Fresh roses, rue des Archives, Paris, after the March snowstorm

IMG_0585Ile Saint-Louis church poster on wooden poster board

IMG_0504Grand creme, late afternoon lunch, at the ever venerable Les Deux Magots (1884).

IMG_0593The passing of time, church foundation wall, Ile Saint-Louis.

IMG_0856Spice and pepper stall, open-air spring market, Aix-en-Provence

IMG_0843Lemons fresh from Spain at Aix market.


IMG_0681Palais Garnier, Paris, was designed in the late 1800s by the young, unknown, competition-winning architect, Charles Garnier.  Because of the Palais Garnier’s wicked – and entirely appropriate – design drama I’d take this opera house (1875) any day over the tech-hygienic Bastille Opera House (1989), designed by another unknown, Canadian Carlos Ott.  At Palais Garnier, the painted-canvas house curtain is a lush interpretation of a draped curtain, complete with gold braid and pompoms. The horseshoe-shaped auditorium has 1,900 red velvet seats on the orchestra floor, balcony and arranged in the private ‘loge’.


My favourite ticket: 1ere loge, Palais Garnier.  Red velvet chairs that the Marquis de Sade would have thoroughly enjoyed.

IMG_06681ere loge, anti-chamber. Framed behind red drapery, this private, intimate room comes with a mirror, a fold away table and a red velvet couch.  If I could, I’d make my pied-a-terre apartment here as writer-in-residence.


Wall upholstery – dedication to the textures of red that the Metropolitan Opera in NYC only begins to explore.

IMG_0662Past the pleated drapery, looking out.

IMG_0678Views up to the fantastic crystal chandelier and, for the reinvented dome, Chagall’s riot of colours, completed in 1966, nearly a century after Garnier made his epic design move.

IMG_8777Istanbul is like an open book, an ancient tome, still waiting to be cracked open.  And the flourishing design culture is standing up even to the Hagia Sophia.  From the star-spangled runners to the fake eyelashes, an Istanbul hipster at the design cafe next to the 14th-century Galata Tower in Istanbul.

IMG_8768Anti-mall…the Grand Bazaar is a vast covered-market that encompasses more than 50 streets. Worth visiting for the leather, the excellent knock-off leather and piles of antiquities, like these.

IMG_8790Salt Galata, an exquisite research centre and archive dedicated to design and art… recently opened in a magisterial building that once housed the Ottoman Bank. This is how you enter.

IMG_8799Street food, Istanbul style.  Fresh cilantro, egg, tomato, cheese and salt on warm buns.  Served on a simple fold-up wooden table on a cobblestone street. Toronto has so much to learn.

IMG_8677Country breakfast at a sweet spot, Pell’s Cafe, owned by a financial young whiz turned cafe stylista. Located on the steep street of Bogazkesen Cad. No:68 in Beyoğlu, İstanbul.  A neighbourhood changing, slowly, from conservative ethos to one allowing designer chic boutiques and even the occasional liquor license.

IMG_8644Like many of the indie neighbourhoods in places like San Francisco, New York or Vancouver, Beyoglu is rich with eclectic artist houses, jewellery antiquities and family-run eateries.

IMG_8641and golden textures hanging in the air


somebody’s version of garbage in Istanbul, and total treasure in my mind – even the cat is an aesthetic object.  Santa, if you’re listening, I’ll take one of each!

6 AM.  Floating on the Ganges River, Varanasi, India, where the current runs strong but time has stayed still.  A boy in a light wooden craft selling handmade wishing candles skims along the Ganges, considered by Hindus to be the sacred ‘mother’.

At sunrise, pilgrims descend the ‘ghat’ staircases to wash themselves vigorously at the edge of the holy river.

6:30 AM. At the main ‘burning’ ghat, some 300 bodies are turned to ash on open funeral pyres every day.  Masses of logs are brought to the famous Dashashwamedh ghat and hauled by men up the steep slope to the burning sites. The burning stench lies heavy in the air.  According to ancient dictate, those diseased with chicken pox, leprosy, holy men, children and pregnant women are not burned but lowered into the Ganges with the weight of stones.

Women bathe, immersing themselves fully in the river while wearing their saris. Vendors put out their jewellery beneath the “chhatris”, timeworn parasols made of thatched bamboo and clad in patchwork.

Varanasi, one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world, is renown for its ancient design of saris. But try choosing one in the heat, when the vendor keeps pulling more and more exotic colour combinations from the boxes on the shelves. When I was there, a ‘sacred’ cow wandered down the laneway and stuck his enormous head inside the shop.

A river of silk – part of the hallucinogenic spell India casts on visitors.

“OH my!  I ditched my paddle when I needed it most! What was I thinking???”

Red Light District

Dancing barefoot on the wrong side of the tracks

Gunfight at the O.K. Corral.  Ok, this horse did not participate.

Lighting a candle on the altar of the pumpkin seed.

These fantasies constructed within the cave of my pumpkin when Hurricane Sandy swept up the Eastern Seaboard and I sat by the fire listening to the wind.  Happy scary Hallowe’en!


Jammed next to the Atlantic Ocean, on that thin wisp of land called the Outer Banks, North Carolina, there’s a roadside stand flaunting retro-modern stripes and the promise of fried bologna sandwiches.

Across the beach road in Nags Head, a series of shingled black ghosts built during the 19th century; wood weary and structurally forgiving, set next to the surf, daring the  hurricanes to come and get them.

Remarkably, the “Unpainted Aristocracy” houses (some of them constructed of wood reclaimed from shipwrecks) have withstood the onslaught of weather and water. Look how they’re raised on stilts to allow the sweep of water underneath, while guests visiting from the plantations sprawled on the wraparound porches.

Cape Hatteras Lighthouse, the tallest in the USA, wears a modern black and white daymark on its brick tower.

 The distillation of colours mimic the black shells and feathers on the vast Hatteras beach.

Inside, the tightly-wound spiral staircase is an honest interpretation of nature…

with a complex geometry that has inspired countless stair designs, from the one uncoiled in Gaudi’s  Sagrada Familia basilica to the one spiralling through the Cape Hatteras lighthouse.

 Address: the southern tip of Outer Banks, where the lighthouse keeper once reported that he and his wife and their multiple children never felt lonely.

For foodies, Noma is known – and ranked on – as the best restaurant in the world.  Actually, it’s an investigation led by its head chef René Redzepi of authentic Nordic cuisine and original sources: Icelandic skyr curd, halibut, Greenland musk ox, berries and purest possible water. But what if you trek across the world, arrive in the heart of Copenhagen, jump on a bike, pedal like mad and miss your dinner reservation?   Still hungry? You might try your luck at the just-opened Noma Food Lab, a place of experimentation with locally-grown and foraged food.

A palate of silver-ice, Nordic wood and dark historic flooring makes for a sublime combination, as imagined by Denmark’s 3XN architects and interior designers.  Actually, the design was led by Kasper Jorgensen, head of the 3XN’s innovation unit, who spends his days testing materials for endurance and thinking about ways to upcycle buildings rather than merely demolishing them.

 Noma Food Lab is set in an 18th-century heritage warehouse, not far from the original Noma, so the designers were required to deliver without banging a single nail into the walls or floors.  Instead, they innovated a series of stacked wooden cubes made of Nordic plywood that rest on the historic floors. Are they really planning to crack open those blue speckled eggs?

One of the things I try to avoid in life is shopping at a grocery store.  Which explains why I still order most of our groceries from the awesome “Vincenzo’s” family-owned grocer on the Danforth in Toronto.  Mr. Vincenzo cures his own prosciutto and invents his own spicey chicken sausages.  His wife, “Sam” still works the cash. Their high-energy daughter, Mary, a fabulous chef, has advised countless times on what to serve at raucous kids’ birthdays or fancy dinner parties.  The boxed groceries are delivered (for free!) by the gracious Al.  I’m sticking with Vincenzo’s…but as an alternative it’s actually exhilarating to shop at the newly opened Loblaws at Maple Leaf Gardens in downtown Toronto. (Pics by Trevor Mein.)

Pure foodie joy has been designed into this monumental space – what used to be, of course, the Art Deco home of Rolling Stone concerts and hockey played by the Toronto Maple Leafs.

Unlike the cerebral Nordic aesthetic at Noma, there are lots of reds and oranges to whet the appetite at Loblaws.  Get this irony:  the flagship store, within one of Canada’s erstwhile cathedrals of hockey, was designed by an Australian…nicely done, by the way, by Mike Landini of Landini Associates.  The  cheap, shiny plastics used in most supermarkets were replaced with enduring materials:  concrete, stone, white marble, ceramic tiles, and wood as well as a lighting scheme that plays up natural shadows. Feels deliciously civilized here. Go Leafs !

Because northern cities are Vitamin D deficient, artful weaving of light is not only critical, it’s life giving.   For a pedestrian bridge in Toronto’s south financial district, New York light artist James Carpenter cast  silver-golden sequins of light across a long, north wall. Something to wear as you’re walking by.

Somebody please assign Carpenter to work some cinematic magic on one of the 132 towers now being developed for Toronto.  Because they will surely need his help. For more on what sculpting with light means, visit the SOM/James Carpenter 7 World Trade Centre, which has already elevated the future of Ground Zero.

Tones of sepia from Carpenter’s light wall reflected onto commuter traffic in Toronto, where red brake lights finally serve an aesthetic purpose. Both calming and buzzy, (and I’m sure David’s Tea has a label for that one.)

My hero of ethereal light:  James Turrell, maker of the monumental Roden Crater installation and, here, next to his light wall at Bay-Adelaide Centre in downtown Toronto.   For those curious about the subtle disappearance of colour this one is worth a pilgrimage. And it’s easier to find than an ancient volcanic crater in the desert near the Grand Canyon.  Though I’m going to get there.  Photo: Barbara Astman

Post-apocalyptic steelworks re-imagined by light artist Hans Peter Kuhn, the guy who did large-scale urban light first and best.  The Volklinger Hutte is a World Cultural Heritage site. Kuhn’s symphony of colour light shows us why.

 Even as a flicker, light illuminates.  Considered as a measure of grace or as an up north street light: Snowball igloo, lit by a candle, made by freezing hands.

In the lugubrious shadows of a cavernous church: Prayer candles, Basilica of Santa Croce, Florence. Still burning hot. Still mesmerizing. Or, as James Turrell says:  “Like the wordless thought that comes from looking in a fire.”

Remember orange shag carpet?  Rather not?  Well, weep or rejoice…Orange is back with a vengeance.  I see orange splashed over this season’s snowboarder jackets, in architecture and even on these retro cocktail napkins by the Parisian designer Françoise Paviot.

Danish teak chair, part of my dining room set, 1960s.   I intended recovering the chairs in something cool and minimal – black or white or taupe –  but still enjoying the vibe of this orange-brown agitation.

Coming at you from the psychedelic 1960s and the art of, say,  Victor Vasarely.  This serigraph by Vaserely titled Parmenide (Orange, Red & Blue).

I had to haul this out of the closet just to show you how orange can be done with conviction.  Here it is…my mod orange vinyl jacket by Courreges.  Vintage bombshell. 1960s.  The instructions say:  Clean with a damp cloth.  Or simply wear as a raincoat in a light mist.

Orange crush.

Taken in small doses, orange is a delicious energy drink.  The perfect way to clad the satellite operation of Sweden’s Museum of Modern Art in Malmo.  This blaze of orange designed by the Stockholm-based partnership of Bolle Tham and Martin Videgård.  Love the way mod orange rocks it out here, right next to an old electricity station. Zap!