The Art of Creating a Polished Room


The Jefferson Hotel, Richmond VA, Photographed by Patricia Lyons

My friend Jennings and I were talking a while back with Rob Cox, the winemaker at Paradise Springs winery in Clifton, Virginia, and I commented that the wine we were sipping tasted uncomplicated, but not unfinished.  Rob said in winemaking, the term is “polished.”


John Singer Sargent, Madame X (Madame Pierre Gautreau) 1884

In art, polish is what makes a viewer feel that a painting is organized, fully realized and complete, and it is often the hallmark that distinguishes a professional painter from an amateur.  Though a masterpiece may feel as if it just appeared on the canvas, a good painting is very much designed.  As landscape painter Stapleton Kearns says, “information is not art,” meaning, a good painter doesn’t just copy what he sees in nature, he takes what he sees and then designs his painting–adding, subtracting or re-arranging the elements for maximum effect.   For more information on this, check out Stape’s brilliant blog, here.


Brie Williams, Photographer

In designing interiors or gardens the concept is the same.  Some spaces feel polished whether they are casual or grand.  One secret to achieving this is to pay close attention to the composition of “lows” “mediums” and “highs,” just as a master artist or winemaker does.  In painting this translates to color values.


As a painter, I can relate that beginning artists almost always make one of two mistakes:  either the entire painting is created in middle values–the dark areas are not dark enough and the highlights are not light enough, or the entire painting has too few middle values, and your eye bounces back and forth crazily between darks and lights with graceful transitions or place to rest.

I used to wonder why zebras are not camouflaged a dull beige like many other animals on the African plains, but now I suspect that the genius of the crazy black and white pattern is that it becomes very difficult for a predator to focus on the moving animal, or on any one element in a running herd.  Perhaps it even takes a split second (which might make the difference between life or death for the zebra) for the predator to discern which direction his prey is moving.

Even this elegant “all-white” room from the Traditional Home showhouse has lights, mediums, and darks

Anyway, it’s easy for a beginning painter and a beginning decorator to get all caught up in color, but color actually matters less than you might think.  Colors in decorating go in and out of style.  One year mustard is all the rage, the next, mustard is tired and everyone loves blue.  Regardless of color, there are beautiful rooms in every era and every color of the rainbow.

Even monochromatic schemes need highs and lows to work.  Imagine listening to a song composed of only middle C, played over and over again.  An all medium-value room will likely be dull and monotonous to look at and live in, even if it’s orange.  On the other hand, a room composed of only dark and light values might dance with energy (like a zebra), but can be exhausting or even distressing over time if there is no place to rest the eye.



Graceful rooms, like good wine, pleasing paintings, and beautiful songs, have rich soulful lows; clean highs; and middle values to serve as a transition between the two.  When you look at the image above, ignore the color.  People often think of yellow as “light,” but in this room, it serves as the middle value.  Squint your eyes and you’ll see distinct darks and lights and a broad mass of middle values.  Squinting is a great way to make values more pronounced and diminish the effect of colors.


These rooms are a great example….  nice use of mid-tones on the beagles by the way.


Thomas Jayne, Photographed by Brie Williams

This is a masterful composition by Thomas Jayne.  Here again, yellow serves as the middle value.


If squinting doesn’t quite work, you can also take a photo of your room in black and white.  I frequently take a color photo of a painting that I’m working on and convert it to grey scale in a photo-editing program.  This  helps me understand how the viewer’s eye will move around my painting.  It can help you understand how the eye moves around your room.


Samuel Melton Fisher, Flower Makers

Here’s another secret…An artist knows that the focal point of a painting is frequently where the lightest light meets the darkest dark.  In decorating, the eye can be led the same way.  When you look at your black and white photo, you may be surprised to discover that the focal point of your room isn’t what you thought it was.


Architect Robert Wade

Architects and designers also use dark, medium and light values to create rhythm and “flow” just like an artist draws the viewer’s eye through a painting, or a composer leads a listener through a symphony.


Dark, medium and light values create excitement or repose in the mood of an interior room, or a garden room by controlling the rhythm and speed with which the viewer’s eye travels.  Great garden designers find ways, both physical and visual to cause the visitor to slow down and take in the garden in the way they intend.  A good designer works this out in a plan. That’s why it’s called design.


Harry Slatkin

Sometimes simply changing the value of a lampshade or rug can make all the difference in the world to the mood of a room.  For those of you who are musicians, this analogy will make sense: the designer decides if he wants the eye to sweep through the room like a waltz, bounce between values energetically like the crisp rat-tat-tat of a snare drum, or drift softly like a lullaby.  A good general rule when working on your own rooms is that if you want more drama, use high contrast with fewer mid-tones.  (Think zebra).


Amelia Handegan, Photographer:  Pieter Estersohn

If you want a room or painting or even your clothing to feel more serene, reduce the contrast by adding more middle values.  It can be fun to play with these aspects of color values to create a masterfully designed room or garden or wardrobe.  What are your thoughts?








Originally published at Notes from a Virginia Country House. in 2012



Leaning Toward Love

My nephew studied hard and performed well on entrance exams with the happy consequence that he had been accepted to a nearby Big-10 school that some of his friends were attending, as well as a small private university located on the other side of the country.

“Mom,” he said, in the car on the way home from yet another college visitation, “I just can’t decide.  What do you think I should do?” Reluctant to influence his decision, she told him that he was very fortunate, because either school would be a fine choice, although each would provide a significantly different experience.  This, my nephew complained, was stating the obvious.  (Which I hear, is something that mothers find themselves doing quite a lot of in the course of motherhood.)



But then she said something that changed everything for him.  She said, “Son, I support your decision either way, but if you are leaning toward the school close to home because you are afraid to go away, I can tell you one thing for sure:  in this family, we don’t make those kinds of decisions from a place of fear.  Choose the school that tugs your heart forward toward your dreams, not the school you’re least afraid of.”

As fate would have it, the phone was ringing at home as they walked in the door.  My nephew answered the phone and accepted the invitation of the small school far away in Texas, where he did indeed have a fine experience, and met his future wife as well.

In an article at Oprah On-line, the writer and counselor Martha Beck says that when she recalls the biggest regrets of her life, all of them were the consequence of fear-based decisions.  She says that her most significant regrets never followed a choice based purely on love.  “In the cases where my motivations were a mix of love and fear,” she says, “it was always the fear-based component that left me fretful and regretful.”

I had to learn this the hard way.  I have made choices that I have later regretted, but I have never regretted a choice that leaned toward love, even if it didn’t work out.  Allowing myself the forgiveness and kindness to learn from my mistakes is also leaning toward love.  And I’m trying to do better each day.  The lovely Maya Angelou once famously said, “I did then what I knew how to do.  Now that I know better, I do better.”  That’s the beautiful process of life.

In 1995 Jeff Bezos left a good job that he liked to pursue his dream of starting an on-line company selling books.  They made a lot of mistakes in the beginning, he says, but they persisted, and that dream became  Ms. Beck wisely encourages us to ask ourselves each time we make a choice, “‘what would thrill and delight me?’ rather than ‘what will keep my fear—or the events, people, and things I fear—at bay?'”

What does love say you should do?  For myself, I have learned that if I lean in the direction of love, rather than away from fear, I will make more satisfying choices and have fewer regrets.  How about you?  I would love to hear your thoughts.







This post was moved from J&G and edited.

Natural Elegance

Elegance is used to describe everything from clothing to cars to toilet bowls.  The word is overused but we can’t seem to help it.  Why do we want so badly to be elegant?  Because we know it is necessary, maybe even essential to our happiness.   Elegance is elusive though.  Chic is not sufficient.  Glamour isn’t enough.  It can be luxurious, but isn’t luxury.  Elegance is expansive but also intimate.  It is dramatic but may also be understated.  This is why it fascinates and captures our imagination in a way that lesser ideas can’t.

If you are a painter, photographer or author, you work toward elegance every day because you know it exists in every excellent work of art or writing.  Designers and architects know elegance is the magic that makes people want to live in the spaces they build.  How do you seek it in your work?

I posted about Matthew May’s book, “In Pursuit of Elegance,” here.  He says that elegance is always characterized by four key elements: Seduction, Subtraction, Symmetry, and Sustainability.



Seduction: No, not sexual per se. More like… breathtaking, mysterious, engaging.  Maybe the way you felt the first time you saw a giant redwood, or heard a beautifully played piece of music. You may have felt a catch in your throat and a yearning for something undefinable. It may have simultaneously brought tears to your eyes and made you glad to be alive.  Elegance pulls you in like a magnet.  I know you’ve felt that way before.

Subtraction: In that there is nothing extraneous or unnecessary.  When something is elegant, there is no part that does not contribute to the effect of the whole. At a certain time of the year, my local market gets roses from Ecuador. They have lush foliage and large heads on sturdy stems and smell like fresh, ripe raspberries on a hot afternoon. People like to say that elegance is simple, but these roses are not simple. Elegance is often exceedingly complex. When they open, and they always do, they will stop you in your tracks and make you gasp with pleasure at their unselfconscious magnificence, and yet–there’s nothing that could be taken away or subtracted. And, nothing else need be added. A priceless crystal vase would add nothing except water.  Subtraction is the idea of refining, not applying.

Symmetry: Elegance is symmetrical, meaning perfect harmonious proportions. Symmetry can be reflectional as two halves that are a mirror image of one another like a butterfly’s wings. It can be radial, like the symmetry of a sunflower or a snowflake, and it can be translational–a pattern that repeats itself at regular intervals.  Scientists say that human beings have a preference for the proportions of the Golden Ratio, or Phi.  It is as if elegance is coded into our DNA.  When you aren’t sure what is elegant, compare the object or idea to the grace and symmetry of a tree, or a bird.  Nature is always a reliable reference.

And finally,

Sustainability: Elegance is sustainable and repeatable.  Exhibit A–our elegant ocean. Among its other elegant characteristics, it connects with our preference for repetition and rhythm. In design we call it harmony, which is deeply pleasurable to human beings.  It’s why we find waves lapping on a shore soothing.

Although we don’t often treat our natural world so, human beings are actually inherently and powerfully drawn to sustainable ideas, actions and things. It’s why you get a funny feeling when you read on a package of plastic cups or utensils that they are “Elegant!” Because deep down, in a place we don’t even realize is there, exists thousands of years of knowing that such a statement could never be true.

In my last post about Matthew’s book, I talked about manners.  If we want to be elegant, our manners must be repeatable and sustainable.  We are not just polite when it suits us or when conditions are optimal.  We behave in private the same way we behave in public. We treat all people with equal kindness no matter how important they might be or what they might do for us.  We also have good manners with ourselves and live gracefully even when no one is looking.



As a portrait painter, my job is noticing fine details about people. I have come to believe that elegance exists in all of us but we get confused because we let it be defined by popular culture and twisted by advertisers. What advertisers don’t want you to realize is that you don’t need anything from them.  You already have everything you need for elegance.  We’re just in the habit of burying our elegant nature with stuff—products, prejudices, big egos, destructive practices and bad habits that are not seductive, subtractive, symmetrical or sustainable. In other words, not elegant.

Can products be elegant? Sure, if the key characteristics are present.  The fun comes when we begin to think about how we can be more elegant by passing how we live, speak, behave, dress, decorate, entertain, travel, and so forth through those four filters.  But keep in mind that you don’t have to go to the mall to buy elegance. You can grow it in a sunny patch of dirt right outside your door. Seduction, Subtraction, Symmetry, Sustainability–think about it. Fresh scrubbed, glowing skin is more elegant than makeup. A fit, healthy body in clean faded jeans and a crisp white shirt can be more elegant than a sequin-encrusted gown. A sunny, genuine smile is more elegant than dour, pinched reserve. Generosity is more elegant than avarice, kindness is more elegant than fear and anger.  The National Parks were an elegant idea.  Uranium mining in the Grand Canyon and drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Preserve is not.  Authenticity is more elegant than posturing and fakery.  An elegant person is able to communicate his ideas without being rude.  We know this. We know it, we know it, we know it.  At the core of our beings–We. Know. It. So we have to stop trying to convince ourselves that we don’t, and allowing ourselves to be led astray by those who only want to use us for their own ends.

Elegance is our truth.

We want to be elegant because it is the natural state of the universe. Think of the elegance of a tree. It doesn’t puff up and draw attention to its importance because it is bigger or taller than other trees. In fact, when you see trees growing side by side in the woods, it’s fascinating to notice that most of their branches grow on opposite sides of each other. It is as if they have said to one another, “I’ll grow this way, and you grow that way, and then we can both live in this small space without harming each other.”

If we want to live a life of elegance, we must similarly evolve our thinking about ourselves, other human beings and how we might all live together on our small planet. We are all just passing through this universe, but we crave elegance because we know that when our time here is through, we want to be remembered not as “Consumers,” but elegant human beings who have been an important part of the earth’s legacy.

I’d love to hear your thoughts!




In the Library:


Lies and Other Acts of Love

Kristy Woodson Harvey is the author of Dear CarolinaLies and Other Acts of Love, and the hugely popular interiors blog, Design Chic.  Kristy sent me her book Dear Carolina just before it was published and I read it from cover to cover in a day.  An engaging story-teller, Kristy draws readers into the lives of Frances “Khaki” Mason, a thriving and glamorous interior designer who seems to have it all, and Jodi, her husband’s nineteen-year-old cousin, who is fresh out of rehab, pregnant, and alone.  Although it seems the two Southern women could not be more different, Kristy deftly weaves their lives together through their loves, struggles and sacrifices.  With the smashing success of this debut novel, Kristy has not rested upon her laurels, and is soon to release her second novel,  Lies and Other Acts of Love.  In this latest richly detailed tale of love, loss and loyalty, Kristy again pulls the reader into the hearts and souls of her colorful characters, and establishes herself as a fresh, new voice in Southern fiction.

Maya Angelou said that there is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside of you.  That may be true, but it also takes a tremendous amount of courage to face that first blank page.  Somehow, from flights of imagination, collected observations, scraps of life experience, and snippets of conversations held and overheard, the writer must craft a story that is good, and compelling and necessary.  “Easy reading,” in the words of Nathaniel Hawthorne, “is damn hard writing.”



What makes a great writer is that willingness to write clearly and directly the most truthful things one knows.  The interesting thing for a writer of fiction, is that the same truth that creates the character who is beloved, also creates the madman.  I am not a novelist, but I know from my own labored attempts at writing that I am constantly asking myself:  Is this real?  Do you want to say exactly this, or are you talking around the point?  Can you be more precise or say it more simply?  Knocking out pronouns with unclear antecedents is a piece of cake compared to the difficulty of seeing oneself clearly, digging to the core of an idea, then being brave enough to put it out there.

Way to go Kristy!

Lies and Other Acts of Love is available to pre-order now.







Recommended Reading:



Southern Classic

The best part of blogging is the wonderful new friends you meet.  Just after a post at J&G about Blue Ridge Farm in Albemarle, Virginia, I was delighted to receive an email from the very kind and charming Architect Madison Spencer, who generously sent me additional photos and described his work at Blue Ridge Farm.  If you missed the original post, here it is…

Blue Ridge Farm is an historic estate situated on 167 acres in Western Albemarle County in Virginia.  The original house was built between 1852 and 1854 and redesigned and expanded in 1923 by famed architect William Lawrence Bottomley and landscape architect Charles F. Gillette.  Mr. Bottomley, considered a leading architect of the Colonial Revival style, did some of his most beautiful work in Virginia, though he was in fact, a born-and-bred Manhattan-ite.  The recognition of the classic regional style of what is called the “Virginia garden,” is likely due to the prolific work of Charles Gillette, who landscaped hundreds of estates in Virginia and the upper South.


After 1970, the slowly fading property passed through a succession of owners and uninspired modern additions, until it was rescued in 2002 by Charles and Kim Cory.  They hired Madison Spencer, an old friend, to enhance the property and restore it to its graceful 1920’s design.


Madison Spencer has been widely published and is known internationally, in part for his work on historic properties, several of which have achieved landmark status.  He is a classicist who designs homes, commercial properties, resorts and offices, and has been honored by the Institute of Classical Design and Classical Architecture.  Mr. Spencer has offices in Newport, Rhode Island, and Charlottesville, Virginia.  See more of his stunning work by clicking here.


 Blue Ridge Farm consists of a 12,000 square foot main house with 33 public rooms and 17 out-buildings.  Read Erin Parkhurst’s excellent article in Virginia Living Magazine by clicking here.


 Ralph Harvard, a native Virginian, was the talented interior designer on the project.  The sitting room is painted in Farrow & Ball Cooking Apple Green.  The thrilling discovery of Mr. Bottomley’s original carved inscription, “Love and contentment abide here within these four walls,” was made when some bookcases were removed.


 One of the most beautiful buildings on the property is the pool pavillion, an original design by Madison Spencer.  It blends seamlessly into its surroundings but retains its own graceful character.



Landscape Architect Rusty Lilly, a Gillette scholar, guided the restoration of park-like gardens.


Erin Parkhurst’s Virginia Living article describes how, in homage to Bottomley, Mr. Spencer cleverly integrated the fretwork motif from the library into the new pool house.



View more of Madison Spencer’s elegant designs here.


For further reading on William Lawrence Bottomley, Charles F. Gilliette or creating your own traditional style garden, here are three of my favorites:



Images:  Eric Kvalsvik for Virginia Living magazine article by Erin Parkhurst 2.  Eric Kvalsvik for Virginia Living magazine, article by Erin Parkhurst 3.  Richard Felber for Garden & Gun magazine  4.-5.  Eric Kvalsvik for Virginia Living magazine, article by Erin Parkhurst 6.  Erik Kvalsvik/Ralph Harvard published in Antiques and Fine Art magazine 7.  Erik Kvalsvik for Virginia Living magazine 8.  Erik Kvalsvik/Ralph Harvard published in Antiques and Fine Art magazine.  9.-12.  Madison Spencer Architects 13.  Brie Williams 14. Brie Williams for Virginia Living Magazine 15. Madison Spencer Architects

The Polite Home

Good manners help us create a sanctuary at home from a sometimes rough and tumble outside world.  I’ve heard that there’s no need for manners at home because it’s a place to “relax,” but I wonder if it is a lack of politeness that causes most of the disharmony, frustration, resentment and mess, that can make a home unhappy.  And that can’t be relaxing for anyone.   We see the obvious benefit of being polite to friends, business associates, and strangers, so I wonder why so often we don’t see importance of being polite to the people we’ve pledged to love and treasure. Odd isn’t it?


The Polite Home


What a difference good manners might make between enmity and closeness between parents and children, or alienation and tenderness between husband and wife.  Politeness between family members encourages ignoring accidental slights, and prevents the ruffled feathers caused by crabbiness, sharp retorts, monosyllable answers, borrowing items without permission, nosiness, tardiness and general slovenliness.

When we practice graciousness with our families it becomes a habit.  The manners children carry into the outside world become easy, unaffected and natural if they practice at home where “no one” is watching.  As women, I think the most effective way to encourage politeness at home is by setting an example.  I didn’t always understand this, but now I believe it’s why we should try to speak, dress and behave in a way that mirrors our highest and best vision for ourselves.  Sometimes it is so difficult, but we can choose to carry ourselves with nobility, and self-respect.  If we take care of ourselves and make sure we’re not neglecting our own needs, we can maintain a self-possessed happiness.  We can pause before we respond so that we can decide whether to comment or let it go.  We can also consciously choose intimacy over control.

How do you feel about politeness at home?  What have you found are the benefits and challenges?






Further reading:




Image:  Macy’s


Counting Sheets

Walker-Simmons Designs

I am going to tell you a bedtime story (if you can stay awake long enough) filled with intrigue and suspense, wealth and betrayal–and some pretty sheets.


D. Porthault

There are many varieties of cotton grown in the world, but Extra Long-Staple cotton, abbreviated ELS, is a luxury fiber that is universally revered for its smooth strength, superior softness, beautiful silken luster and exceptional durability.  ELS cotton fibers are the longest cotton fibers at an inch and three-eighths or longer.



Due to these longer, silkier fibers, ELS cotton absorbs and retains vibrant colors beautifully.  The long fibers lie flat in the weave much better than short-staple cotton and many other natural fibers.  Short-staple cotton is more likely to rough up and pill.


D. Porthault
“Pima” is a generic term for the Extra Long Staple (ELS) cotton grown in the U.S., Peru, Israel, and Australia.  Pima accounts for about 3% of the cotton grown in the United States.



Pima is more expensive for farmers to produce than short-staple cotton varieties, and therefore more expensive for manufacturers to buy from farmers.  Here’s the intrigue. Manufacturers desired the profit from selling silky Pima cotton products, but pricing them competitively meant lower profit margins.


Nancy Boszhardt, Designer

So, unfortunately, as is often the case with laws designed to protect American consumers, manufacturers successfully lobbied to loosen them.


Via Pinterest

The result was that gorgeous United States Pima began to get a bad reputation for quality, because manufacturers were allowed to put “Pima Cotton” on packaging (and consumers, understandably, thought that’s what they were getting) though the product might actually contain only 60% Pima cotton, and the rest common short-staple cotton.



The unsurprising, downward-spiraling result is that manufacturers were rewarded with hefty profits for confusing consumers who thought they were buying something they weren’t.  American cotton farmers lost out, because befuddled consumers began to believe that U.S. Pima cotton products were not good.  Consumers lost out because they couldn’t figure out why their sheets were so scratchy, and the United States economy lost out because U.S. manufacturers were essentially competing to produce the lowest possible quality at the highest possible price.  And the law was protecting them.

This, kids, is why your parents tell you that honesty is always the best policy.


Eleanor Cummings

So, in a dramatic turn of events, American cotton farmers responded to protect themselves and consumers, by creating a non-profit organization which holds and protects the trademark, Supima ®.

Today by law, a manufacturer may not use Supima ® on a product label unless the product is made from 100% luxurious, American grown, Extra Long-Staple Pima cotton.



If your sheets say Supima ®, you’ve chosen the best of the best. Supima ® sheets are woven with exclusively United States-grown 100% ELS (Pima) cotton of the g.barbadense species, considered one of the finest cottons on earth.



Supima ® cotton is followed and inspected through every stage of growing, shipping, processing and manufacturing to ensure that consumers (now here’s a crazy idea) actually get what they pay for.


So then, what about Egyptian cotton?  Is it more luxurious?  No, not necessarily.  It is important to be aware that Egypt also grows many cotton varieties, including Extra Long-Staple cotton.  However, any cotton grown in Egypt may be labled “Egyptian Cotton” regardless of its staple length.


Nancy Boszhardt, Designer

In other words, “100% Egyptian cotton” on a package of sheets, even written in schmancy script lettering, means only that the cotton was grown in Egypt.  It does not necessarily mean that the sheets are 100% Long-Staple or Extra Long-Staple cotton.  Make sense?



Thread count is where it gets more complicated.  I know, you’re wondering how it’s possible to make this more complicated.  It isn’t the United States Department of Agriculture’s fault that you frittered away your youth without getting a Ph.D. in Botany, now is it?


Megan Yager, Designer

Thread count is the number of threads of yarn per inch for each direction of woven fabric.  Despite the hype, thread count (TC) is actually less important than the quality of the cotton.  100% Extra Long-Staple (ELS) cotton such as Supima ® will likely be stronger, feel finer and have more sheen, even at lower thread counts, than regular short-staple cotton woven at ridiculously high thread counts.


Gerald Pomeroy

This is why the trademark Supima® is important and why American cotton farmers were getting their (silky smooth) knickers in a twist.  A 400 TC Supima® sheet, because of the quality of the cotton, might actually cost more than a regular cotton sheet with 1000 TC.



Weaving and finishing practices also play a significant role in the feel of your sheets.


Deeda Blair

Percale is a closely woven plain weave combed and carded before spinning. It’s considered one of the most desirable fabrics for a sheet, especially if it has a high thread count and is woven with ELS cotton.  If the package says Percale and Supima® with a high thread-count, you can expect to pay a king’s ransom.

Before you go shopping for sheets, you’ll need to decide how you want your sheets to feel, and whether or not you plan to iron them.  If you like sheets to feel cool and crisp, percale is the weave you’ll like best, particularly if you iron your sheets.  High quality percale sheets feel divine, but wrinkle intensely.  Do not buy percale and then complain about the wrinkles, they come with the territory.


Mary McDonald

Sateen is woven with more yarn surface on the face of the cloth.  If you like your sheets to feel drape-y and silky, with a rich satin sheen, you’ll love sateen.  However, you can iron sateen sheets all day and they won’t get that crisp, old-fashioned starched feel of ironed percale.  All cotton not treated with chemicals for wrinkle-resistance or blended with polyester will wrinkle.  However, if you don’t intend to iron, sateen is the way to go because it will generally wrinkle less than percale.



Jersey is woven like your favorite T-shirt, using circular, warp, or flatbed knitting techniques.  Floppier than sateen, Jersey will wrinkle least because the weave is more elastic.  A good quality jersey is cool in the summer and gets wonderfully soft with age.



Flannel is woven in a plain or twill weave and is napped on one, or ideally both sides.  The quality of flannel is measured not by thread count, but by the ounces of material per square yard.  6-ounce Supima flannel napped on both sides is thick and heavy, and feels like heaven on a cold winter night.  A 5 or 6 oz. flannel sheet also makes a great light blanket in the summertime.

Time for bed!  What are your favorite sheets?  I would love to know.







Two terrific books for further reading:








This is an updated article originally published at my J&G blog in 2012

Summer Water

I recently had a meeting at a beautiful condominium complex with a private café for residents.  Tall, glass, apothecary-style urns filled with water, ice, and a variety of fruits were placed in a row along a marble-topped bar.  We filled our glasses before the meeting with this icy-cold water infused with fresh organic raspberries and blackberries.  The fruit only added a hint of flavor, barely detectable, but made the water especially refreshing.  I don’t drink nearly enough water, but I found myself refilling my glass 3 times during our meeting.  The host said that all day long, staff and residents stop in for glasses of water or fill their fitness bottles, and most have commented how much more water they drink since the infusions have been offered.  The fun part, she said, is that the chef makes different infusions every day depending on his mood and what’s fresh at the market–sometimes thinly sliced cucumber, or pineapple with strawberries, or blueberries with lemon. I decided that I needed to try this at home.


Infused water

I selected a footed glass container from Williams-Sonoma made of a durable hand-blown soda-lime glass with a removable stainless steel spigot.  It holds almost a gallon and a half of water and ice.  With the large opening it’s easy to clean and fill, and each morning I choose a creative infusion from fresh fruit on hand.  Sometimes it is orange slices with fresh pineapple and a paper-thin slice of fresh ginger.  Some days it is a sprig of mint with strawberries.  I fill the container with filtered water and ice and set it near the foot traffic.  We’ve noticed that it’s easy and inviting to stop for a quick drink if we’re walking right past anyway.   For this reason, there’s a stack of sturdy French bistro-style glasses right next to the urn.

Here are some other combinations I have tried and love:

Blackberries, cherries, and lime slices

Lemon with fresh raspberries

Watermelon and sliced kiwi

Fresh blueberries and fresh or frozen peaches

How about you?  Have you tried infused waters?  Do you have a favorite recipe?  I’d love to know.





Further reading:


Beauty Will Save the World

“I have always dreamed of creating useful work for an important objective.  I felt that profit for profit’s sake was not enough, and that there had to be a higher collective purpose.  I understood that alongside economic well-being there has to be personal well-being, and that the former means nothing without the latter.”     -Brunello Cucinelli



Brunello Cucinelli clothing is about as close to heaven (sartorially speaking anyway) as one can get.  Gorgeous construction and creative use of fabric make for breathtakingly romantic skirts in pleated virgin wool and viscose gauze that are at once breezy and restrained.



Egyptian cotton sweaters with sparkling jeweled tubes that extend from back to front.



Buttery cashmere sweaters that make me swoon, and fresh white cotton t-shirts with sleeves of fine silk knit.  There are evening tops assembled with pâte feuilletée layers of gossamer linen flounces, with tiny sequins inserted into the yarn for a diamond-like effect.



There are pants cut so perfectly, that make the wearer look so tall and so lean that aficionados call them “magic” pants.  Sumptuous fabrics and sophisticated and flawless construction whisper understated, modern luxury.



Brunello Cucinelli

Brunello Cucinelli grew up on a farm where his family share-cropped in Castel Rigone, a province of Perugia.  When Brunello was a teenager, his father moved the family to the city to take a job in a cement factory.  The work was grueling, with pittance wages in terrible conditions.  In every article I’ve read about his life, he talks about his father’s humiliation and loss of dignity at the factory.



When Brunello was 25, he had the idea of making brightly colored, over-size cashmere sweaters for women using fine raw materials and Italian craftsmanship.  In 1978, with gracious “pay-me-later” loans of cashmere yarn and workmanship from Italian artisans, he sold 53 sweaters.  Today he is a billionaire.



The Brunello Cucinelli company employs 1300 people, and nobody clocks in or out. The working time is from 8 a.m. to 5.30 p.m. with a long lunch break. It is forbidden to work (or e-mail employees) after 5.30 p.m.


“Beauty will save the world.”

Fyodor Dostoyevsky


The purpose of this post was actually to re-post a must-read interview with Brunello Cucinelli by Om Malik that I read on Michael Williams’ terrific blog, A Continuous Lean.  The interview is amazing.  Take a moment to click over and read it, it’s worth it… here.

What do you think? I would love to know…







Further reading:




Images: Brunello Cucinelli

Ladylike Skills: 50 Ways to Have Less Stress Today

Stress happens.  Serious events cause it–an illness, a crisis, a natural disaster, an accident.  During those times, we do the best we can.  We lean on our friends, we nurture ourselves and we take care of loved ones.  We get through.  We become stronger, braver, more compassionate, more centered.

And then, there is the other kind of stress.  That peevish, peace-of-mind destroying stress that we inflict on ourselves–sometimes daily.  This stress is caused by the endless number of problems and frustrations that we create for ourselves by not paying attention, by rushing, by procrastinating, or by not being kind enough to ourselves to be prepared.  Not only is this upsetting, it’s also not terribly attractive.  I searched “stress” on the net, and found umpteen articles about how to get rid of this kind of stress, but very little advice on avoiding it in the first place.

Think of a woman you know who makes everything seem effortless.  Perhaps in many ways everything is easier because over time she has cultivated a calm, orderly approach to her daily life.  She is charming, because when she’s with you because she’s fully present.  Contrast her with someone else you may know who perpetually runs on empty; chronically over-scheduled but always complaining about how busy she is.  The appearance of effortless grace requires wisdom and self-discipline, because to have it means we need to care for ourselves as thoroughly as we care for others.



This is a list of 50 small practical actions that might reduce the likelihood of stress, and make life feel more effortless, beautiful and orderly.

1.  Do not do anything that, after you’ve done it, will lead you to tell a lie.

2.  Carry your own pen.

3. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat.  Repeat back directions.  Repeat back what you heard.   Repeat the name–spell it.  Repeat the number.  If you take an extra 30 seconds now to make sure you understand, you will save time and prevent frustration later.

4.  Know how to turn off the water main in your house.

5.  Keep a duplicate car key in your purse; bury a duplicate house key in your garden.

6.  Set out your clothing the evening before–include undergarments, accessories and shoes.

7.  Keep a pair of gloves in your glove compartment.

8.  Do not let your gas tank get below one-quarter full.

9.  Schedule “padding” time in between appointments.  This leaves room for serendipity, for unforeseen events, people, conversations.

10.  Limit contact with people who upset you.

11.  Have cash in your wallet, and at least 5 one dollar bills.

12.  Spend more time with positive people.

13.  If you work at home, first thing in the morning, shower, dress and put on shoes.  Not slippers–real shoes.  Try it, and see what a difference it makes in your energy, attitude and productivity.  See what the Fly Lady says about dressing all the way to shoes, here.

14.  Always have something good to read in your bag for when you have to wait.

15.  It is much easier to be a straight shooter.  Give yourself the gift of saying what you mean and meaning what you say.

16. Plug in your phone, laptop, iPad, Kindle, Nook and/or other electronic devices every night, so that every morning they are 100 % charged.

17.  Before you speak, ask yourself if what you are about to say is 1) true, 2) kind, and 3) necessary. If it is not all three, don’t say it.

18.  Do one thing at a time.

19.  Not recognizing the value of someone else’s time is deeply insulting.  Being late will erode trust, confidence and good will over time.  Agree to a time you are certain that you can arrive, then arrive 5 minutes early.

20.  Take a moment to put things back where they belong.

21.  When someone annoys you in traffic, think for a moment of all the driving mistakes you have made instead of getting angry.

22.  Take a deep breath.  Remember that everyone around you is carrying a burden.

23.  Get 8 hours of sleep.  If necessary, set a go-to-bed alarm.

24.  Drink a glass of water as soon as you wake up.

25.  When making plans, get into the habit of setting contingency plans at the same time: “…and if either of us is delayed, here’s what we’ll do,” “If we get separated in the store/mall, we’ll meet ______.” “If miss your call, here’s what I’ll do.”  “If you don’t hear from me by_____, do this.”

26.  Whenever you give (or get) directions use what the military calls a Limit of Advance–an easily recognizable terrain feature that tells someone when they have gone too far.  “My house is third on the right.  If you pass the red barn you’ve gone too far.” Or, “If I pass your shop and miss it, what will I see?”

27.  Do things beautifully.  A beautiful process equals a beautiful product.

28.  A toaster should toast.  A vacuum cleaner should vacuum.  A dish towel should dry dishes without streaking or leaving lint.  Do not put up with things that don’t work right. Get it fixed, or replace it.

29.  Wear comfortable shoes.

30.  Make promises sparingly and keep them faithfully.

31.  Keep an umbrella, jumper cables, tissues, and a cell phone charging cable in your car.

32.  Pay bills before they are due.

33.  Write a thank you note to someone every single day.

34.  Touch up hair color a few days before it is due.  If keeping up with hair coloring is a hassle, don’t color your hair.

34.  Deal with nail polish chips right away.  Or better yet, leave nails unpainted and keep them clean and shaped.

35.  Keep a nail file and hand lotion where you talk on the phone.

36.  Wear your seat belt.

37.  Sort mail as soon as it arrives–to read, to pay or toss.

38.  Make sure your passport is current.

39.  Get a tetanus shot now if you need one.

40.  Before you go to bed at night, clear the dishes in your sink, then wipe it shiny clean and dry.

41.  Dump out your ice-maker bin occasionally and make fresh ice.

42.  Comb your hair and re-apply your lipstick and fragrance throughout the day.

43.  When you bring home something new, make it a practice to get rid of something else.

44.  Keep a healthy snack in your bag.

45.  Leave a generous amount of time for flight connections.  It is less stressful to wait an extra 30 minutes than it is to miss a connection.

46.  When you make a mistake, apologize immediately.

47.  Make a to-do list.  Now prioritize it. Now cross off the bottom 20%.  Enjoy your day.

48.  You do not need to produce an immediate response to every comment, or an immediate answer to every question.

49.  Tip excellent service generously.  Remember the hotel maids.

50.  When you are stressed out, worried, angry or stuck and don’t know what to do, ask yourself, “What would love do?” Then do that.


How about you?  Do you have any practical suggestions for preventing stress?  Please share!



A Lady’s Wealth

Are you wealthy?  Like pliers or a shoe horn, money is a useful tool.  It gets stuff, like food on the table (and the table), a roof over our heads, and perhaps Manolos on our feet.  But just as a screwdriver can only fix what a screwdriver can fix, money can only solve the problems money can solve.   As easy as it is to believe that more money is the answer to all of our woes, it’s an idea that limits our creativity in solving problems.  The trick, of course, is to figure out which problems money will fix, and which it won’t.  What it’s good for, and what it isn’t.



The petals of Diphylleia grayi or Skeleton Flower become transparent when it rains.

Wealth, although often confused with money, is different.   It’s an abundance of tangible and intangible assets, especially if those assets can grow themselves over time.   Wealth can include money and tangible things like a private jet or a tiara–but it also includes intangible assets like vibrant health, contentment, beauty, intelligence, boundless energy, true friendships, a strong loving marriage, a happy family, peace, freedom, education, curiosity, and a love of learning.

Though it is jokingly said sometimes, “At least you have your health,” these elusive intangibles actually do hold a tremendous value to thinking people.   Warren Buffet once said, “The asset I most value aside from health, is interesting, diverse, and long-standing friends.”  How many of us count all of our assets when we tally the bottom line?  Do we as a country, or are we becoming a nation where only dollars talk?  What is our real wealth as humans?  As Americans?

Eckhart Tolle writes in A New Earth, “If the thought of lack–whether it be money, recognition or love–has become part of who you think you are, you will always experience lack.  Acknowledging the good that is already in your life is the foundation for all abundance.  The fact is:  Whatever you think the world is withholding from you, you are withholding from the world.  You don’t need to own anything to feel abundant, although if you feel abundant consistently things will almost certainly come to you.”



Did you feel the sun on your face today?  Did you stop a moment to watch a bee on a flower?  Have you been to Bryce or the Grand Canyon and let it take your breath away?  Have you paused in the quiet of a snowy pine forest and breathed deeply?  You are rich.



Colors of the Wind from the Disney movie, Pocahontas, (Here, or below) is about what we value.  In it, Pocahontas cautions John Smith that if he continues to be blind to the beauty around him, he might end up making a lot of money but will remain very poor.  This is the radical philosophy that founded our National Park system 143 years ago, which I talked about in my post, This Land is Your Land, here.



It’s why every American citizen is wealthy, because we own that land together and hold it in trust for our children and their children.  It’s why we count our natural resources in our diverse portfolio of wealth–sparkling, safe, drinkable water, fresh clean breathable air, vast unspoiled wilderness, abundant and diverse wildlife–not because they are worth so much money, but because they are worth so much more than mere money.  This portfolio is an important part of our wealth as women, as Americans and as human beings.



Do you feel a sense of abundance in your life?  I would love to hear about what you are grateful for and how you balance your own “portfolio”.










Images: 1. Shongo Yokota 2. Jan Machata 3. Mount Rainier National Park 4. Unknown

Habitually Elegant

It has been said that everything we are today is the result of the choices we have made.  It seems more likely however, that everything we are today is the result of choices we made at some point, which then became habits.  Aristotle said that we are what we do repeatedly; that excellence is a habit rather than an act.  While one decision can impact our lives dramatically, in general, our habits are the framework upon which we build our lives, and I suspect largely determine our satisfaction and success.



Habits are a form of auto-pilot.  Neuroscientists say that decisions about behaviors are made in a part of our brain called the prefrontal cortex.  As soon a behavior becomes automatic, however, a different part of the brain, the basal ganglia, takes over and runs the show.  This allows us to make choices and then stop thinking about them so that we can focus our minds elsewhere.  There is an interesting story at NPR, here, with Fresh Air’s Terry Gross, which you can read or listen to, about new science behind how we form new habits.  I’ve always been interested in the daily habits of people whom I admire, because I have a feeling that the outward appearance or success of an elegant person has much to do with what they repeatedly think and do when no one else is around.



In designer Barbara Barry’s office they are guided and grounded by the motto that “a beautiful process equals a beautiful product.”  I love that, because it says to me that if one’s daily habits, one’s working habits, are beautiful; meaning that one’s process has elegance and integrity, then the product that results will likely be the same.   It also means that it is possible (and important) to enjoy our daily habits.




What if, for example, we were to trade in the extreme denial, recrimination and resultant overeating that characterizes dieting, and focus instead on simply creating and enjoying lovely eating habits?  We all know, I believe, intuitively what those are: fresh, beautiful food, as Michael Pollan says, “Real food, mostly plants, not too much,” lovingly prepared.  I am no diet counselor, but I wonder how changing that one daily habit might change a woman’s experience of her days?  Her feelings about her body?  About food?



What if we started getting to bed at a reasonable hour and set the alarm 30 minutes earlier so that we could wake up gently and start the day more gracefully?  Whether your workplace is at home, or you head to an office, would a more beautiful process in the morning create a more beautiful product?  Happier employees?  Happier family?  Happier you?

I would love to know your thoughts about habits, and if you have habits that give structure to your day and a framework for your elegant style.  P.S. There is a terrific article about Barbara Barry written and produced by Jenny Bradley for Traditional Home, here.








Image Credits:  1. Mark Gillette, Architectural Digest May 2014 2. Jennifer Dowd Giuliano for Baker 3. Dreamy Whites: French Farmhouse Inspired Living 4. Home Bunch, Pinterest



America’s Largest Open House

Every year for one week in April, delighted visitors are welcomed to what is affectionately known as “America’s Largest Open House,” a tour of over 250 of Virginia’s most beautiful houses and gardens and historic landmarks during the peak of springtime color. Presented since 1929 by the Garden Club of Virginia, Historic Garden Week is the oldest and largest house and garden tour of its kind in the United States, drawing over 30,000 visitors from all over the world.



Not to miss this year is Poplar Grove, the lovely estate owned by my dear friend Jennings.  Jennings is a landscape architect who, with his partner, a 7th generation Virginian, has created a paradise from what had been seven overgrown acres.  Now it is a place where time seems to stand still, and there is something for every garden lover:  a wetlands garden, pretty fenced pastures, blooming ornamentals everywhere, a Colonial-style parterre kitchen garden on two levels with a cute chicken coop, a vineyard, a pool garden, a secret garden and a Charleston-style dining garden.  Drawing visitors through the gardens is the happy burbling and splashing of fountains and ponds.


Springfields Orange

Historic Garden week is an 8-day event that takes place on successive days throughout the Commonwealth, with 31 separate tours organized and hosted by Garden Club of Virginia member clubs.  For tour dates and suggested itineraries, please click here.   It is a massive undertaking with some surprising numbers–3,400 volunteers, over 2,000 flower arrangements in the houses, over $17 million dollars raised since 1929.  Proceeds from Historic Garden Week go to fund the restoration and preservation of Virginia’s (and the nation’s) most beloved historic public gardens.  To date there are nearly 50 active restoration projects statewide, including George Washington’s Mount Vernon, Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello, and James Madison’s Montpelier.  To learn more about Historic Garden Week, or to get tickets click here.



I am always mystified when I look out the window and see nothing but snow, that somewhere under that blanket of white, nature is silently preparing to burst forth in all of its springtime splendor.  I love thinking (and talking) about gardening any time of the year, but it is especially nice to sit by the fire with a cup of tea, page through seed catalogs and plan for sunnier days.  Are you looking forward to spring?  Do you enjoy the house and garden tours where you live?

P.S. I listed three terrific books for gardeners, that I have in my library.   A particular favorite, in fact, a godsend, is An American Cutting Garden, by Suzanne McIntire.  It is an essential resource for growing flowers where the summers are hot and the winters are cold.









Images:  1. Courtesy of Donna Moulton, photographer 2. Courtesy of the Dolley Madison Garden Club 3. Courtesy of Diane Ginsburg, Garden Club of the Eastern Shore

Living Like a Bride Every Day

Whether you have been swept off your feet by your personal Prince Charming, or whether that’s still on your to-do list, if you are a woman, you probably love weddings.  I do.



We are not alone.  It’s estimated that 2 billion people watched the televised wedding of Catherine Middleton and Prince William in 2011.  We love the romance of a wedding (and the cake) and the enchanting beauty of a bride draped in Alençon lace, or swathed in a confection of beading and tulle.  We hear that a woman is most radiant on her wedding day, and that this day is the happiest of her life.



Bridal beauty everyday…

Okay, fine.  But then here’s the thing.  If a wedding is the culmination of a year (or a lifetime) of planning, and is the supposed ne plus ultra of a woman’s life, why should this beauty and romance only begin upon our engagement, and end so abruptly after the ceremony?  What if a wedding day were just another lovely day in a lifetime of lovely days, following one after the other, like an endless strand of pearls?  That she appears to embrace this idea, is something I find delightful and inspiring about the new Duchess of Cambridge.  Her wedding was beautiful, yes, but it was consistent with the beauty with which she appears to live every day of her life.  Long white dress notwithstanding, there is no discernible difference between how Catherine looked or behaved on her wedding day, and how she looks and behaves every day.

This is a philosophy that contrasts, I’ve noticed, with that of some brides on Say Yes to the Dress.   Continue Reading