Friday, March 26, 2010

Smart Things

Photo courtesy Flickr

When inflation was terrible in the 1970s, economist Paul Hawken published The Next Economy, in which he linked the price of money to the price of oil. He talked about the wisdom of choosing to buy products with more of what he called “intelligence” embedded in them a decade before the personal computer dropped a brain prosthesis into our laps.

A tinny saucepan from a corner dime store is a stupid thing. An electronically controlled electric pressure cooker is a smart thing. A pair of cheap cotton tube socks from that same corner store are stupid, state of the art non-shrinking elasticized wool knee socks contour-knit to the foot are indescribably smart.

Smart things perform the same task as stupid things, but they do it better, cheaper in the long run, easier, faster, more safely, and with less attention. Circumstances dictate when to choose stupid over smart. Dime store furnishings might make sense in temporary quarters. I can’t think of any time when a tube sock would be preferable to a high-tech wool one, unless it’s for a kid who loses socks.

The name Hawken may be familiar to you. He was half of Smith and Hawken, whose tiny one color catalogue revolutionized American gardening in 1979.

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Thursday, March 25, 2010

Mechanical Joys

Combine simple pieces of lumber and common store findings to make fixtures whose cost per use is too small to measure.

The pot rack over my sink, copied from a physician’s 1956 design for his beach cabin, cost $5 in 1982. Kitchen vapors preserve the wood and prevent rust. Housekeepers who can afford anything they want like it.

Pictures hang from a rail via special purpose hooks and long wire plant hooks. The standard wire lengths make it easy to achieve a consistent display.

The bead shop is a San Francisco institution.

I first became aware of this style when I saw the bookcases of a senior acquaintance. She had salvaged full-dimensional straight grain Doug fir planks (old enough that a one by ten really measured one inch by ten inches) and stacked them with tall beer cans from the time they were made of thick steel. The assembly set off her Picasso etching.

My most useful table is based on a pair of waxed straight-grain Doug fir sawhorses joined with pre-fab plastic gadgets and topped with a pair of undistinguished one by twelves. Either there’s a cloth on top to enhance an occasion, or I’m using the table for a grubby project.

If you invest in fixtures made up of simple components, you’ll have spent very little money on a flexible inventory that looks better over time.

-30- More after the jump.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010


Photo courtesy Flickr
Feeding birds also feeds silent wildlife. I hope that the raptors that live off small birds take many rodents as well. Until I read that once a feeder is established, one is obliged to keep it up, I considered putting out a daily ration. Now I support birds with water in the pond (aka heron feeder), with weed, flower, and shrub seeds (that simplify maintenance), organic garden practice, minor tangles of habitat for shelter, and by not keeping a cat.

It is a great courtesy not to startle birds, especially in winter. Their energies are taxed to the limit in cold weather, and taking suddenly to the air puts a huge strain on their metabolisms. They seem to remember being considered. In summer, birds eat bugs that eat my food plants and protect me from an excess of cherries.

-30- More after the jump.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

The Seventies

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“Nostalgia is always lying in wait for us.” David Pye, ca. 1962

A young friend collects Seventies design, and I am grateful for her insight. That was the last period of cheap energy and abundant materials. Human beings did all the thinking at the drawing board.

People born between 1935 and 1941 are a special generation. There aren’t many of them, because of the Depression, so many were raised in relative privilege and with a relative lack of competition for resources. Established households often have a calm, secure atmosphere of given comforts. Much of the furniture is neo-classical. The period was the last expression of the unchallenged American imperium. The neo-classicism represents a speedy evolution from the rocking Populux of the Fifties.

The late Jed Johnson designed a New York City apartment around Seventies furniture. I saw it featured in a glossy shelter magazine just before he was lost in a plane crash around 2000. The work was the first period revival of which I am aware, and I have not seen another since. The space was elegant, economical, and a beautiful statement of human values.

Grandparents’ furniture is good value used. When an age cohort downsizes, the market is briefly flooded with bargains that appeal to loving descendants. Seventies furniture respects space, is often both light and well-engineered, and is chaste enough to fit in with other periods and in rooms of many functions.

Advanced Fifties and mass-market Sixties design offered furniture from Scandinavia. Those sleek teak seats go straight back to King Tut’s tomb. The neo-classical forms of the Seventies, if painted a slightly yellowish white, are literally the expression of the style of Sweden’s King Gustav. French designers are having fun painting neo-classical furniture in assertive colors. I think that would be hard to beat for a fresh, young household.

A good vintage piece in mint condition deserves to keep its original finish, and upholstery, too, but one with a visible history of use might reasonably be modified. Check with a knowledgeable dealer before making a choice that might compromise value.

Often, a cruise through current new offerings reveals the stylistic influences of a flyweight big box catalogue. For the same or less money, a visit to a thrift or second-hand store may yield an original, or better-constructed reproduction of the same period that can be refreshed with, no kidding, soap and water, a coat of wax colored or otherwise, and a pass over the upholstery with a hot glue gun and some new cloth. Add sliders to the feet to protect old glue joints from stress, and you’ll be in business.

-30- More after the jump.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Spring Cleaning

Photo courtesy Flickr

The good news about spring cleaning is that the best time to do it is after the weather cools off in fall.

Cleaning when the weather gets warm was a way to dung out a low-tech interior. Soot from lighting and dust in carpets accumulated over a winter where the residents were sealed in by storm windows and warmed with solid fuel. Pet dander and cooking fumes added to the brew. By the time it was comfortable to open windows, residents were gasping.

The first time I used high-tech cleaning accessories from a janitorial supply, I realized that a simple vacuum and damp cloth were not much more advanced than my great-grandmother’s kit. A pass with the cloth yielded a grey haze of dust. A pass with a high-tech cloth yielded a small mountain of fluff.

The basic idea in cleaning is to dilute the dirt. Keep it out by removing shoes when you enter the house. That will exclude over ninety percent of the problem. When you do clean, use efficient tools to get the most for your efforts.

The computer industry’s clean-room technology has given us polyester micro-fiber terry cloths and HEPA filters that vacuum the air itself. The best cloths I have found are called Miraculous. I buy pricey filters for my old upright vacuum. These accessories are a labor cost. It’s a small matter to wash the cloths.

Come spring, air the place, clean the windows, and get it decent. The old custom of replacing wool carpets with thin matting and putting away accessories refreshes the atmosphere, acknowledges the cycle of the seasons, frees energies to use for growing food, and improves security when the family is away. Southerners used to veil mirrors and paintings with cheesecloth to protect gilded frames from fly specks. Screens may make the effort unnecessary, but the practice lightens a summer interior and protects the eye from the aggressive glare of direct sun on gold.

English houses of privilege used to “keep secret house” in the summer. The family would move to modest rural quarters, and the staff they left behind would undertake major renovations. That’s still a smart way to manage home improvement. A wise friend used to put her family into a motel when the floors were being refinished or painting was going on. I once estimated that doing it ourselves cost more in time and fast food than hiring competent crews.

Plan a major cleaning strike just before Hallowe’en, so you can coast through the holidays feeling like a champ. Scratch the spring cleaning itch by de-junking inventory and grooming the garden so it will look beautifully cultivated from the Thanksgiving table. Sweep the walks all season with a corn broom, and by the time school opens, the hardscape will have taken on the subtle gleam of “sickle polish” from being burnished with corn silica. Sickle-polished cement looks very beautiful in the rain.

By September, the house will be full of whatever comes in through open windows and on little feet. In my experience, the mess doesn’t amount to much more than pleasant dry litter, the odd insect, and the spider webs that are so timely for Hallowe’en. There are two major construction projects in the neighborhood this year, so I anticipate more dust than usual. The slower the economy and the higher the price of gas, the less road dust there is.

Fall will be the time for totalitarian dusting and vacuuming, washing windows, and polishing wood and metal. The rug cleaners run specials, and this will be the year to bring them a few small carpets to freshen up for the holidays. The English National Trust Manual of Housekeeping is a brilliantly conservative resource well worth reading ahead of need.

In the meantime, I can put my efforts into vegetable containers.

-30- More after the jump.