My New Thoughtstyling Throne

As an aging gen-x blogger I decided it was time to build myself a throne from which to harangue, cajole, abjure and speak ex cathedra. Said throne is a replica of Gustav Stickley’s Bow-arm Morris Chair #336 from his 1901 catalog as shown above with a cat for scale.

The differences between the original English Morris chair and the American versions say a lot about our cultural differences. An Essex based carpenter, Ephraim Colman, designed the chair that William Morris would take into production for his company in the 1860s. While the English chair is delicate, Stickley’s American versions are beefy, aggressive and man-spready. The #336 begs for a cigar and whiskey accompaniment along with the assumption that you’ll be using it to oversee your various robber baron hustles. With its adjustable back the robust and elegant #336 is the spiritual ancestor of the BarcaLounger which shows you how far this American Empire has declined.

Making Stickley’s #336 involved an nerve racking steam bending process. The wood went in a makeshift box fed with steam from a wallpaper steamer. After an hour in the steamer the wood was quickly rushed to a form made with plywood. I had to actually sit on the arm to get it to bend. On the first attempt the arm broke and I had to do it all over again. When I was done with the arms I had to steam bend the back slats of the chair. All this took many, I should add pleasant, hours of focused labor blissfully apart from the distractions of the interwebs.

Of all the furniture in a house chairs get the most abuse. Each time you sit down and get up you stress the joints. The arms on the #336 attach to the legs via a sturdy, handsome and labor-intensive through mortise. Details like this explain why Stickley went out of business. His competitors made fake versions of through mortises to save a buck. While my chair was at the upholstery shop someone wanted to buy it but the price offered was way short of the amount of time required to do the steam bending and to fit the four (!) through mortises. The chair sold in 1909 for $31.50 which would be around $900 today.

It’s interesting how much Stickley’s design depends on the attractive ray pattern of quarter sawn white oak. I’ve seen versions of Morris chairs like this made with much cheaper plain sawn red oak and they look horrendous and primitive as if made by Fred Flinstone.

As usual, mistakes were made in building this chair. The principle one was not reading the fine print in the directions in the book of plans I was using that noted that Stickley added two inches to the legs between versions make between 1901 and 1909. I was able to counteract the lack of height by having my upholsterer make a thicker cushion. Since Kelly and I are of the tall tribe I need to pay better attention to customizing fit. If I’m going to go through the trouble of making furniture myself I might as well take the time to make sure it’s a custom job.

Now lets hope this latest DIY project doesn’t lead to the sort of bad ideas that afflict other throne owners:

Our Hot Streets Are an Opportunity

I can’t remember where I got this idea from but I think it was Alissa Walker or someone she was writing about who had the bright idea to go out and check the temperature of our streets on a hot day with a IR thermometer. Since I have one of these handy gadgets for firing up my pizza oven, I thought I’d head out in the neighborhood at around 2:30 in the afternoon and take some temperature readings.

The asphalt in front of our house measured an egg-frying, temperature of 135.3º F (57.3 C).

A rare, tree-lined Los Angeles street one block over was a lot cooler at 80.9º F (27.1º C).

A few blocks north, and to much fanfare, our city coated an asphalt street with a gray coating as part of a “cool pavement” program. The temp on this street was 120.8º F (49.3º C).

Being a crank I have two conclusions:

1. Let’s plant trees.

2. How about instead of painting streets gray we do something really radical and pull them up entirely and start cooling people rather than serving cars?

According to the Los Angeles Times, “Recent research has found that when manufacturing emissions are taken into account, most cool pavements hurt the climate more than they help.”

So, as is typical for our mayor Eric Garcetti it’s all about the press conference and not so much about the actual science. The one glimmer of hope that I have is that people younger than myself are catching on to the empty gestures of neo-liberal, pseudo-environmental politicians like Garcetti and the rest of the Los Angeles City Council. They are beginning to see a more radical alternative to business as usual. As Mark Fisher says in a book everyone should read, Capitalist Realism Is There No Alternative?,

The long, dark night of the end of history has to be grasped as an enormous opportunity. The very oppressive pervasiveness of capitalist realism means that even glimmers of alternative political and economic possibilities can have a disproportionately great effect. The tiniest event can tear a hole in the grey curtain of reaction which has marked the horizons of possibility under capitalist realism. From a situation in which nothing can happen, suddenly anything is possible again.

So how about we tear a hole in these hot streets and plant some trees?

Misadventures in Laser Cutting

Here at Root Simple we have a tendency to only post our successes. This can lead to the impression that we live in a state of transcendent Martha Stewart perfection, obscuring the reality that DIY projects are as arduous as climbing a mountain. There’s an initial enthusiasm followed closely by alternating periods of triumph, self doubt and pain. Hopefully you learn from your mistakes while acknowledging that you’ll never un-see the flaws nobody else will ever notice.

My latest episode of DIY mountain climbing involved a laser cutter. When I found out that the LA Central Library had a laser cutter that you can use for free I jumped on the opportunity. As an experiment I thought I’d try making a woodblock for printing as well as etch a few images on wood.

For the woodblock I downloaded an image from the internet by the Belgian turn-of-the-last-century artist Félix Vallotton. I used a combination of Photoshop and Illustrator to change the downloaded JPEG image into a vector file suitable for laser cutting. The actual laser cutting was fairly simple. I loaded my Illustrator file into the library’s PC based CorelDRAW program and then hit the print button. A screen pops up with a set of options for the laser cutter which includes materials and depth of cut. I used birch plywood and checked the thickness of the material with calipers. I ended up having to run the laser cut twice to get a deeper cut in the plywood so that the cut portions of the wood wouldn’t soak up ink. It was almost as easy as printing a normal document on paper.

A few days later I asked Kelly (since she has the art degree) to assist in printing the woodcut. We made a trip to the art supply store to get a brayer, paper, and some ink. I fashioned a baren, used to press the paper onto the woodcut, out of scrap wood and a doorknob.

We managed to pull two not-so-great prints. The problems fall into two categories: materials and concept. First, I should have sanded the birch plywood before laser cutting. The surface of the wood left too rough an impression in the print and soaked up too much ink. I probably would have better results had I put linoleum in the laser cutter instead of wood. Or, perhaps, I should have sanded and sealed the plywood more thoroughly. I did put a coat of shellac on the wood but that wasn’t enough.

Conceptually, using a computer and laser cutter to make a woodblock can remove what is interesting about a woodblock: specifically the irregular line qualities introduced when a human hand cuts wood with a gouge. This does not mean that using a laser cutter to make a print block isn’t worth doing. But I think you might get more interesting results where you acknowledge, rather than try to disguise, the use of a computer and laser. For instance, artist Patrick Collier uses photographs with a halftone pattern to make large lino prints. In a similar process, Toby Millman deomonstrates in a YouTube video how she turns photographs into colored lino prints. The advantage of using a laser printer to make a printing block is that you can do effects that would be impossible to do with a gouge as well as make large prints that would take weeks to cut by hand. Getting the right balance of concept, materials and tools is, of course, one of the central struggles in making art.

Printing on Wood
After completing my print block I had some extra time in the lab so I thought I’d see what it looks like to simply etch in wood. First I tried an image of our cat Buck, one on birch plywood and the other on a scrap of quarter sawn white oak. With some more tweaking in illustrator I probably could have gotten a better image on the birch but I didn’t have time. The oak image did not work at all because the figure of the wood competes too much with the image. If I had my own laser cutter I could probably spend my weekends sitting in a booth at cat shows making laser printed wood cat portraits but that’s not a future I look forward to.

I also tried cutting a more complex image by the symbolist illustrator Carl Otto Czeschka. The results prove that the laser is capable of very fine line quality. I’m thinking of experimenting with some intricate Islamic patterns on a small wood box. Laser cutters can also cut entirely through thin materials so that opens up more possibilities to do things that would be difficult to do by hand. I’m intrigued, for instance, with the possibilities for making three dimensional folding paper cards. You could also use the laser cutter for screen printing, making stencils, wood inlay or marquetry.

Many thanks to the knowledgeable staff of the Octavia Lab!

Save the Foot! Save Lost Words!

A neighbor has stepped up, so to speak, with a petition to save our neighborhood’s iconic Happy Foot Sad Foot sign.

The Sunset Foot Clinic on Sunset and Benton Way is moving, and the iconic rotating Happy Foot Sad Foot sign is currently slated to come down at the end of August when the clinic moves.

The sign was installed in 1985 and has become a Southern California icon. One of the last signs grandfathered to rotate in Los Angeles, locals claim that it can tell the future – or at least whether the observer is going to have a good (Happy Foot) or bad (Sad Foot) day, depending on which side they see first.

Featured in several novels and multiple songs and videos, as well inspiring the HaFoSaFo nickname of its surrounding area, the Happy Foot Sad Foot sign is a Silver Lake original, and a Los Angeles cultural resource to be preserved.

In the 1990s, the LA Department of Cultural Affairs saved, landmarked and restored many signs across Los Angeles. Landmarking now falls under the jurisdiction of the Cultural Heritage Commission via the Office of Historic Resources within the LA Planning Department.

We ask that:

(1)  Council District 13 and the Cultural Heritage Commission support designating the sign an Historic Cultural Monument to preserve it in place; and

(2)  the owners of the site incorporate the current sign into their plans for a new restaurant on site.

Please sign to help keep the Happy Foot Sad Foot sign prognosticating for all Angelenos – current and future – and may all your days be Happy Foot!

Put your best foot forward and sign the petition here.

Lost Words
Reader fjorlief inhaga left a link to a Brain Pickings blog post on the Oxford children’s dictionary’s ham-fisted decision to replace words such as fern, willow, and starling with modern abominations such as broadband and cut and paste. Brain Pickings notes a response by author Robert MacFarlane’s and children’s book illustrator Jackie Morris that resulted in an elegant “wild dictionary” called The Lost Words: A Spell Book (public library). And, thanks to Brain Pickings, I now know how to link to books via your local public library.

Seat Weaving for Fun and Profit

I finished the last step of that quirky C.F.A. Voysey chair this week: fiber rush weaving. Even if you never build a chair from scratch, mastering seat weaving opens up a whole world of thrift store furniture rescue. I remember seeing a nice ladderback chair in a San Diego thrift store last year in great shape but in need of a new seat. Learn to weave your own seat and you could easily encircle your dining room table with a nice set of inexpensive, second-hand chairs. Seat weaving ain’t rocket science and it’s a whole lot more useful than sending idiots to mars.

Traditionally, this type of woven seat was made with cordage harvested from water plants. Beginning in the early 20th century, in the U.S., most rush seats were made from a rush substitute called fiber rush which is made out of spun paper, the same paper used for grocery bags. This is what I used since it’s cheaper, lasts longer and is easier to work with. Fiber rush comes in a light and dark color. I used the light color. It also comes in thicknesses between 1/8″ and 3/8″. I used the 3/16″ thickness to match the type on the original chair. I ordered it from Frank’s Cane and Rush Supply for $9.75 for a two pound coil, which is just about enough for one chair. I ordered two, 2-pound rolls since I correctly anticipated making some mistakes the first time and I’m planning on making more of these chairs.

I found a helpful seat weaving tutorial on YouTube by Ed Hammond a.k.a. Peerless Rattan. Hammond has sixteen videos on how to weave and cane a variety of chairs. Please note that in addition to ladderback chairs there’s a lot of mid-century Scandinavian chairs that have a slightly different kind of woven seat. Learning to weave Scando chairs will lead you to the “profit” promise in this blog headline as you help supply all the Silver Lake Shamans with refurbished mid-century thrones from which to enjoy a $15 juice while Instagraming their house plants.

Most chairs narrow at the back and you have to account for that when weaving the seat. Hammond shows this first step at the beginning of the video. My chair is square which allowed me to skip this first step. It’s also woven on a frame that fits into the seat. This is convenient in that I was able to weave the seat from the comfort of the vise of my work bench. But I don’t think a ladderback chair would be much more difficult–you just have to straddle it as you weave and remember to peek at the back periodically to make sure you’re not making any mistakes.

Sloppy first attempt on left and improved second try on right.

I’ll send you to Hammond’s oddly soothing video for the details of how to weave the chair. It’s easier to show than to describe in words but I’ll add a few lessons learned. Most importantly, take your time and make sure that each strand is tight and straight as you weave the chair. It’s not a race. Stop frequently to tap the cords straight with a hammer and wooden wedge. If you make a mistake, go back and fix it before proceeding. You can clamp off the cord with a spring clamp in order to take a break or straighten out the lines.

There’s apparently some disagreement over the need to pre-moisten the fiber rush in the chair weaving community but I found wetting the cord with a spray bottle made it easier to bend over the frame. Towards the end of the weaving process you fill the voids under the fiber rush with pieces of corrugated cardboard, being careful to put the writing side down.

When complete, I gave the fiber two coats of shellac in case someone spills a beverage. I’m also hoping that I didn’t spend many hours making an elaborate cat scratcher but so far there’s been no feline interest.

Let me also note that this skill is basketry adjacent. Learn seat weaving or basketry and you’ve got a witty, skill boasting riposte to those who suggest you “learn to code.”