Falling for Majolica

I’m not sure exactly when I fell in love with majolica but I have been collecting it for some time. This colorful, whimsical pottery always brings a smile to my face. While majolica can be found in all the colors of the rainbow, I prefer the rich greens and golden hues, particularly for displaying during the cooler months. I think it enlivens a space and creates a warm festive feeling.

Majolica typically features themes of fauna and flora, with an abundance of leafy patterns, which are my favorites. Antique majolica is tin glazed earthenware which has a distinctive metallic sound when “pinged.” The glaze in early pieces often contained lead so it’s more decorative than suitable for food use.

Majolica, also known as maiolica, takes its name from the Spanish island of Majorca. It was originally made by 14th Century potters and was popularized in the mid-15th Century. It was exported from Majorca to Italy during the Italian Renaissance and debuted in the United States at the Philadelphia Centennial Exhibition in 1876.

By the 1870s, majolica was being mass-produced for an expanding middle class in countries like England, France, Sweden, Portugal and the United States. Griffen, Smith & Hill was a prominent Pennsylvania manufacturer, who sometimes marked its pieces with “G.S.H.” or labeled them as “Etruscan Pottery.”

Over the years, it has fallen in and out of fashion, but was particularly attractive to 19th-century collectors. For the Victorians, with their heavy drapes and dark wood-paneled interiors, it brought much desired light and life to homes. This tactile pottery with its naturalistic shapes, vibrant colors, and often humorous themes appealed to a growing consumer society.

This plate is Japanese and was probably made in the 1940s for export. Japanese majolica is still fairly easy to find and is quite affordable.
This begonia leaf dish is Etruscan and dates from the 19th century. This much-loved design was reproduced in many different colorways.


Due to over-production, majolica fell from fashion by the early 1900s. But it began to be re-discovered in the 1960s, and because of its popularity, reproductions abound today. Modern majolica is food safe as lead-based glazes are no longer in use.

Majolica is soft and porous and chips easily, so older pieces that have survived can be quite valuable. I have purchased most of my pieces at antique shops, estate sales and online, but occasionally I see a piece at a flea market or thrift store. Even with a chip or hairline fracture, I feel quite lucky if I find a piece for under $40 and when I do, I snatch it up! However true collectors covet early pieces in excellent condition which can be much more costly, in the hundreds or even thousands of dollars.

For my fall display, I added in a couple of small ceramic pumpkins, some beaded fruits in warm colors and a burlap covered wire basket. This display should transition nicely into the holiday season. After Thanksgiving, I will likely change out the pumpkins and beaded fruits for a few Christmas ornaments and perhaps add some twinkle lights. Stay turned for its next incarnation.



Rotating Collections

If you are a collector, you have probably faced the challenge of how to display your collectibles.  And if you have multiple collections, as I do, or have one gigantic collection, you may also face challenges in finding sufficient display space. The solution to this problem is rotating your collections.

Even museums and art galleries rotate their collections to keep their displays fresh and interesting.  I’ve found that rotating my collections gives me the opportunity to bring out items that have been packed away and greet them anew. After a time out of the spotlight, they feel like old friends I haven’t seen in a while.  Changing out collections freshens up the space and often helps me to see them in a new way.  Even small changes can have a big impact and reinvigorate a room.

The ironstone has a calm, architectural feeling. I think it is appropriate for any time of the year, but I enjoy adding a bit more color to my decor once the weather starts to warm up.

As a self-professed “dish addict,” I have several collections of tableware that bring me great joy.  I find tableware aesthetically pleasing, as well as useful (well, “useful” is how I justify it!). When we purchased our home in southern California last year,  one of the best selling points for me was the built-in bookcase in the living room. This feature is the first thing you see when you enter our home and I knew it would be the perfect place to display my collections.

I have had my white ironstone collection displayed on these shelves since we moved in almost a year ago. My blue and white china collection had been stored in my dining room hutch, largely behind glass doors. I decided to simply switch them out, letting the vibrant blue and white collection take prominence at the entry of the house.

As I was taking everything off the shelves, I realized it was also time for a little spring cleaning. I took the opportunity to dust and wipe down the shelves. I wiped down each piece, making sure lids were secured with earthquake putty before placing them in their new home. While I had to set aside an afternoon for the task, the exercise was not at all onerous for me. It makes me happy to look at and handle my collections, and I’m guessing you feel the same way about the things you collect.

So whether you rotate an entire collection or just several items within a collection, I encourage you to do this on a regular basis. In addition to gaining a renewed appreciation for your collections, you’ll also find a change can infuse new life into your home. The exercise is well worth the time and effort.

I found these adorable white porcelain bunnies and thought they added just the right touch of whimsy to the display. It almost looks like they are playing on the shelves.


Sourcing: The Estate Sale

Today I want to share one of the best kept secrets for finding great furniture and household items at rock bottom prices: estate sales.  Having had my own estate sale several years ago when we decided to downsize and change house styles, I came to understand how these sales work and why they are such a great thing from the standpoint of the buyer.

Estate sales differ vastly from yard sales where individuals set up in their yards and try to dispense with household clutter, e.g., used toys, half-burned candles, old florist vases, clothing, etc., in hopes of earning a few pennies on the dollar. While you certainly can find great deals at yard sales, I generally find the quality and diversity of offerings is not at the same level as estate sales.  In most cases, estate sales are held to liquidate the estates of people who have passed away, moved to assisted living situations or otherwise downsized, or those who are liquidating assets due to divorce.  The goal is to quickly get rid of what is sometimes an entire lifetime’s accumulation of stuff.

While the first impression upon walking into a stranger’s home and seeing all their belongings displayed with price tags can indeed be a little sad, I’d encourage you to get past that and see it as an amazing opportunity to purchase unique quality items at excellent prices.  And keep in mind that, for whatever reason, the people holding the sale NEED to get rid of these items. You are helping the sellers alleviate the burden their possessions now represent.  Their possessions will have a new life through a new owner.  It is recycling at it’s best!

While many estate sale companies now accept credit cards, many do not. Take cash, preferably small bills.  It can enable you to negotiate better deals.

The best site I know of to find sales in your area is www.estatesales.net. Type in your city and you’ll get a list of upcoming estate sales in your area. Once you are on a company’s mailing list you will receive regular emails telling you when they are conducting sales in your area.  They will usually advertise a few days before the event with numerous photos of every item included in the sale.  Sales usually include furniture, garden items, jewelry, clothing, kitchenware, and collectibles.  I recommend scanning through all the photos to see if any items catch your attention. I can usually determine whether the sale is a “must” or a “pass” just by previewing the pictures.

See the white ironstone pudding molds towards the front of this picture?  Several of them ultimately came home with me! I paid between $4- $8 each which is a steal!

For example, earlier this year I came across the estate sale of the former editor of Bon Apetit Magazine.  The preview photos showed a wall inside the house that had been signed by Julia Child during a visit for Christmas Eve dinner in 1980!  I knew this was the estate of someone who loved cooking and entertaining, and I could see from the pictures that there were vast amounts of tableware, cookware, linens and many other items of interest to me.  It was a three day sale and I went on the second day. (Truthfully, I also went the first day but there was a line wrapped around the block to get in!  I decided to return the next day.)  I came home with two of the ironstone pudding molds shown in the picture above.  I went back the third day when items were 75% off and purchased two more molds, several pieces of tin bakeware, a vintage faux fur throw, as well as other miscellaneous goodies.

Most estate sales start on Fridays and end on Sunday afternoons.  The first day you will get the best selection, but you will pay the most.  By the second day, most sales cut prices by 50%. On the final day, prices are often slashed by 75%!  Yes, there is a high probability the item you eyed on Saturday may be long gone, but if it is still there, it is now at least half price! Because I’m not in an active acquisition mode these days, I most often go on the last day of the sale to scoop up amazing deals on unexpected finds.

Here are some of the best things to buy at estate sales:

Large pieces of furniture.  You can purchase large pieces of quality furniture at extremely low prices.  These items tend to go for very low prices because no one wants to haul them away.  Since these pieces have usually remained in use, they are most often in quite good shape.  Oftentimes, the style of the furniture is dated, but a fresh coat of paint or new upholstery can breathe new life into dated pieces of furniture.  Smart estate sale companies will usually have a mover on call that will give you a moving estimate before you purchase.  Since the mover is usually connected in some way to the estate sale company, try negotiating the price to include the moving fee.

Tableware.  Formal china, crystal stemware, silver serving pieces, linens, and other cooking related items are often great deals at estate sales.  Of course, it helps if you like vintage but don’t be surprised to find items of all styles, quality levels, and price points.  I recently found a set of twelve contemporary handmade dinner plates that still had their original price tags on them.  The original price was $33 per plate and the sticker indicated that they had been marked down to $25 each when they were purchased.  On the last day of the sale, I got them for $2 each!

Linens.  If you’re a fan of vintage linens as I am, you can often find gorgeous tablecloths, napkins, and hand towels at estate sales.  In bygone eras, fine hand needlework was something every well-equipped household had. And because it was prized, oftentimes it was rarely used.  It is not unusual to find an entire room dedicated to linens at estate sales.  While you’ll need to examine them carefully to check for stains or damage, I’ve seen many, many beautiful items with original tags still attached.

Garage/yard items.  Tools, garden supplies and equipment, planters, lawn furniture and other unusual items are often displayed in the garage or in the backyard.  These practical items can be quite expensive to buy in retail stores and you might find just the item you need for your garden or patio.

Hobby Items and Collectibles.  From cameras to comic books, estate sales tend to reflect the owner’s hobbies and interests.  Depending on your interests, you can find just about anything you collect at reasonable prices.

This beautiful Chanel jacket was for sale at a recent sale I attended. If you enjoy vintage purses, hats, shoes, jewelry, etc. you can often find unique designer items at estate sales.

So if you’ve seen signs around your town for estate sales and been intimidated or thought they were just junk sales, I’d encourage you to give them a try.  You might be pleasantly surprised at the treasures you’ll find.

This enormous French provincial style armoire was even more amazing in person.  It was originally priced at $300, which was already a steal.  It was half off on Sunday afternoon and they offered delivery for only $60.  I offered $200 for both the armoire AND delivery–they accepted!

The “Wabi-Sabi” of Collecting

In our modern society we tend to throw away anything that is broken, damaged, or starting to show wear or age.  Our culture tells us we must replace our wardrobes annually (if not more frequently), and there is pressure to keep up with the latest trends–in our homes, cars, even food choices.  I won’t go into what this mindset does to our environment, but I will say that I think cultivating a more mindful approach to our possessions could be worthwhile.

The Japanese take a different approach.  Rather than throwing away items that become damaged, worn or are otherwise “imperfect,” they embrace and honor those items used in daily life.  They say these items have “wabi-sabi,” a word that encapsulates the meaning of that which is imperfect and impermanent but retains beauty and meaning.

This antique European dough bowl is one of my most prized possessions. It has been well-loved and used. When the ends started to crack apart, the owners lovingly placed a metal strap across the crack to hold it together and maintain it’s usefulness. I’d argue the strap and it’s rivets make the bowl even more beautiful.

The Japanese sometimes take wabi-sabi a step further by actually highlighting the imperfections in a piece.  Examples of this would be filling in a chip or crack in a piece of pottery with real gold or attaching a brass strap across a crack in a wooden bowl.  The piece’s usefulness is preserved and it is made more beautiful by the addition of a precious metal.

I spotted this unusual lemon growing on my tree and thought it was a good example of wabi sabi. It is abnormally shaped with it’s double lobe and “finger” growing off to the side. Perfectly edible and just as delicious as any “perfect” lemon on the tree!

Nature is filled with examples of wabi-sabi.  Trees do not grow perfectly straight, fruits do not always form into the perfect shapes we have come to expect, and even animals are sometimes born with crooked tails or collapsed ears.  We are examples of wabi-sabi too.  Our freckles, crooked smiles, and wrinkles can be viewed as imperfections but they also make us unique. Wabi-sabi teaches us that with age, we acquire a heightened beauty which is seen in the lines of a face that has lived a long full life.

Another important aspect of wabi-sabi is impermanence.  In 1912 the Japanese donated 3,000 cherry trees to Washington, DC as a symbol of lasting friendship.  Having lived in the Washington, DC area much of my life, I have had the opportunity to see our nation’s cherry trees in bloom many times.  However it can be difficult to time your visit when they are at peak beauty.  If the weather is a little too cold, they won’t open; a little too warm and they open too soon and can be killed by frost.  Too much wind and they can disappear in a day.  In all cases, the flowers eventually fall off the tree and die.  However we know that next year the blossoms will return and we will have another chance to experience their fleeting beauty.

I love to apply the concept of wabi-sabi to collecting.  A bowl that has been well-loved and used for many years, even with a chip or crazing, has a sort of soulful beauty with which a new piece can never compete. The patina, or “dirt” on an old wooden table has a depth of coloration and richness that Pottery Barn just can’t duplicate!  Furthermore, the quality of new or mass produced pieces is often inferior to older pieces.  I often think that something that has held up for 100 years is likely to continue to hold up for a few more.

See the dark areas of mottling in this ironstone pitcher? The pitcher remains perfectly useful and is made even more lovely by the character that wear and tear have imparted to it.  ( The white putty at the base of the pitcher is earthquake putty–a necessary precaution here in California!)
This little Japanese transferware bowl has a chip, numerous dark spots and areas where the transfer pattern bled onto the white areas before being fired (see the blue spots on the lower white portion of the bowl). Thankfully it was not discarded and I was lucky enough to acquire it for my collection of Blue Willow. If you look closely, you can also see that the Victorian linen hand towel under the bowl has a small hole at the upper right hand edge. That’s another example of wabi-sabi.

One of the reasons I enjoy going to estate sales, auctions and thrift stores is that I often find items that I collect–ironstone, majolica, antique linens, blue and white china–that have imperfections.  I love the idea that I may be saving theses treasures from being tossed in the trash.  Knowing that a delicate piece of china has been around for 100 years or longer and that I might preserve it for a few more years is meaningful to me. And as an additional bonus, these pieces can usually be had for minimal cost.

The little ironstone pitcher on the left is badly crazed and discolored. I know of a method to bleach out the discoloration but I prefer to leave it as is. Mixed in with the other pieces in my ironstone pitcher collection, it adds texture and personality.
Notice that this bowl does not sit evenly on the table? It is handmade, rough-hewn and uneven. It’s enormous scale tells me that a very large family must have once cherished this bowl.  It likely held their daily bread.

Collecting items with wabi-sabi gives us the opportunity to preserve them for a while, however an important part of wabi-sabi is understanding that none of these pieces will last forever.  They can break, or burn, or decay.  Eventually everything has an expiration date–including us.  Melody Daggerhart, a writer who lived in Japan for many years, puts it best:

“These “treasures” have personality and character because of what they have suffered, rather than because they have avoided trauma. Each item has been forged into something unique and special with its own story because it lived, and life is hard. So, you appreciate everything that it has been through and the fact that it’s still here. And lastly, these items have transcended their original design and purpose and owners, etc. They are more than a pitcher, a bowl, a cup. They are meaningful beyond their physical forms. And the fact that you value them for being what they are only adds to their beauty.”

Remember, a collection is simply “more than two” of something.  Whether you have an interest in pottery, tea cups, vintage clothing or stamps, I encourage you to have an open mind to the beauty of wabi-sabi.  If you are willing to look past an article’s imperfections, you will open yourself up to finding treasures all along life’s journey.  And this is true not only for material possessions, but for people too.

Two benches along a pathway within West Potomac Park in Washington D.C. during the National Cherry Blossom Festival and Bloom, 2015.




A Simple Ironstone Bowl

I collect antique and vintage ironstone.  I love its simplicity, versatility and its usefulness.  Whenever I visit flea markets, yard sales, thrift stores or travel, I always keep an eye out for it.  I used to see it frequently but now it’s a rare treat to find a piece.

On my recent visit to Paso Robles, I stopped in an antique mall downtown and found this lovely bowl.

I didn’t have a bowl like this in my collection and knew immediately it would be useful in a variety of applications.

My lemon tree is loaded with ripe lemons.


My camillias are in bloom.


I have a pile of Christmas cards that need a place to call home.


And tonight’s dinner calls for a simple green salad.

It will also be a great addition to my ironstone collection.