Friday, November 14, 2014

If We Go Someplace Interesting, We Have To Do Stuff


Photo courtesy Flickr user McPherskesen

Two hardworking friends are known for taking long week-ends in nearby Western Washington cities that never show up in vacation ads. I won’t spoil the dull by naming the cities, but the principle is easy to communicate. I’d look for someplace with room service.

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More after the jump.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Thanksgiving Emergency


Flickr user tinyfroglet

This anecdote may have come from Eleanor Roosevelt’s guide to etiquette. She described giving a dinner party in her Hyde Park cottage. The server brought a roast turkey to the table and through some mishap, the bird landed on the floor. After the mess was picked up, Mrs. Roosevelt turned to the server and said, “Tell cook to send in the other one.”

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More after the jump.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Hunting Season


Flickr users Bill and Mark Bell

A parent with good field skills told me he’d been out with his young son when the kid began to harass an insect. The father pointed out that the boy would have to eat anything he killed, and the child backed off.

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More after the jump.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Veteran's Day


Photo courtesy Flickr user benagain

Washington state licensed architect number one, William Bain, directed a legendary World War Two project to disguise the Boeing plant that produced Allied bombers. I first heard about it from commercial art instructors at the Burnley School, which was filled with veteran students fresh from Viet Nam. Over a disorderly room full of war surplus drafting tables painted indestructible olive drab, a couple of staffers marveled at the skill and detail of Bain’s transformation. The camouflage project has since had its share of publicity. It was a privilege to learn about it by way of the designers’ grapevine.

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More after the jump.

Monday, November 10, 2014

First House


Photo courtesy Flickr user Philip Taylor PT

A long-time tenant in a nearby apartment building handed me a big smile and the news that she and her partner have bought a house. They did it the old-fashioned way, making the fifty percent down payment that was the norm before the Veterans’ Admininstration backed larger loans to returning World War Two veterans. That fifty percent down will make life far less volatile than riskier terms.

Susan confessed ignorance of the various disciplines that keep a functional roof over one’s head. I’ll do what I can to advise her. When we bought this place in 1980, I had a three well-trained carpenters and one ambitious handy-person in my social circle, so restoration was a relative piece of cake. This was during the Earth Shoe/wood heat phase of American culture. It’s a different economy now, and it would probably make sense to consult an accountant. It may be more profitable to hire efficient workers and factor their fees as basis improvement that to eat the opportunity costs of doing it oneself. When I was thrashing overgrown shrubs and detailing chrome fixtures, it was in lieu of making fifty cents on the male dollar. Terence Conran’s classic House Book is a go-to. We knew this place was a development property, so our decisions have been those of enlightened tenants rather than of property owners concerned about the resale value of their structure.

It is important not to “over-improve” for a given location, and it never hurts to be prudent about decoration. The borders of the interior envelope expanded to the point of dissolving in the incendiary SoCal real estate market of the late Seventies. Goodwill bait like Fiesta ware and chrome dinette sets suddenly became collectible.  The best of what I have to offer are comments about furnishing and procurement. This house was full of bulky, dismal twentieth century mass market furniture. The lawyer who was settling the estate was incredulous that we wanted none of it. His and the long-time housekeeper’s assumptions were that the space was meant to be filled. Mine was that the space is meant to be used.

Once the inventory under this roof was edited, I was free to make my own mistakes, starting with the essentials we brought from our first six hundred square feet of home. Parentage, friends, and the state of the current market for home furnishings will influence preferences. My orientation is towards historic preservation. In a lifetime total of twenty-six domiciles, I have found that fitting a place as it was originally designed to function makes the space come alive. It’s also a good strategy for easy living, since managing life support has always demanded the utmost of the housekeeper. Consult old glossy shelter magazines to learn the market’s original intent for a place. Also consult contemporary cook books to learn what the kitchen was intended to produce. Old tech brought to life with new materials displaces obsolete mass market answers to age-old questions about life support. Small space and green are the ways to go, especially in an older Seattle neighborhood.

All Seattle housing built before the Seventies is constructed of straight grain Doug fir logged from virgin rain forest that has never been subjected to a timber harvest. Milled from trees that were hundreds of years old, the wood is irreplaceable. The walls of a building are likely to be covered in fire-resistant lath and plaster. 

Seattle has a number of characteristic middle-class house types. The bungalow was designed in India to house colonial administrators. Known as the least house for the most money, a good bungalow is fitted with built-in storage and was probably constructed by a gifted wood butcher. East Indian cultural allusions work with a bungalow, from a row of prayer flags across the heavy brow of the entry to import classics like Madras bedspreads, cotton dhurries, and a mattress as seating. Shoes live at the entry. An East Indian house of privilege would have white cotton (read drop cloth) spread over a reception room floor furnished with richly upholstered mattresses and cushions, hence the traditional boho mattress on the floor in the corner. Sleeping on the floor is cool in a torrid climate, not to mention squalid in a Western room with high window sills. The strategy that sets a mattress on a plywood base on locking castors and uses it as a super-coffee table in front of the fireplace is valid for a bungalow. The cotton spreads, cushions, and mattresses are valid allusions too, as are the Asian white paper globes used to conceal light bulbs and transit cases used as side tables. Brass artifacts light up the dark bungalow interior that was designed to shelter the inhabitants from the blazing south Asian sun. Seattle-go figure!

The lap-sided square house with hip roof is a Northern European log cabin in disguise. A square footprint conserves heat. Any typical log home amenity, like a quilt, rag rug, rocking chair, animal hide, Oregon Rodeo tribal blanket, or comfortable pottery like the Blue Willow pattern will be in character, as will molded glass. A characteristic jack bed in one corner of the main room will add function and make falling asleep in front of the fire an ordinary luxury. 

The Cape Cod cottage that blanketed the city after World War Two looks like the house in the Monopoly set. This solid, practical, and wind-resistant design evolved before the American revolution. Boatbuilders devised the form, that was dragged on a sled from site to site on the shifting sands of its origin. Traditional colonial furniture suits it, Albert Sack’s book on American antiques is the bible, and Episcopal thrift shops good hunting spots for amenities. Again, it was ordinary to find a bed in a corner of the principal room, a four-poster with hangings for privacy. These comments also hold true for the Dutch Colonial that replaced Victorian housing in post-World War One domestic fashion.

Shaker community life has been a major influence in American interior design. Faith and Edward Deming Andrews wrote the book. Shaker thinking held that one is obliged to use up what one already has before installing new furnishings, so a collection of inherited and scrounged pieces is Shaker invisible. One of my favorite pieces of furniture is the modest heirloom working-class hutch that sits in the corner of the family room of a noted astrophysicist.

A classic strategy for an interior is to do it right one time and live with it for the rest of one’s life. That, I finally realized, is why old ladies’ houses look the way they do. With no female elders to oblige, I forged ahead on the strength of some early design training, buying any book or magazine on interiors that paid for itself with one idea. A few hundred dollars’ worth of clay-coated glossy paper (those things weigh so much because they’re rocks) saved me tens of thousands of dollars on home improvement. Deft is me writing up my results.

Money spent on landscaping is a basis improvement. Tilth is a good place to look for experienced advice. It’s wise to tackle the landscape before setting to work on the interior, so that when the plantings mature, the whole place will look finished. A freestanding house was originally intended to be self-sufficient, so consider sustainable landscaping and water salvage. At the turn of the twentieth century, even a tiny North End bungalow was expected to grow its own vegetables, supplementing them with fifty pound sacks of flour and potatoes and regular streetcar visits to Pike Place butchers. 

Become familiar with the micro-climates of the house and lot. Finessing placement of food storage, passive clothes drying, lounging and sedentary work areas can save big bucks on utility bills. Lightweight furniture allows one to move work and reading to the nearest source of natural light. That’s why traditional furniture designs look the way they do. Dormant furniture and fixed-purpose rooms were the product of nineteenth-century excesses in the consumption of energy and resources. Reverse those trends, and the most dated architecture can swing like a twenty-first century townhouse.

Owning a house is an exercise in defining aspirations. That’s why home improvement shows are so entertaining. Pretense can creep into any scheme. Go for broke and install a first-rate chandelier. It will be out of the way, be in period if you read those old magazines, may very well appreciate, and will take the curse off the vintage motorcycle leaning against the wall in the master bedroom. English Conde’ Nast’s World of Interiors has an unfailing moral compass.

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More after the jump.