Friday, December 9, 2011

Ms. Schmidt's Cabin

Photo courtesy Flickr

Me ma had many surprises up her sleeve, and she would spring one on me now and then after I had forgotten about the last one. One Christmas, she took me to tea at a new friend’s house.

On the drive over, my mother said her friend lived in her parent’s pioneer log cabin. We arrived in a part of town I didn’t recognize as fashionable and drove up a modest dirt drive through unremarkable grounds. Spindly fir trees dominated the landscape. Cabin the house was, straight out of central casting, as small as usual, in very good condition with, as I recall, a fieldstone chimney and virgin cedar shakes on the roof.

We walked in over a puncheon floor (split logs laid directly over soil) covered with Oriental carpets. There was a comfortable fire burning on the hearth and a 1930s Fat Max sofa that had been reupholstered in denim (easy with hot glue). As she poured, our hostess explained that she had invited us to celebrate making the final payment on her painting by Dufy. I don’t remember the work, but I do remember a little sketch my mother pointed out when Ms. Schmidt was out of the room. Northwest painter Mark Tobey had sent it to her from Basel in an ordinary envelope.

-30- More after the jump.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Do It Right, Do It Big, Give It Class

Photo courtesy Flickr

The title was filmmaker Louis B. Mayer’s advice about--I suppose-- just about everything. He also advised spending an hour every morning simply thinking. There are not many phrases I would consider rendering in needlepoint, but do it right, etc, is certainly one. I would even consider rendering it in petit-point.

As a student, I started and ended each day in a Twenties frame cafeteria with carved Tudor beams, an environment of intelligent privilege with no evidence of luxury. The room was about the size of a basketball court, beautifully proportioned, and had a south-facing wall of windows with small panes.

In 1997, it cost $20,000 to curtain a similar wall of windows in the international style suburban mansion of a local Digital millionaire. The cafeteria was curtained formally in plain, unbleached muslin. The gently filtered light in that room was a nutritious resource in its own right.

Designer Billy Baldwin claimed that it is far better to use generous amounts of something cheap than stingy amounts of something costly. I have found that doing so creates a relaxing interior. Decent, ordinary materials like muslin, burlap, felt, chipboard, pegboard, the various grades of plywood, clamp-on shop lights (that can hang from their cords), Japanese paper shades, bamboo blinds, and floor paint will pull a place together in no time.

Simplify an interior and make it flexible by using the same paint and floor scheme in each room. Preferences vary, but carpet makes no sense to me. Synthetics smell toxic, and any fiber locks filth and allergens into a room. My house is essentially a development property, so I have not had to consider resale value when making design choices. I’d rather have an honest floor of plywood or cement than micro-layers of hardwood engineered to a fragile fare-thee-well.

More after the jump.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

The Heart of the Neighborhood

Photo courtesy Flickr

When America was learning about urban design in the Sixties, one of the first agendas was to restore the urban forest that had been destroyed by Dutch elm disease. Anyone of a certain age who grew up on the East coast will have a heartbreaking story of the death of those splendid trees. I believe the loss of the elms had much to do with the urban decay of the Fifties. It is unarguable that Seattle’s urban forest has grown healthy neighborhoods along with downtown timber.

My first house was across the street from a graduate student of landscape architecture. Over a cup of coffee one day she giggled that the city arborists had gotten together and decided to plant a giant sequoia downtown. They reasoned that the tree would easily be in scale with the buildings in the area, present and future, and they thought it would be just plain fun. The tree is coming along fairly well, although urban life and windstorms have challenged it. You can see it just north of the big, old-fashioned department store.

The other day I stumbled across the Seattle city arborist’s website. It’s a small gold mine of information about which trees are suitable for urban conditions. Check it out. Any place that sells trees should have a reference to this site: a tree is a minor investment that pays big dividends.

-30- More after the jump.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Designers' Own Houses

Photo courtesy Flickr

The American economy of the Sixties and Seventies generated some gentle and reasonable approaches to interior design. Income was distributed differently, the community of people who were aware of the design options available to them was much smaller, energy was still cheap and raw materials abundant. It's worth the trouble to mine back issues of design magazines: something that still looks good in 2011 is surely a classic and likely to be a bargain used. Ignore fabrics: reupholstering with hot melt glue is trivial.

In my first wave of reading publicly available interior design sources, I often ran across glossy shelter articles about designers’ own dwellings. Often, a room would include an improvised element that was inexpensive or free. Those things took the curse off the sophistication (not necessarily expensive) of the rest of the composition.

Michael Taylor used a weathered driftwood stump set upside down as a table. Jay Steffy made floor cushions a major statement, Billy Baldwin used matchstick blinds in the heart of New York City, and a man whose name escapes me used chrome wheels in his Long Island house. Plain shipping pallets were the original supports for futon. Surprisingly, I found none of these men's work on Flickr when I was looking for an image.

One of the designers of the period said that space is the last status symbol left. I still find that any effort I make to simplify a room not only eases maintenance: it lets me stand a little taller and breathe a little easier.

-30- More after the jump.

Monday, December 5, 2011


Illustration courtesy Flickr

Design is a good word to experience as a verb. In my limited experience, formally trained designers tend to grind their teeth and behave politely when I mention the word. To them, surely, my mentioning design must sound like do it yourself brain surgery. However, every physical and behavioral choice one makes is a design decision, and to design one’s life is a liberating task.

Big words aside, design is fun. Every minute spent reading and hunting ideas pays off sooner or later. My go to sources remain Bruno Munari’s Design As Art, Richard Kehl’s 100 Ways to Have Fun With An Alligator, Terence Conran’s House Book (whose visuals are howlingly obsolete and whose thinking remains solid). The internet, obviously, is one big design scrapbook, and Flickr lets one visit many an interior.

The Sixties seem to have been the last period when one given style or another dominated the market. The game’s been wide open since the late Seventies, and a recent visit to a book store turned up the idea of the undecorated house, one that is simply, or perhaps not so simply, assembled from the owner’s menu of choices.

To design, I believe, means to choose. My design catechism included a definition of two dimensional work as “the logical selection of visual elements for order and interest”. The day I decided to take that into three dimensions was the day things got interesting.

What interests me doesn’t necessarily interest anyone else, but I’ve been able to compose my miscellaneous legacy by interrogating concepts with the gestalt design shorthand: the desirable qualities are harmony, contrast, balance, order, and unity. The last word is function.

-30- More after the jump.