Milan, 2 May 2020
Two days to go until we can roam the streets again …
Well, having covered the animal kingdom in my last two wanderings around the apartment, it seems fair to now cover the vegetable kingdom. And here’s an interesting thing I’ve discovered on my wanders: while humans and animals often take centre stage in the pieces which I reported on earlier – they are the piece – plants are almost always – at least in this apartment – relegated to the role of mere decoration of something else. Let me show my readers what I mean.
For starters, many of our plates, bowls, and jugs are decorated with plants or flowers or fruit. Take this plate, for instance, which I bought many years ago in New York and which I’ve mentioned in previous posts.
The plate itself is a copy of an old Ottoman design, depicting a spray of wild flowers. I spy a tulip, a carnation of some sort, a sweet William perhaps. Lovely. But still, only decoration on a plate. In theory, we could cover all those flowers with a greasy meat sauce (I say in theory, because we never actually use this plate, it would feel sacrilegious to do so).
Or take this plate, which my mother-in-law bought.
Plants are much more aggressively centre stage here. We have four large leaves surrounding a small fruit. Lovely piece of design. But still only a plate. We’ve sometimes covered those leaves with olives, small onions, and other hors-d’oeuvres, to serve at table.
Or how about this little milk jug, which once must have been part of a larger tea set (and which I recently discovered, by studying the marks on the bottom of it, to have been made by Richard-Ginori).
Simple but beautiful design. But only decoration on a jug.
From the other side of the world but the same idea: a sake bowl and its companion cups, which my wife and picked up on our travels in Asia.
Here, we have the ever popular presence of bamboo in Asian design. Very handsome. But only there to be admired as one drinks one’s sake from them – which my wife and I have often done.
At a larger, more rustic scale, we have this series of water pitchers, all of which use plants and flowers as their decoration.
All, except for the pitcher with the wisteria, were bought by mother-in-law, who had a great fondness for pitchers. The pitcher-covered wisteria was instead given to us by a friend. They were made by her aunt, a potter. It came with a similarly decorated oil and vinegar cruet and salt cellars. Every time I shake salt on my food, I admire those wisteria, a flower I adore. Lovely – but still only decoration on a utilitarian object.
Sometimes, the vegetal decoration gets so abstract as to almost disappear from view. Take this vase, for instance, another piece which my mother-in-law bought.
It’s really very handsome. But you have to study the vase a bit to see the flowers and the leaves. The more distracted eye, using it perhaps to hold cut flowers, just sees a swirl of browns and yellows.
It’s the same with this glass ashtray.
Only a closer look will discern a leaf in the rippling glass. The distracted smoker will see nothing but a receptacle for his butt-ends.
The fading of vegetal decoration into abstraction is even more marked in other objects. Take this carpet, for instance (another of my mother-in-law’s purchases), which in these days of confinement my wife and I are regularly using as a exercise mat.
Only from time to time, as I groan my way through the exercises, will I focus and spy the flowers peeping out from the highly geometric design of the carpet.
It’s the same with the massive cupboard in our bedroom, inherited from my in-laws. Only sometimes, as I open one of its doors searching for a piece of clothing, will I register the rather stylized vegetal design carved in the wood.
I wonder why it is that the vegetable kingdom plays such a modest, secondary role in the pieces with which we surround ourselves. Why don’t we have a statue of a flower in the apartment, for instance? Perhaps it’s because we can more easily have the real thing – the potted plant, a living statue as it were. At the moment, for example, we have this splendid bunch of flowers slowly opening up before us.
If you can have the real thing, why bother with inanimate copies?