All posts by Lee Theodoros

Fee Plumley on a Quest to Make reallybigroadtrip Pozible

Fee Plumley calls herself a geek artist, techno-evangelist and digital consultant. She hails from the United Kingdom and has become a permanent, if nomadic, resident of Australia.

Combine Fee’s geekery with her will to travel and you have reallybigroadtrip – her proposal to create and live in a truly mobile digital culture.

Fee’s plan is to get a bus, rig it with recording equipment and drive it around Australia, talking to people about how they engage with creative technology. It’s an artwork, a research project, plus a home, studio and workshop.

Among other things, this soon-to-be 39-year-old with cropped, dyed red hair and wearing a big, blingy ‘Geek’ nameplate around her neck (a gift from her sister), has co-founded a company that created a new genre of literature inspired by mobile phone technical limitations and started the Geek in Residence model that was adopted in Australia and abroad.

“It’s the stuff that breaks convention that I really love,” says Fee, speaking about theatre, where her career started years ago. But you get the idea that this is her metaphor for life too.

Anything is Pozible

Like many creatives with an idea but scant funding, Fee is tapping the crowd-sourcing site Pozible to raise money for her reallybigroadtrip. Her Pozible campaign is scheduled to end 12 July and she is anxious that it is lagging her target amounts.

“It’s the most exciting time in my life. It’s also the most terrifying,” says Fee. “I have never made myself so vulnerable and never felt so strong.”

Once she has ‘the bus’ – which incidentally will be styled-decorated-rigged out by none other than lighting, set, venue designer Geoff Cobham, also the man behind Barrio, – the plan is to hit the road and just keep driving; talking to people, documenting data, writing, and making stuff along the way.

All the traveling and talking will result in a huge amount of rich media, the best of which will be shared instantly via social networks. Follow @feesable on Twitter and you will notice two things pretty quickly: she tweets a lot and sleeps very little.

The rest of the information gathered on her journey will be stored for future development; a vast legacy of material for advocacy, data visualisation, conferences and festivals. There may also be a book or documentary in it too, or as Fee corrects – an e-book or interactive documentary.

Fee said the idea of buying a bus came up a few years back when she knew she wanted to apply for permanent residency in Australia and had to create an opportunity to make it happen.

“I adore travel, buses, creative play and geeks,” so the digital-mobile-bus combination seemed to fit together.

“I could have just traveled around from place to place on foot or by plane but the idea of a road trip seemed right. The bus is a symbol of the kind of digital community-based cloud that we exist in now.”

The bus will be Fee’s exhibition space, workshop, conference room, screening space, studio and her home, running on vegetable oil and the kindness of others. After couch-surfing for the past eight months in various Australian states, she says she looks forward to having a home, albeit mobile and on a bus.

The bigger picture – and there is always a ‘bigger picture’ when Fee’s mind starts ticking over – is to get a bus in every continent.

“The idea is to have all these spaces that become resources for other digital practitioners.

“I really want to dispel this myth that media arts are a niche or emerging. I’ve been doing it for years already and I wasn’t even there at the beginning.”

Fee recalls the day she met the Internet. She was moving into a share house in Brighton in the UKin 1996 and there was a free, online computer.

“I didn’t really know what I could do with the Internet but I knew I wanted to use it somehow.

“I went to the dole office and asked where I could learn about what the Internet was and what it meant for creative practice.” Of course, her enthusiasm met blank stares.

Wind forward some years and Fee eventually moved to Australia on a distinguished talent visa and got a job at the Australia Council, working in funding digital strategies. There she created the Geek in Residence program, which placed creative technicians with creative firms.

Just weeks shy of her Australia Council contract ending, Fee got the permanent residency status sought in Australia. Now for the bus, and her circle is almost complete.

To get this show on the road she needs funding – sponsorship, in-kind partnerships – whatever it takes to buy a bus, deck it out and keep it running from place to place. Plus, she’ll need money to cover internet access, living expenses, promotion and equipment.

“My life is this kind of ridiculous adventure,” says Fee.

Needless to say she’s not resting on her laurels waiting for money to roll in and a bus to materialise. She recently returned from Melbourne’s Emerging Writers Festival and already has conferences, speaking engagements and the like scheduled for coming months.

Among then, Fee is on the roster to give a keynote speech at the Regional Arts Australia Conference in Goolwa in October, touching on art and the economy and broadband – all sorts of things that she predicts will get her into trouble.

Find Fee’s Pozible crowd-sourcing campaign at reallybigroadtrip.pozible.com.

Peter Drew Takes Street Art to Gallery + Back

This could be the year of Peter Drew.

Most Adelaideans don’t know the name but chances are they’ve seen his work all over the city, from the huge posters of criminal mug shots to the Icarus motif atop a prominent city building, his personal favourite.

Peter has just opened his final solo exhibition at A P Bond Gallery in Stepney and in less than a week he’ll take part in the opening of South Australia Illustrated: From the Street at the Art Gallery of South Australia.

It’s not every street artist who finds their anti- institutional s scrawls hanging in the State’s premiere arts institution, but in keeping with the rebellious overtones of graffiti, this won’t be any regular exhibition.

There’s a twist.


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Peter has donned his curatorial hat and invited 12 fellow artists to `respond’ to an unfinished portrait of Adelaide’s founder, Colonel William Light, which he will turn frame in heavy antique frames ready for the Gallery walls.

They’ll be there, beautifully lined up when the exhibition opens, but throughout the exhibition Peter will take a portrait and hang it someplace around Adelaide.

He’ll give clues on its location using social media, such as his Facebook page.

“It is really great that the Art Gallery has agreed to this – it turns the whole exhibition on its head,” said the softly spoken artist.

But it will be nicked, won’t it? And that is the whole point.

”It’s an experiment in opportunism,” said Peter.

“The idea of theft and opportunism – that impulse hasn’t changed since colonial times. If there’s something there and people think that they can get away with taking it, they will. There is definitely a link between colonialism and opportunism.”

Even exhibiting at the `big end’ of the city, as the Gallery and its North Terrace cultural neighbours are known, can’t curb the edge of a street artist.

Around town though, Peter – an Adelaide born and educated visual artist and writer – is best known for his uncommissioned art for the urban landscape – or street art – which can be found not only on home turf but around Berlin, Glasgow and London.

Criminal Element

Peter says that having made illegal street art for years without being caught, he started to forget that it was a crime.

“When I was finally arrested I began to think more seriously about its criminality. This interest grew into a side project, which quickly blew out into the largest street art campaign I’ve undertaken.”

Adelaide’s Forgotten Outlaws grew from Peter searching police documents at the South Australian State Records. Drawn to photos from the early 1920s, he began choosing mug shots based mostly on the immediate impact of the image.

“Whether through their defiant pride, amused irreverence or shamed humiliation – some faces drew me in,” said Peter.

And so began his self-funded, ‘uncommissioned’ public project. Peter pasted some 42 black and white posters, each standing 2.5 meters, on naked city walls and sides of buildings.

Initially he worked at night, rather like the criminals he iconised, but soon realized it would be safer during the day dressed as a legitimate worker.

“When I donned the high vis vest and went about my business I didn’t feel like a criminal, I felt as thought I was performing a public good,” he said.

Unstoppable

While the man of the street has generally enjoyed Peter’s campaign, Adelaide City Council eventually traced the posters back to him and struck a deal.

The Council would stop removing the work so long as Peter legitimised the project through a ’pilot project’ scheme and removed the criminals’ surnames to protect surviving relatives.

Peter said he was just happy that people got to see the posters, as he’d intended. So impressed with his work were the folks at History SA that they let Peter loose on their photo archive.

He chose 10 portraits of everyday, extraordinary South Australians from the 1870s to the 1930s for use as part of the About Time: South Australian History Festival, which ran through May 2012.

Come August, Peter is heading abroad to study writing criticism at the Glasgow School of Art for a year or two. He wants to write a book, not surprisingly, about street art – comparing it to other artistic movements throughout history that were viewed as anti-institutional.

And while he’s away, he says he may have the urge to express himself artistically on a blank wall.

“I’m not sure that I can stop,” said Peter.

Peter Drew’s solo exhibition All you need is LIKE is currently running at AP Bond Gallery. South Australia Illustrated open at the Art Gallery of South Australia 1 June, 2012.

 

New York, New York – If You Can Make it There …

I just waved my eight-year-old son goodbye as he boarded a bus for his first ever school camp. One week into school in Australia and he was herded away to Aldinga Beach, an hour or so from the city, to run free and learn in the great outdoors. It’s all part of being an Aussie.

Every morning at school drop-off, these robust little kids are running and jumping and chasing each other, or playing one of many organised sports. Every girl in our daughter’s first-grade class has a skipping rope tucked beneath the desk to use before school and at recess. Sitting still isn’t an option.

It all fits the romantic notions about Australia, especially among Americans. From the worn out stereotypes of kangaroos bounding along city streets and Foster’s drinking blokes throwing shrimp on a barbie, Australia holds a sort of mystique from far away. Our New York friends, while sad to see us go, were excited for our brave move down under. Everyone wants to visit and everyone probably would, if it weren’t so far away.

But as recent arrivals – sit still, we do. So far it has rained almost daily since we got here in July, soaring electricity costs make us too scared to blast the heat as much as we’d like, and neither my husband nor I has found a job. With no income to speak of and no entitlement to assistance because apparently the Australian Government deems us rich, morale has its ups and downs.

We’ve endured reams of paperwork and probing questions only to be told that money in a bank, no matter how inaccessible, a part share in a house we  cannot live in yet and the fact that we could get jobs any day,  trump years of paying taxes in both Australia and the US and the absence of a pay check.

Sticker Shock

Every time we walk out of a store, sticker shock follows us. Everything costs a lot more than we’re use to paying. Even long-time Australia dwellers are balking at rising food, gas and utility prices. Basics like bananas  go for around $3 a piece and green beans top out around $18 a kilo – or almost  $9 a pound. The good life sure is pricey.

Still, here I am 40-something, married and mother of two back in my parents’ immaculate house after more than 20 years of independence. Perched at the dining room table, I feel a bit like an aged Carrie Bradshaw of Sex and the City, banging out resume updates and introduction letters in improbable surrounds ( how did she ever afford a Manhattan studio and Jimmy Choos on a columnist’s wage?)

To be sure, the folks are thrilled to have us back in Adelaide – as delighted as they are petrified every time a beloved grandchild swings a  backpack and narrowly misses some pricey collectible or “accidentally”  picks all the unripe lemons and stomps the onion patch.

The question we’re asked by pretty much everyone we meet is, why? Why on earth would you move from New York City – bright lights, big city, songs written about it, movies made just to showcase its vibrancy – to Adelaide? Adelaide, a sleepy city barely bigger than a country town, with lots of green space and nearly as many churches as people. Why indeed?

For family and for lifestyle mostly. We figured it was time to slow life down a little, smell the roses that bloom in Adelaide gardens and let the kids run free in the parklands and on the beaches, with cousins and perhaps a dog in tow. We wanted to own a house and a have a garden where we could cook out on a warm evening, and all sit around the dinner table together.

All in Good Time

And soon enough the sun will shine and the kids will get the beach and park time they moved for. We’ll find jobs too, I’m sure of it. We just have to adjust our timing from New York standards where emails are answered pronto to Adelaide’s more relaxed schedule.  And soon enough we’ll be able to rip up old carpets, paint walls and move into our own little home.

For now, the coffee is good, the clean country air is a mere 15 minutes “up the hill” as the locals say, the kids are happily settling into a lovely school and we are still charmed by the many people we meet and the warmth and friendliness they show us; from the boys in the local coffee shop we’ve made part of our morning ritual,  to the toothless old man I met at the weekend farmers’ market. He explained to me the pros of eating Australian olive oil and beamed with pride talking about his famous ballerina daughter.

Our waterlogged son will have his own stories to share when he slumps home from three rainy days at the beach, where he was to learn to paint a boomerang, cook on an open fire and negotiate friendships with a new crew of teachers and classmates.

As the lyrics go if you can make it in New York, you can make it anywhere.  Let’s see if Adelaide is our “anywhere”.

 

 

Der Kommissar Opening in South Slope

Der Kommissar, the newest kid on its South Slope block, swings open its doors tonight, promising to blend traditional Austrian eats with Brooklyn smarts. Artisanal Austrian-style sausages, craft beers and schnapps define the bar-restaurant-hangout on 5th Avenue, at 15th Street, which is loosely modeled on the outdoor sausage stands common in Vienna.

Three Park Slope locals – Gary Baldwin, his Austrian wife Monika Wuhrer, and neighborhood mixologist Alex Darsey – wanted to create a place where locals could kickback with drinks, chat or watch a game, while noshing on simple, high-quality, artisanal snacks. Der Kommissar ”brings a little bit of Vienna to 5th Ave,” touts the website.

Just like a Viennese Würstelstand, sausages feature high on Der Kommissar’s menu – from frankfurters and bratwurst to lesser known käsekrainer and weisswurst. There are also pretzels, potato salad, sauerkraut and the classic Austrian Liptauer, a spread made from quark, paprika, caraway, herbs, pickles, and anchovy. And for something sweet, the beloved Manner Schnitten – traditional Austrian wafers layered with hazelnut cream.

Food will be available at the bar, as well as through a window that opens onto the street, a leftover from its previous life as a Spanish take-out spot. The whole idea is to keep it simple and relaxed; a place you can stop-by with the kids for an afternoon snack, or hang with your mates late into the night.

Baldwin and Wuhrer are known around the hood as the owners of the nearby Open Source Gallery, which has been a nomadic art force since a five-alarm fire damaged it and the couple’s apartment in November. Since it began in 2008, the gallery has become an institution, offering everything from a soup kitchen through the holidays to summer camp for local kids. Business partner Darsey is a photographer and well-known bar tender.

Der Kommissar, which is hosting a “soft opening” tonight from 7pm to 10pm, is at 559 5th Avenue, phone 718. 788. 0789.

Thursday Friday, Together Bags Any Day Now

 I admire go getters who turn that one great idea into a money-making business. But sometimes, things move too fast or not fast enough, and those go getters make big promises they struggle to keep.

I really hope that’s not the case with LA-based accessories brand Thursday Friday whose founding duo Roni Brunn and Olena Sholomytska created the Together bag – a wildly popular canvas shopper emblazoned with a pop-arty Hermes inspired bag print on the outside. With the original $35 price tag (the price has since risen to $45 to counter rising cotton prices), they literally sold like hotcakes.

What could be wrong with instant success and enormous publicity you ask? Well, this fledgling company has had a very public struggle to fill orders placed as long ago as January, causing an outcry on its Facebook page from frustrated buyers. In full disclosure, I’m among the hundreds of people worldwide waiting on bags I ordered and paid for at the start of the year.

It seems the wait may soon be over. Late yesterday, Thursday Friday posted the following to its Facebook page: 

“We understand your frustration with us. We have been dealing with the delayed shipments, cotton price rise and production halts since we started. When we designed our products, we did not expect it to explode in (the) way it has and the overwhelming demand from all over the world has exceeded our production. Please be patient with us, we take your orders very seriously and we are shipping all orders from Jan/Feb.”

This long-awaited assurance prompted many hits of the Like button, and was met with a flurry of thankful, hopeful comments from Facebook fans.

Sure, we all knew when we ordered bags in January that they were on backorder and would be delivered sometime in March. But as March turned into April and spring weather coaxed us to swap chunky leather bags for a lighter tote, there were still no bags and intermittent communication from the firm left shoppers wanting. There were discussions about how to get a PayPal refund, and even threats of getting the Better Business Bureau involved.

‘Production Snafu’

The problems started when, with unexpectedly high and relentless demand, Thursday Friday had to work with an unfamiliar factory which was not only seven weeks late with orders but produced bags of unacceptable quality that Thursday Friday wouldn’t sell to customers. Even once a suitable factory was booked, it was slow to replenish stocks.

“During this production snafu, we understandably got more incoming customer emails, and this volume overwhelmed our support team,” Creative Director Roni Brunn, half of the Thursday Friday duo, told G’DayBklyn. “We’ve been hiring and training new staffers with the same eye for quality and care that we have for our products.  Again, this level of attention to detail has created another lag – a delay in answering support emails.”

What there has been all along though is enormous publicity for the bags – from blogs like this to The New York Times, Elle and The Daily Mail, and a prolific Twitter, Facebook and Tumblr presence by the company. That presence, as it turns out, can be both a blessing and a curse. Sure, a company can promote itself brilliantly through social media, but on the flipside, when something goes awry all those chatty friends and followers have a very public place to rant. And that they did.

A string of negative comments and delivery queries litters Thursday Friday’s Facebook page. So much so, that the company repeatedly asked people to take their issues to customer support rather than use Facebook  as a complaint forum. 

“We try our best with those whose frustrations are voiced on Facebook, and we completely understand that our responses may not work for everyone,” said Brunn. She said the company contemplated sending an email to customers “but thought it’d be whiney of us. We’re lucky to have anyone interested in our products and just want to push through any setback.”

Interestingly, even bad publicity – in the form of legal action from French luxury brand Hermes, whose iconic Birkin bag inspired the Together tote – has only fueled demand for the quirky bags.

Hermes, whose Birkin bags sell for upwards of $9,000, contends that Thursday Friday is  “riding on the reputation and recognition of the Birkin Bag” to sell its otherwise generic tote. And in so doing,  Hermes says Thursday Friday is creating confusion among customers and putting Hermes’ reputation at risk.

I’m not sure that anyone is confused by a leather bag worth thousands and a cotton tote, but the suit has done nothing to damp demand for Together bags.

As we cross our fingers that the wait really is coming to an end, Brunn assures Together bag carriers can still be the coolest kids on the block.

“These bags aren’t close to ubiquitous,” she said, putting a positive spin on the setbacks and delays.  “People who ordered them in January will still be among the first to carry them.”

Paper Dolls to Walk Runway at Brooklyn Collective

I’m not sure I get exactly what this show is all about, but I do know I want to go. The idea of paper clothes and faeries and cupcakes is about all the lure I need. But if you need more, here are the details accompanying the invitation:

“Come out to frolic at Papertopias Frisky Faeries Fashion show! This is a life-sized paper doll fashion show exploding with glamor, treachery and sass. The show explores voyeuristic glimpses of a changing identity, with each paper outfit taking its inspiration from a beloved children’s book character.

There will be music performed by DJ T3db0t, devilish sweet treats … mayhem, trickery, life size paper doll fashions, original paper doll art work, and a fabulous dance party after.”

Papertopias was created by Ruth Irving, an artist who creates custom doll sets from her Brooklyn studio. Irving trained in architecture at University of Florida, and has honed her studies to stretch the boundaries of the paper dolls we’re all familiar with by melding history, glamor and the fantasy of future fashions.

Papertopias debuted its life-size paper fashions in a show last month at Urban Alchemist, a design collective on 5th Street in Brooklyn.

The second performance this Friday, March 18, starts at 8pm at  Brooklyn Collective. Even if you don’t get the paper doll thing, it’s a great excuse to check out  local art, jewelry and other quirky stuff on show and on sale at the collective.

Brooklyn Collective is at 212 Columbia Street, between Union + Sackett Streets. Phone 718.596.6231.

Smith St Closings Create Ghostly Carroll Gardens’ Block

They say the economy is on the mend, the worst is over, people are spending again. THEY clearly don’t live near my block in brownstone Brooklyn, where store after store on Smith Street, between Degraw and Douglass streets, has shuttered or moved on.

In just a few recent weeks, Stinky Bklyn has laid out plans to move further along Smith Street to bigger digs, while neighboring Salsa Salon shut up shop. Andie Woo, a quirky underthings store next to Oaxaca Tacos, also faded from existence. I should have seen it coming when I was in there on a Saturday afternoon in late February, taking advantage of the huge half-off sale. When I returned about a week later, the windows were papered over, the signs were down: it was all over.

Adios Andie Woo

There may be one bright spot amid the shutterings though. I’m told the Andie Woo site is poised to reopen but not as a clothing store. Word is that it will be a deli similar to the famed Russ and Daughters on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, selling smoked fish and other deli treats. There’s no news on an opening date yet, but I’ll be tracking this one with bagel in hand.

Meantime, there are now almost half as many boarded up shops or ones for rent on the Carroll Gardens block as there are occupied businesses. On the side closest to Court Street, for example, there are 10 storefronts, including the big empty lot on the corner that promises to become some sort of sprawling residential/commercial development, and only four actually in operation, Refinery and Video Free Brooklyn among them.

Adding to the ghost-town feel, most of the stores are closed by 10pm or earlier, so it makes for a dark, desolate strip heading to or from the subway.

As recently as 2009, the same block boasted the restaurant Patois, which has long been credited as a pioneer in getting Smith Street going. When Patois closed after  more than a decade, speculation brewed that it would reopen across the street, but it never happened and the bistro took its business to Manhattan’s Little Italy instead.

Provence en Boite opened a few years ago on the corner of Smith and Degraw, and the owners said they added sidewalk tables, a bench and flowerpots with hopes of creating a bustling corner and rejuvenating the block. Then came Stinky Bklyn and Oaxaca Tacos, and the block did indeed seem brighter. Thankfully Oaxaca’s original spot – now one of three in Brooklyn and Manhattan – seems set to stay. And Provence en Boite followed up almost a year ago with spin-off  JB’s Burger.

But “it is scary,” said Leslie Bernat, who with her husband Jean-Jacques Bernat owns and runs Provence en Boite and JB’s Burger. “It is hard with the economy like it is, to know what is going to happen next. It worries us very much.”

Not to mention elsewhere along Smith Street where mom and pop stores have been closing for years because of soaring rents and the ever-changing demographic of the neighborhood. They’ve been replaced in many cases with cookie cutter ice-cream shops and clones of stores already across the Gowanus in Park Slope.

The comic book haven Rocketship and the Big Apple Deli across the street both closed recently,  the doomed restaurant of many names – Banania, Porchetta, Carniceria  – hasn’t been able to find a niche that will keep it open, and Brooklyn Camo, one of my personal favorites for rain boots and hiking socks,  shutdown awhile back as did my drycleaner, which was replaced with another innocuous deli.

Add to the list the  Brooklyn Indie Market near Carroll Park, which has a For Rent sign on the weathered tent. They announced last month that after four years on Smith Street they won’t be back, even once the weather improves. And this is just a handful of the businesses that have gone in the few years I’ve lived in the neighborhood.

Happy Birthday to Me

Ok, so my birthday is far enough past that I don’t feel completely gratuitous bragging about the most beautiful gift ever from the best husband ever. And before everyone prepares to retch slightly at all this syrupy joy, let me be honest.

Yes, dear husband does have excellent taste. But no, he wasn’t just randomly surfing vintage websites in search of the perfect gift for me. He did however take the hint when I thrust the laptop in front of him and sighed, “Isn’t this divine!”

It won’t surprise anyone who knows me that the chain comes from my favorite purveyor of high-end vintage clothes and accessories Rice and Beans Vintage. It is a vintage 1970s Gucci gold and enamel GG chain, which can be worn either as a belt or a necklace. It is casual and glamorous all at once.

My husband suggested I buy it as my birthday present and I followed orders. When he asked the next day if I planned to buy the necklace, it was already making its way from Maine to Brooklyn and it was worn out for the very first time to birthday dinner.

I don’t know if I am imagining it,  but there seems to be a resurgence of demand and adoration of the Gucci brand, which has played second fiddle on and off over the years to the ever fashionable Chanel. I’m merely an armchair follower of  haute  fashion, and a frugal one at that, but while Chanel is forever, Florence-based Gucci seems to have slipped on a hip, rejuvenated vibe as it celebrates its 90th anniversary.

At Milan Fashion Week, for instance, Gucci just unveiled its Fall 2011 Ready-to-Wear collection, loaded with color, fur and Fedoras to create what Gucci Creative Director Frida Giannini called a “contemporary female dandy.” Giannini cited UK singer Florence Welch, of Florence and the Machine, as an inspiration for the collection.

Also feeding into Gucci’s celebratory vibe, the fashion house and Italian car giant Fiat used Milan’s Fashion Week to roll out the adorable  “500 by Gucci.”  The special edition and highly covetable version of Fiat’s iconic 500 car marks Gucci’s anniversary and the 150th anniversary of a unified Italian peninsula.

Gucci’s Giannini custom designed the zippy city-car, which comes in white or black and is distinguished from the regular Fiat 500 by Gucci’s signature green-red-green stripe. It will be sold online from April 1 to June 30, with a price tag beginning at 17,000 euros or roughly $24,000 US dollars.

I wonder how big a hint I will need to give dear husband for the car – in white please!

A Cautionary Tale, aka No Communal Tables on Date Night

We don’t get out much together. Dear husband works late weeknights, which leaves only weekends for adult dinners. So on the rare occasions we have a sitter and actually do get to go out, it really bites to have a less than enjoyable time.

Enter the communal table.

A long sturdy wooden table conjures notions of comfort and nostalgia. It takes you back to a toasty kitchen, crowded with family and friends and a grandmother or aunts reigning over bubbling pots and roasting pans. The communal table can convey a sharing of bounty and acceptance.

Increasingly, restaurants are installing large communal tables in part to recreate that homely vibe and often times to maximize square footage and revenue potential per customer. To be sure, you can squeeze more paying diners around a long table, than you can fit individual tables, and that matters when space is tight and overheads high.

It can be nice too in a big city like New York where you might be lunching solo with just a book to keep you company. Pulling up a chair at the communal tables at one of the Frenchified global Le Pain Quotidien restaurants in Manhattan, for instance, feels easy and inconspicuous. There is enough space that you can get by with barely a nod at your neighbors, if you don’t feel like engaging them.

And I’ve never thought twice about joining a large round table for Chinese dim sum. In fact, it’s pretty much the only way a singleton or a couple can join in the parade of passing carts to slurp noodles and dip dumplings during bustling weekend hours. Thankfully, people are there to eat, not make friends, so rarely have I attracted much attention beyond the usual stares at another ignorant gweilo.

Growing Trend

But the trend has spread from grandma’s kitchen and Chinese brunch to new, hip, happening restaurants – Buddakan, BoqueriaThe Meatball Shop, Salt and even the very Upper East Side Café Boulud among them in Manhattan, and locally, in Brownstone Brooklyn, Brucie and Buttermilk Channel and Beer Table.

This brings me to a recent, rare date night when we agreed a little hesitantly to sit at a communal table. The restaurant of choice was crowded and there was a lengthy wait for a 2-top, so it seemed harmless enough sitting side by side at the end of the table. Shortly after we sat down, more people joined the table and the wait staff assumed understandably that we were together. We pointed out that we were separate parties but as timing had it, our orders were taken and food was served in sync.

It was fine for a moment as we kept to ourselves but I sensed that the couple across from us was just dying to make eye contact. Well, I went there; I made the mistake of acknowledging our fellow diners and exchanging pleasantries. I thought we could go on with our meals then, unencumbered, but the chatter went on and on and I found myself trapped in conversation with a stranger as our partners stared into space.

Our date night was being sabotaged by a chatty young woman who, worse still, complained that her meal was overcooked. Here lies the peril in the communal table; friendly neighbors are one thing, but incessant talkers and whiners are deal breakers.

Unpleasant Standoff

The woman sent back her plate and sat glumly through the rest of the meal, making us feel uncomfortable enjoying our own food. When her check arrived she balked at being charged for her discarded meal and called over the chef-owner, who tried graciously to make amends while we tried our hardest not to listen. It was assumed again that we were a group and somehow we became bystanders to an unpleasant standoff.

What began as date night had morphed into a Seinfeld episode.

I wanted to crawl under that wretched communal table. And dear husband chided me for being sociable. “Don’t talk to strangers,” he urged. “It can only end badly.”

Thankfully the offending couple left and the staff, realizing once and for all that we weren’t with them, apologized for our neighbors and our lost evening. But we were scarred, vowing to never again sit at a communal table as a couple, or unless the sociable one  – me – is gagged.

Sure, communal dining has its merits. It can be nice to see what others are eating, or to join in a party atmosphere if you happen to sit near a fun crowd. And with a big group of your own friends or with children in tow there are enough distractions to ward off needy neighbors. In fact, we’ve had some great dinners with the kids at Brooklyn’s Buttermilk Channel when we’ve landed at the communal table surrounded by families celebrating birthdays or graduations and letting us in on the fun.

 But as a couple desperate for some “alone” time, beware!

Park Here! But Make it Snappy

One day, when I grow up and have a house, I want a room in it just like the wonderful, whimsical Park Here, an indoor garden housed at Soho’s Openhouse Gallery for the past couple of months.

Openhouse Gallery is an exhibition and installation space, pop-up retail location and events venue at 201 Mulberry Street in Nolita. The notion to create an indoor, pop-up park is ingenious and I only wish I had bothered to go there sooner.

Tree stumps, fake grass, a pond filled with coins and neat faux leaves entwined on branches, enlivened by chirping birds and perfumed air, make for the perfect winter haven. Take a book, a laptop or a kid and lean on a tree trunk, grab a park bench or nab a huge cushion and while away a bleak afternoon.

Entry to the “park” is free but if you get peckish, Brooklyn’s own Robicelli’s Cupcakes were on sale this closing weekend, as well as brownie treats from The Chocolate Swirl, and other vendors have been in place through the season. It’s just a few steps to restrooms unlike in most parks, and there are no grass stains or muddy boots to worry about.

It’s a fabulous idea, but of course all great ideas need money, so this, sadly, is the last weekend of Park Here. Though, according to the Openhouse Facebook page, they’ll be setting up again next Winter!

If you can get there before it closes tomorrow, Park Here is open from 11am to 6pm at Openhouse Gallery, 201 Mulberry Street, between Spring and Kenmare Streets.