American Designers for $240, Alex

Adding “European” or especially “French” to a design description always adds a bit of ersatz cache. But in America’s birthday month, and during our increasingly acrimonious national election season, let’s take a minute to celebrate Our Fellow Americans whose work gives “made in the USA” not just cache, but gravitas.

FLW Prairie House

Architecture: Frank Lloyd Wright’s Prairie Style homes don’t need to fly the Stars and Stripes out front—their pedigree is as American as it gets. Born in the Midwestern studio of Oak Park, Illinois, the Prairie Style is a physical manifestation of the landscape of Middle America, and was the first uniquely American style of domestic architecture. Thank you, Frank, for shaking us out of our Gothic Revival, Italian Villa, and French Empire-rut.


Decorative Arts: Any well-dressed lamp, window, enameled pendant or vase of the 20th century forward owes a debt to Louis Comfort Tiffany. Born and educated in New York, he worked in art glass, interior design (clients include Mark Twain and Chester Arthur’s White House), and jewelry. His name is synonymous with Art Nouveau, and with Antiques Roadshow optimism. And don’t get me started on the blue box with white ribbon!

VietnamVetWall WSJ

Memorial: Maya Lin  (this is the COOLEST website!) came to prominence in a characteristically American way: she won a national design competition with a blind submission (i.e., no names) for the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C. And, in another characteristically American way, when it became known that the architect of our nation’s newest national memorial was a woman, a college student, and the child of Chinese immigrants, she was both lauded and harassed for things unrelated to the quality of her work. Time and trust won out after all. The Vietnam Veterans Memorial is listed as #10 in the American Institute of Architect’s “Favorite American Architecture.” It should be on yours too.


Painting: Anna Mary Robertson Moses, aka Grandma Moses embodies the American pragmatic spirit. Without formal artistic training or education, she was creative in the way of many women of her time—embroidery, sewing, decorative arts in the home. She began painting in earnest at the age of 77, when arthritis made needlework too painful. And when her right hand hurt, she switched to painting with her left. Her primitive-style paintings sold in drugstores in New England, where an influential art collector “discovered” her and began showing her work on the national stage. She was a friend to Norman Rockwell, is visually compared to Flemish master Pieter Brueghel, and has work commemorated on a 6-cent postage stamp. Please pass the apple pie.

Whom did we leave out? Share your distinctively American design spirit at

Holy Mother of…Pearl!

 A charming but not to be taken lightly oath uttered by everyone from genteel southern aunties to aging hippie stoners , Mother of Pearl is nonetheless a natural for gifts intended to honor the First Lady in your life this Sunday.

Henry Moore's Mother and Child, photo courtesy of

Henry Moore’s Mother and Child, photo courtesy of

Like the Boulder Opal, Mother of Pearl is not technically a gemstone but a layer of iridescent mineral embedded in something harder. In this case, that harder substance is the inner shell of an oyster, abalone, or other mollusk.

shell interior

Nacre layer inside a shell


Boulder Opal

Boulder Opal

The thin layer—called Nacre—is a blend of minerals that coats the inside of a mollusk shell, protecting the tender oyster from parasites and foreign objects. Just like Mom did for us when we were vulnerable babies. So it’s not surprising that, like its eponym, Mother of Pearl is thought to soothe to the emotions, promote cooperation, and assist with the easy flow of feelings and sensitivities to others.

Buttons are the most ubiquitous application of Mother of Pearl

Buttons are the most ubiquitous application of Mother of Pearl

Less expensive than its rarer and more precious descendent, Mother of Pearl is unburdened with the historical and romantic baggage that accompany Pearls, and is fashioned into many really beautiful items outside the realm of earrings and necklaces. Nacre can be carved into cameos, shaped and inlaid in wood, or cut into cabochon and set into a ring or pendant. There’s an MOP piece to suit every Mom.

For the shellfishiando…

Oyster knives with Mother of Pearl handles

Oyster knives with Mother of Pearl handles

For the singer-songwriter…

Decorative Inlay on the neck of a guitar

Decorative Inlay on the neck of a guitar

For the historian…

Document box from Christies

Inlaid Document Box from Christies

And of course, for the Doyenne:



Officially, a monogram is one or more letters articulated in a decorative design and used as a logo or to identify a personal possession. But the recently departed artist Prince showed us that a well-designed graphic can be just as evocative as a string of initials, often is more personal, and almost always is more beautiful.


Prince guitar

Few of us have the moxie—or the in-house PR team—to create a unique, unpronounceable symbol to serve as our personal mark and lead guitar. Everyone, however, has a unique quirk of character that can be expressed and replicated with ink or thread. For example:

BowTie Card

A philanthropic leader we know has personal stationary embossed with his trademark sartorial neck accessory, a small bow tie. Removing one of these cards from its envelope, the reader is confronted by a brief riddle (bow tie?) and then gifted with a pleasing flash of intimacy and insight at solving it (of course, it’s Don Donor!). The bow-tie as monogram conjures the man immediately.

Groucho Marx turned some prominent facial features and a pair of glasses into an iconic personal style during his lifetime. The image lives on a century later in countless cheap and goofy disguises.


Imagine a handkerchief embroidered with this image in the corner. You’d know exactly who loaned it to you.

Lincoln hat

Abraham Lincoln’s icon-monogram would most certainly have been the stovepipe hat. A pair of silver cufflinks forged in this shape would have made a very nice wedding gift, Mary Todd.

Casual Friday

When selecting your own iconic symbol, it’s tempting to go straight to a tool of your trade: the chef’s toque for a passionate cook, the paint brush for an artist. Resist this temptation. Symbols associated with one’s profession have the aroma of a corporate uniform, like the golf-shirt with an embroidered logo below the left shoulder approved for Casual Fridays.

Credit: TVLand

Credit: TVLand

Instead, think about what you surround yourself with every day, the things you are rarely seen without, like June Cleaver’s (or Barbara Bush’s) pearls; or a signature gesture, like Mr. Spock’s “live long and prosper” hand signal.

Prince’s “symbolic” name-change was part political statement and part career stunt, not recommended for the anonymously stylish. But expanding the definition of monograms to include graphic representations of our individual quirks and passions on a tea towel or i-phone case is something everyone can try. In this case, let’s go crazy!

Wearin’ of the Blue: Aquamarine

Happy Birthday, March Hares! You may be tempted to drape yourself in green emeralds this month. But emeralds belong to the month of May. March’s birthstone is another form of the mineral beryl.

Pure Beryl

Pure beryl is colorless. Add some iron ions under the right geological circumstances, and you get beautiful six-sided crystals with color ranging from the light blue of the sky to the deep blue of the sea. We’re talking about March’s birthstone, Aquamarine.


Blue Aquamarine; photo credit:

March is, to be sure, a month for the wearin’ of the green . But we can think of more than a few situations that merit a flash of blue. When should you wear your Aquamarine?

  • At Weddings and Wakes: This gem’s color range covers both sea and sky, and so is symbolic of eternal life. And when hitching your wagon to a life partner, an Aquamarine is thought to inspire peaceful relations between husband and wife. The Romans even believed a frog carved into Aquamarine had the power to reconcile enemies into friends.

Can’t we all get along? Tanzanian Aquamarine-Carved Frog

  • Embarking on a crossing: Sacred to Neptune, the god of the sea, Aquamarines were believed to have originated from the jewel caskets of sirens. So when packing your trunks for the steamship across the Atlantic, a few sea-colored gems may be just the travel insurance you need to assure a safe trip.

Ship on the sea

  • At the marketplace: Aquamarines, also called “mirror stones,” were used in ancient times by soothsayers and fortune-tellers. Hold one up to a smiling vendor and ask him if that kumquat really is fresh!
marketplace in zanzibar

Marketplace in Zanzibar

  • On your wrist, setting off a seaworthy string of blue coral. On land or sea, Aquamarine is supreme!
blue coral bracelet

Sea-worthy bracelet by Ellen Hoffman Designs


Why we love the Fleur de Lis

Mardi Gras celebrations over the last few weeks have us thinking about a fetchingly French design element: the Fleur de Lis. What’s so special about this tri-lobed symbol, and why is it all over New Orleans, bathroom wallpaper at La Madeleine, and the Boy Scout uniform?


Fleur de Lis


First, a bit of histoire. The Fleur de Lis appears in medieval Europe, its three lobes a reference to the Christian Holy Trinity, or the three sectors of French society: those who work, those who fight, and those who pray. The name itself is French: Fleur means flower. Lis means lily. It’s a lily! Or an iris. The symbol looks a lot more like an iris, and the name might actually be better translated as the “flower of the Leie,” a river in Flanders where the early Franks and Gauls lived. And whose banks are chock-full of, you guessed it, iris.


The Fleur de Lis is beloved by France and Franco-philes. It was not officially adopted as national symbol by any French government, yet it still appears on the civic crests and flags of many municipalities in France. Like Paris.


The official coat of arms of the city of Paris

So it’s understandable that New Orleans, maybe the Frenchiest city in the U.S., slaps a few Fleurs de Lis on their architectural cornices and professional athletes And as a centuries-old favorite motif of royals all over Europe, the Fleur de Lis is a natural choice for any modern-day King of Carnival and his court.


The coronation crown of Louis XV, topped with a Fleur de Lis

En fin, the Boy Scouts. They’re neither French nor royal in origin, but they do like maps. The medieval navigator Flavio Gioia is traditionally believed to have perfected the mariner’s compass. “Traditionally believed,” among scholars, is code for “there’s really no proof of this.” Less spurious is the notion that Flavio initiated the practice of overlaying the Fleur de Lis with the north-pointing needle of the compass, in a shout-out to Charles of Anjou, the French King of Naples.


More recently, the three points of the Fleur de Lis remind the Scout of the three points of the Scout’s Promise—Duty to God and King, Helpfulness to other people, and Obedience to the Scout Law.


We love the Fleur de Lis as a repeated motif on a cape, a fence topper, and as a stylish alternative to the ladder-back chair.

Queen Victoria Eugenie, credit

Queen Victoria Eugenie, credit

And, bien sur, in a tiara!

The Color Purple: Amethyst

February’s birthstone is Amethyst, a quartz mineral prized for centuries because of the scarcity of the color purple in nature, and of the gemstones themselves until the 20th century.

Purple Mountain's Majesty (

Purple Mountain’s Majesty (

Before the discovery of Amethysts in the New World, collectors headed to the Ural Mountains and Siberia for their violet gem fix. Ancient formulas for purple dye called for 12,000 shellfish to extract pigment to color one garment. Not surprising then, that the color – and the gem – was reserved for royalty and the clergy.

Today, purple dye is plentiful (and 12,000 clams breathe a sigh of relief) and so are Amethysts. It’s a durable, available, democratic gem, worthy of wear on many occasions:

On a drinking vessel: Amethyst was named by ancient Greeks: amethystos means “not drunk.” The lore is that it protected wearers from the effects of alcohol. If your pewter chalice is already encrusted with too many gems, how about an amethyst wine charm? Or a key chain ornament, to reward the evening’s Designated Driver?

Wire-wrapped amethyst key-chain for your Designated Driver (

Wire-wrapped amethyst key-chain for your Designated Driver (

To services at Pentecost: Most of the people in the church pew wear red on the feast of the descent of the Holy Spirit, a nod to the tongues of fire that appeared over the heads of the Apostles. But the fashion-savvy Christian dons purple for this occasion, alluding to a quote from St. Peter further down in the Bible passage about the elect being “not drunk.” Pentecost doesn’t show up on the calendar until May or June, but that’s no reason to bench it during fall, winter and spring. After all, bishop’s rings are typically set with an Amethyst. If a bishop decrees amethyst appropriate for everyday wear, who are we to argue?

Bishop's Ring

Bishop’s ring (

On your sixth anniversary: Who knew there were gemstones associated with wedding anniversaries? The traditional gift medium for this year-before-it-gets-itchy is iron. A practical and durable cast-iron skillet would of course ring the bell of any sentimental wife. But a pair of Herkimer diamond and amethyst earrings might swing her to the modern side in a hurry.

A sixth anniversary treasure from Ellen Hoffman Designs

A sixth anniversary treasure from Ellen Hoffman Designs

When presiding over your kingdom: Purple is the color of royalty, making it appropriate for occasions when one is feeling majestic or regal. Amethyst is the gem of choice for Mardi Gras parade regalia, a game of chess with the King, or a hand of Old Maid with the dauphin – just to remind the little darling who’s still Regent.


Mardi Gras Bling (Mardigras

Here’s to you, Amethyst.


January’s Birthstone: the Garnet

January’s birthstone is the Garnet. It’s known best in red, and so named for its visual similarity to a pomegranate seed.


Separated at birth?

Seems kind of odd to assign a red birthstone for January, when February is right next door with all the red hearts and roses, and a perfectly purple birthstone . Why couldn’t they swap, for color-coordination’s sake?

Here’s why.

With apologies to Roget’s , all garnets aren’t red. They exhibit the widest spectrum of hues for any stone; one can find garnets in orange, green, yellow, brown, black, purple, pink, even colorless. Blue garnets are exceedingly rare—the first was discovered in Madagascar in the 1990s. Another variety of the garnet is known as the Color Change Garnet. In natural light, it displays warm tones of brown, yellow and orange. Under artificial light, this little minx changes color to the sunset hues of pinkish purple. Best to pair it with neutrals!


January—named for the two-faced Roman god Janus —is a month of dualities, and deserves a birthstone with contrasting character. Janus presided over the beginning and end of conflict, and thus is associated with war and peace, Crusaders used red Garnets as amulets protective against battle wounds. Asiatic warriors believed that Garnets used as bullets inflicted more severe wounds. As recently as 1892, the Hanza tribesmen fired on British soldiers in Kashmir with Garnet bullets, believing them to be more effective than lead bullets. Makes you look at those ear-piercing guns at the shopping mall a little differently.


A more peaceful application of Garnets is in jewelry. Who could stay mad when presented with this rare beauty?


Diamond and Green Garnet Ring. Credit:

Or any of these?

Spessarite garnet earrings ehd natural garnet crystals ehdHessonite Garnet bracelet EHD

Green Garent necklace ehd

All four images: Garnet Jewelry by Ellen Hoffman Designs

Any size, any color, Garnets are sure to garner attention.

The Birth of Birthstones

Birthstones are curious tradition. Why do we assign a specific gemstone to each month, and then declare it the gem of choice for everyone born during those 30 days? Before marching to the craft room to paint signs and organize a protest against this affront to our Freedom to Choose A Personal Gemstone (suggested brand: Occupy Tiffany’s), join us for a brief exploration of affinity groups and their talismans.

The whole of humanity is just too diverse and too dispersed to tackle at any one time. So we create smaller communities of shared experience to help us make sense of it all. If the things we have in common are easy to recognize, we’re less likely to glare and more likely to share when confronting strangers. And we brand our groups with sacred colors, spirit animals and symbolic totems that identify us to our paisanos immediately. It’s not oppressive; it’s team spirit!

Eagle from amazon




We wear our clan affinities – who are your people? – in the family crest on a jacket or the jaunty bat with a top hat on our baseball shirt.


Tartan samples from



We express geographic affinity – where are you from? – in gardens lush with the state flower or ringtones that play “Deep in the Heart of Texas.”


Blackeyed Susans, the State Flower of Maryland. Credit:

And even the most ardent skeptic has succumbed to the global affinity group of time – when were you born? – by consulting his or her horoscope.

Which brings us to birthstones. The roots of assigning a specific gem with a specific month are in the Bible. Moses was supposedly instructed to create a breastplate for his homeboy Aaron, and embed within it twelve gems. That’s one for each tribe of Israel. Or one for each sign of the zodiac. Or one for each month of the year. Et voila–birthstones.



Today we look to the American Gem Society for guidance on which stone to wear when, and they’re not nearly as strict as the Talmud. Many months are honored with more than one stone, and adding newly-discovered precious minerals like Tanzanite to the birthstone roster is a great way to stir up interest and drive markets.

So wear your birthstone, or your mother’s, or your cat’s, with pride. And if your favorite gem is assigned to another month, remember that, just as it’s always cocktail hour somewhere, it’s always somebody’s birthday sometime.


Layers Make Sense

This week, we are laying it on thick. Our Mom’s advice to “dress in layers” makes good sense as the temperatures in this unseasonably warm winter begin to behave more seasonably. Spending an afternoon with a collection of Jackson Pollock’s paintings from his “drip period” proved to me (and mom!) that layering is also a good idea in creative design. More than just warmth, layers add complexity, depth and energy by appealing to all the senses.

Jackson Pollock’s work, now on view in a spectacular show at the Dallas Museum of Art, illustrates the powerful pull of layering in visual art. His pieces are non-objective, so there’s very little recognizable form to distract you from imagining the complicated process necessary to achieve the seemingly random beauty of Cathedral, below.

Credit: Dallas Museum of Art

Credit: Dallas Museum of Art

Pollock was certainly bound by the laws of physics and gravity when dripping and flinging paint onto canvas. But he did control which colors to apply and in what order. He decided when to allow them to run and when to allow them to collect in pools. Pollock’s thoughtful layering of paint and ink transform a visual splash of two-dimensional art into an exploration of time, space, and gravity.

Outside the gallery, suddenly layers appear everywhere:

In the competing textures of cotton, cashmere, and silk piled on a well-dressed bed ;

Well dressed bed


In flower beds at the arboretum ;

Dallas arboretum layers

Supporting and supplanting the melody in an oratorio ;

Squiring your nose and mouth through California’s Sonoma County from the inside of a stem of red wine.

red wine

And finally, circling the necks and wrists of the best-dressed in town.


Bracelets and necklaces by Ellen Hoffman Designs

deck the neck EHD

What are you layering this week? Lay it on us at Ellen Hoffman Designs.

Fire Delightful: Ellen Hoffman Design’s Five Favorite Flames

Is there a better, more useful tool of nature than fire? We’ve been cooking, forging, telling stories, and romancing next to an open flame ever since our caveman forefathers created that first spark.

December is when we invite fires from the deck and patio into the heart of the household. To paraphrase Sammy Cahn and Jule Styne: weather frightful, fire delightful. Our favorite flames this month include:

Hanukkah: The Festival of Light centers around fire, with a succession of ceremonial candles lit each night, building to a crescendo of eight tapers commemorating an ancient miracle: when the Temple of Jerusalem was re-dedicated, a single day’s supply of lamp oil lasted for eight days.

12.3 Menorah

St. Lucia: When the Scandinavian winter sees just five hours of sunlight per day, is it any wonder that our Nordic friends go all out to fete this early Christian martyr who wears a wreath of lit candles on her head? Along with the obvious benefits of parade-marching and pastry-eating , it is said that to vividly celebrate St. Lucy’s Day will help one live through the long winter days with enough light.

12.3 St. Lucy

The Sun: Or more particularly, Solstice . December 21 marks the Winter Solstice, the time when the northern hemisphere transitions from tilting away from the sun to a tilt toward the sun. This means longer hours of daylight and more direct rays of warm sunlight—gradually, of course. Solstice is variously called the darkest day, longest night, midwinter, extreme winter, even “first day of winter.” Potato, Potahto—humans looking for a reason to celebrate when things are really dark have been donning party hats and lighting torches to mark annual rebirth of the sun for millennia. Happy birthday, you great ball of fire!

Hearth Flames: Wood-burning or gas-fueled, festooned with stockings or the site of Conspiracies and Dreams , we love a cozy fireplace in the den this month. Favorite tip: prepare a pyramid of dry wood and firestarters in the fireplace before turning the thermostat down and heading to bed. Light it up first thing in the morning and enjoy a fireside breakfast.

Opals: It’s no secret that we love this iridescent, luminescent, warm and wonderful stone. A string of fiery opals warms the neck, ears, wrist and heart!

12.3 opal bracelet

Australian Boulder Opals

12.3 opal necklace

Ethiopian Opals