Holiday Tables At Cranbrook

Cranbrook 2014 (11)For 39 years, the Cranbrook Auxiliary has raised money for the restoration of both Cranbrook house and the gardens via the Holiday Tables event in late November. This year, 18 designers spent the day yesterday decorating their tables for the holidays. I did a table for them at least 10 years ago. A good friend, client, and long time benefactor of Cranbrook asked if I would return, and decorate a room, this being the last year for this particular event.  I am sure this group has an event plan for the future, with an entirely new format. As for this finale event-we were all in. The theme of this year’s tables-Illuminate the Season.

Cranbrook 2014 (12)If you are local to our area, you are well aware of the Cranbrook property, house and schools.  It houses one of the most respected graduate art programs in the nation.  If you are not local, suffice it to say Cranbrook is a vibrant institution with substantial gardens of which we are very proud. Interested in the entire story?

Cranbrook 2014 (14)The house is of a particular period and time.  The wood furnishings and tile are dark. The rugs are old and quietly gorgeous.  The lighting is subdued.  The period and style of this room drove the design for our table. For starters,  Rob hand fashioned three strands of holiday lights –  a reproduction of lighting from a much earlier era comprised of taupe colored cloth clad twisted wire, bakelite sockets, and large scale reproduction bulbs. Each bulb got its own vintage tin reflector before it was inserted into its bakelite socket.  These light strands are outfitted with a dimmer switch, so the light can be adjusted to fit the mood of the occasion. A small flock of our grapevine deer sculptures with sparkly gold and cream lit collars help populate the space. The quality of the light is key to our design.

Cranbrook 2014 (15)The china is my own, collected a few pieces at a time since my twenties. The Compleat Angler, manufactured in the early 1980’s by Portmerion China in England,  was inspired by the watercolors of English game fish done by AF Lydon in 1879. I have never used this china-I display it, and enjoy looking at it. The flatware is Ambience Olivewood, made by Alaine St. Joannis.  This we have used every day for many years. So why am I talking china and flatware?  It is a tradition with this event.  The sunset room is a fairly large room.  We were going to need more than a table, set for a holiday gathering.

Cranbrook 2014 (5)We placed three Christmas trees in the room-two of which are flocked. Detroit Garden Works is featuring flocked frasier fir trees for the holiday season this year.  They are available in a variety of sizes and colors, by special order only. These are the first flocked trees I have seen since my childhood, but apparently they are popular from the mid west to Paris. The French blue is my favorite color.  As the light string wires looked beautiful with that color, we had a color scheme for the decor. The wires themselves are handsome enough to feature them as holiday garland.

Cranbrook 2014 (20)We did bring an artificial Christmas tree.  This is my favorite style of artificial tree. It is clearly artificial-not a representation of a real tree.  The branches are brown, and lightly dusted with snow. We decorated it with pale French blue glass balls, and long crystal drops.

Cranbrook 2014 (21)The 10 foot long shallowly oval table with square ends is meant to be placed against a wall.  This was a perfect size to set the table on one side, and decorate the far side.  The flocked fir branches hold a variety of other materials.  A light strand, the dried curling fronds of garden ferns, glass balls in cream and blue, and fresh magnolia leaves are interspersed throughout.

Cranbrook 2014 (22)table detail

Cranbrook 2014 (13)The soup tureen and pike oval platter

Cranbrook 2014 (8)What I like best about this display is that it seems visually believable in this space. The antique Victorian wicker chairs are ours, but they look appropriate to the room.Every item has a vintage, or a garden feel. The color is subdued, but festive. If you are interested in seeing all 18 of the holiday tables, a formal buffet tea is scheduled for 11 to 3 today,  a cocktail party for Friday evening by reservation, and general admission Friday and Saturday from 10-4. We think the Cranbrook House and Garden auxiliary is well worth your support.

Serious Moonlight

Cranbrook 2005  3 (1)
I have been a supporter of the Cranbrook Academy of Art for some years.  They produce several events a year to raise money to support their programs.  It is a unique institution among graduate art schools in the US, and a considerable asset to our community. I like being involved.  We planted the annual garden surrounding the Orpheus fountain in May, in anticipation of their event to come in July. I took my cue for design and decor from the title of the event.

Cranbrook 05  1 (23)A large tent would be a temporary home to a collection of art destined for auction that evening.   Each work was donated by a previous graduate of the academy; this part of the event generated considerable interest and participation.  Tables reserved for groups representing the major benefactors for this event were placed in the fountain garden.

Cranbrook 05  1 (22)The remnants of puddles you see on the ground in the above picture bring back memories for me; it rained fiercely the afternoon of the event. What I had thought I would have the entire day to accomplish would have to be done in less time.   The threat of bad weather makes any garden party all the more exciting to plan and produce-in this case, it was more excitement than I really wanted. 

Branch Cranbrook & Serious Moonlight CD (38)A cocktail reception would be held in a grassy area immediately adjacent to the showpiece of the Cranbrook landscape-the Triton pools.  We fashioned simple tents for the hordoerves tables from double layers of white fabric attached to bamboo poles.  Steel shoes for the poles were sunk in the ground at an outward angle, stretching the fabric tight and smooth.  Nature had another idea in store; the intense downpour changed that flat profile to a graceful swoop.  This unexpected contribution from the sky was a good one; I liked the swooping fabric against the curving path. We had painted a rambling path for guests arriving at the Lone Pine entrance to the garden to the reception area, with athletic paint. 

Cranbrook 05  1  (1)The big gesture?  I had the idea to affix paper lanterns to slender steel rods anchored with bricks which would sit on the on the pool bottom. Advance measurements of the water depth  enabled us to create the impression that the lanterns were floating on the surface of the water.  What fun it was to get in these fountains; I never expected this opportunity to come along.  A crew of four of us spent the better part of the afternoon wading in the water.

Cranbrook 7 (20)We set up hundred of lanterns of different diameters.  Each steel rod had a platform at the top holding a votive candle.  As we set the lanterns, we lit the votives rated to burn for ten hours, and hoped no more rain or wind would come our way. I was equally concerned that no water from the pools wick its way onto the paper.  I was interested in creating a little moonlight magic, not a wet paper mess.

Cranbrook 05  1 (11)It seemed the rain had cleared off, and we did finish with an hour to spare before guests were due to arrive. The reception would begin at the very far end of the pools, and guests would wind their way uphill.   

Cranbrook 05  1 (12)I was happy to have finished my part as the catering staff was setting up. I was on my way home to get dressed; I did not want to miss how all of this would look at night. 

Serious Moonlight - Jason Ruff (20)Attending an event gives you the chance to experience it as other people do.  There is plenty to be learned from this-what proves awkward, what is not visually strong enough when a space is full of people, what proves to be good that you never gave a moment’s  thought to.  Any party in a garden will surprise you.

Serious Moonlight - Jason Ruff (41)
I made it back just in time to see the garden begin to fill with people.  Little did I realize what the night would add to this party-more on that tomorrow.

Sodded Over

aug_7_10_am_015My last visit to the landscape at the Cranbrook Academy of Art was to deliver the flowers and decoration for a wedding and reception there in August of 2007.  I had for several years prior donated the summer planting around the Orpheus fountain; this was a job I loved doing.  This area adjacent to the stairs had been dirt and more dirt for some years; my client and I split the cost of a planting of a group of Limelight hydrangeas.  I am happy to see they seem to be doing fine. 

Six willows on standard in pots created an aisle for the bride and her wedding party.  No one could tell the white Hollywood roses were not in water; they perform so beautifully for a wedding.  Would that I could have been there the moment the bride stepped in front of that fountain.

aug_7_10_am_013The Art Museum is under extensive renovation, so this year, the garden areas are sodded over.  The fountain is closed. 

aug_7_10_am_014I try to tread lightly with the landscape where a sculpture is concerned.  How easy it is to cross over the line trying to compliment a sculpture, and end up confusing the visual issues.  Though I knew it would be closed, I was not prepared for how closed. But seeing it in its gardenless state, no water in the fountain, no sound and sparkle, had its good side.   Its always a good idea to consider whether an area is all the  better for your not touching it.   The simple word for this is “editing”; some days I am better at this than others.  Where flowers are concerned, I have a very tough time.  

cranbrook_05_2_39Planting white flowers is a good way to proceed cautiously.  Interestingly enough, I was told the traditonal summer planting here involved a short red salvia.  I had no problem ditching the red flower thing, but I thought a tall planting would compliment the sculpture and water better. I mitigated the risk with the white palette.

 The white amni majus, cleome  and impatiens are crisp; this area is incredible hot in the summer.  The blistered kale Nero di Toscano is good with the smooth sleek black sculpture, and it seems to intensify the whites.  

cranbrook_2005__3_1Another year I added an upright white datura, and white sonata cosmos to the mix.  The white petunias did a better job of softening the lawn line.

From this vantage point, the sculpture looks to have company, and good company at that.  The height of the plants in each quadrant drops gracefully where there is physical access to the rim of the fountain; in no way do the plantings obstruct the important view.  On an overcast day, the black figures appear a much softer blue-grey.  The lawn panels are effective in making a formal presentation of the sculpture and its environment.  However I mostly like how the lawn repeats the grid of the paving, and introduces the curve of the fountain rim.  The figures themselves describe a small circle with their feet, and a large, expanding circle with their heads.
cranbrook_6_8Yet another year, I added some verbena bonariensis,  some nicotiana langsdorfii, and some grey cirrus dusty miller to the predominantly white mix.  I do so like the cloud effect of the verbena flowers. 

cranbrook_6_1White gardens are however, unforgiving of a lack of maintenance.  Dead white flower heads do have a distinctively brown-dead appearance.  For this reason, I rarely plant white geraniums unless I am sure there is a maintenance fanatic waiting in the wings-and even then, a heavy rain will spoil the blooms in such a dramatic way. I knew the planting would not be the end of my involvement here.


I did go back regularly to do maintenance here, as I liked having it look good when I visited.  There was a day when every single nicotiana got its own stake.  That tedious job gets forgotten, sooner or later.  But the memory of all those dancing flower heads, those graceful figures,the water, and the white will stay with me a long time.