Friday, February 3, 2012


Photo courtesy Flickr

New Yorker magazine once ran a hilarious cartoon of a Japanese house. Behind the formal restraint of the traditional mat room was a storage area crammed to the ceiling with the junk of modern life.

I don’t favor chaos, but finding efficient working storage can be tricky. There’s an old European technique that turns a dining area into a workshop and does so for close to nothing. Simply cover the table with a floor-length cloth. For meals, top the table with a smaller cloth laid over a waterproof layer. The table itself can be nothing, an office supply’s two by six foot folding plastic affair, a thrift shop beater, or a door set on cheap folding plastic sawhorses. The long skirt acts as a lap robe, saving heat, and you can raise the working height of the table with plastic bed risers.

This “board and trestle” is a basic furnishing of a medieval hall house. It was set up and taken down for each meal, and it’s the prototype of the dining system we use to this day. Knowing the origin makes sense of why the dining table attracts every project under the roof.

I was happy to cover my table with two heavy cotton bedspreads that are the same color as the sea grass matting on the floor. Matching the color reduces the visual bulk of the covered table. The recent holidays came and went smoothly, and I’m getting some follow-up projects finished. There’s a bit of shipping to do, and one parcel is bulky and half-packed. The table’s the right place to work, and under the table is the right place to stash the mess until it’s ready to go.

-30- More after the jump.

Thursday, February 2, 2012


Photo courtesy Flickr

When European urban design was working its way into American curricula, a graduate student pointed out that the paving blocks that are such an elegant part of a Euro streetscape are good economy: if one is damaged, it’s simple to replace. Installation is more expensive, but it pays off in the end.

An aunt who was married to a career Marine introduced me to the joys of one-foot squares of sea grass matting. She picked hers up for pennies at the Original Import Store in SF and explained that the squares are easy to reconfigure after a move. I inherited her matting at one point, and ever since, my private life has taken place on an orderly grid of biodegradable yellow ochre braided grass. The matting is period for any American interior back to the early nineteenth century and makes a complementary background for area rugs.

The architect Frank Lloyd Wright said that his mother set up a play table for him when he was five. The top was covered with a grid of squares, and every time he used the surface he was learning design relationships. It may be that Wright’s mother was working from the educational wisdom described in Norman Brosterman’s Reinventing Kindergarten. Brosterman lays out the origins of twentieth century art in his discussion of nineteenth-century mass education and architectural toys.

Covering a floor with one foot squares of anything makes it a snap to measure a room and its contents. I’m in a classic housekeeping bind: the dining room floor is a disgrace, and the lot next door is slated for development. It makes no sense to sink cash into a new floor covering. As it happens, though, I have an attic room full of extra matting in good shape, and doing something about the pitiful scraps under the dining room table will be a simple matter of counting squares, cutting out the weary areas, and sewing in replacements.

Modular is heaven. To make it even better, this modular will compost and is a product of wetlands.

More after the jump.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Snowbound Design

Photo courtesy Flickr

During the last weeks of my pregnancy, when I was flat on my back, I laid out the future of the interior. The recent foul weather was the longest uninterrupted stretch of time at home since that first marathon of visualization. The first round of home improvement is showing signs of wear, and the neighborhood is being developed, as we had hoped. This is no time to sink cash into remodeling, but it is unquestionably time to do something about the dining room floor.

A few hours of gazing into space and asking myself if I ever really use various furnishings generated dynamic emptiness that paid off immediately: it’s far easier to vacuum when a room has few obstacles. It’s far easier, too, to think and act in a house that’s furnished with easily portable chairs and tables rather than with a full, dormant complement of amenities that is replicated in each room. The place is furnished with Wi-Fi, now, and we are no longer tethered to the electronic hearth.

It’s hard to imagine a more discouraging exercise than to look at shabby areas and realize that the immediate future does not warrant investing in improvements. What I learned during the storm was that careful subtraction from the inventory generates room to better circumstances through careful maintenance rather than by shopping.

More tomorrow.

-30- More after the jump.

Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Pedestrian PA

Photo courtesy Flickr

Port Angeles is a small town close to Olympic National Park. It’s a jewel of urban design, chosen by President Lincoln to be the westernmost capital of the United States. The streets were laid out by L'Enfant, the French architect who designed Washington, D.C., according to a WPA history of the county.

Fourteen years ago, I threw my car away out of disgust with Seattle traffic. Local busses were more than adequate, and I wanted to reduce my carbon footprint. Several times I’ve visited PA using public transportation, and it’s just as convenient to visit on foot as any large urban center.

As a child, I experienced PA on foot with my grandparents and the rollicking gang of children who lived nearby. All of us walked nearly everywhere, and it was valuable to have command of my own mobility at an early age. That sense of freedom and self-determination holds today: roaming from one end of town to another with a small wheeled case in tow puts a spring in my step.

PA and many other small local early twentieth-century cities are Metropolis in miniature, darned healthy environments, and good bets, I hope, as places to live full-time.

-30- More after the jump.

Monday, January 30, 2012


Photo courtesy Flickr

Long winter storms bring a predictable side effect: the house gets cleaner. Every time bad weather leaves me housebound, I learn again that basic cleaning should be a first priority. Despite the season’s dim light, it’s hard to overlook the subtle compromises in maintenance that result from the comings and goings of an ordinary week.

The kitchen is dominated by a stout, rolling maple cart, and the most straightforward way I’ve found to keep it clean is to abrade the top with a generous tuft of coarse steel wool. I sanitize the wood with a slosh of rubbing alcohol and process raw meat on other surfaces.

I swear that things cooked in a clean oven taste better. I use a spray-on unscented oven cleaner that’s basically old-fashioned lye. It works beautifully on pots and pans, and is the best thing I’ve found to brighten a stainless steel sink. The cleaner’s a good paint remover, too. I use it for the odd bit of hardware or tool handle.

I rummaged in the very small cleaning cupboard and discovered that the combination of ammonia and a teaspoon of dishwasher rinsing aid gets a load of laundry clean in unprecedented ways. Ordinarily, I use the same unscented detergent for everything, but every now and then, I switch products until the new container is used up. Doing so seems to remove a different fraction of soil from the wash, and it’s very gratifying. Ammonia is why housecleaning is one of the more dangerous occupations, so ventilate the laundry room when you’re using it.

The rinsing aid is a secret weapon at the sink. Add a bit to the dishpan when dried oatmeal promises a long soak.

-30- More after the jump.