Friday, May 21, 2010

Garden Yoga

Photo courtesy Flickr

There’s little to do in the yard. The tiny orchard needs mowing, and that’s it. A local hardware chain is advertising its spring plant sale. One good-sized container of colorful annuals would be an entertaining dooryard addition to the landscape.

When we moved here in 1980, the prospect of mowing my toes as well as the grass on the steep front bank did not appeal, so I persuaded strong backs to peel away the sod. I sowed daisies, pearly everlasting, and foxglove in imitation of roadsides on the Olympic Peninsula. Originally, the bank was a June riot of color, but sword fern and snowberry are gradually taking over. I may have the only fireweed on Capitol Hill. Now and then a grateful native remarks on it.

The photo shows foxglove, an invasive European medicinal plant that I am now de-emphasizing, horsetail, sword fern, and Queen Anne's lace. Native plants bloom discreetly-their aesthetic is outside the flashy aggression of commercial plant breeding. The county agricultural district offers native plants for sale for pennies every March. It would be surprising if counties in other regions did not offer something similar.

Tomorrow will be a day to park myself in the hammock and listen to the sounds of Saturday.

More after the jump.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Living in One Room in the Middle of Several Other Rooms

Photo courtesy Flickr

When I started to pay attention to interior design, I was living in a tiny apartment. The magazine that became Metropolitan Life started out as Apartment Life or Apartment Living, something like that. It was a gold mine of elegant strategies for getting the best out of each cubic inch of home.

I find that the most intelligent strategies for using space are devised for the smallest quarters. Often they are the solutions a working designer has found for his or her private space.

The smallest and some say the best room in my house is a tiny parlor at the top of the stairs. It’s insulated on all four walls, a way of isolating child and household noise from each other when the baby came along. Now the room serves as our study, and all the small furnishings are concentrated here.

Segregating the knick-knacks makes the other rooms in the house much faster to work in, easier to clean, and more flexible in the way they can be used. I can reconfigure a space in twenty minutes. On a whim, over the last few months I’ve been moving my personal gear into the study bit by bit to see just how far I can push the notion of concentrating small possessions into one space.

Suddenly, I am working out of the world’s best airplane seat. I can get any kind of work done faster now that I don’t have to walk more than a few steps to retrieve whatever small items I need for a given task. Inventory edits itself when storage space is challenged: priorities are easier to see if choosing is a matter of shelving one thing in place of another.

When guests turn up, any room in the house can be set up to accommodate them without worrying about having to “play through” to reach some essential item.

More after the jump.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Brand New Townhouse

Photo courtesy Flickr
“Unfinished things have more life.” ANDRE'E PUTMAN

A tradesman let me slip behind his back for a quick afternoon tour of new construction a couple of blocks away. It was a treat to see what 2010 has brought to the neighborhood. We agreed that the world of design has learned a lot in the last hundred years. His house dates from 1914, mine from 1890.

The townhouse I visited had four narrow floors from garage to master suite. I could easily transfer my life into that environment. The architect had taken masterful advantage of the views. The same square footage that seemed like mean-spirited profiteering in a unit several blocks west felt like elegant relief from maintenance in this place.

In a perfect world, townhouses would be designed with a potential elevator shaft to soften the effects of any future disability.

Writing about “drab” yesterday, I realized that the cool whites and brushed chrome hardware of this new building would be a good setting for many high-tech vintage furnishings that look eccentric in twentieth-century architecture. The first thing that came to mind was the chromed brass hardware on a high-end late nineteenth-century medicine cabinet. Vintage medical storage cabinets would look wonderful in an immaculate new townhouse. They’d enrich the surface textures of brand-new wallboard, glass that hadn’t begun to flow in the slow relaxation of its essentially liquid nature, and the patented wood flooring whose grain has yet to mellow through seasons of shifting temperature and humidity. This unit, however, is so sophisticated that freestanding storage units may never be necessary.

Old canning jars with zinc tops, solid white restaurant china, Navy surplus stainless steel tableware (by Tiffany, no less), white woven plastic tarps as curtains, white Remay featherweight polyester agricultural fabric, butcher paper tablecovers, and chromed wire storage shelves on wheels would all be a hoot to work with in a spanking new interior. Those adjustable storage racks make fine movable screens when their backs and sides are covered with, in my case, lightweight woven wicker garden fencing secured with zip ties. (Think fire safety.) I could see using them as a substitute for curtains. Covered with grommeted translucent white material of some kind and with cupboard strip lights under each shelf, a rack unit would function as a storage curtain floor lamp. Stanley’s grommet kit costs about a third of one from a sewing store.

Even in its unfinished state, this townhouse has the formal composure of a photographic print. It will no doubt be as flattering a setting for the owners as it is for the static furnishings it now displays. The whole composition speaks of elegant minimalism.

More after the jump.

Monday, May 17, 2010


Photo courtesy Flickr
Several years ago I learned that in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries it was standard practice to mix leftover paint from decorating principal rooms into a muddy color known as “drab”. It was used on the walls of service areas. I had recently seen Wedgwood’s re-issued drabware china, a glossy yellowish variant of khaki, and been intrigued with the color, so I decided to see what kind of drab the colors of my leftover paint would produce.

It’s been an interesting exercise. First I learned that the exterior paints produce a cool and elegant range of grays and soft violets that set off the bleached and ancient floorboards of the woodshed and the broken cement patio I salvaged from a neighbor’s defunct driveway.

Mixing interior colors produces a formal and reticent collection of grays that set off the original woodwork better than my first choices.

This morning I noticed that the 1914 bronze metallic paint on the heat pipes and radiators has aged to a deep and subtle yellowish drab. Knowing nothing about color but a little about historic preservation, I decided to leave the pipes alone when I first painted the interior. Now they offer a grave note that integrates the original floor finish with the walls and ceilings. Annual gentle buffing with a high-tech polyester terry cleaning cloth brings up faint highlights in the metal finish and removes any curse of age or neglect.

I’m composing this blog in parallel with tomorrow's one about a brand-new townhouse in the neighborhood. That place is painted cool white, and it’s very appealing. As I consider wall colors, one factor that comes to mind is what complements our skin and hair colors. Yellowish white is best for me and mine, and our lives are designed around the yellowish glow of incandescent light bulbs. The new interior a couple of blocks away is clearly oriented toward energy-saving illumination. I wonder how becoming those rooms would be at night. Incandescent is the logical evolution of fire light. New technology has displaced the radiating colors of the open hearth with the transparent primaries of a video screen. My house is oriented toward what graphic design people call warm grays-the new place is clearly a composition in cool ones.

It’s interesting to ponder how to lighten up and use drab at the same time as existing furnishings-drab seems to pull a room together better than anything I know except for the yellow khaki drab of sea grass matting. I suppose simply mixing in a great deal of typical pre-1970 yellowish lead white (sans lead)  would be a first step toward integrating the last three centuries of interior design with new developments.

The Flickr illustration is of the commandant's servants' quarters from Fort Snelling, Minnesota. It reminds me of a comment Sir Terence Conran made in one of his early design publications. Conran surveys the principal rooms of the great houses of England, outlines his personal preferences, and concludes that the service areas are much easier and more pleasant to live in. I have found that to be so in this house: the attic houses peace, escape, and the best view.

More after the jump.