Thursday, August 12, 2010



As the design of my home finally pulled together after months of work, it was finally time to consider those last minute touches which can be so much fun and so frustrating at the same time.
When looking for interesting vases in various consignment and thrift shops around Salt Lake, I found a nice large round one, almost a pure sphere, with a lid. I purchased it for $12 and thought it might be a nice unusual shape for my living room coffee table. I got home, set it down, took off the lid, and it hit me. A fish bowl. It looks like a fish bowl.

What about a fish instead of flowers? In fact, I thought, it would be more economical since a fish (only $8 for this lovely and brightly colored guy) would cost about the same as one bouquet of flowers, and (hopefully) last quite a bit longer. And they are so much more fun...all that swimming around...all our friends with children have instant baby-sitting as toddlers are completely transfixed.  And in my constant nods to the past, it would fit in perfectly. You see, I am not the first to look to the living creature to make a visual impact.

Of course birds were long used as fashionable parlor decor, and the Impressionists and Post-Impressionists alike loved a brightly colored bird to coordinate with their surroundings.
 (above by Frederick Carl Frieseke, an American Impressionist)

(above by Jozsef Rippl-Ronai, the Hungarian Expressionist)
Henri Matisse with his birds:
 Probably my favorite bird in late 19th century decor would have to be in Manet's wonderful painting at the Met:

In the 1860's fish tanks became all the rage in England, with highly elaborate aquariums to display them in. Often together with flowers and other living things.

The 'Fishbowl Fantasy' by Edward Goodes, 1867:

In addition to his birds, Matisse also loved fish...

And more recently, designer extraordinaire Philippe Starck used fishbowls in his Royalton Hotel design in New York City. I was lucky enough to see this amazing design in person prior to its renovation by Roman and Williams, which is nice, just not nearly as cool as Starck.

See all those bowls along the side wall? (You can see them a bit better below on the right side) They all contain one betta fish in bright purple/blue jewel tones to match the carpet. And they swim around behind a mirror placed in the bowls just to make you feel as though you are losing your mind after a few gin and tonics. It really it a bizarre experience watching those fish seemingly disappear from sight and then reappear in the bowl a few seconds later. Bravo Philippe.

But my all time favorite use of the living creature as decor would have to be the gilt and jewel encrusted tortoise. While not much discussed these days, since it would seem quite cruel, the jeweled tortoise was quite the popular parlour ornament to the most dandified strata of British and French society in the late 19th and early 20th century.

Anyone seen Brideshead Revisited?  In addition to the stunning shots of Castle Howard built between 1699 and 1712...

 also features a jewel-encrusted tortoise! 

Of course this guy is actually pretty low level, many would have so many jewels affixed to them that they would in fact be rendered almost immobile due to the weight. This, of course, is not something I condone, poor little guys. But it was a different time.

These tortoises were allowed to wander through grand mansions, while the gems on their backs would glisten in the candlelight, creating a continual shimmer of colors.
French author Joris-Karl Huysmans made the encrusted tortoise infamous in his book Against Nature published in 1884. The book focuses exclusively on the main character who who hates Parisian high society, and only wants to lock himself away with his books and stange, beautiful objects.

Here is the illustration from an early printing showing his tortoise:

See its glow? 

Anyhow, I was able to pick out a Betta fish that happened to match my decor just perfectly.  All the coral/pink/reds I had scattered around tied in perfectly with little Maxentius.  Yes, I named him after a Roman Emperor.  Why not?  He is quite regal, isn't he?

Of course there are some more unusal type of bowls available these days...the fish condo by Teddy Luong

Or this cool melding of many bowls by Vanessa Mitrani:

But at the end of the day, I do like the classic round bowl.  Do you have any color coordinated pets?

Next week I will give you a tour of a NYC apartment I renovated last year....hope to see you then!

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