Insights • Inspirations • Destinations • Design

Monday, May 28, 2012

What Makes For A Great Hotel?

I know this is a rather strange subject, but I want to chat about hotels. Specifically, what makes for a good hotel.

Tonight, we are staying in a mid-priced hotel on Collins Avenue in Miami. One of those ones considered hip by the cool crowd. If you're into hip things. (Which we really aren't. In fact, we feel very old for this crowd.) We got it for the un-Miami-like price of $60/night through Priceline. (Love that Priceline site!) In the past five hours, I've heard two guests vomit outside our door, inhaled the 'substance' of 10 black guys smoking something dubious by the pool (I entered the water shivering and came out doing moves like Bob Marley), drank a cocktail the size of a '66 Mustang, searched for a bathrobe in the room (obviously not available in $60/night hotels), searched for the air conditioning controls (see comments in bathrobe brackets) and listened to the sounds of some mighty savage rap music blaring out the lobby. ("I want to break your back baby, yeah, let's do it together in your mother's bed, yeah!")

It is now 1am in Miami. And I'm wide awake. (Possibly from all the weed. And the rap music.) I'm also wondering if I should have paid more money for our room?

Wind back to three nights ago. We were staying at the new Nomad hotel in New York. It was $500/night.  That included the New York hotel taxes and a $100 dinner. Was there rap music? No. Were there Marley-esque men smoking dubious things by the pool? No. Were there people vomiting all over the hall? No. Did we get some sleep? Definitely.

So I'm wondering, does price of a hotel room dictate the quality of your stay? My mother would argue no. She somehow finds great hotels for $50/night – AND they come with bathrobes, free tea-making facilities, air conditioning and comfy beds. But I would argue yes.

Miami can keep the marijuana. I'll take a good night's sleep any day.

Next post: The Perfection of The New Nomad.

Following in the (Horticultural) Footsteps of Edith Wharton

There is something incredibly restorative about being in a garden. Don’t you think? Like many of my friends, I came to gardening late in life. Before I turned 25, I was more of a fashion girl. The only flowers I really cared about were those on Gucci’s floral frocks. But then something happened. I went to the Chelsea Flower Show one year where, in the space of three wonderful, fortuitous hours, I met the legendary gardener Rosemary Verey, glimpsed Karl Lagerfeld approving Tom Stuart-Smith’s garden for Chanel (an exquisitely beautiful miniature version of Versailles), inhaled the scented poetry of David Austin's new tea roses and fell under the spell of Prince Charles’ Highgrove garden (or a fantastic replica of it). Enthralled, I took it all in with the wide-eyed wonder of a virginal teenager in a Las Vegas brothel. It was, quite simply, the most seductive thing I’ve ever seen.

Since then I’ve grown to love gardens with the passion that my partner has for vintage cars. It has become an addiction, an addition that has seeped into the soul and stayed there – much like compost in a vegie bed.

So it was an enormous treat (and a long-held wish) to visit an historic property called The Mount in Massachusetts.

The Mount is the creation of the American author Edith Wharton, a woman who readily admitted that gardens greatly affected her, too. The author of Ethan Frome, The Custom of the Country, The House of Mirth, and the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Age of Innocence (among many others), Wharton was better known for her books than her horticultural talents, but – curiously – she believed she was a better gardener than a writer. “Decidedly, I’m a better landscape gardener than a novelist,” she once wrote in a letter, and you may think she’s jesting – until you see the grounds of The Mount. They are as grand and as beautiful as any of Le NĂ´tre’s masterpieces.

The interesting thing is, Wharton started her writing career with an interior design book – one of the first ever published – called The Decoration of Houses. (A superb book; it was published in 1897 but is still relevant today.) Then, in 1904, she penned Italian Villas and Their Gardens. Around the same time, she decided to design her own home and garden, and set to work designing the gracious mansion and grounds that is The Mount. It was perhaps her greatest achievement.

Walking around The Mount was an inspiring insight into the cross-pollinization of interiors and gardens. Wharton believed that the inside and outside of a house should sit in harmony, and The Mount merges formal lime walks, sunken gardens and elegant horticultural symmetry with rooms that are a sheer pleasure to sit in. What is more amazing is that she was able to do it without any training. All she used were her instincts, her experiences of visiting gardens in Europe, and her philosophy that good architectural expression should be based on “order, scale, and harmony”.

I would like to show you The Mount, to show you just what a woman can do if she sets her mind to it.

The forecourt. Wharton believed the exterior entrance to a house should be as welcoming as the interior hall, and liked the idea of an enclosing forecourt – which almost cosseted the visitor as they drove up in a carriage, much like an architectural embrace. However, she didn't design this side of the house with much embellishment. The 'wow' factor was left for the other side, in order to surprise visitors when they passed through the interior and emerged the other side. (See image below.)

The main side. Wharton designed the exterior of the main side of the house, built on a stone terrace overlooking a lake and woods, with striking white stucco, dramatically set off by black shutters. Clusters of gables and white chimneys rise from the roof, which is capped with a balustrade and cupola.

The stables. The main house was augmented by a Georgian Revival gatehouse and stables (shown above). Wharton wanted these stables to be as grand as the house itself.

The doors. Wharton believed in making an entrance – architecturally speaking. The doors at The Mount are wondrous designs that emulate the French chateaux the writer had visited during her travels.

The gallery. Notice how the colour palette is drawn from the garden? Look at the lamp. Isn't it incredible?

Edith's boudoir. My favourite room. I loved the colour of the walls. Unfortunately, the estate's trust decided to embellish this room with bright raspberry drapes, which I think detracts from the lovely delicacy of the pale turquoise.


The stairs. Wharton believe that stairs should never be the centrepiece of a house but rather a utilitarian space. Which is why she preferred hers to one side of the floor plan. But that doesn't mean that they were neglected and under-decorated.

The library. Edith Wharton rarely wrote in this room, as she preferred to write in bed. But she loved this space nonetheless, using it for entertaining beloved guests such as Henry James. The books are Wharton's own.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

The House That (Mrs) Kennedy Built

Here in New England, many of the media outlets have been focusing on the tragic death of Mary Richardson Kennedy, estranged wife of Robert F. Kennedy Jr.. And it's not surprising. It is a terrible story, with a terrible ending. Mary Kennedy married into the Kennedy family in 1994 and had four children with Robert (Bobby) Kennedy. But beneath the seemingly glamorous sheen of their lives, there were dark shadows in the marriage. Mary suffered deep depression, thanks, in part, to her decision to give up her architecture career in order to raise her children. Robert Kennedy himself referred to this in his funeral address, and must have been well aware of the career sacrifices she had made – and the toll it took on her mental health. The couple filed for divorce in 2010, and from then on Mary's health deteriorated even further.

Being a career-focused person myself, I can only imagine the anguish Mary would have gone through in giving up her beloved architecture career to become a mother. Being a mother, of course, is possibly the most rewarding job in the world, but we all need our creative outlet. We all need something to nourish us and feed our souls besides our (much-loved) family life. It's so important to have a career or even an interest or hobby of our own. If I were asked to give up my writing and photography, I think I'd been very sad, too.

By pure chance, we are heading to Cape Cod today, and to the Kennedy Museum and Kennedy compound. We were going there anyway, but it seems particularly poignant now. Mary Kennedy was recently buried at the Centerville cemetery, only a few miles from the Kennedy seaside compound in Hyannisport. As we tour the area, I'll reflect on the sacrifices career women make.

Several years ago, GANT shot their Fall 2010 Home Collection at the Kennedy family home. The video features Mary Kennedy and the superb house she helped design and decorate.

In this video, she looks serenely beautiful.
May she now rest in peace.

Monday, May 21, 2012

An Affair With A House

Hidden up in Falls Village, a blink-and-you-miss-it hamlet in the green hills of Connecticut, there is a house that has become famous the world over. It is located down a winding road with a curious name, a road that actually changes names several times so that you need to get out at the cute little white wooden General Store in the village's main street to ask directions. It is a house that so enthralled its owner when she first saw it, it immediately inspired a love affair with architecture and gardens that has lasted more than 30 years.

The house has changed significantly since that first inspection, thanks to the owner's great talents as an interior designer. She has taken a grand but neglected country manor and transformed it into an extraordinarily beautiful rural retreat. But what is perhaps more surprising is how much this house has inspired and transformed the owner in return. Bunny Williams may be the owner of this gracious Connecticut estate, but the house is very much the architectural muse. As Winston Churchill once said: "We shape our buildings, and then our buildings shape us." Bunny Williams must know this more than anyone.

We had the good fortune to visit Bunny Williams' beautiful home yesterday, a property that is so renowned it has been featured in countless magazines as well as the bestselling book An Affair With A House. We also had the good fortune to meet the inimitable Ms Williams – who is as lovely as her interiors. (When she heard I had flown all the way from Australia to see it, she gave me a warm kiss.) The experience of wandering around this enchanting home on a brilliantly sunny Sunday in May is one that will never leave me. It is quite simply one of the most beautiful houses I've ever seen.

Here are a few photographs of this sublime country home. We arrived right on the opening time of 10am, so we were fortunate to capture the gardens without too many other visitors wandering in and out of the shot. I also met the gardener, Eric, who was as lovely as his employer. It is a difficult property to describe, so I'll simply direct you to Bunny's book, An Affair With A House, for more details. However, I will say this: I have rarely seen a more elegant private garden, anywhere in the world. The chicken pavillion alone is extraordinarily beautiful. Add in the parterre tulip garden, the conservatory, the guest barn, the mauve garden, the pool house, the potager (vegetable garden), and the rambling orchard and bluebell wood, and you have what must be the loveliest of small private gardens in all of America.

PS I would post captions, but we're just about to pack up the suitcases and head off to Boston for the day (and my partner is making those huffing noises that males make when females are dithering and running late!) But I promise to post more photos later today. The New England weather has been glorious these past few days, which has made for some gorgeous photography. It's certainly been a temperature shock after the dank wet winter that descended on Melbourne last month. A friend who is looking after our house told me that our garden looks like a horror movie compared to the garden shots  of Connecticut that I've been emailing home!
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