Friday, April 4, 2014

The Saucer Has Landed

Photo courtesy Flickr

Designboom sent me the following:

a bicycle with a cooler mounted over the rear wheel

a London department store that houses an indoor skate park in the basement

a grain of sand with a castle engraved on it.

Pomme offers the following on-line:

a two-wheeled gyro-scooter with a digital pad mounted on it for really remote participation in on-line conferences

my very own drone.

Search “skateable house” to find crown fruit. Click on Deft key word “efficiency” to pull up the posts that make any interior more skateable.


More after the jump.

Thursday, April 3, 2014

If Saving Money Slows You Down, You're Not Saving Money

Photo courtesy Flickr

A friend remarked that the finest maraschino cherries are five dollars a bottle cheaper in Twisp than they are in Seattle. She did not flinch at my argument that driving to Twisp to save five dollars is not real economy, pointing out that Twisp is sometimes a convenient shopping destination for her.

Not for me, though. A photographer who was raising a family with his camera was broke enough to buy lamps at the Salvation Army for their working lightbulbs. Laddy’s poverty made him the destination of choice for everyone’s cast-offs. He was mired in obsolete, high-maintenance, second-rate domestic appurtenances. A certain level of economy morphs into greed.

Now and then local broadcast treasure KEXP plays a song with the line “If they try to slow you down, tell them all to go to h*ll.”  Thank you, thank you, thank you. Since hearing that lyric, my personal velocity has doubled.

Ceasing to hover over every petty artifact generated far greener behaviors than the usual earth-shoe patterns. Pulling the burrs out of inventory freed time to shop for first-quality basic foods. That in turn improved and simplified cuisine, created a leisurely focus on the table that improved communication, and gave me the time and cognitive wherewithal to plan the next few years.

Who could have imagined that a Goodwill bag supports higher thought? 

The song’s other gift was the recognition of and careful, effective impatience with people who respect their own time as little as they do mine. Africa’s legendary John Hunter wrote about stalking a wounded Cape buffalo, the most dangerous animal of the savannah. The trail took him on hands and knees through a patch of wait-a-bit thorns, er, talons, that must be removed from quivering flesh one at a time. All the while Hunter was extricating himself from the death of a thousand hooks he was wondering whether he would finish the buffalo before the animal finished him. The book’s a good read and a heartening lesson about priorities.

More after the jump.

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Doomed To Repeat?

Photo courtesy Flickr

As in remember the history. A thirty-something from out of state recently claimed that Seattle’s clean air results from the way prevailing winds and rain wash the sky clean. Not so, my friend. Seattle’s clean air is the payoff for generations of struggle with air pollution.

Solid fuels wood and coal coated Seattle with a film of smut that left Highway 99 lined with carbon black industrial wasteland as late as the Seventies. Summer air in the central city was yellow verging on brown thanks to low-mileage cars and leaded gasoline. The nitrous oxide in the mix topped brain injury from heavy metal with the same merry high my friendly local dentist used to ease anxiety. It’s no wonder that the summers were long, hot, and very dangerous.

More after the jump.

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

While I'm At It

Photo courtesy Flickr

Further comments on yesterday's post: sometimes disposable furniture is the greenest, most rational solution to finding comfort in temporary quarters. The trick is to choose basic, inexpensive items that hold their value and/or recycle and to understand that at its OED root, comfort means that which gives courage.

Fortunately, there is a high-end tradition in the west that supports making such choices. A medieval household of privilege moved frequently from estate to estate. It was furnished with portable, knock-down tables, stools, and folding thrones, aka director’s chairs. The classic hall might have been smaller than a one-car garage and house as many as twenty persons a night. The dominant couple would have slept in a four-poster bed with hangings in one corner of the room (like the first wave of Yankees in Massachusetts). The rest of the household slept on the transit cases that lined the walls.

For meals, the domestic roadies known as house carls set up a board and trestle (sawhorses and planks). Children stood at table, which is sensible, and the property owner, aka lord, sat in a chair with arms. A long cloth covered the table that was dismantled after the meal to permit other activities in precious interior space. If you routinely store personal items in transit cases, built-in closets and cupboards can hold the knock-down furnishings that are so effective at amplifying space and leaving it flexible.

There is zero distance between a board and trestle and the two by six foot folding plastic office table. There is zero distance between generous table linen and a high thread-count cotton drop cloth from the hardware store. There is zero distance between a medieval trunk and a foot locker. There is zero distance between a “faldstuhl”, or folding throne, and the Award Winning hardwood director’s chair.

There is zero distance between a hiker’s folding knife and titanium spork and the personal eating tools carried by a baron. Best of all, there is zero distance between the candles that illuminated a table during the Middle Ages and the candles that grace a table today. Cover that drop cloth with plastic and a finer small working cloth to protect the center of the large one from spills and stains. A floor-length cloth acts as a lap robe, conserving heat. It also conceals things stored under the table.

It’s trivial to improvise a bed from hiker’s luxury self-inflating pads with memory foam tops. Set them on display industry grid panels across whatever supports are convenient. An additional memory foam topper adds luxury, if desired. The real luxury comes from a down comforter (unzipped rectangular sleeping bag, if possible) encased in a two-sheet duvet cover. The Pacific coast feather merchant sells a boxy pillow that is equally comfortable for sleeping or lounging.

White linens make life simple.

Hiker’s cooking and table ware fills basic needs and leaves one ready to bug out if the Big One hits, as hit it will. If I were setting up temporary quarters, I’d pick up a cheap set of white dishes at the Great Big Northern Home Furnishings Chain, add fluted heatproof bistro glasses from the French master of the form, and add the Original Import Chain’s teardrop handled stainless flatware and serving pieces.

All one really needs to turn out a good meal are a sharp cleaver and a heavy enameled cast iron pot with a tight-fitting lid. 

Lighting will vary with the quarters. Curtaining a contemporary interior is cut and dried with the stock sizes of various blinds available at any big box chain. Best of all, stock solutions are easy to order for delivery.

Feed the hungry eye with the digital screen, flowers, plants, and the odd drop dead wonderful textile like a small hand-knotted rug or Oregon Round-up blanket. If I knew I’d be staying for six months or so, it would probably be cost-effective to ask a muralist (and the landlord) to work on a wall.

The real issue in home furnishing is what one’s mother thinks. Knowing the origins of elegant practice gives courage in the face of mediocre custom. It also does good things for the bottom line. Every dollar spent on the home costs the interest and/or investment appreciation it could have earned.

More after the jump.

Monday, March 31, 2014


Photo courtesy Flickr

A leisurely chat with a friend who lives in a privileged northeast neighborhood brought the surprising (to me) news that many of her younger neighbors routinely empty a room, discard the contents, and then fill it again with all new furniture. They also replace small furnishings as each season comes around. I find this behavior questionable for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that the time one spends shopping can never be recouped. 

The splendid traditions of American furniture developed as families prospered and sought a vehicle in which to store wealth. Historian Albert Sack lays out the evolution of our expressive forms in The Fine Points of Furniture. An American design, Sack points out, does not bend its knee. Sack was a Lithuanian immigrant who repaired old furniture. I respect the quality assessments of a man who knows how to sharpen a tool.

Juggling priorities between things and living beings is the heart of housekeeping. If the focus is on things, the place freezes. If fauna are in charge, it rots. The tax man says furniture is a capital investment (one that can be insured). My friend’s family paid for critical elder care by selling antiques.

Train your eye for form by studying the historic survey that opens Norma Skurka’s The New York Times Book of Interior Design and Decoration. An English collector observed that work that is mass-produced can easily be mass-produced again, undercutting its value.

Interestingly, my friend’s neighborhood has long been preferred by Navy families. Her site is part of an early post-World War Two development on a south-facing slope. It enjoys the gentle light reflected off Lake Washington. The area has deep traditions of rigorous housekeeping. The most senior matrons who made their homes in that quarter faced the bitter realities of Pearl Harbor knowing that the Japanese fleet could sail into Puget Sound any time it pleased-while their husbands and sons were in harm’s way. That Fifties matron waxing the floor in high heels and pearls had combat support up her sleeve.

Jared Breiterman’s discussion of life in Edo Japan, Just Enough, reveals surprising parallels between the domestic practices of the samurai class and those of the elders in my friend’s neighborhood. Japan came close to environmental catastrophe in the sixteenth century, and Breiterman discusses the drastic measures initiated by the shogun to establish sustainable systems. Breiterman is a New Orleans scholar and wrote the book after Katrina had devastated his home turf.

Decades of observing soggy urban alley discards have taught me that disposable furniture is no more than a puffy sandwich of plastic laminate and cardboard or sawdust. Regrettably, the stuff does not recycle. Disposable soft furnishings are expedient at best but always an insult to the soil that suffers their production. Cotton can easily take more than it gives. Textiles are very hard on the environment.

A textile collector once took the time to evaluate a vintage length of ikat a friend had brought me from Indonesia. I wanted to use it for pillow covers but I was concerned about committing a crime against The Loom if I cut it up. The expert took one quick look at my sarong, said, “Machine spun thread, don’t worry”, and was off on another topic.

It’s worth the trouble to learn about textiles: they’re number two on the list of human essentials, between food and shelter, in that order. Everything on the list is under pressure now that the planet is groaning under the weight of its people.  Look to Japan for elegant traditional solutions that conserve wealth and mark the signposts to a viable future. The same Great Big Northern European Home Furnishings Chain that has debased interior design also offers affordable variants of classic Japanese small space solutions.

An interior is a living thing. It’s natural and effective to want to vary it when the season changes. Seattle has one season, when the skies are grey and the thermometer reads 45 degrees. The only things that change are the leaves on the trees and the angle of the sun, if any. It’s silly to keep Seattle house according to cues offered in national media. Our climate has nothing to do with the four distinct seasons of the rest of the country’s continental pattern. This West coast marine climate resembles only two others in the world: Japan and England. Sharp seasonal changes in a Seattle interior make as much sense as setting out a bowl of gourds and vase of colored leaves in the Hilo dining room that overlooks a beach cluttered with surfers on Christmas morning.

That said, respect for the seasons is a poetic response to our annual trip around the sun. Back in the day, a housekeeper would beat, roll, mothproof, and store wool carpets come spring, put away elaborate ornaments, and, in the South, cover gilded mirror and picture frames with cheesecloth to protect the leaf from fly specks. The house was modified to secure the contents against loss when the family left for the summer.

Thanks to central heating, moths are a problem all year around. The security concerns of travel are constant as well. The essentials of seasonal change are best addressed as part of the ordinary base line management of the household at the time furnishings are being chosen. Designer Billy Baldwin leavened interiors of privilege with low-maintenance, high-quality cotton yardage.

It’s trivial to call out seasonal variation by setting out a tablecloth and vase of flowers. Little else is necessary when the digital screen floods the interior with a constantly changing gallery of form and color and the rain gear never leaves the hall tree. 

There are many schools of thought about managing an interior. Mass media model choices that profit vendors rather than homeowners. The most conservative thinking recommends respecting what one already owns or has inherited and appreciating the look of an interior that has been accumulated. “Total design concept” is snicker-bait in certain circles, although I love a totalitarian look as much as the next design freak. Richard Gump’s Good Taste Costs No More takes an intelligent look at the two poles of preference.

More after the jump.