Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Franco Maria Ricci's extraordinary labyrinth

On the fertile agricultural plain surrounding Parma, Italy, you can drive for days while visiting the region's spectacular Renaissance towns, churches and villas (below, the view from the terrace of the Castello di Fontanellato) without ever laying eyes on a single cow that gives the milk that is aged to its glorious Parmesan cheese, nor will you ever see one of the pigs that eventually yield its succulent Parma ham. One dines spectacularly well there, even by Italian standards, but exactly how this is achieved is one of Parma's small mysteries—though an occasional noxious breeze, pungent enough to strip paint, will assure you that these beasts do indeed lurk somewhere hidden in those broad green fields, just beyond sight. 

Franco Maria Ricci, the legendary publisher, lives on his ancestral lands in Fontanellato, which he has transformed according to his own unique aesthetic vision. He is the man who near single-handedly revived the work of the great neoclassical typographer, Giambattista Bodoni, who had made Parma his home in the late eighteenth century. Ricci comes from ancient Parmesan nobility and has dedicated his life to the cultivation and dissemination of all that is extraordinary, remarkable and beautiful, by way of the pages of his namesake magazine, FMR ("the most beautiful magazine in the world") and a host of magnificent publications. Fortuitously, pronouncing his initials in French yields the word ephémère, ephemeral, and it is this aura of felicity and harmony that this most cultivated of men has cultivated throughout his life, seemingly effortlessly.

This past summer, I spent several days with friends visiting Ricci and his charming companion, Laura Casalis, who graciously welcomed us with their generous hospitality. A warm, sunny day was reserved for visiting Ricci's estate, and after traversing miles of sun-struck, open fields with barely a poplar in sight, we passed a simple modern gate and drove down a long, shaded and sun-dappled allée of bamboo to find ourselves in another world—a verdant compound set in a bamboo glade that could just as well be found in Mexico. An old farm building has been converted into a contemporary entertaining space of impressive scale—an aerie looking into the bamboo canopy, with an inky-dark lake to one side. 


The contrast between the sun-struck fields without and the bamboo forest (or perhaps jungle) within was vivid and delightful; Ricci has crafted his own private world—even his own private micro-climate. Further on, Ricci has renovated the ground floor of the crumbling ancestral villa into an elegant suite of rooms with a barrel-vaulted, neoclassical library which houses the largest collection of Bodoni's printed works in the world. Like the vast, Barragan-esque patio compound, the neoclassical grotto beneath the overgrown ruins is a complete, shocking, satisfying surprise.

Further on, some ten minute's walk, lies the most remarkable of all Ricci's marvels, his bamboo labyrinth, covering 17.5 acres, by a factor of five the largest maze in the world. The labyrinth, of course, is an ancient cipher representing man's path through life; its circuitous course, from periphery to center, symbolizes life's journey from ignorance to self-knowledge and enlightenment.

The plan of Ricci's labyrinth, two overlapping squares, evokes Renaissance fortifications, and over a dozen species of bamboo have been planted to form its high, dense allées. Inside its precincts he has constructed a museum and study center which will house his library and collections, as well as a visitor's center.

The compound, built of warm rose Roman brick, is designed in a neoclassical vocabulary and laid out in a series of symmetrical, generously scaled courtyards, perhaps better called atria.

A triumphal arch greets visitors entering the compound, and the main axis culminates with yet another surprise, a pyramidal folly.

The scale of the undertaking is commensurate with the audacity of Ricci's vision. He chuckled when he said, leading us unerringly through the maze, that no one would be allowed to enter the labyrinth without a portable phone, but indeed the rule will be necessary once the kilometres of paths are opened to the public.

On a final note, Rizzoli has recently published Ricci's book, Labyrinths; needless to say, it too is exceptional.

Friday, December 6, 2013

Aux barricades, comrades!
France toys with its next revolution

Mon dieu! Where to begin? the French government, in a bout of historical amnesia, has decided to erect a nationwide network of electronic "éco-tax" barriers straddling its major highways (which have been privatized into corporate-owned toll-roads, but that is another matter) to collect an environmental tax upon the country's long-distance truckers.

Well, apparently this was the tax too far, the impot that broke the camel's back, and Brittany—that poor, agrarian and fiercely self-aware region that French nationalism never fully managed to tame—has gone into open revolt. Red Phrygian caps, or "red bonnets," symbol of the French revolution of 1789, have become all the rage, sported by enraged citoyens who gather to wave the Breton flag and to set fire to these newly erected electronic tax barriers, while the nation's truckers have organized to block the country's major vehicular arteries for the last several weekends.

Open revolt. That, in a nutshell, is what is currently brewing en ce pays-ci, which coincides with record levels of popular discontent with the government and a record-low approval rate for the Président de la République, François Hollande. Hollande has plumbed the lowest depths of approval (and conversely the apex of popular disapproval), reaching 16% overall approval in the latest national polling—just nine percentage points ahead of the US Congress.

In an unprecedented display of public discontent, Hollande was publicly booed and heckled while observing solemn Armistice celebrations at the base of the Arc de triomphe this past November 11. For the moment, civil disobediance and organized arson are reserved for weekends and national holidays, in the French tradition of protest as wholesome family entertainment. However, all this could change with further incitement, leading to an escalation to public strikes—another French tradition that even the leader of the nation's most leftist union has publicly disavowed, fearing to become the spark that sets off a mood that is "explosive all over."

Meanwhile, the country's préfets, akin to county executives, sent a confidential, leaked memo to the Elysée that stated in the starkest of terms that conditions in France are a "tinderbox," that the populace has never been more resentful of the unrelenting onslaught of increasing taxes and stagnating incomes, and that the government had better take heed of, and gingerly diffuse, this volatile situation or face a "fronde sociale," or popular revolt.

So, what did the government do? Why, it also decided to increase the national sales tax, or TVA, come the new year. Bonne année!  Only problem, fully 81% of French citizens find the current tax system unjust and want the country's finances completely revamped.

A few tidbits of history, to put all this in perspective. The last time France had a revolution, in 1789, it was incited by increasingly onerous taxation by a deeply indebted government, culminating with the construction of a physical Berlin wall of tax barriers about Paris, imprisoning the city's populace (we even blogged about it, here).

Also note the uncanny resemblance of President Hollande to Louis XVI, and the uncanny resemblance of his policies to those of the late, beheaded monarch: blind allegiance to the status quo in the face of increasing popular discontent during a prolonged period of deepening economic adversity. One should also remark that Hollande shows none of the creativity or intestinal fortitude necessary to reddress the mounting crisis of confidence in the competence and direction of the French government itself, to say nothing of a fundamantal realignment, overwhelmingly demanded by the citizenry, of its implacably oppressive tax structure. 

Today, the New York Times reports that the populist, far-right Front National is the most popular political party in France, with the Socialist Party of Hollande trailing badly. You do not need to be an oracle or a political pundit to divine that the present moment is about the absolute worst time for the government to re-erect a modern version of the tax barriers that incited the French Revolution. 

Willful amnesia, and déjà vu all over again.

Monday, December 2, 2013

Celebrating Central Park NYC at Librarie Galignani, Paris

We're delighted to announce that Paris' premier bookstore, the august Librarie Galignani on the rue de Rivoli, will be hosting an evening celebrating publication of Central Park NYC on the fourth December--hélas by invitation only, but we hope if you have recieved your invitation that you'll join us then.

We will give a short talk about the book and Central Park, and then be available to sign copies. These are festive evenings that mingle current events and the love of books, and Galignani has created a wonderful authors' program that has made it a center of Parisian culture. Needless to say, we are honored and are looking forward immensely to the soirée.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

A Year of Pagodas agenda

As a part of our first season of paper products for Libretto Group, we have also designed an agenda, A Year of Pagodas, that features a dozen spreads of our Chinoiserie fantasy watercolors, one for each month of the year (below is a sample spread for October).

Pagodas is a B5 format, hardbound notebook (7" x 10") with 144 ruled pages, twelve double-page spreads and a ribbon marker.

The cover features a crisp blue-and-white toile de Jouy pattern, reversed for the endpapers (bottom), which also include a whimsical bookplate. The page ends are gilded and each month's ten lined pages are crowned with that month's pagoda silhouetted in miniature.

As with the other items in the collection, please follow this link to find a retailer near you or contact Libretto Group directly.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Table lanterns are back

In our last post, we mentioned that we have a new design partnership with Libretto Group of New York, manufacturers and distributors of innovative paper products. Libretto's other design partners include Christian Lacroix, the New York Times and London's Victoria & Albert Museum.

In addition to the Chinoiserie note cards featured in our last post, Libretto is also distributing our ever-popular table lantern designs: the Belvedere (above, a neoclassical pavilion), the Tea House (below, a Chinoiserie pagoda) and Mr. Jefferson's Folly (bottom, a Georgian/neoPalladian pavilion). These paper lanterns have been extremely popular and unfortunately they have also been out of stock for some time, but we are delighted to announce that they are once again availableand worldwide at that.

Also, Libretto will be launching a new series of lanterns early in the new year, with an even greater variety of designs to choose from, and we will be posting about them in due course.

If you wish to purchase, please look here for a store near you or contact Libretto Group directly for your nearest retailor. Also, Libretto will shortly be expanding their website to include an advanced store finder to make finding a retailer an easy task.

Monday, November 4, 2013

Chinoiserie note cards in Architectural Digest

Architectural Digest has featured our new package of Chinoiserie note cards in their latest issue (screen capture below), available at The Frick Collection museum shop in Manhattan and at select retailers worldwide.

There are two folding cards each of four motifs, reproducing our watercolors of fantasy pagodas framed by a deep red Chinoiserie fillet/border. The reverse of the cards feature the pagodas in silhouette against richly colored grounds (below). The images are printed on a heavywieght laid paper and are packaged with envelopes in a handsome paper wallet.

The card set is part of our first season of designs for Libretto Group, manufacturers of innovative stationery and paper products. Libretto is a dynamic company based in Manhattan with a worldwide distribution; their other design lines include Christian Lacroix, The New York Times and the Victoria & Albert Museum.

Thursday, October 31, 2013

Central Park NYC Exhibition at Didier Aaron, Manhattan

The New York Times T Magazine, 24 October 2013

This past month has been a very busy time as we launched our latest book, Central Park NYC, and prepared an exhibition of the watercolors illustrating that book at Didier Aaron, Inc. in Manhattan.

The eponymous exhibition opened on the 22nd with a private preview for the Woman's Committee of The Central Park Conservancy, and it was an ebuillant evening and a true pleasure to meet so many dedicated benefactors of the park. New York itself was as vibrant as we've ever experienced it, and it was an enormous pleasure to spend even such a short time in our former home.

The following evening was the exhibition's general opening, and shortly after the New York Times T Magazine published this online review, with a gallery of six watercolors from ths show.

The exhibition at Didier Aaron, Inc. runs until November the 8th. The gallery is open from 10 AM to 5:30 PM, Monday to Friday, tel. 212-988-5248.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Central Park NYC: "redefines the coffee table book"

We are extremely pleased to announce that Rizzoli published Central Park NYC: An Architectural View this past Tuesday, September 10, accompanied by a review in that same day's edition of the New York Times.

From the Times review:
...in “Central Park NYC: An Architectural View” (Rizzoli, $75), the artist-authors Andrew Zega and Bernd H. Dams explore the park’s multitude of overlooked smaller structures, statues, benches and bridges.

Their original watercolors and photographs and revealing text redefine the coffee table book: More than just pretty pictures to be savored, these images will enrich and deepen the reader’s experience of the park.
We are delighted that the Times recognized and lauded the underlying rigor of this book. We should also point out that beyond the park's structures and ornaments, our true focus is rather upon the park's design, divided into thirteen chapters that examine important features, such as the Mall, Bethesda Terrace and the Belvedere, and others devoted to design elements, such as the park's monuments, its bridges and arches, its water features, and its rustic structures.

To peek inside, you can visit this link to the book's Amazon page, where you can access an interactive pdf with a shocking number of the book's pages put online for your perusal. While pasting the link, we were delighted to see that Central Park NYC has already reached the #1 position in Amazon's landscape architecture category, and horrified that only 2 copies remain in stock. Our thanks to everyone who made this possible!

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Maintenant ouvert! Now open!

Well, we're deep into the second week of la Rentrée and this means that all of Paris's surfeit of boulangeries, agences immobiliers and pressingsthe stalwart pillars of the French economy, such as it isare now officially reopened for business. And so, dear readers, are we.

We have been busy during our hiatus, mind you, and spent no appreciable time in traffic jams on the autoroutes or lying on cobble-strewn beaches, hélas, but this does however mean that we have much to report and to catch up on. 

We will be posting a number of announcements about developments in our work these next days, so please check back with us often during September.

And the first order of business is to report to those patiently awaiting the reopening of the Architectural Notecards online store is, firstly, thank you for your patience!, and secondly, it is again online (click on the treillage pavilion at right) with a spanking new format, and hopefully without any fatal bugs. As those of you who deal with this sort of thing know, patience when upgrading a website is not only a virtue but a sorely taxed necessity.

First thing you will notice is that each card is presented at full scale, so you will be able to see the majority of our watercolors online in great detail, making the boutique a virtual gallery as well. 

As an added bonus, the entire Architectural Watercolors website has been upgraded as well, with a responsive format that will make it fully accessible to those of you with tablets and smartphones. It is still a bit rough about the edges, so please bear with us as we polish and expand existing content in the coming weeks. The shop is fully integrated with the main site and is also responsive for those of you wedded to those clever little microwave emitters, which adds up to over half the page views in the US, so none too soon! 

Alors, bienvenue!

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Surveillance: Plus ça change...


Spies and spying are much in the news these days. Here we let the duc de Saint-Simon, the famed diarist who chronicled the court of the Sun King in innumerable volumes, take the floor: 

Not only did Louis XIV expect everyone of distinction to be continually in attendance at Court, but he was quick to notice the absence of those of lesser degree; at his lever, his coucher, his meals, in the gardens of Versailles (the only place where courtiers could follow him), he would cast his eyes left and rightnothing escaped him; he saw everybody. 

If anyone at Court absented himself, he insisted on knowing the reason; those who appeared unexpectedly also had to proffer a satisfactory explanation. Anyone who seldom or never attended him was sure to incur his displeasure. If asked to bestow a favor on such persons, he would reply haughtily: "I do not know him." Of those who rarely presented themselves, he would say, "He is a man I never see"; and all these judgments were rendered without appeal.

He always took great pains to learn what was going on in public venuesin society, in private houses, even family secretsand he maintained an immense number of spies and informants. These were of all sorts; some had no idea that their reports were brought to him, though others knew. There were others, again, who would write to him directly, through prescribed channels; and then there were others who were admitted by the backstairs, and who saw him in his private rooms. Many a man of all classes was ruined by these methods, often quite unjustly, without ever being able to discover the reason for it, for the King, once prejudiced, never altered his opinion, or so rarely that nothing could be more rare. 

The most cruel means by which the King was informed of current eventswhich continued for many years, before anyone had any inkling of itwas by reading opened letters. The swiftness and dexterity with which they were opened defies all credulity. He saw extracts from all correspondence which the chiefs of the post office, and the minister who governed it, thought that he should read; entire letters, too, were sent to him, when their contents seemed to justify the sending.  

Thus the chiefs of the postnay, the principal clerkswere in a position to propose what they pleased and attack whom they pleased. A word of contempt against the King or the governmenta joke, a detached phrasewas enough. It is incredible how many people, justly or unjustly, were ruinedalways without resource, without trial, and without knowing why. The secret was impenetrable; for nothing ever cost the King less than profound silence and dissimulation.

History repeating... 

Sunday, April 21, 2013

We're back with a book: CENTRAL PARK NYC

We're back, and we've returned with a book—well for now, at least the publication date for a book.

We are delighted to announce that our publisher, Rizzoli International Publications, will publish Central Park NYC: An Architectural View in late September of this year. Central Park will be a large-format hardcover—a hefty 208 pages and 10 by 12 inches—with 61 of our own watercolors (good Lord, have we really painted that many?), augmented by 60 color and 55 black-and-white illustrations.

The volume surveys the architecture and history of Central Park, from its inception to the present day. Over the course of thirteen chapters, we examine the constituent elements of the park, the park's evolution, and the buildings, sculptures and ornaments that enrich this original template, crafted by Calvert Vaux and Frederick Law Olmsted, for what became America's Greensward Revolution.

We are extremely proud of this book, our eighth, and know that it has much that is new to say about the how and the why of the creation of Central Park. An outgrowth of our exhibiton at Didier Aaron, Inc. celebrating the 150th anniversary of the creation of Central Park, the book is also copiously illustrated with contemporary photography and archival documents and photographs. 

We have paid particular attention to the archival photo selection, wishing to surprise by "the shock of the old," as it were. Likewise, contemporary photographs come from a variety of photographers who have captured the park in stunning moments of beauty.

The men who built Central Park, photographed on Willowdell Arch in 1862.
 From left: comptroller Andrew H. Green, engineer George E. Waring, 
architect Calvert Vaux, gardener Ignaz Pilat, designer Jacob Wrey Mould, 
and landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted

We will be mounting an exhibition of the watercolors that illustrate the book at Didier Aaron, Inc. in late October and early November of this year, and will post with exhibition dates closer to the time of publication. 

For now, we simply wanted to announce that—after a long and productive hiatus, for which we still have several announcements before us to make—we have again returned to posting at NOTED, and that Central Park NYC is well on its way to publication—at last!