A blog focused on design, style and travel, never forgetting that the journey is sometimes the best part of the experience. Behave well, travel lightly, stay under the radar screen and always carry good luggage. Just go.



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Elizabeth Taylor Up in the Air

For nearly all of her adult life Elizabeth Taylor traveled in style and always with piles and piles of luggage. Not very practical, but I guess it didn’t matter to her since the only bag she personally handled was maybe a makeup case or handbag. She typified Hollywood glamour, extravagance and sometimes not-so-quiet chic, traveling the world always in First Class, or in the 1950s on her private plane The Liz (with husband #3) and on her yacht The Kalizma (with husband #5 and #6). I have always been a giant Elizabeth Taylor fan, as much for her acting career as for her over-the-top lifestyle, her fearless approach to life, her generosity and her role as one of the earliest crusaders against AIDS.

Her recent passing renewed my curiosity about her life. I recently read How to Be a Movie Star: Elizabeth Taylor in Hollywood by William J. Mann, have studied the photographs in Architectural Digest of her Bel Air house and have re-watched some favorite Elizabeth Taylor movies. One obscure film, The V.I.P.s, is a very stylish snapshot of First Class travel in the ’60s. The drama follows a handful of privileged passengers who have been stranded by fog delays at London Heathrow for one day and one night.

The story is a little thin, but Hollywood’s portrayal of high-end travel in the early ’60s is stunning. The interiors of the BOAC Royal Lounge and even the airport hotel are luxurious and smart: coral-colored silk lampshades, grass cloth wall coverings, Scandinavian furniture, Impressionist landscapes in gilt frames, Barcelona chairs, cutout decorative motifs that surely must have inspired Jonathan Adler, silk taffeta drapes with giant brass and platinum-colored horizontal stripes. Wow. Layer the lush set decoration with Givenchy clothes, double-vented English tailored suits, skinny ties, Rod Taylor, snow leopard pillbox hats, cigarettes, Richard Burton, deeply suntanned skin and toned-down Cleopatra eyes and it is almost too much to handle. In one scene Elizabeth Taylor carries what appears to be an Hermès handbag and is served Veuve Clicquot Ponsardin. Product placement anyone?

For the worldly and privileged Elizabeth Taylor, this role must have been film imitating life. For a view into chic airline travel before full body scans and Chex Mix in the airport lounge, watch The V.I.P.s and weep for bygone days.

Sandy Sheets

Wisecracker Design’s interior design projects have been concentrated in Merida, Yucatan, and the Riviera Maya for the first half of 2011. This is great news for us as it affords us more time to work out of our office/home, Casa Pocito (www.casapocito.com). After a site visit to a client’s penthouse condominium in Cancun, we decided to decompress for a few days on the coast. No gated, all-inclusive resort with A/C whirring 24/7 or grand infinity-edge pools or golf carts whisking guests to their suites, for us. The Wisecrackers (including Cassius, our Norwich terrier) wanted something rustic, less complicated and more real. So we fled to Tulum, a mere two hours but light years away from busy Cancun.

The vibe in Tulum is strictly boho: no pretention, no nonsense. It has a slightly hippie feel, recalling beach hideouts like Essaouira, Tarifa, Negril or Goa. The pristine, powdery white sand beach is lined with mature palm trees, a hodgepodge of small hotelitos, beach shacks and, while we were there at least, very few people. The surf rushing to the shore, combined with mysterious mist coming from inland jungles, created a hazy, painterly quality. Our refuge for the next five days was a simple, thatched roof bungalow literally steps from the “gin clear” waters of the Caribbean. (PS: once you experience the sea in Tulum, you know why someone invented the gin analogy.) Casita Albaba was up a steep flight of hand-hewn wooden stairs. All the walls were glass, discreetly frosted for privacy or hung with billowy white canvas curtains. The simple platform bed was dressed in white sheets with an aubergine duvet; immaculate at check-in, it didn’t remain that way despite the best efforts of the housekeepers. Why? Because of eight sandy feet (David’s, Cassius’s and mine). Furnishings were simple and functional. The view looked out at the palms and down at the beach. It was like living in a tropical treehouse. What’s not to love? The bathroom was fitted with a large semicircular stone shower and other basic amenities. This authentic, restrained, elegant simplicity is interior design at its best.

Photos of Shambala Petit Hotel in Tulum Mexico

Promptly at 9:30 a breakfast tray was set on a low table under a private palapa. Croissants, very fresh fruit, goat cheese and croutons, thick tropical juices and French press coffee. The rest of the day was spent reading; lounging in hammocks; splashing around in the sea; walking, walking, walking the beach; dodging the sun; making excursions into town to buy wine and charcoal-BBQ chickens; napping; watching a tropical storm whip things up one night; and did I say walking the beach? There is really very little to do in Tulum. No vendors hawking trinkets on the beach, no Banana Boat rides, no distractions, a handful of simple restaurants … Lights out by 9 pm either because the hotelito’s solar-powered generator was rebooting or because we were ready to drift off for the night. Boring for some—bliss for us.

And pure luxury. Not room service, private butler, 1200-thread-count sheet, 52” flat screen “luxury,” but honest, real eco-chic hospitality, all served up by a gentle, well-trained, unobtrusive staff, two resident Labradors and Robert Hernandez, the worldly and charming owner. Hernandez has gotten it just right. Even though we are reluctant to share such a special place, here goes: The Shambala Petite Hotel, Tulum … There, it’s out. (www.shambalapetithotel.com) Remember to wipe your feet and tell Roberto the Wisecrackers sent you!
Photos of Shambala Petit Hotel in Tulum Mexico

This summer at MRKet, the menswear show in New York in July, Wisecracker will introduce En La Playa, a capsule collection of casual weekend and beach bags co-branded with Perennials®, manufacturers of To The Trade luxury outdoor textiles. Stay tuned.

YOTEL Heathrow

Sometimes the best creative design solutions are born of challenging restrictions and limitations. We may know this better than most because of the thought that goes into designing our functional, lightweight, handsome travel bags, which end up being shoved into very small overhead compartments. But we remain impressed by our design peers who carve elegant and functional environments out of the tiniest spaces. Case in point: YOTEL Heathrow, the brainchild of Renaissance man Simon Woodroffe.

The Wisecrackers recently checked into the YOTEL Heathrow because of a forced overnight connection on a flight from Lisbon back to California. The hotel is tucked into a hard-to-find corner of Terminal 4. Check in at the compact reception desk/canteen is all quite efficient, and you can order Thai noodle salad or a bottle of decent Sauvignon Blanc from Bordeaux for your “cabin.” Everything about the place is hushed; the low-level cobalt ambient lighting is vaguely clublike. The rooms are oriented along a narrow corridor just like a Pullman train car. Each cabin has a single window facing the center aisle, a detail that seems a bit superfluous since the shades are always drawn.   It all feels very North by Northwest. “Quiet Please” placards are posted everywhere. This is, remember, a place to sleep.

Our “Premium Cabin,” the largest available, measured a mere 107 square feet including the bathroom. The space resembles a first-class sky suite on one of those Middle Eastern airlines … minus the garish gilded flourishes. YOTEL’s more subdued palette is charcoal and midnight blue with more of that sexy cobalt/violet lighting. By touching a button the couch morphs into a comfortable, very well made up double bed. This is not your mother’s sleeper sofa. Starched and pressed percale sheets, a crisp duvet and decent pillows top a mattress layered with organic coir, latex and lambswool … a proper British bed to be sure. The whole place is tricked out with controls that dim plinth and recessed lighting, work the flat-screen TV and let the “passenger” order from the cabin service menu. There are clever niches and crannies for storing luggage and discreet hooks for coats; a desk folds out of the “techno wall.” The bathroom is separated from the sleeping area by a wall of thick glass, frosted from the waist down for modest types. It is fitted with high-end European fixtures, heated mirrors and an overhead monsoon shower that regrettably left our room slightly flooded after two of us had showered.

Our pod was nearly perfect for the eight hours we occupied it. “Tight” is an understatement, but the YOTEL Heathrow is efficient and designed with tons of style and luxe airline cabin panache. We sprawled on the best bed around, sipped sparkling wine, watched British TV, fiddled with each button and switch to see what it did, slept dreamily and, of course, kept our window shade down.

The takeaway: Imaginative style and luxury come in many shapes and sizes. Sometimes small is great.

Postcard from Portugal

The week in October that the U.S. State Department and the media ratcheted up the conversations about imminent terrorist activities in Europe was the week we departed for Portugal. This was a trip that had been scheduled and rescheduled and rescheduled. Screw it! We needed to travel, see new places, people and things, and most importantly, road test some Wisecracker luggage. With just two carry-on bags for a 12-day trip, we flew Virgin Atlantic Upper Class to London, connected to TAP and arrived late in the evening at our rented apartment smack-dab in the middle of Barrio Alto in the old city.

The neighborhood of Barrio Alto is a hilly maze of winding, cobbled streets loaded with cafes, hip retailers and Audi A5s scraping their doors on high curbs as they maneuver the hood. Elderly Portuguese townies stand next to fashionistas next to local businessmen next to tourists like us at the coffee bars sipping bicas and noshing on pasteis de nata, which are habit-forming egg custard-filled tarts sold on every corner.

A city fix

For six days we wandered the neighborhoods of Lisbon, attempted to do at least one “cultural thing” each day, poked around the antique shops and churches, drank espumante and ate simple grilled salmon at lunch, napped, studied our maps, dodged turn-of-the-century streetcars, crashed Moda Lisboa (the equivalent of New York Fashion Week), made a day trip on the train to the storybook village of Sintra and tried to adjust our sleep clocks by watching back-to-back runway shows on Fashion TV waiting for our sleeping pills to kick in. This is an undiscovered city filled with culture, creativity, life and history.

Designer Insider places to see…

1 – The Ritz Lisbon (now managed by Four Seasons) is a 1959 midcentury masterpiece decorated in an interesting mix of Art Deco meets Louis XVI style. Common spaces are extravagant (in a good way) and accented with amazing color-filled, highly suggestive Picassoesque tapestries by José de Almada Negreiros. Cocktails at the bar for sure.

2 – Fabrico Infinito, one of those self-described “concept galleries” (which always makes me a little nervous), is pure tongue-in-cheek retail meets art meets fantasy. It all works, and you leave admiring the creativity, vision and guts that go into imagining products and an environment like this but also scratching your head and wondering who buys this stuff. Just go.

3 – Another wonderful and unexpected place is São Roque Antiguidades e Galeria de Arte, located on a street lined with traditional, predictable, dusty and expensive antique stores. The two-story gallery space marries Portuguese and continental antiques with pieces by contemporary Portuguese artists. Over-the-top 16th-century museum-quality gilt frames are repurposed with their original old masters’ work replaced by 1960s abstract paintings… Crane sculptures, exquisitely fashioned of expandable aluminum dryer vent hose, have heads of real bird skulls. Antiques reimagined and reinvented.

A country fix

With a few days to kill, we ventured out of Lisbon, across the impressive Vasco da Gama Bridge and into a different world. Decompression begins the moment you leave Lisbon and start driving east. An hour and 45 minutes later you are in the middle of the Alentejo. This sleepy agricultural region makes you imagine what Tuscany and Provence must have been like 50 years ago. Great plains of vineyards, forests of eucalyptus, cork trees and pine as far as you can see. The vistas are broken occasionally by ancient Moorish looking hilltop towns, each with their own castle of course.

For two peaceful nights our home was a tranquil, well-decorated hacienda just outside the village of Borba. At Monte da Fornalha crisp Portuguese linens dress the bed; artisanal jams, good coffee and cheeses are served at breakfast; candles light the garden paths at night. This is the best low-key, not in-your-face B&B experience ever.

We took short trips exploring local towns each known for something special, like antiques or fine linens or royal families or wine or sausages or aqueducts. Life here is very slow and authentic. The region and the Alentajanos are the butt of a thousand jokes about how lazy the pace is here. One goes: You can tell when an Alentejo man is finished with work…he takes his hands out of his pockets. For us, the tempo is just right.

Not to miss:

  • Monte da Fornalha, our country home described above.
  • Casa do Terriero do Poco, a lovely restored manor house in the middle of Borba. One of the owners, Rita, gave us an hour of her time to tour us around the series of interconnected buildings and gardens that is now an inn.

Last Word on Lisbon

As with almost all of our 21 years of “leisure” travel, nothing is ever scheduled or scripted… we wander. Wandering is the absolutely best way to discover a place and immerse yourself in the local scene.

A couple of observations: One, for the most part Lisbon (and Portugal for that matter) does not yet appear to be on the tourist radar screen. We saw almost no Americans in Lisbon or the countryside. And two, the Portuguese language spoken in Portugal sounds nothing like the sultry Portuguese of 1960s bossa nova. (P.S: Your Spanish does you absolutely no good in Portugal.)

Why Do The Wrong People Travel?

Photos of Elain Stritch singing
Recently we re-watched a V. V. (very, very) entertaining DVD starring one of the Grand Dames of Broadway, Elaine Stritch at Liberty. The one-woman show celebrates Stritch’s 50 years on the stage with hilarious stories about everyone from Ethel Merman to Rock Hudson, some very personal and honest moments about her private life and 19 songs from her Broadway career. For 146 minutes, Stritch entertains in nothing but black tights, pumps and a silk faille man’s shirt…and she was 77 when this documentary was made! Rare stuff.

One of the most memorable numbers for us is Stritch belting out “Why Do the Wrong People Travel” from Noel Coward’s 1962 musical Sail Away. For a couple of travel freaks and luggage designers like us the lyrics are especially great. Cheers and enjoy.

Click Play to listen to “Why Do the Wrong People Travel” by Elaine Stritch

Here is the Music Player. You need to installl flash player to show this cool thing!

Buenos Aires Insider

Ten years or so ago, on our first trip to Buenos Aires, we were greeted at Ezeiza International Airport by Sr. Pedro Baliña and his hired driver. Strangely enough, neither myself, my partner nor Pedro recall the exact details of how this meeting had been organized.

Pedro, a Fine Arts professor, would act as our cultural attaché for the duration of our stay. Although he disapproved of the accommodations we had chosen in Palermo Soho he kept this to himself, at least for a day or two. Nearly every morning he would phone and ask what he could show us, where he could take us and always make suggestions about the centerpiece of our outings: food. He gave us the lay of the land, shared some of his favorite museums, introduced us to a few antique dealers and instructed us on the proper way to order food, coffee, wine and ice cream in his fair city—really the essentials. On days we elected to wander the neighborhoods of B.A. independently he warned us about the “thieves” and “gypsies” that lurked in some doorways. He also tutored us on the finer points of choosing the right taxi to ensure that we arrived at our destination un-kidnapped! All in all, by the end of 10 days we felt like we had only scratched the gritty surface of Buenos Aires, and we were already making plans to return.

Two years later, on Christmas Eve, we returned to B.A., again greeted at EZE by Sr. Baliña. Just for some context …. Pedro is a larger-than-life, bear-like figure always dressed neatly in corduroys, button-down shirts, loafers, sunglasses and usually a fedora. I guess you’d call it “Porteño preppy.” He swaggers his streets, booms and bosses his way through cafes, always has an opinion and is never shy about expressing it. He is descended from a family dating to the 16th century. Maybe this explains the swagger. He is also generous with his time, knowledgeable about all subjects historical and cultural, and kind and caring.

We have now visited Buenos Aires a total of four times. Each trip we carve out time to be with Sr. Baliña. He has been instrumental in peeling back the layers of B.A. for us like an onion. One visit to Bs. As. centered around the celebration of a friend’s 60th birthday. A flurry of pre-arrival planning and logistics emails resulted in our hotel rooms filled with flowers (white and fragrant varieties only), artisanal chocolates and Argentine wines (based on each guest’s preference). He was a maniac with the details, the right man for the job. This guy could handle any A-list diva’s demands.

Because of Pedro, we have seen things and shared experiences that most travelers only dream of. We have visited the studio of the famous Argentine photographer Aldo Sessa, been invited for sherry with an elegant Argentine lady at her Embassy Row penthouse loaded with museum-quality antiques and Fortuny-upholstered walls, ridden horses with gauchos in the Pampas, eaten mountains of bife de chorizo steak, wrapped ourselves in his family’s heirloom ponchos at an estancia, purchased paintings at a small auction house, watched a family of silversmiths fashion a cymbidium orchid of pure sterling and lunched in the hushed dining room at the very exclusive, very private Jockey Club de Buenos Aires. We have peeked behind the curtain of this extraordinary city.

The sum of the days we’ve spent in B.A. over the years, thanks to our lovely friend and cultural attaché, are the stuff that travel memories, journals and photo albums are made of. We remain grateful that whenever and wherever we travel we’ve been fortunate to cultivate lasting relationships like the one we’ve forged with Sr. Baliña. Returning to Buenos Aires and getting reacquainted with this city, and of course Pedro, is on our short list for 2012.

Not to miss:

  • Barrio San Telmo’s Sunday Antique Market (and freak show)
  • Retiro Railway Station, a cast iron Frenchy/Edwardian architectural confection
  • Bife de lomo (filet mignon) or bife de chorizo (rump steak) salted liberally and grilled
  • A stroll through Plaza San Martin
  • Exploring the fashion and design stores that thrive in Palermo Soho
  • Savoring dulce de leche anything
  • Crossing the River Plate on a ferry to visit Colonia del Sacramento, Uruguay—maybe the laziest and prettiest little colonial town in South America

You can visit Pedro Baliña’s site for more information about how you too can savor Buenos Aires.

Ibrahim Pasha—a boutique hotel in Istanbul

There is something reassuring about arriving at an unfamiliar hotel in an exotic city, in a strange country, in the middle of the night and being greeted by Godot. This Godot is a mature yellow Labrador whose master happens to own the very stylish small hotel Ibrahim Pasha smack dab in the center of the Sultanahmet. (And this Godot is the reincarnation of a Labrador my partner and I loved for 13 years and lost.) We, for sure are in the right place. Our instincts are confirmed as we emerge the next morning for the included breakfast, an activity which we normally dread or skip. This one is different: a heavy rustic table looking like something from a Caravaggio still life is piled with apricots, grains, flat breads, honey and pitchers of goat’s milk yogurt. Unobtrusive and gentle waiters pour fresh juice and the strongest, thickest black coffee on earth as they shoo Godot from the breakfast salon.

Elegant, unpretentious, relaxed and smart—words that should always describe any hotel, right? Owner Mehmet Umur cleverly joined two 100-year-old Turkish townhouses on a quiet, shadowy street to create Ibrahim Pasha. The details and design are authentic and modern. The restrained decoration is sophisticated but accessible, with just enough Ottoman flourishes to remind you where you are. And a very gracious, informed staff is always around. Another reason this place works so well is that its serene cool contrasts so abruptly with the city right outside. A city of Technicolor sites, a scramble of noises, shimmering seas and rivers that converge from all directions. A city of blinding brights, darkest darks, relentless invitations to have tea from the rug merchants and a bit of danger and intrigue. And five times a day the call to prayers never lets you forget where you are. The hotel is a welcome retreat for a glass of wine and some rest, before the temptations of Istanbul and its clashing cultures compel you to wander the neighborhood some more.

Design takeaway :

A restrained, sincere design aesthetic and a feeling of calmness prevail at Ibrahim Pasha.

Traveling with a Terrier (or, Never in a Thousand Years)

What could be better than traveling in your own Wisecracker Luggage? Only sleeping in the hotel room once you get there…
Cassius After Traveling in Wisecracker Luggage
Never in a thousand years would I be one of those people in airports fumbling with a doggie diaper bag, holding up the security lines and trying to stuff a very nervous dog into a carrier. Never, never, never.

Two events changed all that. One was the loss of our 13-year-old Labrador, Bob. He traveled plenty (though we never flew with him) and was even passed off as a “medium-sized breed” at the old Ma Maison Sofitel in Beverly Hills. The second was that after a few years of mourning Bob’s passing we took the bold step of considering a small breed that could go everywhere with us. Small dogs have a bad rap as spoiled, neurotic ankle-biters—admittedly, some reinforce their stereotype. After a lot of research, watching the breed on inane YouTube videos and spending time with Toby, a showroom dog who rules one floor in one of the San Francisco Design Center buildings, the decision was made: a Norwich terrier.

Fast forward… we are coming up on the one-year birthday of Cassius, a black and tan Norwich terrier who has been at our sides since the day he arrived. Early on we determined that this dog should be exposed to as many experiences as possible so that he would fear nothing. We got him accustomed to a dog carrier very quickly. He traveled under the radar, sitting in his carrier in restaurants, riding on the shelf under the shopping cart at Costco…no drama. Weighing in at about 12 pounds and standing about 12” at the withers, he qualifies as an “in cabin” pet on most airlines. To date, Cassius has logged four trips to the Yucatan (12 hours of travel time with connections) and one trip to Manhattan. So far this dog has pissed on Loading Zone Only signposts at SFO, DFW, IAH, JFK, MIA, MID and CUN.

What we’ve learned from traveling with a terrier informed our every decision when it came time to design a dog carrier for Wisecracker Luggage. The bag is uncomplicated, functional and, of course, stylish. We used most of the same materials as in the rest of the line, including our signature linings—only with a special water-resistant coating. Nylon mesh “windows” let air flow through the bag, provide great visibility for curious breeds and also acting as limo-style tinted windows for privacy for the dog.

We now have our movements through security screening choreographed, and never hold up the line. We pay ridiculous pet fares, in some cases more than our own. Cassius loves his carrier and resists leaving it in flight. (The airlines really frown on this too.) The lulling sounds and gentle vibration of the floor usually put him to sleep for the entire flight. As we like to say: “No barking, no barfing, no drama.”

The truth is that Cassius loves to travel. Maybe for him it’s all about the bag.

Villa Villoresi

So where is Sesto Fiorentino? Savoring Villa Villoresi, two train stops outside Firenze

The name sounds so romantic. Sesto Fiorentino, one of the final train stops prior to arriving at the amazing Stazione di Firenze Santa Maria Novella (another story in and of itself). Sesto Fiorentino is actually a tidy, nondescript, middle-class suburb of Florence. No reason to go there, save one very special place and its very special owner. The Villa Villoresi is an 800-year-old palazzo that has been in the Villoresi family for a mere 200 years. Over time the property, once comprised of hundreds of hectares, has been sold off and slowly encroached on by its neighbors. Today noble stone walls surround the villa, which is approached by a narrow crushed-stone drive. It’s like a medieval island in Tuscan suburbia. For 40 years the Villoresi family have welcomed guests to enter their world, to sleep in rooms with magnificent frescos, lounge on the Renaissance loggia, visit the chapel, and sip a vodka with Cristina Villoresi, the contessa who oversees the Hotel Villa Villoresi.

Florence is always on our short list of places we visit and revisit. And we always make the pilgrimage to Villa Villoresi and our friend Cristina. She is a stunning Florentine lady of great personal style. Perfectly coiffed hair swept back into a chignon, sweater sets, silk scarves, classic beauty—you get the picture. Perfect manners, gracious, generous, flirtatious and the teller of fascinating stories about her family, her life, her travels, her guests. Think a slightly restrained, more elegant Auntie Mame with an accent that is more English than Italian. Sometimes if we can’t raise a cab Cristina will pick us up at the Sesto Fiorentino station—a service that is not part of the package.

In 2009 we celebrated David’s birthday, a milestone, at VV. We sat in the formal gardens in front of the 1950s pool, amongst mature olive trees mixed with specimen orange trees in enormous terra cotta garland containers. (On our first visit to Villa Villoresi, in early spring, we’d watched workers ceremoniously roll the planters from the greenhouse into the garden.) We smoked cigarettes and had drinks and listened to Cristina apologize for the weeds in the garden.

Dinner was quiet, no fanfare, just the “usual” delicious, traditional Florentine food served by the very efficient Franco, a waiter who has been at Villa Villoresi a long time and who wears a tuxedo that appears to be the one he wore on his very first night. The hotel dining room looks a little more Tyrolean lodge than villa, a detail I’ve never questioned. The room was filled with quiet conversations of dinner guests, some staying at the hotel but many who’d made the drive from Florence to experience the cooking. After too much wine (Cristina paces herself by diluting her glass with water) and as the evening was winding down, a homemade meringue birthday cake was presented. The best dessert ever.

It’s not every day that we get to step inside the private home of an Italian contessa, touch museum-quality antiques, eat very special food and experience life in a Renaissance villa. Do not expect perfection, do not look for mod cons, look past the weeds to the roses.

Design detail:

Appreciating an earned patina, the elegance of imperfections and the authenticity of an antique property that stays full of life thanks to a very young 70-year-old contessa.