It’s hard to write about yourself

Many of you know me from Zambris restaurant. I came to Zambri’s sixteen years ago, they hired me straight out of Sommelier school, showing great confidence in me as I had not yet graduated and at that time there was an a very high failure rate in the course. But I graduated, scoring 100% in the blind tasting something that is my proudest accomplishment to date. But who was I before this?

Well, I am not going to bore you with a long bio but I will give you 5 interesting facts about myself that I think give you a little more than just a peek at who I am.

My first job was at a Husky Truck Stop in Pincher Creek Alberta. Yes, the town was actually named after a pair of pinchers lost in a creek. Ask me more about this the next time you see me at Zambris.

I have changed my name twice. I am now called Frances Bean von Aesch. Von Aesch is my married name. Can you guess where the Bean comes from?

I graduated with a degree from the University of Lethbridge one of the only liberal arts universities in Canada. Although it never resulted in a job it changed my life. I went from never reading a paper to joining the Communist Party. (Please note, I am no longer a member quitting just before my all expense paid trip to Russia!)

I have spoken to the United Nations about information I gathered about student rights violations in Chile in in the 80’s. At the time I was very active in the student movement in Canada and I was the compromise choice of rival factions who were fighting over which candidate to send. I won by default and the trip truly opened my eyes to a world outside of southern Alberta

I own a design/build woodworking business with my dutch born wife Dita von Aesch and I am passionate about art and architecture, particularly the paintings of Rembrandt and van Gogh. Although I am no longer a Communist, I believe the buildings we live (and work!) in and the beauty we surround ourselves with is a powerful force for change.


The Art of Writing

StJohnCD-59FMy wife Dieuwertje is an artist.  Through her I have had my eyes opened to the world of art, architecture and design.  When we first met she was working as  Chef and I was a waitress.  Although I knew she was a creative person, this fact did not really hit home to me until she decided she had had enough of the restaurant business and wanted to retrain. She entered the Fine Furniture program at Camosun College  Upon graduation she took a six week intensive artisan course at the Inside Passage School of Woodworking on the Sunshine Coast.

We both took a business course and in 2007 we opened a business called Victoria Wood Studio.  She was to be the “creative” side to the business and I was to run the “business” side.  Our original idea was “Fine Gates and Passageways” where we designed and built gates, arbours and Pergolas using the beautiful western red cedar available on Vancouver Island.  Now we do a combination of custom work both indoors and out and we also sell product such as outdoor furniture, bird houses and laundry racks.

20101014_VWS_5Patio Set 2 SmallFrom its inception our business attracted attention probably as much for the uniqueness of our work as the uniqueness of our company.  It is very rare to have a design/build business owned and operated by women.  It is also rare to see such attention to design and detail in work that is made for the out of doors.  In 2009 we were selected as one of 10 businesses to watch by Douglas magazine.

Douglas article 001The last few years have seen many changes in both the work we do and our business model.  It is very interesting to me how we both have changed our idea of the division of labor.  For one thing, Dieuwertje has turned out to have a very good head for the “business” side of our business.  She has great intuition in dealing with customers, marketing and pricing and she is unafraid to follow her instincts. In turn, I have unleashed a much more “creative” side of myself.  I have always loved words both spoken and written.  Observing the creative process Dieuwertje goes through has shown me that I too am a very creative person.  In fact I am much happier writing this blog than dealing with customers, marketing or pricing.


We’re Open

photoToday we are open.  What does it mean?  Although we sell product we are not a store.  Our studio is in our home and our product is mostly displayed in our back yard.  Sometimes it feels odd to have people, potential customers, in a space that is so intimately ours.  Last weekend this yard was the site of our annual Summer Solstice party. It was full of all our friends wearing wreaths and making toasts.

5-730-3429.flowerwreath.mThis week the same space is where we chose to showcase our products and talk to people about our work.  Although sometimes it is hard to invite strangers into your space, there is a definite upside to this. Most of the work we do is custom and the process we enter into with people must be based on mutual trust.  What better way to start this process than to meet in our studio space surrounded by examples of past work.

photo of store

Air Plant artLast week we sold this insect house to a customer who decided it was the perfect frame for an air plant.  We love this look!

Creature Houses Need Not be Rustic

Little creatures need homes but why do they all have to be so rustic?  My partner Dita has tackled this problem head on with a range of creature houses that are anything but.  Birdhouse Stacked 2First she designed bird houses that are so unique and functional they are a pleasure to view but provide a safe and happy home for a nest of baby birds in our back yard.  So what is different about our design? Well first, she uses clear cedar and adds design details like square holes and a cantilevered roof.  The front door swings open for ease of cleaning and the houses come stained in two different finishes, clear and either green or red.

Birdhouse Closing

But she did not stop here.  What about Owls? What about Insects?  Why should they suffer with unattractive housing?

owl house

Insect houseNot only are these designs safe and functional but they provide a delightful piece of art to view in your garden.  The insect houses above are awaiting their stuffing.  That is the pine cones, moss and underbrush that make them desirable to insects.  Once ready they will be on sale Saturdays from 11-3 in our Studio located at 2221 Fernwood Rd. in Victoria B.C. We will be opening Studio Hours on Saturdays starting on June 20, 2015.  Entrance is on Denman St. You will know you are in the right place when you see this sign.

Insect house

Dutch Born West Coast Built

The red cedarThis is a painting called The Red Cedar by Emily Carr, (1871-1945).  A print of it hangs on the wall of our home/studio/workshop in Victoria B.C. I love this painting for its immense energy.  You can feel the life force not just flowing but rushing through the forest.  Carr was a painter who lived in Victoria most of her life and was very influenced by the landscape and indigenous people of Vancouver Island.

My wife Dita was born in Amsterdam but moved to Vancouver when she was six.  When we travel to the Netherlands I really see the Dutch side of her aesthetic.  At home, when she is working on her creations, I realize how influenced she is by the West Coast.  The heart of her work is Red Cedar and that is no accident. As an artist/woodworker she could choose to work with any wood but she loves cedar.  This is fortunate as Vancouver Island is home to the most beautiful cedar in the world.


I love our business for many reasons but one of the main ones is I love the smell of cedar.  When she is working on a project it permeates my whole house.  She buys rough clear cedar from the mill and her first step is to run it through the planer so that it can be transformed into one of her elegant creations.  Sometimes it is hard to imagine that the furniture she creates actually comes from a tree.  It is anything but rustic!

Patio Set 2 SmallOur environmental philosophy is simple.  Material such as cedar should be ideally used in quality projects.  It should never be wasted on cheap furniture or products that will find their way to the landfill in a short period of time.  The mill we buy from is FSC certified meaning the wood is harvested in a very ecologically sensitive way. We create products that are meant to last, built with joinery and stained for the out of doors.  Yet wood is an organic product and will naturally age.

Dita went for a motorcycle ride to Port Alberni last week and came blown away by a trip to The Whaling Sculpture on display in a building at Victoria Quay.  We had seen it before passing through on our way to Tofino but that this trip she really took the time to appreciate it.


It is made with both red and yellow cedar and is actually a replica of a historical structure showing whalers pursuing a grey whale which is considered a gift from the creator by the Nootka People.  This sculpture is a historical replica of another one which was likely made to honor or give thanks for the creators gifts.

There is an aliveness in this that I also see in Emily Carr’s work, an acknowledgement of the energy in everything from trees to whales to human beings.  And a desire to use these materials for some greater good.  Next time you are driving to Tofino, spend some time at the Whale Sculpture in Port Alberni.

Art Architecture and Nature – My Visit to the Kroller Muller Museum

Trip to the Netherlands 224I don’t ride a bike in Victoria but when in Holland I do as the Dutch do and bike everywhere.  Note the flat terrain and the big comfortable seat on my Dutch bike.  Note, too the long pathway with no cars in sight.  Holland is the safest place in the world for cyclists and the only place you can persuade me to participate in this dangerous sport.

The Dutch love bikes and they love art.  Nowhere is this more in evidence than at the Kroller Muller Museum which is located in the middle of the Hoge Veluwe Park a six thousand hectare park located in Ottherio, Netherlands. We drove to the park but left our car at the entrance and biked in using the free “white bikes” provided.

Hoge Veluwe

In 1936 Helene Muller Kroller, an avid art collector left her entire collection to the state of Netherlands.  She was one of the first to recognize the genius of Vincent Van Gogh and this museum houses one of the second largest collections of Van Gogh in the world.  The Museum was designed by Belgian architect Henry van de Velde and opened in 1938. Its modernist design somehow seems to fit in its natural surroundings.

1280px-Entrance_Kröller-Müller_MuseumThis museum is home to an amazing sculpture garden on its grounds.  This is completely free and open to the public year round. My favourite was a structure by Gerrit Rietveld which is a pavilion that crossed the boundary into sculpture.

Trip to the Netherlands 426The other sculptures range from very modern to more transitional but they all reflect the Dutch eye for beauty and are placed in the garden in ways that both please and surprise.

Trip to the Netherlands 444Trip to the Netherlands 447

Yet what is most amazing is how I felt here.  After a vigorous bike ride through the park and then encountering such interesting sculptures on the walk up to the museum itself, I was much more relaxed and open than I usually am in a trip to a museum.  Art, architecture and nature, what a fantastic combination.

All the Little Creatures

OwlMy wife Dita oves animals.  In our yard she has created a sanctuary for dogs, fish and fowl.  Although I can bond with our dog Joopy and appreciate the beauty of birds and fish, she takes it to a deeper level.  Her latest design is an Owl House.  I always know something is in the works when a certain word such as “Owl” and certain images pop up all around our house. The design process began, I suppose, with a series of bird houses that she designed and built as products for our company, Victoria Wood Studio.

Birdhouse Stacked 2

In this photo you can just barely see one of our birdhouses installed in our back yard.  Inside we have baby chickadees!.  The camouflage around this house was created from the bones of a Eucalyptus that had died.  Rather than cut it down Dita planted vines to grow on it creating a natural sculpture and the perfect safe hiding place for baby birds.

birdhouse garden 1


How did we get from this to Owl houses you might ask?  Well, I know she has a passion for beauty and majesty and Owls are both. I think the idea of bringing more of these amazing creatures into an urban setting was what first intrigued her. Also,we both share a dislike of the poisons that are deemed to be necessary to control the rat population in our neighborhood. The prey/predator relationship means more Owls would reduce the rat population naturally. Finally, Dita loves the place where urban and rural connect, where the rusticity of nature meets the sophistication of the city and both are transformed in the process.

owl houseOur Owl house bears no real resemblance to other owls houses out there. To start with these boxes are made with joinery and designed in a modern style stained with an environmental product to increase it longevity.   The bark is added to contrast with the sleek urban look.  It also gives the baby owls something to grip as they climb in and out of the box.  And what other owl house has its own deck? Of course this functions as a perch but it is also part of the look.

We recently visited the Raptor Sanctuary in Duncan B.C. where we received the stamp of approval from the experts there for her design.  So, not only is it beautiful but it should actually attract owls.

Stay tuned on this page for the installation of this Owl house.  Of course this in itself will be challenging as Owls in an urban setting should be up as high as possible.  Right now we are talking about a twenty five foot pole! Did I mention Dita also loves challenges and complicated projects?

Click on the link below to see the beautiful baby owls we hope to have in our owl nest box one day.

The Art of Doing Laundry

Drying Rack 2 Small

I love my laundry rack.  It makes me want to do laundry.  It is so beautiful to look at and yet holds an entire large load so it saves me money every time I use it. For years I wanted to hang my laundry outside but I really hated the ugly laundry racks that were available.  When my wife Dita and I went to the Netherlands in 2011 we visited the Zuiderzee Museum in Enkhuizen. This museum is a recreation of an old seaside village.  There, among other artifacts, I spotted this beautiful old laundry rack.

Trip to the Netherlands 239

When we got home Dita began to design and she built me a laundry rack drawing on some of the same design details but with a very west coast look. Dita is a designer/builder who was born in Amsterdam but moved to Vancouver when she was six.

Trip to the Netherlands 240

Drying rack Closeup MediumOur laundry rack is made of cedar, not a wood commonly found in Europe. But she uses oak dowels for strength and contrast. It is unfinished while the Dutch rack is painted.  And it is taller and narrower, an elegant look favored by Dita.  But it is very Dutch!

Drying Rack 1 Medium

I love the combination of form and function in Dutch art. The Zuiderzee Museum exists on one hand, to represent or recreate a way of life now gone.  But throughout the village they display modern art and commentary to take you into the realm of abstraction.  When we were there in 2011 they had a show called From craftsmanship to abstraction design route. Throughout the museum they would juxtapose modern art interpretations of traditional materials next to artifacts.  Or they would present artifacts in such a way to be seen as art.  A fascinating way to view history and a way of making Abstract Art feel more accessible.

Trip to the Netherlands 238

Trip to the Netherlands 236

Just recently they installed a very interesting permanent exhibition called Monument by the British artist Clare Twomey. This piece is made up of hundreds of shards of household crockery and antique ceramic tiles cascading in a monumental way.  Broken crockery seems to contradict the purpose of a museum which is to preserve artifacts for future generations.  This work plays with the idea that everyday items can be elevated to museum status.  But it is also a comment on our over consumption of consumer goods. The tiles come from the sizable tile collection of the Zuiderzee museum, the “D” collection rejected and yet now put to good use as Art!

monument zuiderzee

Ruminations on Rothko and the Meaning of Art

Rothko 1I have only every seen photographs of Mark Rothko’s paintings but I would love to see them in person.  A dream of mine would be to visit the Rothko room at the Tate Modern.  This is kind of unusual for me because I am usually not attracted to modern art.  But reading about Rothko and his philosophy of art has intrigued me. Alain de Botton who has written a book called Art as Therapy talks about sitting in the Rothko room as a teenager and being overwhelmed by a feeling that he did not really understand at the time.  Later in life he made the connection when reading the following answer that Rothko made when he was asked what was the meaning of his art. Rothko replied;

Life is difficult for you and for me.  My canvases are places where the sadness in you and the sadness in me can meet.  That way, we have a little less grief to deal with“.

To this end, Rothko donated nine of his paintings to the Tate Museum to be permanently displayed in such a way to allow this emotional connection between artist, art and viewer.

rothko_room_tate_modernThis fact is made more interesting by the history of these paintings which were originally commissioned by the Seagram Company to be displayed in the Four Seasons Restaurant in their newly built modernist building in Manhattan. In a famous move Rothko rejected the commission, (worth about two million in today’s currency), because he felt that the true meaning and value of his work would be lost in that world.  To Rothko, finishing a painting was just the beginning of the artistic process.  What happened after, how the painting was viewed, was crucial.

maquette for installation of seagram murals

As such Rothko was extremely fussy and controlling about how his paintings were hung.  Low to the floor, close together and in a space that was dimly lit was his preference. The Seagram Paintings are large, (he called them murals), and he wanted to bring the viewer into the interior of the painting in order to connect with its subject which, to Rothko, was the elemental emotions of the human experience.

Caravaggio is one of my favorite artists.  I have seen his paintings in books and in Art Galleries.  His work is so powerful I always find it striking, even in photographs. Nothing can compare, however, to the experience of seeing his work in the French church, San Luigi des Francesi in Rome.

The calling of St. Mathew -coin box

The Church is dimly lit and the paintings are in the very back.  They are clothed in darkness until you put a euro in the coin box and then a light comes on illuminating the trio.  They are all about the life of St. Matthew but The Calling of St. Matthew is my favorite. The church never seems to be crowded and I always feel I can stand there forever. Some argue that the lighting in the Church is too dim to truly appreciate the brushstrokes and details of these paintings but I love the feeling of the place.

The-Calling-of-Saint-Matthew_CaravaggioThe story is of Levi the tax collector who is summoned by Christ and leaves everything behind to follow him. The story takes place in a Custom house and Caravaggio skillfully illuminates the hand of Christ and the surprise on the face of St. Matthew.  Yet what is going on in the shadows, is equally illuminating. Jesus himself is hard to see, only his hand is illuminated.  Most of the people surrounding St. Matthew are in darkness simply going about their business oblivious to the drama going on in front of them. Caravaggio was known for his use of chiaroscuro, (light and shadow), for dramatic affect.

Whether you are a religious person or not, this painting tells a universal story.  Of those moments, really seconds in time, when we feel truly touched by something outside ourselves calling us to change.  We often are not even truly aware of what this is and those around us are usually completely unaware of what is happening.  These moments are astonishing but essentially private and inexplicable. Yet, if you let them, they can change your life.

How to Design a Sign

I am fascinated by the artistic process. Living with such a person gives me an opportunity to observe this up close and it is always so interesting to see how many, seemingly disparate, aspects come together in a completed project.  For example, we just installed a sign for the entrance to our studio which on the surface is a fairly mundane thing to do.

. Sign - 1

As you can see this sign is anything but mundane.  The idea first came up in a business meeting talking about ways to increase the visibility of our business.  We had decided to open to the public on Saturdays and wanted ways to become more noticeable to drive by traffic and we also wanted a clearly defined business entrance.

Initially we thought of a hand lettered sign on the side of our house, (which is also our studio), with perhaps some unique lighting to make it interesting.  So that was one idea.  At the same time Dita, (the artist in question), was designing a prototype of an owl house which in itself had come from the birdhouse design she had previously done.  Somehow the connection to houses for non human creatures and art turned into a design for an insect house.  An insect house is created in order to attract certain specific insects such as ladybugs which are beneficial to the garden. Of course an insect house designed by Dita is aesthetically appealing as well as functional.

Insect house

So how did an insect house become a sign?  Well we had a customer who had requested a sign for a rural property.  Dita had this beautiful cedar post and from somewhere came the idea of putting the lettering on the post but building an insect house to be installed on top both to increase visibility and add a practical component to the sign.  While that project is still pending, Dita took this original design and added lighting using the post to create this stunning entrance to our business.

photo-3Of course the installation skills, the joinery, the ability to hide electrical wires and the use of the right finish all come from years of experience in designing and building for the out of doors.  It starts with the spark or sparks of inspiration but requires true expertise for completion.  To me both the end product and the process itself are equally inspiring.