Tag Archives: history

If Walls Could Talk: Historic Bedrooms

In her book If Walls Could Talk, Lucy Worsely, chief curator at few palatial locations in London including Kensington palace, chronicles the history of the bedroom and what purpose it served in times past. Bedrooms are like a still life portrait of their inhabitant, and can give insight into the kind of life they led. Here are a few interesting bedroom ‘portraits’ of popular historical figures.

Queen Victoria

Image from Laura Casey Interiors

One of the world’s most famous monarchs, Queen Victoria shaped the course of modern history during her reign, ushering in the industrial revolution. Before she became queen, Victoria spent her sheltered, stringent childhood years until she was 18 in this bedroom in Kensington Palace. She spent her last night here, in this densely decorated room before she was deemed queen.
Mahatma Ghandi’s bedroom

Mahatma Ghandi was a beacon of peace, enlgihtenment, and. His peaceful struggle led India to independence from Britain, and inspired civil rights movements across the world. This bedroom is a recreation of his attic bedroom in the Satyagraha House, his residence in South Africa. The house is now a museum as well as a guest house. The house maintains the same feeling as the bedroom, and is beautiful in its simplicity while echoing a sense of peace.

Image from An Indian Summer

The Satyagraha House. Image from An Indian Summer.

Marie Antoinette

Image from Habitually Chic

On the extreme side of Ghandi is Marie Antoinette – who was known for her extravagance in, well, almost everything. She had multiple bedrooms in the palace of Versaille, decorated in the high splendour of the time. Although she had a flamboyant personality, she was definitely a tragic historical figure. This darker, somber side of her characted is seen in the rooms not usually open to the public, which project her unique sense of style but have a haunting atmosphere.

Image from The Martins

Mao Zedong

Chairman Mao, as he is known to the world, was a leading figure in the the chinese communist revolution. He is commonly thought of as the father of the People’s Republic of China, and was the country’s leader until his death in 1976.

Image from China.org.cn

His bedroom, where he established the china’s first revolutionary base in 1927, reflects his conservatism and anti-capitalist principles in its frugality and simplicity.

How does your bedroom portray your identity?

Learn more about If Walls Could Talk.


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Open House New York Weekend Recap


Last weekend I had the chance to attend a couple of events at Open House New York (OHNY), a weekend long series of events that celebrate the built environment of New York City. Based on the original  success of its predecessor Open House London, OHNY has been a huge success in educating the public about culturally and historically significant spaces and places in the built environment.

All weekend there are a large number of events, from exhibitions, visits and tours of design studios and historic sites, with some famous designers and architects opening their own homes to the public for a limited number of hours. While most events require a reservation, plenty of events are also free.

I was able to attend three events this weekend, two guided tours through parts of the city and a self guided tour along an abandoned railyard that will soon be converted into the newest portion of a public park.

Fading Ads of New York City (Chelsea) Tour


The first event on my weekend agenda was the Fading Ads tour in the Chelsea neighborhood of the city. While the tour area designated was Chelsea, it also stretched into the Flatiron district just north of it as well. Frank Jump, who does research on the ads and has written a book on the subject.

I’ve always been a fan of vintage typography and signage, and this tour certainly gave me the chance to see the city with a new perspective. The ads have a certain mystery to them, and proudly bear stories of times gone by above the street, holding them in reverence above the streets.

After the tour, we also had the chance to speak with Frank about his research on the ads and purchase a copy of his book, which he graciously signed too!

Museum of Reclaimed Urban Spaces Tour


This tour was an interesting take on the contemporary history of the Lower East Side of Manhattan. What was once a dangerous area has now become an extremely liveable and community-oriented neighborhood thanks to its committed residents, who by their own efforts had started and are continuing to reshape it.

The tour took us through the community gardens and apartment buildings that were once abandoned spaces and are now bustling centers of activity full of life, culture, and arts.


A Walk on the High Line Phase 3

Since its opening in Summer of 2011, the High Line park has become famous and can usually be found swarming with visitors during particularly pleasant days. The next phase of the park is set to start construction soon, and this self-guided tour was a chance to walk through the raw terrain for the last time before it is closed off.

There was definitely something hauntingly beautiful about the rail yards, as they’re called. The once active railways are now being overtaken by greenery and foliage, and the result is an almost perfect example of a true, urban landscape. The weather was a little damp that day, but the walk was definitely the highlight of my weekend.

I was definitely interested in seeing more places and possibly attending more tours, but due to limited time and the popularity of some events, reservations were sold out rather quickly. The only thing I would have wanted was that it lasted more than just a weekend!

All images by Renee Alfonso.


Posted in Culture, Design, Travel | Tagged

Mid-Autumn Means Mooncake!

It’s Foodie Tuesday!

Mooncakes ready for the oven. Image by Intercontinental Hong Kong.

Growing up in the Philippines, I remember fondly how our family would receive mooncakes from our family friends around September. While our family is not Filipino-Chinese at all, the tradition of giving mooncakes is still popular among families, and we usually receive one or two boxes a year.

Mooncakes from Kien Giang Bakery in LA.

I never really thought about mooncakes back then beyond the fact they came in brightly colored tins, looked like large stamps, and had a sweet pasty filling. I also had no idea that the mooncake giving tradition was also linked to a cultural celebration, the Chinese Mid-Autumn Festival.

The festival is usually celebrated today in China and Vietnam, with regions in each of the countries celebrating their own traditions accompanying the main celebration. Common festivites include eating mooncakes, matchmaking, the use of lanterns and fire dragon dances. The festival pays homage to the moon goddess for a good harvest (the festival traditionally marks the end of the autumn harvest).

Lights in Victoria Park, Hong Kong, during the Mid-Autumn Festival. Image from Wikimedia Commons.

There is a legend attributed to the Mid-Autumn Festival, which tells the story of the deities Houyi and Chang’e. As with any legend there are several interpretations, but each version usually follows a basic storyline.

Houyi and Chang’e were a married couple, and embody the principle of Yin and Yang. As a reward for his service to the emperor, Houyi recieved a pill that would grant him immortality, but he could only take it after preparing himself for a year. He hid it in their home, but one day Chang’e discovered it, took it, and realizing what she had done, immediately fled to the moon.

A paper cut illustration of Chang’e flying to the moon

Despite his efforts to chase after her, Houyi had to return to earth because strong winds. Upon reaching the moon, Chang’e coughed up part of the pill and could not fly anymore. In order for her to return to her husband she commanded the jade rabbit on the moon to pound herbs for another pill, but the rabbit is unsuccessful and continues to try to make the pill. Houyi then built himself a palace in the sun and visits his wife once a year on the date of the Mid-Autumn Festival.

Outside of large Chinese communities however the Mid-Autumn festival is really all about the mooncakes. The cakes themselves are made from a molasses-sweetened dough, which is wrapped around several types of sweet filling. Common fillings include lotus paste and duck egg yolk, and red bean paste.

Image from Wikimedia Commons

The cakes themselves are usually round, but in recent years there have been plenty of variations in their shapes and sizes. Some mooncakes today are also not made of the traditional dough and use jelly on the outside. Likewise, the mold patterns that appear on the top of the mooncakes have evolved from the traditional Chinese motifs, with bakeries and mooncake manufacturers putting their own unique pattern on the cakes.

I found a few interesting examples of mooncake patterns and designs, including a Hello Kitty version, and a tiramisu mooncake made by Starbucks.

Photo by Mini Eman

Photo by Flickr user hartini

I didn’t get to eat any mooncake this year but next year I’ll be sure to take a trip to my local Chinese bakery for some of these treats! For the more adventurous epicurean, there are also several sites online for people who want to try to make their own.


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Who’s Afraid of Horror Vacui?

Keith Haring, Untitled, 1983, is a panel filled from edge to edge with outlines of human forms. Image by Passion Estampes.

Though minimalism has staked its claim on our post-modernist culture and taken residence there, we’ve got more than enough room in our sensibilities for something less sombre and stark.

For this post we’ll take a break from the stripped down and bare minimalist aesthetic, and we’ll set off for the other end of the design spectrum where spaces are compulsively filled, where emptiness is a disease kept at bay by filling every nook and cranny with intricate geometries.

It may be a negative quality for Mario Praz — the critic who coined the term horror vacui (which literally means “fear of empty space” in Latin) as a reaction to what he deemed to be the overly cluttered Victorian trend in interiors — but there have been centuries that have passed before then that were bursting with beautiful, exuberant excess. Case in point: the architecture in western and southern Asia, where walls, ceilings and every other surface is filled with intricate arabesque designs and patterns. There is also horror vacui in Egyptian wall art, in Greek and Roman architecture, in Baroque and Rococo styles.

Though we tend to see more horror vacui in art and design from eras past than in contemporary ones, its principles are at work in the art of Jackson Pollock and Keith Haring. It is there in the exciting Emilio Pucci’s prints, in the intricacies of tattoo designs and graffiti. We even feel its influence in music — we hear it in the layered rhythmic beats of salsa and techno, the blare of rock music, the myriad improvisations of jazz.

Jackson Pollock executing his signature paint dribbles and drizzles.

Jackson Pollock's "Convergence", 1952

A fab piece from Emilio Pucci's 2011 spring collection

Horror vacui felt right at home in the acid high of the psychedelic 60's.

Remember how challenging it was to look for that needle in the haystack we know as Waldo?

A wonderful piece of street art! Click on the image for more great graffiti at The Moga.


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Cherry Blossom Alert: Toronto

Most people are familiar with the amazing photos of cherry trees in full dramatic bloom (called sakura in Japanese) along the banks of the Potomac in Washington DC. What many don’t know is that the Mayor of Tokyo also donated 2000 trees to Toronto in 1959. These have just sprung to life in High Park this weekend, so do whatever it takes to get there and see this awe inspiring sight.

Toronto’s High Park boasts more than 2000 sakura planted around the shore of Grenadier Pond.  These trees were a gift from Japan, presented in 1959 by the Japanese Ambassador to Canada.  They are a gift of appreciation from the citizens of Tokyo to Toronto for accepting relocated Japanese-Canadians following the Second World War.

Map of the Sakura walk in Toronto's High Park

Sakura have special significance in Japanese culture as does hanami, picnicking under the blooming sakura. Indeed, hanami has been a big, big deal in Japan since the Nara Period (710-794).  Embodying that ephemeral quality of life, sakura are featured prominently in Japanese art and poetry and is as significant today as it was hundreds of years ago. In Japanese culture they are a metaphor for life: the transience of the blossoms; the way they burst into life, with staggering beauty, followed so quickly by their death.  It’s a sight to behold.  And if you haven’t experienced it yet, you should do yourself that favour.

You probably have about 3 days left before the blossoms fade and drop. Walking under this extended pink and white canopy is like being on a movie set – but it’s all very real.  With the disaster and pain that has befallen Japan this year, come see why “Sakura Hanami” is such an important tradition.  It is nothing short of  the ultimate spring ritual of hope.

All photos by Toy Garage Photography.


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