Friday, May 6, 2011

The House Respires


Black Mountain College photo courtesy Flickr

On this season’s fourth, and I hope last, trip to the Great Big Hiking Co-op, I lingered in the electronics department. It’s a hoot that there is an electronics department. Field guides used to recommend cutting conifer boughs for a really comfortable night in the field, a signal mirror was one’s best bet in an emergency, and not many years before that, authorities started to worry if a party was a year overdue. Now we tiptoe up trails carrying everything but air, if we're not headed for Everest.

Preparing for my first hike was a formative housekeeping experience. Over the decades and in nearly thirty domiciles scattered around the country, I have learned that furnishing with field essentials simplifies managing space, reduces maintenance, and creates a resilient, supportive matrix for a rewarding daily life.

Besides, it’s fun. The essentials evolve the way grass grows: a smaller, lighter, more able design emerges to displace the dry husk of obsolescence. New gear expands interior space, new uses fill it up again.

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Thursday, May 5, 2011

The Unified Field Theory of Wardrobe

Frank Stella nightgown photo courtesy Fllckr

One of the classic strategies for getting the most out of a clothing dollar is to look in the nightwear department for things that can be used in the evening and on the street.

The other day I took myself downtown for a spring look at Seattle’s Homegrown Northern European Clothing Chain. Now and then I run across a new design that fills a hole in my collection I didn’t know existed. Sure enough, the buyers for Homegrown had filled Lingerie with several lines of carefully cut lightweight knits that will fly just as well on the street as under the roof.

Workout clothing, sleepwear, and casual dress have contracted into an elegant whole that saves money, time, space to maintain, and attention to manage.

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Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Pocket Revolution

Photo courtesy Flickr

Ten or so years ago, the New York Times raved about a dress from a mail order outfit specializing in travel wear. I looked over the catalogue and ordered a lightweight synthetic skirt to carry me through a city summer. A concealed zippered pocket turned out to be the skirt’s most useful feature.

Every season more manufacturers include secure storage in their designs. Being able to slip a card and a key key into a zippered pocket is liberating. I don’t have to worry about losing my side bag; I can sit, catnap, and exercise without worrying about gravity; and I can scoot out of the house bareback for short trips.

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Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Free the Walls

Photo courtesy Flickr

Casual reading in the history of domestic interiors turned up a useful distinction in the management of space. During the Baroque period in England, furnishings, including unused dining chairs, were placed statically along walls. Italian tradition is to ignore the walls, and doing so makes a room swing.

This is a development property we bought for its workspace. When I covered this interior’s many layers of wallpaper with sponged broken color, to camouflage seams in period style, I unwittingly displaced quite a few works of art (of varying merit). The fresh walls were, and still are, so satisfying I don’t need a collection of framed focal points to keep my eye from grumbling about the background.

The surplus artwork rotates now rather than hanging out collecting dust. Broken color makes the walls subtly advance and recede visually, enlivening space in a way that’s welcome in the middle of town. Sound and digital visuals trump mediocre imagery.

Last year, we began to downsize in place. The more we focus on lightweight furnishings that roll, fold, stack, or deflate, the bigger the house gets, the easier it is to maintain, and the more energy we have for culture-a process rather than a destination.

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Monday, May 2, 2011

The Buttercup Syndrome


An old friend brought lunch over last week, and we spent part of the visit discussing the countless cartons of paperwork that are cluttering her life. Volumes have been written about managing paper flow, but my casual reading has not turned up any comments about Linda’s situation.

She used to teach elementary school and is conditioned to live with four or five bank boxes on the back seat of her car. Her lawyer father made his living hauling papers around, so there’s a senior role model who did the same. She is now shuttling between her house and her parents’, filling in elder care while trying to administer both households. Nothing’s in the right location, and she’s losing track of where things are.

Both her computer and its back-up storage crashed recently, and why Linda is not drinking is beyond me. Events, however, have left her with a clean slate and a beautiful opportunity to get a grip.

The fundamental problem with managing paper is that it acts like buttercup, generating its own herbicide and killing off productivity as it spreads. Linda’s always the first kid on the block with new technology, and when I mentioned that I now hold only two inches of paper files, dawn broke and she started talking about a hand-held scanner. I mentioned that we store a digital archive for a California photographer in a fire safe here in the house, and that he undoubtedly has the archive stashed in one or two other locations as well. I forgot to mention that digital files have to be refreshed now and then-as I understand it they’re viable to about five years out, but the experts can fill this in. Learning the term “data smog” helped Linda get some perspective on her archive. She’s more conditioned to generating information than to managing it.

In the early Seventies, Don Koberg and Jim Bagnall published The Universal Traveler, which they described as a software handbook for the process of design. One of their core ideas has proved unfailingly valuable: when faced with a decision, ask oneself what’s the worst thing that can happen if I do or don’t do something. In managing paper, the question is how much will it cost me in time or dollars if I don’t keep a certain record. Over the last thirty years, I’ve raised the level of risk from fifty dollars and a couple of hours to several hundred and a day or so of hassle, and I’ve yet to regret putting something in the shredder.

Managing paper is a labor issue centering on the value of one’s time and the safety of one’s back, which can be protected by using a lightweight folding hand truck. Handling a bank box full of paper is a task more suited to a weight room than to finessing nuances of decisions behind a desk. There’s a reason offices used to have specialist file clerks.

If I had a barn full of bank boxes to manage, I’d contact a security outfit with a shredding truck, and start sorting into whatever format the big paper muncher wants. I’d drink lots of coffee and work fast. I’d hunt for a copier that can scan to files as fast as it can churn out images, and I’d start by making a few phone calls to find out if I were on the right track. It might make sense to rent a fast bulk scanner for a week or two.

Making these kinds of decisions is no different from doing yard work and nearly as taxing and grubby. Corrugated cardboard breeds mites, so it’s prudent to wear a mask and run a HEPA filter when handling archives. Part of the buttercup syndrome is that allergens impair cognition, reinforcing one for ignoring the problem.

Having something and knowing where it is are two different qualities. If you don’t know where it is, you don’t have it.

Checklist for mobile management: shredder, scanner, laptop, rolling briefcase, 3G wireless card

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More after the jump.