Friday, March 23, 2012

Local Ways


Photo courtesy Flickr

The other day I thought about spring and English romantic notions of the daffodil, which punctuates the lamb end of March. Imported flowers steal awareness of the subtler blossoms of native shrubs that are in harmony with local soils and the local climate.

Broadcast weather reporting, too, distorts local circumstances with an overlay of expectations based on North America’s usual continental weather. It is not true that the only good day is a sunny day. I can’t complain too much: dramatic weather reports sensitize viewers to the realities of global warming, but, really, Northwest maritime climatic realities have their own special charms. No doubt weather patterns will evolve along with the rest of the planet’s.

The cold storms that hammered Seattle last week are money in the bank, building up the snow pack that is our water supply. Anything that makes the plants happy makes me happy. I don’t recall a season, ever, where most of the plants have not been happy. Sometimes they die of the cold, and sometimes they die of drought. Usually the ones that die are imports. From time to time, a strong wind prunes the trees, and all along, the plants maintain their essential forms. Accidents of weather accentuate the character of individual specimens.

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More after the jump.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Don't Hate Me Because I'm Organized


Photo courtesy Flickr

I can no longer imagine a kitchen that does not house a Shamrock rolling steel tool chest. I would cheerfully displace a stove in favor of one, even though a few unfamiliar safety precautions are necessary. The chest can tip when the drawers are open, so secure it at the rear. An open drawer can snag clothing, easily remedied with gaffer's tape. There are several previous blogs about having a professional quality chest of tool drawers in the kitchen, so I won’t belabor the details here. Today’s revelation is the value of separating the two halves of the basic unit.

The Shamrock came with a relatively small freestanding top unit, the size and shape of a conventional woodworker’s portable tool chest. It has a top hatch that opens to a carry-all for specific projects, and there are six small drawers below. Two people can move it comfortably using the handles on the sides.

We set the top unit at the rear of a vintage kitchen table. The move doubled the working capacity of the kitchen. The table has a drop leaf that can be lifted in a flash to enable a project, and the main section of the chest is comfortably waist high to serve as a standing shop desk. The Shamrock now functions as a combined office, meal staging area, and workbench.

None of this would be possible were we using toxins, but we’re not. The payoff is huge. Projects turn around in minutes instead of months. The key to using the unit to best effect has been deciding to store pending papers on top of the pile rather than interring them at the bottom of the drawer.

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Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Setting Up

Photo courtesy Flickr

Designer Victor Papanek established many home furnishing benchmarks in his manual Nomadic Furniture. Papanek lived all over the world working on design projects for various agencies, and he perfected a strategy for making the most of rented quarters and of moving allowances.

Papanek designed book shelves with screw-on lids that work as packing crates and then stack at the destination. [E-books displace most of the traveling library.] He set up a 2x4 framed cube inside a rented room, tented it to hide hideous walls, and set up clamp lamps for reading. He lugged one fine inherited chair around the world and improvised the rest of his home comforts from Award Winning director’s chairs and tables cobbled out of plywood.

Lumber’s too expensive and grubby to maintain, and time is too precious to fool around with many of Papanek’s innovations now, but the ideas are so viable that they’ve infiltrated the market. If I were starting from scratch I’d use favorite inherited pieces and fill in with high-tech versions of Papanek’s designs.

Japanese tea discipline says not to make anything of metal that can be made of anything else. Respecting the earth is paramount. These days I think it’s valid to use metal furnishings because they recycle more thoroughly than wood. That said, I’d acquire small and large folding tables from an office supply or big box outlet. I’d cover them with long cloths the color of the floor. I’d choose chromed or coated heavy duty adjustable modular wire rack shelving on heavy wheels, storing it in a separate room or covering it with something interesting to make a rolling room divider. I’d hang nylon shoe pigeonholes in the closet (if any) to use in place of a dresser, and I’d store larger wardrobe items in a trunk or foot locker. Transit case is the generic term, and a simple rectangular rolling suitcase might do very well.

When the market for commercial photography collapsed a few years ago, I discovered the elegant eight foot cubes of heavy wire structural elements that professionals set up to position lighting for shoots. I could have scrounged one for far less that the four figures it cost new, but my house was already together. The unit would make an elegant substitute for Papanek’s cube, though, as would an inexpensive but decently designed mass-market garden gazebo.

Each of us calls our own shots about home furnishings and design, although most of us have parents and friends second-guessing decisions. Most elegant and innovative strategies are invisible, or can be made invisible so as not to challenge an eye that is comforted by the familiar. One can make the best use of cash by concentrating dollars in one or two very good pieces of furniture (I favor a breakfront designed on eighteenth century lines and built very carefully.) Use solid, decent, unpretentious basics to fill in. Old glossy shelter publications are good to mine for classics: something from 1930 that still looks good will continue to look good and might be a bargain at auction.

When I moved into this place in 1980, I read widely in interior design, retail grade, and bought any publication that had an idea in it that would save me the price of the book. Wisely or not, I kept my own counsel and reveled in the neighborhood style, art student experimental. What has worked is using a core of field basics, improvising with hand-me-downs, and filling in with modern design classics.

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Tuesday, March 20, 2012

The Jig

Photo courtesy Flickr

Sometimes I let the remote linger on a repeating infomercial for a hundred-dollar carpenter’s gadget. The thing allows drilling accurate holes for a patented screw system for joining lumber. It tempts even me, whose idea of an acceptable margin of error is an inch.

One genre of furniture is dearest to me: things made in high school shop classes. I’ve lived with two examples. The first was a small-scale glass-fronted bookcase a great uncle made around 1910. A relative parked it for a couple of years in my 500 sf 1906 apartment, and that little case was the making of an equally little room. The second is mine, mine, mine and a grace note wherever it stands. It’s a three foot round drop leaf tea table made of solid English walnut. The style is Vienna, ca. 1912, and it was built in the Port Angeles high school wood shop. Stylistically, it matches and supports the dessert service my grandmother produced around the same time during her girlhood china painting phase. There must have been some advanced art direction on the Peninsula at the time. The table’s hip high and folds to be eight inches thick. I can tuck it in anywhere.

That table has seen better days. Sometime between 1912 and 1985 someone painted it flat black. That was stylish at an unknown mid-twentieth century point perhaps related to the fashion for chartreuse. It was also stylish after the French revolution, to mourn the executed. The third owner of the table gave up on it and set it on a covered porch, where the painted cracked and weathered. He was astonished when he offered it to me a few years ago and I accepted. I appreciate “shabby chic” in limited quantities, especially since it has evolved into “rough luxe”. Textures that reflect natural processes are all too rare in the middle of town.

The lumber in that table is first quality, then and now. Despite its history, it hasn’t warped. The table is heavy for its size, making it a reliable support for those tea cups.

About that jig-the ad is aimed at home production. Making furniture for the family is a dear ambition, and one that deserves to be protected from ill-advised projects. I’ve seen the whole infomercial several times by now, in one or two-minute pieces. Much of the work shown is built-in storage that’s inflexible, inefficient, and high maintenance. The knee-level cubby doors would be lucky to survive two minutes as toddler play structures. I appreciate the look of paneled cupboard units, but it would make more sense and be far more elegant to panel the whole room, or at least set wainscoting to chair rail height and store inventory in the movable high-tech system I mention so often.

One-off production is best applied to design at the highest level using the best materials that can be found. A $100 jig makes sense to use even one time for such a project, if the woodworkers approve, but it’s a waste of precious energies even to lift a drill toward a piece of laminated chipboard. Forty years of cruising past local dumpsters have taught me the value of chipboard-it’s a carpenters’ term I can’t use here. One hour in the rain turns a chipboard shelf into a useless, puffy sandwich that won’t even compost, where that fine, abused walnut just gains character.

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Monday, March 19, 2012

The Squat


English Conde’ Nast publishes a rich and nourishing glossy shelter title called The World of Interiors. Many of my best ideas have been lifted from its pages. When the millennium was approaching, WoI published a special edition with its selections of the best of the magazine’s whatever years. Their motto is “from pigsties to palaces”, and that is the literal truth of its contents.

The cover shot of the millennium issue was of a student’s squat over an ancient stable in London. The student in question said his mother cried for three days when she found out where he was living.

Other people’s expedient housing has been my best source of ideas for how to live comfortably and well under varied conditions. I have some, but not much, personal experience with squats: my first work space was in a long-demolished historic office building in downtown Seattle. For seventeen 1971 dollars a month, I got a cold water sink, a work table cobbled out of full dimensional stock, the discarded files of a rock entrepreneur, and a full view of Elliott Bay. I never found a knot in the three stories of stairs I climbed to my space, and the massive timbers of the seven-story structure were hewn from virgin rainforest.

A few people lived in the building, and from them I learned that shabby plaster walls can be covered with patchwork, that flats of wheat sprouts are edible, and that whale song resonates beautifully in old halls. I might have learned a great deal more, but prudence and convenience dictated a move up the hill, closer to school.

A willingness to explore the unfashionable is a priceless resource in design. I haven’t found a better piece of advice than to buy, or scrounge, what one likes.

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