Friday, February 25, 2011

The Literal Approach

Photo courtesy Flickr

Back in the day, it was usual, but bad practice, to see students carrying dirty clothes to the laundry in a pillow case. On road trips, I’d protect my favorite pillow with a muslin laundry bag and nap happily in the passenger seat.

Later on I scored a collection of brand-new feather pillows for almost no money and decided they’d be good on the floor and in the garden. I cast around for some way to cover them, and a trip to Calcutta Corners yielded classic heavy cotton checks in the right palette. I decided to revive laundry-bag-as-pillowcase, and twenty years later they’re still going strong. Most of the time, they’re pillow cases, but the spares are ready for anything.

-30- More after the jump.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

The Shell

Photo courtesy Flickr

Around 1970, someone pointed out that contemporary houses are expensive because they’re wired and plumbed. Back in the day, a building was little more than a rigid wooden tent. This 1890 house (in original condition) is a perfect laboratory for playing around with off-grid innovations. Although it was plumbed for water and gaslight originally, people had barely learned how to use utilities, and it’s a bare-bones setup. The illustration of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt's Campobello cottage is nearly identical to my original kitchen. We continually discover ways to down-tech daily life, and the the utility bills have become an account to be mined for major savings. The property may ultimately be developed, so we experiment with the green ways of a tenant rather than sinking capital into improvements that may not pay in the near future.

At the moment, it’s rewarding to concentrate the small furnishings and high-tech amenities in one room on each of the two main floors. There’s an empty attic that can become a crash pad on a moment’s notice, and a half-basement with a workbench. I’ve scraped inventory down to a rational minimum that supports knowledge work. Centralizing small inventory greatly simplifies cleaning, security, and management. It takes just minutes to reconfigure a space that holds only essential pieces of furniture.

Off-grid lamps, like the elegant Japanese tent lantern from the Great Big Hiking Coop and the solar desk lamp from the Great Big Northern European Home Furnishings chain, are a clean reincarnation of the kerosene lamps and candles that were state of the art low-tech lighting. The new versions require attention now and then but liberate space from the miserable high-tech vines known as cords. The improvement has to be experienced to be appreciated: it took me months to adapt. With wireless lighting, it’s trivial to set up a card table and a laptop to work anywhere that’s convenient and/or warm enough for sedentary labor.

The closer my inventory gets to what was standard in 1890, the better the space performs. Electronic micro-processors and small-space appliances are the keys to the system. Twenty-first century technology seems to have the same affinity for the nineteenth as a grandchild for a grandparent.

What is left are the working bones of an elegant eighteenth-century interior, featherweight and responsive to natural light, weather, and changing demands. The place can turn on a dime, and stands as it began as a secure and convenient wooden tent.

-30- More after the jump.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

The Thrift Experience

Photo courtesy Flickr

I learned about design by looking at what people throw away, starting by walking dawn beaches years ago. Alley discards and thrift stores are the urban equivalent. Dumpsters are off-limits, but I’ll look at anything that’s in plain sight.

It doesn’t take more than a year or two of regular patrolling to be able to predict which heavily promoted gizmo can be had for pennies second-hand, and usually within six months. It’s a good free and playful way to train the eye.

-30- More after the jump.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

The Unexamined House Is Not Worth Cleaning

Photo courtesy Flickr

Daylight returned to Seattle last week, and with it a clear view of the winter’s detritus. I willingly converted from spring cleaning to a major overhaul the first day of school, but the gently raking sunlight of February shows me where to dust, what to edit, and which windows can use attention.

A little effort pays off in lower power bills, improved solar gain, and relief from allergens. I never thought of housework as keeping the interior light clean, but I think that’s the main point. Clear glazing, clean sources of artificial light, and interior surfaces that reflect as they were designed to make the most of an existing facility.

-30- More after the jump.