Dorian Webb

African American

One history, of many...

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My parents are moving to the neighborhood! Since my husband and I first moved to Montclair, they have been enamored this quiet little enclave high in the hills of Oakland. My mom, despite having grown up in coal mining territory- Beckley, West Virginia, was at first terrified of the steep, guardrail-free drive required to arrive at our house. Not at all mollified by the gorgeous vistas of the bay, or the sparkling bridges beyond, she averted her eyes, her white knuckles grasping the back of my headrest for dear life. My dad, comfortable in most any situation, was more sanguine, happily commenting on the new environment as we snaked higher and higher into the clouds, asking a slew of pertinent questions (“So how many people live in Oakland?” What is the elevation?”) that we were ill equipped to answer.

I remember that first visit as if it were yesterday. They had come to celebrate their 50th wedding anniversary with us and our friends. We planned a party for about 50 of our nearest and dearest, a group that also included my dad’s best friend from childhood, whom we hadn’t yet met although he lived in Oakland, and a surprise visit from my eldest cousin who lives in Indianapolis, my dad’s hometown.

For most families, a celebration of this milestone would have been commonplace. For ours, it was extraordinary. While the institution of marriage is revered, the ceremony around it has never been all that important to any of us.  My parents, my mother’s sister, and my grandparents before them, all were married in a low key fashion at a local courthouse by the justice of the peace.(“We JP'ed it” my aunt says of the day of her union with my uncle, also 50+ years ago) I’m not sure if any photos exist of these  . I have never seen them.  

When my husband and I were planning our nuptials, he asked/ urged me to invite my parents to “our big day”. Caught up in the moment, and buoyed by his enthusiasm, I did. I regretted it as soon as the words left my mouth.  “Why?” my mother asked me in response to my invitation. I stumbled a bit at the answer, myself, “We thought you and dad might like to be a part of our special day, and, um would like to witness us…” My words drifted off over the phone lines connecting me to the house where I grew up, to the east coast where I knew my mom was cradling the phone to her ear, perched on her favorite couch in the artwork lined family room. Never short of words, she interjected, “Look, Dorian, when your father and I got married many years ago, we paid an inebriated man $20 to be our witness. Are kids not doing that nowadays?”

That was eight years ago, when my father was still able pick out suits and ties and dress himself. Now, on warm summer days, my mom will tuck him into T-shirt we gifted him from a local company that proudly proclaims Oakland's population and elevation under the outlines of a rooted oak tree, and will gently remind him that Oakland is where my husband and I live.

So finally they will return to the Bay Area. Not to Montclair exactly, “About an hour away. That is close enough. We need our privacy.” as my mom succinctly put it. And I couldn’t be happier.

Creating A Table full of Color, Conversation and Community

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While the thrill of standard gift giving and gift getting may have peaked years (decades) ago, the comfort of community has not. For the best, I think, our newly shortened days force us to make tough choices about our time: what we spend it on, and whom we spend it with. And how. Anything else becomes irrelevant.

I choose home with family, friends and that interesting person whom I happened to strike up a conversation with in the local grocery store. As my favorite writer and poet, Elizabeth Alexander said recently, “Family is porous. Family is accepting and welcoming. Family always has space and makes room for another.”

As a designer, I think that that feeling of inclusivity should be reflected not only in actions, but also in objects that create an environment for those actions to thrive.  Growing up, we rarely decorated for the holidays, with minimal decorations dwindling over the years to nothing. I don’t know if I ever really missed it though- our house was always alive with color, conversation and community.

While many things have changed for me in the last few decades- moving to the Bay Area, getting married, taking long hikes in the middle of the workday - my love of color has not. Perhaps it has something to do with my African American heritage and the long line of people before me making something wonderful out of disparate bits and pieces, but I am most at ease surrounded by vibrant splashes of color and patterns and textures of all sorts. I am energized by the polyrhythmic layering of tones, shapes and sensations. THIS is what excites me.

I believe holiday table setting should be as stimulating as the conversation you expect to flow above it, so I spend the night before every dinner party happily preparing for my guests. Each gathering is inspired by the guests themselves, but five elements remain a constant.

1. White tablecloths are jettisoned for fabrics I have found in my travels. Sometimes a soft cotton scarf, printed with shells that I brought back from Italy acts as backdrop, other times a shimmery green, gold flecked shawl from Delhi makes an appearance.

2. Sets dishes are mixed within one place setting, piling hue upon hue and housewarming presents with travel finds. Conversation starters to be sure, but also pragmatic. In this way, I can easily accommodate additional arrivals with the same level of casual elegance and exuberance that I do for expected guests.  Family always has space…

3. Candles dot the table. They are a cityscape of soft lights that create intimacy and a flattering glow.

4. An unusual centerpiece crowns the table. Sometimes it is a small scale, overlooked sculpture rescued  from a bookshelf that is given its star turn for the night, other times it is constructed just for the evening, using a glue gun and whatever is handy.

5. In low juice glasses (to encourage cross table chatting) I gather seasonal flowers from the local farmers market, and intersperse them with fragrant sprigs of rosemary cut from our hedges, or vibrant red stalks of protea to give a sense of moment and place. These small individualized bouquets are gifts to my dinner guests, as a small memento of our time together.

Wishing you a holiday season filled with color and creativity!