Friday, September 3, 2010

The Soil Bank

Photo courtesy Flickr

Topsoil was a hot issue as I paged my way through a fourth-grade geography book one boring Fifties afternoon in Mrs. Mooney’s class. The dust bowl was a living and menacing memory, a significant percentage of the population still farmed, and science fiction writer Robert Heinlein’s children’s classic Red Planet Mars explained the process of soil formation.

I never expected to flash back to concerns about erosion when I decided to homestead a stone’s throw from downtown Seattle, but every time I sweep the beautiful old gutter in front of the house, I get a lesson in soil building. The tiny, drought-resistant weeds that sprout in the paving grab and hold their gritty future as it drifts onto the bricks from traffic and construction. A single seedling will capture half a cup or more of soil in just a week or two.

Pulling seedlings make maintenance easier, lifting clods makes the front garden richer. Either way, the property gains.

-30- More after the jump.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Set Theory

Photo courtesy Flickr

An acquaintance grew up in a modest suburban home furnished with museum-quality old things, including a Rembrandt etching. I asked her what it was like to be surrounded with that kind of excellence every day, and she said it bothered her that the chairs didn’t match, the way the ones at her friends’ houses did.

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Wednesday, September 1, 2010


Photo courtesy Flickr

In her wisdom, my ma clued me in to the importance of standard dimensions. At her knee, I lisped “four by eight feet for plywood”, “golden mean”, and “design to get the most out of a given piece of material”.

When we occupied and began to furnish this 1890 house, I was astonished to discover that the DIY pine dresser my mother designed, and from which she tutored me, dropped into this old space without a ripple. Her maxims had been delivered as part of a discussion of modern design, but I imagine valid ways run deep in the culture.

Choosing and using modular furnishings permits a huge range of improvisation, so the money you spend pays off over time and in varying circumstances. It’s not a bad idea to carry a tape measure when you’re scouting. The Big Box Northern European Furnishings chain gives away paper tapes and nearly gives away state of the art design based on standard dimensions.

24” x 72” is a key flat dimension. It defines the seat of a sofa, a single bed or cot, a self-inflating air mattress, and the top of a folding office table. Standard bedding, table cloths, and cotton dropcloths all work with this module.

12” x 12” is another key dimension. In my life, it’s a vestige of vinyl recorded music and is reinforced by dairy crates, the most versatile of all small furnishings. That’s a sixteen-quart crate. I buy from thrift stores. Crates cost the vendor around $10 each, their loss is significant, and theft increases when gas prices rise and recycling is more profitable.

36” and 48” high-tech wire shelving in the units that come in a box is the most efficient. I have tried nearly every configuration that’s available in this design. Plain vanilla is the stuff that pays off.

Stock photo paper, mats, and frame sizes simplify graphic life. There are specialized museum sizes for the convenience of the fine art community.

Reduce the number of variables in your life to gain time to think. A Reddit post on August 23, 2010, about buying twenty pair of the same black sock generated a huge and hilarious response. My favorite was the comment from the person who was ready to call someone stupid, realized they’d made the same clumsy move, and had decided “the rubber band was on the other claw”. Thank you. Thank you.

Now and then I discover a product that’s so fundamental it displaces everything similar. Black nylon now defines luggage, clothing storage, trousers, and bags. It displaced a huge, motley, and confusing collection of suitcases, dressers, jeans, and sidebags. Nylon is stronger than steel of the same dimension. Glass is similarly rewarding: durable French bistro classics serve hot and cold liquids, and small rectangular storage dishes from an old-line American manufacturer displace plastic ware, numerous other storage formats, and are perfect for setting up MREs.

The central artifact in my life at the moment is this trusty laptop, based on 81/2”x11” or legal 81/2”x14”. It, a scanner, and a fast connection are far more engaging than domesticity as it has been defined. What remains are the English language, the best courtesy I can manage, and life support at its safest, most efficient, and most healthful.

-30- More after the jump.

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Doing Simple Things Well

Photo courtesy Flickr

Doing simple things well is often neither simple nor easy: it takes time to define a task and more time to work out how to do it with the least effort. In this area of home design, tradition often trumps innovation. Expedient solutions are often more profitable than high-end installations.

Flatware reached its finest hour in the eighteenth century. Silver from that period has not been bettered for the graceful table manners it supports. The market now offers many patterns in stainless steel that echo earlier forms. If flatware interests you, cruise Replacements, Ltd.’s web site for an encyclopedic tour.

When I threw my stove away (see September 4, 2009), I picked up a tinny $15 imported rice cooker at a hardware store. I have used it at least once a day for years for oatmeal, rice, and steamed vegetables. The hunch that millions of Asian housekeepers could not be wrong has proved out. The electricity bill fell by half, and I discovered that I could (although I do not) feed us with just the rice cooker and a hot pot. Those two little countertop appliances replaced fifty pounds (and nearly half a yard) of enameled cast-iron French cookware and an appallingly wasteful conventional stove. For years I had admired the traditional old Japanese pots that have a collar to collect the charcoal heat that rises around their exterior. The rice cooker has that collar-its lip-and a concentrated heat source that is a mere button at the base.

One key to doing simple things well is to distinguish between the front of the house, the social areas, and the back of the house, production and maintenance areas. Twentieth-century trends in domestic architecture blurred the distinction between the two, resulting in absurd situations like home art studios with wall-to-wall carpeting. Frankly utilitarian solutions to basic tasks, like the rice cooker, don’t impress anyone visually, but the end of the month bank statement is gratifying.

The Great Big Northern European home furnishings chain sells ready-made amenities that suit nineteenth to twenty-first century architecture. A tour of the store is an education in proportion, function, and intelligent service. There’s a trade-off between quality and price, so shop judiciously. Classics like rag rugs, sheepskins, glassware, and kd bookcases have been the best value for me. For other low-end furnishings, I have learned to prefer the long-established common national housewares brands found in other outlets.

There’s a mail order operation, The Original Colony Country Store, that carries the definitive collection of housewares that do basic things better than any others. If you have a hankering for a hardwood clothes drying rack that will serve generations, that’s the place to go.

More after the jump.

Monday, August 30, 2010

Scraping the House

Photo courtesy Flickr

I learned this phrase from one of the first housekeeping men I knew, an old friend rediscovered after he had married and fathered two toddlers. I called one morning, and that’s what Lane said he was doing.

It’s hard to better the concept, and I spent the past week-end doing just that in anticipation of a family visit. I keep the place near fighting trim most of the time, and since this is currently a toddler-free zone, there’s actually little scraping to be done. Inventory can always stand a baleful inspection, though.

Oprah Winfrey recently rebroadcast an epic assault on a hoarder’s accumulation (see August 12), and the show brought home a basic point: manage inventory so that furnishings can present themselves at their best. I’ve been itching to downsize in place, and even a couple of fine old favorites had made their way onto my hit list. Two days’ subtracting obsolete electronics, redundant tools and supplies, frozen projects, and unused gear freed the interior so that the good things can shine.

Early in my independent life, I mumbled about inventory to a musician, showing him linens that had been spun and woven by her aunts for my great-grandmother’s trousseau. I said something about their having been too good to use all these years, and Fred countered that they were too good to hide. Indeed, they are too good to hide. They are also far too good to misuse and illustrate the difference between valuable and precious.

A wise high school teacher toured my first house, a seven hundred square foot cottage, and advised me to leave room for people. Ever since, I have found repeatedly that when things overwhelm active space, morale and health go to hell.

Futurist Buckminster Fuller published a book entitled I Seem to be a Verb. Fuller’s point of view is one of the pillars of Now, and I find that making sure I have more verbs in my life than nouns is the key to happiness and productivity.

-30- More after the jump.