Healdsburg’s Julia B. designs heirloom goods to last a lifetime

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Thanksgiving guests at the home of Julia Berger and Marc Fleishhacker will find a table and feast where tradition is turned upside down.

Each place setting will be completely different. And the meal itself forgoes the old New England staples of mashed potatoes and gravy, cranberry sauce and candied yams, in favor of small plate dishes from around the globe, from an Israeli lamb curry on a bed of eggplant and hot Japanese soba noodles to stracotto beef slow cooked with wine and potatoes.

For this Healdsburg couple who love to cook, the menu may be as diverse as the tableware. But the spirit of the day remains intact, a chance to share a slow feast over conversation and laughter with friends and family.

Not only will the meal be home cooked by Berger and Fleishhakker, but the linens, china, crystal and flatware, are all designed by Berger, adding a new level of meaning to the idea of homemade. In fact, Berger even designed the dining table and sideboard. They were crafted from a single heritage oak that fell at Green Gables, the fabled old English-style country estate in Woodside built by Marc Fleishhacker’s great grandparents, the San Francisco philanthropists Mortimer and Bella Fleishhacker.

“One of the things I’ve noticed is when I do this with friends and guests who come and eat with us, they love to choose where they’re going to sit based on what tablescape they like. It’s musical chairs at the table, which is really nice,” said Berger of her unconventional practice of mixing more than matching.

Each place setting will feature a different china pattern and different linens.

Of course, that comes easily to this designer and purveyor of bespoke home goods. Her Julia B. line, which has been featured in a plethora of design and lifestyle magazines, from Elle Decor and Veranda to House Beautiful, Town and Country and Architectural Digest, includes 15 different china patterns, each painted by hand in places like Portugal, Italy and Morocco. Those, and the fine linens created by small mills in Europe and the exquisite crystal hand blown and etched in Bavaria and Czechoslovakia, harken back to an era when things for the home were made and purchased to last not just for a lifetime, but to be passed down through the generations.

In fact, some of the items in her Julia B. collection were inspired by the heirlooms stored in cupboards and drawers and closets at Green Gables, where a fourth and now a fifth generation of Fleishhackers gather for the summer and family occasions.

For her Thanksgiving table, Berger has chosen plates and linens in earthen and jewel tones. These are not your expected oranges and yellows found on most turkey day tables. Instead, they are fresh shades of marigold, kiwi green, navy blue, cranberry and light neutrals like oatmeal.

“Everything is a mixture but it was all obviously with a color harmony, with autumnal hues and deeper jewel tones,” she explained.

Not everyone will have 15 different sets of dishes in their hutch. But a host can still borrow from the idea. Many people now have multiple sets of china and dinnerware, from sets they have bought for themselves to formal china they may have received as wedding gifts or inherited from a mother or grandmother.

With a clever eye, one could also have some fun, combing estate sales or antique and thrift stores, selecting out a variety of different china pieces or pottery plates. The rule of thumb is to find a common thread to bring them together, whether it’s gold or silver or platinum trim, a recurring color theme, or a similar design theme such as florals. Also, stay within the same material and style. Maybe you don’t have all different settings, but alternate among two or three different settings with a common color or pattern language.

“Color harmony is really important and sticking to a style,” she said. “Whatever that style is, whether it is ethnic pottery or china, contemporary pottery or earthenware in a variety of colors but all in similar tones, they can work. But there should be a running theme. Mixing casual with formal is obviously not something that works.”

Maybe you don’t do all different place settings but alternate among two or three. Berger suggests takng stock of what you have. Down the length of her table is a batik-style runner she found in Vietnam.

For a Thanksgiving centerpiece, Berger likes to go beyond cut flowers in favor of fruits and vegetables. She has chosen lemons, persimmons and apples arranged in little silver baskets.

Berger has only recently returned to her native Bay Area, which she left at the age of 13 when her father was transfered to Tokyo. After studying art history, Asian art, languages and textile design at Brown University — a summer in Italy fueled her love of fabrics — she started a career in fashion design with Donna Karan, helping to sell her collections in Japan and Italy.

“My office was right next door to her studio,” she recalled. “So she would come in and drape fabrics on her body and ask us what we thought. Her best friend was Barbra Streisand, who would come into the office. It was a very fun and exciting place to be, and really creative. And as a female designer she was so inspirational. I had great exposure to a female-led business.”

Berger later was recruited by the former DKNY CEO to manage 12 product categories for Calvin Klein “I learned a lot about sales and marketing and store design and how one creates and manages a brand,” she said.

She summoned all of those skills in 2002 when, after taking several years off to care for a baby daughter, she began to market her own line, at first reselling products she imported from Europe and selling out of the trunk of her car to clients in the wealthy enclave of Greenwich, Connecticut.

“After about six years I decided it was time for me to take a stab at designing myself. I thought, the times were changing, styles were changing, sensibilities were changing,” she said.

Working out of her basement she sketched out her first collection — eight styles of bedding, 20 monograms and 15 fabrics. I thought, maybe I can put my mark on this product.”

She has continued to expand, and her line now includes luxury bedding, bath towels, table linens, stemware, silverware, pillows for infants and children, bridal and other gifts and even shower curtains.

She and Fleishhacker, who is now serving as president and COO of the company, moved to Healdsburg about a year ago. From a white, light-filled studio steps from her house, she designs and manages Julia B. While everything is made overseas, it all ships back to Healdsburg where it is pressed and meticulously prepared and packed for shipping, often with personalized cards if it’s a gift.

Berger is now at work developing a line of equally well-crafted items to suit a West Coast clientele, which may be less formal and more geared to outdoor living and entertaining.

Clients can buy existing designs or request custom changes, from color to stitching. Although she does have some retail outlets on the East Coast, she sells on the West Coast and nationally through her website JuliaB.com and at periodic trunk shows held at the Green Gables estate. Most everything is available for monogramming, which is back in style in a big way.

Berger believes she’s capturing the zeitgeist, where people are drawn to food and entertaining and things finely made or made by hand.

It dovetails with a “1950s return to nesting,” evidenced by the popularity of social media sharing of food and place settings, home comforts and decor.

“I hope this is a tradition that somehow stays alive. There are very few of us in the world who want to do this,” she said. “This is my contribution to creating the next generation of heirlooms.”

Staff Writer Meg McConahey can be reached at meg.mcconahey@pressdemocrat.com or 707-521-5204.

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