PLANTS, FRUITS, FLOWERS

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.

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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.

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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).

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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If you can have the real thing, why bother with inanimate copies?

Stay safe.

OUR ZIEGLER-TYPE CARPET

Vienna, 7 July 2017

About six months ago, my wife suggested that we should get a carpet for our living room in Vienna. She felt that it would soften the room, taking the edge off the hard wooden floor – and covering some ugly marks on that same floor. It so happened that the Dorotheum Auction House, one of my favourite places in Vienna, a place I haunt whenever I’m in town and where I have parted with several largish banknotes for various objects over the years, was holding one of its regular carpet auctions.

Having armed ourselves with the auction’s catalogue, we poured over its pages and selected several promising candidates. They all tended towards the big size, my wife having persuaded me that we should try to cover as much of the floor as possible. We then proceeded to the Auction House itself to inspect our choices – I always pity the poor fellows who have to labour through those stacks of heavy carpets to get to the one you want to look at. In any event, surrounded by would-be bidders doing the same thing, we solemnly looked our choices over. I for one was somewhat self conscious about this since I had no real idea what to look for other than to see if we liked the colour combinations and the feel. But we managed to look as if we knew what we were doing. In the event, we plumped for one of our choices, and then waited for the auction day.

On the big day, we filed into the auction room. My wife does the bidding, I’m too nervous about the whole thing, terrified that I will make a false move and find myself landed with some horror and being required to pay a stellar price for it. She had her paddle at the ready as the auctioneer moved with brisk efficiency through the lots. Our chosen lot came up on the screen, the auctioneer opened the bids, and quick as a flash my wife’s paddle went up for the minimum bid. We were confident we would get it at that price since most of the earlier lots had not gone beyond the minimum, but alas! this time someone else’s paddle went up hot on the heels of my wife’s. The bid climbed inexorably, and we regretfully threw in the towel.

Rather glum about it all, we went back to the unsold lots. There had been another carpet which had taken my wife’s fancy but which I had not been sure about. It had not been sold, so we had another look. After some to-ing and fro-ing, especially on my part – it seemed very big, and the colours were a bit on the pale side – we decided to go with it. Here is the picture of it from the auction catalogue.

A few days later, two men huffed and puffed it up the stairs and into our apartment. We laid it out and I had a moment of panic about its size. It’s 4.90 by 3.80 metres (16 by 12.5 feet, for readers still on British units), so a fair good size. Had I measured the room right?! But all was good; it fit – snugly, but it fit.

No sooner had the two men put it down than two other men came and took it away, huffing and puffing their way back down the stairs. They were Iranian; in the intervening days, we had discovered a carpet shop around the corner, run by a small Iranian who – so we discovered as we chatted with him – had escaped from Iran during the 1979 revolution. Since he also cleaned carpets, we decided to have ours cleaned before laying it down permanently.

Now in place, cleaned and ready to do its job for the next twenty years or so, I’m truly glad we bought it. It really lights up the room. Its paleness, which had led me to hesitate initially, is actually a good thing – too much colour in such a big carpet would have overwhelmed the room. The dark red border gives just enough of a splash of colour. The relative emptiness of its design is also good. Again, if it had been too busy, it would have overwhelmed the room.

My wife and I are currently spending a lot of time staring at that carpet from very close range. As part of our summer campaign to lose weight, we do an exercise routine (almost) every day, faithfully following a series of fitness videos my wife has found on the internet. As we do burpees, planks of various descriptions, bridges, and I know not what else, we get to stare close up at the carpet. In my case at least, given my predilection for all things historical, it has led me to wonder about its history. After some research I am ready to report.

The auction catalogue had informed us that the carpet had been manufactured in the 1990s in Egypt. So the carpet itself is not old, which is just as well since we wouldn’t have been able to afford anything remotely antique. But is the design perhaps an ancient Egyptian design? The answer is no. Egypt has very little history of carpet making. After a moment of glory in the 16th Century, whatever it had shriveled away and was only resurrected in the 1950s after supplies of carpets from Iran, the traditional source, dried up – no doubt the result of soured relations between the two countries after Nasser’s left-wing takeover in Egypt and the CIA-backed coup in Iran which brought the right-wing Shah Pahlavi to power. But the Egyptians just made copies of Iranian designs and as far as I can make out has continued in this tradition ever since. In fact, the auction catalogue described the carpet’s design as “Indo-Persian”.

So do we have here a traditional Iranian design? Again, the answer is no, and here it becomes interesting. It seems that the Iranian carpet industry was actually started by Europeans. The demand back in Europe was far outstripping the very artisanal production in Iran, so various European companies stepped in to bring a certain level of industrialization to the country’s carpet makers. One of these was an Anglo-Swiss company by the name of Ziegler, which set up shop in Sultanabad in the 1870s. It was one of the company’s Sultanabad managers who came up with very non-Oriental carpet designs for their Iranian carpets which later came to be known as Ziegler carpets: “large, simplified designs of a languorous nature … featur[ing] whimsical draughtsmanship [with] quite deliberate distortions introduced to break up the monotony of a repeating design”, the whole with a light palette of colours.

As the first photo attests, these are all design elements found in our carpet: the long tendrils of flowers and other vegetation languidly weaving their way across the carpet surface, a relatively simple design with plenty of open space, light colouring, no obvious axis of reflection in the design. So I pronounce our carpet to be a Ziegler-type carpet (not an original Ziegler carpet, our pockets are not deep enough for that). It seems that after a certain period of popularity Ziegler carpets went out of fashion, their non-Oriental looking designs being looked down on. Then, as usual, there was a resurgence of interest in, and use of, Ziegler designs in the 1980s. I put our carpet’s production down to that.

The carpet has an Arabic inscription woven into its border, something we discovered just recently.

I took this photo to our Iranian carpet shop owner, to see if he could read it. He informed me regretfully that he could not but that he had a man who could. He disappeared into the back of the shop and came back with one of the young fellows who had carried off our carpet to clean it. With me standing there agog, the fellow peered at the photo and pronounced that it was a name, Hamid Ali Bek Bek. Very excited by this nugget of information, I ran an internet search on the name linked to carpets. I came up with no carpet producers in Egypt but did come up with one Hamid Ali Bek, importer of fine carpets in Hamburg. Could it be that this Mr. Bek had had carpets made for him in Egypt (a little strange since he is Iranian, but you never know) to sell in Germany? I fired off an email to the company but have yet to hear back.

My wife tells me that it’s time for closure on this carpet business and for me to move on. So regretfully I have to leave my story there, with still much up in the air about the carpet’s history. Who knows, though? There might be some updates at a later time.

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pictures: ours