Thursday, May 17, 2012

The Button Box

Photo courtesy Flickr

Every household used to have a button box. I grew up with one my mother had acquired from her mother. It contained a button history of twentieth century West Coast clothing. Buttons used to be a complicated technical and laundry issue, and they are still a key to certain fashion strategies. It pays off to sew fine buttons on an inexpensive garment.
Buttons were costly enough to be worth salvaging when a garment wore out, and so I learned to play with black plastic carved art deco fasteners, abalone classics from casual plaid jackets, and fascinating little detachable buttons and their chrome cotter pins from the starched uniforms of a nurse who lived next door. There were even a couple of eighteenth-century ornamental cut steel waistcoat buttons in the collection.
When the flow of used clothing began to be diverted from rag bags and quilt projects to thrift stores, housekeepers realized it was mean-spirited to remove buttons, and in my life, at least, the button box began to stagnate.
It was one of my favorite toys, though, and after I entered art school, I realized I could play a kind of “button chess” with the contents of the old pressed-tin hard candy container and a checkered table cloth. The exercise is a good way to hone one’s eye for form, and I highly recommend it. If I were assembling a button box today, I’d go around the house and scrounge artifacts small enough to fit easily onto one of the squares of a picnic cloth. They could be anything: stamps, little plastic toys, costume or other jewelry, shells, even buttons.
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Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Chrome in the Stew

Photo courtesy Flickr

I picked up a cheap set of black plastic cooking tools to get the one wok spatula I wanted. The collection seemed a little over-designed, like the consumer version of a bait shop’s plastic squid, but I couldn’t find the clean lines I usually look for. Five dollars is too little to pay for a set of four implements, and on one level I knew that when I was checking out.
It took a couple of weeks in the kitchen for one of the unnecessary chrome dingbats on a handle to fall off. It was just the right size to choke a small child or break a tooth. Fortunately, the thing failed on the kitchen counter rather than over a dish. The whole set went straight into solid waste.
John Heskett’s Design: A Very Short Introduction covers the sickening evolution of consumer design from triumphant affordable mass solutions to basic needs (think plastic bucket) to the absurdly wasteful and idolatrous artifacts marketed as designers rather than as design. Heskett’s a good read for anyone willing to make the attempt to follow design prose. 
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Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Bock's Socks

Photo courtesy Flickr
A school friend who was into political science chirped over dinner that her professor had maintained a family could manage just fine if every member wore only stretch nylon black ankle socks in one size. He had tested his thesis and found it adequate.
That is efficiency in a nutshell. The image brings to mind the basement laundry room of a friend who was wrangling a blended family of ten fashion-conscious children. I watched her sort socks one day and backed slowly out of the room, dabbing discreetly at the corners of my eyes. Somehow a few loads of wash had generated nearly fifty dollars worth of lone hose.
I can see the value of standardized inventory for basic amenities. There was a time when all linens were white, the most versatile and easy to maintain of colors. If I were setting up for the first time, I’d choose white dishes and seriously consider using Homer’s classic coffee shop ware. Stackable French bistro glasses with fluted sides in several sizes are workhorse 1910 designs good for hot or cold drinks. They are so durable I recycle them after ten years’ use has left them foggy with scratches. Choose an open stock stainless flatware pattern that’s been around a long time, so that losing one fork doesn’t mean replacing the whole set. Vary the table by changing the flowers and the cloth rather than adding extra sets of dishes.
A classic interior scheme supports meaningful innovation in media and physical art. The old school way is to do it once and well, refreshing now and then as necessary but avoiding radical change. That approach allows one to deploy heirlooms and scrounge classics, often found used as bargains. One person's family hand-me-down is another's antique. Scan older interior design books and magazines to get a sense of which forms stay viable over time. Hot glue means never having to say good-bye to upholstered furniture.
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More after the jump.

Monday, May 14, 2012

Portable

Photo courtesy Flickr

To take best advantage of solar gain, we migrate inside the house as the weather changes. A teak garden bench with the spare, elegant lines of the eighteenth century has become a more popular seat than the dormant, upholstered sofa that lives in the conventional parlor. In cool weather, the bench lives in the dining room, providing a convenient spot for the cook to get off his feet. The bench summers across the end of the sun porch, and it’s light enough that I can move it by myself, thanks to its after-market magical sliding castors.
In the eighteenth century, furniture, or “movables” as French and Italian call it, was light enough for one person to pick up and shift to a source of natural light. This is a valuable quality that greatly amplifies space. It’s not necessary to define one function for a room and then contort behavior around those limitations. 
Our rooms are emptier now that I have realized I can easily bring up extra seating if it’s needed. Empty space means easy maintenance, and I’ve reduced inventory to a few choice (as choice as things get around here) favorites supplemented with Award Winning Directors Chairs, a Sheraton design that is period for the house.
Designer Billy Baldwin once commented on a house he’d visited. The owners had been their own decorators, and Baldwin commended their perception and good sense. He said they’d painted all the rooms and floors in the same scheme. A homogeneous interior supports nomadic furnishings, because there’s no need to worry about visual harmony.
Recently we shifted our telecommunications service to a WiFi system based on the land line. An unanticipated consequence of the change is that we have cut the umbilicus to the television and now roam the interior like a pair of geeks, coffee-colonizing new corners of the house with our side bags and iGadgets. As I basked in yesterday’s afternoon sun, I realized I’d been able to settle comfortably on the bench having made just one trip onto the porch rather than the four or five it used to take to set up lunch and some reading.
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