Friday, March 12, 2010

The Night View

Photo courtesy Flickr

The evening street scape reveals the heart of a neighborhood. Cities vary in their appreciation of uncurtained interiors. Some prefer openness, others find security more valuable.

I’ve been walking past local apartments for nearly forty years, glancing at a succession of interiors in the same units. A few principles for presentation seem to hold true. Keep the windows and light bulbs clean. Keep shades even with the sashes and each other. Think big: lots of something inexpensive, like unbleached muslin curtains, is more effective than a skimpy piece of something pretentious. Polyester sheets only work as shower curtains. Scrounged furniture in period with a building works better than a cheap knock-off of contemporary design. Color is everything.

A fleeting glimpse of an interior at night (peeping is not honorable) will set off emotional echoes that tell what a space is about. There are no absolutes. An empty, carefully considered room can be more supportive than the neglected space next door that costs the same. Pulling a space together is a gift, and I think the night view is the most important one of all.

-30- More after the jump.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Getting Off the Ground

Photo courtesy Flickr

A wise older friend taught me to choose clothing with travel in mind. That one tip turned five feet of wardrobe inventory into two, eliminated ironing, simplified laundry, and left me unafraid of wet or snowy weather. I spent three times as much money on most garments and cut their cost per use to ten percent of what I had been paying.

Later I was struck by the sight of a frail, elegant senior woman pulling a rolling case around a department store. The case was such a rational alternative to a twenty-pound shoulder bag that I went straight to the hiking co-op and bought myself a carry-on sized wheeled backpack. The wheeled case and a pair of walking shoes replaced my car.

When it was time to climb onto a plane, the only major change in my life was the zip code. Adding a laptop and hot WiFi means now I can bring my zip code along wherever I go.

A recent visit to two young households in the heart of San Francisco reinforced my instinct to downsize in place. My hosts appear to have no interest in furnishings as status symbols or ends in themselves. Things are chosen for function. Digital and live resources provide cultural support.

Living close to the heart of a city, even a well-designed tiny one like Port Angeles, Washington (laid out by the same French urban designer who invented Washington, D.C.), means that one can keep living quarters as simple and flexible as a dorm or hotel room. Though this choice is not for everyone, coupled with ultra-light high tech furnishings it supports independence and productive knowledge work.

-30- More after the jump.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

The Anvil

Photo courtesy Flickr

Every house has an anvil, the place things strike when someone comes in the door. For one family of ten, the dining table was the anvil. Another family of four found that the living room sofa drew incoming. The maple kitchen cart is my anvil. My old friend Mimi, a born competitor, claims to have four or more.

Both people and things come to rest when they enter the door. The trick is to sort things out before they cool off and then reward oneself with a moment’s respite before carrying on. My grandmother trained me to “take off my hat” (and hang it up) and sit for a moment to collect myself when I returned home. A brief interlude with a cup of tea restores cognition and morale and allows the pulse to return to normal.

The anvil is the parking lot of the house. It indicates the traffic patterns of the residents. Don’t fight the anvil; support it. It’s a valve, a switching point, as traffic engineers say. An intersection.

Unwittingly, my friend Mimi is using the pile method of inventory management. I learned this system from garden writer Ann Lovejoy, who looked at the floor of her parlor and remarked that she used the pile method to keep house. At the time, we had three toddlers and two flaking Victorian relics to live in.

Twenty-four years of field testing has proved that Ann’s black humor is an effective way to manage possessions. The trick is to place a container under each pile. Set up an in-house routing system by keeping a stack of bins, a bold marker, and a pad of sticky notes by the anvil. Store things where you use them first. Leave them ready to use again after you have used them one time. Every time you handle something, set it down closer to its destination. For training, note the home position on the object and the object on the home position. I use electric green sticky dots from an office supplier.

Baskets are elegant containers and can be found woven as deep trays that nest. The big box store sells fabric versions of the same thing. Both resemble the corrugated plastic bins that the post office uses. Lidded plastic tubs are available in various sizes: too big is preferable to too small. Several dozen is not excessive. Whatever container you choose, get many, get the same size, and coordinate them with your shelving. Using just one kind of container to sort and manage inventory will train your eye and hand to respond effectively to maverick items. Rope them in and send them to the barn.

It’s convenient to store bins on a modular chromed or coated wire storage rack on heavy wheels. A commonly available line is designed with shelves that are fast and easy to adjust. Heavy wire shelving is self-cleaning, not cheap, and so serviceable it can be classified as a labor cost. I zip-tied pieces of lightweight rustic woven reed garden fencing to the back and sides of two rolling wire racks and discovered movable storage room dividers that can be washed with a garden hose.

Over the years, racks and bins have displaced most of the dressers and cupboards that used to fill up my rooms. I use the least promising spaces for dedicated storage and substitute hanging nylon shoe and sweater bags for dressers.

Clutter is telling one to slow down and take charge. Use self-sticking labels and a bold marker to note the destination on each container. It’s work to make a decision. It’s far less work to make a decision once and write it down. The principle is to keep house as if one knows how to read and write, a relatively recent development for domestic labor. Doing so de-classifies housekeeping practice and frees one from the role of handmaiden.

-30- More after the jump.

Monday, March 8, 2010

Keeping the Faith

Photo courtesy Flickr

I treasure this story about custom work.

On a 1980 visit to Hilo, my aunt told me about an episode that had her street buzzing. The next-door neighbor had commissioned a quilt in 1960 and paid ahead of time. The quilt did not appear, the neighbor was posted out of the country for a few years, and the commission forgotten. Twenty years later, the quilter turned up all smiles and out of the blue to deliver a beautiful piece of work.

-30- More after the jump.