Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Doing Simple Things Well


Photo courtesy Flickr

Doing simple things well is often neither simple nor easy: it takes time to define a task and more time to work out how to do it with the least effort. In this area of home design, tradition often trumps innovation. Expedient solutions are often more profitable than high-end installations.

Flatware reached its finest hour in the eighteenth century. Silver from that period has not been bettered for the graceful table manners it supports. The market now offers many patterns in stainless steel that echo earlier forms. If flatware interests you, cruise Replacements, Ltd.’s web site for an encyclopedic tour.

When I threw my stove away (see September 4, 2009), I picked up a tinny $15 imported rice cooker at a hardware store. I have used it at least once a day for years for oatmeal, rice, and steamed vegetables. The hunch that millions of Asian housekeepers could not be wrong has proved out. The electricity bill fell by half, and I discovered that I could (although I do not) feed us with just the rice cooker and a hot pot. Those two little countertop appliances replaced fifty pounds (and nearly half a yard) of enameled cast-iron French cookware and an appallingly wasteful conventional stove. For years I had admired the traditional old Japanese pots that have a collar to collect the charcoal heat that rises around their exterior. The rice cooker has that collar-its lip-and a concentrated heat source that is a mere button at the base.

One key to doing simple things well is to distinguish between the front of the house, the social areas, and the back of the house, production and maintenance areas. Twentieth-century trends in domestic architecture blurred the distinction between the two, resulting in absurd situations like home art studios with wall-to-wall carpeting. Frankly utilitarian solutions to basic tasks, like the rice cooker, don’t impress anyone visually, but the end of the month bank statement is gratifying.

The Great Big Northern European home furnishings chain sells ready-made amenities that suit nineteenth to twenty-first century architecture. A tour of the store is an education in proportion, function, and intelligent service. There’s a trade-off between quality and price, so shop judiciously. Classics like rag rugs, sheepskins, glassware, and kd bookcases have been the best value for me. For other low-end furnishings, I have learned to prefer the long-established common national housewares brands found in other outlets.

There’s a mail order operation, The Original Colony Country Store, that carries the definitive collection of housewares that do basic things better than any others. If you have a hankering for a hardwood clothes drying rack that will serve generations, that’s the place to go.

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