Friday, March 9, 2012

Coffee Shop Style

Photo courtesy Flickr

Recently I met a couple of friends at a cafe’ that’s buried next to the sky bridge between Seattle’s Elegant Northern European National Fashion Chain and the stylish mini-mall that replaced a parking garage. Seattle’s always had a lunch spot for the retail carriage trade. Frederick and Nelson, of blessed memory, had a tea room that for all practical purposes was the navel of the town.

Located in Frederick’s old building, the new cafe’ fuses the leisurely dignity of the tea room’s white linens, equally white wine, chicken salad sans, multi-forks and sweaty glasses of iced water with the rocking resonance of a fast food joint. The food’s good, table service follows an order from the entry line, and the bare places are set with classic white cafe’ stoneware.

What sets the cafe’ apart from a run of the mill retro place are simple white versions of Homer’s original real deal dishes, the ones that everyone copies, saucers under the mugs, water glasses, and wonderful lighting. I don’t know enough about restaurant design to comment further, but I don’t recall seeing any scratches or wear on the dishes or glasses.

Just having surfaces in good condition lifts a simple table top into elegance, as long as the food is carefully presented.
More after the jump.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Cordage and Tape

Photo courtesy Flickr

The other day I stumbled across my encyclopedic manual of knots, the one from Cornell Maritime Press. I bought the thing because I couldn’t resist its hundreds of detailed photographs, and I’m often surprised by who browses through it at a party. Leafing through the pages while dusting books, I realized that string is nearly extinct, except on guitars.

Consumer safety and business issues have displaced more than one technology. Keeping ropes off kids’ necks is an old concern, and every year brings another way to protect the inexperienced and unsupervised from bad judgment and ill fortune. Knots and their engineering are a brilliant, subtle technology, capable of transforming one length of good line into a versatile collection of soft tools that transform in turn right back into one length of good line.

Protecting the rope is as important as protecting kids’ necks. Rule number one is never, ever, step on a rope. Ever.

Tape, too, is hard to find and far from cheap. I choke at the price per foot when I buy it, but bookbinder’s narrow linen tape is a money-saving workhorse. Just put some in your stock: it will tell you when it’s time to break it out. The academic book store that sells me tape now carries double-satin ribbon, a reusable gift tie that had nearly disappeared. Practice tying a multi-looped bow, and you’ll know how to give a gift ornamented with a long, reusable length of beautiful ribbon. The twill tape that’s used in sewing is also a useful staple, but it’s been a while since I saw solid quality on the market.

-30- More after the jump.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012


Photo courtesy Flickr

In the Seventies, natural textures were popular with the interior design community. Baskets, matting, and bamboo blinds mellow an urban space. These period nineteenth century organic furnishings have formed the background of my rooms for many years.

I am particularly fond of the quality of light filtered through bamboo blinds. It’s gentle, illuminates a space without glare, and the structure of the blind itself provides privacy and a view at the same time, as long as the light outside equals the light inside. At night, I pull roller shades.

A carpenter once commented that blinds are what is called a one-year product, meaning they are not expected to last long. The blinds in my dining room are thirty-two years old.

Over the, uh, decades now, I have worked out a simple way of managing them: first, have someone use a chop saw, aka power miter box, to trim the blind to the width of the window frame you want to cover. Just roll the blind tightly and chop away. Adjust the length of the blind to your chosen window by cutting off the bottom pole and judiciously removing a few rows of splints. Go easy: it’s like cutting bangs. When the length is to your liking, tie the bottom pole back into place.

I do not find it necessary to use cords. All the windows in the house have blinds on them, and it is rarely necessary to raise or lower one. When I want one in a different position, I roll it up and secure it with a piece of bookbinder’s tape tied in a simple slip knot. Lightweight hook and loop tape works, too. So would ribbon.

Blinds are washable. Soak them in cold water for an hour or two to loosen dirt. Mint-scented “Hippie Wash” gets blinds beautifully clean, for some reason. The bathtub’s a good place to do this work. Long blinds that don’t fit in the tub get washed by pouring repeated bowls of soapy water over them. Working outside with the hose is effective, too. Roll the blinds, let them drain, and hang right back on their hooks.

The English finish blinds on either side with a row of tape. I have not used this refinement, but it makes sense.

-30- More after the jump.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

"Once Upon A Time in America"

Photo courtesy Flickr

This de Niro movie is a gangster flick without the usual Jacobethan gangster interiors. Mine may not be the most knowledgeable eye, but the sets seem to be quite pure nineteenth century design, like Pollyanna and the early television westerns from Gene Autrey’s production company.

Oddly enough, as far as I know, the characteristic details of a Victorian room are derived from the men’s reception hall of the traditional Damascus haveli, that housed an extended family. Damascus, I learned from a 1990s coffee table epic about the city’s housing stock (Tim Beddows'?), is the oldest continuously inhabited city in the world. Its formal reception rooms are designed as elegant units. In the nineteenth century, it became fashionable in England and the US to import such a room and install it whole in one’s house.

From Damascus we get the symphony of small, geometric patterns characteristic of a Victorian interior. Presto! the gangster flick brings it back to life. Those patterns are found in the recently restored houses of Parliament in London. The late designer Jed Johnson put together a period apartment in this style in the Dakota Apartments in New York City.

More after the jump.

Monday, March 5, 2012

Really Small Space Design

Photo courtesy Flickr

Lloyd Kahn, who edited the housing sections of the Whole Earth Catalogue, just published a new book out about tiny homes. He comments about how RV designers try to cram the entire contents of a conventional house into one mobile unit. I suppose that’s why I find RV design unsettling at times-I appreciate conventional housing but have little recent experience with it.

In a small facility, say, a van, it makes more sense to rejoice in the expanded options available to a backpacker than to suffer undersized versions of a hot tub, garage, and family room.

The editor used the term “fared” to describe the hull of a particularly well-constructed sailboat, and I recalled the word from talking to a biker about his BMW. I checked the on-line OED, my favorite source of word archaeology, and found two nuances of meaning that resonate for this blog. One is the earliest sense of fare meaning to escape: a key point in protecting the resilience of a family. The other is in the sense of flowing, and that for me is the bingo! about RVs, campers, and various lumbering vehicles that clog the highways in good weather.

Life needn’t be a rat race, but it can be a race for fun. The Shaker masters of labor-saving innovation believed that efficiency existed to free attention for matters of the spirit.

-30- More after the jump.