A William Morris Pilgrimage

Staircase of the Red House.

The reason this blog has been silent for a few weeks is that we took a trip to England to celebrate our 25th wedding anniversary. The pandemic gave me a pretty bad case of agoraphobia and I’m thankful Kelly pushed me to take a much needed break from Los Angeles. She had the great idea of organizing a trip around the houses and favorite places of the 19th century poet, designer, artist and socialist William Morris.

Unfortunately the first two days of the trip Kelly got a stomach bug, leaving me to travel alone to our first stop, the William Morris Gallery, located in the house he lived in as a teenager (thank you Cathy Ward for the suggestion). This concise museum gives an introduction to Morris’ superhuman output of everything from books to wallpaper to furniture to stained glass to socialist newspapers.

While viewing these exhibits I kept thinking of Morris as an English Richard Wager but with much better politics, though Morris really hated the German composer. However, both were interested in Icelandic sagas and medieval legends. Both were proponents of Gesamtkunstwerk, a kind of total aesthetic control of one’s world and surroundings. That said, Morris distinguishes himself from Wagner with a much lighter and more joyous aesthetic and through his dedication to fighting for the rights of working people.

One of the rooms of the Gallery is devoted to that activism. The view out the front door of the Gallery, pictured above, tells us that Morris’ political and aesthetic revolution did not come to pass. The class struggle Morris expected instead happened in undeveloped Russia. In the U.K. and U.S. we got, instead, consumer culture. The revolution Morris worked towards never came to pass because, as Herbert Marcuse put it,

If the worker and his boss enjoy the same television program and visit the same resort places, if the typist is a attractively made up as the daughter of her employer, if the Negro owns a Cadillac, if they all read the same newspaper, then this assimilation indicates not the disappearance of classes but the extend to which the needs and satisfactions that serve the preservation of the establishment are shared by the underlying population.

Ironically not only do we all enjoy the same newspaper (Netflix in 2022?) but we can also all buy a mass produced William Morris coffee mug and scarf in the gift store. If this is a new level of contraction in Morris’ legacy, the great man was well aware of the contradictions of his own life–the life of a successful businessman, born of a wealthy family, selling very expensive interior decor to rich people while, at the same time, working to undermine the system that gave him the privileges that he enjoyed. Importantly, Morris did not use his awareness of those contradictions as an excuse to do nothing. Instead he worked himself to death, agitating against his own class interest while simultaneously, attempting to revive lost crafts, translating sagas, weaving, designing and building.

The next day we took a long tube and bus ride out to the Red House co-designed by Morris’ friend, the architect Philip Webb. Like the William Morris Gallery, the Red House is a formerly semi-rural house subsumed by 20th century suburbs.

The Red House was more modest and more experimental than I expected. It has only come into the National Trust within the last few decades and was lived in up until relatively recently.

You can see in the house Morris and Webb trying out different ideas–a kind of spare Medievalism, attempts at wall murals as well as Morris’ greatest gift–pattern making.

Webb had much to learn. The roofs are at a bad angle for the rainy climate of England and, as a result, there’s been a lot of leaks over the years. That said, the house is a masterpiece.

You also can’t get more cottagecore than this.

Just outside the Red House is a landscape Morris would, no doubt, be disappointed with. A few blocks down this prosaic road is the Canterbury trail.

Speaking of which, since we’re Episcopalians, we made a side trip to Canterbury Cathedral, the mother church of Anglicans.

During our trip we discovered a hack of sorts which was to visit churches while services were going on. I highly recommend this. There’s a service or evensong going on every single day in most towns. We dropped into evensong services at St. Paul’s, Westminster Abbey, Christ Church Oxford and Canterbury and attended mass at Canterbury Cathedral. We particularly enjoyed mass at All Saint’s Margaret Street.

If you’re budget minded, attending a service lets you skip admittance fees but it also means you get to see the building  the way it was meant to be experienced: in use. Arrive early and you can often get a seat in the wooden stalls right next to some of the best choirs in the world. Evensong services were a great way to just sit down, be quiet, listen to some beautiful music and take it easy after a day of rushing around. Anglicanism is relaxed, everyone is welcome and it’s perfectly fine to either participate in the service or just watch. There’s a website for finding an evensong service as well as a radio show on the BBC.

From Canterbury we went to Oxford and to see the Oxford Union murals that Morris did along with his Pre-Raphaelite collaborators Dante Gabriel Rossetti and Edward Burne-Jones. It’s kind of refreshing to know that even talented artists make mistakes. In this case they painted on fresh plaster and the murals began degrading instantly.

The murals are very dark and hard to make out. What does work is Morris’ pattern work on the ceiling.

While in Oxford we stopped by the Ashmolean museum which currently has a really great show of Pre-Raphaelite drawings.

From Oxford we headed towards Morris’ Kelmscott manor. On the way we stopped at one of Morris’ favorite buildings, the Great Coxwell Barn built in 1292 for the Cistercian Beaulieu Abbey.

Morris considered it one of the finest buildings in England and used to take visitors there.

The next day we went to Morris’ country house, Kelmscott Manor, a 16th century building that Morris occupied and decorated in the last years of his life between 1871 to 1896.

At Kelmscott you get an appreciation of how light and graceful his work is when compared to most fussy Victorian interiors.

The children’s bedroom in the attic were especially memorable.

The house has a nice collection of some of Morris’ design work such as these tiles as well as the extraordinary embroidery of May and Jane Morris.

Nearby is St. George’s church, a 12th century church whose preservation owes a lot to Morris. Morris opposed a common trend in his time of restoration work that involved significant alterations.

Morris and his wife Jane are buried in the graveyard of the church under a modest marker designed by Philip Webb.

We also dropped by the nearby St. John the Baptist church in Inglesham. This church also reflects the influence of Morris’ ideas about building preservation. In 1880 Morris started a campaign to oppose a major remodeling that was proposed for this church. That campaign was a part of his Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings which still exists. SPAB’s philosophy is “to stave off decay by daily care … and otherwise to resist all tampering with either the fabric or ornament of the building as it stands”. St. John the Baptist church has 600 years worth of wall paintings as well as 17th century box pews and 13th century stone carvings.

I’m a big fan of this cat head downspout.

We journeyed back to London to visit Morris’ city house in Hammersmith where his press was located.

There’s a museum in the basement that has a show of his printing work as well as the actual, still working, press. A family lives in the house upstairs. Morris’ physicality, in this case his passion for hand set type and carefully crafted books, stands in opposition to our present day obsession with disembodied, online distractions. If you’d like to experience Morris’ print work there are facsimile editions of his utopian novel News From Nowhere as well as his collection of Chaucer’s work.

When Morris lived in Hammersmith the house was next to a slum district called Little Wapping described by one 19th century writer as “a seething mass of misery”. It was here that Morris became politically active, participating in several socialist organizations, editing a socialist newspaper and giving as many as 200 political speeches every year. I suspect Morris would not be happy with the ugly traffic sewer that’s now in front of the house.

Nor would he appreciate the a pedestrian tunnel under that traffic sewer.

No doubt Morris would have a lot to grapple with in the way London has been financialized and gentrified, haunted by the specter of real estate speculation along with all the other big cites of the West such as New York, San Francisco, Paris and Los Angeles. The poor have been pushed out to make space for giant blinking ads and NFT exhibits.

And everywhere bleak new buildings are popping up with construction barriers decorated with images of what some architectural critics disparagingly call “renderite”.

On the flight over I was reading a history of the Frankfurt School, Grand Hotel Abyss. All during the trip I kept wondering if  Walter Benjamin’s view of history could be considered as like an exploding thrift store: everything from the past as one big mass pushing us reluctantly forward.

On our second to last day in London we went mudlarking on the Thames with a guide next to the Millennium Bridge. Each day the tides wash up a centuries of pottery shards, animal bones, clay pipe stems and vape cartridges. Here was Benjamin’s history supernova now including the renderite and NFT exhibits.

Against this tragic mass of history stands William Morris: his art and his activism. Modernists, such as the Bauhaus folks admired his connection between politics and art but did not like his aesthetic, dismissing it as a medievalist fantasy. But seeing his work in person deepened my appreciation for it. Something about its biomorphic sensuality speaks more to this time than the machine aesthetic of mid-century modernism in my humble opinion. Perhaps some new dialectical movement will soon emerge inspired by Morris, an aesthetic neither modernist nor historical fantasy.

We can also hope that this new movement will take up the cause of working people just as Morris did. Young people today are increasingly aware of the horror of capitalism and not as indoctrinated in cold war propaganda as are people my age. Together we can strive for the world, as Morris put it,

a condition of society in which there should be neither rich nor poor, neither master nor master’s man, neither idle nor overworked, neither brain-sick brain workers, nor heart-sick hand workers, in a word, in which all men would be living in equality of condition, and would manage their affairs unwastefully, and with the full consciousness that harm to one would mean harm to all—the realization at last of the meaning of the word COMMONWEALTH.

We returned to an election here in Los Angeles that appears to have resulted in a socialist candidate beating the incumbent in my own council district. After a long horrible interval, Morris’ struggle is reborn.

For more information on William Morris there’s a William Morris society in the UK and in the US. I belong to the US one and they have a nice series of lectures via Zoom and they both publish journals.

I Spent 11 Months Building an Uncomfortable Couch

My Pomona comrade and shop collaborator Jimmy has a habit of suggesting woodworking projects that, while not fulfilling vital needs around our old houses, somehow just need to get built. Such was the case when he proposed making two reproductions of the obscure Gustav Stickley Divan #165, one for his house and one for ours.

The couch dates from the summer of 1900, when Stickley employed, at great expense, the architect Henry W. Wilkerson to design a line he called “The New Furniture.” Wilkerson is probably best known as the architect of one of New York City’s few Arts and Crafts style apartment buildings. Fun fact: Madonna lived there, and if you’ve got a $5,000,000 housing budget and can afford the $4,000 a month maintenance fee so can you. But I digress.

Wilkerson’s design has some of Stickley’s austere reaction to fussy Victorianism but softened by gothic arches in the back seat slats and a kind of Greene and Greene-esque shape on the bottom rails.

We found measured drawings in Robert Lang’s Shop Drawings for Craftsman Furniture for a later, simplified couch with the same dimensions. We popped the measurements into Sketchup and changed the back slats into Wilkerson’s arched design using auction photographs as a guide. I’m guessing, for some combination of a desire for a more rectilinear design and ease of manufacture, Stickley eliminated the arches in later models of this couch.

I noticed this couch in the background of Greene and Greene’s dreamy James A. Culberton house, the location of America’s worst remodeling disaster.

Since Jimmy can only work on Saturdays our two Divans took many months to complete. The wood had to be milled and shaped and the piece has 58 mortise and tenon joints. We also had to figure out how to do the curved top rail. We used quartersawn white oak, the same wood that Stickley used for most of his furniture. Manny at Custom Designs Upholstery in Pasadena did the cushion.

I’m very pleased with the end result and thankful to have a wood shop. The divan has decadent 1900 vibes, kind of the perfect couch to faint on after too many rounds of absinthe consumed while your significant other plays the Liszt Wagner transcriptions on the nearby piano. That’s the fantasy, at least. More likely I’ll simply fall asleep on it after a lengthy Twitter doomscrolling bender.

I Made a Strange Table We Didn’t Really Need

My friend Jimmy makes furniture in my woodshop. Sometimes he finds stuff that’s so cool that I want one for myself and we make two. Such was the case with this reproduction of an oddball, early Gustav Stickley poppy table.

Mostly known for his rectilinear “Mission” furniture, Stickley would occasionally detour into curvy Art Nouveau territory. He traveled to continental Europe in 1895 and, I’m guessing, also read German language newspapers published in American which covered the latest trends. He had a brief few years of staggering creativity and innovation in the first decade of the 20th century, quickly went bankrupt and faded into obscurity until a revival of interest in his work in the 1970s.

It wasn’t too difficult to make this table if you don’t count the many hours of filing and sanding all those tight radius curves. I wish I could say that you don’t need many tools but that’s not the case. We deployed a jointer, planer, scroll saw and hand planes. We freehand routed the poppy pattern on the two horizontal surfaces. The quarter sawn white oak came from Bohnhoff Lumber.

My workshop is right on the street so people walking their dogs and heading to the hip restaurants on Sunset boulevard see me working. I felt weird working on this particular table because it’s about as far from what’s fashionable now as you can get–kind of like Pearl Jam, but furniture. The brief fling with Craftsman style and Grunge back in the 1990s is long over, replaced by mid-century modern and unstained Silver Lake Shaman furniture. But I don’t care. I vibe with this table’s biomorphic exoticism and decadence. It’s just missing the absinthe fountain dripper.

If you’d like to make one of your own you can purchase plans here. I used these finishing directions, specifically for the “Onondaga” finish.

Rocking with Trash: Fulu Miziki

The performance collective Fulu Miziki, which means “music from trash” hail from what they call a “bad neighborhood” in Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of the Congo. This music video gives you a sampling of what they can do with instruments they fashioned out of industrial waste. A commenter in YouTube puts it well, “Just blew 3k on a guitar. Feel like an idiot these people rock!”

In a Guardian profile drummer Sekelembele says, “We hope our collective can put a spotlight on this pollution problem in Kinshasa and other parts of Africa . . . finding solutions is what Afrofuturism is about . . . if Africa is the dumpster of the entire world, it is already facing difficulties that everywhere else will face very soon.”

Watch a longer video from the 2020 Taksirat Festival

The Agony and the Ecstasy of iPhone6s Repair

What the inside of an iPhone6s looks like.

As I’ve mentioned before on this blog I’ve made a very dull hobby out of repairing old Mac devices including iPods, iPads and an old desktop computer. I now have more functional Apple devices than I have uses for. This week I tackled the repair of my ancient, but still in use, iPhone6s.

My phone needed a new battery, screen (ironically, broken while repairing my iMac), lightning and headphone connector assembly. At just shy of $100 for all the parts, sourced from iFixit, my repair was a dubious financial gamble. But I just can’t stomach throwing out a device that’s the product of horrible labor practices and extractive mining, especially since it still worked.

Breakfast nook Genius Bar.

By far the hardest part of this repair was getting the broken screen off. Apple uses a strong adhesive that doubles as waterproofing. To loosen the adhesive you need to heat up the phone with a hair dryer or heat gun and pry off the screen with a suction cup that iFixit sells. You will also need a lamp with a magnifying lens, especially if you’re old like me.

Once you’ve got the screen open the main challenge is to keep track of the dozen or so different sized, microscopic screws. I used labelled bowls, but some people use an ice cube tray. The iFixit guides will step you through the repair process as well as help you keep track of all those infernal screws. As you do this you will gain appreciation for the workers who spend long days doing nothing but turning a screwdriver–a hell that I can’t imagine.

Another thing I’d suggest is patience. If things go south for some reason, take a break and come back to it later. Definitely check the phone before you reassemble it. In my case, before I applied new adhesive, I powered up the phone to discover that it was locked in a shutdown loop. I thought that I had damaged the logic board somehow, but on doing more research I discovered that faulty third party batteries are common and will cause this problem. I had another battery for Kelly’s phone and plugged this one in and the phone worked perfectly.

Replacing the screen was simple, the battery somewhat more difficult and the lighting and headphone connector assembly the hardest, because it involved removing a whole lot of screws and other parts. I would suggest reading the iFixit instructions thoroughly before you begin to make sure that you have all the tools and parts you need to complete the repair. I’d also suggest reading the comments to see what problems people have had with the repair or with the instructions.

I’ll note that one of the shortcomings of iFixit’s crowd sourced repair guides is that, at the end, they say, “reverse the steps.” Most of time this is okay but sometimes the process of reassembly isn’t the same as disassembly. This is where sorting through the comments helps. iFixit sells an adhesive strip that supposedly restores the phone’s waterproofing. You don’t need this but I bought it just for the experience and it was easy to apply.

My iPhone6s now works as new and serves its purpose. Looking back on all the mad device repairs I’ve done, the most rewarding was the iMac drive upgrade I blogged about previously. In that case I ended up with a fast, new computer.

I’d encourage you not to be afraid of doing iPhone repair. That said, I wouldn’t do this with a device that’s still under warranty or a more recent and expensive iPhone. Basically, I do these repairs on devices that would otherwise end up in the landfill. I’m still using my iPhone 6s as a phone but old iPhones make great mp3 players and small wifi devices. I still use a 2009 era iPhone to play tunes in my woodshop.

We tend to forget about the physicality of the computers we’re surrounded by. They are made by people, often in horrible conditions. The materials are mined at great ecological peril and even in their use they are supported by  server farms that require vast amounts of energy and human toil. To make sure the adhesive seals you stack a bunch of books on the phone. The video tutorial I watched used a copy of Steve Job’s biography. I substituted Marx’s hefty Grundrisse. As I think Marx would say, our iPhones are embedded in a web of social relations and physical conditions. If you want to understand this device, you might start with disassembling it and you’ll need a book of many more pages than Job’s biography to both put it in context and to make the glue stick.