There’s an old saying, “Beauty is where you find it.”
Sometimes it’s in the way the afternoon sun sets the leaves on an oak tree aglow. It might be found in sonorous chants at a Bhutanese monastery, or in the sensuous touch of old baroque pearls against the skin.
Often, it takes a jolt of the “new” to kickstart our senses, especially when they are dulled by our daily routines. Frequently we limit our perception of the beautiful to what we see with our eyes, while neglecting touch, hearing, smell and taste.
In New York last month I experienced moments of unexpected beauty. None were conventionally “beautiful,” but all of them reached a place deep inside me, stirring my senses, expanding my field of “vision.” Here are five of them:
The White Winged Oculus, Outside and In
The architect’s controversial World Trade Center Transportation Hub, built at the site of the 9/11 attacks, is a case in point. Over a decade in construction, at costs that spiraled to $4 billion, it is the most expensive train station ever built. Critics lambasted Calatrava not only for delays and cost overruns, but also for his design (too complex) and profligate use of extravagant materials (white marble and enormous steel “ribs”).
Connecting 11 subway lines with a commuter train, a few bus routes, a ferry service and assorted parking garages, transporting over 250,000 commuters daily, with multiple government agencies involved, the hub could have been an unmitigated disaster.
Instead, it is beautiful.
On Cortlandt street, looking up from the sidewalk, I saw the kind of architectural juxtaposition that makes my skin tingle: Calatrava’s ribbed wing, monstrous yet structurally delicate, cut across a geometric jumble of glass high rises and older buff-colored office buildings. In the background, there was a cinematic blue sky with pale puff ball clouds.
It was like a vision of the future, an urban space port.
Inside the soaring 150-foot high Oculus, the feeling is distinctly spiritual. As Wolfe wrote, the airy central concourse “clad in white marble and steel…calls to mind the interior of a massive cathedral.” Standing at the top of a staircase was like hovering above a vast ceremonial hall, a luminous mausoleum where one might contemplate infinity—if not eternity.
In the competition for the job, Calatrava invoked the image of a child releasing a dove into the air. “It was a message of faith in the future,” he said in the WSJ interview. The goal, he said, was for each commuter to feel, “This station is built for me.” In this he has succeeded: In the cavernous white space, populated by throngs of commuters and retail shops, it is nonetheless possible to feel blissfully alone and at peace with the world.
The Artist’s Wardrobe
I was skeptical about the thesis of “Living Modern,” a much-talked-about exhibition of the artist Georgia O’Keeffe’s clothing at the Brooklyn Museum. The basic idea is that O’Keeffe rigorously controlled every aspect of the persona she presented to the world, especially through the clothes she wore in the many photographs taken by her husband Alfred Stieglitz and other luminaries. In the age of Instagram and the curated selfie, this seemed like a theory constructed with the benefit of hindsight.
Yet when I visited the show, I discovered that’s very likely what O’Keeffe had in mind. In the iconic photos taken by Stieglitz and others, the artist is usually swathed in dramatic black. And there was plenty of black on display in the show—severe long-sleeved dresses, slouchy hats, voluminous cloaks, well worn shoes. Many of her dresses appeared to be clones of one other with minor variations.
One surprise, however, was the unexpected diversity in her daily wardrobe. From the 1920′s there are white cotton blouses and dresses, some daintily tucked and embroidered, probably sewn by O’Keeffe herself who was apparently an excellent seamstress. She began wearing Levi’s—men’s 501s and Lady Levi’s 701s–and plaid shirts while living and working in New Mexico. Travel to Asia spurred an interest in bamboo hats and kimonos, many designed for her in black and white patterned textiles.
An even bigger surprise: O’Keeffe’s interest in fashion. She was an early aficionado of the Danish design house Marimekko. The four loose dresses on view are striped and patterned; one has a fanciful scalloped hem. There’s a chic gray sleeveless dress by Claire McCardell, an American designer who created relaxed, practical women’s wear from the 1930’s-1950’s. In a Todd Webb photo in Living Modern, the book that accompanies the show, the artist wears the dress with her understated but magnificent Hector Aguilar belt—black leather punctuated by bold silver “X’s.”
There are flats by Ferragamo and Capezio, simple wrap dresses from Neiman Marcus and more elegant ones by artist Carol Sarkisian, including a gorgeous one in dark green velvet. (Sarkisian also made many of the kimonos O’Keeffe favored after she had a mastectomy.) In the 1950’s she bought a tailored black wool suit from Balenciaga. At her death, she owned a pair of white Ralph Lauren sneakers.
The unifying factor in the clothes she wore is simplicity and comfort. There are no ruffles or frills, no equivalent of today’s “cold shoulder” fashion or mile high Gucci espadrilles. As Wanda M. Corn writes in Living Modern, O’Keeffe “drew no line between the art she made and the life she lived…[It] was an aesthetic of simplicity, distillation, and clarity.” In other words, her wardrobe was of a piece with her paintings and sculpture: reduced to the simplest forms, with no room for excess.
Incidentally, her home in Abiquiu displays the same aesthetic, from the curated selection of a few fine pieces of mid century modern furniture to the collection of river-washed stones outside her studio window. And, in the same vein, the food she ate was simple and natural, drawn largely from her own abundant garden and cooked with little fanfare.
I find this approach to life and art inspiring as well as beautiful. There’s a lot to be said for reducing things to their simplest and purest forms. If only I could do it!
The Slow Cooked Egg in Spring
Can food be beautiful? Certainly, as all the luscious food porn on Instagram attests, visual presentation can be exquisite. But can food stir the other senses as well? Taste, of course, but what about touch, smell and sound?
Not long ago Julia Moskin wrote an article for The New York Times entitled, “Stop. Sniff. Listen.” “Learn to use all five senses in the kitchen,” she writes, “and you’ll become a better cook—especially if you sharpen the ones that are less associated with cooking: Hearing, touch and smell.” It’s the same with eating. To be truly beautiful–and delicious– a dish must engage more than the eye can see.
For some years now, chefs have been pushing the envelope of the dining experience. Moskin cites Heston Blumenthal who “put headphones on his guests so they could listen to his dish Sounds of the Sea while they ate it” and Grant Achatz who “served a deep breath of lavender scented air…trapped in a pillow” at Alinea.
Last month, at the highly praised New York bistro Le Coq Rico, there was no sound of the sea or lavender- scented air, but there was a dish which seemed the essence of early spring. “Slow Cooked Egg” captured the lightness of the season (sight and taste) with a frothy chanterelle emulsion swirled around fresh green peas, a few just cooked asparagus stalks, spinach leaves and the pasture-raised egg itself, all soft white and oozing yellow yolk. The contrast on the palate between the airy emulsion, gently cooked mushrooms and the al dente spring vegetables appealed to the sense of touch (or “mouth feel),” while subtle aromas intermingled the greenness of the vegetables with the buttery scent of the sauce.
Hearing? Not so much, unless you count the clink of my spoon as I scraped up every last drop.
In 2006 chef and owner Antoine Westermann closed his Michelin-starred restaurant in Strasbourg, France in favor of a less constrained, more playful approach to food and cooking. At Le Coq Rico, his first American venture (where the phone message includes twittering birds and a rooster’s crow), that means getting the most out of flavorful, slow-growth heritage chickens and ducks, starting with the egg and including hearts and livers. Unable to import fine Bresse chickens to America, Westermann spent a year and a half searching for comparable breeds on the East Coast. On the bistro’s menu the poultry is described as “birds grown the old-fashioned way, from small family farms who respect their animals and provide them with wholesome diets and healthy lifestyles.”
No top heavy fowl here, collapsing from the weight of a steroidal breast. Instead Le Coq’s signature dish is a quarter roasted Brune Landaise chicken, 110 days old, from a farm in Lancaster County PA. As for me, I enjoyed the petite Plymouth Rock chicken in a creamy Riesling jus, with morels and more of those fresh peas and asparagus, along with the chef’s house made coffee ice cream—but it was the Slow Cooked Egg that most stirred my senses—a paean to spring beauty in the kitchen.
Incidentally, Le Coq Rico in Paris was one of the first French restaurants to offer “le doggy bag” to its patrons. In New York, you not only get an elegant bag, but also recipes for the leftovers.
Tiles, Tiles, Beautiful Tiles
Anyone considering building or remodeling a home would do well to channel William Morris.
In a lecture before the Birmingham Society of Arts and Letters in 1880 the British Arts & Crafts designer famously said, “Have nothing in your houses that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful.”
Less well known, perhaps, is another of Morris’s dicta: “Beauty…is no mere accident to human life, which people can take or leave as they choose…but a positive necessity of life.” It follows that it takes planning to create a beautiful, functional home.
This fall B and I are finally taking a long overdue plunge, remodeling the kitchen and adding a garden room. Gone will be the kitchen’s vinyl clad cabinets and temperamental ovens as likely to shout “ERROR” as they are to read the temperature you’ve set. Somewhere in the next year, a six-burner Wolf range, Subzero wine cellar, marble countertops, and white Shaker cabinets will appear.
Also to be replaced: the scarred, scuffed wood floors. To this end, I spent two days in New York in a kind of delirium, traipsing from one showroom to the next, perusing gorgeous tile samples, each kaleidoscopic square more irresistible to the eye than the last.
While we’ll probably use Moorish-inspired cement tile—a favorite ever since I was old enough to walk barefoot on the cool geometric tile in my grandmother’s Texas limestone house—my eye couldn’t help but stray to other, even more exquisite tiles.
At Country Floors I was mesmerized by these amazing English tiles. Imprinted with lace, painted in incandescent shades of turquoise and cobalt, then glazed to shimmer in even the dimmest light, they made me feel as if I were floating in a jewel-like mermaid’s grotto in an ultramarine sea.
Sadly these lovely pieces are too fragile to use underfoot, but I’m dreaming of a patch of wall where they could safely live, there to lift my spirits from the mundane to a dreamier place. Perhaps over the new farmhouse sink? There goes the all white kitchen…
Scent That Conjures a “Healing Forest”
In Japan there’s a custom called shinrin yoku or forest-bathing. It involves hiking through beautiful old growth forests, where ancient conifers emit aromas that transform the air one breathes into a virtual bath of health-giving, stress-relieving molecules.
In South Korea, just across the Sea of Japan, there is a growing national obsession with “healing forests.” In a 2013 interview, Dr. Won Sop Shin, a professor of social forestry who now serves as minister of the Korean Forest Agency, explained that the government is “working under the vision of creating a green welfare nation where forests bring happiness to our people.” The goal? To create a chain of official healing forests across the nation where the world’s most stressed out urbanites can restore their spirits and their health.
The linchpin of this strategy is the fast-growing hinoki cypress tree which the Koreans began planting by the thousands in the 1960’s. The wood is known for its longevity, in part due to its anti-bacterial properties—mummy cases in ancient Egypt were made of cypress—but these days it’s the aromatic essential oil that is getting most of the attention.
In The Nature Fix: Why Nature Makes Us Healthier, Happier and More Creative, writer Florence Williams explains that hinoki oil consists of pungent compounds—camphor, turpenes, pinenes and humulenes, as well as limonenes and sabinenes, depending on the season and the part of the tree sampled—that have the ability to fight infection, diminish stress-inducing cortisol and relieve symptoms of asthma.
These effects can be perceived in Janseong Healing Forest, the oldest and largest in South Korea, which is said to consist of two and a half million trees, 88 percent of them hinoki cypress. As Williams flippantly notes, “Walking through Janseong is like moving through a picturesque vat of VapoRub.” When she inhaled a vial of hinoki oil, her blood pressure instantly dropped 12 percent. After a few minutes of walking in the forest she “felt more awake than I had all day.”
As far as I know there are no healing forests in New York City, but I did discover a tiny vial of cypress oil at Naturopathica in Chelsea. Neither the bottle (basic brown) or the oil (pale yellow) were particularly beautiful, but when I inhaled the stimulating aroma, I could almost instantly feel a persistent fog clearing from my brain and my normally tense muscles relaxing.
“Visuals tend to get all the acclaim, but as Proust knew, nothing hits the brain’s emotional neurons more powerfully than odor,” says Williams. Scientists tell us that scent can arouse the brain, not only making us buy cinnamon pastries or get more focused on the task at hand, but can also conjure up vivid mental images.
Inhaling a vial of cypress oil with my eyes closed, I was momentarily transported to a green world of gnarled conifers, velvety moss and trickling streams. If, in the process, the aroma lowered my stress level and kept me from getting sick, so much the better.
There are other, probably more beguiling fragrances—rose for instance, or jasmine—but the effect of the cypress oil has put buying a few hinoki trees for our own little forest at the top of my to-do list: companions in beauty for the reclining Buddha and wind chimes that are softly vibrating even at this moment.