Flushed with Criticism: Four Stalls of Bathroom Tech

Toilet seat with handle

Handle It
Does this handle thingy do anything in terms of cleanliness? I’m gonna take a bold guess and say no. Seems like the dreaded “fecal plume” triggered by flushing would grace both the underside of the lid and this handle. But does it spark joy? You decide.

The Slammer
Thou shalt not have “soft-close” (a.k.a. “slow-close” or “no-slam”) and regular toilet seats in the same household. Why? You will forget and slam the trad seats in the rest of the house. In general I’m not in favor of the slow-close seat as why would I want to introduce a point of failure in a simple device that might otherwise last decades all for just a minor, lazy convenience?

Ghosts in the Machine
Motion activated faucets, towel dispensers and hand dryers in public restrooms don’t work half the time in my experience. When, despite waving my hands back and forth, I fail to activate these things I feel like the main character in the 1962 cult film Carnival of Souls who wanders Salt Lake City before we all realize she’s a ghost. But maybe ghosts would more easily trigger these damn things?

Fecal Plume: Electric Boogaloo
Hot air hand dryers are bullshit. There, I said it.

Sensuous Space: How to Create Romantic, Seductive and Sensuous Settings

If Herbert Marcuse did a lot of cocaine and ditched critical theory for interior design he might have penned this very much of its time coffee table book: Sensuous Space: How to Create Romantic, Seductive and Sensuous Settings by Sivon Reznikoff. Reznikoff owned the Louisiana Interior Design Institute in Baton Rouge, and was a professor of Environmental/Interior Design at Arizona State University. She adopted a gender ambiguous name in order to work in the male dominated field of architecture and interior design.

I reference Marcuse because this tome has much more theory in it than you’d expect. Before you get to the photo spreads of shag rug lined love dens and teal penthouses you’ll encounter thirty pages of thoughtstylings and graphs. Reznikoff posits three types of Eros driven spaces: romantic, seductive and sensuous that then break out into specific color, form texture, musical and even scent suggestions over the many pages of charts, spreadsheets and graphs. We’re 30 pages in by the time we see our first hot tub.

The power nexus of the erotic panopticons in this book are, naturally, your disco control centers because your house must have its own private discotheque. I don’t know how you keep the blow from gumming up the electronics.

Of course, such idiosyncratic spaces are the domain of the ultra-wealthy who can afford serial remodeling. Reznikoff notes that many of these spaces are second homes. A particular class of nouveau riche spring for this kind of sensual ostentation. The really wealthy elite go for austere modernist boxes to make a show that they put their money back into capital accumulation rather than spending it on gold swan faucets and pebble lined hot tubs.

The interior sensuousness of this book ended in the AIDS/Reagan era 80s  and now you’re more likely to see the nouveau riche class burn their cash by building an underground town simulacrum in their McMansions.

The last time we saw this kind of decadent sexuality in architecture was the Art Nouveau period of the 1890s and early 20th century which ended in the horrors of WWI. Its reappearance comes intertwined with the liberatory politics of the 60s and 70s but those same left movements can prove prudish. Perhaps the flipper white cubes will get all funky and sinuous in our Acid Communist future and maybe we’ll have a more expanded and nuanced view of what “eros” means than the reductionist wife swapping parties of the Sensuous Spaces era. My shag conversation pit lacks a crystal ball.

Thanks to Cocaine Decor for tipping me off to this book.

Fence Appeal

When it came time to replace an old, poorly built fence I headed to the Fine Homebuilding website and found a design by Michael Crow (“A Privacy Fence with Appeal“) that, I think, matches our 1920 bungalow.

A few things about the design appealed to me. The slats are alternating sizes which gives some visual interest, the trellising uses the off-cuts from the slats and the central pressure treated 4×4 posts are covered in cedar making them bigger and more attractive. The trellising at the top creates a kind of filtered view of neighboring vegetation while the lower panels obscure stuff you don’t want to see.

Alas, nothing is simple at our funky property and I had to interrupt the fence twice to accommodate two trees that straddle the fence line. I also had to deal with a slight slope and a month in which it just kept raining and raining and raining (which is why the nasturtium leaves are so big).

Rather than go to the Big Orange Store I got my supplies at the fancier Ganahl lumber which actually had better prices and selection. Plus you can drive your car right up to the lumber pile and skip the frantic crowds over at Big Orange.

Over the pandemic I upgraded my table saw to a SawStop cabinet model which, while expensive, has paid for itself in all the projects I’ve completed including this fence and a lot of furniture. It also gets used by friends and neighbors.

On one of the many rainy day breaks during the fence build, I glanced at my bookshelf to discover that I have two books by Michael Crow, Mackintosh Furniture: Techniques & Shop Drawings and Building Classic Arts & Crafts Furniture. I actually built a Limbert settle out of the latter book. One of these days I hope to build a room of very strange Mackintosh furniture. In the meantime I like looking out the back door at the new fence which I completed just as the house next door went up for sale.

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 Wagner 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.