Friday, June 18, 2010

Tomorrow's Garden

Photo courtesy Flickr

One of the joys of having a rustic backyard retreat is the thirty-second commute. The other joy is the deep bathtub at the other end of the path.

When life is going smoothly, I enjoy the prospect of passing two uninterrupted days visiting my green friends outside the house. Before I shifted the landscape to native species, spending time in the garden was a matter of volunteering for yet more hours of housework, but colder, wetter, and dirtier. Since I gave the land back to its rightful owners, it has given more back to me.

In the last week, I have noticed that the native plants are growing more gracefully than the imports. The weather has been unusual, but it always seems to be unusual, and so far those plants are taking it in stride. It’s been especially cool and wet, and the native ferns, conifers, rhododendrons, and elderberry have grown lush to the point of looking tropical. Low temperatures have protected them from growing too fast and becoming fragile in the process.

Imported ornamentals like lilies and old roses on grafted rootstocks are looking wan, and this season may give me just the excuse I need to find new homes for those relics of my English gardening phase.

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Thursday, June 17, 2010

Virtual Window Shopping


Photo courtesy Flickr

I ran across this image on Flickr yesterday and could not resist the engaging collection of textures and traditional designs. I never fully understood my grandmother’s way of keeping house until I learned about the Volga trade route between Northern Europe and the eastern Mediterranean. Hipsters had told me about Viking mercenaries in Constantinople, but I didn’t connect that information with the old country until I learned about trade.

My mother’s people are Swedish, but the history I learned was Anglo-centric. A coppersmith great-great uncle made his immigrant brother a “spider”, a three-legged tin-lined copper tea kettle, for making coffee when he was crossing the plains in a covered wagon. All the women in my maternal line have chosen hand-wrought mid-Eastern copper and brass accessories for home use. I assumed that was because that’s what was available in Western Washington, and until recently, that’s what was, to be sure. Comprehending the significance of the Volga has deepened my appreciation of these selections.

Casual reading about home style made it clear that there’s a continuum that runs along the river: one sees Hardanger-style table linens, an upright sofa and freestanding chairs surrounding an eating table, and ornamental brass and copper from the mid-East through Greece, northern Germany, and into Finland. These arrangements are not typically English.

I thought my grandmother’s preference for copper and brass came from her coppersmith genes, but there’s a larger cultural orientation. Sweden has had close ties to the Middle East since forever. The kind of metal work shown above is a characteristic accent in a Swedish interior that strikes the high note in a typically chaste room.

Before plastic, noble metal was the lightest, most durable ware. The Triumph of Simplicity, Cooper-Hewitt’s catalogue of the Swedish National Art Museum’s showing of traditional silver designs, opened my eyes to portable equipment of privilege. I was happy to discover nesting tumblers and toilet sets that are just as viable under a roof as they were in the field.

Early on, I bought an expedition-sized Svea brass kerosene stove that was decorated with Arabic characters. I loved that stove and cooked many meals for twenty on it one low-tech summer. Later, I inherited my great-grandmother’s worn brass tray and discovered that it and the stove made an instant, portable kitchen. I assumed that both pieces had been marketed to nomadic housekeepers.

Before the antique pickers swarmed Goodwill, I spent a couple of years casually collecting handmade mid-eastern ornamental copper and brass for the sheer love of its skilled handiwork. These things cost pennies at the time, must have earned their makers less than pennies when they were new, and are vulnerable to recycling when the metal market rises. I didn’t buy any more than I can use, but it was fun filling in holes in my inventory. It’s a hoot to use them in the garden or, rarely, in a secure campground.

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More after the jump.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

The Four-Poster Bed


Photo courtesy Flickr

Over the last two winters, I've experimented with sleeping in a four-poster bed. During the Middle Ages, that was the principal piece of furniture in a household. Significant amounts of wealth were devoted to it and its hangings. The bed was placed in a corner of the main room, not a bad idea today when space is so expensive.

Inspired several years ago by news footage of protesters' colorful stake-free tents in the Bangkok air terminal, I set up a four-person tent in the unheated attic. I substituted an interesting wool coverlet for the rain fly, installed a mattress and down duvet, and found the tent comfortable, convenient, and frankly odd. It would be good for the right guest.

A greenhouse catalogue offered galvanized iron couplings for linking lengths of galvanized steel electrical conduit into supports for hanging plants. On a whim, I bought a set of two-inch couplings to build a surround for a sofa, in the hope that hangings and a canopy would make it bearable to do sedentary things in a minimally heated room. Figuring out how to cut the conduit to length without distorting it was tricky. My partner finally just cut the stuff with a reciprocating saw.

The structure went together as fast as the Tinkertoys it resembles. I wiped the dust off the stock, taped Teflon sliders to the feet, and tossed a few high thread-count cotton drop cloths from the independent hardware chain over the struts as hangings. It’s amazing. I haven’t tested it because I can’t get my partner off the sofa. He claims it’s the best place to sleep in the house. The hangings muffle the urban soundscape.

This is not an elegant piece of furniture, but it looks contemporary and dead cool. A different set of struts would fit it to any bed or seating area. The couplings cost around $150, the conduit around $100, and the drop cloths around $70. The big box furniture chain was selling a rickety four-poster for around $450 when I started this project.

A sleeping tent could be placed in any room and put away each morning. The galvanized four-poster adds a room within a room wherever it is placed. Both of these devices save significant amounts of heat.

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Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Beneath Contempt


Photo courtesy Flickr

My godfather worries about my immortal soul because I like low-brow art. His concern may be justified, but I do love a good poster or skate graphic.

Taste is doggone tricky. English collector Alastair McAlpine advises simply to follow one’s preferences. Richard Gump, who founded the store in San Francisco, published Good Taste Costs No More after World War Two. I don’t know what good taste is any more, but my in-house archaeologist says the basics are to keep sharp things off the floor and toddlers out of the fire.

One year I couldn’t resist setting my kid’s gold plastic bust of C-3PO in the dark entry hall. It seemed the right place for a protocol droid. Only one person got the joke, a woman who agreed that my house on her lot would be perfect.

Bruno Munari wrote a classic called Design as Art in which he poked fun at the idea of furnishing one’s house as if “the duchess were coming to dinner”. Prince Charles remarked that one of his occupational hazards is being constantly exposed to the fumes of fresh paint.

The best design summary, I think, is housekeeping guru Don Aslett’s claim that a house should look as if the people who live there are having a good time. And the best strategy may be Ettore Sotsass’s, who comments that even the best castles are fundamentally disposable and that practicality is an aesthetic decision about life.

-30- More after the jump.