During the planning stage for this soft-power-charged issue an invitation arrived from the ambassador of the Czech Republic and his wife asking us to attend a reception at their residence for Czech National Day. Our editor in chief, our former executive producer Gillian Dobias (whose family left Czechoslovakia before the Second World War) and I rsvp’d with a big “yes, please”.
It would be a chance for a bit of soft-power research and, to be honest, it’s always fun when you’re given permission to nose around a diplomatic outpost. Some are truly remarkable and others have that dreary look of being furnished from some central civil-service store cupboard – and both versions give you added insight into their owner’s worldview.
Instead of being held at the brutalist embassy in west London the party took place at the fragrantly named residence Villa Magnolia, on the edge of leafy Hampstead Heath. Since the 1950s this has been the home of the Czechoslovaks and then, after the division of the nation, the Czechs. It’s a red-brick beauty that would do just as well housing a shipping magnate’s family.
Although it was autumn, the weather was mild and the party trailed from the house to the lawns where Czechs of all generations were either in the queue for the Czeched-up barbecue (lots of large sausages) or waiting for a glass of their national sparkling wine. Inside, the house was a nice take on posh English with a 1950s edge – the communist-era ambassadors must have been in heaven – and in the dining room was another great spread of Czech culinary treats.
But the soft power didn’t all come with a garnish; nor was it yesteryear in style. Parked in the driveway was the ambassador’s car: a Skoda. And in case you had missed it, there was a giant Skoda banner flapping away next to it.
By the time we had left, we had seen (and tasted) all sorts of subtle elements of Czech soft power and had been pleasantly wooed by the charismatic ambassador. It got us to thinking about how nations need to use their diplomats – and led to the commissioning of a whole feature about the outposts that can pull this off with panache.
The story is the icing on the bun of our annual Soft Power Survey, which also looks at many other grittier metrics. But in the end – and at the close of a tough year – it feels like we need more diplomats who know how to host, entertain and make friends, even if their national leaders are prone to more brutal attitudes (post-Brexit British ambassadors are going to have their work cut out for years to come).
Beyond world peace we also look at potted plants in this issue. Our design lead investigates that succulent on your windowsill and the cheese plant that’s taken pride of place in your lobby. Why are they there? Sure, you wanted a nice pot plant. But there are also a host of reasons that you may not have quite focused on before.
First let’s set the leafy backdrop to this story. For decades potted plants were sneered at, decried for being “grannyish” and banished from every design-conscious home; they were about as desirable as an avocado-green bath. But then something happened that germinated a pot-plant revival (in our report some growers say it hasn’t been this good for 50 years).
One trigger was the return to global dominance of mid-century modern design that, in its first outing, had always been pared with shiny, architectural foliage such as a rubber plant. The new owners of a pair of Finn Juhl chairs realised that a fiddle-leaf fig would go rather well with their retro purchases. Then the Nordic-revival design theme spread and that’s why today Ikea is giving over more and more space to greenery and buying plants in the tens of thousands every week.
But there’s something else at play here. The potted plants are marching in step to another trend: the densification of our urban cores. As people live in smaller and smaller apartments in city cores with no access to a garden, those plants deliver a natural connection we all hanker after (as you’ll see on page 139).
Our double-issue thumper also packs in our annual Travel Top 50 and gift guide too. In short, we think we have your next few weeks covered, from intellectual stimulation to things to stick a bow on. And we hope you enjoy all that follows this page. Finally, we would like to wish you a Happy Christmas and a very Happy New Year and thank you for all of your support.