Steven Gambrel

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”

Katagami…Perfect Thank You Present Found

It was the best of times, during the worst of times…

When you live your life as an expatriate, friends become like family. You join them for holidays like Thanksgiving and they get to know your children well. In emergencies, they take care of you, just the way family would. We have a lot of people to thank for the last few weeks and I am enjoying searching out some thank you presents.

The friend who kept us in Singapore already has a pair of beautiful katagami, the Japanese stencils used in printing designs on fabric, usually for kimono. Hers are an unusal long narrow pair, used to make obi, but more commonly seen are smaller stencils, like the ones framed in the Eric Cohler designed bedroom above or those in the Steven Gambrel designed dining room below.

Gambrel is a master at using tightly hung textile arts in his interiors and he is one of the only published designers out there who does it often.

You can see it over and over again in his portfolio.

These look to be actual textile fragments.

Katagami are not the only fabric “printing aids” found among Japanese antiques. Obi zuan, the hand-painted patterns used in obi making can also be found at antique stores and shrine sales.  I even saw a number of them framed at the Altfield Gallery in Hong Kong. Honestly, I still cannot get over how many Japanese antiques there were for sale in Hong Kong!

On Saturday I ran down to the Azabu Juban patio market, knowing there is a dealer who usually has a nice selection of katagami. He did not disappoint – actually all the dealers were there and it was business as usual. In the wake of the disaster, it is not just aid that people need, it is for their livelihoods to continue. In that spirit, shopping seems to be one of the more valuable things I can do.

Picking out the stencils was not hard. There were two bingata style katagami, used to make traditional Okinawan cloth that I thought my friend would really like. The bingata stencils tend to be curvy and pictorial, with plants and animals depicted, unlike some of the more geometric katagami. They weren’t too big, so they wouldn’t take a lot of wall space commitment either. Key to highlighting the detail is to use a white or light-colored liner.

One common way to frame them is to cover the dark border entirely or partially with the mat.

Another way to frame them is to allow the dark border of the stencil to function as a mat in lieu of one. Here, Maja Smith of Alegria Design uses an unexpected modern lucite box frame and no matting to highlight her katagami.  

In the end, I chose a framing style similar to the first image in the post – with a mat, but allowing the dark border to show as an inner frame. I’ll post the final product when it comes back from the framer.

Unfortunately, I cannot blog about the other thank you gifts I am out shopping for as I know those friends are regular readers.  They will just have to wait and be surprised…

Image credits: 1. House Beautiful October 2008, photo credit: Julian Wass, 2. House Beautiful April 2011, photo credit: Simon Watson, 3-5. Steven Gambrel, 6-10. me.

The Mail is Always Late…more on Japanese Glass Fishing Floats and Sudare

One of the disadvantages of living in Tokyo is that magazines are hard to come by. International subscriptions are expensive and often arrive well after they do on the newsstands back in their originating country. So of course I got the November House Beautiful  the day after I wrote my last post on the glass float and bottle I found at the Kawagoe shrine sale, and it was full of images I wanted to share. So here are a few, just a little bit late…

Peter Dunham, another favorite designer of mine, featured a beautiful greenish glass bottle on the counter of the kitchen in this L.A. home he designed. He also used a number of clear giant bottle lamps in the living room and bedrooms.

And in the same issue, designer Steven Gambrel seems to have gone shopping with Tom Scheerer for the glass float lamp in his front entryway.

That photo jogged my memory and sent me scurrying to page through Gambrel’s portfolio. Voila, he uses the same lamp in a boy’s room in a Long Island Beach house. Gotta love the nautical maps made into wallpaper.

He also uses a giant glass bottle in the entryway of the same home. Perhaps he and Mr. Scheerer need to duke it out for the “king of the glass bottle” title.

One more from another beach house on Long Island that he designed – this one in Bridgehampton – with two huge blue glass fishing floats.

And finally, Gambrel does a double whammy in his own Sag Harbor house, using a glass float and the netted lamp together. 

On another note, I also just got my hands on the October issue of The World of Interiors. It featured an amazing new house on the Costa del Sol, built by Studio Peregalli Sartori to look as if had “the patina of the past”.  While the entire house is rich with antique architectural elements, the tower bathroom is my favorite with its magical old world elegance.  There is great tension between the coolness of the white fixtures and the marble floor contrasted with the warmth of the Moroccan tiles and the Japanese sudare blinds covering the windows. For more on sudare, check out my post here.

I think I could really live in that bathroom…

Image credits: 1 & 2. House Beautiful November 2010, 1. photo credit: Victoria Pearson, 2. photo credit: Steven Gambrel, 3-6. Steven Gambrel , 7 & 8. The World of Interiors October 2010, photo credit: Roland Beaufre

Japan-a-mania…Cracked Ice and Crazy Quilts

What do Victorian crazy quilts sewn in America and antique Japanese porcelain have in common? Well, like the face that launched 1000 ships, Japanese art and wares displayed in the 1876 Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia launched an almost instantaneous and frenzied fad among American quilters.

While trading with the East had gone on for centuries, most of that trade centered on China.  Only the Dutch and the Portuguese had access to Japan and even that was quite limited to a small port at Nagasaki. In 1854, that all changed with the arrival of Commodore Perry and the opening of Japan to the West.  While this event radically transformed every aspect of Japanese society, the result in the US was a jumpstart to the American imagination. The effect was truly profound and hard to imagine for us here in 2010 as we are bombarded with new ideas instantly and constantly. The Japanese aesthetic, with its hand work, asymmetry and natural motifs had simply never been seen before by the average person. The quality of the Japanese items at the Centennial also contrasted so strongly with the new shoddy industrial made products of the US and other Western countries.

The fascination with these exotic new ideas translated into the decorative arts almost overnight and there is no better example than the craze over crazy quilts. It is believed that the term “crazy” quilt comes from the “crazing” of the porcelain glaze. The word “crazy” at that time would have also meant broken and irregular. The pattern design comes from a well-known Japanese pattern called “cracked ice”. Quilting designs had always been based on uniform and regularly shaped pieces of fabric, sewn into repeating patterns and then quilted in a uniform pattern as well. For the first time asymmetric and irregular patches of fabric were being cut and sewn and decorated along their seams.

Examples of cracked ice patterns abound in Japanese porcelain.  Sometimes the pattern stands on its own, as in the covered bowl above, with shadings of color and decorative patterns highlighting each block. Make sure to take note of the little pattern painted inside the rim of the lid and compare it to the feather stitch used extensively on the quilt below.

This plate is even simpler, with just the lines of the cracking ice painted in.

Often it is overlayed with ume (plum blossom) or even sakura (cherry blossom) to symbolize the coming of spring and the breaking of the ice.

This 1880s crazy quilt from New York State is a near perfect example of the American craft. Made of 20 square blocks, with a sawtooth border, it has all the typical aspects one would expect to find.

Unlike earlier (and later) quilts, crazy quilts were not made with a sense of thrift or recycling, even though it may seem so as they utilize bits and pieces of valuable fabrics such as silks and velvets.   Nor were they made for warmth as they do not typically have a batting layer in between the top and the back. Crazy quilts were originally made by well-to-do women in the middle and upper classes to demonstrate their needlework skills and show that they had the leisure time to make completely ornamental pieces.  The use of the word quilt is a misnomer –  crazy quilts were not used as quilts at all – nobody slept with them. They were made to be displayed.

While irregularly shaped patches of silk, velvet, brocade, satin – anything ornamental or textured – were cut to make the quilt, it was usually too difficult to make the entire quilt completely “crazy” and the pieces were organized into square blocks, a necessary compromise.

The fabric was pieced together and decorated along the seams with embroidery stitches of all kinds, including feather stitch, chain stitch, lazy daisy, herringbone, chevron, blanket stitch and others.  Detailed pictures and scenes, monograms and messages were added too.

In addition, there was a fascination with Japanese motifs. In crazy quilting this was particularly noticeable with fans and many quilts have fans in all four corners, like this one.

Unfortunately, manufacturers of the day rinsed the fabrics in metals to make them heavier and this has caused them to deteriorate extensively. In the fan below, the peach silk has rotted away, leaving only the cotton backing and the embroidery.

Crazy quilting mania trickled down the social ladder as womens’ magazines of the day ran articles and how-tos. Fancy scraps were recycled, but as the craze progressed, it was possible to buy kits with a variety of fabrics – some of which were even embroidered in advance. Cigarettes and other products were sold with bits of leftover silk as a perk of purchase. Ornamental trims like lace and beads were added. Below, you can see a Masonic Lodge ribbon from 1871 that was saved and used and if you scroll back to the full-sized photo you can see a political ribbon for Vice President used in the second block on the top.

While the 1870s and 1880s were the heyday of American fascination with the exotic, the craze for crazy quilts died down by 1910.  By then, cracked ice patterns and many other Japanese motifs had fueled the Aesthetic Movement and helped to launch Art Nouveau and later Modernism.

Out of prevailing fashion, crazy quilts were usually folded up and put away, only to reappear 100 years later. The success of the 1971 Whitney Museum of American Art exhibit,  Abstract Design in American Quilts, elevated quilts to the status of “real art” and launched a wave of quilt mania that built up until the 1976 Bicentennial.  Since then, quilts have been collected, displayed and valued, and occasionally, as seen below, used in iteresting ways.  For a modern take on an old art form, designer Steven Gambrel used pieces of a 19th century crazy quilt to upholster a chair.

A Few Hours Later…

Rather than pack for camping, I was procrastinating and reading a few blogs. One of the things I need to do is make a list of blog resources — there are some great sites about Japanese textiles/art/history etc. out there. But my favorite blogs are the decorating and design ones – they have so much eye candy for a magazine starved person like myself.  This photo from Abbey Goes Design Scouting cracked me up and I had to post it. She calls it an “unapologetic interior”! Talk about crazy quilt-a-mania…

Image Credits: 1. Philly History Blog, 2-13. me, 14. House and Garden, April 2002 15. Vogue Guide to Patchwork and Quilting Vintage

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