Friday, September 7, 2012


Photo courtesy Flickr

Or maybe that’s perch. This old house has a series of spaces that are convenient transitions from the garden to the interior. The classic back porch was designed as a space for the kitchen help to do small tasks and take breaks. There’s a sunporch across the front of the building, and the sleeping chamber above it, the coldest room in the winter and the warmest in the summer, works as the porch of least exterior, a fine place to lounge and enjoy the street and the neighborhood in perfect privacy.

I have found that a window is most valuable when nothing stands between it the room it serves.

-30-  More after the jump.

Thursday, September 6, 2012

The Virtual Inglenook

Photo courtesy Flickr

One of the fine old houses in Seattle’s Stevens neighborhood has a genuine inglenook in the front room. The space is large enough comfortably to hold an inner room about seven by nine feet with a low ceiling that opens onto a generous hearth. It’s a perfect, and a perfectly traditional, spot to sit and warm oneself by the fire.

A small, low-ceilinged area in a contemporary open-plan house could be adapted to serve as an extra-warm sitting area in an otherwise cool interior. 

It’s a small matter to curtain a wide archway with two shower-stall extension rods, one to hold two pair of pre-fab curtains and another upper one to hold a length of yardage to cover the business end of the hangings. A standard door opening can be enclosed partially with the equivalent of a Japanese noren.

A small enclosed space is easy to heat with an electric mat that fits under an area rug, with friendly bodies, and with incandescent light bulbs. Pet store reptile basking stones are kind to chilly feet.

-30- More after the jump.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

The Feral Garden

Photo courtesy Flickr

The in-house pedant tells me the proper term for good plants gone wild is “ruderal”. A dear friend is facing one of the gardening world’s perfect storms. Her knees are going, and the back yard is getting out of control.

My friend lives in the prettiest old house in a dignified old neighborhood. The garden has been in her gentle hands since the late Sixties, so the shrubbery has  evolved under a consistent eye. The two of us shopped our way into plantaholism by visiting nurseries with a prominent local horticulturalist, and my friend has a charmingly crowded cottage garden of choice specimens.

Family obligations and full-time employment left the back yard to its own devices for a couple of decades. Two years ago a young friend brushed out several truckloads of overgrowth, and the space was temporarily well-groomed. Freshly cleared soil is an invitation to weeds, though, and last winter’s heavy rains gave intruders a head start and old-timers enough juice to double in size.

Louise grumbled about the back yard and gave me a tour. Sure enough, invasive species are back and lovely mature ornamental shrubs are putting the shade back on the ground. She liked my suggestion about throwing a garden party when the rains of October arrive. She’ll cook and stand on the back porch directing friends who will plant low-maintenance natives. I got her attention the other day when I mentioned my Saturday morning garden workout now often takes half of one hour instead of all of four whole ones. (See Garden Design in the Index.)

Here are some thoughts for getting the yard ready for the planting party. Long years of neglect produced graceful and interesting trunks and branches on the original woody plantings of the house. The only real problem in the yard is too much of a good thing, so grooming the area will be a simple matter of revealing the excellence that has been obscured by an excess of conflicting focal points. In this climate, it’s important to enable air circulation in the greenery.

Louise knows her inventory like a parent of many children, and only she is aware which branches are critical to her purposes as a homeowner. I modestly suggest a way of organizing an initial work party: have the trucker park the pickup by the back fence. Have the feller plug in a reciprocating saw and stand by the first row of overgrowth: invasive Himalaya blackberries, the rose that ate Seattle, and its genteel rambling cousin a few feet down the line.

Cut the blackberry off at the roots and have one or two laborers load the truck immediately. Edit the roses somewhat less drastically but keeping in mind that  the species is thorny because it is delicious and meant to be browsed. Saw out woody growth on the roses to give new stems a shot at greatness. Use sharp loppers to take them back to four or five feet. On that soil, they’ll be back in minutes.

In her dense neighborhood, visual privacy is critical, so Louise can direct the feller to remove appropriate branches. She could stand in critical places and use a cell phone to call in targets. In my garden, I juggle privacy and security, exposing lines of sight for the neighbors to overlook the entrances but leaving a couple of favorite sitting areas obscured.

By art directing a crew, Louise can spare her knees and energy for the critical task of getting the yard looking the way she wants it and for the equally critical task of feeding us some of her fine barbeque.


More after the jump.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

The Cupcake Theory of Design

Photo courtesy Flickr

It’s not quite Mr. Gump’s box of chocolates. I was cruising around a friend’s cluttered house, watching her work much too fast and hard on the same day that the in-house archaeologist was excavating his radio shack. He had several generations’ worth of small artifacts to organize.

Slowly, cheerfully, and thanks in part to my friend’s excellent cooking, a new inventory emerged. Over morning coffee, I realized that the structure of the industrial cupcake produced by the same folks who brought us the first digital code, Morse, might very well reflect a useful and realistic way to choose the stuff of living.

The cream center is the core kit, a state of the art collection of field gear that can also be used under the daily roof. (see Life in the Field, following).

The cake that bears a close resemblance to a rubber sponge is the stuff one can’t quite do without but that can be abandoned if necessary: overstuffed furniture, synthetic carpets, mattresses, the usual blimp ware that complicates existence.

Goodies are the frosting rind that makes wrestling off the cellophane worth the hassle. For me, they would be Pomme products, cowboy wool blankets, true incandescent light bulbs with filaments all the world can see, and works of art on paper.

The essence and what all the fuss is about is the squiggle on the frosting, a piece of jewelry, the scarf that ate the year’s clothing budget, very small collectibles, a rare slow-growing shrub that can be sold to a bonsai artist. Each of us will have a personal list.

The other Mr. Gump, Richard, wrote a wonderful book called Good Taste Costs No More. It’s the best argument I know for taking a little time to read before going shopping, even though I’m still clueless about what good taste actually is. His other book, Jade, Stone of Heaven is also a worthwhile read.

Life In the Field
September 8, 2010

Setting up week continues with a look at the fundamentals. They don’t call it camping for nothing. There seems to be a close link between improvising furniture and simply posing and frolicking to no particular end. I can’t think of a more rewarding way to approach the duties of the household.

Many traditional furnishings are relics of earlier technologies, like the candlesticks that preceded not only electricity, but gas light as well. Any household item from the low-tech era works beautifully in the field. Early outings with climbers taught me the pleasures of breaking out, say, a designer bandanna and a four-branched Barbie-scale pot metal birthday candlestick to set the table for a dehydrated dinner.

Choosing state of the art field gear as the core of the household invests money where it truly counts for emergency back-up, gets the most out of that investment by using it every day, designs high-performance into daily life, saves space and work, and blurs the line between recreation and labor. In my experience, wiring my private life around a hike keeps me moving forward in every aspect of existence. For me, field gear is the stage setting for lifelong learning. It fosters a deeply resilient approach to the unavoidable changes of life.

No one is immune to displacement. My ordinary middle-class mother hired members of one of the royal houses of central Europe to baby-sit my brother and me after World War Two.

For bedding, choose a high-tech sleeping bag, either down or synthetic, that zips open flat so that you can encase it in a duvet cover and sleep under it at home. The first bag I used this way saw fifteen years of service and no doubt slowed global warming by an unmeasurable amount. Sleeping under a good bag extends its life, because flat and open storage protects the loft of the insulation.

For the bed itself, I have found that a cushy rectangular self-inflating air mattress is literally the most comfortable thing to sleep on. My 24”x72” model replaces mediocre cushions on a clean, vintage standard flat-seated sofa. I made a sleeve for it out of a serendipitous length of Polartec upholstery. I can sleep on the couch or spread out on the floor.

Sleeping on the floor in a Western interior can be squalid, because we track filth into the house on our shoes and because the proportions of our spaces support leisure two feet off the floor. A rustic wood one-legged bunk, known as a jack bed, in the corner of an old-fashioned cabin raises a Western floor and provides a decent space to lay out bedding. We have a similar four-legged bunk that was built to furnish one end of a sun porch. I moved the memory foam mattress off this bunk to try it with a field pad and found that I sleep better, waking up with happy muscle tone.

My attic is short-person heaven, with one dormer that has floor-level windows. I set up an experimental sleeping area there a few weeks ago and, besides a night city view I hadn’t known existed, I discovered that a ten by ten virtual tent is an elegant boudoir. For day, I can fold away the bedding a la Japan and store it in a vintage foot locker, set the camping pad against one wall as a headboard, place the pillows (in upholstery sacks) as a seat, and in seconds have a living room. Dwelling on the floor keeps one supple.

Whatever the architecture, if any, sleeping on the floor demands a ground cloth. In the house, I like to use an appealing cotton bedspread as a base layer rather than as a topping. Over that I set up the pad and the rest of the sleeping amenities. A washable upholstery sleeve for the pad substitutes for a conventional mattress pad.

That’s for sleeping. For meals, the featherweight titanium tea pot, one man/one pot, is a durable unbreakable substitute for the carafe of an automatic coffee maker, a more than generous mug, and a homely but effective way to cook small quantities of just about anything. One titanium tea pot plus one coffee maker equals one very slow cooker.

A two-burner propane field stove works all year round, indoors or out, with a kitchen fan and a carbon monoxide detector. I use my stove on the back porch for vigorous stir-frying. Setting the stove with a cast iron griddle, I can easily turn out an old-fashioned heart-killing bacon and eggs breakfast, my favorite meal. When it’s time to hit the woods, I just take the kitchen with me, which reduces the shock of a change to primitive conditions.

The hiking coop sells an LED Japanese tent lantern that’s a honey designed to run off batteries or a laptop. It’s the best ambient light in the house.

The ubiquitous stainless steel water bottle lives in my side bag.

Way back in the day, when the fork was a new invention, people carried their cutlery with them. I tote a titanium spork and Swiss Army penknife everywhere but the airport and feel halfway prepared for emergencies with a two-inch blade and mini-shovel.

Nylon travel accessories hold the small essentials of personal life. Add a laptop and a fast wireless connection to the basics, and I can think of very little that’s missing to live a comfortable, profitable, and independent existence.


More after the jump.