Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Steady-state Housekeeping

Photo courtesy Flickr user EvelynGiggles

Super-janitor Don Aslett advises making a moderate, consistent effort to keep the house in order, avoiding the peaks and pits of great leaps forward followed by exhausted sloth. A little experience sailing small boats taught me that minor attention to keeping the vessel in trim paid handsome rewards in speed and ease.

More after the jump.

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Someone Else's House 3.0

Photo courtesy Flickr user Arthur Chapman
I enjoyed a festive evening in a new suburban house. The owners had previously lived in a tiny Seventies cottage chopped up into small rooms. Anna said they hesitated about making the change but trusted the realtor who was suggesting it.

The architecture of the new place is an interesting romp through the culture and domestic economy of 2014. Unlike most ordinary twentieth century private houses, Anna’s place opens with a small office set off the front hall. I enjoyed a flat in a nineteenth century mansion with the same amenity during a Sixties sojourn in Utah.  The office is across the hall from a powder room generous enough eventually to accommodate extra bath and laundry facilities.

The house has nine foot ceilings and a dark floor that makes the space feel even loftier. It was interesting to observe a familiar gathering in the new quarters. Usually the holiday event feels crowded and faintly jittery in a family home with conventionally defined mid-twentieth century suburban rooms. The new space has a great sense of poise about it. Plain structural elements create a pleasantly theatrical sense of pillar that enables standing groups to converse intimately and traffic to flow easily. The public rooms in this house probably have fewer cubic feet than the other places that have hosted the gathering, but the designer has used the space with great skill.

The main floor of the house is well-designed for working out of the home. The kitchen, with its production wall of cabinets and appliances facing a freestanding stone-topped counter, is cooly efficient. It does not differ from kitchen layouts that span the demographic divide between a small exurban house in a recent Kitsap development and the mountain-top mansion of a venture capitalist/computer science professor that overlooks Hoover Tower.

Anna could soup up the furnishings on her ground floor to get even higher performance out of the space. A few changes would reduce maintenance, make the space even more flexible, simplify entertaining, slash precious minutes off the time it takes to get a meal on the table, and conserve the personal energies of aging owners. First, use the freestanding counter as the eating space it was designed to be. The original freestanding kitchen counter units of the Fifties echoed the mass lunch room of the time, where dozens of customers were dealt daily specials by waitresses moving faster than the eye could see. The counter is a vulgar amenity that performs in vulgar, efficient ways. Add a good set of stools, preferably with flat seats. Second, set a Magical Sliding Castor under each foot of every table and chair. Doing so will transform the dormant barnacles of nineteenth century home furnishing, like a big soft sofa, into the living amenities known in France and Italy as “mobilia”, or movables. 

With the “movables” restored to their original function, redundant side tables can be subtracted from the room. Stools make good substitutes. A transit case, aka foot locker or wooden chest, makes a good place to elevate feet, set a snack, or seat a visitor when the room is full. I favor placing the dining table close to the hearth and serving a meal on trays toted from the counter. In this climate, a nice soak in infrared while doing sedentary tasks is relaxing and comforting. With all furniture on Sliders, it’s easy to reconfigure a room in a couple of minutes, making it easy to pull the table close to the counter to enable a more formal meal. That’s what the original medieval hall was like, until career opportunities in London lured away the house carls who had set up and knocked down the board and trestle between meals. Building flexibility into an arrangement essentially quadruples the value of the space for almost no expense.

Anna’s house shares another quality with the Port Orchard and San Carlos places: there’s a long view from the food prep area to a far wall set with a generous flat panel video display. Digital video affords a feast of quality visual information that displaces the endless sequence of tiny, static focal points of the conventional knick-knack. Anna’s place is visually slick, spare and rational without being stark. 

Interestingly, Anna accumulated a significant collection of traditional European porcelain figurines over her working life, but hasn’t gotten around to unpacking them in the new space. She liked the idea of setting up a traditional cabinet of curiosities in her personal office. Glass-fronted display cabinets secure fragile artifacts and protect them from dust. I’d line one wall with units from the Great Big Northern European Home Furnishings Chain and set up a HEPA air filter in the room. I’d think about lining the cabinets with mirror, not expensive, installing battery-powered lighting, and sealing the doors to keep the contents clean. The porcelains were produced by competing principalities early in the industrial revolution. Presumably, they were a hot medium in their day, as computer games are in this day. In the Middle Ages, such figures were an extravagant expression of culinary skill, molded of marzipan and set on formal tables as edible decorations. I suppose these origins explain the saccharine quality of much of the porcelain.

The recent visit was my first experience of architecture that devotes half the main floor to automobiles. I suppose the arrangement echoes the ancient bower/houseplace design of an English cottage, where the cow supplied the heat. The building also reflects traditional estate architecture where the ground floor of the building could be dedicated to production and the upper floor, aka first floor or piano nobile, reserved for family and leisure. The master suite upstairs is generous enough to use as an apartment. The master bathroom itself is generous enough to use as a studio apartment. Setting the bed close to a corner of the master bedroom and adding a small table and a couple of flat-seated chairs would complete the suite. The French use chairs as bed tables. Great Big Northern’s cordless solar task lights simplify illumination and leave a room free of high-maintenance tethers.

The roughly 2400 square feet of this new building cost the same per month as 200 square feet of view pod on Capitol Hill. The site is close to shopping and medical and might be manageable without a car, or at least with only one car, if delivery services are factored in.

There is a simple but telling element in the architecture: the hand sinks in this house are mounted on the wall to speed maintenance.

More after the jump.

Monday, December 29, 2014

Resolve It Or Leave It Out

Aaron Copeland photo courtesy Flickr user The Hills Are Alive"
I studied commercial illustration with a fellow who knew his way around space and time: he could also pilot multi-engine jet planes and perform rope tricks.  One comment has stayed with me: looking at one of my clumsy layouts, he said, “Resolve it or leave it out.” In retrospect, the critique clearly encouraged my uncertain hand as it hovers over the Goodwill bag and recycling bins.

Christmas was wonderful and surprisingly sane. The household is tuned to the daily life of two persons. Guests put unusual demands on the kitchen and introduced a considerable number of new artifacts into the housekeeping mix. On Christmas morning, I realized that one of the main stressors of the holiday is the confusion introduced by unfamiliar and excess inventory. Simply discarding the excess right away cut a straight line through the maze.

More after the jump.

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Housekeeping Is Time Management

Photo courtesy Flickr user Ella's Dad
It’s hard to stay on top of the filing while trying to meet the ordinary rush of day to day demands. By filing I mean returning each artifact to its home position after it is no longer needed. The home position is that closest to where a thing is used first. A tea kettle, for example, has a parking place close to the water source.

If I maintain my concentration and move deliberately through a sequence of daily tasks, getting the most important thing completed before eleven, the day has a decent flow that flow carries over into evening. There are no nutso peaks and hassles in the work load.

It takes constant attention to the small details of arranging things in space to sustain the flow. The payoff is huge: a calm stomach and no more than twenty minutes spent looking for things-over the course of a year. The Shakers argued that "if you can put it down you can put it away”. The practice works as well for a family of two as it apparently did for hundreds of people living communally.

More after the jump.

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Old School Dessert

Photo courtesy Flickr user Andy Titcomb
The simple practice of poaching fresh fruit in a heavy sugar syrup deserves more attention than it gets. Syrup gets very hot. Cooking in it is not unlike frying in deep fat. A gentle minute or two firms raw fruit, transforms it into a confection, and yields a first-rate syrup.

Served with a bit of cream and small cookie on the side, a compote is a refreshing and unusual end to a simple meal of good ingredients. In a pedestrian neighborhood with dozens of competing restaurants, I leave noisy, smelly preparations to the cooks with industrial hoods.

More after the jump.

Monday, December 22, 2014


Photo courtesy Flickr user milantram
In 1978, a friend who had lived in many countries mentioned that her current situation was in a very old city that had no shopping malls or grocery stores. The place was full of tiny shops that sold only one item-thread was the example she cited. Alice was conditioned to assume that a mall with an anchor store and generous parking was the model for convenience and good value. She was accustomed to shopping for third-world American cuisine in a big car with a picnic cooler and three rambunctious children in the back.

I have had little reason to practice that kind of procurement, although I do know my way around the Great Big Discount Warehouse. It was a surprise to learn that a friend who is raising her family in a Parisian suburb shops once a week in the local version of the mall safari. She patronizes a monster one-stop that wears her out and confuses her with its layout and choice. I know the feeling. That’s why I shop on foot at small, long-established Seattle venues that never rearrange their stock.

Bussing downtown, I can find first-rate chow at the Pike Place Market. I know it’s a tourist venue now but I like being able to whip through the stalls with a shopping list and small roll of cash, check favorite kitchen and clothing boutiques, and stop in at the department stores for a fast pass through the racks. I can get home on one of several busses in less time than it used to take to wrangle the car out of the garage and fight traffic to a one-stop that never had the quality that is the best value.

Even though the peaches may cost more per pound, the cost of acquisition is far smaller when I shop in the central city. Talking to my Parisian buddy, I was flabbergasted to realize that old and new world shopping venues have flipped. 

More after the jump.

Friday, December 19, 2014

The Magic Words

Photo courtesy Flickr user Tom Ipri
Ines de la Fressange’s Parisian Style introduced me to a simple and effective strategy for entertaining friends. I tried it for a party of ten last week. Set-up took fifteen minutes, clean up another twenty. Simply ask the guests “What would you like on your pizza?” After all, as de la Fressange points out, they’re there to visit, not to dine.

More after the jump.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Best Holiday Decorating Shortcut Ever

Photo courtesy Flickr user peddhapati
Cover the pictures with gift-wrap to simplify and focus the walls. (Special thanks to Mrs. BT.)

More after the jump.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Notes On Civil Disorder

Photo courtesy Flickr user Curtis Cron

Wherever one stands on the issues, the following comments are relevant. They represent a few hard-earned info-nuggets from a survivor of the Sixties. Consult your friendly local security expert for informed suggestions about how to behave.

When you are part of a crowd, you become part of a large and unpredictable organism. If a crowd is unavoidable, expect to be photographed. Assume that provocateurs will attempt to escalate a peaceful confrontation and that behaviors will become unstable as fatigue, hunger, and dehydration take effect. NEVER RUN FROM THE POLICE. Move slowly and carefully in the presence of an officer. Keep both your hands in plain sight. The community of the non-violent suggests that if you are attacked, you should drop to the ground, assume the fetal position, and cover the back of your head and neck with both arms.

Push a dumpster out of sight and wet the contents so it cannot be set on fire. Lock the wheels with a bike lock. Remove things that can be thrown, like rocks and bottles. Check your fire extinguisher and hose. To gain an appreciation of what is at stake during a demonstration, read your insurance policy. Do not draw attention to yourself. LEAVE THE LIGHTS OFF when you look out the window. If you hear gunfire, East Bay folk wisdom recommends crawling into the bathtub. Adding water will cushion the impact of a bullet.

Have an exit plan and a safe haven. Park the car at a reasonable distance with the hood pointed in the direction you intend to travel. Sedate pets. If you leave the house, Email a friend with your intentions.

More after the jump.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

The China Goalie

Photo courtesy Flickr user dbnunley
A witty pal mentioned that when one of her many pieces of vintage restaurant ware is on its way to the floor, she simply blocks the fall with her foot. The food spills all over the place, the dish survives, and presumably her faithful Lab takes  temporary care of the clean-up.

I never earned a merit badge in social engineering, but my friend offered me service for four from her stash, over which I had been quietly salivating. In a case of casting bread upon the waters and receiving sandwiches in return, I find myself the happy owner not only of the usual deep bowls and varied sizes of plate, the names of which I have yet to learn, but of a set of, dig it, clear soup bowls, the kind with two handles from which one is intended to drink. No more living like an animal. It says much about the culture that a ca.1900 utilitarian china pattern included such refinements.

The original pass pantry in this 1890 building connected the production kitchen and the dining room. The two doors in the tiny space created an airlock between the noise and smells of the kitchen and the, presumably, dignified and edifying atmosphere of the formal family table. The cooks in my life have been family, not staff, but I understand from early editions of The Joy of Cooking and various American novels that it was a privilege for children to be permitted in the kitchen. Cook guarded her turf with vigor. I can see the value of the practice: my favorite gumbo recipe from Paul Prudhomme begins with “get all the children out of the kitchen”. That’s step one for producing what Prudhomme calls cajun napalm, or roux.

Surprise is a major element of historic preservation and restoration. The new place settings turn my old production kitchen into a comfortable, efficient leisure area. The room is modeled on local cafes that began in business pre-Mermaid Coffee, when owners could afford to tolerate customers who lingered over coffee during slack hours. Mermaid itself is modeled on Mr. Pete’s legendary Bay area coffee stores with, originally, free coffee bars and all-day student drinkers. 

All the amenities in my kitchen are utilitarian, nothing is built in but the sink, and the floor is simply painted. The quality of the architecture and varnished woodwork communicate respect for domestic advantage. An 1870 drop leaf table from a local garage sale (“Anything can be anywhere.” Cadillac Jack, Larry McMurtry) centers the room, as it was designed to. The new china comes quickly to hand when we are setting out an ordinary feed.

Years ago, I learned about the food industry’s practice of “family meal”, the midday repast a cooking crew produces to nourish themselves. The first example I ran across was a description of the engaging social atmosphere of an old world Italian restaurant. Later, Thomas Keller’s analysis of a successful family meal in his informal venue raised my awareness of acute standards of design and presentation for the table.

One of my grandmothers had old and new world inn-keeping genes. Over many long visits, she trained me in the domestic arts. In writing this I realize the gentle rigor of her approach to the table. When we shared even a simple work night dinner of, say, a small steak, salad, and piece of toast, the table was carefully laid and the service equally careful and deliberate. The first moments of the meal were devoted to a critique of the food. We each discussed how we might have managed our cooking a little better. The process was an automatic, invisible tutorial, a treasure of genuine culture, and a contradiction of behavior at the formal table, where it is assumed that the food is as good as it gets.

My partner is an enthusiastic cook. I have to elbow him out of the way to get in some time at the stove, but he does not have my training in the three squares grind that is the engine of domestic bliss. Surprisingly, the new dishes integrate our approaches and facilitate the focus and planning that make the very most of every critical food dollar and minute.

More after the jump.

Monday, December 15, 2014


Photo courtesy Flickr user cementley
The recent first-class incident on an airliner brings to mind reasonable considerations of table service and traditional responsibility for the well-being of guests. The resignation and apologies from the airline executives who were involved seem to me to be outstanding examples of Confucian virtue, as far as my limited understanding of Korean culture permits.

Presenting food in commercial packaging is a Western as well as an Asian issue. The woman whose objections to being presented with a package of nuts became an international news story was voicing the same concerns as the immigrant mother of an Italian acquaintance who was shocked and angry that her daughter had set a pint of cream on the table.

Casual reading in the history of English domestic architecture brought me a glossy image of the dairy of a stately home, where eighteenth century milk was proudly cooled on a stone table in an elevated stream of running water. An estate was self-sufficient, like many an ordinary farm stead in many a country. Only the diligent efforts of the owners protected the quality of the produce and the family’s standard of living. The rise of specialized food production and commercial distribution generated identifiable commercial packaging. 

Before Pasteur, social custom inhibited the spread of disease by requiring indirect transmission of things and foodstuffs. A tray and a gloved hand stood between the writer of a letter and the reader of the same; a container or paper membrane stood between drink or eat and the consumer. One bacterium could take the wealth of generations and the future of a family.

It cannot be known who handles a package of food between the producer and the diner. Short of washing every cellophane packet that goes on the table or seat tray, the most sanitary way to set out a snack is to pour it into a dish. What happens after that is the diner’s business. Presumably her fingers are clean.

Antibiotics compromised sanitary food handling practice. Viruses and resistant strains of bacteria demand conscious and careful management. With ebola only a flight away, I can appreciate that a bag of nuts is not simply a bag of nuts.

More after the jump.

Friday, December 12, 2014

Cross-country On A Sidewalk

Photo courtesy Flickr user El Capitan
Living the pedestrian life in the middle of town hath many pleasures, but walking solely, so to speak, on hard, flat surfaces is not one of them. Varying the last of the shoe I wear during the week is a good way to approximate the unpredictable demands that covering irregular ground makes on my core strength and sense of balance.

A morning spent in the garden peels years off my perceived age. The harder it is to get up and moving, the more necessary it is to saddle up and allow this reliable body to perform as it was designed to do.

More after the jump.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Dirty Windows Kill Neighborhoods

Photo courtesy Flickr user Wonderlane
My long exercise in urban homesteading has paid off with a bustling, fashionable neighborhood. The Hill wasn’t always like this: in the Sixties it had emptied with cheap gas, the growth of the suburbs, and the dire unemployment of the Boeing Depression. When I fulfilled a childhood ambition to live in what had been described as the arts neighborhood, both the unemployment and vacancy rates were around fourteen percent. Property owners were, no kidding, paying responsible people to live in their places to protect them from squatters. 

Central Seattle was in worse shape than Baltimore, the benchmark definition of urban decay. The dreary, occluded glazing of windows neglected for decades cast a literal pall over perception. When, young and foolish, I settled up the street, I was prepared to cope with the local housing situation by six itinerant years following a graduate student/draftee from city to city in the US. 

The simplest exercises in housekeeping yield the biggest returns. We take them for granted, but having a window is a privilege. Having a pleasant outlook is even more of a privilege. Generous glazing is a vital sign that the neighborhood is secure and the state prosperous enough not to tax a house on how many windows it has. While I was babbling about the evolution of interior lighting from log cabin to the “picture window” of the Fifties tract house, the in-house archaeologist reminded me that it was Sweden that produced the glazing that enabled the daylighting of the literal Enlightenment. Swedish forests fueled the industry, and Swedish sand provided the raw material. Swedish tabletop glass is still a benchmark of quality.

A friend moved to Seattle from New Orleans and developed the predictable pits of winter depression that dominates the local February. She had survived several of them and was whimpering at the prospect of another. Seattle needs a term for people who have not been through a February, like Alaska’s cheechako for newcomers who haven’t lived through the winter that can freeze eyeballs. I advised Cary to manage her windows as my grandmother had insisted: keep them and the sills spotless inside and out. It worked for Cary. If it worked for a tropical sybarite like her, it will no doubt work for anyone.

Sparkling windows transmit sparkling light that reveals the sparkle, or lack of it, in metabolism, housekeeping practices, and ultimately, intellect. Safeguarding something as simple and fundamental as daylight literally illuminates daily life. Burnishing reflective surfaces protects them from the microscopic pitting that evolves into corrosion. A very careful hand with 0000 steel wool will remove the varnish-like layer of urban decades. German biker’s chrome polish is a good bet, too. Try either abrasive in an obscure corner of a pane.

More after the jump.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Lawful Prey

Photo courtesy Flickr user pcurto
About a year ago I fell for the superficially traditional lines of an inexpensive enameled-steel tea kettle. I wanted a kettle made of ferrous metal to use with an induction hotplate, the current stellar performer in the kitchen. The new vessel took four times longer to boil water than the plastic hot pot I’d been using. I surplussed the thing, finally having learned to cut my losses quickly.

Art historian John Ruskin said, “There is scarcely anything in the world that some man cannot make a little worse, and sell a little more cheaply. The person who buys on price alone is this man's lawful prey.” Yup. Last week, I stumbled across an iteration of the same product, this time from the old line French manufacturer of orange enameled cast iron cookware, still my favorite. I thought the kettle worth a shot, and it is unquestionably a winner. The lid is insulated, and the proportions of the traditional curves channel heat into the water rather than the surrounding environment. 

This comfortable old house thrives on comfortable old design. French and kitchen go together like chocolate and pears.


More after the jump.

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Right Next To Godliness, Apparently

Photo thanks to Flickr user f1uffster. (It's not as hard as it looks.)

A recent Science Daily post reports a study finding that an unclean environment promotes unethical behavior. I won’t belabor the point except to mention that the simple dignity of living in quarters free of physical hazards and allergens promotes poise and rational cognition.


More after the jump.

Monday, December 8, 2014

Home Turf

Photo courtesy Flickr user riderwichlacz
I am so proud of Seattle. Last Friday, protest organizers postponed their gathering to make way for an annual charity caroling competition. Things haven’t changed much since the hippies wore saddle shoes and water-skied.

More after the jump.

Friday, December 5, 2014

Learning From The Street

Photo courtesy Flickr user practical owl
I owe someone for this idea, but I don’t know whom and I don’t quite know for what. Pedestrian urban life reveals micro-environments. Certain local music venues, old movie palaces that retain their original vaudeville stages, tolerate the sleeping homeless. There’s justice and balance to the practice, somehow.

Last fall’s one-night stand in grizzly territory left me feeling like a tasty heat-sealed snack in our small nylon tent. Friday I noticed a huge, faded beach umbrella set in the corner of the entry of the Paramount Theater. There appeared to be a couple of people sleeping behind the thing, and it looked like a smart move. Privacy was good, the wind was blocked, and the umbrella was a ready pike to use in case an aggressor came at the sleepers.

More after the jump.

Thursday, December 4, 2014

Small-space Wardrobe

Photo courtesy Flickr user MIKI Yoshihito
First Avenue’s Finn boutique has been a happy hunting ground. Over the last few years I’ve wheezed quietly and paid for a few garments that have proved to be excellent value. The stock in this store is cut with pure lines, sewn of first-rate fabric, and is several years ahead of the mass market retail that nibbles at its forms. The simplicity of the styling makes it versatile. One well-travelled clerk advises me about the practicality and global validity of the offerings. I seldom leave town, but shopping with travel in mind pays daily dividends of comfort and convenience.

Last week’s cold snap proved the worth of the woolies. The word “coat” is an archaic term for “dress”. When the wind rips through the neighborhood, I wear a comfortable, closely cut zip-front funnel neck long sleeved garment as a super-sweater. On the street, the same piece layers under a down stadium coat for reliable comfort. The clothes from this boutique are as field-worthy as anything from the Co-op and look good downtown. They save cubic feet in the storage area, and their cost per use and of acquisition is lower than things from a thrift store.

More after the jump.

Wednesday, December 3, 2014


Photo courtesy Flickr user Ed Yourdon
This is earthquake country. One can never predict when it will be necessary to walk two or ten miles. This is also, and obviously, rain country. One can never predict when those two or ten miles might involve skirting wreckage and hoofing through biting wind with wet feet cramped into some kind of style romp.

I shopped for boots recently. Several scouting trips revealed that most of the time a boot is not quite the boot it might be. Many of the models on the market are lightly constructed and far from waterproof. They’re not cheap, either. For the same or less money, a smart pair of truly waterproof Wellie variants or a set of real hiking boots can be counted on to get you from here to there. Tuck a featherweight pair of fashion something or others into your side bag.

More after the jump.

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Master Of The Shovel

Photo courtesy Flickr user WSDOT
The weather turned bitter cold over the week-end. I suggested to my housemate, Indiana Jones, that for old times’ sake he set up the tent in the front yard, spend the night, and then thaw frozen soil with a steam hose to dig a square hole for our new cedar tree. Archaeologists pay for grad school so they can live like that and do heavy labor for less money than working in a fast food joint.

We also needed a little fill dirt moved from here to there but had surplussed the wheelbarrow years ago, deciding that its Archalounger function (tilted on back struts and handles) did not justify the storage space it would require. A good ten minutes spent discussing the bucket supply yielded a professional tip: shovel dirt onto a tarp and simply drag it where it is wanted. Ice is an asset.

More after the jump.

Monday, December 1, 2014

Any Coffee-maker In A Storm?

Photo courtesy Flickr user Dread Pirate Jeff
A late-quarter visit to the textbook section of the local academic bookstore yielded nutritious browsing. I went in to see what the bindings of scientific field references look like these days. The shelves were nearly empty, but what I found was much as I expected: flexible vinyl-bound palm-sized volumes, easy to thumb one-handed.

The veteran clerk was helpful and no doubt keeping an eye on his $230 offerings. I had a long browse through field science, engineering, and design. A work about green living discussed the environmental implications of consumer decisions. Advocating buying used whenever possible, the author shared his strategy of putting out an internet request when he wants something. The example he offered was a coffee-maker. The lesson he took from the process was that it works, but you have to take what is offered.

I was born to quibble with this approach, although not born to quibble with protecting the environment. A coffee-maker is not a coffee-maker is not a coffee-maker. The language is imprecise, and the many variants of the appliance, both high and low-tech, disprove the author’s strategy. I question the economy of his process, since the cost of acquisition of a cheap appliance is apparently greater than the price of the thing itself.

Design, or choice, is a matter of focus. The low-tech coffee pot or powered coffee-maker as we know it is a product of millennia of cultural and technical evolution. Crete mastered the dripless spout, not a trivial consideration for the laundry worker. The best of the high end pots consider the anatomy of the user’s hand. A good form supports rather than challenges fine motor skills. Originally a luxury item, coffee was brewed in careful ceremony akin to the drinking of tea.

I think it significant that Apple founder Steve Jobs studied high-end kitchen appliances as he experimented with the form of the PC. Jobs emerged from an environment of significant mass domestic privilege, growing up in an Eichler-designed house in the unprecedented prosperity of the Sixties Peninsula. I think it also significant that Jobs’ designer Jonathan Ive, Sir Jonathan now, trained with a silversmith father. Both guys grew up rubbing shoulders with sheet metal work. The culture of intelligent privilege that produced England’s brilliant tradition of silver, and incidentally the audio treasure of the crown jeweler Garrard, also produced the cognitive appliances for which Apple is known.

To my mind, it makes more environmental and economic sense to buy used at a local thrift store and to choose appliances passive or powered that can be recycled. Silver service for every day seems a bit much, but a silver pot won’t break, is a traditional store of bride wealth, and was valued for its anti-bacterial properties, low toxicity, and ability to amplify light. 

Precious metal respects the time and skill of the person who fabricates it. Cooper-Union’s catalogue celebrating the two hundredth anniversary of the founding of the state of Delaware is an essay on the history of Swedish silver. The Triumph of Simplicity lays out centuries of the best work for the most privileged tables. The volume is a meditation to read.

Grousing about the construction of I-5, Seattle painter Mark Tobey described progress as "the queen of the giants, to whom the intimacy of living is of no importance". Ordinary daily amenities affect quality of life as surely as income.

More after the jump.

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

The National Bird

Photo courtesy Flickr user sfbaywalk

The in-house field scientist recently came back from Eastern Washington saying, “I almost ran over a flock of turkeys, but they stood their ground, me and a couple of other cars.” Benjamin Franklin wanted the wild turkey to be the national bird. Oddly enough, the birds are classified as an invasive species in Washington state.

Family oral history recounts the year my grandparents and good friends celebrated Thanksgiving together. The bird was still alive and awaiting its fate in the back yard when three basketball buddies went out to dispatch it. Hunters all, they’d been at the bourbon bottle. The bird had not. The big tom got the drop on its predators, stared them down, and the party happily ate hot dogs that day.

More after the jump.

Monday, November 24, 2014

"Earth Holds All We Need. Better We Be Content With What We Have"

Photo courtesy Flickr user josefhacek

Marie Huelsdonk Lewis was the last surviving daughter of a legendary homesteader who settled on the far edge of the Olympic peninsula. She spent her life at the Hoh River entrance to Olympic National Park, once describing a family member who had married as living far away-thirty miles. Around 1976, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer sent a reporter to interview her. At the time, local weather reporters were discussing the El Nino climate pattern for the first time as the science community began public discussion of global warming.

As a child, I heard the story of woodsmen encountering her father, Johnny Huelsdonk, on a soggy rain forest trail carrying a cast-iron wood stove to his homestead cabin. They wondered if the load was not a heavy one for him, and Huelsdonk replied, more or less, “The stove’s OK, but the hundred pound sack of flour in the oven is a little much.” One of the Huelsdonks commented that the year the tribal canoe that was carrying Johnny up the coast with the year’s provisions tipped over, the family had to light with bear grease all winter rather than with kerosene. Hardship is all relative, as any family knows. 

That first local publicly identified El Nino year was spooky warm, and Mrs. Lewis nailed the description when she said, “I don’t recall another year when I’ve been able to go to the barn in tennis shoes.” Things have not been the same since.


More after the jump.

Friday, November 21, 2014

High Grade

Photo courtesy Flickr user Richardvanw

The verb is very useful. Recent changes in the way we use the interior resulted in shuffling the contents of half the rooms.  Since storage of small artifacts is concentrated in one room on each floor, rearranging is trivial.

I peeled a few layers of ornament from the walls and tabletops and set up essential furnishings in their new places. With lighting resolved, all that remains is to place a focal point on a wall or two. I could say “hang a picture”, but a picture is not always necessary. An antique tool or choice piece of local timber will serve my purposes just as well in certain spaces.

Reconfiguring generated a small collection of surplus furnishings. Some are heirlooms, and I’ll offer them to family. Others--I’m not so sure--but it feels right to set them closer to the door than to the archive. 


More after the jump.