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Saturday, July 30, 2011

Urban Oasis II: As Seen on TV

                                      Sneak Peek inside HGTV Urban Oasis 2011 by Mary

Urbs in Horto--City in a garden. Garden in the city. There's a difference, of course, but in weather like this, who cares? Anything green and shady is good. Not, of course, that every oasis needs to be a literal garden. Or that it needs to be outdoors at all, for that matter. In fact, HGTV is just about to unveil a 1000-SF condominuim on the 35th Floor of the Trump International Hotel & Tower in Chicago, as part of their "Urban Oasis" series, which is apparently aimed at people who like Nature in small doses and who prefer to live in the heart of a vibrant city---even in a hot city--to living on, say, a beautiful but isolated (read: boring) beach, or in some beautiful but underpopulated mountains, or in an area that, twenty minutes ago, was still farmland, with all the social & cultural advantages thereof.

 Don't get me wrong. I grew up in small towns and I enjoyed finding baskets of luscious, still-warm-from-the-sun garden-grown tomatoes sitting on my front porch as much as anybody--Mrs johnson, my next door neighbor was a sweetheart--but I'll still happily trade all that for being able to attend a CSO concert less than an hour after I leave work. Besides, those ginormous tomatoes usually went bad before I could eat them all, anyway. Too ripe. And don't get me started on the zucchini. They started out as single specimens but quickly grew in size and number, and finally, I ended up taking them to work with me and tossing them into the dumpster out back so that Mrs. Johnson wouldn't find them in my trash, and I'm sure she used to check. Like I said, she was a nice lady and all, and her tomatoes really were good--the ones I got around to eating--but I refused to feel guilty over tossing extra zucchini. These days, I'm a city guy, so I don't have to deal with zucchini anymore.  
Zucchini Photo from Chiot's Run

Anyway, one day back in March, who should drop into our store but Vern Yip, who explained that he was looking for accessories for this season's "Urban Oasis" project in Chicago. Very cool! Except that those of you who know me also know that I don't have a TV, so when Vern first walked in the door, I had absolutely no idea who he was. I 'm probably the last person around who's never once seen HGTV. Fortunately, Vern introduced himself and I recognized his name--in the same way that I recognize, say, Paul Konerko's name, although I don't know what he looks like, either--so I played along and didn't (I hope) look like a complete mope in front of Vern, or, at least, if I did, he was nice enough to pretend he didn't notice. Thank you, Vern.

So he looked over the whole store and picked out several good-looking items for the show. He chose a set of black-shaded brass wall sconces in the form of three-foot-long animal horns, and he took a handsome pair of carved oak figures that, a hundred years ago, must have been part of an Elizabethan Revival bookcase in a grand English library, which carvings--full disclosure here--would have been at my place by now if Vern hadn't bought them. Memo to Self: you snooze, you lose. But Vern also chose this little accent piece, which subtly suggests a garden theme, even if said garden happens to be indoors and thirty-five floors up in the air: our Olmsted Faux-Bois Concrete Planter, done in the informal, rustic style that was common in urban parks at the turn of the last century, and named, naturally, after the great landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted.
To me, this planter is one of our shop's signature pieces, partly because it sums up the aesthetic of Debra Phillips--our owner--who has a long-time thing for faux-bois, and partly because it's almost always available. A lot of our pieces are Debra's one-of-a-kind finds, meaning that if you go home to think about something, there's a good chance that it will be gone when you come back, but we almost always have a few of these wonderful planters around. You can't go wrong with a classic piece like this, even as short-term decorating trends fade to black. A thing of beauty is a joy forever, and Love--even in decorating--means never having to say you're sorry. Still, a hundred years ago, the rustic look was a lot more common than it is today, so someone must not be getting the message about certain styles' longevity in the face of decorating fads. This is one of those styles.

Probably the greatest surviving assemblage of rustic-style pieces in this country--benches, bridges, shelters, you name it--is in New York's Central Park, which Sara Cedar Miller, the Park's Historian and the author of Central Park, an American Masterpiece--another book
Bridge No 32 by Jim in Times Square at
to get--calls "the greatest art object of 19th Century America."  It's the Urban Oasis to beat all others.

Not that our local parks couldn't boast examples of the rustic style, too. Historically, Chicago's West and South Side parks were always the most impressive for the simple reason that when the parks were being developed, that's where the money was--the old money, that is, or what passed for old money in an upstart town like Chicago. So, naturally, the idyllic landscapes in those parks were where Frederick Law Olmsted's influence was most clearly seen.
The North Side was still full of working families, but they had nice parks, too. Part of the problem with Lincoln Park, though, was that it was long and skinny, and the farther north you went, the skinnier it got until it sort of dwindled away to nothing. At least, it did before they started filling in the lake up in my neighborhood in the 1920s. But up to that point, the narrow footprint sort of left out the kind of grand landscape effects you could create with a bigger area. Still, Lincoln Park made up for the lack of ground with festive structures. The old boat house seen above is long gone, and the High Bridge in Lincoln Park--known informally as Suicide Bridge--was taken down for obvious reasons, but Lincoln Park can still boast a vaguely Chinese-looking rustic gazebo made of peeled logs. Unlike the rustic
structures in Central Park, which perch high atop rocky outcroppings or nestle themselves in bosky dells, the rustic Gazebo is plunked down front & center like a tantrumy kid in the middle of the candy aisle. You couldn't miss it if you wanted to. But you wouldn't want to, anyway, because, siting issues aside--it's squeezed into a narrow strip of land between busy Stockton Drive and the North Pond--the gazebo is a beauty, with a brown shingled roof and logs painted a soft Aesthetic Green, a color that Oscar Wilde would have approved, especially in such a bucolic setting. It's a charming vestige of a calmer era, and in contrast to the myriad of interesting park structures that we've lost over the years, it's been maintained in decent condition. But it's not only buildings that are subject to change or loss, and the big storms we've had this summer have not been kind to Chicago's parks. It doesn't help that once-in-a-hundred-years storms happen as infrequently as they do if they happen to come this year, which they have. The big hailstorm in early July smashed thousands of panes at the Garfield Park Conservatory, raining shards of broken glass onto the rare specimen trees below,  
and in Lincoln Park, just fifty yards north of the Gazebo, the same storm took out a hundred-year old cottonwood, not to mention the damage it inflicted on hundreds of other trees that lost limbs. So Eden sank to grief--not that poetry helps all that much when you're faced with devastation like this.

This is too sad for words, but sometimes, out of the wreckage you manage to somehow, salvage...something. Which is why, in our shop, we not only have the Olmstead vase--cast after a period original of a hundred years ago--but we also have a handsome  faux-bois bench & a console table to match, whose tops were made from a mold created by gluing

our Vaux Faux Bois Concrete Console
some bark taken from a fallen tree--as it happens, taken from a fallen tree in Debra's own back yard: waste not, want not--to an aged wooden plank, and then casting the whole deal in concrete. Call me a Panglossian, but sometimes, the best way to deal with things is by taking whatever positive action there is--even if, in the larger scheme of things, it doesn't seem like much. Debra's old tree is gone, but there's still a little echo of it left right here in the shop, where everyone can enjoy it.  And a fragile slip of that fallen cottonwood tree in the park, carried home on the bus the next night along with a four-foot-long section of bark, is now in some damp sand at my house. Cottonwoods are usually the first real trees to establish themselves in sandy dunes along the lake, so we'll see what happens. I figure an oasis has to start somewhere. Why shouldn't it be at my place?

Meanwhile, I'll be watching to see what Vern does down at Trump Tower. Or, at least, I'll be doing that once I figure out which of my friends will let me come over just to watch a decorating show.  As for everybody else? Check you local time and listings.

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