In Defense of Molding

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Like those invasive Argentine ants, house flippers are busy digging, churning and transforming our old corner of Los Angeles. One of the most obvious markers of a house flipper around these parts is the ubiquitous horizontal “flipper fence.”

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Another unfortunate sign is the disappearance of interior molding. Note the example above. In the process of ripping out interior walls, built-in cabinets and other period details, the molding often ends up in the dumpster. For some reason, it’s never replaced.

This is unfortunate. Molding is both functional and ornamental. Functionally, it serves to hide the inevitably imperfect intersections between walls, ceilings, doorways and floors. Conceptually, it creates a hierarchy between rooms (the living room should have larger molding than the bedroom, for instance) and it serves to mark a transition between spaces. It feels different to walk through an ornamented door than it does through what is merely a hole punched through a wall.

Modernist architects such as Richard Neutra derided molding as “dust catching” and, to this day, you’ll never see any crown molding or baseboard in the pages of the influential Brahmin lifestyle magazine Dwell. But I doubt high minded design is driving the aesthetic of the house flipper set. Rather it’s simple cheapness and, perhaps, a lack of skill. This is a real shame when you’re paying nearly a million dollars for a thousand square foot shack in a city that, let’s just say it, ain’t Paris.

The truth is, it’s not that hard to put up molding and it really does hide bad drywall work or old lath and plaster problems. Our 1920 bungalow, thankfully, had most of its molding still in place. I replaced what was missing (even though my carpentry skills do leave a bit to be desired).

If your molding is missing here’s a video on how to replace it. Baseboard is even easier, and has the added advantage of protecting your walls from vacuum cleaner bumps.

Ikea Karlstad Couch Hack

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Some years ago we purchased an Ikea Karlstad couch. At a certain point one of the arms started cracking and the couch began a slow collapse, not unlike the long decline of the Roman Empire. Kelly and I were concerned that, at some point, the couch would suffer a sudden breach and crush an unlucky cat in the process. To prevent this we took to putting a stack of our least favorite books underneath one end. While this was going on the cats, like marauding Visigoths, took to using both arms of the couch as a scratching posts.

It was time for an intervention, an “Ikea hack” that would save the couch from the hydraulic jaws of the bulky item pickup truck. I set as my goal to make new arms for the couch that would be sturdy and cat-friendly. The cats are going to want to scratch it anyways, so why not make the ends scratch-able? Permaculture applied to Ikea hacking!

But the path to Ikea hacking is not always kittens and rainbows. The first thing I tried to do was to cut some Ikea shelving in half to approximate the dimensions of the original couch arms. This proved foolish. Some, though not all, Ikea shelves are hollow and lined with flimsy cardboard. As my colleague John Zapf noted, I would have been better off just getting a sheet of plywood and making the arms from scratch, which is what I ended up doing.

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To make the new plywood arms I put the project in Sketchup to figure out the dimensions. I’m a big believer in Sketchup. It has helped plan a lot of projects and prevented waste. It took just a few minutes to figure out the arm dimensions.

I don’t have a table saw, so I used my circular saw and some guides to cut up the plywood sheet. An afternoon of work putting the arms together and another day to coat the wood with polyurethane, the new arms were ready to bolt onto the couch. It worked perfectly and the couch is now much more sturdy.

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The last step was to “catify” the arms. I cut some strips from an Ikea doormat to the exact dimensions of the front of the arms. Using some screws and washers I attached the door mat. One design refinement would be to wrap the doormat material around the corner of the arm. Cats like to have one paw on each side of the couch arm to scratch.

Next I’m considering pimping out the arms with some cup holders and built in speakers.

Compostable Holiday Decor

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Yesterday evening I was out in the back yard trimming our perennials (yep, it’s very California to be working in the yard the day before Thanksgiving) and afterward I twisted together a wreath out of what I’d cut: mostly lavender, with some strawberry tree branches, white sage and toyon berries. All I did was attach the green bits with wire to a thin branch I’d bent in a circle.

The wreath was spectacular last night. This morning it is a bit wilted, as the picture shows, but still nice. Properly, if a wreath is to last, it should be made of dried stuff and/or evergreen boughs. We’ll see what this one does over the next couple of days. I’m not bothered if it doesn’t work, as it only took about a half hour to make, and I made it more for the pleasure of the making than anything else.

It is worth remembering that you can throw together a wreath or swag or centerpiece out of whatever fresh plant matter you can find, and it will look fresh for the rest of the day. It’s really nice to have fresh, fragrant greenery on the walls and tables for parties. Here’s a thoughtstyling for you: maybe holiday decor should be as compost-able as the food, so we don’t end up burdened with boxes full of low-grade novelty holiday items which have no future outside a thrift store–kid art and family treasures excepted, of course!

The Future is Biomorphic

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One of Glen Small’s Biomorphic Biosphere Megastructures.

Thumbing through the June 1977 issue of The Futurist reminds me of the wisdom of what Nassim Taleb calls, “non-predictive decision making.” Why? Futurists and prognosticators are as accurate as a dead clock. Twice a day they get it right and the rest of the time they end up looking foolish. We can be especially thankful that the washing machine for people on page 179 of The Futurist never caught on.

That said, the point is not always to predict the future. Architects, artists and designers push the envelope of consensus reality to spark a dialog. Architect Glen Small, one of the founders of SCI-Arc and the subject of an entertaining documentary, “My Father, the Genius” is one such provocateur whose thoughtstylings appear in The Futurist. In an article in the magazine, Small describes his “Biomorphic Biosphere Megastructure (BBM):”

This union of nature and technology is what I am trying to achieve in my work. People say that the structures I draw look “alive.” They are alive–not in the sense that nature produced them independently of human control, but because they carry out all the different functions of living systems, respond to their environment, and grow. Certainly they are not “dead” as are many of today’s buildings which were constructed without regard for their surroundings or their effect on any form of life other than human beings.

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Inside a BBM life is a party.

Some of the ecological consciousness of Small’s work and other like minded architects of the 1970s later evolved into the environmental building standards of today. But Small is much more interesting. While my own architectural tastes lean towards the conservative Prince Charles end of the spectrum, I appreciate a  good harebrained idea when I hear one. Here’s Small describing life in one of his BBMs:

Your house is a self-contained personal flying module whose soft surfaces can be adjusted to any configuration from smooth planes to womb-like curves. These surfaces–walls, floors and ceiling–can also change in color and opacity. Are you feeling gregarious? Then live a while in completely transparent surroundings! Are you feeling reclusive? Dial walls of any color to shut out the world! You can even open your module like a flower to receive the sun, and close it tightly and inclement weather.

As Marshall McLuhan was fond of saying, “If you don’t like those ideas, I got others.” Among those other ideas, that have more of a chance of catching on, is Small’s passion to align the natural world with the build environment. Small says,

Too often in the past we have behaved like uninvited and unwelcome guests, looting and trashing our surroundings. . . We need a new global building code to insure that all future planning and construction will protect the natural environment and at the same time help establish a social environment that is truly responsive to man’s psychological and physical needs.

While we may not be soaring around in our own personal Barbarella-style floating pods, we do have LEED certification. I’m sure Small would say we could go much further than LEED. On a personal level we can help grow gardens in our cities. On a grass roots political level (pun intended) we can stop incentivizing AstroTurf and leaf blowers. Like Small, I hope the future is biomorphic!

Thanks to Anne Hars for lending me a copy of The Futurist.

Hundertwasser: Architecture as Spontaneous Vegetation

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One of my favorite podcasts, 99% Invisible, just did an episode about Austrian outsider architect Tausendsassa Friedensreich Regentag Dunkelbunt Hundertwasser (“Multi-Talented Peace-Filled Rainy Day Dark-Colored Hundred Waters” in German).

Hundertwasser viewed straight lines as an affront to both God and creativity. He was also a big fan of humanure, mold (!) and, just like Alexandro Jodorowsky, did the occasional speaking gig completely nude.

Listen to the 99% Invisible podcast for more on Hundertwasser’s architectural thoughtstylings.