Wednesday, May 11, 2011

LEGO mosiac Bridge and Groom portrait

I originally started this blog entry back in 2007 after our wedding, but never got around to finishing it. I recently was reminded to share this process in case others might find it helpful for their own mosaic building. Enjoy!

After deciding to incorporate LEGO in our wedding decor, one of the elements we settled upon was a twist on the traditional bride and groom portrait, typically displayed during the reception. Rather than a blown-up studio portrait, we decided to build a LEGO mosaic instead.

Choosing the software:
The first step in the process was to decide on a method to generate a mosaic from a photo. A tool specifically designed with LEGO pieces in mind would be ideal since it would presumably understand and address the limitations and nuances of the medium. However, if one wasn't available, a LEGO mosaic is still essentially just a pixelation of a photo, so any number of photo editing tools could be used.

I had seen various LEGO mosaic tools over the years, but I became slightly distraught when my initial searches yielded nothing but broken links and messages of ceased distribution. Eventually I found PicToBrick and after downloading it and quickly playing around with it, I determined it was precisely what I needed.

The next logical step, of course, is to decide on a suitable photograph. There are many attributes of an image that determine whether or not it would be a good mosaic, but I think the overriding factor is the detail level. Photos that are too highly detailed for the resolution of the mosaic will lose all the detail, and conversely, too little detail will result in a nebulous blob.

Choosing the photo:
In our case, a portrait consisting primarily of our heads was preferable over full body shots. We chose the following shot from our engagement photo session with Marc and Phoebe:



After choosing a photo, additional modifications can be made to result in a better mosaic. In this instance I removed the landscape in the background:


Choosing the build configuration:
Now, it was time to fire up PicToBrick and import the photo. If you haven't decided already, you'll now have to decide upon a few attributes of the mosaic that are going to greatly affect how it looks: 1. brick orientation (i.e. studs facing out, studs up so that the sides of the bricks are visible, etc.) 2. size 3. color palette

Eric Harshbarger has a good overview of these design decisions at his website that I highly recommend reading. Now, to expand upon some of the factors and my decisions for my portrait:

1. Brick Orientation: we chose to build with studs facing out since that style is most recognizable as being built with LEGO blocks, which was our goal. A viewer merely has to approach close enough to recognize the iconic stud, and if that's still not enough, even closer examination will make visible the word 'LEGO' molded into the top of each stud.

2. Size: since we decided upon studs out, the logical way to assemble the mosaic would be to fasten the bricks to a baseplate. Standard baseplates are 10" x 10" (32 x 32 studs) and the larger baseplates are 15" x 15" (48 x 48 studs). It you arrive at dimensions that are in these multiples, it spares you the trouble of having to get creative and/or taking a saw to your baseplates. We chose 92 x 80, in a configuration of two rows: 2 large baseplates above 3 standard baseplates. This is close in dimension to a landscape style shot, and, as you'll see later, we added a border where it didn't crop perfectly.

3. Color Palette: As you can see, we started with a grayscale image, but had we not, I almost certainly would have converted it to grayscale for the purposes of the mosaic. Blacks, whites, and grays can be purchased in large quantities and for cheaper prices than more colorful bricks. Also, in order to form the most seamless image, it's important to have variations of the same color to achieve proper shading, and there are many variants of gray. I went through several iterations of adding and reducing the different colors I wanted to use and finally arrived upon the following six elements: black, white, light gray, very light gray, dark bluish gray, and dark gray. The 1x1 brick in those (and many more) colors can be purchased in bulk at Bricklink.

After inputing those major criteria, and playing around a little with the different quantisation algorithms which will cause the image to vary slightly, I arrived at the following mosaic:



Once you're satisfied with the model, PicToBrick generates a bill of material. In my case, it was:

BlackPlate_1x1_(3024)1356 piece(s)
Dark_Bluish_GrayPlate_1x1_(3024)1361 piece(s)
WhitePlate_1x1_(3024)37 piece(s)
Light_GrayPlate_1x1_(3024)1407 piece(s)
Very_Light_GrayPlate_1x1_(3024)655 piece(s)
Dark_GrayPlate_1x1_(3024)1348 piece(s)

Buying the pieces:
In case you're not aware, it is generally difficult to buy individual pieces directly from LEGO. Over the years, they have introduce a few solutions for this. In fact, circa 2007 they introduced a feature on their website to generate mosaics and purchase the requisite bricks in a similar fashion as I'm describing here, but if I remember correctly, the tool only allowed for a 32 x 32 brick image which is severely limiting.

As a result of the difficulty in purchasing elements, a vibrant LEGO community of sellers has been established at Bricklink (http://www.bricklink.com) . When I originally blogged about our LEGO Save the Date magnets in 2007, I provided this statistic about Bricklink: "[it boasts] "71,937,076 items in 2,208,770 lots in 2,834 stores". Revisiting that tally today in 2011, it has now grown to 116,747,589 items in 3,974,013 lots in 4,966 stores.

Buying pieces in large quantities is somewhat of an endeavor on Bricklink, particularly if you strive to be economical about it. For convenience and to minimize separate shipping costs, it is ideal to order from as few stores as possible. However, the larger stores tend to charge more per brick since they are aware that their size puts them in a preferred position. Thus, you may find that money can be saved even after additional shipping charges by buying from multiple smaller stores.

There may be additional factors that contribute to your decision about from whom to buy.
For me, ever the procrastinator, I didn't start shopping for the pieces until one month from the wedding date, so I had a strong bias for sellers located in the US so that shipping would not be delayed.

In the end, I purchased from 5 different sellers, and the total expenditure came to just over $200.

Building the Mosaic:
PicToBrick has a feature to generate building instructions, however, my wife-to-be and I did not like the formatting. Here is an excerpt:
  • row 1, column 7: Plate_1x1_(3024), darkgray
  • row 1, column 8: Plate_1x1_(3024), darkgray
  • row 1, column 9: Plate_1x1_(3024), darkgray
  • row 1, column 10: Plate_1x1_(3024), darkgray
  • row 1, column 11: Plate_1x1_(3024), 11_Black
  • row 1, column 12: Plate_1x1_(3024), 11_Black
  • row 1, column 13: Plate_1x1_(3024), 11_Black
Instead, we decided to blow up the image of the mosaic to 1:1 proportion, print the pages, and use it as our building instruction.

Building it went surprisingly fast. We finished in one night -- approximately 8 person hours (both of us building for 4 hours) -- while watching TV.

I cut down a piece of plywood and glued the baseplates to it to give it stability.

All done!
And without further ado, the finished mosaic on display:





Wednesday, December 12, 2007

$$$$$$


Roland and I found ourselves repeating "it's so expensive!" throughout our trip. Everyday, the USD was hitting an all time low. Our friends Paula and Danny honeymooned last year in Tahiti and they got about 100 CFP for 1USD. In comparison, we only got 71 CFP for 1USD. That's almost a 30% increase in one year!!!! 

I took a look at the room service menu, a regular hamburger cost about 35USD. Roland was getting bit by the mosquitoes so he had to buy a little bottle of repellent at the gift shop for 15USD. At dinner, Roland ordered a pineapple drink that cost 12USD. I wanted to swim with the dolphins, but the rate was 600-700USD for 1/2 an hour. Heather and James, also a newlywed couple, said we could swim with the dolphins in Cancun for 150USD, so I decided I was going to wait for my magical experience with the dolphins. We didn't get to stay in the overwater bungalows either, it was about 1200-1300USD a night. 

Despite the $$ setbacks, we had a great time enjoying each other's company and the clear blue waters and skies. It was absolutely beautiful, if you ever get a chance you need to experience French Polynesia. 
 

Reminiscing: Return to Paradise

While we were on our honeymoon, I was journaling all experiences and thoughts so I would have something to look back upon 50 years from now. I'd like to share some of it here:

We arrived in Tahiti and the airport reminded me of Hawaii. It was past midnight, but there was a lively welcoming party. They were singing a beautiful Tahitian song and handing out flowers to put behind your ear. I felt like we were in a different world, it seemed like everyone's shoulders were free from worry and stress. I couldn't wait for the sun to rise the next morning and start our journey through paradise.

Every morning we had a daily breakfast buffet, I always chose the cheeses, baguettes, and fresh fruit. We would take a little extra and feed the stray dogs or fish. While on the trip, we made many 4-legged friends and took pictures of them. I want to compile a book of all the dogs we've seen on our travels, I have such a fondness for the underdogs. The most memorable dog was a black lab in Bora Bora who I nicknamed Maruuru (means thank you in Tahitian).














We first caught sight of him while eating breakfast, he was swimming near the fish and looking around randomly. We thought he was trying to catch a fish, but it turned out that he was searching for the next coral spot to go to.
















He really liked to walk on the coral and enjoy his ocean view. He came up to us on the beach and I fed him lots of cereal. After his tummy was full he followed Roland out for a swim. I was sad to leave Maruuru, I hope the next batch of honeymooners will take good care of him.




















On our first day in Tahiti, we went to the beach and tried out the new camera and tripod, here's my favorite pose:


Roland was disappointed that there were no waves, like in Phuket. But his disappointment didn't last long, because his eyes spotted a nude sunbather :) I even tried it in Moorea, but we were in a secluded area so I guess it doesn't count.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Back to Tahiti!

We're on our last day on Easter Island. Our flight leaves at 10pm back to Tahiti, so we're killing time in town. Unfortunately, Sunday is a very lazy day, and most of the shops and restaurants are closed.

We picked up a few things at the local artisan marketplace. The lady assured me that her husband made them, and so far we believe her as we haven't seen similar pieces in any of the shops on the island. Hopefully we won't see them in Hot Topic next year, as we did with some key chains that we bought in Thailand last year.

We'll update again once we get back to Tahiti, as connectivity is free in the hotel!

Saturday, November 10, 2007

We're in Easter Island!

Hi everyone,

We´ve uploaded a few of our photos at http://picasaweb.google.com/lindaandrolandcao/EasterIsland

We are currently on our last night in Easter Island. At 3 USD per hour, the Internet cafes are surprisingly cheap here, especially considering how modest everything else on the island is, including our hotel. In comparison, connectivity in Bora Bora cost 40 USD per hour.

Arriving, our airplane was the only one at the airport, and we suspect the same one just flies the route between Santiago, Easter Island, and Tahiti. Although it goes largely unused, the runway is actually the second longest in South America because the US paid to extend it for emergency space shuttle landings.

We had a half day tour on our first day, where we visited Ahu Akivi, which has seven moai -- statues -- and are peculiar because they are the only ones facing the ocean. We also visited Vinapu which has a platform similar in construction to the stones temples of the Inca and gave rise to a theory that the Rapa Nui originated from South America -- a theory which has since been discarded in favor of the belief that the original settlers were from the Marquesas in French Polynesia.

Our second day consisted of a full day tour to the rock quarry that was the source of the moais. There are hundreds of moais in various stages of completion, and construction was believed to have been stopped when an era of island warfare began due to a class uprising of the common ¨short-ears¨against the royal ¨long-ears¨ and also fueled by overpopulation. At its peak, the island had 20,000 inhabitants but had merely 111 when it was discovered by the Western world in the early 1900s.

There are a couple accepted theories on how the Rapa Nui transported the massive statues from the quarry to their final locations as much as 20km away, but the exact method remains a mystery.

At night, we have been visiting the town since it is very convenient and cheap to take taxis here. The food has been good but at 20 USD per entree is on the expensive side. Unlike Tahiti which dies down once the sun sets around 7pm, many of the local businesses here remain open until 10pm.

Tuesday, November 6, 2007

Moorea and Bora Bora


Moorea was beautiful, and is described as how Bora Bora was 10 years ago before it became a bit overdeveloped. The Sofitel there was on a beautiful stretch of lagoon. We went on a Lagoonarium tour where we took a boat ride to a nearby island and fed sea turtles, sting rays, and black tipped sharks. We also took a 4x4 tour of the island's interior which took us to some of the peaks so we could see 360 degree views of the entire island. The view was breathtaking. The rest of the time we spent snorkelling in the crystal clear water.

From there it was on to Bora Bora. The airport is on a motu -- reef -- surrounding the island, so it's quite a majestic entrance as you're taken from the airport to the hotel directly by boat. The Sofitel property on Bora Bora isn't as nice, but we took a quick walk and enjoyed the beaches at each hotel :P We're going to be picked up for dinner at one of the nicer restaurants on the island in about an hour.


Tomorrow night we take a 5 hour flight to Easter Island. Easter island is nowhere near as glamorous as Tahiti, so I don't think we'll have internet access whatsoever.

Friday, November 2, 2007

We're in Tahiti!


We'll update our blog and upload photos to http://picasaweb.google.com/lindaandrolandcao as we find sufficiently fast connections.

Tim dropped us off at SJC at 1pm in exchange for my XBOX 360 while we're gone. We flew to LAX and then took the 8 hour flight to Tahiti and arrived just after midnight local time. We were expecting more fresh-faced newlyweds, but there were only a few on the plane, and most are well older than us.

Island life dies down pretty quickly once the sun goes down, so we're heading to bed and we'll try to see as much of we can of the main island before we head to Moorea.

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Wedding slideshow

Our photographers, Marc and Phoebe, have created a slideshow of photos from our wedding. You can view it at: http://www.memorystationstudio.com/lindaandroland

They're also in the process of uploading over 1500 photos of coverage! We're very pleased with the work they've done thus far, and highly recommend them.

Monday, October 29, 2007

The Aftermath

We can't thank everyone enough for their show of love and support and for joining us in celebrating our marriage.

Linda and I are scratching our heads about what we should do with all our spare time now that the wedding planning is over. We're going to be spending the first two weeks on November unwinding on our honeymoon, and after that, I promise to update our blog with photos of our photographer's coverage as well as information on the 'surprises' that we were withholding.

Until then, here are some links to the photo booth shots (password: cao) and albums from some of our guests. Thanks to Amy, DJ & Melissa, Hunter, Kevin, Margot, and Vivianne for taking such great photos and getting them up so quickly!

Photobooth ( event key: cao )
Amy's
Hunter's
Kevin's
Margot's
Melissa and DJ's
Vivianne's

Monday, October 8, 2007

Engagement photo session

Our wedding photographers, Marc and Phoebe, generously offered to include an engagement photo session with our wedding package. We finally got around to taking them up on the offer on the last saturday in September.

We chose Baker Beach, a popular state beach in San Francisco, both for its scenic beauty and because it's dog-friendly, so we were able to include Kobe. Coincidentally, it's a clothing optional beach, too, so it's friendly in more ways than one. It's funny: there were a couple beach goers exercising this right to be nude, but they kept their shirts on, so they really were only interested in displaying the goods. Regretfully they weren't photo-worthy.

We also took some shots beforehand at the Palace of the Legion of Honor since it's a stone's throw away. Considering the number of people that were there, it was surprisingly easy to get shots without interference.

Both places are popular spots for engagement and wedding photos, and we saw numerous other couples posing for pictures.

Marc and Phoebe kept reminding us to act as naturally as possible, but in all honestly, there's nothing natural about posing for photos for us. Even still, we were pleased with the results, and we chalked it up to Marc and Phoebe's expertise.

Here are the photos from our session, as well as the slideshow they put together. Kudos to Marc and Phoebe for having it uploaded only a few days afterwards!

Saturday, October 6, 2007

Rain, rain, go away

In addition to the hundreds of things that are making me anxious about the impending wedding day, October the 20th has now come into range of the extended forecasts:

Friday, October 5, 2007

Venue Selection: Hotel Valencia!

I apologize for the hiatus, but we've been too busy actually planning the wedding planning to blog about planning the wedding.

As you -- the clever reader -- surely know by now, we selected the Hotel Valencia at Santana Row as our wedding venue.

While we weighed many factors in our decision, Hotel Valencia won out in the two categories that mattered most when envisioning the kind of wedding we wanted to throw for our guests: food and location.

Location:
The Hotel Valencia is located within Santana Row, an upscale shopping area in San Jose. From designer stores like Gucci and Burberry to the weekend concerts and Farmer's market, there's really something for everyone.


The hotel is well integrated with its surroundings; so much so, in fact, that I didn't even know it existed for the first few years Santana Row was open. We're hoping the guests at our wedding, particularly those coming from out-of-town, will have the opportunity to enjoy all that Santana Row has to offer.

Facilities:
On its website, the Hotel Valencia describes itself as chic contemporary. While I'd laugh if anyone were to use those words to describe themselves, I suppose the description is appropriate enough. It has Mediterranean inspired architecture and its decorations are both modern and elegant.

Ceremonies are held in the open air courtyard around which the hotel is built. With the colorful facade of the building and tasteful landscaping, it doesn't require much additional decoration. Linda and I ranked it the highest among the various ceremony sites we were considering. There are a few oddities that we'll have to workaround, such as the immovable fire pits, and a fountain which will split our aisle.

Whereas the courtyard is well-appointed, the ballroom leaves a little something to be desired. The hotel's event manager painted it in a positive light by saying it was a blank canvas with which to work. The biggest negative of the ballroom is the size: it has a maximum occupancy of 170 for a banquet. Perhaps because of these shortcomings, there is no facility fee for renting the ballroom, however there is a fairly steep food and beverage minimum, which for a saturday night is $14,000.

Food:
We dined at the hotel's steak and seafood restaurant, Citrus, whose kitchen is also responsible for the banquet food. We had the organic baby greens, lobster bisque, and steak and lobster. Once again, the Hotel Valencia rated the best among the venues we were considering.

Staff:
Debra, the catering manager is friendly and professional, which we've come to realize should not be taken for granted.

We also met with the chef, Victor Lopez, during our menu tasting, and he was helpful in thoughtful, taking the time to suggest different options for our menu and preparing extra food for our wedding coordinator, despite the restaurant's dinner service that was about to start.

Flexibility:
I've come to find that the Hotel is highly flexible in some areas, and frustratingly rigid in others.

When our start time was pushed back an hour due to a previous group, I was able to easily negotiate a reduction in the ceremony fee. The menu can be completely customized and the chef seems eager to do so. Debra is transparent with information of the Hotel's cost of renting items and has satisfied most of our requests.

Most of the rigidity is centered around what I perceive as corporate mandates. The discount on room rates for guests is a mere $25. The Cypress hotel offered us far more attractive group rental rates, so we ended up booking just as many rooms there. The bar menu and pricing is outrageous, and I've been unable to make any headway lowering those costs.

Affordability:
I wish I could say that the Hotel Valencia won out in this category as well, but there's a reason it did so well previously, and this is it. A wedding at Hotel Valencia is in the upper end of the price range for a Bay Area venue (though certainly far from the top).

The food and beverage minimum is high. The bar prices are an outright ripoff. The $179 per night room rate is a stark reminder of the hotel's great location at the center of Santana Row. Oops, do I sound bitter?

Value:
Although I did just finish ranting about the associated costs, there is a substantial amount of value. The portions of filet and lobster are large; at the tasting, we thought each individual serving was intended for two people. As I mentioned previously, I was given a reduction on the facility fee for the ceremony. Because of it's small size, the hotel actually rents some items-- such as the chairs -- from outside vendors, which was offered to us at cost.

Conclusion:
The jury is still out on how the Hotel Valencia ultimately serves as a wedding venue. It obviously won out by my previously established criteria, as we chose to have our wedding there.

I certainly hope in two week's time that I'll be able to whole-heartedly recommend Hotel Valencia to others!

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Say Cheese!

circa July 16, 2007

In addition to food, the other area where we were willing to spend a good percentage of our budget was photography. I love taking pictures and flipping through albums to reminisce. Since the spirit of our wedding is to be more casual and fun than traditional, we were seeking someone with a photo-journalistic style to capture candid shots of us and our guests.

Erin, at Garden Court Hotel, recommended Chung Photo. It was love at first glance; his artistry is amazing. There are some shots in his blog with motion blurs that are simply stunning. I contacted him and found that his rates start at $5000. The package we were looking at for a full day of coverage and wedding album would've been over $10,000, which, needless to say, surpassed my budget. I'm beginning to think my mom was right: I have expensive taste.

After being depressed that Chung likely wasn't in the cards, I went back to square one and flipped through my stack of brochures collected from the bridal fair. I won a free photo album from a bridal fair raffle with Greg Piche if we were to procure his services, so the idea of saving a little (well, little by wedding budget standards), was appealing. We were able to view some of his work at the fair. He has a photojournalistic style, and is artistic, but pales in comparison to Chung. His packages started at $3800 and ranged to $4800 for increased coverage.

Meantime, I was also looking into Michael's Wedding. I liked that they were Asian, as I feel there are nuances in our culture that they would understand and be able to capture. I was impressed with their photos, but Roland wasn't as impressed. Their rates started at $3700 and offered a better deal if videography was included.

Last but not least, my day-of wedding coordinator, Amy Tam, recommended a new and upcoming couple, Marc and Phoebe Aviles. They recently moved to the states from Singapore and are just getting started in the wedding photography industry. They have won awards for their works and I really liked the fact that they were very artistic. One drawback was their lack of experience, but after some number crunching and negotiations, we couldn't pass up the value they offered. We met with them at the Hotel Valencia, and they were excited to shoot there. Once again, seeing a vendor's genuine interest sealed the deal.

I have confidence that they will do an excellent job and am looking forward to our engagement session at the end of September.

Saturday, September 15, 2007

Wedding Invitations

circa August 10, 2007

Soon after finalizing the location and date of our wedding, Linda was feeling ambitious and wanted to explore the idea of creating our own invitations. The intent was two-fold: to add a personal touch and save money in the process.

However, after producing a sample invitation with less than stellar results, we realized how expensive and time consuming making them from scratch would be and started looking at alternatives.

We visited a few paper stores and flipped through the voluminous catalogs. There were plenty of high-end designs that approached $10 apiece and simple designs that didn't exceed $2 apiece, but there weren't many choices in the intermediate range for which we were budgeting.

While eating in downtown Sunnyvale, we stumbled upon a small paper store called Jerdon. Sylvia was very gracious in showing us various designs. Among them were the pocketfold product line from Envelopments, with which we were familiar, but her samples were executed better than those we had previously seen.

We spent another week gathering ideas, and when we revisited Jerdon, Sylvia showed us a new pocket line by Carlson Craft which was template-based, and therefore both more convenient and less expensive than producing our own using Envelopments. Carlson also allows for custom graphics to deviate from the template where needed, so the solution was a great hybrid.

As with most things, the Carlson Craft products were available from online retailers at discounts as high as 35%. We inquired with Jerdon for the best price they could give us, which ended up being a 10% discount. However, that barely offsets the additional California state sales tax we'd incur by buying locally. Sylvia was understanding and gracious of our decision to purchase online.

Because the product line was new, many of the retailers we contacted didn't even have updated catalogs yet. Fortunately, Anne's Grapevine did, and Anne, the owner, proved to be tremendously friendly and helpful.

By this time, it was August 20th -- two months until the wedding -- so I knew we were under the gun. With Carlson Craft's advertised production time and expedited shipping totalling 6 days, I was still optimistic things would be ok.

Unfortunately we ran into a series of delays, both in the proofing phase and in the incorrect shipment of parts. By the time everything was rectified it was September 12th (21 day turnaround instead of the expected 6 for those keeping score at home). Alas, we finally had everything we needed, and we assembled them that night, printed the envelopes, and Linda mailed them on Thursday.

In the end, we were pleased with the final product. The production cost was $474.81 ($692.30 less 30%) yet we feel they give the impression of being much more, which is the mark of a successful purchase.

We highly recommend Anne's Grapevine for it's high level of customer service and great pricing.

As for Carlson Craft, we recommend them for the value and quality of the product and willingness to rectify problems, but we just wish they would review orders more thoroughly as common sense would have caught most of the mistakes before they reached our hands.

Without further ado (click images to enlarge):





Let Them Eat Cake!

circa August 15, 2007

A motto I live by is "Eat to live, but live to eat." Nowhere was this more evident than in my approach to cake tastings. Altogether I had eight different tastings, and one week in particular I had a cake tasting almost every day. I probably gained a few unwanted pounds as a result, but it was certainly one of the most enjoyable part of the planning process.

My first cake tasting was at a Vietnamese shop, Phuong Trinh Bridal & Tuxedo, which is a veritable one-stop shop for all your wedding needs. In fact, I originally contacted them regarding chair covers. I thought Roland's parents might be able to communicate better with the owner (and possibly get a better deal!), so we went together for the cake tasting. After the first few bites, I realized that cakes weren't really their forte. However, I highly recommend renting chair covers from them.

Our friends Mandy and CJ referred us to Bijan Bakery, who were making the cake for their wedding. Mitra, the owner, met with us and after selecting flavors, she walked next door to the bakery's storefront to retrieve samples. Bijan offers some unique flavors, such as passionfruit and guava, and we found the overall taste to be good, and not overwhelmingly sweet. The portions were so generous that Mitra excused herself a second time to get us a box for the leftovers. At $8-$10 per slice, Bijan's rates were intermediate, but presented some value by offering a sheetcake to supplement a smaller cake at a reduced price of $2.50 per slice.

After visiting Bijan, I decided to just contact all the cake vendors listed on theknot.com. In general, I was surprised at how difficult it was to set up cake tastings: some places did not get back in touch with me for nearly two weeks, and one place said their soonest appointment was over a month out. Perhaps they're all busy in the kitchens with their hands in flour, but in an industry with so many vendors competing for business, customer service is a clear way to stand out.

The first bakery that I was able to schedule an appointment with was Cake Expressions, who also happened to be one of Hotel Valencia's recommended vendors. I had actually met Cero, the baker, previously at the Modern Bridal and Hotel Valencia fairs. Both he and Sharon --who schedules the tastings and handles all the pricing and logistics -- were excited about our ideas for the cake. The cake flavors were good and Roland agreed when he tried the leftovers that I brought home. Their prices were approximately $6 to $8 per slice which was commensurate with our budget.

Next on my list was Satura Cakes, which is located in downtown Palo Alto and whose window display always tempts me when I pass by. Because my tastes, particularly for desserts, are rooted in asian cuisine, I found the understated sweetness of their cakes were the best of all the bakeries. My favorites were the strawberry shortcake, earl-grey tea with mandarin oranges, and the yuna. I was delighted to find that the prices for their standard cakes were among the cheapest, but was quickly met with disappointment when I learned that customization skyrocketed the cost to $15 per slice and ranking it as the most expensive quote I received. If you're not looking for a personalized cake, Satura Cakes should be on the top of your list.

I had tastings from a few other vendors: Jen's Cakes, A Piece of Cake, and Margaret's French Bakery. They were either not very memorable, not excited about our customization ideas, or did not fit our budget. This was compounded by the fact that they were all slow to respond to my initial request for an appointment.

In the end, it was a no-brainer to go with Cake Expressions. They exhibited the best customer service with their availability to be contacted. Cero and Sharon were genuinely excited to work on our cake and shared our vision -- so much, in fact, that Cero made an unsolicited call offering us a discount. The cakes tasted great and the pricing was a good value, particularly when presented with the discount. I suppose you really can have your cake and eat it too!

Oh, and if you're wondering about our design, you're going to just have to wait and see :P

The Hunt for the Perfect Dress

circa March 3, 2007

After attending the bridal fair, which featured a fashion show, I was excited to go dress shopping.

The first store I visited was David's Bridal. I had heard on the radio that they had dresses starting at $99! I dragged Roland with me so he could take photos and I thought it would be nice to have his input. I didn't think it was important to adhere to the tradition of he not seeing me in it until the wedding day.

They had a large selection of dresses which were affordable: starting from $99 up to $1000 for their Oleg Cassini designer line. I picked a few from a catalog and got to work trying them on. At first it was embarrassing for me to be in a dressing room with a stranger, but after trying on a few, I wasn't timid anymore. Most of the sample dresses they had were too big so I had to have the dress clipped in the back.

My favorite one from David's Bridal was a simple dress with a sage green waistband which was around $300.


I also liked a $400 white dress with stripes, but the back was not flattering.



Later that week, Roland's mom was in town and she enthusiastically accompanied me on my next destination, The Bridal Mart.

To say The Bridal Mart paled in comparison to David's Bridal would be incorrectly implying that it ever shone in the first place. The service was horrible, the selection was small, and the dressing rooms were inadequate. I nearly tripped and fell when the salesperson had me stand on a plastic stool. I wasn't impressed with any of the dresses and wasn't allowed to take photos, either. To make matters worse, the prices were not as low as advertised. Roland's mom and I walked out disappointed, but hopeful that we would find the perfect dress at our next stop.

Bay Area Bridal was worlds better than The Bridal Mart. The store was filled with a variety of designer dresses and the service was exceptional. I tried on about 7-10 dresses and narrowed it down to two. Upon learning that they had the ridiculous prohibition of photography, also, I decided to come back another day with Roland to get his opinion. It didn't help my anxiety when the saleslady informed me that I was nearing the 7-8 month cut off date for ordering gowns in time for the wedding day.

When I did return with Roland in tow, I realized I no longer liked the dresses I had previously chosen as much and started trying on other gowns. I really liked a Saison Blanche gown, but the dress was over $2000 -- well over the $1000 budget to which I was trying to adhere.

At this point, I was tired and I'm sure Roland was too, but I decided on a whim to stop by Bella Mia Bride, which our friend Mandy had recommended after purchasing her own wedding gown there.

The saleslady, Saralyn, was very experienced and helpful. I gave her a description of what I liked, and she picked out a couple dresses: one was a mermaid shape that was beaded longitudinally, and the one I ultimately purchased, which is an A-line strapless traditional dress with symmetrical beading on the top and bottom of the dress, as well as the train. Once again, I wasn't allowed to take photos, so only Roland has seen the dress on me. Saralyn offered a 10% discount if we purchased that day, so that finally tipped the scales towards a purchase.

So did I find my perfect dress? I found a dress I liked, but I never heard bells going off in my head that screamed "Pick me, pick me, I'm the perfect dress." I did stay within budget and am very happy with the dress, but I think it's a bit more elaborate than suits my personality.

Venue Candidate: Cypress Hotel

At the Bridal Fair, we met a representative from the Cypress Hotel (http://www.thecypresshotel.com/). Although we had previously browsed their listing on HereComesTheGuide, it didn't pique enough of our interest at the time to warrant further investigation.

However, while speaking with the representative at the fair, the tremendous value that Cypress presented became evident. Most notably, the food and bevarge minimum for reserving the ballroom was only $10,000. So, I arranged an appointment to visit the hotel later that week.

Location:
The Cypress Hotel is located in Cupertino at the intersection of two busy streets. Although I had been to the surrounding areas, I had never noticed the hotel itself, and understandably so, because it's situated in an unlikely spot amongst corporate office complexes.

Facilities:
Walking into the lobby and onto the marble floors, I was pleasantly surprised by the interior decor. The hotel on a whole is well appointed, achieving a romantic renaissance atmosphere, while managing to still feel contemporary. The highlight is the hotel lounge, outfitted with inviting velvety couches, a cozy fireplace, exquisite orchids, and unique paintings.
Situated at one end of the hotel, the corridor preceeding the ballroom can be used to host the cocktail hour. The ballroom itself is well decorated, and the banquet manager informed me that many couples manage to save some money since little in the way of extra decoration is needed, much to my delight. Unfortunately, the dark crimson decor was decidedly different than the pastels that Linda had in mind.

The biggest negative were the options for the ceremony site, which was either surrounding a massive circular fountain that was too wide, or lodged between buildings in a corridor that was too narrow.

Food:
The food would be catered by the attached Park Place restaurant and Linda and I dutifully dined there that evening to ensure it met the exacting standards that we hoped to provide for our guests :P

For starters, Linda enjoyed the Dungeness Crab and Corn Chowder, and all the ingedients of my Cobb salad were well-proportioned so as to not overwhelm one another. For entrees, Linda had the King Salmon and I had the Filet Mignon, both which were competently prepared and possessed good -- though not spectacular -- taste.

As for the actual wedding menu, options exist for both a buffet ($36-$44 per guest) and plated dinner ($36-$55 per guest) and appear reasonably priced. Although I did not do a full analysis of the passed hors d'oeuvres ($3.50-$3.75 apiece) and reception displays ($4-$10 per guest) the pricing seemed high.

Staff:
While every one of the various event managers at Cypress with whom I interacted was friendly, I would have preferred to interface primarily with one. Being contacted separately by each, and often passed from one to another gave the impression of unorganization amongst the staff.

Flexibility:
This was another area where Cypress excelled. There were many available dates from which to choose. Although this begs the question of why it's unpopular, I feel it points, at least in some part, to a need for better advertising as we had never heard of the hotel and skipped over it upon our first introduction to it.

A myriad of menu options exist, and the banquet manager was willing to make further customizations.

Affordability:
The ceremony carried a fee that was fairly typical at $1500. The reception fee for the ballroom was initially presented at $500, but was voluntarily waived by the event manager before I even asked about it. That leaves only the $10,000 food and beverage minimum, which is not trivial, but I imagine is within the budget of many couples.

Value:
The Cypress Hotel undoubtedly sets itself apart as a value proposition.

The $1500 ceremony fee includes chair covers, two large floral displays, and audio equipment. Nearly every venue we looked at had, but did include any of these. The well-appointed ballroom requires little additional decoration.

The $10,000 food and beverage minimum was among the lowest that we had seen, and although I did not attempt to negotiate because I knew we would easily surpass the figure, I imagine it could be lowered. As previously mentioned, the price of hors d'oeuvres seemed steep, but the dinner prices were reasonable.

For out-of-town guests, the $99 per night hotel room rate is an exceptional value, especially when considering the quality of the hotel.

Conclusion:
In the end, the Cypress Hotel lost out in a two-horse race for being our wedding venue. However, that didn't stop me from recommending it to my friends who will be having their wedding there on September 15th (in a few hours after I post this, actually!) and we're recommending some of our own guests to stay at the hotel during our wedding weekend.

Friday, September 14, 2007

Modern Bridal - Bridal Fair

circa February 25, 2007

During the last weekend in February, as our search was beginning to pick up steam, Linda and I attended a Modern Bridal Fair at the San Jose Convention Center. Lucky timing you say? Not really. The first three months of the year are the high season for wedding planning, and there usually is an event going on every weekend. There's a good reference list over at Here Comes the Guide.

If you go, make sure to print out the coupon from the website for a discounted admission. If you still happen to forget, there's a good chance they'll still give you the discount because nearly everyone in line has one.

The Bridal Fair was an efficient way of meeting with a wide variety of vendors, and familiarizing us with many details which we've previously taken for granted as guests of other weddings. Be sure to come energized, because it certainly makes for a long day.

Overall, we have mixed feelings about whether attending a Bridal Fair is worth the time and money. With so much on display, you're bound to get a few new ideas. The complimentary Here Come's the Guide catalog is easier to browse through than clicking links on the website. Some vendors offer specials and raffles (Linda won a drawing for a free photo album which would have been worth $1200 had we booked with that photographer!). However, we found ourselves still conducting a lot of online searches so the Fair really served more as an introduction to the process.

Saturday, August 18, 2007

Lego "Save the Date" magnets

In May, we sent out our "Save the Date" magnets and received a lot of positive feedback. A number of people have inquired about how they were made, so here you go!

Magnets have become a trend in recent years for "Save the Date" annnouncements, and understandably so, as the refrigerator is the quintessential bulletin board.

Since we weren't keen on the idea of having our faces plastered on everyone's refrigerator, we opted to not order the ones typically offered by online retailers , despite the benefits of their low cost and quick production, and instead make our own.

I had been toying with the idea of incorporating Lego in our wedding, and thought minifigures would make great souvenirs or placecards. Linda, meanwhile, had similar ideas, and unbeknownst to me, she contacted the Lego company about ordering parts. She would come to find out that Lego doesn't really perform commissioned work or sell inventory other than that currently available through Shop At Home. They did send her a complimentary wedding cake topper, though.

I used MLCad -- a lego-based CAD application (did I mention how obsessed Lego enthusiasts are?) -- to design the prototype since it's easier to choose pieces from the inventory database rather than search through drawers and boxes. It also correlates pieces, which you can search for visually or by description, to their official part numbers, which makes identifying the pieces easier when it comes time to buy them on Bricklink (http://www.bricklink.com/).

Often the most cost-effective way to accumulate Lego is to buy discounted sets in bulk, take out the desired pieces, and sell the rest. Because of this, Lego hobbyists have built an extensive network around acquiring and disseminating parts. Bricklink is the largest hub of this network, boasting "71,937,076 items in 2,208,770 lots in 2,834 stores" at the time of this posting.



When choosing which pieces to include in the design, I had to be mindful of what was readily avialable in the aftermarket. The groom minifigure was easy; I chose a standard grin pattern for the head, black male hair, a tuxedo torso, and standard black legs. Designing the bride was trickier. There are several female faces from which to choose, and all of them are scarce. No good options for her torso existed, so we chose a standard white one. Standard legs look like pants, so we considered using a slope piece to mimic a dress (as pictured above), but found it would impinge upon the form factor of the magnet. We decided to just use standard white bricks with the intention of fashioning a dress out of craft ribbon.

Once the pieces were decided upon, we had to decide from which "stores" we wamted to purchase. Smaller stores generally offer better prices, but their selection and quantity is limited, whereas larger stores often can satisfy your entire purchase request, but do so at a price premium. Some of the best values can be found from sellers in Germany, however shipping time to the U.S. is lengthier.

Because most people selling on Bricklink do so as a hobby, transaction times can vary from days to weeks. We ordered the required pieces, and while we waited for them to arrive, we headed back to Michaels. We found a lace ribbon that we could cut and glue into a shape resembling the skirt of a wedding gown. We also picked up some silvery glitter glue with which we could decorate the bride's torso to resemble beading.

When we finally received the pieces, Linda set out on the arduous task of "dressing" each of the brides. She cut the ribbon, shape it so it looked like a dress and traing, super-glued it, and held it in place until the glue dried -- no easy task since the glue did not bond well on the lace ribbon.
She also trimmed the stems of the bouquet so that it wouldn't be so large. The rest of the assembly was straightforward, and ended with glueing everything so it wouldn't break during shipping. All told, I think it took the better part of a week. I've been informed that some parts of the magnet broke free of the glue during shipping. If that's the case, please refer to the photos below and perform the needed first aid.

The last step was to add the informational label that would display our names, the date of our wedding, and our wedding website. We bought transparent Avery labels, and tweaked the wording, font, and layout symmetry through several interations until we thought we had it just right. Finally, we printed and affixed them.

In the end, producing our own magnets proved to be expensive and time consuming. The material cost for the magnets was approximately $250 (100 @ $2.50) , and we spent an additional $100 on bubble mailers and postage. However, we feel it was money well spent towards capturing the spirit of the wedding and reflecting our personalities.

Here is the finished product:



Here is the assembly line that was our refrigerator:



About my Lego collecting:
Saying I am a Lego enthusiast is like saying Imelda Marcos likes shoes. Growing up poor, I cherished whatever Lego my parents could manage to buy me, but the thought of owning the large pirate ships, castles, and monorails was little more than a fantasy, and I was content enough looking at them in catalogs and Toys "R" Us displays.

Many years later, finding myself gainfully employed, I rekindled my youth and set about fulfilling that childhood fantasy with the help of the miracle that is Ebay. This is a partial list of the sets I now own: http://guide.lugnet.com/set/mlist.cgi?m=1785 . As you can tell, I'm a bit obsessive.