Friday, June 11, 2010

Daytime Research

Photo courtesy Flickr

I caught a few minutes of a home makeover show at lunch, something about so and so ruins her house. A catchy title and dubbed in Spanish. Watching was like listening to a sermon in Puerto Rico: not hard to catch the theme, but the details were obscured, so I could concentrate on the visuals.

Home makeovers are like a more rigid and expensive version of personal makeovers. A fast pass through existing inventory, some blush, a couple of changes, and voila! A new version of the same old thing, made lively by more personal attention than usual. When my son was little, I read that the most stimulating learning comes from a change in a familiar environment, and it didn’t take me long to conclude that change was the point rather than a particular style.

Today’s lab house appeared to have been decorated in the early Seventies by someone who had read Sir Terence Conran’s House Book, the go to source if you’re ever designing a set for a high school play about swinging London. A very good guide to the fundamentals it is, too.

The host was waving her arms at a lime green wall and cone-shaped orange lampshade-a design classic. To be sure, the style ain’t current, but the thought of sweeping everything away made me worry about the carbon footprint of each purchase, and about spending the capital of an aging household.

The years between vintage and current are dangerous ones. Five years one way or the other can tip a stale interior back into favor, at least with certain age groups. In my life, lime green is screaming hot at the moment among younger adults. In fact, BBC news this morning showed soccer legend Pele’s paintings that are on display for the World Cup competition in South Africa. Pele’s palette is exactly that of the lab house. The clear prismatic primary colors of Conran’s period rooms anticipate the shared global vision of telecommunicated images. Watch televison news and keep an eye on which colors attract the camera operator and attract your attention.

Some of the most innovative late Twentieth century rooms came out of Los Angeles when real estate prices were rocketing. It appears that house payments soaked up all the income of the owners of the small tract houses I saw in a glossy shelter volume from the public library. They had furnished with Fiesta ware, classic chrome dinette sets, and the spectrum of furniture known as shabby chic. Whatever the realities of the decision-making, those LA interiors were the most stimulating ones I had seen since I started stealing ideas from fellow dorm residents back in the day.

Here are some suggestions for working with an existing interior. First, one traditional strategy is to get it right the first time and then live with it the rest of your life. This explains why old ladies’ houses look the way they do, and this approach might very well serve the owner of the lab house, if she has the courage of her convictions. Norma Skurka’s New York Times Book of Interior Design and Decoration is a good guide to the classics. Second, think Shaker: use up what you have already. Third, let time work for you. One of my aunts had a way of choosing things that looked cobby and aggressive when they were new but mellowed into amazingly insightful form after about twenty years.

Even if you hate the sight of something, it can be chopped. Furious upholstery can be sprayed with bleach and left in the sun for a while. That has an immediate calming effect. Unwelcome wood finishes respond to a light coat of shoe polish. Crayons, markers, and gold wax are also useful for modifying finishes. High thread-count cotton drop cloths from the independent hardware chain make good loose covers and curtains. Hot wash and hot dry them to avoid surprises down the road. Hot glue secures loose covers in seconds and can be reversed with an iron. It’s an easy way to reupholster, too.

Find out what you’ve got before you go at it or throw it away, since original finishes maintain value. President Franklin Roosevelt’s mother, Sarah, maintained that “if it’s good enough to buy in the first place, it’s good enough to keep”. Old glossy shelter magazines will give you perspective. A sound upholstered piece that’s heavy for its size is probably framed in hardwood, neither cheap nor easy to come by these days. If you really hate something and plan to ditch it, there’s nothing to lose by playing with it, except a few hours’ time. Interior design books from the late Forties are full of economical tricks with upholstery, like refreshing just the seat with a contrasting fabric. Diana Phipps’ Affordable Splendor lays out good strategies for spending the least and getting the most.

The style of a sound, stable table hardly matters, since it can easily be covered with a floor-length cloth. A department store bedding department will carry a heavy cotton spread in several muted, versatile colors from a familiar name. This piece is marketed as a cotton blanket. If it works for you, buy several for back-up. I find them versatile. The cotton drop cloth will work on a table, too, and it can be painted with acrylics or latex wall paint. Hem with hot-melt glue. For meals, cover the long cloth with a smaller one. I like to put a waterproof layer between them.

A battered tabletop is an asset, since the piece can be used as a work surface. An intact tabletop can be protected with masonite or plywood cut to fit, with a soft layer between the two surfaces. A temporary worktop doesn't have to cover the entire table. Inexpensive plastic fast clamps will hold the worktop in place. A table that’s short of leaves can be extended with plywood cut to fit, perhaps the protective top. Simply waxing the legs of an old table is often enough to salvage it for the time being. Add teflon sliding castors to old furniture to protect old glue joints.

A sea sponge and bucket of paint can take the curse off unwelcome wall color. Noodle around in an obscure area to get things to your liking. Strong existing wall color is an asset in a broken color scheme. Mis-mixed paint is a popular bargain and can be colored with acrylics. Sponging is very forgiving. The library will have deep resources about using paint to set the style of a room.

Today’s room had figured curtains that looked like the last motel room I rented. The palette was fresh and clear, though, rather than muddy and utilitarian. If the motif had any appeal, it would be interesting to wash the curtains with a jar of instant tea to see if they would gain depth and interest. Excise a small patch from a hem to test the dye. Figured furnishings commit a room to one statement: plain or textured walls, floor, and windows are more versatile. Specific visuals on short-lived things like pillow covers leave a scheme more flexible.

Modifying textiles and wall color leaves little to do to bring a room up to date. Lighting and small accessories set the tone. Sometimes, simply washing the light bulbs and dusting a shade makes a radical difference. Basic housekeeping, too, like washing windows and detailing a floor can take years off a room and often makes remodeling unnecessary. I find that if I keep a room current with how I’m using it, the style hardly matters. Like driftwood, my inventory has jostled against itself long enough to have lost its hostile protrusions and faded into harmony.

-30- More after the jump.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Tips for Arranging Furniture

Photo courtesy Flickr
In Latin languages, furniture is known as "movables", a liberating concept. One way to approach setting up a room is to ignore the walls and place things as needed. The lighter the furniture, the easier it is to reconfigure a space and the harder a given space will work. If furniture folds or knocks down, so much the better.

The photo shows a student area of an English university. It looks like a coffee shop on wheels, an ideal environment for individual and group production.

Traditional campaign furniture, like a director's chair or camp bed, is the most hard-working and versatile. Sheraton designed elegant field furniture. The mail-order hiking co-op offers its own versions. In between are generations of military surplus and high-end French designer offerings.

Eighteenth century European furniture was light and portable so that it could be moved close to a source of daylight. That's as valid today as ever. In the nineteenth century, fossil fuels enabled artificial light and abundant heat while the textile industry churned out masses of short-staple cotton waste. Those two factors produced Victoria's massive dormant overstuffed furniture, hugely wasteful of space and energy.

If you're working with movable pieces, arrangement can be casual and immediate. Dormant things require a little more thought. Someone trained in interior design will have more sophisticated suggestions than I, but there are some rules of thumb that prevent awkwardness.

Leave two feet between a dining table and a wall.
Have three feet between the counters in a kitchen. If more than one person works in a kitchen, leave four feet.
Allow three feet of width for a traffic lane through a room.
Place a bed facing the door.
And the simplest rule of all: leave room for people.


More after the jump.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010


Photo courtesy Flickr

I’m downsizing to make even more workspace in the house. Here’s a short list of the “last things standing”, a few of which have been in constant use for a hundred and twenty years:
a nickel-steel frying pan (looks like regular cast-iron, but thinner. The outside is nickle-plated)
Northwest woven wool blankets in tribal patterns
a hand-forged border spade
an engraved silver thimble
"award-winning" director’s chairs
sea-grass matting in one-foot squares
a claw-foot bathtub
brass reading lamps
Luxo adjustable lamps with translucent white plastic shades
clamp-on shop lights
white linens
down sleeping bags that unzip flat for daily use in a duvet cover
old-fashioned parlor toys like German mohair stuffed animals and painted wooden blocks
a Seventies Samsonite briefcase

-30- More after the jump.

Monday, June 7, 2010

Buy Hand

Photo courtesy Flickr

Some new kitchen gear is dicey to clean. It’s inexpensive, utilitarian, imported like everything else these days, and barely finished enough to be safe to handle. A few minutes’ muttering to myself about quality control told me finish might not matter if a manufacturer assumes something will be cleaned in a dishwasher. The slippery slope has a new access point.

It makes sense to design for real-world use. It especially makes sense to be aware of what one’s very own real-world consists. I wash dishes by hand, and a lifetime of pearl-diving has taught my mitts the following: 1912 French bistro glassware is a bus-boy’s dream, a decent fork is polished between the tines, a traditional footed rice bowl with an out-curved rim is an extension of the hand itself.

A thing that will be used by hand or maintained by hand ought rightly to further the expression of the hand. A dinner fork trains the body as surely as a gym’s leg machine trains a lower limb. Be aware of the choices you have made for your table and of the choices that others, like restauranteurs and fast-food vendors, make for you. Selecting personal equipment is always an exercise in balancing the precious and the expedient. Whatever your decision, it’s important to be aware of the range of options.

A friend who was trained in classical guitar once gently declined to help me move in favor of protecting his hands. I barely comprehended the caution at the time, but years of writing practice have brought me caution of my own. I’ll tackle any physical chore of which I’m capable or potentially capable, but I’ve grown careful about pace, safety equipment, and the duration of the exercise.

Items used by hand can brutalize as easily as working with a sledge. A ball-point pen, plastic fork, or ill-considered wallet numb fine motor skills, the intelligence that is so closely linked to those skills, and the grace that is the power of a sure hand and our most important source of energy.

-30- More after the jump.