Friday, April 16, 2010

On Aesthetic Trends

Why do we think some pieces are supremely ugly? Will we love the way our objects look forever? Mr. de Botton brings us a certain antique shop in London, a place "where objects make a last attempt to tempt the partially sighted before they are carted off to erode in a landfill." He describes an object there, which he labels "an extremely grievous-looking item, a sideboard with bulbous wings, two bay windows, Corinthian columns and a gilt-edged mirror. Though the piece's drawers still work and the finish remains miraculously unspoilt, its price is closer to that of firewood than of furniture." It is hideous. He continues, "And yet how loved this sideboard must once have been. A maid might have run her duster over it ever few days in an ample house in Richmond or Wimbledon. For a generation, it would have proudly displayed Christmas pudding, champagne glasses..." And yet nobody will buy it. He goes on, "Finding things beautiful naturally invites us to imagine that we will remain loyal to our feelings. But the histories of design and architecture offer little reassurance as to the fidelity of our tastes. The fate of this sideboard imitates that of numberless mansions, concert halls and chairs. Our impressions of beauty continually swing between stylistic polarities: between the restrained and the exuberant; the rustic and the urban; the feminine and the masculine- leading us ruthlessly to abandon objects to expire in junk shops at every swerve."
Why? He cites early 20th century German art historian Worringer, who categorizes art into two basic types: abstract and realistic, "either one of which might, at any given time in a particular society, be favoured over the other... the determinant lay, he believed, in those values which the society in question was lacking, for it would love in art whatever it did not possess in sufficient supply within itself. Therefore, we can understand the fascination with gilded walls its flowery ornaments in the 17th century when we see the context: "one where violence and disease were constant threats, even for the wealthy." Just because we reject that style today in favor of "walls unplastered and bare, doesn't mean we are "any less deficient." Modern life, especially in America, "has become rule-bound and materially abundant, punctilious and routine," and so we design buildings that move towards "the natural and unfussy, the rough and authentic." He summarizes, "That we need art in the first place is a sign that we stand in almost permanent danger of imbalance, of failing to regulate out extremes, of losing our grip on the golden mean between life's great opposites: boredom and excitement, reason and imagination, simplicity and complexity, safety and danger, austerity and luxury. (153-157)"
How true! I think that I missed out on taking Art Theory/History in school, if this is what they talk about there. How particularly germane to the latest Americana/work fashion movement, characterized by the explosion in popularity of classic mens retailers (J. Crew, L.L. Bean), hunting/fishing gear (Filson, Duluth Pack), handmade leather goods (Billykirk), work boots (Red Wing), etc. You can see it all and more glorified in Michael Williams' blog. Modern life has become too technologically advanced and made us largely immobile, we sit in front of glowing screens all day and then sit in our cars to go home and sit in front of another screen. (Of course there are exceptions; B loves the state of technology and work and happily spends most of his life indoors.)
I've always had an inclination towards hardy, practical clothing and equipment, because of the fact that I grew up in a mundane, suburban environment where I would never need to use such things. So it makes them seem romantic. This is precisely why I go hiking and camping. Not because I am intrinsically drawn towards stumbling over rocky paths, reeking like smoke, being terrorized by insects, and using inconvenient cooking methods. But by willingly engaging in these uncomfortable activities, I feel different and somehow more alive. Some might say I feel a "connection with the nature," which is exactly what much of our society has lost. But really, only the rich and privileged have the luxury of assuaging their anxieties through accumulation of goods that match the lifestyle they lack.
de Botton, Alain. The Architecture of Happiness. New York: Vintage International, Random House, Inc., 2006

Thursday, April 15, 2010

The Architecture of Happiness

With all this renewed interest in design and architecture, I decided to pick up Alain de Botton's The Architecture of Happiness and give it another go. Whereas last time I had to tediously reread pages at a time because I kept seeing strings of words and not useful ideas, this time his messages were as clear as day. He has the rare gift of elucidating vague feelings and notions which we have always perceived in the background, but never fully identified. For the past year or so, I have purposefully shunned design, because after being inundated with exposure to such sites as FFFFound, Cool Hunting, Design*Sponge, to name a few, I was sick of it all. Tired of the modern, sleek, futuristic, sterile, mid-century modern... the whimsical, flowery, DIY, shabby-chic. I felt like the target of a huge marketing scheme masked as the lofty preoccupations of people who have good taste. I didn't see any point to objects beyond the functional and practical anymore. (But sometimes, that is what makes some objects all the more stunning, is it not? My weakness for expensive kitchen knives is an example of this.) I stopped trying to slowly collect affordable pieces of what I considered well-designed artwork and furnishings. And I felt slightly poisoned each time I had to enter into an ugly building or use an ugly object, both of which can't be escaped if you live in America. It was a gray time as I closed off one part of myself. In this extended effort to disregard design, I forgot how it inexplicably good it could make me feel. How it is not vain to want to live in a beautifully constructed home. How you can read so much meaning into a line, curve, shape, or color. How you can surround yourself with things whose designs echo your philosophy. This book woke me up to that, and for that I'm thankful. (However, I will always find it difficult to shield my personal taste from current trends and materialistic temptations, and I admire others who can tune out those other voices.) Architects today indeed have a noble task: to build something that will not only provide adequate shelter, but convey a modern message that resonates with the people who will interact with it.

"What we search for in a work of architecture is not in the end so far from what we search for in a friend. The objects we describe as beautiful are versions of the people we love." (p. 88)

Check out this interview with NPR.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Small Space, Good Space

No 30-year mortgage for me, please
For the past few days I have buried myself in house research. It's not that we can afford to purchase one anytime soon, but I've suddenly grown a deep interest in matters of house design and mortgages. Probably has to do with the fact that some of our friends recently purchased new houses, which got me thinking about the financial aspect of it. I'm certain that I do not want to go the route of a $150,000+ 2/1 or 2/2 house, standard 30-year mortgage, sizable down payment. We'd also have to work our butts off to make sure our credit is good enough for a decent interest rate. Sure, it's part of the American Dream to own your own spacious house, but I don't like the idea of being in such great debt for most of my adult life. Even if it means not being able to amass a collection of mid-century modern furniture, limited run prints, a solid set of All-Clad pots/pans, a Kitchenaid stand mixer, fancy lighting, and all that DWR/CB2/IKEA jazz. Basically, trying to convince myself and visitors that I am cultured and have good taste. Apartment Therapy? Did you know that with interest factored in, you end up paying 2-3x the original amount after all is said and done? What could be done with all that extra money? I can think of a few things: traveling, saving up for future kids' college funds, investing, working less, retiring early. But is there a way out? I've been googling "house cheaper alternative," but haven't gotten many good results. Houseboats looked promising, but after looking at some real estate prices in Portland and Marin County, it looks as though houseboats are not a cheaper alternative, at least in America. Trailers definitely are, but there's still a trashy element to them (only by stereotype), not to mention that they would be unsafe in very inclement weather. As much as I love (receiving doughnuts and other desserts from) shiny Airstreams, I couldn't see us and our two cats residing in one. And then renting for our whole lives wouldn't make that much sense either, as we would own nothing in the end.

Austin homes
There are about four types of houses you can get in these parts, from observation: old (pre-1950's), cookie-cutter suburban, new-ish bland (1950-2000), and new modern (2000-present). I'm sure there are more official terms, but whatever. I definitely prefer old and new modern the most, but as I have lived in old front-porched houses for the past few years, I can attest to their poor insulation and general dilapidation. And it's nearly impossible to make a house that old look really clean with their aged stains and worn surfaces, short of remodeling. They've got a laid-back, dirty charm, which I've had more than my fill of. So then there's new modern. Those boxy, slanted, multi-paneled, giant-windowed, and sometimes moody structures. They really give off the sense of the faraway future. I think people are drawn towards them because they are such a radical departure from what we as a culture are used to categorizing as a house- closed rooms, aligned windows, brick, wood, 3d rectangle convention. If aliens studied Earth buildings and then looked at an array of modern homes, they might get a little confused, right? Anyway, as dashing as these are, they are also a pretty penny. At more than $200 per square foot, only the wealthy could afford them, while poorer admirers and experts adore or criticize. After all, it's a look, and there doesn't have to be any practical design anywhere. They may also have a tendency towards gloomy, anti-human feeling. Definite risk. On a side note, I think there should be more modern public buildings built, so that everyone can experience non-humdrum architecture and design. Spaces really do affect the way we feel.

Another take
One house trend that has really caught my eye is tiny houses. As I tend towards minimalism and am a believer in owning less stuff, this concept is still a challenge to wrap my head around. One company at the movement's forefront, Tumbleweed Houses, makes houses that range from 65-140 square feet, in the "teeny house" category. That is really small. Most homeowners' master bedroom closets or bathrooms engulf that space. What intrigues me about this is the efficient design of such a small space. The largest model in that category, the Fencl, at 130 square feet, has a loft bedroom, bathroom, full-size shower, sitting room, kitchen, and plenty of shelving. That's not to say that you can own the same amount of stuff as the next American. But it is the definition of frugal living, as utility bills are next to zero, and maintenance costs are low, which makes it very green. Another argument for tiny home living is that it encourages you to go outside and build a community and do other things that really matter. Personally, I have always been the type to hole up in my room out of comfort, but that doesn't allow me to accomplish much. And in such a small place, you won't have to worry much about how to arrange the furniture, and what looks good where, because you won't even really have movable furniture. It might just be me, but I abhor that task when moving in to a new place, since I'd rather there just be an obvious place for everything. But in general, you must change the way you think about house design and day to day living. Here's an article about a Portlander who downsized to a Tumbleweed tiny house. Of course, there are a few major drawbacks to this sort of tiny house. Mainly, that we wouldn't go for woodsy Americana architecture in a house. Here's a beach version that I adore. And we probably would not want to live in a portable trailer, since we don't have a desire to tow it around different places. And the pricing is somewhat skewed at $400+ per square foot. And, if/when we want to have kids in the far future, what then? It would definitely get crowded. And really, is it simply too small? To be honest, this is the house I would live in if I was sure I was never going to have a family, and if I was more serious about having less of an impact on the Earth's resources.

What if we made this lifestyle change to live in a small space? Could I part with most of my belongings? Last weekend I devoted an afternoon to decluttering our shelves and closets. The result was a bag of clothing headed for Goodwill, and several bags of trash. In general, we try to keep the stuff level down, as we are prepared to move each year. I started thinking, what is the shortest list I could make for personal belongings I could pare down to...

- Personal diaries, from 2002-2010
- Wedding photo albums (2)
- Small file cabinet of personal documents
- Pilot and Uni-ball rolling ball ink pens
- 2 cameras: Canon Rebel G, Fujifilm Instax; and a box of film
- My hand-sewn pillow
- Mandolin
- Nalgene (Screw that! Klean Kanteen!)
- iMac
- Backup hard drive
- 10 favorite books: A Prayer for Owen Meany, The World According to Garp, Persepolis, His Dark Materials Trilogy, In Cold Blood, Me Talk Pretty One Day, Les Miserables, Slaughterhouse-Five
- Furminator
- Kitchen stuffs (I need a lot here): New West Knifeworks chef knife, small cutting board, 2 baking sheets, Silpat, rice cooker, shears, set of 4 Corningware dishes and plates, 9" nonstick square baking pan, 15" Pyrex pan, pie pan, silicone spatula, bamboo spatula, 12" nonstick pan, 2 Cuisinart stainless steel pots with lids (1.5 and 3.5 quart), medium IKEA stainless steel mixing bowl, large IKEA stainless steel mixing bowl, plastic colander, a few favorite mugs, recipe folder
- Camping equipment: backpacking tent, down sleeping bag, head lamp, camp towel, MSR stove, pot/pan set, Golite backpack
- Clothing: 10 shirts, 2 jeans, 2 shorts, black leggings, 10 socks, 10 undies, 2 wool sweaters, a few dresses, wool jacket, Patagonia rain jacket, Marmot wind jacket, Vibram Five Fingers, Vans Authentic
- Bags: a few cotton totes for groceries, Beckel Canvas duffle, Domke camera bag
- Bike
That's it! I think B would not like the idea of even making such a list, as he loves his books. But I have promised him walls of shelves.

In short, I love the idea of a tiny house, but I am looking for slightly larger, more modern options with a foundation. It might also be a problem of zoning laws/ building permits, and how rooms have to be above a certain size. The solution is a trade-off between size and privacy. Would you live in a place without closed-off rooms? Currently, we live in an upstairs duplex at around 800 square feet, built circa 1920. Any larger and I would get fed up with cleaning, but I could see us going smaller, albeit it would mean letting go of our newly acquired IKEA furniture. We could do it, though. I am an amateur in house design, and the more I tool around in Google SketchUp, the more I see why people go to school to study this field. I am eager to see the development and direction of home ownership in the next few years, as more and more people downsize and think outside of the American Dream, taking hints from European housing. It's a huge step in simplifying your life so you can do the things you love to do.

Thursday, April 01, 2010

Latest Makes

What's been going on these past two weeks? Besides getting really sick of SXSW and bad sound mixes, and not really wanting to participate another year, I've been waiting patiently on The Company to get back to me about the internship, which happens to start in May. Can't say I've been job searching very heavily, since I've got my mind set on that position. I'm also looking into volunteer opportunities around town. Something flexible that I can reduce or break off once I get a job. I'm gonna talk to the guys at Space12 next week (did you know that B came up with the name?). I've also been doing 99% of the cooking as of late. As I mentioned before, I like baking, not cooking. To me, there is too much margin of error in that, and I really hate to fail and waste ingredients. But it's been good for me to get more practice. Cooking is actually one of B's hobbies, but he'd much rather have a hot meal ready for him when he gets home from a long day at work. Some of the new recipes I've tried have let us down, but I also have the tendency to use a recipe as a guideline and botch it. I'm still familiarizing myself with different spices, as I bought bay leaves and paprika for the first time last week. Also, B is a really discerning taster and loves flavor and robustness in his food. I grew up eating a lot of stirfried and steamed dishes, all prepared with minimal amounts of oil and salt. Finding a good compromise is key. I think I should keep a little log of what I make, so that I will make better versions of recipes each time.

Tonight, after zoning out in front of the telly with a chocolate toffee bar and vinegar and salt chips, I saw that the clock read 7:20 and rushed to find a meaty recipe for dinner. Since yesterday, after a trip to Natural Grocer (meat and dry goods) and Wheatsville (veggies), I spent an hour preparing a chard pie (recipe from
Everyday Food). It looked easy enough- saute diced onions, chard stem and garlic, remove from heat, add parmesan cheese, lemon juice, salt, and a bit of flour, make a crust out of flour, olive oil and water. When I informed B of my project, he balked and reminded me that he is not into vegetarian meals. So, I froze it for later. This is what it should look like.

source: The Everyday Food blog

I googled "ground beef recipe" and settled on this Shepherd's Pie recipe by Paula Deen. I usually don't follow anything created by the Queen of Butter, but it looked pretty easy and not disgustingly fatty. Instead of 2 cans of tomatoes (that's a lot!), I used a few teaspoons of concentrated tomato paste from Mandola's. I also substituted sweet potato for regular potato, since it is much more nutritious. It was the first time that I had boiled a potato unwhole (it loses a good deal of its nutrients that way), but I was on a time crunch. I also had no milk or sour cream. Usually we have some alternative milk lying around in the fridge, but all we had was oat milk, and it had 19 grams of sugar per serving. I've learned my lesson from using sweetened milks in savory dishes- don't do it! The mixed vegetables I put in with the beef to cook together. I tried to make it a good meat to everything else ratio, since B nearly threw a fit the last time I made a coconut curry that was too heavy on the potatoes, carrots, and onion. (To be fair, it was the first time I had made a dish in our crock pot, and the recipe was written by a white person and did not taste anything like Thai curry.) The biscuit on the top took some extra time to cook all the way through, so by the time it was done, B's stomach was grumbling. He loved it! He said it was the best thing I had ever cooked, and that I should stick to English/European foods. Ha! The way to his bellyheart is through lots of meat, butter, salt, and bread. I'm all for delighting your basest taste buds, but I also want us both to live a long life together. All in all, I'm happy that my second try cooking meat "pies" had a good ending, as opposed to the first. This is what it looked like.

source: boydknife flickr

I also picked up a package of phyllo dough at the store, since we had a bit more left in our budget for the week. A well-made baklava is delectable, and I wanted to see what I could do with those flaky sheets. Using the pear recipe at the bottom as a guide, I had an old Fuji apple lying around that I wanted to use to make apple triangles. Unfortunately for me, it wasn't after I had peeled it that I chopped it up and found a bad core. Luckily, I had half a bag of frozen peaches that I defrosted, diced, and tossed in a pan with a handful of sugar and cinnamon. The phyllo dough itself was more of a challenge to handle. The box said to defrost it by leaving in the fridge overnight, but I didn't want to defrost the whole roll, yet it was too hard and fragile to peel off any layers. Other recipes said to put a damp towel over the layers you weren't using, as the dough dries out very quickly. Thanks to Alton Brown (video), I learned that I could throw it in the microwave for 60 seconds and forget about the paper towel- just work speedily. Also, that you can't use regular melted butter with phyllo dough, you have to boil the water out until it is clarified. I let it sit too long on the stove as I was running around the kitchen, so it became browned butter, but that has a nice nutty taste anyway. Some of my layers ripped as I pulled them apart, and it was not the prettiest dessert. I layered 7-10 sheets with butter drizzled in between each one, then I spooned the peach mixture on one end and folded them up. The triangles looked sorta like this (pre-baked).

source: greek food

B also thought these were very tasty. The filling was quite tart, as I did not add that much sugar, but I just sprinkled some powdered sugar on the finished product. He was impressed with all those flaky layers of crust, but it wasn't any of my doing. It was rather labor intensive, but I aim to try for a savory meat filling next time.

I purchased the book Green Smoothie Revolution and a Oster blender in my last Amazon order. Green smoothies are a growing raw/health food trend. Basically, you make a fruit smoothie and add some leafy greens to it, since the latter is chock full of good things for your body. Americans don't eat enough greens, and even when having a salad, you don't chew it enough to release all the nutrients. In a green smoothie, start off with a heavy fruit to greens ratio, and then work your way up to making it 60/40. In principle, I love it. I have grown to despise the taste of most raw leafy vegetables, but I know I should eat them. Somehow. And this may be it. My first few tries to make a green smoothie were, shall we say, less than desirable. B served as one of my guinea pigs, and he eagerly explained to me what was wrong with each of them. The oranges were too pulpy so you had to chew each bite, blended lettuce tastes gross, raspberry seeds are annoying in a drink, I gotta peel the apple, add ice to make it cold, etc. We finished them both but I could not bring myself to make a third. I even ordered one from a raw food restaurant in town (so expensive!), and also did not love it. But it was much better because they are supposed to be made in 1000+ watt blenders, like the Vita-Mix, which are $300-500. Not only does it make a truly smooth drink, these powerful blenders supposedly break down cell walls to make the nutrients more easily digested. Additionally, you are not supposed to eat any food with this smoothie, and you are not to eat for 40 minutes after you consume it for efficient digestion. I don't have hundreds of dollars just lying around, but I am thinking about saving up for a Vita-Mix as an investment in our health. Here's what my first green smoothie looked like.