

  • You enter the dining room and are seated at the table
  • The table features a decorative centerpiece
  • After all the guest are seated, the first course is served
  • The first course consists of the same dish, on identical plates, served to all of the guest at the same time by servants
  • All subsequent courses are served to and cleared from guests directly at their seats, by servants
  • There is no quest for symmetry in the placing of dishes on the table
  • Large dishes requiring carving or complex serving are kept on a sideboard (or buffet, as we call them today)
  • Large dishes on the sideboard are carved by servants so that each guest could choose their own size of serving
  • No serving of food arrives at your place setting cold
  • Desserts are placed on the table to tantalize you as you make your own dessert selection

Of course, this is the way we all dine in nice restaurants today, although the dessert course is now often represented in pictures in some restaurants. I’ll bet most of you serve your family dinners and your large holiday meals this very same way, too. So what was the attraction to such a huge change so quickly? A most basic reason: it was much cheaper.

The “à la Russe” service is estimated to have cost the host and hostess one-third of what the same dinner would have cost them in the “à la française” style. There was no more need to fill the table with so many dishes that may or may not be eaten. The dishes served need not be filled to the very rim with a large quantity of food either. And no one was suffering over the leftovers for the rest of the week.

Hello, new customers!

It wasn’t just the middle class household budget that appreciated this dining change. The manufacturers of tableware were delighted at all the new possibilities and took great advantage of them. Whole new lines of silver cutlery and tableware were created to serve the “à la Russe” dinner service.

The “à la Russe” table now has a much more visible service, since we removed all of those overflowing dishes of food. You can’t just get by with a simple colored tablecloth anymore. You need a beautiful embroidered one or a luxurious damask one or something in a delicately printed silk…

What are you going to put in the center of the table now? You could easily place lovely dishes and compotes of the dessert course fruit out to bring some delicious color to the center of attention. (See the photo above for examples.) Indeed, when “Mrs. Beeton’s” finally resolved itself to this new normal, the later editions even offered some inspiration for mixing in fruit and flowers. (Now you know where your great-great-grandmother’s silver centerpiece bowl comes from…)

Have you ever eaten with a salad fork? They never existed before the “à la Russe” dinner service. The same can be said for the soup spoon, the fish knife, the oyster fork, the cake fork, the egg spoon, the iced tea glass, the iced tea spoon, the mayonnaise ladle, the lemon fork, the olive fork, the sugar spoon, the asparagus serving fork, the ice cream cutting knife, the ice cream fork, the jelly scoop, the salt spoon, the tomato server, the bon bon tongs, the “one tine butter pick” and dozens of other rather expensive yet very specific utensils that are now (mercifully) no longer quite so in demand. And now you know why we dine like we do.

It’s feeling a lot less difficult to figure out what you’re serving for dinner tonight, isn’t it? Do you think you could prepare a meal worthy of Mrs. Beeton’s? This British couple didn’t think so…

…but then one day they decided to clean out their basement. You have to see it to believe what they found! You can read the full article with fantastic pictures right here.

So, what’s for dinner at your house tonight? No, seriously! Leave your dinner plans in a comment and let’s compare how we all eat in our homes today…minus all those servants!

Cowboy living

A little Design Vocabulary for you today, as we mosey on into the sunset of the work week. We’re going to look at a unique American furniture designer and how his creations have become part of our national identity.


Thomas C. Molesworth (1890-1977) was born in Kansas in 1890 and studied at the Art Institute of Chicago. After working at a furniture store in Chicago, he, like many men of his generation, enlisted and fought in World War I. After returning from the war, he eventually found work managing a furniture store in Cody, Wyoming.

Thomas C. Molesworth, Image courtesy of his granddaughter on

In 1933, Molesworth got a unique commission from Moses Annenberg, a major national newspaper publisher of his day. Annenberg had seen and admired Molesworth’s work in his store windows. He asked Molesworth to completely furnish his newly built ranch, “Ranch A”, in Beulah, Wyoming. Molesworth created the lighting, accessories and over 24o pieces of furniture for the ranch house.

Ranch A, Image courtesy of

The success of his Ranch A design led to a wealth of commissions for his Shoshone Furniture Company, which he operated with his wife for thirty years. Hotels, lodges, major homes and even Dwight Eisenhower’s Gettysburg home ordered custom furniture from Molesworth.

Today, original Molesworth pieces are dream acquisitions for collectors and experts alike. If you are an Antiques Roadshow fan like I am, you can watch for the unbridled excitement of the appraisers when a real Molesworth piece is brought in to be examined.


So, what makes Molesworth so unique? When the West was settled in the 1800’s, the homesteaders, ranchers, cowboys and other new residents made furniture out of what was on hand. Before the spread of the railroad, furniture for your home was whatever you could build or brought out West with you in your wagon.

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As a result of these limitations, most furnishings were simply made, using local materials. None of the exotic hardwoods, ornate finishes and luxury upholstery that we normally associate with the Victorian era were available out West. If you think back to any of your childhood “Little House on the Prairie” memories (especially the books), you’ll remember that Pa built most of the furniture himself and that window pane glass was something you save up your money to afford.

While most of America was discovering the Sears catalog home, Molesworth took the old Western design restrictions and embraced them. His upholstery used beautiful local Navajo rugs, his furniture sported carved Western motifs in natural wood finishes and his fine leathers were not from Italy, but from locally raised cattle.

Card table, Image courtesy of

Can you see how he respected the natural burl of this piece of wood’s growth? Each piece is original because he works within the guidelines of the natural form.

Ranch A chair, Image courtesy of

I admire Molesworth for using the indigenous landscape motifs in creative ways, such as in this:

Fire screen, Image courtesy of

Can’t you just imagine how beautiful this would look with a blazing fire behind it? It makes the fire the focus of the art as a sunset. Gorgeous design!

As luck would have it, America was re-discovering the West at the same time that Molesworth was furnishing it. With the installation of the National Parks system and interstate highways, more and more Americans took to vacationing out West in the ’30’s, ’40’s and ’50’s. With Molesworth’s unique furnishings filling the most popular lodges and hotels, his style soon became recognizable as “authentic” Western furniture.

Wagon wheel chandelier, Image courtesy of

His work also coincided with the invention of the most popular marketing tool ever invented: television. America loved its early television and it loved its Westerns even more. (Ask any male Baby Boomer if he ever owned or wanted to own a Davy Crockett raccoon skin hat.) How better to enjoy 20 seasons of Gunsmoke than watching from your own Molesworth chair?

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Thomas Molesworth died in 1977 (just two years after Gunsmoke ended its record-breaking run), but his style has lived on. “Molesworth” remains the gold-standard name for western inspired furnishings. Molesworth originals reach high auction prices, often in the millions. Several major museums have curated very popular Molesworth exhibits.

Cowboy Entertainment Center by Marc Taggart, Image courtesy of

New designers and artisans have found creative ways to bring Molesworth’s Western style to new generations of Americans. Even some of our leading style-makers have embraced the relaxed comfort of Molesworth in their own homes. For example:

Image courtesy of Harpo Studios

This is the Telluride, Colorado living room of Ralph Lauren. I can definitely see the appeal of sinking into that sofa with a great book or watching tv while sharing a big bowl of popcorn with my sweetie. Can you imagine yourself there?

What says “old American West” to you? Have you had a great vacation out West or are you lucky enough to live there? What speaks to you about Molesworth’s designs? Don’t be shy. Blogs are for conversation, so leave a comment!

Happy Trails to you, until Monday!

Victorian’s Secret

Whenever I hear the Antiques Roadshow theme song, the UK or American version, I am like a moth to a flame. I love to see how people really lived in their homes in past eras and I’m especially intrigued with all of the helpful gadgets and household doo-dahs that we can’t even recognize anymore.

Because I love to see inside old homes, we are also big fans of Victorian era costume dramas/mini-series. All of the daily routines and relationships and class rules are fascinating. The daily work of an average Victorian servant is consistently humbling. If you watched Downton Abbey this past season on PBS or any episode of Upstairs Downstairs, you know exactly what I mean.

Image courtesy of the Norfolk Records Office

See the gentle smirks on those servants? It’s because they know more than we do. I can’t imagine living without my microwave, yet alone taking apart a cast iron stove to clean and polish it once or twice a week. Do you know what that big roller thing is in the picture above? It’s used to tamp down the cut grass after it has been mowed. I would have never thought of doing that. Would you?

With this in mind, and to have some fun, I’ve pulled together some antique household tools for us to name. Embrace your inner Antiques Roadshow expert and see if you can recognized what these five items were commonly used for in Victorian homes. I’ve set the questions up like several polls, so you can see how others have guessed for each question after you vote. I’ve also posted the answers below, so you can see how you did. Here we go…



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Does this give you new respect for the Antiques Roadshow experts? Let’s check out the answers…


1. This tool was used to roast meat and is called a “roasting jack”.

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The picture I showed you is actually a “bottle (roasting) jack”. The cylinder shaped weigh at the bottom houses a clockwork timer that slowly rotates the roast as it cooks in front of a fire, like this:

Image courtesy of Wikipedia

2. This tool is called a coal scuttle. It was used to hold coal by the fireplace so that it could be added, like firewood, when the fire was getting low.

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The decorative lid on this coal scuttle tells us it was used in the formal entertaining rooms of the house, such as the drawing room or dining room. The lid helped keep the coal dust off the good furniture and fabrics, although people brought soot in from outside, too. Here’s a look at the inside of a coal scuttle of the same era:

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3. This tool was used for preparing breakfast or afternoon tea.

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Called a “toasting fork”, this long iron fork allowed the cook to toast breads evenly over a fire without risking burns to herself or her uniform. You can still find iron toasting forks today at many camping and outdoors stores. Here’s a toasting fork at work:

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4. This is an old hot water bottle, used to warm people in bed.

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This type of hot water bottle was tricky for many households. Wiggly, sick children in bed had a tendency to accidently loosen the cork, which caused scalding hot water to pour all over them and cause serious burns. With the expansion of the British Empire in India, rubber products (made from Indian rubber trees) became available for all sorts of household purposes, including safer hot water bottles.

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5. This pretty little tool was used to help ladies remove their boots and is known as a “boot jack”.

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With all of the stiff frame work of their corsets, Victorian ladies of most classes weren’t able to bend down to their ankles to free their shoes. And even if they could, it would hardly have been seen as lady-like behavior. (Try not to swoon at the very thought…) Boot jacks are still in use today. Here’s a picture of one in action:

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So, how did you do? Did anything surprise you? I am not a fan of housework, but when I think of the tools and efforts it used to take to clean…I’m very grateful for our modern conveniences.

What household chore do you dread the most? Do you think you could have handled your daily chores in the Victorian era or would you have demanded servants?  You’ll have to leave a comment below to share. My servant bell-pull appears to be broken…


We’re picking up where we left off with yesterday’s post with a related Design Vocabulary term today. Two Design Vocabulary terms in one week? That’s crazy talk! I know, but they are so closely related. I think if we are going to talk about embossed wallpaper, we should do it right. That’s just how I roll. (Does my “roll” pun in a post about wallpaper seem spontaneous? Let’s pretend it does.)

Image courtesy of Southern Living


We discussed the popularity of Lincrusta yesterday. It was so popular that a Lincrusta company employee, a Mr. Thomas J. Palmer, had an idea for advancing the technology. He took his idea to his boss, but Mr. Walton was not interested. So, Mr. Palmer took out his own patent and formed his own successful company in 1887.


The term “Anaglypta” is compiled from two Greek root words, “ana” meaning “raised” and “glypta” meaning “cameo”. The difference between Lincrusta and Mr. Palmer’s Anaglypta is its core materials. While Lincrusta is oil and wood flour formed hard onto canvas, Anaglypta is formed from wood pulp and cotton onto paper. This makes Anaglypta lighter in weight and more flexible to apply to a wall.

If you have ever lived in an old house, you are probably aware of the phenomenon of the house “settling”. Anaglypta has the same easy-to clean and easy-to paint qualities as Lincrusta, but its flexibility makes it more suitable to other, more complicated surfaces and their aging behaviors.

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Historically, it is difficult to tell Anaglypta from Lincrusta just by looking at it or running your hand along the wall. However, the most commonly produced of the two for modern homes is Anaglypta. It is just easier to apply and maintain that the rigid Lincrusta.

Modern Styles and Sources

Most great wallpaper companies make their own version of anaglypta today. It can be very handy if you need to cover a poorly finished wall in an older home. It can be a great solution to adding some big impact to modern walls.

I’ve gathered together some great modern anaglypta below for some browsing fun for you today. Most of these images are going to be without color because they want you to imagine your own color over the top. We can daydream together…

This wallpaper is called “Jana” by Graham & Brown. (I am a huge fan of all things Graham & Brown.) I really like the modern geometry of this pattern. I would love to see this in a rich charcoal color.

This is “Curvy”, also by Graham & Brown. This photo is s great example of how paint can really personalize this wallpaper. If you eve get tired of the pink color, you can just paint right over it. I would love to use this wallpaper with a peacock blue-teal paint, because the pattern reminds me of the exotic eye pattern on peacock feathers.

This is “Small Squares” from Graham and Brown, which has an older feel to it and could be used many different ways. I would love to use this on a ceiling in a rich Spanish red leather type of color. Ooh, that would be so decadent to see as you walk into a room!

This is Graham & Brown’s “Large Damask” and I’m glad they’ve shown this paper in a bathroom setting. Wallpaper in a small, less-used room, like a powder room, is a great way to use pattern and texture without worrying about “getting tired of it”. I would love to paint this wallpaper in a deep sage green.

It’s the beadboard that is the anaglypta in this Graham & Brown picture. Much easier to install than real beadboard. I am always in favor of less sawdust to clean up after a decor project. Martha Stewart makes a version of this pattern for Home Depot, too.

Just in case you’re thinking, “I haven’t seen this type of wallpaper anywhere.”, let me assure you, it’s out there. Many companies now use the term “paintable wallpaper” to market these products. I guess “Anaglypta” requires a history explanation they don’t want to bother with, but now you are in the know. Here are links to full lines of “paintable wallpapers” at stores and sites you might already be familiar with:

Next time you find yourself in one of these stores, take a look at their anaglypta samples up close. Run your hands over them and see if you can see what you great grandparents loved about them. They are great wall coverings with a long history behind them.

Do you like them idea of textured wallpaper? Do you prefer an older style or something with a more mod print? Share your impressions with me…(I promise that’s the last embossed wallpaper pun for a while.)

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