Markham Roberts

Botanicals…Eternal History and Science in Art and Decor


In Visible Empire: Botanical Expeditions & Visual Culture in the Hispanic Enlightenment (University of Chicago Press 2012), [Daniela] Bleichmar uses this vast (and gorgeous) archive of botanical images assembled by Spanish natural history expeditions to explore the connections between natural history, visual culture, and empire in the eighteenth century Hispanic world. In beautifully argued chapters, Bleichmar explores that ways that eighteenth century natural history expeditions were grounded in a visual epistemology where observation and representation were powerful tools for negotiating both scientific and imperial spheres. The “botanical reconquista” spanned fields, shops, gardens, and cabinets across the New World and the Old. Botanists, artists, and others employed images for collaboration and competition, developing distinct styles and practices for observing and representing the natural world.

-Carla Nappi in New Books for Science, Technology and Society

Does that sound as divine to you as it does to me? I haven’t actually had a glimpse of this book, other than the pages I have managed to see on the internet, but it has sent me dreaming…Dreaming of the images themselves and to quote Carla Nappi who interviewed Daniela Bleichmar here, the “possibility of doing history with images, of images, by images.” Looking at Bleichmar’s accomplishments has me dreaming perhaps of all the “might have beens” in my life as well. Krista over at Cloth & Kind wrote a really personal blog post the other day about showing more of herself on her blog and it made me think a lot about mine and myself too. I majored in history – which was the right choice – because the department allowed the most cognates and I could squeeze in all my art and language courses. But the might have beens stack up after that – what if I had actually pushed to write my thesis on a topic that really engaged me and not my advisor? what if I had actually gone back to grad school after my daughter was born and now had all the right academic credentials after my name? what if…

Instead I have found an outlet through this blog and my personal relationships with friends, clients and readers in which we bond over visual and material culture. Sometimes there is meat in the conversation and other times it is a lot of candy. I’m not always sure whether you all want more nutrition or just snacks, but I think I need a balance of both. And perhaps the best part about what I do is not the academic part, but the actual finding, touching and using the art and artifacts I find along the way and sharing that adventure through stories and sales with you all.

There are some folks out there – Steven Gambrel being one of them – that have the link down pat in the interiors they design. In probably one of his most popular rooms ever (does anyone not have this one pinned?) featuring a slew of traditional botanicals framed and hung in a grid, Gambrel creates a space with just the right mix of science and art.

S Gambrel botanicals

Gambrel pushes the envelope and succeeds in the bathroom of his 1810 house in Sag Harbor, lined with pages from a reprint of Cabinet of Natural Curiosities, a famous tome of detailed engravings commissioned by the 18th century Dutch naturalist Albertus Seba.

Steven Gambrel Cabinet of Curiosities ED pc WW

Katie Leede uses the same book to paper the walls in her beadboard clad bathroom, a standout in her standout home featured here. This much science seems to need a vintage home to feel right.

Katie Leede World Travelers Abode curiosities bathroom

A version of this on a grand scale, scientific teaching tool charts, both original and reproduction, are a huge trend right now.

botanical poster twin beds organic block prints via loft and cottage

botanical poster art

Lauren Liess of Pure Style Home used them so prettily in her old home – I am curious to see if they resurface in her new one?

Botanical marsh marigold Lauren Leiss

botanical prints oversized lauren liess repros

Steven Gambrel used traditional botanicals in the room at the top of the post, papers a bathroom as a cabinet of curiosities and also manages to get in on the wall chart trend. He always has fun using unexpected works on paper in many projects – you can see some other choices here.

Steven Gambrel botanical chart ED pc WW

Fern prints are another kind of botanical that never seem to grow old to me, whether in this fairly recent Markham Roberts designed hallway (in my mind’s eye I had remembered it being Gambrel as well, which would have been more fun for the synchronicity of the post)…

Markham Roberts fern prints HB1008 pc Francesco Lagnese

…or this forever room from Jeffrey Bilhuber, featured in a 1997 issue of House Beautiful. I went looking for this image digitally, but of course no luck, and as my scanner is out of commission, I’ll have to make do with this photo of a photo.  There is also a short video featuring this room of Bilhuber’s, among other of his notables, here.

Jeffrey Bilhuber ferns HB 0697

Japanese katagami, or fabric printing stencils, are usually pretty thematically Japanese as they were used predominantly for kimono fabrics.  But I recently found this extraordinary set – I am not sure what they printed and/or what it was for – that approximate very closely a traditional Western fern botanical.


I am thinking of sandwiching them in modern plexiglass frames and hanging them I have no idea where!


Herbiers, the pressed live botanicals which I have so recently written about, are just a way for average folk to get in on adding science to their own art collections if you ask me. Of course right after I wrote that post the new February House Beautiful featured this gorgeous herbier covered bedroom by Will Merrill

Will Merrill-HB0213-herbiers pc Simon Watson

…and in researching another post I remembered writing about this Victoria Hagan project here from a 1999 House Beautiful, that also showcased herbiers…

Victoria Hagan HB 06-99 pc William Waldron

…which led me to this farm sink/bridge faucet combo on that same project. As an aside, remember that this project is almost 15 years old  – so those sinks are definitely not a trend.  And the whole space still feels fresh and I’ll be featuring another room from this project in an upcoming post.

Victoria Hagan HB 0699

Getting back on tangent, I also happened to be reading The Coral Thief by Rebecca Stott (gotta love that cover!). The story of the novel didn’t catch me, but the back drop of the history of evolution playing out against the politics and mores of the time did.  It makes me want to read another of her books – Darwin’s Ghosts – which chronicles those they came before and influenced and inspired him.

The Coral Thief61212-review.jpg_full_600

Which made me think this might need a re-read…

Angels & Insects

…and a re-watch. Although it is moths and butterflies, not botanicals. But I could write a whole post about those too!.


The more I worked on this post, the more I realized how many botanical prints and works of art I had, from 18th century European to modern-day Japanese.  These are late 19th century Japanese from the Antique Jamboree and the now defunct Nogi Shrine sale:

framed Japanese botanical prints

I think that may be why I am drawn certain hanga artists  – for their botanical accuracy – such as Shinji Ando…

…and Rise Hirose.

rise hirose

In the beach house I’ve gone with more traditional 18th and 19th century botanical prints, gleaned from the local New Jersey antique shops I am always raving about, like this one below (can’t remember what folio it is from) which I bought as much for the French mat and frame as anything else. I’ve got two others framed the same hiding in the closet because I have no room for them!

botanical print bennison roses swedish

Remember that pair of sister Maund prints I found last summer?

Maund Prints

They are each safely ensconced in the correct sister’s room.

Maund printIMG_0350

So the questions for you are the following…More meat and potatoes? Or lots of cotton candy? And do you also sometimes dwell on the “might have beens”?

There are more related posts than I can possibly list – the links to them are found throughout the text wherever the subject is mentioned.  But if you liked this post you might want to read the one below.

Related Posts
The Life of Objects…Stories of Paintings, Pottery and Netsuke in Edmund de Waal’s “The Hare With Amber Eyes”

The Altar Table Reimagined…From Worship to Workhorse

So after you had their portrait painted, where were you going to worship your Chinese ancestors? At your very own altar table of course! Now truthfully, many of the larger pieces come from shrines and temples, but individuals did own them, and they were considered the most important piece of furniture in the home. Portraits and scrolls were hung above them on the wall and offerings such as food or flowers would be placed upon them, as well as decorative objects. During the Cultural Revolution, traditional Chinese furniture became a liability – a connection to the old ways – and much of it was destroyed or carted off, only to be rediscovered and deemed desirable by, you guessed it, westerners!

While we no longer use them for ritual worship, they tend to be incredibly functional and attractive in modern-day homes. The tables could be made of hard or soft woods, sometimes lacquered on top and often having upturned flanged ends. Bamboo pieces like this one tend to come from the Shanxi region of China. Long and narrow, set up higher than a dining table, altar tables fit well in a variety of spaces, perhaps nowhere better than an entryway, where they can hold display pieces, corral shoes and serve as an all around command center for the home. I love the items on display and the high contrast in this photo. All the accessories are linked back to the color black painted above the white beadboard. The fine bamboo table and the floor runner provide just the right amount of warmth.

Perfect along a long narrow hallway, this bamboo piece has a lacquered top. The mullioned window panes seem to mimic the shapes in the bamboo.

I would normally consider painting an antique bamboo altar table to be heresy, but this one looks so fresh against that great Florence Broadhurst peacock feather wallpaper.

I love the mix of the very sharp and spare lines of this simple table with the curvy Thonet stools below. Altar tables are perfect for stashing extra seating in the entry…

…as seen here again. Their height also makes them perfect for holding lamps.

Moving on to the redoubtable Miles Redd, I cannot help but admire the extraordinary combination of color, style and period in this dining room with the bamboo altar table providing the visual anchor amidst all that paleness. It also makes a great buffet, able to hold dishes, cutlery and numerous serving platters along its 7 foot or so length.

Tablescaping is an art that achieves perfection on an altar table, as the height and breadth give it stature while the space below is perfect for tucking just about anything. The contrast here between the symmetrical arrangement on top and the asymmetric one below is genius.

From a practical perspective, they make great bars! Note the blue and white porcelain hibachi, or maybe a fish bowl based on the painted motif, being used as an ice cooler…

…and here again, a lacquer one being put to the same use.

One of the best places for an altar table is running along the back of a sofa as a console table, perfect for holding lamps, books and magazines in easy reach. Unfortunately, I don’t have any photos illustrating that so you’ll have to use your imagination. I do have a few more unusual placements, like this example of a very wide one being used as a kitchen island…

…and this small narrow one being used in the bathroom as a dressing table.

Have you noticed a bias towards bamboo examples in this post? That is because bamboo altar tables from the Shanxi region of China are my favorites as evidenced by this late 18th century one in my home. One piece of advice I give often is to buy less, but buy better. This table was one of my main purchases when I lived in Hong Kong – I was very young so I scraped and saved to buy it. There has never been a moment since in which I did not love it and I know I will have it forever. When I came to Japan 7 years ago I assessed every house and apartment I saw for placement of the table as it is over 7 feet in length and didn’t fit in my NYC apartment. Now it has the pride of place and you see it immediately upon entering.

I hope you are enjoying these Chinese New Year week posts!

Image credits: 1.via Eclectic Revisited, 2. via decorpad, 3. Domino September 2006, photo credit: Corey Walter, 4. Elle Decor March 2006, photo credit: Pieter Estersohn, 5. House Beautiful September 2007, photo credit: Pieter Estersohn, 6. House Beautiful April 2011, photo credit: James Merrell, 7. House Beautiful September 2007, 8. House Beautiful November 2009, 9. Markham Roberts, credit unknown, 10. House Beautiful May 2010, photo credit: Thomas Loof, 11. Elle Decor June 2010, photo credit: Simon Upton, 12. me.

Where Do You Tansu?

In the Entryway?
Perfect for hats and scarves, keys and keeping other clutter out of view, this iron strap isho dansu is mixed with other Asian antiques and objects in this elegant entry by Vincente Wolf.

Even shoes or rainboots can fit if the tansu is big enough. Love the similarity between the spare Shaker-like English rush-seat chairs and the simple mizuya tansu.

In the Living Room?
The gilded doors and elaborately grained wood on this early 20th century tansu dresses up a corner of Chris Barrett’s tiny home.

In the Dining Room?
Designer and blogger Lauren Liess uses the bottom half of a tansu as a sideboard in her dining room. The big sliding doors and deep cabinet make storage easy.

In the Kitchen?
I know I’ve shown this Michael Smith photo before, but I love it so much I’ll show it again. He is a master at using Japanese antique furniture in his designs. For more great examples from him click here.

In the Family Room?
This example is a bit of a cheat as it actually a Korean bandaji (blanket chest), a family heirloom of Ally’s of From the Right Bank.

In the Bedroom?
A big tansu, perfect for clothes, blankets and pillows in the Chelsea bedroom of Ray Booth and John Shea…

or a small one on raised metal legs, making a perfect nightstand in this gorgeous Madeline Stuart designed bedroom.

Smaller chigai dana with their open staggered shelves, often laquered and decorative, are incredibly versatile too. Besides the most famous one residing in the White House, you can find them tucked in numerous interesting spaces. Check out the one in the left corner of this Markham Roberts designed living room…

…and another hidden in the left corner of Celerie Kemble‘s bedroom.

I’ve had a few questions lately from readers on how to blend Japanese antique furniture into Western interiors, so this post proves my adage that a tansu can work in almost any design style, whether modern, traditional or eclectic. Perpetually underused in the design world, tansu are great for storage and display as well as gorgeous in their own right.

So friends and readers, where do you tansu? I’d love to do a follow-up post showing photos of tansu in your rooms! Get out your cameras, do a little styling if you want and send me photos of tansu in your homes!

Related Posts:
What’s Cooking? Tansu in the Kitchen
Sourcing Antiques for Michael Smith Interiors
A Masterful Modern Mixmaster…John F. Saladino
An Artistic Reflection…The 1860 Japanese Envoy to America and Yokohama-e

Image credits: 1. Metropolitan Home November/December 1995, photo credit: Simon Watson, 2. credit unknown, perhaps Kelly Hoppen, 3. House Beautiful July/August 2011, photo credit: Victoria Pearson, 4. via Pure Style Home, 5. via Chinoiserie Chic, 6. via From the Right Bank, 7. Elle Decor September 2007, photo credit: Eric Piasecki, 8. Elle Decor January 2007, photo credit: unknown, 9. House Beautiful May 2011, photo credit: Thomas Loof, 10. Lonny October/November 2010, photo credit: Patrick Cline

Come Catch My Drift…Sculptural Wood Furniture

This is the table that started it.  Shown here, now safely ensconced in Atlanta, a dear friend and I found it at the Kanarusha sale last year. I loved it so much that I was ready to go down to the mat and fight for it, but the depth of the friendship coupled with the fact that I had nowhere (nowhere!!!) to put it kept me from the wrestling match.

Actually, I may have to take that back. Maybe this is the table that started it all off for me. This image was ripped out of a World of Interiors but I had the pleasure of being in the new Rose Uniacke shop on the Pimlico Road in London a year and a half ago. I love the juxtaposition of the Sheraton style sofa with this organic tree slice slab table and an industrial light thrown in for good measure.

No, I might even have to take that one back too and go all the way back to my first ever sighting of iconic Japanese-American designer George Nakashima’s wooden slab tables. Radical and homemade, smooth and rough at the same time, the contrast between them and their extraordinary workmanship makes his pieces art as much as furniture. I can’t remember exactly when I first encountered one, but it left an indelible impression. This photo of the table at Kentuck Knob will do for illustration. Nakashima plus Frank Lloyd Wright – can’t top that.

Whichever way you slice it, I have been scoping for sculptural wood furniture since the day I arrived in Japan. Tree trunk or table slab, I am easy. The problem as always has been finding somewhere to put something. As you look over the post, the key-note that binds all these interiors together is their pale simplified palette, whether it be the silvered hues of the driftwood or the warmer tones of some of the other pieces. Adding natural wood is easy, but making it look good in its surroundings requires a controlled hand.

A recent New York Times article featured the beautifully spare home of Michael Fleming, a Maine artist and furniture maker who works with driftwood and his partner, Jennifer Wurst. The theme of the piece is how cheaply they created their personal haven – much of it picked up at the dump – but the furniture and artwork that brings it alive are Fleming’s amazing creations from driftwood. Here in the dining room, the floor lamp, named “Long Reach” and the massive canvas on the wall are both his work.

The living room has the only item – the sofa – which cost over $100 and just barely at that. Tucked in the corner is a great tree stump table.

The hall has a branch of driftwood standing guard at the doorway.

The bed is made from logs of oak and maple.

This piece of wood is awaiting its fate as a floor lamp. Amazing!

The article inspired me to pull pictures from my files of other art furniture made from raw wood. While photographer Victoria Pearson takes luminescent interior shots for the major shelter magazines, her own home is no less beautiful. Here is a version from 2005, with an amazing trunk-like wooden lamp…

…and here it is again a few years later.

Like the piece in Fleming’s hallway, Vincente Wolf uses branches, or maybe even roots, as sculpture on the wall in this project.

This sleek city aerie by Alexandra Angle features a coffee table reminiscent of the one in the Rose Uniacke ad above. The super modern condo is a perfect counterpoint to the natural wood pieces.

In this peaceful beach home, Jarlath Mellet uses a glass top to make a table from branches.

Mellet used raw, distressed or knotty wood furnishings similar to the driftwood and timber you’d find at the beach or in the country throughout this house, including this tree sofa. Not sure if it is comfy, but it definitely makes a statement

Todd Alexander Romano has a similar glass topped table in his new L.A. home.

Sometimes a small accent is all you need. I love the contrast between the branch candlestand and the much more formal antiques in James Huniford’s NY State home.

I haven’t found much in the way of artisanal wooden furniture at shrine sales, although there are shops here in Japan that specialize in Nakashima style pieces. What I have seen quite a few of are wooden hibachi with organic shapes and natural details, perfect for adding a bit of sculptural wood to an interior.

Perfect as planters and accent tables, or perhaps we should follow Markham Roberts’ lead and make the best use of a vintage hibachi that I can think of….

… a giant drinks cooler. Time for a party!

Image credits: 1. W. Gagnon, 2. via Rose Uniacke, 3. via Kentuck Knob, 4-8. The New York Times, August 31, 2011, photo credit: Trent Bell, 9. Martha Stewart Living September 2005, photo credit: Victoria Pearson, 10. House Beautiful August 2008, photo credit: Victoria Pearson, 11. via Vincente Wolf, 12. via Alexandra Angle, 13. Lonny July/August 2100, photo credit: Patrick Cline,  14. via Jarlath Mellett, 15. Lonny May/June 2011, photo credit: Patrick Cline, 15. Elle Decoration Hong Kong date unknown, photo credit: Guillaume de Laubier, 16-19. me, 20. Markham Roberts, credit unknown.

Stairway Solutions…Musings on Runners, Risers and Treads

Only three weeks to go until I am back in the USA for the summer. My ostensible reason for rushing home is getting the garden planted. Honestly, it is a bit (too?) late in the planting season, but I am hoping that if I hurry and water a lot, most of what I plant will survive. I have two narrow borders and space for a hydrangea hedge in the front of the house. It is all going to be summer blooming flowers – no foundation plants for winter green (I hate them anyway), no spring bulbs, no worries about autumn color – as I will never get to see any of it. I’ll report more on the garden design when I get there!

In the meantime I have had a few requests for more details on the house and my decorating plans. It is a good thing too, as I have so much to figure out and so little time to do it. It has been hard to concentrate this spring and now I am full-on in the rounds of sayonara (good-bye) parties and the raucous fun, hangovers and depression that comes with them.

One fairly simple problem that needs to be solved is the staircase. The previous owners painted it solid white, but it had long been painted. In this photo, taken shortly after we moved in last summer, you can see how dirty it is, but this was taken after movers and mattress men had tramped up and down in their shoes! Of course we don’t wear shoes indoors after seven years of living in Japan, so with a fresh coat of paint, they can look like new. But unfortunately, I still think they will get dirty and would like to add some interest to them as they are a focal point of the house. The railing and newel posts are beautiful and the staircase is open to both the living and dining rooms.

One of my key inspiration photos for the house is this photo of the entry of a Jason Bell designed home in Connecticut. The striped rug, sheer voile table skirt, Moroccan mirror, Empire mahogany table, straw bag and modern botanical print are touchstone elements I am using in my own design. I have been translating each of them as follows – striped stair runner, curtain sheers, Moroccan tray table as coffee table, Empire dining table, jute rug and modern Japanese prints.

This Markham Roberts hallway in the Hamptons has a similar feel and similar components, with beautiful Elizabeth Eakins striped runners.  Both photos have a beige based palette while mine is grey, but there is just something about the feel of them both that speaks to me.

So for the last year I have been planning on working with that vibe and installing a striped runner, perhaps one from Elizabeth Eakins (who is having a huge May sale right now) or Dash & Albert.

Or even better, one from Blenheim Carpets in London. I have been carrying around these samples for a year and they are still my favorites. The top pattern is Chatsworth and the bottom two are Longleat. Maybe a little excessive to order carpet from England???

Then a few months ago, I started reading Joan’s blog for the love of a house where I discovered that she actually has my dream staircase. Wood treads, white risers and a glossy black newel post. Unfortunately, I don’t think I can recreate it in my house as I know there are layers and layers of paint on my stairs and I don’t have the energy to even think about stripping them. Too much time and mess, and who knows what I’ll find under all that paint?

And sometimes I also worry that stripes might just be too busy for the small space. Perhaps a sisal, hemp, jute or some other natural runner might be just right?

But when I look at the photo above and below, I feel the lack of color. They are gorgeous spaces, but I need a bit more color…

In talking to Joan about staircases, she raised a very good point. One problem with runners is that they make steps shallower and sometimes slippery. The more I think about mine, the more I am worried that there isn’t really room for a runner as my stairs are already small and narrow. Hmmm……

One easy option would be to use paint. I can’t get the original wood treads back, but I could paint the treads a color, possibly a grey from the same paint chip as the walls (which are Benjamin Moore Pelican Gray), perhaps just a few shades darker.  In this photo a white staircase has simple grey treads.

I love the idea of painted treads, but that still leaves the risers white and that is what you see when you look at the stairway. Might they get kicked and dirty and still look bad, even with painted treads?  So here is a similar idea, with a painted “runner” down the center of the staircase. The benefit is that both the treads and the risers have the darker color paint. Traffic tends to walk up the middle and there is quite a bit of visual interest.

Here is a version with color.

I love the bit of border detail in this version.

And back to my stripes…Here is an entirely painted striped runner. I don’t love this photo – the colors are not me and the whole thing looks busy – but it was the only one I could find and seems like a fun idea.

I am not sure how well these paint treatments would hold up. Which brings me right back to where I started, thinking about a runner.

Aaargh! Even after writing this post and reading it over, I am still all over the place and undecided on what to do. I’d love some input, whether based on experience with runners or just aesthetics and care,. Help! Please comment!

For more guidance on these kinds of projects, there are some great posts out there on installing a Dash & Albert runner at What am I going to be when I grow up?, and how-tos on painted runners at Take the Side Street, Salvaged Bliss and Living Livelier.

Image credits: 1 & 6. me, 2. House Beautiful September 2008, photo credit: Simon Upton, 3. House Beautiful October 2008, photo credit: Francesco Lagnese, 4. via Elizabeth Eakins, 5. via What am I going to be when I grow up?, 7. via for the love of a house, 8. via 1st Option, 9. via Lucyina Moodie, 10. Martha Stewart Living July 2008, 11. via Apartment Therapy, 12. via Skona Hem, 13. via Salvaged Bliss, 14. via Country Living

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