Friday, June 3, 2011

Composing the House

Photo courtesy Flickr.

Visiting a house that is radically different from my own gives me hours of food for thought. Several years of charging on outside projects have displaced the careful, timeless maintenance patterns of the old school of housekeeping.

I chose to spend the recent long holiday week-end playing catch up inside while my partner caught up with local music at one of the two festivals that bracket either end of Seattle’s “summer”.

Certain kinds of housekeeping are an extended meditation best performed in solitude. For me, it’s a trance-like state, and I was heartened to read recently that the management of physical space is a particular kind of math skill.

To good music, I wandered around pushing unused furnishings toward the back door, corralling dust, and washing small artifacts behind their ears. The investment is of time and attention, and the payoff is a place I can use without pause.

-30- More after the jump.

Thursday, June 2, 2011


Photo courtesy Flickr

An acquaintance recently remarked about visiting an Irish home where the family had been using the same furniture for generations. Sherrie’s tradition of furnishing with cutting-edge style could not be more different from the household she was gently describing, and we spent a minute considering the two different approaches.

Franklin Roosevelt's mother, Sarah, said that furniture worth buying in the first place was worth keeping. I appreciate comments from monied people about holding on to that money. My inclinations are to retain old furniture, as long as it supports the way I want to live.

A piece of furniture is a passive appliance. Technology and architecture come and go, displacing some designs as redundant or obsolete and proving the lasting value of others. There are ethical considerations to keeping or discarding furniture and respectable values to acquiring new things. Deft’s index covers many of the issues.

That said, no one enjoys sitting on a fabric with too rich a history or in a room that’s poorly ventilated, either literally or culturally. Pope John twenty-three, known as Johnny Walker to the street people of Rome, called a Vatican council to consider “aggiornamento”, throwing open the windows on tradition.

When we bought this 1890 house, all our friends and relatives cheered and sent over their Victorian relics. One of my first acts as housekeeper was to place peacock feathers in a pair of period vases to set off the rhino head mounted over the mantel. That was a hoot that soon palled. Thirty-one years of playing house has taught me that old or new, good design does not bore.

Careful maintenance saves wooden lives. Simple soap and water washing and polishing with high-end Bright Wax, that gives up dust with a puff of breath, will bring a comfortable old piece back to life. Shabby upholstery is easily covered with fresh goods and hot melt glue. Magical Super Sliding castors protect the glue in old wooden joints. Keeping good pieces out of direct sun protects their finish. Simply washing windows and refreshing their coverings can transform a space. Accessories like pillow covers, throws, and lighting bring a space up to speed in seconds.

There are two approaches: one is to use the skills of a decorator and the other is to rely on one’s own sense of fitness and purpose. A “total design statement” and a space in which the furnishings have been accumulated send different messages and suit the differing scripts of differing households.

-30- More after the jump.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Western Blankets

Photo courtesy Flickr

A good blanket is the fundamental item of furnishing, just as a sleeping bag is the heart of a field kit. Recent visits to condos have me looking at this 1890 house with fresh eyes.

The basic fiction here is to furnish the place in the style of the Victorian Old West, where the supply lines were long and time and labor in short supply. In Seattle, these conditions prevailed until 1970. On the Washington coast, these conditions prevailed until 1990.

I am the happy owner of a brand new blanket, a queen-sized edition of an Oregon classic patterned after a tribal rug. Unlike the all-wool British trade blanket, my new prize has, like all its siblings and cousins, a cotton warp supporting a good half inch of divine wooly fuzz. The underlying cotton structure of the weave gives it architectural value. The blanket has a particular combination of soft hand and resistance to stretching that allows it to hold its shape when sat upon or leaned against.

Senior blankets are often retired to do duty as vests or jackets, becoming finally pillow covers or upholstery (simple with hot-melt glue) for favored seating. A cow hide rug is a traditional accompaniment.

We’ve been acquiring new editions of classic Western blankets for a number of years, and they’ve displaced nearly every other textile pattern in the house. For a work at home environment, I find that these blankets comfort and support concentrated efforts at production, just as they must have comforted and supported hunter/gatherers, ranching families, and loggers.

Folded and set on a sturdy foot locker or chest, a blanket makes a perfectly reasonable seat. Folded and laid over the head or footboard of a bed, a blanket transforms it into a daybed. As a daytime cover, a blanket is instant upholstery.

A fresh or carefully maintained old blanket takes the curse off expedient furnishing, allowing it to show to good purpose. The tribal patterns hold the middle ground between formal and casual, private and public, and they are not anchored in one particular style of architecture.

-30- More after the jump.

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

The Cache

Photo courtesy Flickr

It’s not often I get feedback about a post in real time, but my friend Lily tells me that buying three each of things she buys often has slashed the number of trips she makes to the store.

I mentioned that to the in-house archaeologist, and we started talking about the Alaskan tradition of storing caches of vital supplies at intervals along wilderness routes. My understanding is that to rob a cache was a serious matter with serious consequences, like stealing a horse was in the Lower 48.

Tribespeople stored caches along vital routes. People were welcome to use what they needed, as long as they replaced what they used. Failing to resupply was grounds for banishment. These behaviors were part of the tribes’ economic system. People “banked” without cash by sharing abundance in a system of mutual favor and support.

-30- More after the jump.