I Spent a Year Making a Bed

How’s that for a click bait title? But I really did spend almost a year on this with most of that time eaten up teaching myself how to do marquetry and inlay work. As I mentioned before, my first attempts didn’t go well and I spent a lot of time searching for advice on how to do this particular style of Art Nouveau work that almost nobody does anymore.

Sanding and finishing metal and wood right next to each other also proved difficult and I’m not entirely satisfied with the result, though even I couldn’t see the imperfections once I put the bed in the bedroom. The bed is made of solid, quarter sawn white oak and it’s HEAVY.

The inlay includes, maple, mahogany, cherry, birch, oak and walnut all sourced from scraps from other projects and cut by hand with a jeweler’s fretsaw using the double bevel method. The metal is copper, brass and pewter. The straight lines were made with plumber’s solder that I hammered into place and sanded flat. I modified the original inlay design by adding a tall mountain to make the scene more California. Almost all the supplies and tools for the metal work came from LA’s massive downtown jewelry district, a resource that proved inexpensive and convenient.

The oak I was working with was from the bottom of the pile and not the best quality. It’s also hard to find thick white oak here in California so I had to glue up thinner pieces to make the big horizontal stiles. The tapered legs are also built up from smaller pieces and veneered on two sides so that the medulary ray pattern appears on all sides. This is a detail only nerds will notice. I finished this beast with the sort of dark stain that has fallen way out of favor these days and I felt counter-cultural applying it.

The design of the bed is, allegedly, by the architect and artist Harvey Ellis who worked for Gustav Stickley and it’s, apparently, a prototype that was never put into production. The Stickley company still makes a version of this bed. The design looks a lot like the two settles that my friend Jimmy and I built that were designed by the architect Henry W. Wilkerson so I wonder if the attribution is accurate or if Ellis just designed the inlay work.

I like the dreamy, magical, vaguely medieval quality of the furniture and architecture of the years between 1900 and 1915 before the horrors of the 20th kicked in. My near term plans involve laying in this bed imagining the fin de siècle odors of absinthe and incense as I drift asleep reading Arthur Machen.

The print above the bed is “Floating Up” by David Huggins which I learned about via the amazing documentary Love & Saucers.

Twilight of the House Flippers

Before and after shots from SF Daily Photo.

I heard the podcaster Amber A’Lee Frost give name to a common internet trope, what she called “flipper rage bait,” those horrifying before and after social media posts showing quaint old houses stripped of their ornament, their oak floors replaced with gray laminate flooring, their warren of tiny rooms open-concepted into one big whitewashed expanse as brightly lit as an operating room and as memorable as an airport hotel lobby.

Before and after shots of a San Francisco flip from SF Daily Photo.

The Instagram account SF Daily Photo is where I consume my flipper rage bait. Or I can just take a walk. My Los Angeles neighborhood of 1920s era bungalows has few that are anywhere near intact. The worst have become open concept hells–all white on the inside, stripped of their modest details and, lately, painted jet black on the outside.

Before and after from SF Daily Photo. At least they left the windows but why remove all the moulding?

If rational thought drove our internet obsessions we might all focus more on the lack of affordable housing, the fact that many young people can’t imagine buying a house especially where we live in California. But I don’t think flipper rage bait has anything to do with the quotidian details of housing policy and rent stabilization discourse. Rather, I think it’s part of a trend I’ve long identified as a justifiable unease with modernity, a sense that something that we can’t quite identify is rotten in the state of Denmark in spite of all the comforts we in the west enjoy, that even with our cars and HBO subscriptions we’re all profoundly unhappy. As W.H. Auden put it in his poem “In Memory of Ernst Toller,” we’ve seen “something horrid in the woodshed” that haunts our unconscious and eludes identification so that, “We are lived by powers we pretend to understand”(1).

That power is, of course, capitalism which removes so much of our lives from conscious, collective oversight. Whatever a just housing policy might be is, instead, a casino where the chips are held by those with inter-generational real estate wealth. The flipper aesthetic is just what the free hand of the market favors which, unsurprisingly, seems to look like one big liminal shopping mall or hotel lobby, spaces that reflect the qualities of late stage capitalism: center-less, bland and cheap all built with de-skilled labor pulled from the colonial periphery.

Over time “change” for the sake of change becomes a virtue in itself, intrinsic to a power structure we don’t understand or even see. It’s as if “change” prepares us to accept the austerity and precarity or our future as Uber drivers. The house flipper is the handmaid of the rootless, asymmetrical, and nonsensical domestic spaces of late capitalism, constantly re-configuring them for maximum disorientation.

What should our response be? Psychologist James Hillman asks,

Do we ever protest and go on strike because of the insulting, repulsive, and just plain ugly places of our work? Of our malls and strips? Of hospital buildings and government decor? Of the materials we handle, the lights we submit to, the “workstations” we are confined within, the lecture halls that we must endure? Yet these aesthetic oppressions affect our bodily feeling, our emotional well-being, and we must ward ourselves from their influence, the despair they produce, and the exhaustion. (Hillman, James. City & Soul (Uniform Edition of the Writings of James Hillman Book 2 p. 141. Spring Publications.)

Why cede beauty to the right twitter architecture bros, the ones with a Caesar portrait in their bio? They correctly identify a problem, “stuff is ugly” but misdirect the criticism to some kind of moral failing on the part of architects or house flippers, or worse, they blame immigrants or, inevitably, “the Jews.” They never name the actual culprit, the unseen, unacknowledged power of the capitalist system we live under.

I keep coming back to William Morris, who understood that the reason we work towards a more just world is so that all will have necessities of life and be surrounded by beauty. We have the resources for everyone to have a roof over their head and we can re-enchant and embroider that new world. Bread and roses.

Solar Eclipse 2024

Eclipse in LA as projected through my binoculars.

I’ve always wanted to see a total solar eclipse and a few weeks ago contemplated a trip to San Antonio where we have some friends. But a few minutes looking at last minute flight options quashed our attempt to check this one off the bucket list. The weather didn’t cooperate in most of Texas anyways so we would likely have ended up drinking beer on our friend’s couch, not necessarily a bad outcome.

Instead of a trip to Texas I decided to stay put and participate in a physics experiment run by HamSCI out of the University of Scranton that is attempting to answer the question, “How do solar eclipses impact ionospheric structure and dynamics?”

To answer this question HamSCI uses data collected though amateur radio transmission and reception reports. To participate in their eclipse experiment all I had to do was fire up my ancient and somewhat dusty $50 Radio Shack 10 meter radio and, using a digital transmission mode called FT8, send and receive as many messages as I could before, during and after the eclipse. My laptop generates the signals and, using a 3rd party interface box, connects and controls the radio. The folks at HamSCI will analyze the signal reports that are collected on the interwebs.

One of the remarkable features of this digital transmission mode is that you can send and receive messages with people all over the world with very little power and, in my case, a primitive, repurposed CB antenna. The signals bounce off the ionosphere, sometimes multiple times, to reach their destinations. The map above shows the other stations that received my signals during the day of the eclipse.

With the way the signal propagates I can easily reach the East Coast of the U.S., Central and South America and the South Pacific and Asia. I’ve never managed to reach the Midwest or anything north due to the path of the signal and, likely, some issues with my cheap antenna.

Once you get past the initial setup of the open source software used for these digital transmissions, communication is simple. You choose an open frequency with your mouse using the spectrum display at the top and the software handles the back and forth between you and whoever you are communicating with. The messages consist of an exchange of call signs, signal reports and a closing “73” which means something like “best regards”. The lack of a language barrier makes it easy to contact people all over the world.

While I’d love to have been in the path of the eclipse I did get to see at least a third or so of the moon cover the sun as well as some noticeable dimming of our always bright Los Angeles landscape. I spent the time near totality running between our porch and the closet that houses the old-man radio equipment.

How did your solar eclipse viewing go? Were you in the path of totality? What was the scene like? Leave a comment!