Can this kitchen be saved?

The answer: a resounding yes! Country Living teamed up with designer Shawn Henderson for the ultimate makeover challenge.

Photographs by WENDELL T. WEBBER

We recently set out in search of a kitchen so in need of transformation that it would make even the toughest experts quake in their boots. Turns out, we didn't have to look far: Our own photo editor, Barb Menke, was harboring a secret -- one covered in faux-pine paneling and peeling linoleum. "If I were to use a single phrase to describe the room, it would be 'total disaster,'" admits Barb of the kitchen in her 1830s Cold Spring, New York, home. Though she and her husband, Avery Menke, renovated their living room, "guests gravitated toward the ugly kitchen," Barb says. So last April, the duo turned the space over to CL's style and market editors, along with Manhattan designer Shawn Henderson. Using cost-saving and clever solutions, the team created a kitchen that's as much about living well as eating well. "Our friends love it," Barb says. "Now I really can't get them out of my kitchen!"

Steal this idea!

Henderson fashioned this giant chopping board by cutting down an affordable Ikea oak countertop. ($129; for stores)

Steal this idea!

Blueberry crates mounted on a wall seem tailor-made for storing pantry staples -- they're one canning jar deep.

[Photograph]: [1] Above the sink, Henderson mounted reclaimed oak planks in lieu of cabinets; the shelving­ makes the room feel airier -- and unloading the dishwasher is a cinch. ($104 per beam; antiqueandvintage [2] "What this kitchen desperately needed was a dose of glamour, that 'wow' factor," Henderson says. So he opted for hexagonal, not rectangular, tiles to create a graphic, snakeskin-like effect -- which extends beyond the backsplash area to cover an entire wall. ($18 per square foot; for stores) [3] Instead of spending a ransom on cabinetry, the designer gave Ikea's off-the-shelf pine cupboards a custom look with nickel drawer pulls. (Cabinetry, from $59; Amerock pulls, from $5.49; [4] The money saved went toward a showstopper farmhouse-style sink with a brass faucet, and stainless steel appliances. (Sink, $1,100; for stores. Faucet, $526; for stores. Appliances, from $999; for stores)

[Photograph]: Before

[Photograph]: [5] For the counters, Henderson chose CaesarStone, a durable quartz that delivers the look of marble without the high price tag or tendency to scratch. (From $70 per square foot; for stores) [6] Outfitted with casters and paint, this table becomes a roving workstation, eliminating the need for a fixed island. (Stornäs table, $399; for stores. Casters, $7.97 each; for stores) [7] Installing flooring can be a snap. These engineered maple planks click together like puzzle pieces and come prepainted. ($11 per square foot; for stores) [8] Everything in its place: Drawer organizers keep utensils tidy. ($14.99;

[Photograph]: [8] Everything in its place: Drawer organizers keep utensils tidy. ($14.99;

[Photograph]: Before

[Photograph]: [9] After tearing down the unsightly faux-pine paneling, Henderson painted the walls, crown molding, baseboard heaters, and window frames the same pale blue color, Freshaire's Tranquil Pond, to visually expand the size of the room. ($39.98 per gallon; for stores) [10] Cool kitchen furniture can be scavenged from the unlikeliest of places, including restaurant- and office-supply shops. These metal stools were purchased at, a Boston-based company that specializes in dorm furniture. ($148.34 a pair)

[Photograph]: Before

[Photograph]: [11] Henderson borrowed ideas from formal dining rooms to make the kitchen feel like more than just a work space. This $120 secondhand sideboard became the key focal point thanks to a coat of yellow paint. (Freshaire's Butterfly Wing, $39.98 per gallon; for stores) [12] Wallpaper works wonders to soften a kitchen, especially when it doubles as a conversation starter. This Trash Day design looks like traditional toile, but depicts houses with their garbage bins set out for pickup. ($142 per roll; for stores) [13] Unexpected brass sconces offer a more sophisticated alternative to typical task lighting. ($252 each;

[Photograph]: [14] "When I work with a rustic material, I temper it with a polished one to blur the differences between warm and cool surfaces," says Henderson, who fitted the rugged oak shelves with brushed nickel brackets. ($29.99 a pair;

A Family Affair

Fifty-one years ago, newlywed James Ford carried his bride, Jo (above), across the threshold of this Russellville, Arkansas, house (right). More than four decades after selling that bungalow, the couple bought it again for and had the building moved to their farm a few miles away. Then they asked their son Brad (left), an interior designer, to create a decor as special as the family's memories. So he turned to rummage sales, affordable chain stores, and even a book that he made into wallpaper (right). Seven days and only $3,200 later, the result was a guesthouse that's truly... a family affair

In 1958, Dwight Eisenhower called the shots in Washington, D.C., "At the Hop" topped the Billboard charts, and newlyweds James and Jo Ford settled into their first home: a 1,000-square-foot cottage in Russellville, Arkansas, an hour north of Little Rock. "We were young and unconquerable," James recalls.

Purchased for just $6,500, the four-room abode hosted the family's first shared Christmases and birthday parties. "We had our first child while we lived in that house," Jo says. Four years later, the Fords had out-grown the space and decided it was time to move on -- but they never forgot their little bungalow. "Anytime we drove by the house, we'd say, 'There's Mom and Dad's first house,'" says Brad, the youngest of the couple's four kids and an interior designer based in New York City.

So when James, a real estate agent, heard that the place was to be demolished, he had an epiphany: "Wouldn't it be great to have the first house you lived in behind the last one you lived in?" With that dream in mind, the Fords repurchased the old cottage for $1 (by then "the property was worth more than the building," James says with a laugh) and hauled it to the backyard of their current home, a six-acre farm five miles away.

But the $1 house needed massive work.

The Fords wanted a space that could accommodate their family, including seven grandkids whose visits revolve around domino games and dinners of Jo's famous pork chops and biscuits. Jo, a retired real estate agent, took on a renovation that included switching the master bedroom and kitchen and tearing out the ceiling to build a loft. She added a second bathroom as well as new flooring and energy-efficient windows. After all that, (continued on pg. 109)(continued from pg. 104) Jo ran out of steam when it came to decorating, opting for what Brad describes as cookie-cutter furnishings.

"The house is so charming,"

Brad says, "and my parents' story is so charming that I wanted to give them a look with more personality." He also wanted to do it on a tiny budget (less than $3,500) and a tight deadline (one week). So instead of shelling out for new furniture, Brad made the most of what James and Jo already had, rearranging their existing pieces and revitalizing the drab palette with sunny accessories.

The designer introduced flourishes that reflect his family's passion for gardening and highlighted cherished pieces, such as Jo's "Great Wall of China," a collection of dishes received from friends. To add visual drama on the cheap, he framed leaves picked from the yard and papered the bathroom walls with lush pages from a $22 book of botanical prints.

Now the old place is a guesthouse as vibrant as the Fords' memories. And the family looks forward to creating more. Says Brad, "I didn't take a 'real' vacation last year, but I visited my parents eight times. It's better than any resort."


Before, a blah palette, overly coordinated pieces, and a closed-off furniture arrangement (below) made the space uninviting.

Brad moved the sofa to the windows so that it beckons people into the living area, instead of forming a barricade with its back side.

A striped rug ($299; carves out a distinct space within the open-plan first floor.

To undo the room's "matchy-matchy" feel, Brad swapped one of the wing chairs for a Windsor seat, $68 at a local antiques mall. A variety of thrift-store painted tables replaced all the light wood.

Rather than reupholster, the designer transformed his parents' pieces with accents, including a throw Jo already owned and a butterfly pillow made from Design Legacy fabric. (Cynthia East Fabrics, $58 per yard; 501-663-0460)

The Fords' recipe for free art: Microwave leaves for 30 seconds, place between wax paper, and press for a few days using a book weighted by a heavy pot. Remove wax paper and frame on linen card stock. (Frames, $8.99 and 12.99; for stores)


This space's striking architecture went unnoticed, due to the dull wall color and outmoded linens (above).

Floral wallpaper ($60 per roll; highlights the peaked roof.

"Bedding can create a dramatic change without being super expensive," Brad says of the room's thrifty new linens. The coverlets and sheets came from Target (Simply Shabby Chic for Target cover-let, $89.99 for twin, and sheets, $29.99 for twin set;, while the designer picked up the showpieces -- vibrantly hued shams -- from Garnet Hill ($40 each;

Brad cleaned up a cluttered tabletop by opting for hanging lamps with thrift-store shades. (Burn-side pendant, $113 each;

A white nail-edge trunk -- scored for $40 at a local antiques shop -- doesn't interrupt the clean lines of the window frame.

The vast expanse of wall-to-wall carpet disappears under a nubby sisal rug. (Similar rug, $89.99;


Dark furniture and an abundance of wall art gave the appearance of too much clutter in the small nook (opposite).

Brad swapped out the square table for a $250 round one from antiques shop Clement (501-539-1473). Light-wood curved-back chairs ($119 each; for stores) also help soften the space.

Picked up for $50 at a rummage sale, one large cabinet -- instead of lots of little wall hangings -- delivers a cleaner look. A $134 tray table from a local antiques mall provides serving space.

A jute rug ($299; clearly defines the dining area.


With standard fixtures and a basic paint job, this space (below) cried out for some character.

The wallcovering is just pages from The Book of Botanical Prints: The Complete Plates ($22; Taschen), by Basilius Besler, applied with wallpaper glue.

Since a bureau under the sink offers storage, Brad ditched the bulky medicine cabinet for a pretty mirror ($99;

Unsightly sliding doors hide behind a shower curtain ($44;

Native New Yorker Barbara Thau has written about home furnishings for 14 years and loves to rearrange her living room furniture on rainy Saturday afternoons.

HAX Foundation Will Honor John Wooden at First Annual 'John Wooden Pyramid of Success Awards' September 12th at the Hangar Athletic Xchange

Hangar Athletic Xchange (HAX), the premier location in Southern California for athletic training, recently announced its first annual "John Wooden Pyramid of Success Awards" to be hosted by CBS & KLAC sports personality Steve Hartman on September 12. Honoring those who have set themselves apart with humanitarian work, Coach John Wooden and the "HAX Foundation" will honor Boston Celtic Paul Pierce, Dick Vitale of ESPN, McDonald's CEO Jim Skinner, and Rod Smith, founder of the "Say No Classic" (see also Hangar Athletic Xchange).

As a young teacher, Wooden grew frustrated with the academic grading system he was required to use, and felt compelled to help his students better understand success as a result of effort. He spent the next 14 years identifying 25 behaviors he believed were necessary to achieve his idea of success, which culminated in a diagram Wooden called "The Pyramid of Success". Six decades later these foundations are consistently used as a cornerstone for mentorship and teaching methodology worldwide.

Promoting equal success on the court and in the classroom, the "HAX Foundation" was founded to provide scholarships for underprivileged student athletes into sports academies and athletic conditioning at the HAX facility. All proceeds from the "John Wooden Pyramid of Success Awards" will support this cause.

With regards to the upcoming event and his acceptance of the first "Pyramid of Success" award, Coach John Wooden remarked: "I am delighted to be honored by the HAX Foundation, and to have the opportunity to recognize these talented individuals. To have my life's work and philosophy held to such great regard is a marvelous gift."

HAX Foundation President Jason Boze remarked: "John Wooden's 'Pyramid of Success' is a worldwide studied philosophy which relates to all walks of life. We are extremely proud to honor Coach Wooden and have him support this cause."

For more information on the Hangar Athletic Xchange or the first annual "John Wooden Pyramid of Success Awards" please visit or contact Juliette Harris at It Girl Public Relations at 310-577-1122 or

For information on ticketing, sponsorships or advertisement please contact Amanda Herdina at Amanda@GBKproductions or 323-933-9989.

Keywords: Hangar Athletic Xchange, Advertise, Advertising, Sports, Athletic Training, Behavior.



It was a long time since anyone in my family had built a boat. The last was my Uncle Paul. He was a shipbuilder who learned his trade beginning at age 14 in Hamburg, Germany. Every morning, the boy rowed from the family's dock out across the shipping lanes of the Elbe River, which flows into the North Sea. The trip to the shipyard where he was apprenticed took an hour and a half, longer in winter, when there was fog and floating ice on the water. After three years, Paul received a journeyman's certificate and a berth aboard a gigantic four-masted windjammer named Passat -- "trade wind" in English. That was in the 1920s, before the fascists confiscated his family's own small shipyard and the Berendsohns left for America.

A few months ago, I decided to try my hand at the ancestral trade. I've built everything from houses to a blacksmith's forge (March 2009), but there's no more evocative project than a boat, at least to me. Since before Austronesians first gazed across the Pacific, wooden vessels have stood for craftsmanship and the drive to explore. I sifted through PM's archives looking for a classic design and eventually settled on a 10-foot dinghy from our May 1937 issue. It looked elegant, yet simple enough to build on a pair of sawhorses.

It's been many years since my Uncle Paul was around to lend advice, so I ran the drawings past Timo White, a boatbuilder at Tuckerton Seaport, a small maritime museum on the New Jersey coast. It turned out that Timo was in the midst of restoring a surfboard built from plans in the July 1937 issue of PM. (It was a big year for seafaring projects, I guess.) He confirmed that the dinghy was a good candidate for a first-time builder and agreed to lend a hand if needed.


On a wintry early spring morning I set out for Willard Brothers Woodcutters, a sawmill and lumber dealer in Trenton, N.J. You can spend hours there, roaming stacks of delicious-looking walnut, cherry and oak, some of the boards as wide as your arm is long. I bought red oak for the Sea Scout's frames (that was the name of the craft in the plans, and I chose to keep it) and a 2-inch-thick slab of white oak for the wedge-shaped stem at the bow.

Back home, I started making a racket feeding planks through a table saw. My skills were creaky -- I've spent too much time in recent years fixing stuff and not enough building -- but over a few days my old confidence returned. The Sea Scout began to take form.

Most boats begin with the frames, the ribs that provide structure to the hull. I roughed them into shape, along with the stem and the gracefully shaped stern wall, or transom, which I cut from ¾-inch plywood. Then I braced it all to a building board -- which is nothing more than a 2 x 10 with a chalk line marked down the center. The boat's skeleton was in place, but each member still needed to be precisely beveled before I could secure the curved planks of the hull. The next step was to clamp thin strips of wood, called battens, to the frame to stand in for the planks, so I could measure and mark all those angles. Then, I took the parts off the board and finished shaping them.

Often, the weather confined me to the garage, but when the sun emerged I worked in the driveway. If you want to get to know the neighbors, start building a boat. Linda from next door asked whether the craft would be sailed, rowed or powered by an outboard motor. Others wondered where I would go with it, how I'd get it there and what I would name it. A truck driver from Tulnoy Lumber, dropping off some marine plywood, approached respectfully. "This is beautiful," he said, with an old-fashioned New York accent as broad as the hand he ran over the frames.


I don't know how Uncle Paul felt about it, but boatbuilding can be acutely frustrating. The bane of my weekends proved to be a small bronze screw. A No. 6 Frearson flat-head, to be exact. Like most modern DIYers, I'd been spoiled by drywall screws and other aggressive fasteners that practically plow into the lumber. Even using a specialized, tapered drill bit and a waxlike lubricant with the unlikely name of Akempucky, I managed to wreck screws by the dozen. The head on one would strip a moment before the screw was fully seated, while another would shear off on the last eighth of a turn, leaving me with a shiny Frearson-head penny.

Timo had tried to downplay the arcana I'd face -- "It's more like house carpentry than fine-furniture building," he had said -- but I still found myself floundering on occasion. One challenge was that the 1937 article was more an overview than a detailed set of plans. And, though it pains me to find fault with my forebears at POPULAR MECHANICS, the sketch contained suspicious discrepancies. Timo helped me recalibrate some of the dimensions midway through the project -- and I had to trim several pieces after they were assembled.

The biggest hurdle came when it was time to plank the hull. The classic way is to bend strips of solid wood to the frames. I'd chosen marine-grade fir plywood instead to save time, but now I was barely able to force the hull's ¼-inch sheets into place. There was no way the half-inch plywood I'd planned for the bottom was going to work.

Timo advised me to switch to a special, wafer-thin marine-grade plywood and plank the bottom in two layers. He came swooping in one Thursday morning to show me the technique. He stepped out of his truck with a broad smile, and a block plane in each hand, and my mood lifted. He politely took a sighting down the chine logs where we'd attach the bottom, and spent a few minutes planing them to the last measure of precision. Then we got to work with staples, glue and screws -- and in a couple of hours the project went from a plywood flower bed to a small craft with sensuous compound curves.

It was satisfying, but my mistakes still showed in details like the placement of screws and the shape of the stem. "You know what they say," Timo told me. "Putty and paint makes a boat what it ain't." I got out my paintbrushes.


We launched the boat at Tuckerton Seaport on a cool, overcast day that felt more like September than June. Down at the dock, Timo produced a can of Amstel Light in lieu of champagne. "Go ahead," he said, "pour it over the bow." I popped it open and emptied the beer over the paint. "I christen thee Sea Scout," I said. Then we slid the little craft off the dock and into the water.

You might think a feeling of triumph came over me. Not so. The Sea Scout looked very small, almost helpless, as she sat bobbing at the end of the painter, the little rope that Timo had threaded across the bow. I felt humbled. A phrase from the Book of Psalms flashed in my mind: "They that go down to the sea in ships, that do business on great waters."

I wasn't aiming for any great waters myself. I eased off the dock and into the boat. Timo handed me the oars. Awkwardly, I drew the handles back, just above my hips. The craft slid forward gracefully, almost like she was on ice. As Timo watched, I braced the left oar down in the water and swept the surface with the right. The Sea Scout pivoted neatly, unexpectedly elegant and spry.

If the oars were a kick, you can imagine the thrill I felt when I mounted the 2.5-hp Mercury Marine outboard on the transom. It's a clean-running four-stroke engine, compact yet almost zippy on a boat this small. I gave the engine full throttle and cut some nice straight lines and a pleasingly tight curve complete with a crisp little wake.

With the afternoon gone, my first voyage was complete. In the end, I decided to donate the boat and engine to Tuckerton Seaport. Frankly, I needed the space in my garage and driveway: The Sea Scout was a good first foray into wooden boatbuilding, but I knew I could do better -- and I'm already sifting through plans.


[Photograph]: MAY 1937: These plans for a small and simple sailing boat design called a Biloxi Dinghy appeared in Popular Mechanics in May 1937. To simplify the project, I omitted the mast and centerboard. Instead, I built the Sea Scout, named after the craft in the original article, to be rowed or powered by an outboard motor. She works well in either configuration.

[Photograph]: ANATOMY OF A BOAT: 1. Building Board: Like most small wooden boats, the Sea Scout was built bottom side up. Most pieces aren't permanently connected until relatively late in the process, but every element of the frame had to be shaped to fit together precisely. The 12-foot-long building board, made from a 2 x 10, held the parts in the right positions while the bevels were measured and again when it was time to join the frames together with the chine logs and planking. 2. Bottom Member: The frames underlying the dinghy's hull were fashioned from red oak. The curved section is the bottom member -- each one was cut with a jigsaw and smoothed using a block plane. 3. Side Member: The gently tapered oak side members meet the bottom members at a slight angle. These pieces are cut oversize, then shortened to finished length. 4. Gusset: The gussets joining the bottom and side framing members are cut from oak and fastened with epoxy and bronze screws, some of which ended up being too close to the gusset's edge. 5. Cross-Spall: Cross-spalls support each frame during the building process. They're screwed to the side members and the building board. After the planking is done, the boat is turned upright and the supports are removed.

[Photograph]: 1. Very few elements in a boat are simply cut to shape and installed. Like the oak stem shown here, nearly every piece needs to be beveled or curved to fit the surface it meets. (That tool is a fore plane I own, built by Stanley Tools in 1927.)

[Photograph]: 2. Ancient terms persist in boatbuilding. This curving wood piece, where the bottom is attached, is called a chine log. In past centuries, it consisted of a single log chosen for its natural curve, then shaped to fit. The chine log is set in a notch and fastened to each frame.

[Photograph]: 3. Two layers of okoume plywood form the bottom of the Sea Scout. Timo (foreground) showed me how to install them.

[Photograph]: 4. The Sea Scout motored along nicely, powered by this 2.5-hp four-stroke Mercury Marine outboar


Tray Chic

Old cabinet door destined for the landfill? Don't be so closed-minded! With paint and a pair of drawer pulls, a salvaged cabinet door makes a great tray for entertaining. Fill any holes in the board with wood filler from a hardware store; let dry at least two hours. Sand and paint the surface; pre-drill holes and screw in handles of about four inches, as shown.

Pretty Practical

Give your dining table a cheery face-lift for fall by making these custom, easy-care place mats. To start, gather fabric (heavier, "home decorating" weight, like the Amy Butler design shown here from, works best), pinking shears, and iron-on vinyl topping, which is available at most fabric stores. Cut fabric into 12"-by-17" rectangles; iron. For each mat, cut two rectangles of the same size from the vinyl. Following package directions, iron a piece of vinyl onto each side of the place mat; use pinking shears to trim the edges of your mats. You'll be able to sponge away any spills.


Perk up your pencil cup with a bud vase that adds some life to your office space. Remove the ink cartridge from a dried-up pen (most snap out easily). Fill with water, cap the pen at the bottom, and pop in a thin-stemmed bloom.

Change Is Good

Want to teach wee ones that every penny counts? Make a coin bank -- for free. Rinse an empty cleaning-wipe container; remove the label. Go to to print a new label, below. Cut to fit; affix with tape. Change can be dropped right in through the top hole.


Disposable tissue box designs tend to (pardon the pun) blow. Here's how to DIY an attractive topper that'll last: Pick up an unfinished wooden tissue box, X-acto knife, wood veneer, decoupage glue (like Mod Podge), and polyurethane from a crafts store. Coat the box with polyurethane three times (follow product instructions). Cut four two-inch-wide strips of veneer, one to fit each side of the box. Glue on strips (ours are an inch from the bottom), coating both sides of each strip with glue, as well as the entire box; let dry. For a smooth finish, add a last polyurethane coat.

Stake Your Claim

For your next dinner party, try this trick to mark guests' seats: Spear place cards onto wooden skewers atop lemon slices, then park them in glasses as you set the table. Simply snip card stock into two-inch squares, write names, slice lemon, and assemble on skewers. Hint: Remind guests to remove them before drinking.

Tack It On

The upholstery tack isn't just for sofas anymore. This fabric finisher is back in fashion -- and makes an inexpensive way to add pizzazz to plain pieces of wood furniture. Buy tacks from a hardware or fabric store for about $10 a pack (we used two packs in two sizes); push or tap them in along the lines of a table, bench, or chair for an eye-catching accent.

kids, what's your favorite bedtime story?

Your sleepyheads weigh in on what they want (besides another glass of water) at tuck-in time.


The Harry Potter series [by J. K. Rowling]. My mom read every book aloud to me and my sister. Even when we were old enough to read by ourselves, we made a deal that no one could read the books without the other two people being there. Sometimes we would read for hours, way past my bedtime!


Berkeley, California

The Poky Little Puppy [by Janette Sebring Lowrey]. It reminds me of when I was born and I was so slow that my mom had to carry me everywhere, just like the puppy in the story. He was always behind.


Brooklyn, New York

Snappy Little Colors [by Kate Lee], because Mommy lets me put my hand in the shark's mouth and it gets me!


Houston, Texas

We love the stories our mother tells about her childhood and how she wandered in the woods with her best friends and spent time on her granny and pawpaw's farm in Texas.


Leawood, Kansas

We like Silly Sally [by Audrey Wood], because she walks upside down.


Winter Garden, Florida

Green Eggs and Ham, by Dr. Seuss, because it's just funny. Sam I Am's friend makes me laugh because of his crazy face!


Dulles, Virginia

The Bible. It makes me learn to be a better boy.


Atlanta, Georgia

I love the Elephant and Piggie books [by Mo Willems]. Mom and Dad take turns doing the voices of Elephant and Piggie.


Berkeley, California

Night of the Ninjas [by Mary Pope Osborne], because there is a mouse I like named Peanut.


Seattle, Washington

Diary of a Wimpy Kid [by Jeff Kinney], because it has the word jerk in it and I'm not allowed to say that.


New York, New York

The Giving Tree [by Shel Silverstein], because you still have lots to give when you get old.


Atlanta, Georgia

Pinkalicious [by Victoria Kann and Elizabeth Kann]. I love it because it's so funny. She eats so many cupcakes that she turns pink. Plus, I love pink.


Wilmette, Illinois

Cinderella, because I always wanted to be a princess when I was little. Now that I am older, I just want to be myself.


Brooklyn, New York

How Do Dinosaurs Eat Their Food? [by Jane Yolen], because I like to think about spaghetti before I go to bed.


West Orange, New Jersey

making SCENTS

Why do you love the fragrance you do? Our columnist Faye Penn sniffed around to find out what makes one person fall for a scent and another turn up her nose

Close your eyes and try to conjure the sweet essence of heliotrope or an earthy violet hint of orris wafting through the air.

Nada, right?

If you've ever tried to describe a perfume, you may have been at a loss--the ingredients that get distilled into fragrances are some of the most elusive sensory stimuli to both imagine and convey to others.

That's partly why parfumeurs often resort to elaborate back stories to sell their fragrances. Consider the promotional text accompanying three fall launches.

There's YSL's woody, floral Parisienne, a new fragrance whose bottle has "vibrating facets evoking Paris, city of light, city of lust, the labyrinth of streets in which you can lose yourself."

Then there's Marc Jacobs's spice-infused Lola, whose muse is "sexy, with a fun, flirtatious wink. Coquettish and a bit provocative ... Playfully alluring and irresistibly tempting."

And what about My Glow, the baby-soft new whiff from Jennifer Lopez, for whom "now is the most perfect moment in her life. Poised between pride in the past and promise for the future, she feels fulfilled as never before. Her spirit is soothed with serenity, her heart overflowing with tenderness. There is no deeper love, no greater happiness than this. No words can describe it, but a fragrance can capture it."

But does it? For help in finding out whether the new fragrances live up to their marketing, we decided to ask a panel of experts: 10 men in a Manhattan bar at happy hour. They like to talk, they always have opinions, and when it comes to the way women smell, guys deserve at least a vote. We didn't bother asking subjects to identify a base of cashmeran wood or top notes of peony. Our question was much simpler: What kind of woman do you envision wearing this fragrance?

What the Men Say

With YSL's Parisienne, Paris wasn't quite what came to mind for José. "It's 2 A.M. at the Gansevoort Hotel, Miami Beach; miniskirt; summer," he imagined. For Julien, Parisienne conjured "a Midwestern blonde with a great body but a reserved personality." But Mitch's imaginary YSL girl wasn't reserved at all. "She's exotic--a dancer," he surmised.

With next to no consensus, we moved on to Marc Jacobs's fragrance, Lola. "She's very conservative," theorized Richard. "She's a cougar," countered Todd. Said Julien: "She's wearing a phenomenal dress, and her perfume makes me want to bury my face in her neck and inhale."

And so it went with My Glow, which did evoke childhood memories for one tester ("I see my little brother coming out of the lilac bush as a kid in Fowlerville, Mich."), but it made another subject think of a corporate shark: "This is for a powerful executive," he said. "She's well-dressed, emotionally unavailable, and ferocious."

At this point we wondered if some female testers--patrons at the same bar--might be more closely aligned in their scent-inspired visions. They weren't: My Glow, said Hillary, "is a young girl's first fragrance." Her friend Barbara disagreed: "It's for a housewife in her 40s involved in charity on a daily basis."

Scents and Sensibility

It's no surprise that people like all kinds of aromas--you need only step into a crowded elevator in the morning to figure that out--but why do we all come away with such different takes on the same whiff?

I consulted Avery Gilbert, author of What the Nose Knows and one of our leading smell scientists (yes, that is what they're called).

Gilbert says that one explainer of scent response is the cumulative result of your many emotional associations: your annoying high school prom date's Brut aftershave, your beloved grandma's White Shoulders, and so forth.

An even more reliable predictor of how you process smells may be Grandma's genes--specifically, the ones she has passed on to you. Every person, Gilbert explains, has 350 fragrance receptors in her nose, designed to pick up odor molecules like a glove catches a baseball. But everyone's are wired differently. So one person who has a weak receptor for the sweetly exotic ylang-ylang might not detect it at all, while another will get clobbered by it.

Gilbert says that researchers are just starting to line up which scents go with which receptors, and once they do, the possibility of creating a GPS to your individual odor preferences has huge consequences for both perfume lovers and makers alike. At the cosmetics counter of the future, he says, "you will lick an electronic lollipop, wait three minutes, and the machine will be able to suggest a whole set of fragrances you're apt to like."

Fascinating stuff, but how does that help with deciding between our fall launches? The best advice even a top smell scientist can give is simple: Try them yourself. "When you smell something you love, it's like finding a haircut you're very happy with or a great jacket," Gilbert says. "You just feel right in it." In other words, the right fragrance might just be beyond words.

The National Parks: America's Best Idea

The National Parks: America's Best Idea Produced by Ken Burns PBS. premieres Sept. 27

On the Tube

Late September launches the latest from documentary filmmaker Ken Burns, a new 12-hour, six-part epic on PBS that tracks our sprawling park system for 150 years from its birth. The central thesis: that national parks for the use of everyone is as radical an idea as the Declaration of Independence and as American as baseball and jazz. A raft of expected (John Muir, Teddy Roosevelt) and offbeat (Japanese immigrant photographer George Masa, wealthy forest ranger George Melendez Wright) characters appear in a Burns-style blend of history, travelogue and nature photography.

* This season also brings the Great Depression back to vivid life on top-notch PBS American Experience episodes, laced as usual with awesome archival footage. Hoover Dam tracks the engineering marvel's tortuous path from concept to completion and ironic aftermaths. The Crash of 1929 richly details the joyride and the smash-up. With poignant, pungent detail. Surviving the Dust Bowl shows that most Dust Bowlers stayed put. And Seablscuit delivers the un-Hollywood version of the little horse and crippled jock who gave the battered country hope. -Gene Santoro