5.26.2020

Modern Domestic Manuals

I'm one of those rare individuals who not only enjoys cleaning, but also enjoys reading about it. No, seriously... The act of cleaning and getting your house in order can be an enjoyable process once you've learned to appreciate the benefits and rewards they bring: not only do you achieve an aesthetically-pleasing space but one that is easy to navigate, simple to maintain and comfortable to live in. By reading about some of the best practices for cleaning, organizing and maintaining a home, I've come to understand some of the best ways to do "chores" as well as how often to do them, what tools to use, even what thoughts to keep in mind while doing them!
Building a homekeeping library is something I've done over a period of time. I didn't go out and buy every single book on cleaning and organizing I could find. Instead, I've curated a small library of good reference materials that I do source often for good advice or for a refresher in the philosophy of clutter-free living. Below are the books and publications I have in my own personal library that I find informative and inspirational with a brief description of each.
If you're a reader of this blog, it should really go without saying that I feel "Martha Stewart's Homekeeping Handbookis essential to every homeowner or apartment dweller. I refer to it consistently and I recommend it to every new homeowner, including to young friends of mine who may be moving into their first apartment. Put simply, the book has all the answers to all the questions any homeowner or renter might conceivably have about the maintenance, layout and function of a home's exterior and interior spaces. It contains specific, detailed instructions and how-tos for all forms of cleaning and organization. It has checklists, timelines and trusted techniques that are beautifully presented in an organized and well-formatted book that is encyclopedic in scope and size, with over 750 pages of information. This is THE book on maintaining a safe, functional, inviting home - day to day, week to week, month to month and season to season. If you only get one book on the subject of homekeeping, get this one.
 The Martha Manual is similar to the Homekeeping Handbook but is less of a giant and has a slightly more approachable air about it. The book promises to teach you how to do (almost) everything and it very nearly does! Whether it’s organizing, celebrating, cleaning, decorating, or any number of other life skills, the team at Martha Stewart Living delivers its strategies for meeting frequent challenges with basic how-to knowledge that everyone should have at the ready. Also included are plenty of solutions for the not-so-common conundrums, such as how to transport a decorated cake, bathe a cat, or fold an American flag. It teaches cooking basics, gardening basics, even how to play lawn games and wrap presents! It's definitely a fun book for a new homeowner to receive and its friendly layout, full-colour photography and bullet-point information makes it a pleasure to read.
The follow-up to The Martha Manual is Martha Stewart's Organizing - published in exactly the same hardcover format but with a specific focus on getting your life and all your personal spaces to work more efficiently. Lessons are divided by the various approaches to organizational strategies (room by room, seasonal, daily and weekly) complete with organizing lessons, charts and to-do lists. Through setting goals, learning the principles of organizing, obtaining the right tools to help in the process and creating effective systems for ongoing tidiness, the reader develops practical techniques and good basic habits. There are lessons, too, on how to keep your home clean as well as DIY projects to make tackling the challenge of organizing a little more creative and fun. Martha also shares her own organizing schedules and calendars with the reader as examples to work from.
Cheryl Mendelson may not be the household name that Martha Stewart has become, but she's enjoyed tremendous success as the author of several books on the art of keeping house. She's even been a guest on Martha's television show, just to illustrate there's no real rivalry here. The two books shown above (which were purchased secondhand at a used bookstore - hence the lack of dust jackets) are Home Comforts: The Art & Science of Keeping House at left, and Laundry: The Home Comforts Book on Caring for Clothes and Linens shown at right.

The former is the largest of the two, coming in at over 900 pages! Published in 1999, the book was a national bestseller and is considered today to be a classic. Choosing fabrics, cleaning china, keeping the piano in tune, making a good fire, folding a fitted sheet, setting the dining room table, keeping surfaces free of food pathogens, watering plants, removing stains — Home Comforts addresses the methods as well as the meanings of hands-on housekeeping, which is what gives the book its charm and wit. 

Laundry is essentially an embellished excerpt from Home Comforts - the entire section on laundering from its parent book is presented here in a revised and updated format with a new introduction by the author. If it's caring for clothing and linens (and rugs and upholstery and curtains) you're interested in, this book dives deep into that subject. Not only does the book instruct you on how to wash literally every form of textile in your home (from the canvas of your shoes to the fabric of your drapes, to every form of carpet and rug and table cloth) it also deconstructs and evaluates the chemical compositions and effects of the various detergents and solvents we use to clean those textiles. Every form of washing is researched at length, from hand washing to dry-cleaning to every cycle of the washing machine to every cycle of the dryer: every type of stain and every single way that stain can be removed. It's a lot. But as resource books go, this is THE book on laundry.

If you can only choose one, choose the Home Comforts book, since it covers everything and contains most of the content found in the laundry book. I found both books in used condition for very good prices so I decided to add the two of them to my library. 
From the creators of that amazing design repository, Remodelista, comes The Organized Home, one of a series of books on the art of creating a considered home. Employing a "less-is-more" approach, the constant push towards minimalism in the book can at times feel a bit pedantic but the principle of the book and its multitude of ingenious little ideas makes it worth having. The slim book is not at all prosy - staying true to its minimalist nature - and relies instead on bright, crisp imagery of a perfectly-organized pantry or closet to say what it needs to say. The chapters are divided by rooms and there is a definite emphasis on paring down to the most essential of essentials. The book advocates natural cleaning, living in a plastic-free environment and investing in quality storage that is also stylish. Remodelista has a very definite and recognizable brand and it may not be for everyone: pared-down rooms awash in neutrals with not a stitch out of place. The resource guide at the back of the book has excellent information on how and where to donate, sell or recycle your unwanted goods as well as an extensive list of retailers that procure containers and stylish storage options to help you get the look.
 No discussion of modern domestic manuals can be complete without a look at the ever-controversial Marie Kondo. Her books The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up and Spark Joy were both international bestsellers, suggesting we all needed a little reminder to take a good, hard look at the 'stuff' in our lives. The two books really should be read as a series; they are meant to be companions. Although, if you can only choose one, choose the former. 

Essentially, the subject is about the "Japanese art of decluttering and organizing," written by professional organizing guru Marie Kondo, who lives and works in Japan. The book is much, much more than that, however. It is really a philosophy book. Although it does offer up some step-by-step advice on getting rid of things you no longer need or want, its primary purpose is to get you to think differently about the material things that surround you: treating objects as though they have energy or a kind of life force of their own. Throwing your clothes on the floor, for instance, is a sign of disrespect for that object; even hanging your sweaters, which leads to stretching and pulling, is a form of abuse in Kondo's world. Folding garments is a much gentler and kinder option, she suggests. 

The book forces you to look at the objects you keep near you as things that have the potential to be sacred. If they are not sacred and have no purpose, they are taking away from your enjoyment of life and sapping you of energy. I find the philosophy to be very positive and quite accurate. My criticism of the book is that too often the solution is to simply "throw it away." In today's world, the concept of donation and/or repurposing would have been a more responsible suggestion. Also, not everyone will be inclined to organize the way Kondo suggests: putting everything of one type (clothes, books, shoes, papers) into a giant pile in the middle of the floor and sorting this way. I'm sure it is effective but it requires absolute devotion and the strictness of her insistence of doing it this way - and only this way - may put some readers off. The book is well worth a read, however, as I do believe it has the power to alter your way of thinking about how we live with objects.

Its follow-up companion book, Spark Joy, is the practical guide you'll need to put Kondo's suggestions into practice. The book features step-by-step folding illustrations for everything from shirts to socks, plus drawings of perfectly organized drawers and closets. Kondo also answers frequently asked questions, such as whether to keep “necessary” items that may not bring you joy. With guidance on specific categories including kitchen tools, cleaning supplies, hobby goods, digital photos, and even building your own personal “power spot” in your home.

TO SUM UP:

If you enjoy the subject of the domestic arts (and I think if you're here, you probably do) then these are my personal recommendations to start a homekeeping library. I suggest starting with the gargantuan tomes, acutally: Martha Stewart's Homekeeping Handbook and Cheryl Mendelson's Home Comforts contain such a wealth of knowledge that you really get more bang for your buck. In another post I may look at the original books (from the early 1900s and on) that lay the foundation for books like the ones mentioned above. Books like An Encyclopedia of Domestic Economy, The Concise Household Encyclopedia and Mrs. Beecher's Housekeeper and Healthkeeper were the great-grandmothers of today's modern domestic manuals and are worth sourcing if you can find them.

5.24.2020

Ottawa's Tulips

Each May in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada - the nation's capital city and my hometown - there is the Canadian Tulip Festival, which celebrates Canada's unique relationship with the Netherlands.
In 1945, the Dutch royal family sent 100,000 tulip bulbs to Ottawa in gratitude for Canadians having sheltered the future Queen Juliana and her family for the preceding three years during the Nazi occupation of the Netherlands in the Second World War.
A view of the tulips and a statue of Lt. Colonel John By, best known for his supervision of the construction of the Rideau Canal in Ottawa. Beyond the statue is the Peace Tower of Canada's parliament buildings.
The tulip festival has been ongoing since 1953 and every year Ottawa receives new bulbs from the Dutch which are planted in huge swaths around the city: along promenades, in city parks, adjacent to the Rideau Canal and in urns and flower boxes around government and public buildings. There are over one million tulips, planted en masse, in various parks and public grounds around Ottawa. The city really does bloom this time of year!
This year, because of the pandemic, there is not really going to be a "festival" (there are often booths with artisans from around the world, musicians, and souvenir kiosks) but citizens who live nearby can still enjoy the scenery, as my husband and I did today. We visited two locations where the tulips are planted in large groupings: Major's Hill Park and Commissioners Park. There are some incredible varieties and there’s a lot to learn here in terms of design. Unfortunately, the National Capital Commission, which maintains these grounds, does not provide information about the specific tulip varieties on display. I hope you enjoy the photos!
MAJOR'S HILL PARK:
 This is Major's Hill Park, directly across the street from the National Gallery of Canada, shown in the background: seas on tulips!
 In the background of this photo is the Chateau Laurier Hotel.
 Tulips have always been traditionally planted in large groupings to best showcase their beauty.


In the background of this photo is Ottawa's Notre Dame Cathedral, one of the oldest in the city.

COMMISSIONER'S PARK:
At Commissioner's Park, where the Rideau Canal meets Dow's Lake, there are more than 350,000 tulips planted.
 There are many unique kinds of tulips on display in this park.
 The colour combinations are spectacular.


This house has always been one of my favourites in the city: it's right on the edge of this beautiful park, overlooking the lake and all these tulips.



CLOSE-UPS
Of all the tulips we saw that day, this one was my favourite. It's utterly beautiful.
 This one is almost rose-like.

 Fascinating to peek inside a tulips petals.

Another stunning variety.

5.20.2020

Martha's Basic Pound Cake

My friend Christopher has created a gallery on his Facebook page titled "From My COVID Kitchen." In it, he uploads photos of the culinary creations that have kept him sane and satiated during this unprecedented time of quarantine. Christopher's wry title aside, I think it really does us good to try new things during this difficult period - not only for distraction but also to learn something. I, too, have been trying my hand at new recipes - most of them Martha's. Many of these recipes have been on my 'bake-one-day' list for far too long. Now that I have the time, I figured I should probably tackle some of them.
While there may not be anything that intriguing about pound cake, to me it's one of those quiet comfort foods that you enjoy with a cup of tea; it hits the mark perfectly, given our circumstances. Its delicate flavour is not too sweet or indulgent and it's as good plain as it is served with berries and whipped cream. As I was flipping through the pages of Martha's Cakes book, I kept coming back to the golden allure of this simple, basic cake: a pleasure to make, a pleasure to eat.
One of the things I most like about Martha Stewart's recipes is the clarity of the instruction. The recipes may at times look a bit wordy on the page but those words are worth their weight. Oftentimes, the text in the instructions reveals helpful tips. In this recipe for pound cake, for example, the suggestion of beating the sugar and butter for a solid 8 minutes on high speed resulted in a smoother, more voluminous batter. The suggestion that the eggs should be lightly beaten before being added lent an additional silken quality to the texture. Since this was only my second time making a pound cake, I found these hints very helpful.

The recipe makes two loaves and both came out beautifully. They cook at a low-ish temperature (325 degrees) for just over an hour, resulting in the perfect golden hue. I was very happy with how these turned out. I've included the recipe below.
The batter bakes beautifully, resulting in moist slices of cake that are tender and thick but not dense.
Nutella is not my preferred pound-cake accompaniment, but when I saw that Martha had used it to dress up a slice on Instagram I decided I needed to give it a try too. It's not bad! I personally prefer to drizzle a little bit of maple syrup over it or simply have it plain with a cup of tea, but any excuse to eat Nutella is fine by me.

I hope you try this cake. It's simple enough for a novice baker.

MARTHA'S BASIC POUND CAKE
(A pound of butter, a pound of sugar, a pound of flour, a pound of eggs...)

2 cups (one pound or four sticks) unsalted butter, room temperature, plus more for pans
1 pound (about three cups) all purpose flour
1 teaspoon coarse salt
2 1/4 cups (one pound) sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
9 large eggs (one pound), room temperature, lightly beaten

1. Preheat oven to 325. Generously butter two 9-by-5 inch loaf pans. In a medium bowl, whisk together flour and salt.

2. With an electric mixer on high speed, beat butter and sugar until pale and fluffy, about 8 minutes. Scrape down sides of bowl. Reduce speed to medium; beat in vanilla. Add eggs in four batches, beating thoroughly after each addition and scraping down the sides of the bowl. Reduce speed to low; add flour mixture in four batches, beating until just incorporated.

3. Divide batter between two prepared loaf pans. Tap pans on counter to reduce air pockets; smooth tops with an offset spatula. Bake until a cake tester comes out clean, about 65 minutes. Transfer pans to a wire rack to cook 30 minutes. Turn cakes out onto racks to cook completely.


5.13.2020

Style by Martha

Though it may not be easy to describe, Martha Stewart's look is iconic. Her fashion sense is refined in its simplicity, softened by a natural elegance and grace that comes from a love of all things beautiful. She opts for classic, wearable clothes that allow for freedom of movement (she's a busy woman) and that impart a certain air of comfort without looking too casual. Naturally, she admires quality. And that love of all things well-made extends to her wardrobe. It was when American fashion designer Ralph Rucci posted a photograph of Martha on his Instagram feed today @ralphrucci that I realized I had never done a post about Martha's personal style and fashion sense, which seems a shame since there is much we can learn about how to dress from this remarkable woman.
 Photograph by Francois Dischinger for Harper's Bazaar. Martha wearing Yves Saint Laurent. Diamond necklace and earrings by Harry Winston.

I wasn't able to find much written specifically about Martha's fashion sense - a few captions on entertainment websites notwithstanding. However, in 2006, Martha was profiled in Harper's Bazaar magazine for its September issue in an article by Susan Orlean titled "The Seductive Side of Martha". The article celebrates her iconic look and lauds it even further with some stunning photographs by Francois Dischinger (directly above and directly below) of Martha dressed in Yves Saint Laurent, Chanel, Armani and the aforementioned Ralph Rucci.
Photograph by Francois Dischinger for Harper's Bazaar. Martha wearing Chado Ralph Rucci.

In this paragraph from the article, Orlean perfectly captures the essence of Martha's style:

"She loves fashion - more exactly, she loves gorgeous fabric and expert tailoring, and, true to her passion for utility and a certain exquisite practicality, she especially loves well-made clothes that are very wearable. Her own style [...] is unfussy, untrendy, slightly countrified, elegant in its plainness. She wears Ralph Rucci, Hermes, Jil Sander and Ralph Lauren - or old denim work shirts and khakis when she's in the garden. For nearly 25 years, she has looked like a woman who is getting ready to have friends over for lunch but just might take a horseback ride or plant a few daylilies before they show up."

When it comes to fashion, imagery speaks louder than words: below are numerous photographs of Martha gathered from the vast image trove that is the World Wide Web that illustrate Martha's classic style. I've grouped the images by theme for an easier overview. I hope you enjoy this look at Martha's impeccable style!
As with interior design, Martha has a strong preference for monochromatic looks, especially subdued neutrals. Here, photographed attending public events, we see Martha in head-to-toe neutral looks that are simple and elegant, letting the cut and texture of the fabric do the talking. Jewelry, too, is kept to a minimum and is often chosen from a neutral palette: pearls, gold, diamonds (white and yellow) maintain a warm glow. Martha rarely wears silver jewelry or coloured stones, such as rubies, emeralds or sapphires.
Martha photographed by Hamptons magazine at her home on Lily Pond Lane in 2015, wearing a neutral ensemble. She is wearing an Armand Diradourian sweater and white leather leggings from Shari's Place in Southampton.
Many women over 50 eschew navy but Martha's youthful and energetic poise carry it perfectly. It is a classic tone imbued with a sense of strength, order and discipline. It derives its heritage from the uniforms first worn by the Royal British Navy in the mid 1700s.
Martha wearing a navy suit at the 50th anniversary fashion show of Ralph Lauren in New York City in 2018.
Every good business woman needs a good jacket. Above, Martha wears four different styles, from structured to classic, textured to loose-fitting. Her tall, broad-shouldered frame lends itself perfectly to wearing tailored and structured clothing.
Martha, pictured at left with her favourite designer, Ralph Rucci, in 2004, and at one of his fashion shows in 2006. She looks terrific in his jackets.
When she's not wearing jackets, it's simple blouses in luxurious fabrics. Button-ups are rarely fitted and fall gracefully from the shoulder in a loose-fitting A-line. Martha loves a good wedge heel but she's not averse to wearing stilettos when the occasion calls for it. (Fun fact: Martha colours the signature red soles of her Loubutin heels with black marker. She knows what she likes!)
Martha will often wear dresses to events and outings. As we can see here, she frequently chooses mid-length dresses that end just below the knee. Again, her palette of choice is frequently monochromatic in shades that are darker but that have a mix of textures and fabrics. She is not often seen wearing prints, although the dress she wore to the funeral of her friend Nora Ephron, a celebrated writer, shown bottom right, is an exception.
Dresses worn above the knee for women over 50 is generally considered gauche - another style rule Martha enjoys breaking. Conversely, you will rarely find a photograph of Martha wearing a maxi-dress; she's got great legs and she rightly shows them off.
In this photograph by Mark Seliger taken for Vanity Fair magazine in February of this year, Martha looks stunning in a mini dress by Italian designer Giambattista Valli, which she wore to the magazine's Oscar party. (Martha is 78 years old, by the way, and looks utterly sensational!)
While at home at her farm in Bedford, New York, Martha wears what a lot of us would wear, I'm sure: jeans and sweaters. I've always loved this photo from People magazine - and that hand-knitted sweater looks so cozy.
Denim shirts are a staple in Martha's at-home wardrobe. Ever since the mid-1990s when Martha would frequently wear denim tops on her television show, the durable, utilitarian fabric has helped to define her signature look.
At home, Martha loves wearing items from her own clothing line, as shown above, which she sells on QVC. She also often wears sweaters in solid tones made of light wool and cotton blends, which are often paired with white collared shirts, below.


I hope you've enjoyed this look at Martha's style. Here are some of the takeaways:
  • Invest in well-made clothing.
  • Buy clothing that allows for freedom of movement and comfort but that doesn't look too casual.
  • Neutrals and dark, classic colours never go out of style.
  • Keep prints to a minimum.
  • If you do opt for a print, go all out. Don't hold back.
  • Accessorize wisely and edit your look when necessary: too much "stuff" is distracting.
  • Know your assets; if you've got great legs, show them off!
  • If you find a fit that works, stick with it - and buy multiples of that same style.
  • Stick with the brands and designers that make clothes you love to wear.