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Friday, May 11, 2012

What would MacGyver do?

(A chin-strap free post)

I had it all figured out. Or, at least, I thought I did. In late March, the shop was looking really good, but then, all of a sudden, right about tax time, we sold a ton of stuff in a short time frame--big pieces, things with lots of presence--and within the space of a few days, the place went from being ready for its closeup to looking sort of sad & picked-over, with awkward blank spots on the walls and holes on the floor.

Selling things is great but looking picked-over isn't, especially not with a group of antique collectors & dealers & decorators from all over the place coming to Chicago at the end of April for the big Antiques Show at the Merchandise Mart. Those people spend a day or two at the Mart, then they fan out to hit all the locals, and if you ever want to see a hyper-critical group, one that knows exactly what it's looking at--or what it's not looking at, despite what a tag may claim--feast your eyes on these folks. 

So while a big sale is always good, when things start moving faster than I can replace them, I get nervous, especially with these guys around. The last thing I need is a photo of a suddenly-empty shelf or a denuded tabletop that's posted on somebody's blog to visually define us online. I can hear it now. "Well, that place doesn't have much of anything." So as soon as the sold pieces went out the front door--and this was less than a week before the Mart show--I was on the phone to Debra: SEND MORE STUFF.

She must have caught the desperation in my voice because two days later she came through with a handsome pair of pale club chairs with nailhead trim, a French gray Empire-style sideboard with a Greek-key frieze & a cool vintage roulette wheel (or, at least, something close) turned into a mirror. Unfortunately, handsome as the pieces were individually, once I put them together in their intended spot in the back of the shop, they looked like absolutely nothing, bland & colorless. Now what? Time was short.

Worse, thanks to the creepy premature spring this year, Debra had already been working full-tilt with her long-term garden clients for weeks, and therefore had no time to make another trip into town, meaning there was no hope of getting different pieces. Not before the Mart's show, anyway. So I had to come up with a solution for the boring corner that didn't involve heavy lifting, but still, something that would make a big impact. And, of course, something both fast & cheap. And, preferably, easy. I racked my brain trying to think of a clever, quick fix for that corner. I asked myself: what would MacGyver do?

Of course, I had no five-gallon water bottles just sitting around, the way MacGyver did, although I'm not sure what good they would have been, anyway, even if I had some. But I kept thinking, and eventually, I came up with a plan to Save the Back Corner. 

I would paint the sideboard black to give some value contrast, paint the back wall the same red as the lines on the mirror to provide some color, move the pair of cast-iron urns from the front of the shop to the back wall, and trade the rug for a shaggier (and, more importantly, paler) one to balance the darker, heavier tones of the wall, floor & sideboard. I couldn't do any actual painting yet, but I mixed up a sample of the red I wanted out of some sample jars of paint I found under under the sink, figuring that I could stop on my way into the shop in the morning to get my sample matched at the Benjamin Moore dealer near my place. With three days to go, it would be easy.

Wrong. The very next morning, before I could even get the wall painted--mostly because I had been running late and hadn't had time to stop at the paint store--a designer came in and bought the chairs. Great. I asked her if we could keep them until Monday--that is, until the end of the show--but noooo, the client needed them ASAP. Fine. So I not only didn't make any progress on finishing the area, I was now actually going backwards. First I had no paint, now I had no chairs, and by this time, I was down to only two days until all the out-of towners-show up at the door to critique that corner.  

I made another panicked call to Debra and explained that the chairs she had just sent me were already gone, and the bad news from her end was that there were no more chairs to be had--none, at least, that would work with what I had in mind--but there was a sofa in Geneva: a match, in fact, for the cocoa brown sofa that I already had in the shop. So now I'd have a pair of them. That wasn't really what I had had in mind for the corner, but there was no time to waste, so I told her I'd take it and she promised to send Steve down with it in the truck. But not until the next day. That meant I'd only have one day to get it all together.

When it arrived, I realized that three big, dark pieces in such a small area was no better than three big, pale pieces, so that painting the cabinet dark was now out of the question--even if I'd had the paint, which I didn't. But that was OK because I was running out of time, anyway. And I still had the wall to paint. But what color? OK, so red was now out, but how about Hollandaise Yellow, or Lettuce Green? You can't go wrong with food colors, right?  I figured I'd still have time in the morning to make a final decision on the color. 

On the bus ride home, I was looking at my calendar when suddenly, the pieces all fell into place. How could I have missed the obvious answer to the color question when it had been staring me in the face all along?

On Saturday afternoon, I was supposed to go to the Mart to hear my friend Emily Evans Eerdmans talk about the subject of her latest book, the French decorator Madeleine Castaing. So why in the world was I worrying about what MacGyver would do? The real question, when faced with that mediocre corner, was What would Madeleine Castaing do? 

interestingly, the answers to both questions involve tape. And, in Madame Castaings's case, pins, lots of pins. Straight pins. Madame Castaing never bothered sewing the fringes on her beautiful Directoire-style curtains, so for decades, they were merely pinned in place. MC's & MacGyver's approach to things had more in common than most people realize.

Personally, I've found that a stapler works better--it's faster, not to mention that it means fewer stuck fingers in years to come--but, thanks to EEE's inspiration, this corner now would be an homage to MC--not to me--so straight pins it is. Meaning the fringe on the big fabric panel of Joseph Hoffman's lustrous & colorful "Design 9297" of 1913--currently back in production as part of Maharam's "Textiles of the 20th Century" line--is attached with a welter of straight pins that are clearly visible. I angled them just so, to catch the light so that people would realize they're supposed to be that way. And the whole panel is just pinned up on the wall with gigantic push pins.

Debra wasn't entirely convinced that that anybody would get my little joke, but I figured that if any crowd would get it, it would be the one coming to town the next day. But just to make sure, I displayed Emily's book on a brass easel on a sofa right next to the grouping. And as it, turned out, a lot of people got the reference before they even noticed the book. What can I say? We have a pretty smart customer base. And for those who had never heard of MC before, well, it was like a little Decorating History lesson.

Anyway, Madame Castaing had superb taste but she wasn't a slave to petty middle-class notions of "perfection", so one of her rooms might also include furniture with ebonized finishes that were, let's just say, less-than-pristine, plus unstylish Nineteenth Century engravings in gilt frames,  water-streaked walls in the elusive blue-green that's now known as Castaing Blue, plus opaline glass lamps with coolie shades,

and masses of blatantly artificial greenery. MC didn't like real plants and flowers indoors because they had a tendency to die on her, a phenomenon that I, myself, am all too familiar with. Debra shows up with beautiful plants in interesting pots and I do my best to sell them before I kill them. Sometimes I succeed, sometimes I don't. Oh, well. As I told Debra, if she wanted a plant guy to run the shop, she should have hired one: she hired an antiques guy.

At any rate, the "plant" I cobbled together for the Castaing Corner is nothing but a bunch of shiny plastic industrial strapping tape that was lying on the ground by the dumpster out back. Waste not, want not, and I have no doubt at all that MC would thoroughly approve the casual, makeshift nature of it all.


True, the leaves' lurid green & slick surface may not resemble anything found in nature, but then neither did MC's wig*, and the leaves at least have the advantage of a very realistic heft & a graceful arch. Beauty is wherever you find it.

Oh, and that vibrant paper border in the blue bowl above, the one that that looks--if you don't examine it too closely--like "Bordure Pompei/Lola Montez", which MC used to trim the walls of the salon of her house at Leves?  Well, that's actually a Greek design out of
Photo by Rene Stoeltie
Owen Jones' classic 1856 reference book "The Grammar of Ornament", which design I scanned, turned into a repeating design, recolored a la Castaing and printed on my computer, which promptly ran out of blue ink. That's why the border only runs partway across the tops of the painted panels here in the shop. You know what I say to that?

Oh, well. The Venus de Milo stands in a grand gallery in the Louvre without any arms and the Nike of Samothrace is missing her head, but they're no less beautiful for any of that.  Let's face it, we all have issues, but why make ourselves crazy pining for what we don't have, or wishing things were otherwise than they are? 

Speaking of which: the dark line around the sides of the walls' panels?  It's nothing but regular painters' tape that I painted gray before I stuck it up there, and after only ten days, it's already coming loose at the top. But that's OK, too, because in a week or so, I'm getting a big fountain for the middle of the shop, at which time everything else has to move around again, anyway.

In other words, the Castaing Corner's days are already numbered, but it was fun while it lasted, and I'm glad I could share it before it vanishes. Who says antiques have to be serious all the time?
* I said this would be a chin-strap-free post, not a wig-free post. There's a difference.

And if you noticed that one of the pale chairs seems to have come back, you're right. After I had already come up with--and installed--Plan B because somebody needed both chairs, the client decided she only needed one after all.  It's always something.  Have a good weekend.


  1. A brilliant solution! And I enjoyed reading about the route to get there.
    __ The Devoted Classicist

  2. I love this post! I came over from Debra's blog since she featured you today and I'm now going to be a faithful follower but you have to post! I love all your ideas and you thought brilliantly on your feet, Deb, give this guy a raise...;)

    Debra~ (Yes I'm another Debra)


    yes indeed, that is a great plant for you bart; chic, "green" and foolproof, let's start a trend

  4. Genius! I love the fabric and trim - even w/the straight pins. Great reminder too to assemble something temporary, live with it and then see if you're ready to commit.

  5. John: Thank you. What can I say? Desperate times require desperate measures. Lack of down-time before the crowd would (I hoped) arrive meant I had to do all the work while we were open for business. A woman came in and stood watching me while I was slopping two un-blended colors of paint onto the wall, followed by a large splash of water that I let run down through the still-wet area, followed by more paint, then more water. I was expecting to hear her skeptical question: "Does Debra know you're doing this?" Instead, our exchange went like this:

    She: Oooooh, I love the effect of that technique! What's it called?
    Me: Thanks. It doesn't really have a name. It's just something I made up.
    She: Well I love it. How long have you been doing it?
    Me: About an hour
    She: No, I don't mean today. I mean how long have you been using the technique?
    Me: About an hour.
    Debra: More posts? You have no idea what you ask. I was up till 2 AM three nights in a row editing my typos and cropping photos for this one. But thanks for your second suggestion. I'm working on it.
    Debra: A trend? Wait till you see what I have in mind for those urns.
    My Notting Hill: Yes, a temporary mock-up is a great way to try out an idea without risking the time & expense on something you're not sure of in the first place. If it looks bad you just take it down.

    On the other hand, for people like me--and MC--'temporary' measures have a way of turning into long-term solutions. For my former dining room, I wanted a Streamlined Moderne chandelier in black-enameled steel & Lucite, but I couldn't find one the right size & design. I finally realized that to get what I wanted I'd have to have one custom-made. To get the fixture's scale right for my tiny room, I made up a few different full-scale maquettes in different sizes to try out in the room. The losing candidates looked wrong as soon as I hung them and were promptly taken down, but the long shot--cobbled together out of a black plastic dish from a Superbowl party shrimp cocktail platter from the local deli & some clear plastic shower-curtain rings from the Dollar Store--came in a winner: the look was perfect. All that remained to do was make a scale drawing of the finished article for the metal shop that I already had lined up to fabricate it. Except that once it was up, I never got around to executing the working drawings and the understudy chandelier ended up hanging there till I moved out. In fact, when the photographers from O at Home magazine showed up to do a ten-page feature on my apartment, the thing was still hanging there. As they say, Oh, well. My bad.

    You see why MC and I would have gotten along.

  6. Oh thank god it turned out just fine in the end!!!
    I am exhausted! LOL

    *just found your blog - love it!!!
    *Can't wait to see that fountain in the middle of the shop !!!

  7. here is a suggestion that defies your "M.O.".......shorter entries, think about it

  8. Lady Jicky, if you had said "Thank goodness" instead, I could have quoted Mae West's words to the hat-check girl who used the same phrase as she admired West's diamond necklace in the 1932 movie Night after Night:
    "Goodness had nothing to do with it, Dearie."
    Debra: How did you know my favorite line in Amadeus is Frederick the Great's advice to that upstart Mozart: "Too many notes, too many notes!"?

    Besides, I already tried short & sweet (See A Grand View post). Not a single response. Oh, well.....

  9. LOL !!!

    Well ...... if you make it over to Australia ..... "come up and see me sometime"

    So adored Mae West !!!

  10. I am SO going to have to bop in one of these days. I was actually at the Geneva shop a couple weeks back and to it's sister consignment store, but alas Debra wasn't around (the shops did, of course, look loverly).

    You've got a wonderful spirit that shines through in your writing.

  11. I am in love with your attitude! I still have not schooled myself on Ms. Castaing but she sounds like my grandmother and it makes me laugh....pins...HA!

  12. Loved the drama and the solution! MC's spirit lives on...temporarily forever. Looks like you are blooming where you are now planted. All the best.