Set the Table.

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My grandma was cool.

Brilliant, intellectual, stylish and way ahead of her time.

Born in poverty, close to the Arctic circle she emigrated with her family to Australia when she was 12, never to see Norway again.

Pregnant and married to the love of her life at 16, living in a rough timber shack and raising 4 children, she embraced beauty and intellect and eduction. Each day included home schooling of music, culture or literature while she cooked on a primus gas ring, a practice she continued until the end of her life. Although my 14 year old father was supporting the family shooting rabbits when grandpa was injured, she knew that rigor and aesthetic would out and things would improve. A lifetime tradition of discussion (and argument!) over the dinner table was established.

My dad would describe this tough time as “bread and water, sometimes meat and potatoes but dreaming of fruit on the sideboard”. I have always loved this analogy.

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Fierce and difficult, brilliant and one of a kind, I think of her often.

Her youngest son became an academic. He travelled and studied abroad, and indulged her passion for china, dishes and modern ceramics. In the later years of her life she loved her hard won home and incredible garden and especially being surrounded by beautiful things.

Meals were times to gather at the table and enjoy food, the company, and conversation.

As children visiting, we were tasked with choosing which dinner set we would use to set the table for lunch.

The choice: Yellow and Black, mostly Villeroy and Boch, but amended and added to with dishes and jugs, salad bowls and bakeware from everywhere, as long as they were modern, yellow or black. Very dramatic!

My choice usually.

The other side of the kitchen held the cheery english red and black and white checked set. OK, but not my favorites.

In the sideboard there were White Arzberg dinner plates and beautiful platters, coffee pots, casseroles, little soup bowls and demi tasse coffee cups. These were used at night and for “occasions” when the modern teak table was extended and accented with peacock blue clothes and teal napkins. Some brass candlesticks too.

We took this task seriously.

To set a table is to be in control of a vision.

We would carefully count out knives and forks and spoons and put them in the right place. Spacing out plates and bowls just so, and making sure there were condiments and salt and pepper shakers.

The lesson: care and responsibility.

The end result: beauty and happiness.

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She didn’t live to see disposable dinnerware, nor travel to the United States to see real food served in foam boxes even at cafes. Or extremely successful wealthy people on reality TV programs eating from plastic take away boxes. She couldn’t imagine a world where people CHOOSE to drink from paper cups rather than a coffee cup. We had bright colored melamine picnic sets when we headed to remote beaches or went miles up bush tracks for billy tea and sandwiches. I don’t remember ever using  paper or plastic until I was catering.

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Decades after setting my grandma’s table, I love my shelves of china.

I have owned the yellow and black extravaganza collection since I was 30, and the white Arzberg for 25 years after my mum, downsizing, decided she didn’t entertain often enough to keep them. 50 plus  years of “occasions”, they are the heart of my dishery and I probably use some of them every day.

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Nothing is “for show”, and much has been broken or chipped, and thrown away. My newly, crawling son pulled a pile of Italian platters from the cupboard onto the tile floor, so the family joke is that a couple of pay checks are owed. . ..maybe those beautiful Heath dishes aren’t so out of reach after all!

And I dream of creating my own dinnerware…..

I wonder why you wouldn’t you set the table or eat from a cool bowl? Grab a tray and some napkins for the take away TV dinner? My husband’s idea of cooking dinner is buying sushi and setting the table!

The simplest meal is a quiet celebration: good fortune? A momentary respite? Companionship or family?

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Michael Pollan says that each meal is an opportunity for choice.

To show how we feel about agriculture vs. agribusiness, labor practices, health and nutrition, animal cruelty and our own self worth and traditions.

I think the set table is also another choice, and like many of the small and simpler things of life, wrongly perceived as trivial.

It’s not fussy or pretentious or god forbid,  “tablescapey”, but recognition that work has been done to create this meal (even to buy it) and now it’s time to stop and sit.

Take a moment. Feel happy and blessed.

And dig in!

Amen. grandma

Valdris Woldseth: 1906-1985

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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.

99¢ Store love

Every so often the gods smile and fabulous glasses rain down from the shelves at the 99¢ store!

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7 years ago it was the very cute, painted faux French juice glasses, radiating citrus sunshiny happiness. So charming they were the official glasses at Cafe Nosh until we had bought, used, broken or sold every single one available in the LA basin (do you know how many 99c stores there are?).

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Another time it was the teal blue water glasses, much loved by the Metlox dinner plates Becky found for me at a garage sale in Westminster. Pretty, funky and retro in equal parts they have been used and used, with the stash dwindling at an alarming rate: initially enough for parties, now just enough for thanksgiving dinner if we scour the bedrooms, bathrooms and cupboards for truants and runaways..

Enter the refined heavy smoked glass tumblers!!
Elegant, minimalist and sophisticated they are SERIOUSLY grown up.
They call for important nuanced tabled settings and textured black, white and stone. Masses of sunlight or candlelight.

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Oh how I love you, 99c store!!