Sunday, March 16, 2014

Build Your Own Designer Memory Palace

What if you could remember your entire grocery list just by retracing Peter Seller's steps in the house he goes to in the movie "The Party?"  
(Artwork by Federico Babina. Here.)

Or recite the seven ancient wonders of the world by "walking" through your favorite apartment on The Selby?
(Photo by Todd Selby. Here.)

Or remember Charles Dickens' twenty major works (15 novels, 5 novellas) by taking a mental tour of Wes Anderson's "The Grand Budapest Hotel"?

I know, I know, it sounds too weird to be true. 

But with a memory palace, you can -- and I'm going to tell you how.

A memory palace is a mnemonic technique invented 2,000 years ago by the ancient Greeks that uses your brain's superior spatial memory to memorize information. 

It works like this: You think of the layout of a location you know well -- your house or apartment, for instance. Then you "attach" whatever objects or items you want to remember (i.e. your to-do list, the American presidents) to specific places within that location. When you want to retrieve your list, you take a mental walk through your memory palace and "see" everything right where you put it.

[There's a great TED talk about it HERE by Joshua Foer. Watch it and be gobsmacked.]

Why am I so sure it works?

Because in forty minutes, me, the person who can't find her keys in the morning and who routinely leaves her sunglasses in restaurants, memorized all 37 of William Shakespeare's plays in the order they were written. 

Even more impressive, so did my 12 year-old son.
And he has zero interest in Shakespeare.
But when he heard me reel them off, he got jealous and wanted in.

The book that taught us how?
("The Memory Palace: Learn Anything and Everything, 
Starting with Shakespeare and Dickens", $3.33. HERE.)

"The general idea with most memory techniques is to change whatever boring thing is being inputted into your memory into something that is so colorful, so exciting, and so different from anything you've seen before that you can't possibly forget it."

Here's the best part, though:
For design-minded folks like you and me, who carry around a treasure trove of unforgettable spaces and layouts in our brains already, who says our memory palaces have to be places that we've actually explored in real life? 

Why not use the charming English cottage you saved from that magazine?

Or the layout of the S. S. Belafonte from "The Life Aquatic"?
 ("The Life Aquatic.")

Or how about a location from your extensive literary wanderings?

Holly Golightly's apartment in "Breakfast at Tiffany's"?
The Marchmain house in "Brideshead Revisited"?
Odette's Oriental-influenced apartment in "Swann's Way"?

How fun would it be to "visit" Gatsby's West Egg mansion when you need to remember your shopping list? I can see it now: "Look, here's the pile of colored silk shirts that Daisy wept over, but how strange, they're completely ripped to shreds! Oh, I remember -- craft scissors."

For more information on how to build your own memory palace, here are some helpful articles and links:

Click HERE.

Before you go, do you have a favorite location from a book, movie or magazine that you would use as a memory palace?

Monday, March 3, 2014

Geek-end Getaway

Two weeks ago, I went away for a long-anticipated weekend to Palm Springs with my friend Jeanne. (I have to plug an amazing performance she gave recently with Eddie Vedder -- ever wondered how Julie Andrews would sound singing The Rolling Stones "Shattered"? Click HERE and wonder no longer.) We had been plotting our escape for months and had finally managed to coordinate the schedules of our respective husbands and sons so that we could slip away for thirty six hours and indulge ourselves.

"You all ready for our geek-end getaway?" Jeanne asked as I loaded my bags into the car.

Geek-end getaway

I had been wondering what to call it. Instead of bathing suits, sandals and embroidered caftans, our suitcases were loaded with laptops, iPads, digital writing tablets, creative manifestos (this, this and this), and our comfiest clothes.

Our dream weekend had nothing to do with yoga, mountain hikes, massages or mani-pedis -- and everything to do with recharging our brain cells.

This was going to be a learning vacation. Our goals?

~Inspire each other creatively
~Provide each other with constructive feedback on personal projects
~Trade sources of inspiration (What books/magazines/music/videos were obsessing us?)
~Learn new apps (Which ones could we not live without?)
~Brainstorm without limits

Heck, if we were really on a roll, we might not even leave the room until Sunday checkout. (We didn't.)

Two of my favorite discoveries from that weekend?

1. The Noteshelf app ($5.99) which lets you create amazing layouts and collages just like the ones you see in design magazines like Domino and Lonny -- great for people like me who don't have Photoshop. 

You can create your own little notebooks from the covers provided or do like I did and upload photos from the internet to make your own custom ones. (I found some good old book covers HERE.)

Here's one of my books devoted to collages of favorite fabrics and patterns. I find that putting them together like this is a super helpful way of seeing what works together and what doesn't.

Here's another book I made to explore an embroidery series I've been working on. Noteshelf makes it super easy to choose the kind of paper you like, upload photos, add text and draw. Bonus: They have good type fonts like Gill Sans and Bodoni (the two I used below). Type fonts make a HUGE difference in giving personality and character to a layout.

Here's another one I made for various random ideas.

2. The other app I am absolutely in love with is Procreate ($5.99) It lets you sketch, paint, draw and create virtually anything you can imagine. I could go on and on about this app -- it's intuitive, easy to learn (be sure to download the free user guide) and as simple or advanced as you want it to be. I can't see myself ever getting tired of it.

And it has one specific feature I'm crazy about: It lets you write directly over a photo. You know, like Garance Doré does.

Remember the post I did last week with all those hand-drawn titles over the pictures? I made them all with Procreate. I just uploaded my photos, chose the style of "pen" I wanted, and drew right onto the iPad with my finger.

The upshot of our geek-end getaway? 
Brains were stormed, ideas were generated and the groundwork for great future projects was laid. 

Here's a photo I snapped of the hotel as we were leaving on Sunday -- it was the first time I'd seen the grounds since check-in. I bet it's a lovely place to spend some time outdoors. 
(Colony Palms Hotel,  2/9/14.)

Next time.

“For my belief is that if we have five hundred a year and a room of our own; if we have the habit of freedom and the courage to write exactly what we think; if we escape a little from the common sitting-room and see human beings not always in their relation to each other but in relation to reality…then the opportunity will come and [we] will be born.”

~Virginia Woolf 

Monday, February 17, 2014

Monday Miscellany

This week, instead of creating, I'm curating. 
Below, eight totally random things to boost your energy, tickle your brain, and fire up some of those adorable endorphins.

1. Turmeric. I love it in Indian food, but did you know it makes an incredibly delicious and healthy tea? (For a list of benefits, click HERE.) This one hits the sweet spot and has a earthy kick to it that's not unlike coffee.

Creamy Turmeric Tea
1/2 teaspoon turmeric powder (if you're timid, start with 1/4 teaspoon)
1/2 teaspoon cardamom or cinnamon
1 inch slice of fresh ginger, peeled and minced
1 tablespoon honey 
8 oz. almond, coconut or soy milk

Mix first four ingredients together in a mug to form a thick paste. Heat the milk and then slowly pour it into the mug, stirring all the while. Strain out the ginger if you like, or leave it in for a more intense kick.

2. "New York Morning." This documentary/music video by English rockers Elbow is a paean to true love, punk music and NYC in the '70's. Plus the song is amazing. If you ever thought soul mates don't exist, you are about to be proven wrong. 

3. Waterlogue. This iPhone/iPad app has taken the design blogosphere by storm recently -- basically, it transforms any photo into the kind of stylish watercolor that you'd pay really good money to hang on your wall. I love what it does to the light in a room -- everything seems lit with an enchanted glow.

4. Have you ever wished a cute English guy would write a brilliant and heartfelt poem about how he appreciates girls with big books instead of girls with big boobs? Well, his name is Mark Grist and he has. HERE.

5. I discovered Stefan Zweig (1881-1942) about ten years ago and I think I would be hard pressed to name my three favorite authors and not include him. Part F. Scott Fitzgerald, part Freud, his stories are as seductive as they are haunting. If you're a Zweig virgin, start with Beware of Pity, a psychological boy-meets-girl horror story that reads like it was written in one long exhale. Make sure you get the editions from Pushkin Press -- they do his style justice.  
(Interesting tidbit: Wes Anderson loves Zweig too.)

6. I've always secretly thought the art and lifestyle of the Bloomsbury Group had a punk sensibility to it, so when my friend Vanessa Leigh Price forwarded me this video of Patti Smith sitting in Vanessa Bell's studio in Charleston House, I about keeled over. You will too. HERE.

7. This year marks the hundredth anniversary of World War One and I'm using that as a reason to plow through all the WWI novels I never got around to reading before. Richard Aldington's Death of a Hero was new to me and I loved it -- Aldington's prose is a mashup of Evelyn Waugh and George Orwell, with an armored cynicism to it that feels incredibly modern.

8. Charles Dickens as Morrissey. HERE. Leave it to BBC's brilliant "Horrible Histories" to turn a Victorian biography into compulsive viewing for kids and parents alike.

So what are you all up to this week?


Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Does Art Make the Life? Or Life Make the Art?

"Nothing very extraordinary happened really. 
But the life we lived was amazing." 
~Angelica Bell

(Angelica Bell and friend, Charleston House, 1978. Photo by Howard Grey.)

We are all artists, every single one of us. 
Our canvas is our lives.  
Every choice we make is a dot that goes onto our canvas.
At first, the dots are tiny and scattered and seemingly unconnected.
But gradually, over time, a picture appears. 

Living is an art.

Don't let anyone tell you differently.
(And don't let anyone tell you it's easy.)
It takes hard work to keep life simple.
It requires focus to make it meaningful.
Sometimes it feels like a balancing act between learning to hang on and learning to let go. 
But your art is your life. 

"It takes a lot of time to be a genius. You have to sit around so much, doing nothing, really doing nothing."  
~Gertrude Stein

(Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas with their poodle Basket, 1938. 
Photo by Cecil Beaton.)
Creating a good work of art takes time.
It demands patience.
It can't be rushed.
There will be days, months, years even, when you look at your canvas and think all the time you've spent on it has been for nothing.
But that's just exactly when you have to keep on going.
Because the day will arrive when you realize that all those insignificant little dots were adding up to something extraordinary.

"There are some things that cannot be learned quickly, and time, which is all we have, must be paid heavily for their acquiring. They are the very simplest things, and because it takes a man’s life to know them the little new that each man gets from life is very costly and the only heritage he has to leave."  
~Ernest Hemingway

(Ernest Hemingway in Cuba, date unknown, via)

Monday, January 20, 2014

Victorian London: Alive and Kicking

(Terraced homes in Holland Park. All photos by LBG, December 2013.)

One of the most fascinating aspects of London is that it's a layer cake of history. The city doesn't seem to grow up as much as it seems to "grow over": Roman foundations are covered with medieval cobblestones which are then overlaid with Victorian brickwork. Manor estates turn into Rococo pleasure gardens which turn into Edwardian hospital grounds. No matter where your interests or passions lie --  in the Romans, Tudors, Bloomsbury bohemians or even Sex Pistols -- the footprints of every culture are still there, you just have to know where to look.

Below, three fantastic Victorian-era destinations that will make you feel as if you've tiptoed back into the nineteenth century:

1. Paradise, by Way of Kensal Green 

By day, this restored pub is a gastronome's dream with fresh, locally sourced cuisine and one of the best Sunday lunches in London. On weekends, it turns into a nightclub where you're likely to bump shoulders with Kate Moss and Jamie Hince, and also hosts special culinary dinners by the likes of Alex James, Blur bassist turned cheese farmer. 

This is the bar in the front room. Coffered ceiling, check. Gray mirrored bar, check. Tufted leather chairs approaching retirement, check.
(Website HERE.)

Design note for the brave: If your walls are peeling, shellac over them.

You're in the main dining room now. Doesn't it have such warmth and energy? Let's break it down: Gray walls. White floorboards. Gilt-frame paintings. Vintage birdcage pendant lamps. Flea market antique furniture. Secondary colors: Gold, black, cabernet, burgundy, brown.

I ordered a traditional pork roast with Yorkshire pudding and greens. Delicious. It nearly made a man out of me.

I don't know if the Paradise was ever a private residence, but it certainly feels like it. In addition to the pub and restaurant on the ground floor are a variety of rooms upstairs for dining and drinking in. I love how the stairwell has cleverly been transformed into a nook for entertaining, don't you? That area is usually such a dead space.

Upstairs, the tarnished glass chandeliers, shaggy greenery, and general attitude of crumbling glamour lend a distinctive Miss Havisham quality to the place...and I mean that in the best possible way, of course.

Only one of the rooms upstairs was unlocked, but if this one is representative of the others,  a return visit is definitely in order. 

Now about that name. It refers to a line in a G. K. Chesterton poem called "The Rolling English Road" about how the Roman roads were all straight and precise but the Englishman, usually being drunk, created reeling and rolling ones. Funny, right? The Paradise is next to the famous Victorian cemetery, Kensal Green, final resting place for writers like William Thackeray, Anthony Trollope and Harold Pinter.

For there is good news yet to hear and fine things to be seen,
Before we go to Paradise by way of Kensal Green.
                                                      ~G. K. Chesterton, "The Rolling English Road"

We walked through the cemetery afterwards and I spied this haunting tombstone. "My heart lies in England, too," I thought to myself.
(Kensal Green Cemetery, 2013.)

2. Tea at the St. Pancras Hotel 

If you watch "Downton Abbey" then you're familiar with St. Pancras Station -- Lady Edith is always alighting here to visit her paramour. The station, designed in 1863, has recently undergone a 2oo million pound renovation and the former Midland Hotel inside has been magnificently restored. Whether you're catching a train or not (the Eurostar leaves from here), it's worth popping your head in--if only to say you've visited one of the greatest Victorian buildings in London.
(Hotel website HERE.)

I oohed over the colorful Gothic-inspired halls with their fleur-de-lis wallpaper, carved marble arches and ornamental tile work...

...and Luca aahed over the absolutely gigantic train shed (my camera only captures about an eighth of it). If you've read the book The Invention of Hugo Cabret, then you know a child can never look at a train station clock the same way again. 

We had a restorative pot of tea in the Booking House Bar...

...where I discovered the most amazing tea strainer I've ever seen.

Look, it's a tiny umbrella-shaped bristle that fits into the spout of your teapot and prevents the leaves from coming out with the tea. Why don't they sell these in America?

3. The Charles Dickens House

I visited the Dickens House years ago but it's undergone a renovation so I was eager to see it again, and since my son Luca loved reading "The Christmas Carol" in school last year, I was hopeful there wouldn't be any foot-dragging.

Before the redo, the museum was drab and fusty (and I say that as a fervent Dickens fanatic). You had to peer across roped doorways to see anything. Now, the entire house is open, and they've annexed the house next door and opened a café and tiny gift shop. Period Victorian furniture has been added to Dickens' original possessions to give the house a cozy lived-in feel. 
(Website HERE.)

The master bedroom was dark and still, a perfect sanctuary after a long day of writing.

When we went downstairs, there was a group of school children getting dressed up as scullery servants to "assist" with dinner preparations.

I don't envy the woman who had this job.

Why, thank you, Charles. How kind of you to offer me a hand up these stairs. 

Saturday, January 11, 2014

Straight Outta Antwerp

Apartment o1 at Boulevard Leopold was like a feature out of the World of Interiors. I almost prayed for some kind of cataclysmic weather event that would keep us trapped there forever. 
Those silvery green walls.
That opulent beaded chandelier. 
The antlers reaching yearningly from the wall like the outstretched hands in Jean Cocteau's 1946 surrealist fantasy La Belle et La Bete. 
It gripped my heart.
It doesn't matter what your favorite design style is, I promise you if you walk into this room all you will think is, "I'm home."
(All photos by Lisa Borgnes Giramonti.)

The apartment's enormous windows looked onto Boulevard Leopold in the heart of the city's old Jewish Quarter. The owner, Martin, has furnished it in keeping with the city's Art Nouveau history. The green blur on the velvet sofa is my son -- he didn't want to leave the room either.

Our bedroom had painted murals, another beaded chandelier and more of those magical gray-green walls. The black velvet pillows added decadent punctuation points to the stark whiteness of the bed. 

Down a little corridor was Luca's bedroom. History Lesson: Old houses in Antwerp were built on different levels, so when residences were joined together, homeowners solved the issue of different floor heights by building these delightful M.C Escher staircases everywhere -- you're continually going up into one room, down into the next. 

You can see our bedroom at the top of the stairs.

Eventually, we tore ourselves away from the hotel. The oldest part of the city was only about a fifteen minute walk, but it was easy to lose yourself wandering through the narrow cobblestoned side streets. Mick Jagger's design wisdom loomed. "I see a red door and I want it painted black," I kept humming to myself. "No colors anymore I want them to turn to black."

These 16th century skyscrapers flank the Grote Market and were built by the guild houses of Antwerp. Each building vied to be the most impressive, hence the variation in height and rhythm...and those fabulous golden ornaments on top. "I'm prettier! No, I'm prettier!" (The mother in me: "You're ALL pretty.")

On the streets, it was wet and cold and the locals' garb conjured up visions of "The French Lieutenant's Woman. " Once inside, however, people would peel off their monastic shrouds to reveal a kaleidoscopic wardrobe worthy of local hero Dries van Noten.

That's Antwerp to me in a nutshell.
Outside, cold, gray, forbidding.
Inside, a Fabergé egg of splendors.

Once you start to approach the old part of the city, all "straats"  lead to the cathedral. It dominates the silhouette entirely. In case you were wondering, the tower "points toward God like a finger."

Can 2014 please be the year we bring back big knobby ornamental hardware?
The combination of that elegantly carved wood with those primitive iron studs is titillating--like a duchess dating a blacksmith.

Travel Note: When you travel with two males, it is VITAL that you build in frequent treat stops. This can make or break your vacation. Blood sugar levels must be maintained at a constant level, especially if your wish list includes any shopping. Frituur No. 1, considered to have the best french fries in Antwerp, was a hit. Bonus: twenty kinds of ketchup. The curry-flavored one demanded refills.

The male mood restored, we were museum-bound.  I figured I had a good two hours before my comrades took a downward turn. As it turned out, the places we visited  -- The Plantin-Moretus, the Rubenshuis, former home of Peter Paul Rubens, and the Mayer van den Burgh -- earned an enthusiastic two thumbs up from everyone. Luca loved the M. C. Escher staircases, Piero was mesmerized by the kitchens and I loved every square inch of everything.

What's not to love about a room upholstered in leather? 

And walls of silk? (This is what I mean by Antwerpian interiors feeling like jewel boxes.)

And velvet-curtained four poster beds?  I always thought the beds were so short because people were more petite. Turns out that, in Antwerp anyway, people slept sitting up because it was believed much more beneficial for the digestion. 

If we're bringing back knobby ornamental doors, then we have to bring back rugs on tables too.

If someone asked me for the ingredients of an Antwerpian interior, I would write down these words on a piece of paper and hand it to them:

Oil paint.
Red brick.

My husband Piero was besotted with this stove. His dream is to have a hearth like this in our kitchen one day--which of course is so über practical for our Los Angeles climate.

At night the hipsters came out to play. 

 We walked home through streets glistening with rain...

...and discovered that our room was even more enchanting by night. 

The next morning, we headed downstairs for breakfast. 

Antwerp is moody in the morning. 

We ate in a garden room with red-topped tables and wooden settles upholstered in green leather. 

Eat, I urged my men. Keep those blood sugar levels steady. Mama wants to do some serious perambulating today. 

While they ate, I took photos of Flemish leather-bound books,  preserved butterflies, religious iconography...

...and curiosities under glass. You know, the things one normally take photos of.

Here's Martin. He owns this incredible joint. He shyly told me that Mario Testino had shot a fashion shoot there recently (in our very hotel room no less). Well, of course he did, Martin! Your table tableaux alone are enough to merit a magazine cover.

Honestly, is there anything sexier than a dark morning? They're so strangely creative. 

The most sunlight we saw the entire time we were there was at the Cathedral of Our Lady. Somehow, the exterior gloom, when filtered through those glorious Gothic windows, transformed itself to heavenly light inside. 

If we're bringing back knobby ornamental doors and rugs on tables, can we also bring back dusky medieval jewel tones like brown sapphire, smoky topaz, ruby and carnelian?

After the cathedral, we made a quick fuel stop at La Confiserie Burie, one of the countless candy stores that appear at least once on every block in Antwerp. 

Once purchased, this hapless little frog prince didn't stand a chance.

If you go to Antwerp, be sure to take a walk along the river Scheldt. 

A few minutes walk from the Scheldt is the most important new museum in Antwerp right now, the Red Star Line Museum. (It opened in September 2013.) The Red Star Line was the sister company of the White Star Line, owner of the ill-fated Titanic. If you wanted to emigrate to America or Canada in the last 2oo years and you didn't leave through Southampton, your trip started in a warehouse in Antwerp.

Below is a vignette of a first class passenger's experience--not all people experienced a privileged crossing like this. In the museum, we passed through former showers, interrogation rooms and medical inspection areas. If you made it across the ocean and the Ellis Island inspectors deemed you unfit (lice, a stubborn cough, etc.), they sent you back to Antwerp at the Red Star Line's expense. 

It was haunting, it was inspiring, and I highly, highly recommend you visit it if you ever can.  

And that was it.
Our two days and nights went by in a flash.

When we arrived at Antwerpen-Centraal to catch a train to Brussels where we would transfer to the Eurostar, workers were setting up this gigantic purple slide. If only our train had left thirty minutes later! 

Next stop: London.


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