Friday, June 20, 2014

Kustom Kords

Photo courtesy Flickr

In a perfect world, all small appliances would be equipped with breakaway magnetically attached power cords, like deep fat fryers and Pomme brain prosthetics. In an even more perfect world, such cords would be available in four or so-inch increments of length.

In the world as it now exists, replacement plugs allow modification of the power supply of a small appliance. I’m willing to risk the price of a small appliance for the housekeeping convenience of having a cord the right working length. The gains are significant. I’m not willing to risk electrical shock, though, so I run my plans past the nearest geek. 

More after the jump.

Thursday, June 19, 2014


Photo courtesy Flickr

Science requires that an answer to a question be necessary, sufficient, and parsimonious. Recently I spent a couple of nights in a dorm room on a campus with a historically strong science curriculum. I know the facility well and have appreciated the way the rooms support the life of the mind. I could never quite put my finger on the style. Necessary, sufficient, and parsimonious are the shorthand I’ve been seeking.

I look forward to honing this interior in the three new terms.

More after the jump.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

The Sort

Photo courtesy Flickr

I chanced to visit a household faced with the twin and sudden crises of incoming possessions from elders’ downsizing and the owner’s own serious illness. This perfect storm of inventory has descended on a gifted artisan who knows her way around fine furnishings.

Managing Stuff for day to day convenience takes constant attention. The easiest way to stay on top of the work load is to have as small a collection as practicality suggests-as science says, that which is necessary, sufficient, and parsimonious. When time is precious but there is enough to do a little more than shove things into contractor’s bags, sort inventory into general categories. Have a bold marker and self-adhesive labels on hand to protect things that can’t speak for themselves.

Textiles are straightforward: whatever is in the laundry is prime wardrobe. That which has been worn in the last month is secondary. The rest can go into dead storage until there’s time to discard things that are worn out or don’t fit. What’s  left can take care of itself until time and personal energy permit shopping one’s closet.

Paper is the oxygen of home economy. Stuff financial materials into a big envelope and put everything else into LABELLED containers for further consideration.

Small and soft furnishings, tools, electronics, garden, and craft materials can fend for themselves for a while in labelled boxes. Find or make habitable storage space, since most artifacts thrive in the same living conditions one enjoys for oneself. 

Manage inventory to preserve life, not devour it.

More after the jump.

Monday, June 16, 2014

Setting Up 2014

Photo courtesy Flickr

Domestic furnishing systems evolved in a culture that separated work from leisure and men from women. Much of what communicated comfort, responsibility, and social connectedness in a twentieth century domicile is no longer relevant. Electronic communications supply the feast of visual information formerly contained in fixed ornament, and just in time supply systems make procurement simple. 

Here are some suggestions for furnishing a first home with the least waste of time, money, and attention. The basic principles enable short turnaround time on projects and adequate periods of uninterrupted leisure in a live/work environment. Parents and friends might consider moving up the shower of gifts that precede marriage, when people used to go out on their own, to enable profitable independent living right out of the gate. It makes sense, too, to revive the old custom of setting up a hope chest. It is grievously difficult and unnecessary to keep house without basic amenities.

Spend big on low-tech handmade classics, like antique furniture and fine textiles. Do not buy as an investment anything machine-made that can be revived and produced again. Spend canny on the latest high tech amenities, like electronics. Spend recklessly on art. Use your head with the rest of the stuff.

Assuming a decent, empty living space and a side bag of life’s electronic necessities, the priorities are: the hiker’s ten essentials for surviving in the field; identical knock-down tables and Metropolitan high-tech shelving units on industrial castors from the cheapest mass-market supplier; putty-colored high thread-count cotton drop cloths, shop lights and small appliances from a hardware chain; and “award winning” director’s chairs or plastic garden chairs. Add heavy white restaurant china and classic stainless steel flatware. These basics will cover the essentials of life support in any context and will never have to be replaced. Buy in reasonable multiples to get the most out of your money-even one back-up unit can quadruple the usable life of an arrangement.

Here are the details: establishing hiker’s field gear at the core of the household makes it resilient in the face of disruptions like earthquake and fire. The price of something is calculated by dividing the cost of acquisition (price, shopping time, and lost income on the money spent) by the number of times something is used. Using first quality field gear every day makes it easy to rationalize spending money on what everyone should own anyway. Gear falls under one of ten categories that are relevant to all life support inventory: tool, fire, water, food, clothing, shelter, medical, navigation, communication, and transportation. Specific items change with technology and the mission. Carry the following  featherweight accessories any time you’re beyond walking distance of home base. 

Tool: a Swiss Army penknife with tweezers. Slip a sewing needle into the toothpick section. Airport security makes a knife expendable. You can improvise a cutting tool by breaking a glass bottle and taping one edge for a handle. Use your head-play safe. Wrap a length of gaffer’s or duct tape around a butane lighter.

Fire: a half-empty butane lighter and a birthday candle.

Water: the bottle is now ubiquitous. Add a small bottle of water purification tablets. 

Food: a protein bar or any little something, even a sugar packet or a cellophane packet of crackers.

Clothing: a disposable plastic poncho or plastic garbage bag. Improvise a jacket by cutting arm and neck holes in the bag. Line shoes with produce bags if you get caught in foul weather.

Shelter: a mylar survival blanket, sunscreen, and dark glasses. Carry cash, credit card, and spare batteries to use as currency.

Medical: hand sanitizer, a couple of bandages, coin-sized roll of dental floss, pocket tissues, and extra meds.

Navigation: a key ring light with extra batteries, spare glasses, and local map.

Communication: a whistle painfully loud in sound and color, a one-inch length of black wax lumber crayon, and change for a pay phone with out-of-state contact numbers taped to the back of your principal ID. Lie down to wave at a plane.

Transportation: first-rate foot gear with good insoles and socks for the weather plus the right side bag for daily necessities.

The Great Big Hiking Co-op, Mountaineers, or other knowledgeable sources will have the current best thinking about large-scale gear. I find that hiker’s tools, unbelievably tiny, clever, and light-weight, serve very well for the kind of maintenance I am able and willing to do at home. It would not be a waste of money to have one of everything, including the Baby Food axe and hand saw.

Camp stoves fueled by gas cartridges cook as good a meal at home as in the woods. I use one on a covered porch.

Working down the list of ten, it’s good economy to stock your pantry with dry and canned staples that do not require electricity to remain edible. The principle is to buy what you use and use what you buy. At the moment, a ten-day reserve is recommended. Mid-and early twentieth century cookbooks, like early editions of The Joy Of Cooking contain the traditional cuisine that evolved before electricity.

The Great Big Hiking Co-op is consistently two or three years ahead of and superior to mass market clothing design. Their stock shaves home heating bills and leaves one ever-ready to hit the road should the Big One come along. Field and urban wear are fusing into one supremely cost-effective wardrobe. I shop first at the Co-op or Flying Dinosaur and then fill in from the place in Maine and with the cashmere workhorses that are good complementary layers for high-tech field fabrics.

A rectangular sleeping bag that zips fully open can be encased in a pair of flat sheets and used every night. Shop for this bag at the Co-op, since cheaper models are crude and far too heavy. It’s trivial to sew two sheets together by hand. Luxury self-inflating air mattresses topped with a thin layer of memory foam are my preferred bed. The rectangular versions are modular with conventional bed sizes and can also be supported on modular epoxy-coated wire grid panels from a display outfit. Sleeping on the floor in a Western interior can be squalid. Raise the bed and save cubic inches by using grid-wall on a bed frame, laying pads on a set of industrial-quality dairy crates or flap-lid storage bins, or go medieval and sleep on a row of foot lockers. Non-skid matting stabilizes improvised cots, as do zip ties.

A self-supporting tent is a straightforward twenty-first century version of a four-poster bed. It makes a good guest room for the right person and, covered with an insulating layer, is a warm place to sleep in bitter weather. Silicon-shaded Japanese tent lanterns powered by solar-charged AA batteries are as elegant as lighting gets. A down sleeping bag is equally elegant, although a synthetic bag is better suited to a damp climate like the West Coast north of Big Sur.

Circumstances dictate whether it is wise to own a personal motor vehicle. A carry-on  backpack suitcase on wheels is an ever-useful accessory as good for hauling lettuce home from the market as for winging off to SF.

Choosing and using modular furnishings permits a huge range of improvisation, so the money you spend pays off over time and in varying circumstances. It’s not a bad idea to carry a tape measure and a list of the dimensions of your living quarters. 

24” x 72” is a key flat dimension. It defines the seat of a sofa, a single bed or cot, a self-inflating air mattress, and the top of a folding office table. Standard bedding, table cloths, and cotton drop cloths all work with this module. Those who live an extra-long life live 24” x 84”.

12” x 12” is another key dimension. In my life, it’s a vestige of vinyl recorded music and is reinforced by industrial dairy crates, the most versatile of all small furnishings. That’s a sixteen-quart crate. The twenty-four quart crate is standard for the recording industry. I buy gray ones from thrift stores. Crates cost the dairy around $10 each, and their loss is significant.

36” and 48” high-tech wire shelving in the units that come in a box is the most efficient buy. Chrome is the most elegant finish. Look for the original “Urban” brand, easy to find at the Big Box Specialty Storage Chain.

Plywood comes in 4’ x 8’ sheets.

Stock photo paper, mats, frame sizes, and archival storage boxes simplify graphic life. There are specialized museum sizes for the convenience of the fine art community.

Reduce the number of variables in your life to gain time to think. Now and then I discover a product that’s so fundamental it displaces everything similar. Black nylon now defines luggage, clothing storage, trousers, and bags. It displaced a huge, motley, and confusing collection of suitcases, dressers, jeans, and side bags. Nylon is stronger than steel of the same dimension. Glass is similarly rewarding: durable, fluted, hand-friendly French bistro classics serve hot and cold liquids. Small rectangular storage dishes from an old-line American manufacturer displace toxic plastic ware, numerous other storage formats, and are ideal for setting up MREs.

Inn keepers use standard furnishings to good effect. Interchangeable parts make space calm and flexible, cushion the facility against unexpected demands, and make repair and replacement trivial. A standard 24” x 72” folding office table may not look like home sitting unadorned in the middle of a room, perhaps set on bed risers for a standing worktop. Covered with a fresh drop cloth (tuck under excess fabric), it’s no different from the elegant table that graced a medieval great room or lady’s bedchamber. A long cloth turns a table into a closet. The 48” x 24” folding table is a convenient flexible size that can extend a larger piece, form a long buffet, or pair up for a small dinner. Uncovered, office tables support projects. Disguised, they’re an instant and exact recreation of the medieval way of managing domestic space. 

Metal-shaded clamp-on shop lights with Bakelite sockets are good basic workhorses for lighting. Shuck off the clamp to hang the cord as a pendant fixture. Wrap a metal hook with gaffer's tape for fire safety. A rice cooker, white plastic teakettle, and sharp cleaver are all it takes to turn out more than satisfactory everyday food.

The director’s chair is a design classic dating back to King Tut. The one on the market is Sheraton. I favor the solid hardwood model from “Award Winning”. It’s the prototype that was ripped off by import chains. This chair is as comfortable for a six foot four two hundred fifty pound guest as it is for a ten year old child. It folds for convenient storage and the seat and back can easily be replaced. Stacking plastic garden chairs aren’t half bad, but the legs splay dangerously on bare floors. Make sure the table you have and the chairs you choose work well together.

Adjustable knock-down welded wire high-tech shelving units on heavy castors are irreplaceable substitutes for all storage furniture. They’re not cheap, designed for hard use by unskilled labor, and hold industrial-grade dairy crates or flap-lid plastic storage bins. They also work as room dividers and can be grouped museum style chock-a-block in the least attractive part of a dwelling. Buy a cover or finesse one with twig garden fencing, grommeted fabric lashed in place with zip ties, roll-down blinds, or whatever. A fabric cover lighted from behind with something fire safe becomes a movable wall of indirect light that amplifies space. Use the closet to hold chairs, tables, luggage, and bulky gear. In lieu of a dresser, hang nylon shoe and sweater bags from a clothes pole. 

I favor white towels, bedding, and napkins for their versatility and because they’re easy to get clean. I buy mail order, or break out heirloom Irish linen, a bargain at any price new. Terry cloth makes a good everyday napkin.

A box-constructed down and feather-core standard pillow from Seattle’s own merchant is a fundamental soft furnishing. Four is a working minimum.

The American designer known for his jeans sells a line of tailored bedding that looks equally good in a living room or bedroom. He offers a heavy cotton blanket that’s really a bedspread. I found the right color one year and bought two in king size. They’re a step up from the drop cloth and significant furnishings in their own right. Textiles are architectural. I have used the spreads to cover a dining table to the floor to conserve heat in the winter. I top the spread with first, a waterproof layer, and then a smaller cloth for eating. Life would be simpler if all my tablecloths looked the same. The cotton blankets have turned a row of foot lockers into a low banquette, transformed beds into daybeds, and padded a wooden bench. The same color as the floors, they reduce the visual bulk of the largest pieces of furniture. Four would not have been too many to buy.

The windows I know best were built in 1890, so I am not qualified to say anything about contemporary coverings except that there is a school of thought that prefers to minimize attention to a window. I am partial to a combination of a light-blocking roller shade mounted under a bamboo blind. The shade blocks street lights and the blind offers daytime privacy while exposing a view. Pull the shade at night.

Supplement the basics with beloved or scrounged old things. Even one well constructed and designed piece of wood furniture is enough to communicate that one knows the difference between practicality and the essential grace of good craft. Norma Skurka’s New York Times Book of Interior Design and Decoration has a valuable introductory survey of the history of furniture. Just look at things and get used to the initial boredom of the process if it’s not familiar. Written content published before the mid-Eighties is dense, well-researched, and gives the lay person (like me) a good grip on the basics. Terence Conran’s House Book and Vita-Sackville-West’s garden book are reliable guides, as is Victor Papanek’s Nomadic Furniture. Don Koberg and Jim Bagnall’s Universal Traveler teaches how to think about innovation.


More after the jump.