McDonald’s Corporation Headquarters Used to Have a Suede Waterbed Think Tank

Evan Collins, co-founder of the Consumer Aesthetics Research Institute, stumbled on a forgotten and bizarre bit of corporate American woo-woo in an old issue of Domus Magazine. Apparently, back in the 1970s, McDonald’s headquarters in Chicago had a literal “think tank” lined with suede walls, a 700 gallon waterbed, mood music and an early biofeedback machine called a Toomin Alpha Pacer.

A 1972 article in the New York Times fills in the details,

On the seventh floor is the mail room, where rock music blasts from a radio, the cafeteria, where free coffee and nickel Cokes are available to all, employees, and “the tank” where’ with a reservation any McDonald’s clerk, secretary or executive, can escape to relax, write, or recharge their energies.

Entered through a hatch and hallway maze, the tank has total silence, indirect lighting, temperature controls, soft beanbag chairs, and an area for pacing.

Up a few steps and through another hatch, those who remove their shoes may enter upon a 700‐gallon water bed where every movement is instantly felt by all others present. Behind one panel are the stereo radio and tape player controls.

“According to the theory,” says Mr. Watterson, “the tank is so totally different—there are no vertical or solid horizontal reference points, for instance—you, will be unconsciously encouraged to think differently. It’s instinctive to resist change, but the tank almost forces you into a change configuration.”

In this same article we learn that Silicon Valley’s silly office culture isn’t new,

Instead of a desk, each employee has a “task response module, a combination phone booth, room divider, desk, table, set of drawers, closet and bulletin board that contains its own electrical and phone wiring and can be moved before you can say “double cheeseburger.”

Seated at a five‐foot tall module, an employee is protected from distraction by pervasive soundproofing, the arrangement of other modules and 400 deftly arranged, leased plants.

But when he stands, the worker is instantly part of the entire floor and within easy view’ of many of the 3,050 bright, cheery windows and dozens of colleagues.

And casual office wear also isn’t new,

Both male and female employees have taken to brighter, more mod apparel since the move here. Many more men, including Mr. Kroc, now work coatless. And the costly turnover of secretarial help, which had been 110 per cent a year in the downtown office, has been 30 per cent in the new surroundings, where the colors tan and burnt‐orange predominate.

I guess we can conclude that toxic work places can be cured with some tan and burnt‐orange suede walls and a 700 gallon water bed? Corporations these days have ditched the water bed pods for “mindfulness” classes but I doubt the workers are any happier.

I’ll leave it to some of the commenters on Collins’ Twitter post on the McDonald’s think tank to sum up what we’re all thinking about this think tank,

Make Your Own Furniture

From More Furniture in 24 Hours.

You don’t need a lot of tools or experience to make furniture. Over the years we’ve posted about simple DIY furniture resources, mostly, but not all, from the 1970s, and I thought I’d collect those posts into one mega post.

It turns out I’m not the only nerd obsessed with dated DIY furniture manuals. In compiling this list I came across a bibliography by designer Sam Winks that included many of the books I own or have digital copies of and many more that I’ve never seen before. You can read his post and bibliography here. In addition to furniture manuals, Winks has a bunch of DIY home building books that I haven’t included in this list. He refers to his collection of books as “The Self Determination Library.”

The plan is to keep adding to this post. If you know of books and resources for cheap, easy to make, well designed furniture leave a comment. For every resource that I’ve mentioned there’s probably a dozen more. When possible I’ve linked to free pdfs or books you can borrow at the Internet Archive.

Gerritt Rietveld
I built a set of Gerritt Rietveld crate chairs for our patio recently and I really like them. They were easy to build and surprisingly comfortable. There’s a handy, bilingual Dutch/English book of plans How to Construct Rietveld Furniture/Rietveld Meubels om zelf te maken that includes Rietveld’s crate furniture as well as many of his other designs. Most projects in this book require a table saw, but many of the designs could be built with a circular saw and/or chop saw and screws.

Enzo Mari
Root Simple reader Mosscarpet tipped us off to the extraordinary a DIY furniture manual Autoprogettazione (roughly translatable as “self design”) by Italian designer Enzo Mari. Here’s a free download of Mari’s 1974 manual Autoprogettazione.

Instant Furniture
Peter Stamberg’s 1976 book Instant furniture : low-cost, well-designed, easy-to-assemble tables, chairs, couches, beds, desks, and storage systems, provides clear plans for some of Enzo Mari’s pieces as well as Stamberg’s own designs that show a heavy Mari influence.

EOOS Open Design Manual
Originally conceived for a refugee aid project the design collective EOOS has a free Social Furniture Open Design Manual featuring some simple and handsome tables, shelves, kitchen cabinets and even a raised garden bed. The designs remind me of Joep van Lieshout’s work.

Will Holman
We had Will Holman on episode 55 of our podcast. He collected his stylish and resourceful wisdom into a DIY manual called Guerilla furniture design : how to build lean, modern furniture with salvaged materials.

Nomadic Furniture
The 1970s was a golden era for DIY furniture manuals. Two of my favorites are Nomadic Furniture, and Nomadic Furniture 2 by designers Victor Papanek and James Hennessy. Nomadic Furniture . The MAK Museum in Vienna did an exhibition of Papanek and Hennessy’s work and put out a catalog called Nomadic furniture 3.0. You can watch a 2013 lecture James Hennessy did about his work on the YouTubes.

Put That Pipe Down and Make a Chair
Bean bags, houseplants and macrame are back thanks to the Silver Lake Shaman. Sunset Magazine’s Easy-to-Make Furniture will not only help you make furniture on the cheap it might just open your third eye in the process.

Spiros Zakas and Parsons Design Students
Spiros Zakas and his students put out two classic 70s DIY Furniture manuals, Furniture in 24 Hours and More Furniture in 24 Hours. You’ve got 24 hours. Get busy.

Ken Isaacs
Ken Issac’s work inhabits the liminal space between architecture and furniture. Here’s a download of Isaac’s classic and hard to find manual How to Build Your Own Living Structures.

Hauntological Furniture
If vaporwave is your thing this is your furniture manual: Designing Furniture : From Concept to shop Drawing. Most woodworking instruction has an unintentional, high 1980s postmodernist vibe. As a perpetual contrarian I’m waiting for the big postmodern design revival. Embrace the glitch!

Now for some more advanced manuals that will require a proper woodshop:

Arts and Crafts
The ugly truth is that, while I admire 70s furniture manuals from afar, I much prefer Arts and Crafts era furniture which, unfortunately, requires a more substantial investment in tools and training. But there’s one thing this style of furniture has in common with the 70s stuff above. Gustav Stickley encouraged his readers in his magazine The Craftsman to roll their own furniture. If you’re in this camp, you’ll need to get a copy of the Great Book of Shop Drawings for Craftsman Furniture. I’m also a fan of Nancy Hiller’s book English Arts & Crafts Furniture: Projects & Technique and used it to make a Voysey chair. I’d also suggest taking some classes and a subscription to Fine Woodworking. Put all these things together and you’ll be down a rabbit hole deeper than those weird Q Anon folks.

From the Lost Art Press book, The Anarchist Design Book.

My Trad Life
If hand tools are your thing or if, like me, you use a blend of hand tools and power tools, Lost Art Press has some beautiful and useful books one of which I used to make a desk for Kelly. I’d also recommend By Hand and Eye and Mortise and Tenon Magazine if trad design floats your boat. Measured shop drawings for American furniture has a lot of nice early American designs some of which would be fairly straightforward builds.

Art and Grains

Posting has been light at Root Simple in the past few weeks because of a devilish case of acedia or, perhaps more specifically, what Mark Fisher called “depressive hedonia.” Fisher says,

Depression is usually characterized as a state of anhedonia, but the condition I’m referring to is constituted not by an inability to get pleasure so much as it is by an inability to do anything else except pursue pleasure. There is a sense that ‘something is missing’ – but no appreciation that this mysterious, missing enjoyment can only be accessed beyond the pleasure principle.

In my case depressive hedonia manifests by way too much scrolling of social media feeds in search of novelty and outrage.

Which is why I want to shift the focus to people who’ve managed, in this pandemic, to focus on practical and creative tasks. First off is Roxana Jullapat, who owns the must go to East Hollywood bakery and cafe Friends and Family. Roxana has a new cookbook out called Mother Grains: Recipes for the Grain Revolution. Just in time for Easter she has posted a recipe from the book for hot cross buns with marzipan crosses.  Roxana was a big supporter of the Los Angeles Bread Bakers, a meetup group that I co-founded. It’s been a rough year for restaurants, so consider picking up a copy of her book or, if you’re a local, getting some takeout.


Meanwhile, friend of the blog Federico Tobon is launching a new zine, has completed 100 days of small drawings, and is making amazing little animated sculptures that you can see in his Instagram and TikTok.

He’s got an interesting technique for creating a 3d illusion in 2d images that he explains here. Sign up for Federico’s newsletter for some joy in your inbox.

One last thing about Federico. This tweet of his ends up in my Twitter notifications periodically:

Obviously, I need to follow this advice!

Asphaltum as a Wood Stain

The end result.

Brown stained furniture is way out of fashion right now, cast aside by the blond wood and brass aesthetic tyranny of the Silver Lake Shaman. As a hopeless contrarian, I’ve spent the past few years attempting to replicate the shades of brown favored by American Arts and Crafts furniture designers of the early 20th century. But last week, I did a brown stain experiment that just might get the attention of the Silver Lake Shamans.

One of the oft mentioned ingredients in these old-timer brown stains is asphaltum. Asphaltum, also known as bitumen, is a semi-solid semi-liquid form of petroleum. Confusingly, it’s also called “tar,” but tar is actually a byproduct of coal and petroleum distillation that can also be obtained from wood and peat. To stain wood I needed asphaltum not tar.

You can buy asphaltum in one of two ways, as an art supply or in five gallon buckets of roofing cement. But get ready for confusion. A tube of “asphaltum” oil paint I picked up did not actually contain any asphaltum and was expensive. It was just “asphaltum” colored. Art supplies that actually contain asphaltum were not to be found at my local art supply store. You can get asphaltum in the form of non-fibered roofing cement but, for some mysterious reason, I can only find fibered roofing cement Los Angeles and those fibers mean that it won’t work as a wood stain.

But a light bulb went off last week when I realized that asphaltum can be wild harvested at one of Los Angeles’ oddest tourist attractions, the La Brea Tar Pits. If you haven’t been there, this park consists of a paleontology museum dedicated to ancient creatures that got stuck in the tar as well as a fenced off and stinky pond with a tarry waterline and occasional methane bubbles. The large expanse of grass surrounding the pit was sparsely populated on the weekday we visited. In the distance I could see the ongoing demolition of the LA County Museum of Art. As I said goodbye to the high 60s modernist art museum cafeteria my mom used to take me to, I scanned the park for asphaltum plumes.

Thankfully, park employees facilitate hipster artisinal asphaltum collection thanks to cones marked “tar pits” to keep people from spreading their picnic blankets over the foul smelling, sticky stuff.

I discovered one particularly prodigious asphaltum seep and gathered a small amount for my stain experiment. When I got back to the workshop I mixed the asphaltum with some paint thinner and rubbed it on a piece of white oak. It worked beautifully. White oak has a very open grain and the tar both accentuated that grain and gave an overall brown hue to the wood. I wore a respirator to apply the finish but once dried I couldn’t detect any fumes. If I was using asphaltum on a piece of furniture I would top coat the wood with a wipe on varnish or shellac.

The Tar Pits in 1910.

But will I actually ever use asphaltum? The gel stain I use as part of a multi-step process to simulate Stickley type finishes is pretty similar to asphaltum, safer (maybe?) and gives reliable and repeatable results. But perhaps it’s worth using wild harvested asphaltum just for the bragging rights. Watch out for the drop of my new La Brea Tar Pit furniture collection!

A tarry digression

I put on a jacket for this expedition that I hadn’t worn since the beginning of the pandemic. I fished around in the pocket only to find a wrist band for the museum and remembered that we had gone to the Tar Pits in January of 2019 with some friends and their teenage son. This triggered a hauntological memory. On March 24, 1985  a friend needed to get some socks so we set off for the Ross Dress for Less on 3rd street near the La Brea Tar Pits. I have no idea why I was along for the ride. Just minutes before we got there the store exploded due to the methane deposits in the ground in this part of LA. By the time we got to 3rd street it was blocked off but, in the distance, you could see flames shooting out of the sidewalk. It was just the sort of apocalyptic scene that’s fodder for countless LA disaster movies. While there were no deaths, several people suffered serious burns. The real blame for this incident was due to the area’s legacy as an oil field but this was swept under the rug.

On our way back from the park, I was shocked by the state of the city during these quarantine times. Kelly and I haven’t left the house much in a year. Wilshire Blvd. seemed abandoned, with lots of closed businesses and hardly any people. It was unseasonably warm and it hasn’t rained much in a month. The pandemic and George Floyd protests of the past year could have been an opportunity for the city to make dramatic changes, to seize hotels to house the homeless, to deal with the hot mess that is the LAPD, to make it easier and safer for our elders and children to get around. Sadly, it seems we’re still stuck in the tar like those doomed prehistoric animals.

Relics From the Age of Repair

Kelly went through some of my mom’s sewing notions this week and discovered a few relics from a pre-fast fashion era when people used to repair, rather than throw out, their clothes.

For instance, when you bought a box of White King Granulated Soap you got a set of sewing needles.

My mom saved a lot of these needles. On a side note can we please bring back this period’s handsome graphic design?

She also saved these hosiery mending kits that look like match boxes.

Inside was a needle and threads plus some match-like sticks that you moistened and applied to stop a run.

My mom was tall and had to shop for clothes and shoes in specialty shops.

When you bought something at the now defunct Over Five-Seven Shop you got this gimmicky miniature clothes line.