When thinking about classic European destinations guaranteed to deliver maximum yuletide joy for the lead-up to Christmas, cities like Vienna, Nuremberg, Munich and Salzburg immediately come to mind. And for good reason, because most of the traditions, symbols and characteristics that we now associate with Christmas were born in the Germanic countries, with some traditions, like Christmas trees, originating way back in the Middle Ages.
But Christmas was too good an idea to keep bottled up in the German Empire forever, and it eventually found its way out of mainland Europe and across the channel in the luggage of Francis Albert Augustus Charles Emmanuel (Prince Albert) on his betrothal to Queen Victoria. Yes, almost everything you now know as “Christmas” really comes by way of the English. Maybe that is why my favorite Christmas is an English one. So, for your classic Christmas extravaganza, stock up on Christmas crackers, don your paper crown, pop a threepence in the plumb pudding, and book your ticket to London.
There’s a bevy of activities available in London during the holiday season with various festive markets popping up around town. But one thing you should definitely plan on is a visit to the Somerset house ice skating rink. This year Somerset house collaborated with famous purveyor of the best seasonal goods, Fortnum & Mason, who turned the halls of Somerset house into their own Christmas market, of sorts.
Situated on the Strand next to Waterloo Bridge, overlooking the River Thames, the Somerset House foundations date back as far as the 16th century. It was once home to Queen-in-waiting Elizabeth the First, daughter of Henry the Eighth and Anne Boleyn, during the reign of Queen Mary the First.
After that the palace saw its fair share of renovations and additions due to the many different “lodgers” that followed. After the English Civil War, Parliament attempted to sell the property but nobody wanted to buy it. So it was taken off the market and put to various governmental uses. Legend has it Lord Nelson worked in the building for a while when it was partially occupied by the Admiralty. And as testament to the legend, the meeting room that Nelson might have visited has for a long time been called the “Nelson Room”.
In the late 20th century it was decided that Somerset House will be a centre for the Visual arts, and now houses several exhibition spaces and a few restaurants, all focused on the central courtyard, used for various events and activities, like ice skating.
The ice rink appears at the beginning of November and remains until early January. Booking is available for hourly slots, with skate rental included in the price of admission.
Every hour, admission is limited to 220 ice skaters so it never gets crowded on the ice. Plenty of room for you to show off your twirls and glide around the rink backwards. Each hour the ice is cleaned and smoothed for another round of holiday skaters.
The afternoon we visited there was a good mix of skating skills on display, from total beginners to advanced skaters. And for the little tykes, something to lean on is provided to steady the glide, in the form of small polar bears and penguins. They are very popular but remember, they’re only for kids! You adults will have to find someone or something else to lean on.
As dusk set in, the lights came up giving the courtyard a wonderfully festive glow, capped off by the “SKATE” sign on top of the building. Opposite is an enormous Christmas tree with tables underneath where you can sit and enjoy warm drinks and treats from Tom’s Skate Lounge situated on the east side of the rink. Or if you are not in the mood for refreshments, it’s a great place to just sit and watch the people glide by.
After an hour of skating, time to head indoors to investigate the Fortnum & Mason Christmas Arcade installed in the West wing of the building. F&M has outfitted each room with classic English Christmas treats. Truffles, Christmas puddings, special Christmas teas and an array of great gifts for family and friends. The F&M Lounge just next to the Lord Nelson Staircase is particularly good for a cozy drink.
I mentioned Christmas Crackers earlier. These are one of my favorite English holiday traditions. You can pick them up in one of the F&M concessions. They were invented in 1840 by Tom Smith. Originally he sold his bonbons in a twist of paper with love messages inside, later adding the “crackle” to represent crackling logs in the fire place. Finally, Mr Smith let go of the candies and replaced them with little trinkets, including the now iconic paper crown and a selection of really bad jokes. It sounds absurd but you can really get a party going with a few paper crowns and some bad jokes.
The English are famous for their dry subtle wit. My personal theory is that the reason for this is because they all grew up on these bad Christmas cracker jokes. Practice makes perfect. As an aside, did you know that the British royal family has special Christmas crackers made for them each year? I wonder who writes those jokes.
Merry Christmas everyone
< More fascinating vacation destinations await. Let’s go.
It’s fitting that this story should be the opener for the Devon issue. I am constantly surprised where circumstances can take you if you are willing to go along for the ride. On this occasion a friend was visiting from out of town, and on a rainy Saturday afternoon in London, what to do? A quick search online revealed some promising options.
One stood out because it took place in the Holy Trinity Church Marylebone. I recognized it because it’s one of Architect Sir John Soane’s buildings. That alone would be enough for me to get on board, but on this occasion there was an added bonus, an exhibition in the church by the organization London Made, a collection of artists working in various craft traditions.
It is here that I came across textile artist and designer Teresa Cole under her brand Teresa Green. I was immediately intrigued by the beauty of her whimsical and utilitarian designs. I contacted Teresa to see if I could arrange a visit and some weeks later, we were off on our Devon adventure.
Arriving at Teresa’s studio, we were greeted by a motley bunch of noisy neighbor dogs. All with tails wagging, it was soon clear they were not the guard dogs, more like the welcoming committee.
As Teresa prepared some tea and biscuits I took the opportunity to snoop around her studio a bit. As with many spaces where creative work happens, Teresa’s is filled with intriguing remnants of past projects and inspirations for future works. Collections of various objects and images, sketchbooks, inks, screens, and her collection of vintage shoes and bags that she adds to her product offering when she goes on the road to sell her wares.
Also evident is a strong interest in kitchenalia. Would obsession be too strong a word? In particular kitchen scales and elongated watering cans seem to be particular favorites. As Teresa tells it this was a passion introduced to her by both of her grandfathers. So there was no escaping it.
Teresa tells me that while she studied at the University of Loughborough, her plan was always to find a way to merge her artwork with everyday objects. So in 2001 she set up her own silk screen printing company and now lives and works as a textile artist in Devon. Her studio is in an old barn on a beautiful estate in Devon.
Like a true textile artist and craftsperson, Teresa has her uniform, wearing an apron every day in the style of a skirt elegantly wrapped around the waist.
So far Teresa has applied her art to tea towels, aprons, purses, bags, greeting cards and table linens. She sources all her fabrics from within the UK. Her textile art in linen and cotton all has a weighty feel to it with slight imperfections, which enhances the crafted character of her products. All her printing is done solely with safe water based inks.
Each of her illustrations tells a story. They are whimsical and delicate, each with a witty, dry sense of humor. The drawings seem to dance on the tea towels, and the tiny umbrellas on her purses seem poised ready to be opened at the sign of rain. Her signature red lipstick can be found in a portrait printed on a small purse. It has a tongue-in-cheek kind of feel. The color palette is bright and strong with most designs combining words and drawing.
Like a true textile artist and craftsperson, Teresa has her uniform, wearing an apron every day in the style of a skirt elegantly wrapped around the waist. The look is traditional, but with Teresa’s colors, patterns and details, the resulting look is very modern and practical. The look fits well with her truly English spirit — fun, quick-witted and always prepared for a change in weather.
After several teas and way too many biscuits, we said our farewells knowing that we would certainly cross paths again soon.
Special thanks to textile artist Teresa Cole for being our local ambassador — giving us great tips on local artisans, telling us where the most beautiful patches of farmland are and where to find best smoked sausages in Devon.
Nestled in the Pioneer Square district of Seattle is Laguna Pottery, the storefront of Michael Lindsey’s ceramic collection. A mecca for collectors, enthusiasts and amateurs alike, Michael’s is a great place to find unique objects to treasure or to give to a very special someone. Part museum, part shop, all curated with Michael’s extensive knowledge of American ceramics, this is a unique shopping experience.
The store opened in the Green Lake area of Seattle in 1987. The name “Laguna Pottery” was suggested by a good friend of Michael’s called “Grannie”, an enthusiast of Laguna ceramics and an early supporter. Grannie encouraged Michael to turn his passion for ceramics into a business. She also designed the shop’s logo—still used today.
Located south of downtown Seattle in Pioneer Square (in one of the largest national historic districts in America) are some 145 protected buildings of the type Laguna Pottery calls home. The area has seen many attempts at revitalization in recent years, and is poised to turn a new page, with a variety of stores and restaurants either planned or recently opened.
Michael specializes in American ceramics such as Homer Laughlin (Fiesta), Franciscan, Vernon Kilns, Roseville, Rockwood, Bauer & Well and work by Industrial Designers Russell Wright, Eva Zeisel, Edith Heath and Ben Seibel. He also deals in rarer pieces by Louis Mideke, Robert Sperry, Marguerite Wildenhain and Harrison Macintosh, to name a few. He also has the best selection of Heath dinnerware in the North West.
Michael’s passion for American pottery goes way back to his teenage years. Once you strike up a conversation with Michael, it is clear “he knows his stuff”. His knowledge of history and theory, and his enthusiasm for ceramic arts is an inspiration which could easily turn a casual shopper into a “collector”. During my visit, a constant stream of customers flowed in and out, all absorbing Michael’s exuberance for this beautiful and utilitarian art form.
Like a museum, Laguna Pottery is worth a visit just to delve into these uniquely American objects of beauty and utility.
In a time when phrases like “hand made” and “made in America” are bantered about in support of a new domestic manufacturing movement, it is worth taking a close look at how an early 20th century ceramics industry came about. Parallels can easily be drawn between today’s renewed interest in local production, and an earlier time when a massively productive ceramics industry became a vital part of the domestic economy.
Unfortunately, few American manufacturers still exist. As was the case in the UK, another historical center of ceramic production, once a manufacturing infrastructure is dismantled, it is unlikely that it will be rebuilt in its earlier form. I say unfortunately, but rarity makes for a good collecting market, so the value of these early modern brands can only go up. And hopefully a new generation of manufacturing will take hold for future collectors to cherish.
One of the go-to experts on American ceramics today, Michael is the perfect person to chat with for advice on a special purchase, or to help you find your inner-collector instincts. Like a museum, Laguna Pottery is worth a visit just to delve into these uniquely American objects of beauty and utility.
Not planning a visit to Seattle soon? Laguna pottery has a great website you can browse, and they ship worldwide. Have a look, but swing by and visit in person as soon as you can. I am looking forward to my next visit and chat with Michael.
Puerto Rico was the site of my first encounter with Stylist Heather Chontos. The environment was sweltering and just as colorful as it was hot, a far cry from the place of our recent encounter in chilly and muted Portland, Maine. I really liked working with Heather, and back during our first high-humidity collaboration I suspected she had a lot more up her sleeve than styling tables and arranging food.
Back then, Heather had just made the trek back to the US from London, young daughter Cody in tow, after completing an art history and conservation degree at University College of London. There she had gotten her start in textiles and design working on carpets with Christopher Farr of the British Rug, and with the legendary Egg shop (now sadly closed) on Kinnerton Street. (For those who never got the opportunity to visit Egg, for years it was a destination for eclectic clothing in the most exotic natural fabrics.)
Even though our paths had not crossed for some time, I occasionally caught a glimpse of Heather’s work. And when I recently came across her new label, Milk Farm Road, seeing that it was based in Portland, Maine, I took a detour to see the latest Heather Chontos work and to catch up.
I picked up a car in Manhattan and hit the road just as a blizzard was approaching from the west. By the time I crossed the city limits of Portland, it was pretty much a white out. Thanks to my trusty GPS, I soon found my way to the hotel. Next morning, I shoveled out the SUV and headed over to the Heather Chontos studio.
It’s a big space, huge by Brooklyn standards, which was Heather’s last stop. In fact there is, according to Heather, a steady migration under way of former Brooklynites heading to points north in search of space to work and play.
The collage on the wall is as bold as the painted cotton carpet lying in the entry way. You imagine her (Heather Chontos) at work, hands moving frenetically, riffling through scraps of paper and wood …
Heather arrived avec donuts, which were to the taste buds what Heather’s space is to the eye. Holy Donut! No, that’s really the name, Holy Donut. Take it from me, a must visit on your next trip to Portland.
I am most drawn to Heather’s intense relationship with color. The surface she applies it to seems a secondary concern. Whether a chair, canvas, paper, bowl, linen or dish, she paints with a stroke and intensity as if she needs to lay it down before it is lost – like a dream you know you might not remember in the morning. And edges are no limit to her work. If color needs to extend from canvas to wall, chair to floor, bowl to tablecloth, so be it – like an abstract painting that’s gone rogue.
The collage on the wall is as bold as the painted cotton carpet lying in the entry way. You imagine her at work, hands moving frenetically, riffling through scraps of paper and wood … or you think of that Eames chair that she decided to paint over that now stands in the corner of the studio. Or did that chair just get between Heather and another project one day?
Paintings can be small and compact or immensely large. She shows me a “tablecloth” that she crafted from the remnants of a color coordinated dinner. Made from paper the guests used up during the event, it was later thoughtfully stitched back together and hung—intricate yet bold.
Surveying the work, one has the impression that it is the result of a very focused and agile hand. The ease with which paint and a variety of mediums interact, suggests that Heather’s work has so many places yet to go. I feel honored to have seen the work up close before it is widely discovered.
We finish up the donuts (or more precisely, I finish up the donuts) and then it’s time to go pick up Cody and Zana, Heather’s two daughters, as free-spirited and individual as Heather’s artwork. Then we all head over to Kettle Cove, Cape Elizabeth, to walk along the beach and enjoy the famous late afternoon Maine winter light. As the sun set, we said our goodbyes and made plans to visit again soon.
For more insight into the work and process of Heather Chontos I highly recommend her paint blog.
Bring some color into your home with your own Heather Contos creation.
Heather occasionally runs workshops. To participate and get your colors flowing, look at the website for more information.