|Photos by Larry Hirshowitz|
Of the thousand odd and wondrous things lurking in Mr. Douglas Little’s modern Victorian workshop, the first thing you notice is fragrance. A languorous apple scent. His is an elegant space that is half apothecary lab and half old-world chocolate shop. Partly the scent comes from tea simmering in a glass teapot. But mostly it comes from the “Thorn Apple” candles that are Mr. Little’s latest creation.
Last November, Little’s company, D.L. & Co. (“Modern Alchemists and Purveyors of Curious Goods”), launched the Modern Alchemy product line with a run of 2,500 luxury candles. They come packaged in a handsome round box covered in hand-dyed Burmese silk (think hat boxes) tied with a fat, black silk ribbon. The candle vessel is amethyst glass, dark as obsidian; its form, a take on an antique scalloped vase. The piece suggests any number of curious images: A morning glory hefty as a cereal bowl? A wing of a bat? An upside-down version of the mysterious black umbrella toted by the anonymous gentlemen in so many Magritte paintings?
Royal Banning brooch made
from a banning-rooster skull
Art Deco ornamentation
As an artist, Little is a hybrid talent. He is a fine fragrancer, graphic designer, installation artist, interior designer, illustrator, sculptor. Skills are acquired in service of a larger, more fantastic vision. To make the willowy flower lamps lighting the path to his garden, he learned how to weld. To grow the plants that produced the scents that went into the candles, he studied botany. “May I pour you a cup of tea?” Little asks amiably, offering a glass teacup on a silver plate. He is dressed in the manner of a Victorian gentleman — cravat, vest, tailored coat, shoes and spats — yet he still manages to convey a contemporary sensibility. His oval lapel pin twinkles. It is a locket-size daguerreotype of a fellow with a curling mustache. The dream is complete.
Darling Starling brooch with 1940s
copper and glass
Spring brings two new candle flavors: “Angel’s Trumpet” in a white frosted glass version of the scalloped bowl, and “Absinthe” in slick acid green. Absinthe? “It’s based on the wormwood plant,” he motions toward his garden. Here, toxic plants abound: deterra, hemlock, henbane, deadly nightshade. “That vine is moonflower, which blooms only at night — the Victorians believed that steeping the petals and then drinking the tea let you see into the future.” Strange plantings for the back yard of a cozy Hansel-and-Gretel home in Sherman Oaks.
In his studio, like his house, whimsical vignettes wait in every corner. Most are his design: a candy jar filled with sweet tarts next to a phial labeled “Syrup of Foxes Lungs.” A pair of stuffed pheasants clinging to a log, one with a crocodile skull for a head, another with that of a baby doll. In a gigantic black armoire are a trio of plant sculptures. One is an orchid with a real human spinal cord for a stem. A butterfly perched on the leaf of another flaps its wings rhythmically, its mechanism a secret. Underneath Little’s teacup, a spider skitters. Look! The glass coffee table is actually a terrarium, an abode for Lady Pinkwater, his pet tarantula, who creeps across neon-pink gravel. Charmingly sinister paintings hang in the cathedral-like foyer — replicas of the ones in the “Stretching Hall” of Disney’s Haunted Mansion ride. Every artifact tells a story. One night, for example, he was struck by the way the evening light glinted on a spider web in his driveway and spent hours experimenting with fixative sprays. He sandwiched the webs between glass plates, then mounted them in vintage frames. The lone remnant of the cobweb project hangs on a cabinet door. “The others sold fast. Web plates are seasonal,” he quips. “It depends on the spider.”
Vanilla Bean Asphyxia necklace
from a Victorian
mourning dickey with a silk
fox, jet glass, and Madagascar
with a jet glass
and sterling pin
The project list continues: elaborate lace and jet-beaded bracelets and sashes made of reworked Victorian mourning dickeys. Brooches fashioned out of taxidermied birds. A pair with yellow flame-colored feathers nestle now in a slim wood box. They are startling and lovely.
The Victorian era was, of course, the great age of both prodigious innovation and restraint. Of earnestness and fin-de-siècle decadence. Of delicious contradiction, in other words. For the same era that gave us Darwin and the Valentine’s Day card also gave us Jack the Ripper. “Can you imagine being strangled by vanilla beans?” Little asks while describing a necklace he made by sewing whole vanilla beans into the ruffles of an old lace collar. “I love the beauty of that concept.” Body heat warms the beans and releases a cloud of sweet scent. Little’s hand flutters to his neck. The necklace is named “Vanilla Bean Asphyxia.” He created it, along with the taxidermied bird brooches, as a one-of-a-kind piece. For the near future, he envisions a line of brooches based on silhouettes and cameos. But lines of D.L. & Co. stationery or furniture are also fair game. In the end, it’s about the gestalt. “The idea is to refine the past. Give it an edge. Nowadays, there is plenty of futuristic and sleek, but precious little,” says the gentle Mr. Little, indicating his oddly beautiful home, his art, his world, “of . . . this.”