Friday, September 10, 2010

Nomadic Housekeeping


Photo courtesy Flickr

When you know your inventory, you can set up anywhere. Over decades of casual research, I’ve noticed that the most elegant minimal or essentialist houses belong to people who have more than one residence. That makes sense.

In the early Seventies, designer Victor Papanek published Nomadic Furniture, a rational guide to life support for his itinerant profession. Papanek has several useful approaches: his bookcases transform into shipping crates, he keeps one token piece of heirloom furniture, and he uses lumber to define a living space inside a pit of a rental.

The garden furniture that is such a smart first choice for any fixed abode is doubly smart for a nomad. I’m partial to the original Award Winning hardwood director’s chair, knocked off by generations of import stores. The molded plastic lawn chair runs a close second in my affections. It turns up in the background in news stories about desert warfare and costs $5 at the end of the season. If wall mounts are possible, a hammock works indoors or out. The string hammock from South American blows the doors off the bulk and tonnage of a conventional couch or bed. An old-fashioned collapsible card table adds featherweight decency to casual meals or projects.

The Great Big Northern European furniture chain sprouted world wide since Papanek’s book came out, but the design community has been busily improving the household of Everyperson for decades. Some of Papanek’s solutions are no longer necessary, but the problems he considers are well-defined and common to any mobile citizen of the world. Some of the designs that the Great Big chain offers can be traced to Papanek’s original book. All of their inventory addresses a basic concern of the mobile: the cost of shipping.

In the Sixties, I enjoyed three cross-country moves of a complete household. Gas cost twenty cents a gallon. I could ship three dish packs for less than the postage on one cubic foot of today’s mail. I can say frankly that it might be preferable and greener to leave Great Big furnishings behind and grab a fresh set of the same things in the next town.

Yesterday’s visit to the Great Big Discount Membership store revealed all the domestic basics at incredibly cheap prices. If I were to set up tomorrow, I’d bring a small truck to said store and load it with welded-wire modular shelving on wheels, flap-lid storage bins, a generous fresh mattress and white linens, folding utility tables, and the plainest kitchen and table gear. Then I’d pile on shop lights, detailer’s synthetic terry cloth utility towels, and whatever practical necessities the store carries, like a light gun safe.

After I unloaded the truck in my new quarters, I’d unpack the contents of an insured transit case: a very good vase, French damask cotton table cloths, quilts, the heavy mass-market designer cotton blankets that are so useful for bed and table dressing, a couple of light handmade rugs, and that which I deem to be art.

The line between elegant and fly by night can be very fine. Considering the difference is a fundamental social concern. Looking at the carbon cost of a behavior allows me to resolve contradictions and get on with the project.

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More after the jump.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Shopping Time

Photo courtesy Flickr

Set up smart-do a little homework-it’s fun, easy on the feet, and easy on the wallet.

Etiquette expert Miss Manners commented once that the scions of prominent English families had had “major shopping done for them two hundred years ago”. That’s a helpful reminder that the time one spends on procurement is itself a significant investment. It’s not a bad idea to start by buying good garden furniture, new or used, until more formal chairs and tables come along. Terence Conran’s classic but dated House Book lays out an intelligent sequence of purchases.

Several unwitting behaviors have taught me ways to choose furnishings that don’t have to be replaced. The first is the simplest and cheapest: research. For years before I thought of buying real estate or much of anything else for that matter, I read everything the public library carried in interior design and gardening. I already owned a full hiking kit, the contents of an old-fashioned hope chest, and the tools of my trade.

Norma Skurka’s New York Times Book of Interior Design and Decoration and her Underground Interiors are still relevant, if you can find them. Vita Sackville-West’s garden book lays out the fundamentals of English practice. Content that precedes the mid-Eighties is dense, well-researched, and gives the lay person a good grip on the basics.

A second unwitting behavior was scouting thrift stores. I have made a good few hundred dollars’ worth of mistakes, but the shops are a vivid education in the life span of commercial products. I can now cruise the aisles of a big-box merchandiser and predict with over eighty percent accuracy which offerings will end up costing fifty cents used. I can’t, however, predict which offerings will end their lives as the beloved collectibles of a generation.

A third unwitting behavior was visiting museums. Train the eye. Don’t work at it, just look at things.

The Internet, of course, is all of the above and a great deal more. Design is wide open: all periods and styles are worthy of respect if only for the carbon price of their production. Keep an eye on English Conde’ Nasts’ World of Interiors for well-informed navigation, and keep an eye on vulgar Juxtapoz for a squint at the frontiers of good form. Its recent article on the work of Retna shows his glorious evolution from felon to scribe.

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Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Life in the Field

Photo courtesy Flickr

Setting up week continues with a look at the fundamentals. They don’t call it camping for nothing. There seems to be a close link between improvising furniture and simply posing and frolicking to no particular end. I can’t think of a more rewarding way to approach the duties of the household.

Many traditional furnishings are relics of earlier technologies, like the candlesticks that preceded not only electricity, but gas light as well. Any household item from the low-tech era works beautifully in the field. Early outings with climbers taught me the pleasures of breaking out, say, a designer bandanna and a four-branched Barbie-scale pot metal birthday candlestick to set the table for a dehydrated dinner.

Choosing state of the art field gear as the core of the household invests money where it truly counts for emergency back-up, gets the most out of that investment by using it every day, designs high-performance into daily life, saves space and work, and blurs the line between recreation and labor. In my experience, wiring my private life around a hike keeps me moving forward in every aspect of existence. For me, field gear is the stage setting for lifelong learning. It fosters a deeply resilient approach to the unavoidable changes of life.

No one is immune to displacement. My ordinary middle-class mother hired members of one of the royal houses of central Europe to baby-sit my brother and me after World War Two.

For bedding, choose a high-tech sleeping bag, either down or synthetic, that zips open flat so that you can encase it in a duvet cover and sleep under it at home. The first bag I used this way saw fifteen years of service and no doubt slowed global warming by an unmeasurable amount. Sleeping under a good bag extends its life, because flat and open storage protects the loft of the insulation.

For the bed itself, I have found that a cushy rectangular self-inflating air mattress is literally the most comfortable thing to sleep on. My 24”x72” model replaces mediocre cushions on a clean, vintage standard flat-seated sofa. I made a sleeve for it out of a serendipitous length of Polartec upholstery. I can sleep on the couch or spread out on the floor.

Sleeping on the floor in a Western interior can be squalid, because we track filth into the house on our shoes and because the proportions of our spaces support leisure two feet off the floor. A rustic wood one-legged bunk, known as a jack bed, in the corner of an old-fashioned cabin raises a Western floor and provides a decent space to lay out bedding. We have a similar four-legged bunk that was built to furnish one end of a sun porch. I moved the memory foam mattress off this bunk to try it with a field pad and found that I sleep better, waking up with happy muscle tone.

My attic is short-person heaven, with one dormer that has floor-level windows. I set up an experimental sleeping area there a few weeks ago and, besides a night city view I hadn’t known existed, I discovered that a ten by ten virtual tent is an elegant boudoir. For day, I can fold away the bedding a la Japan and store it in a vintage foot locker, set the camping pad against one wall as a headboard, place the pillows (in upholstery sacks) as a seat, and in seconds have a living room. Dwelling on the floor keeps one supple.

Whatever the architecture, if any, sleeping on the floor demands a ground cloth. In the house, I like to use an appealing cotton bedspread as a base layer rather than as a topping. Over that I set up the pad and the rest of the sleeping amenities. A washable upholstery sleeve for the pad substitutes for a conventional mattress pad.

That’s for sleeping. For meals, the featherweight titanium tea pot, one man/one pot, is a durable unbreakable substitute for the carafe of an automatic coffee maker, a more than generous mug, and a homely but effective way to cook small quantities of just about anything. One titanium tea pot plus one coffee maker equals one very slow cooker.

A two-burner propane field stove works all year round, indoors or out, with a kitchen fan and a carbon monoxide detector. I use my stove on the back porch for vigorous stir-frying. Setting the stove with a cast iron griddle, I can easily turn out an old-fashioned heart-killing bacon and eggs breakfast, my favorite meal. When it’s time to hit the woods, I just take the kitchen with me, which reduces the shock of a change to primitive conditions.

The hiking coop sells an LED Japanese tent lantern that’s a honey designed to run off batteries or a laptop. It’s the best ambient light in the house.

The ubiquitous stainless steel water bottle lives in my side bag.

Way back in the day, when the fork was a new invention, people carried their cutlery with them. I tote a titanium spork and Swiss Army penknife everywhere but the airport and feel halfway prepared for emergencies with a two-inch blade and mini-shovel.

Nylon travel accessories hold the small essentials of personal life. Add a laptop and a fast wireless connection to the basics, and I can think of very little that’s missing to live a comfortable, profitable, and independent existence.

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Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Setting Up Week-The Fourier


Photo courtesy Flickr

Welcome to setting up week. Posts for the next few days are aimed at students and people setting up small households in apartments.

I was overjoyed to discover that there’s a word for a person who likes to do one of my favorite things in all the world: put a room together. It’s “fourier”, a French term that translates into “forager”, or in modern words, “advance man”.

During the Middle Ages, dominant households moved from estate to estate as the food supply waxed and waned. The fourier preceded the family (usually sixty fighting men and five ladies) to arrange fodder for the horses and to set up comfortable living quarters. He made camp as we know it, but with furnishings we now perceive to be formal, such as tapestries.

I’ve been a fourier since I was four, but I didn’t know the word. They used to call it “playing house” and I have been known to call it “furniture arranging disease”. It’s easy to spot a natural fourier-they think furniture arranging disease is funny.

In my long association with the sport of arranging furnishings, I have accumulated a core inventory of textiles, (deliberately) collapsing chairs and tables, and versatile lighting. Some of my things would be quite valuable if they were in perfect condition, but they’re not in perfect condition. Like my boy’s play quality Millenium Falcon, they’re actually more valuable for everyday enjoyment. Sometimes, seconds are firsts.

During Viet Nam, I moved seventeen times in four and a half years. There was a good reason for each change of house, budgets were lean, and I gained precious experience improvising living quarters from a core of traditional wedding gifts and state of the art hiking gear.

Tomorrow’s post explores the virtues and value of frankly outdoor furnishings for comfortable life under a roof.

Happy Trails!

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