Gateway Arch….really big public art.

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As soon as I knew I was going to a conference in Milwaukee, I pulled out the road maps and started dreaming.

Too many things on my “to do list of life” list located in the Mid West, so it was hard to decide what I could fit in and where I could go.

Images of the Arch, and the Mississippi,  and an old Nelly interview floated thru my mind…

I decided to fly in to Chicago, get a rental car and do a driving pilgrimage to St Louis .

 

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I didn’t know what I would find and as I drove down the interstate towards St Louis, in grey skies and drizzly rain I wondered, would I see it as I drove in?

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Yes!

There it was.Gleaming and soaring above a subdued downtown, emerging from a parkland forest of trees and on the west bank of the Mississippi River, the site of the founding of St Louis.

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A sculpture and symbol of all that I love about America. The dynamism and optimism that propelled settlers across the continent. 630′ of soaring, stainless steel symbolizing Westward expansion.

Remarkable in so many ways, not the least the fantastic decision to create a huge, dramatic piece of public art.

Where else? Mt Rushmore?

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Designed by Eero Sarrinen, Finnish-American architect and industrial designer, and Hannskarl Bandarl, a German-American engineer.

Saarinen, now famous for his futuristic structural curves and precise simplicity in buildings,  monuments and furniture, won the design prize after competing with his father.His first win!

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Work commenced in 1963 and it opened to the public in 1967. It cost $13 million dollars ….around $175 million today, 50 years later.

More than 4 million people a year visit the site , many taking the claustrophobic tram inside to the top.Not me …just a visit to the museum and a lazy hour wandering the parkland and gazing up.

No surprise that St Louis is home to other smaller sculpture and public art spaces ( the Serra Scupture park and Citygarden).

The timeless innovative design and simple beauty of Gateway Arch , “reflective in sunshine,soft and pewterish in mist,crisp as a line drawing one minute, chimerical the next” exceeded any and all my expectations and creates marvel and awe in everyone who visits.

 

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Xian Wei

Xian Wei, brainchild of Chef Luther Bob Chen and General Manager Kenny Lui is nothing short of breathtakingly ambitious. When 20 year old Luther says he’s “always had a 12 year plan” you can be assured that the future, when realized, will be big!

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Now a unique pop-up supper club, soon to be artisan street food truck and then a “couple” of fine dining restaurants, Xian Wei explores the complexity, history, and flavors of Chinese cuisine. The supper club, based around seasonal menus, operates from a private home in San Pedro. Limited to 8 guests, the 9 courses are an elegant homage to Chef Luther’s background and passion.

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Diminutive, deconstructed, and visually stunning, they travel the gamut of texture, taste and region and with a couple of amuse bouche provide well over 4 hours of delicious dining and conversation.

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Strangers become friends and fans with Luther joining the table to talk, answer questions, and share stories. Both Luther and Kenny grew up in the San Gabriel Valley area of Los Angeles with a lifetime of “xian wei”, meaning fresh flavor or what the Japanese call umami under their belts. After school “cheffing” and the decision to attend CIA in New York placed Luther on his trajectory early, followed by a solo expedition to China and Taiwan, visiting relatives and soaking up food and cultural treasures. Xian Wei the business was born.

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Kenny Lui, who describes himself as a serial entrepreneur, is responsible for developing the vision and direction of the next phase: the Shao Kao BBQ food truck and leading the team in execution and business operations.

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This menu is based on skewers and categorized into REDS (meats such as lamb, hangar steak, poussin wing), BLUES (seafood options like whole squid, oysters, pike, prawns, and fish balls) and GREENS (eggplant, mushrooms, young bamboo, sweet potato) Permitting for the truck build has just been ticked off the list and the team hope to be serving food first quarter in 2015.

http://www.xianwei.com

http://www.shaokaobbq.com

Georgia territory

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Abiquiu in Northern New Mexico is the place where Georgia O’Keeffe lived and painted.

“When I got to New Mexico, that was mine.As soon as I saw it , that was my country”

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The stunning, stark beauty of the high desert landscape had been her inspiration since her first visit in 1929.For 20 years she travelled from New York to Abiquiu each summer, often staying for six months in solitude, to paint the skies and desert, colored rock formations, distant mountains and Chama  river valley.

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Smaller found objects like bleached bones and rocks, exotic cactus flowers and the wood and adobe structures also found their way onto her canvases. Three years after her husband’s death she moved permanently to New Mexico and eventually owned two homes .

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The first in Ghost Ranch, was high and secluded. Nestled beneath 700-foot cliffs it looked over to the flat-topped Pedernal. “Pedernal is my private mountain” she said frequently.”God told me if I painted it enough I could have it.”

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The second, initially used as her winter residence, was in the small town of Abiquiu at an elevation  of 6400′ and overlooked the Chama River with its  green trees and fields.

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Both locations surrounded her with a wealth of imagery for her paintings.

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Visiting Abiquiu over Christmas I was struck at each turn of the road  how recognizable the landscape is because of our familiarity with O’Keeffe’s work.

Driving north towards Ghost Ranch we knew we were getting close when Chimney Rocks came into sight.

Photographs taken quickly (with the phone!) out the window of the car amazed us with their color and clarity. Georgia O’Keeffe was quoted as saying that most of her art was done in New Mexico before she put her brushes to the canvas.

There is almost no tourist infrastructure in Abiquiu. An Inn with a small but good restaurant. A road house /gas station famous for breakfast burritos. Georgia’s home in town is only open for tours in the warmer months and her home at Ghost Ranch can only be toured via enquiries at the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum in Santa Fe. Ghost Ranch, now owned by the Presbyterian Church is a retreat, conference center,geology museum and place of learning.Each year there are hundreds of classes to take, many residential.

What is there and intensely accessible, are breathtaking vistas that shock. Skies that amaze with crystalline blue beauty, the whitest clouds and nearly every night billions of sparkly stars.Every road takes you somewhere you want to explore:cliff dwellings, pueblos, monasteries and churches, rocks and petroglyphs and tiny adobe hamlets.

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We rented a little stone house and pinched ourselves every morning when we looked out the windows, across Georgia’s valley.

State of Enchantment , as marked on the car number plates…not really a cliche!

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http://www.okeeffemuseum.org

http://www.GhostRanch.org

http://www.abiquiuinn.com

Flat whites

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So I live in town where it’s well nigh impossible to get a good coffee.
As a mostly tea drinker, it’s mostly ok, but for meeting a friend I want a coffee.
And when I want to sit and read, or write, or watch and ponder, I need a good flat white in front of me.
( and an atmosphere and ambience that vibes to all of the above)

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Moving to the US was a shock having grown up in the antipodean coffee culture….real espresso served sit down style in a one off, owner operated coffee shop.

“But where do I go to have a coffee?” asks the immigrant bride!

All I could see were brewers and glass pots perched in a diner or breakfast place, and the coffee places in the mall reeked of sweet artificial flavorings and there was no where to sit.

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In Australia,  commercial espresso machines proliferated after WWII and the ensuing influx of European immigrants and most every  cafe had one.Even in small country towns, fabulous n fancy machines dominated the counters at main street “milk bars” and if the actual coffee wasn’t so great, we grew up drinking cappuccinos with our friends and seeing espresso as the basis of any coffee drink.

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Unlike the USA where electric brew pots reigned supreme, most Aussies had percolators, a French press or drip paper system at home. Maybe a stove top espresso, and instant for emergencies! Quality coffee was becoming more and more prevalent and roasters pushed the industry forward with branded sponsored umbrellas, cups and paraphernalia for the coffee bars and cafes.

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In the late 70’s and early 80’s the flat white/short black phenomena exploded, and the terminology continues today.

It was only the arrival of Starbucks that brought paper takeaway cups and “Big Gulp” sizes to Sydney and Melbourne. No surprise to anyone ( except the coffee execs perhaps?) when 2/3rds of the stores closed within a year of opening. Why would anyone reared on great coffee want the McCoffee style experience?

Different here where it’s the benchmark. But beyond a wrenchingly early morning at the airport , or in a drive thru on road trip why?

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Over the past year I have found my way back to my favorite coffee…..the flat white.

It’s 2 shots of espresso and a smaller amount of velvetty, foamy stretched milk.Served in a real cup, 6 to 8oz with a gorgeous merged crema and foam.

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Originating in Australia and New Zealand it’s de rigeur in London, most parts of Asia, Berlin and now available here: notably at my favorite coffee place in LA, Deus ex Machina in Venice.coffee3

Not to be confused with a latte which is bigger and whiter or a cappuccino which floats dryer foam on top of the espresso and milk, the secret of the flat white is the milk/coffee ratio and the micro foamed milk.

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So big coffee news this week.
Starbucks will begin selling the flat white in the USA this Tuesday.

Drippingly ironic as just last year the company officially exited Australia after apparently losing millions of dollars.Completely unsuccessful in the face of an obsessive coffee culture which prizes quality,flavor and technique over ubiquity and mass production.

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So maybe give one a try but I’m not confident that the push button machine, harsh roasts and paper cups will do justice to my favorite .
Better still, seek out a real coffee house where baristas work their magic on a glorious La Marzocco or Nuova Simonelli and sit and savor the best coffee of the day!

glossary

flat white:2 shots of espresso and about 6 ounces of foamy milk.

short black: one or two shots of espresso.

long black: espresso with hot water, an americano.

cappuccino; espresso w an equal amount of steamed milk , topped with a thick layer of foam.

Salvation Mountain

 

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2 hours south of Palm Springs, on the desolate eastern shore of Salton Sea, there’s remnants of a WW2 facility called Slab City.

Home to snowbirds and squatters, families on hard times and eccentrics,
it’s now famous as the home of Salvation Mountain, one man’s 30 year celebration of faith.

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Desert detritus, (adobe, house paint, rocks, sticks and straw) fashioned to his greater good, Salvation Mountain attracts visitors from across the globe and casts a spell on all who visit.

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Created by Leonard Knight , the installation is 3 stories high and 100′ wide…a swath of technicolor love.Cameoed in ‘Into the Wild” Leonard shares his belief in God and Love and tells the story of his conversion, his place in the world and his love for this remote, rundown location.  

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Described by Barbara Boxer, California’s Congresswoman as ” a unique and visionary sculpture. A national treasure, profoundly strange and beautifully accessible”.

It’s open from dawn till dusk everyday.

Not so far from Los Angeles….but a kindred surreal experience given the history of Salton Sea, the brilliant and disconcerting mash up of present day Palm Springs and the harsh Coachella landscape, and the lovely poignancy of this outsider artist and his legacy of love.

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http://www.salvationmountain.org

Hayden Tract : Exploring LA

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Years ago I worked in Culver City.

The area was dodgy and rundown.
Driving home, often at midnight, I’d head out through the warehouses to La Cienaga, making sure the windows were locked, hyper mindful of the drug dealing, violence and potential bad stuff that could happen. During daylight the area was dull and forlorn: beige warehouses, dusty trees and trash.

So what fun to return and park on one of the same back streets and find myself in an LA architectural happening.

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Unknown to most Los Angelenos, this 8 block area (wedged between Ballona Creek, National Boulevard and the rail line) is one cool place to walk around. And I dare you not to go crazy photojournalist!

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This visually arresting experiment/real estate development is the result of 2 developers (husband & wife, Frederick and Laurie Samitaur Smith) who bought up a lot of those old warehouses and architect Eric Owen Moss, director of Southern California Institute of Architecture, generally regarded as the most avant garde of US schools.

To quote the developers, “The ambition was to go into a very destitute neighborhood—which it was—to improve the economics (via job creation) and to introduce art and culture. We wanted to make no place, someplace.”

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To that end they handed the warehouses to Moss who created contemporary, reworked and repurposed buildings.

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The architecture is jarring, industrial and angular.
And a walk down Hayden St is an adventure…..

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Concrete, glass, metal… twisty facades and towers, hanging cactus gardens, famous tenants (HQ for Beats by Dre just up the road) and art installations.

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Moss, whose office is on the street, is still creating unique and singular buildings for the Samitaur Smiths, like the amazing art piece, Samitaur Tower and the Waffle, a bendy, egg crate-structured conference center. The buildings name’s sum up the atypical looks: the Stealth, the Beehive, and The Box.

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The area is now morphing into a neighborhood with the Expo Line station close by, wiggly treelined bike paths in between the buildings, fellow starchitect Thom Mayne’s Morphosis office across the way and SF hipster bakers, Craftsman and Wolves about to open their LA outpost.

Another quirky pocket of LA to explore 🙂

Mission Inn

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How many times did I fly by on the 91, intent only on Palm Springs grooviness?

Impatient for warm breezes, misting margarita nights and mid century fabulousness?

It took a visiting friend, and the chance to show off a piece of Ron and Nancy Reagan trivia that finally turned me off the freeway and into historic downtown Riverside. Home of the amazing Mission Inn.

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The Inn occupies an entire city block. A fantastical melange of arcades and gardens and turrets and towers, it started life as a 12 room boarding house in 1876 and was “completed” in 1931.

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Over the years guest wings were added, along with cloistered walkways and gardens, music rooms and galleries, chapels, spanish patios, towers and restaurants and it became a major tourist destination for wealthy east coasters and europeans.

During the 30 plus year construction the eccentric & visionary owner, Frank Miller traveled the world, collecting treasures and now the artifacts have been valued at over $5 million.

Days Inn it is not!

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The St. Francis Chapel has 4 four huge Tiffany stained-glass windows and two original mosaics. The “Rayas Altar” is 25′ by 16′ across, carved from cedar and completely covered in gold leaf. And in the  “Garden of Bells,” Miller collected 800 bells, including one from the year 1247 described as the “oldest bell in Christendom.”

There are so many artisan touches it’s an instagram blowout: spanish tiles, iron gates, chandeliers, windows, art and antiques.

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To drop in is to experience a truly unique historic hotel.

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Ignore the valet parking and park just down the street.This re energized downtown is full of historic Californian architecture and it’s shaded streets and businesses are the cultural, urban hub of the Inland Empire.

With temperatures well above a hundred in summer, the cool, dark lobby and umbrellared courtyards are a perfect respite ….. the cafes are lovely.

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It’s worth bypassing the outlets or leaving just a little earlier to allocate a gracious hour on your way home from the desert especially if you can’t bring yourself to pull over enroute to Palm Springs!

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ps: Richard and Pat Nixon married at the Mission Inn and Nancy and Ronnie honeymooned there.

Manitoga

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My first encounter with the industrial designer , Russell Wright came in the form of American Modern dinner ware …covered in dust and grime at an estate sale.

Stylish and organic in shape, the design was inspired by the colors and forms of nature.
Mass produced and affordable , they outsold every other dinnerware and when new colors or shipments arrived the Macy’s stores were mobbed!
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With best selling dinnerware, home goods and textiles, Russell Wright became the first american, celebrity industrial designer.

His 1950’s book ” Guide to Easier Living”, co written with his wife Mary, espoused a simpler, more casual approach to living well: Design as a humanizing and democratic element.

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Decades later Terrence Conran quipped that “everyone can have a great salad bowl”, echoing Wright’s belief that anyone can create an aesthetically pleasing home and life.

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In 1942, Mary and Russell purchased 75 acres of damaged and logged land high above the Hudson River to use as a summer retreat.
For the next decade, they lived in the existing bungalow, studied the seasons and vegetation, and embarked on a 30 year transformation of the site.

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Wright thinned old trees to create views, planted meadows and new forests, created miles of paths, dammed a small creek to create a large pool and waterfall and built a modernist home and studio.

Mary and Russell named it Manitoga, Algonquin for “place of great spirit.”

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The house is modern and geometric, a 2 story of glass and rock. It sits snug into the slope, above the pond with roofs covered in greenery, a tree trunk in the living room and boulders as steps and walls.
It’s harmonious relationship with the ecology and landscape ahead of it’s time.

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Russell Wright died in 1976, and sadly the buildings and landscapes have deteriorated.
It’s now owned by The Russell Wright Design Center, but restoration is slow with most effort focused on the home and studio.
Thankfully now on the World Monument Fund Watchlist, the landscape needs detailed restoration and the visitor experience can be unsettling.
Given the rock star status of Wright, the re-issue of his famous dinnerware and the esteem in which he is held one can only hope that the Design Center can mobilize funding and energy to restore this magical place.

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Just an hour north from New York City in the sublime Hudson River Valley , add it to your must see list.

kid food

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After years of roasting and grilling, sautéing and stir frying to make my favorite dinner staple, abundant big platters of veggies, I’m returning to the food of my childhood, boiled vegetables!

To be honest, with a twist but an interesting u-turn in my culinary journey.

It started in Northern England last year when we scarfed down fish n chips n mushy peas in the village pub.
What a revelation.
Not the khaki, grey-green gruel I remembered from a tin, but bright green smooshed peas, still with some texture, masses of flavor and a hint of mint.
A perfect sauce and condiment for crispy fried fish.

Then one night in Sydney, a few months later, we met up with friends at an old pub in the Rocks, a tiny noisy place nestled underneath the famous bridge.
It was pie night, the special being a Beef and Guinness pie served with mushy peas. $10.
Brilliant.
Once again, a vibrant pea puree, a delicious counterpoint to the buttery pastry and super rich meaty filling. The only accompaniment served.

Back home in California , mushy peas became our veggie of choice when we served baked barramundi, grilled salmon or little fried tenders of chicken.
Fun on the plate and so easy to make.

It really couldn’t be more simple.

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A couple of cups of frozen peas ( a medium bag)
1 onion ..white or brown , but even red will work
a bit of butter and olive oil
salt and pepper
some mint from the garden

Chop the onion and sweat in a pan with a little olive oil. Try not to color the onion, so keep the heat low. When the onions are soft, add a little butter to melt and add flavor.

Boil the peas for 5 minutes and drain.

Put the onions and peas in the food processor , add a tiny bit of water if necessary and pulse a couple of times.
Season with salt and pepper.
Add some chopped mint and pulse again.
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It can be left chunky or become a silky, smooth puree depending on what you like or are serving it with. Rustic or glamorous? Lots of mint or just a hint?
Lusciously extravagant with a little heavy whipping cream and fresh parmesan for a truly decadent and elegant side…

Kid food for grownups.
Perfect.

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owl time

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That not great moment when you realize you are a cliche….

I named my children Emily and Will, although Bodhis and Hazels will probably be in the same situation soon : most popular names of the decade.
I restored a vintage RV (actually ahead of the curve that time).
Cracked up over a funny story about a woman of a certain age who wore linen pants and red necklaces until I noticed I was wearing linen pants and a red necklace.
Did a detox retreat.
Love my Prius.
Started writing a blog

The final straw.
I have owls on my bookcase and I take photographs of signs when owls are featured.

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To be truthful I haven’t bought owl paraphernalia in at least 5 years but that’s because owls are EVERYWHERE.

Apparently the best selling design on children’s bedding, bibs and backpacks, owl designs are a slam-dunk twofer that work for boys and girls and help keep the design flow working in houses that don’t want to celebrate the neon pink Mattell decor or cartoon vibe. .Parents love the wise old owl and the thinking-caring, affluent-aware parents are so over the princess and pirate thing.

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Graphic designers can really work with a bird with big eyes and a round, round shape, and it’s a gift show truth that baby animals with big eyes are guaranteed to tug our heart strings, in particular white fluffy babies with big eyes. ( remember the white seal posters and the baby polar bears , oh and the snow monkeys)
Jonathan Adler , über potter and savvy marketeer knew what he was doing when he created dozens of iconic owl pieces. White design owls rule the cash register.

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A Pinterest page called OWL Designs has 494 owl pins and 515 followers.Super popular Ukranian fashion blog is actually called Owls are Awesome and there are Facebook pages devoted entirely to these charismatic creatures. I blame Winnie-the- Pooh and Harry Potter in that order.

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Last week I heard an owl hooting.So we ran outside, up the street trying to discover the source of the sound however the trees were so tall and wintery darkness thwarted our attempts to see a real live owl. A neighbor had a big owl swoop past her as she sat in the backyard and a birdwatching friend told me they are “everywhere” and I should be able to see one if I looked in the right place.

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Owls are prehistoric , feared and revered in ancient and contemporary cultures,solitary and nocturnal but apparently not as smart and wise as we imagine.

But damn if they aren’t the coolest design icon ever…at least for now.

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