Friday, March 30, 2012


Photo courtesy Flickr

The current price of fuel brings to mind the profound social changes that were generated by the oil crunch of 1973, when shortages were acute, and there were fist fights in lines at the stations. A three-hour wait was not unusual, and some stations were not open every day.

The Great Big Discount Warehouse Chain emerged to provide household necessities at the lowest possible cost per unit. It’s a shopper’s carnival now, but in the beginning it offered twenty pound sacks of rice and of beans, restaurant-sized cans of tomatoes, and commercial buckets of detergent. To an eye conditioned by an ordinary supermarket, the shelves looked like privation. A housekeeper trained in the GPO home economics pamphlets published during the early twentieth century, though, could look at $.25 rice and see money in the bank.

Buying simple staples has many benefits. It’s unavoidably green, since the minimal packaging recycles. It’s unavoidably healthy, since staples are low-fat, low-sodium, and often low-toxin as well.

Simple staples of any kind, food or otherwise, save storage space, are versatile, and foster skill. It’s necessary to strike a sensible balance between home production and outside obligations, but factoring in time to think is worth the trouble.

-30- More after the jump.

Thursday, March 29, 2012

Migratory Furniture

Photos courtesy Flickr

This blog started with the picture, which gave me both pause and the title. A Montreal photographer shares my appreciation of the orphan give-away to be found on nearly every urban block. The Pink Chair and the stacking garden chairs share the same faint echoes of Art Deco. That's a good can of paint sitting at the curb, and the stack of masonry under the chair is right witty.

In a rare volume, I read that much of the furniture of New Orleans’ French Quarter stays in the Quarter when someone moves or dies. It’s cool that the deep history of many pieces is known and recorded. I have accumulated a few modest examples of neighborhood recycling and have noted under the seat what the thing is and where it came from. When it’s time to move along, I’ll just set things by the back gate for new neighbors to cherish.

The Pink Chair’s a good example of the benefits and perils of reusing upholstered furniture. Shining it ain’t, but apparently it’s been around long enough to earn itself a name. Furniture devours resources. It’s good practice to get the most out of every piece that’s already in existence. Upholstery is a relatively recent development: the super-cushy padded-all-over piece emerged in the nineteenth century as a by-product of the mills that were churning out yardage and rejecting cotton with short fibers.

Pathogens and pests thrive in textiles, so it’s important to be fastidious about what you offer house room. A grubby chair like the Pink One may be acceptable if you know the previous owner’s habits. It may be that the visible stains on Pink are the only real dirt on it since the cushion was discarded. The thing has a history, though, to be sure. I’ve used a supermarket rug cleaner on upholstered furniture to good effect, filling the tank with neutral pH detergent from a janitorial supply.

If fleas invade upholstery, wrap the piece in a large plastic drop cloth and add a flea collar and/or a package of 0000 steel wool to absorb oxygen. Let it sit for a couple of days for the set-up to take effect. Subsequent flea control is another blog for another writer, but it never hurts to stay on top of the vacuuming.

Cheap upholstered furniture is just barely worth bothering with, but a piece that’s heavy for its size is probably constructed from hardwood with decent joins. There’s a future in that kind of work. Diana Phipps’ Affordable Splendor has useful comments about salvaging furniture with fabric that’s in good condition (the key): flip it over and just get in there and tie it back together. When you’re finished, flip it back up and put on a new cover. I use hot-melt glue to secure whatever makes sense at the time. Phipps colors cording with artists’ paint to get a good match. I use outdoorsman’s line from the Great Big Hiking Co-op, cordage from the hardware store, or whatever the fabric store happens to have on the shelf, as long as it’s not rayon or shiny.

Many a chair pulls up lame when a leg gets knocked off. The same Flickr cruise that turned up Pink brought up a fifteenth century parish strong box on wheels propped up on the same artful bricks. Prevent damage by lifting a piece as the British National Trust Manual of Housekeeping recommends: carry by the side rails that support the seat. One person can handle a small chair. It takes two for anything larger. Setting aftermarket magical sliding buttons on feet relieves the joins from stress. The teflon buttons behave almost like wheels, and the larger the button, the more like a wheel the effect.

A beater chair is a design experiment waiting to happen. That expedient stack of (I'm guessing) broken pavers might well be made formal by gluing the pieces together and shimming all the legs level with various castors, also glued. Pink’s missing leg could be replaced by an industrial wheeled castor, perhaps one that locks. Designer Andree’ Putman showed a sofa with wheels and sensible handles on the outer sides of the arms. Barring custom foam, replace a missing cushion with a pillow, folded comforter, a lambskin, or perhaps a folded hiker’s air mattress. Very good vintage overstuffed furniture has springs inside the cushions. It’s most congenial if all the seats in a room are at the same height. Finesse battered wood with shoe polish, markers, and wax.

Whatever you decide, bar bugs and mice from the innards of a piece by hot-gluing a length of muslin or agricultural weed fabric across the base.

More after the jump.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Chimp Plus Stick Equals Termite. Yum!

Photo courtesy Flickr

This post isn’t about tasty insect snacks, although the in-house archaeologist did teach our son how to harvest termites in non-toxic woodland. Chimp plus stick is a wonderful neck of design, so straightforward and low-impact that it’s hard to recognize.

Long before the plastics engineers gave us the ubiquitous latte’ lid, a carpenter taught me to tear open a sipping hole in the cover of a convenience chain cup of coffee. Looking around the room, I see numerous examples of the same school of thought: the gaffer’s tape that secures a vintage tuner, amp, and flat monitor in an earthquake-proof stack; the small hand-knotted rug that turns a vintage travel trunk into a combination seat, footrest, and office storage unit; the pair of hot-glued designer dishtowels that have become a pillow cover on the sofa.

The best-ever, so far, clever and simple modification is Lifehacker's post that shows a toaster set on its side to produce a grilled cheese sandwich.

PS: That's Jo Sinel's toaster on the tray. A friend and I used to gaze into one like parakeets at a bell mirror when we shared a childhood meal. Mr. Sinel was not a tall person, and I like to think he was conscious of the possibilities of the design when he worked it out. Do yourself a favor and search Joseph Claude Sinel.

More after the jump.

Monday, March 26, 2012

Making the Most of Sweat Equity

Photo courtesy Flickr

Over coffee last week, a contractor friend confessed that the elegant set of wood-framed windows he salvaged from a job in a neighborhood of privilege had cost him far more in time, storage, and labor than they turned out to be worth. Five years to get to the project, days of detailing, repairing project-inflicted damage, and when it’s all over, you’re still looking at and maintaining old windows and storing (or paying to dispose of) the ones you didn’t need. Old glass is lovely, but I favor conserving only the rare window that has escaped the ravages of time.

Like me, my pal’s of the Whole Earth Catalogue generation, when energy was cheap, raw materials abundant, real estate affordable, cheerful handmaidens available, and the vision of a crowded, expensive future-barring World War Three- still just a theory. He’s privileged to live on many rural acres, where circumstances allow him to fill outbuilding after outbuilding with interesting rustic timber, and the huge log storage pile is losing ground to powder post beetles.

I wasn’t exactly tiptoeing through coffee in heels with an iPad in hand, but it was close. I’ve been through it all and emerged with a decent set of fingernails, a good commercial haircut, and an urban wardrobe. On the other hand, I can’t ride for beans, and I don’t even own a bandsaw any more, much less one with a thirty-one inch throat, like another friend who saws up holly and produces smooth-grained white planks that look like giant pieces of the most elegant paper. We went through the same process of salvage and innovation as our friends, but a stone’s throw from downtown. The turning point in the history of this place was the day we sold the pick-up truck.

When we bought this 1890 house, I bet that contemporary wood finishes and easy-care fabrics would slash the maintenance that my mother and grandmother used to curse, in their genteel way. The bet paid off, but the transition from pre-Edison technology to the world of Pomme has been a long one. Ours is not a location that justifies sinking major capital into the facility, so we’ve been free to experiment with low-impact modifications of the house.

No one needs to be reminded of the state of the housing market-it’s just plain locked up. I brought Lloyd Kahn’s recent Tiny Homes to the restaurant. My friend skimmed ten pages, looked up, and said, “I have two of these.” He had just acquired two pieces of income property by leafing through a paperback. Ideas are wonderful things, and the morning’s revelation was the latest in a long sequence of light bulb moments that started around 1970. Lloyd Kahn was the housing editor for Whole Earth.

Our historic preservation and restoration project succeeded because we were not bent on establishing the equivalent of a marble pavilion as a monument to the family, and because we knew that resale here was independent of the structure. I lived in a thirty dollar visqueen and one by one dome one summer. The thing was held together with lengths of wire coat hanger, and it was inspired by one of Lloyd Kahn’s projects. The dome came through a major windstorm without a hiccup, and it proved to be a comfortable, sensible place to live, at least over the summer. It was sited on hundreds of thousands of dollars of waterfront property, which didn’t hurt one bit.

Ever since, less house, more lot has been an appealing arrangement, although less house, less lot is OK, too, with the right lesses. There’s a fine line between living light and the zone known as fly-by-night. At the moment, that line’s worth looking at.

-30- More after the jump.