Thursday, May 16, 2013

Lovely, Subtle, and Renewable

Photo courtesy Flickr

Seattle enjoys several boutiques and one big grocery chain that offer traditional Japanese amenities. In our neck of the woods, Asia is the old country and was the go to source for affordable housekeeping accessories. Affordable is a variable now, but the value of the textiles, tabletop accessories, and minor arts remains unquestionable.

Japan’s ways of managing life in small space are so thoroughly integrated into Western architecture as to be unrecognizable: any trip through the Great Big Northern European Home Furnishings Chain will turn up countless square feet of modular units lifted straight from the Tokyo playbook.

More now than then of late, I’ve been stopping by Capitol Hill’s boutique to scout their inventory. During the awful year after the tsunami, the place felt cold and bare, but the shelves have come back to life. It’s a good spot to pick up a long-range Christmas present, and the display techniques are so valuable a source of ideas that buying something feels like paying for art direction.

My immediate neighborhood is developing at warp speed, and ensuring visual privacy, if any, here in the house, is an exercise in flux. Japan can do more with a sheet of paper than any culture I know, and I’ve been surprised and delighted to find that the strategies that made me comfortable as an undergraduate are again making me comfortable and relaxed in long-established quarters. 

When looming oversight appeared last fall, I hustled out to the nearest garden supply and brought home yard after cheap yard of featherweight agricultural fabric, veiling windows against the eyes of the construction crews. I did so assuming the measures were temporary and that come spring it would make sense, probably, to invest in more substantial goods. I’m still improvising, though, pending one full cycle of the year’s new light and shade patterns and pending developments with the new tenants on the block, as well.

It’s fun. It’s incredibly cheap. And shifting trends in the design community’s appreciation of Furnishing Light have opened the doors of recognition to what was only sad expedience back in the day.

The boutique has a number of bamboo poles fixed over the display windows. They are used to hang textiles and mount other merchandise on offer. Bamboo is inherently so beautiful that I have never been able to bring myself to part with a good length of it. I grew black bamboo for years, snapping the branches off green shoots to produce clean, non-snagging supports for drying laundry. I manage laundry differently now, but the poles stay on hand, ready to display textiles or do this and that around the house. The same garden outlet that sold me Remay carries lengths of timber and smaller bamboo that would be bargains at nearly any price.

Working fast the other day, I curtained a dormer window in ten minutes by draping a veil of Remay over a piece of bamboo and setting it on the narrow shelf over the glazing. I’m still a little nervous about the safety of the Remay, though, and will repeat the flame test I performed last fall when I broke out the first package.

High-end design strategies of the Seventies taught me the value of natural textures in a densely urban interior. The innumerable minor variations of form in something as simple as a bamboo blind add unpredictable visual rhythms to interior light that I find calming and engaging. I never weary of looking at gentleman bamboo, as it is known.

Squares of seagrass matting, natural-colored burlap, artist’s linen, paper shades for electric light, and a few hand spun and woven textiles complete a modest inventory that assures peace of mind in the face of nanosecond change. For now.

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More after the jump.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

New Wood For Old

Photo courtesy Flickr

A local broadcast channel repeats a cable show about home makeovers. I truly enjoy the segments I catch now and then, although they have little relevance to my personal circumstances. The narrator/designer is engaging, sensible, and canny.

Yesterday’s episode gave me pause, though, because the makeover displaced what seemed to be solidly constructed, classic hardwood furniture with the stylish tin and cheese of a worldwide chain. There’s an age of furniture that can be described as the dangerous one: too young for antique, too old for fashion, and likely a good buy used. 

The wood that evoked my protective instincts was a double dresser in the style of Thomas Sheraton, a form that in my youth said nothing but “grandmother”. Later I realized that the old girl had had an unerring eye for classic design. The piece in the show had been painted a buttery cream color, almost but not quite the careful white of a Gustavian version of eighteenth century furniture. King Gustav modified the high style of France into a charming and practical Swedish version that is still viable. 

The double dresser of my childhood was a solid hardwood American reproduction of an English classic. The drawers were dovetailed (look for a jigsaw-like pattern at the side of the front), and the thick veneer a beautiful mahogany. A piece for the ages, it lives on with cousins in another state. A neighbor deployed one of these dressers in her remodeled kitchen, and one would make a valuable sideboard in a dining room or changing table in a nursery. The top is a good standing work height.

Well-made old furniture embodies a lavish carbon budget with the forest, petroleum, craftsmanship, steel, and textiles that make it up. We used to take such things for granted and apparently still do. There’s an invisible inflation in furniture prices: $200 that would buy a classic back in the day buys little more than newsprint, glue, and spray paint now. A cabinetmaker of privilege told me in 1981 that he could not truly reproduce a Chippendale side chair for less than $5,000.

Lithuanian cabinetmaker Albert Sack defined the market for American antique furniture as he came to appreciate the forms of the pieces he repaired in the early twentieth century in Boston. Sack’s book is a very good read, and one phrase stays with me. Comparing American to British variants of the same style, he observed that the knee on a piece of American work is not likely to bend.

A small amount of time invested in training one’s eye will yield a good return. Norma Skurka’s “New York Times Book of Interior Design and Decoration” has an introductory survey that amounts to a shorthand dictionary of historical style, and the website behind the photo is rewarding. It’s helpful to know that furniture itself, as we know it, is a recent privilege, and a damned expensive one, too, environmentally speaking. The work that Sack celebrates was a way of storing excess wealth in an early Euro-American culture that had few other outlets for consumption.

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More after the jump.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Steady State Housekeeping

Photo courtesy Flickr

Using the term is a little like listening to a grunger talk about the god particle-kinda catchy, intellectually dubious, musically valuable, and not worth the trouble to define more carefully. That’s how language goes, I suppose.

The Simon Bolivar of housework, superjanitor Don Aslett, advises managing a household with no peaks or, urk, valleys of maintenance. It’s a sane approach to an area of responsibility fraught with psychodrama.

I find it helpful to define blocks of time to commit to maintenance rather than tasks to be performed: the tasks are infinite, the time, alas, is otherwise. No matter what the crunch, the bed gets made, dishes washed, garbage evicted, and an ever-shrinking lawn mowed. Every time I approach the Zone of Smug life throws a curve and my system is tested yet again.

So far, so good. The health department continues to ignore my little establishment, and my little establishment seems ever more able to ignore me. Realizing that the house was a means to an end rather than an end in itself was a major aha! moment that allowed me literally to focus on the desktop rather than the cooktop.
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More after the jump.

Monday, May 13, 2013

The Literal Mind

Image courtesy Wikipedia

Richard Benson’s side-splitting “F in Exams” lists a student’s answer to a question about hard water as “ice”.

Here’s an image of the first computer bug, identified by Admiral Grace Hopper, whose wikiography is well worth a read.

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