Relax and Enjoy the Soft Caress of the Fun Fur

I realized that I never got around to posting photos of our completed living room so step on in!

Alas, the shag lined Root Simple headquarters exists only conceptually. While I’m just old enough to remember the era from whence these photos from the book Creating modern furniture : trends, techniques, appreciation (1975) originate, they seem like artifacts from some alien planet, perhaps the one depicted in Barbarella. Water damage from the Los Angeles Central Library fires of the 1980s only adds to the otherness of these images.

At the risk of sparking inter-generational snark warfare, let’s take a look at some more:

This blog post would have been so much better had it been written whist enthroned on this bucket seat/bookshelf combo.

After writing said blog post I could rest my laurels on this foam lounging thing. But how to exit the foam loungy thingy in a dignified manor?

Maybe I’d be better off pondering my poor dental hygiene.

This looks like a bar stool from one of those lesser, final season, 1960s Star Trek episodes.

For the young folks, driftwood furniture was the 1970s equivalent of today’s ubiquitous live edge river table. Driftwood was mandatory prior to 1980. At the very least you had a driftwood coffee table. Only the upper crust had a driftwood throne like this one.

Who knew you could make a kid burrito with 70s fiber art? I do like the idea of sleepable art.

This kid, however, looks terrified and/or trapped in her 70s sculptural play environment.

Someone please suggest the right prog rock concept album to listen to in this chair.

You’ll need to relax after the terrifying dinner party.

Lastly, yes this is Frank Gehry.

I’ve Been Working on This Chair When I Should Be Doing Other Things

Having a degree in music and being a fan of Wagner’s operas means that I get to drop the word Gesamtkunstwerk in casual conversation around the house. Most often translated as “total work of art” it has, when applied to architecture, come to mean a control freak fantasy of designing everything in the house down to the paperclips.

The English architect C.F.A. Voysey (1857-1941) caught the Gesamtkunstwerk fever early in his life and drew up all furnishings down to the desk accessories in the houses he designed for clients. When I spotted some of the quirky chairs he produced in the years before WWI, I knew I wanted to set about replacing the random dining room chairs in our living room with a sextet of Voysey’s “One-Heart” chairs. I liked the strange devil-like horns, the fuddy-duddy heart, and the odd hexagonal, tapered legs. Voysey used the heart motif almost to excess in his work, so much so that his client H.G. Wells made him invert the symbol to make a spade.

I’m almost finished with the prototype that I based on a photo and from a measured drawing of one of Voysey’s “Two-Heart” chairs, by woodworker Nancy Hiller. The last step will be to weave a rush seat insert. Thankfully Los Angeles hosts not one, but two caning and rush seat supply shops–Franks Cane and Rush Supply and Cane and Basket.

Voysey’s original chair has an eye-catching dovetailed back splat. While aesthetically pleasing the design is a woodworking no-no as it involves grain tied together in two different directions with no allowance for wood movement. On most of the originals, unsurprisingly, the back has split. I omitted the dovetails in my Voysey chair remix opting for an unglued mortise instead. This small detail illustrates why designers and craftspeople need to be in dialog with each other.

Voysey said, “To produce healthy art one must have healthy surroundings; the first effort an artist should make is to sweep ugliness from him.” In our degraded and utilitarian times I’ve come to the insight that the pursuit of beauty is a good thing in itself and a moral obligation. Have a look around our cities and the places we live and work and you’ll see a whole lot of ugly. How depressing that art and music are some of the first things on the austerity chopping block. In our homes and communities we need to start sweeping away the ugliness and get to beautifying. We need to stop telling our children and young people that art is a waste of time. We need to plant gardens, make music and build happy, healthy and beautiful places to live and work.

Sad foot sign, the end is comin’

News arrived this week that the rotating podiatrist sign that gives our Los Angeles neighborhood its identity will move and no longer rotate. Several years ago Kelly and I decided to help promote the idea of calling our disputed border region, located between the neighborhoods of Silver Lake and Echo Park, “Happy Foot Sad Foot” or “HaFoSaFo” for short.

Kelly detailed, in a 2010 blog post, the many cultural references to the sign including a novel by Jonathan Lethem.  A reader pointed to a song by the Eels. Later we found out that David Foster Wallace used the sign in his posthumously published novel, The Pale King. Allow me to digress for a moment to note that the longest half hour of my life was the time I was part of a film crew interviewing Wallace. He had an epic, paranoid freakout as soon as we started taping and it took most of that half hour to calm him down and assure him that his thoughts would not be taken our of context. He kept staring into the lens and repeatedly asking, “Who is going to edit this?” Once calmed, he went on to have a reasonable discussion about David Lynch. But back to the Foot. In The Pale King, while he references the sign, though moves its location to Chicago.

Many of the bards that frequent our hiptsery ‘hood have sung tributes to the Foot. There’s a song by Yacht animated by Mike Hollingsworth:

And the aforementioned Eels:

Sad foot sign, why you gotta
Taunt me this way
The happy side is broken now
It’s gonna be an awful day

And if I have to drive back by
To see from a different side
Would it be enough to say
The first time was a lie?

Sad foot sign, the end is comin’
That’s what they say
Maybe you could, see it in
Your heart for one day

To let me feel what it’s about
To really be alive
To live and breathe
And see and feel, then I can die

And when I come back to this room
I’ll put on a uniform
And go into, the foot sign shop
Where you were born

In the comments to Kelly’s original foot post, readers contributed neighborhood defining commercial signage from other parts of the U.S. including the Frederick, Maryland’s Freeze King:

The demented sign of the Lebanon Missouri Chiropractic Center:

An odd dual Hotel/Motel sign that used to be in Waco, Texas:

And I’ll add the Doggie Diner sign in San Francisco that was an obsession of Zippy the Pinhead cartoonist Bill Griffith:

When the Doggie Diner went out of business one of the iconic fiberglass doggie heads was moved to a median strip at Sloat Boulevard and 45th Avenue and deemed San Francisco landmark No. 254.

If only we could find a median strip for the rotating foot. Instead we might have to revive our efforts to call this place the Free Republic of Edendale. Some years ago I even came up with currency featuring the common neighborhood vista of a street mattress:

In all seriousness, our corrupt city government does a very poor job of placemaking. The best they can do is name intersections after people with pathetic little signs posted high up on a signal. You know you’re in trouble when a podiatrist sign is a better placemaking option. Paris LA ain’t. I think we’re going to have to take things into our own hands and build our own Happy Foot Sad Foot Arc de Triomphe. One we do that the People’s Parliament of the Free Republic of Edendale can get around to those much needed protected bike lanes . . .

Does your neighborhood have a distinctive and quirky sign? Leave a comment!

Flipped Out: The End of the American Bungalow

The interior of a recently flipped 1918 bungalow in our neighborhood.

A recent story in the New York Times, “Want a House Like This? Prepare for a Bidding War With Investors” confirmed what I’ve long suspected is going on in our neighborhood. Large financial firms have turned our local housing market into a casino and in so doing have exacerbated the apocalyptic housing affordability and homelessness crisis here in Los Angeles. If you’re lucky enough to be able to buy a house here you have to compete in insane bidding wars. If you can’t afford a house you have to pay an extraordinary percentage of your income in rent if you can find a unit not being used as an Airbnb.

What the investors do in our neighborhood is take modest 1920s bungalows, gut them, and barf up the contents of a Pottery Barn to cater to what the Stalinist HGTV has deemed that all our interiors must look like. Out go the moldings and built in cabinets and in come open floor plans and marble kitchen islands. If these old houses were being torn down to build nice, affordable multi-unit housing designed by talented contemporary architects I’d be cheering but that would mean that we lived in Austria and, here in the U.S., we aren’t allowed to have nice things.

While nothing special, the bungalows in our neighborhood faced many indignities over the years. In the dark ages of the 1960s and 70s many experienced what we call the “landing of the stucco bird.” Exterior beams, and the molding around windows were ripped off and the houses dunked in stucco in the false promise of lower maintenance. Cranky generation Xers like me and Kelly can remember a brief period in the 1990s when bungalows were hip again and carefully restored but that era is over as we suffer the seemingly unending tyranny of everything “mid-century” and a new dark age of ceiling can lighting and white paint over white paint over white paint.

My inner Slavoj Zizek wants to plumb the hidden ideology of these former 20s bungalows turned into open floor plan, brightly lit granite countertop palaces. With all the walls blown out, the inhabitants of the flipped houses of our neighborhood live in a state that reminds me of Natasha Dow Schüll description of casino architecture in her book Addition by Design. Schüll says,

Gilles Deleuze proposed in the 1990s that discipline, formerly the dominant mode of power in Western Societies, had been modified and to some degree overtaken by a logic of “control” that worked not by confinement or restriction of movement, but by the regulation of continuous, mobile flows–of capital, information, bodies and affects. Unlike the punitive subjection of discipline, control does not require a subject as such; nor does it seek to produce or manage one. As we have seen, casino design follows what one leading firm calls the “immersion paradigm,” holding players in a desubjectified state of uninterrupted motion so as to galvanize, channel, and profit from what the academic consultants quoted earlier called the “experiential affect.”

With no walls or doors with which to escape the gaze of our fellow housemates and bright lights and white walls everywhere, these flipped and remudled bungalows keep us in what one casino designer called “ergonomic labyrinths” in a state of “happy imprisonment.”

But as Marshall McLuhan used to say, “If you don’t like that idea I’ve got others.” Perhaps my inner and cranky Prince Charles just likes fuddy-duddy old houses. So please people, for the love of God, if you want a mid-century house please buy one. There’s plenty to go around. No need to rip out the molding and the built in cabinets in the old bungalow. Since the Man got rid of shop classes future generations won’t be able to replace those nice old details.

San Diego’s Egyptian Court Apartments.

As an addendum let me also note that the teens and 1920s gave us a great example of multi-unit housing called the bungalow court. Kelly and I lived in a spectacular one, the Egyptian Court Apartments, while we were in grad school in San Diego. Every morning you woke up, looked out the window and found yourself in a cheesy 1920s King Tut movie. How cool is that? Now the investors who have turned our housing into an investment deem that all apartments must resemble stacked shipping containers in a style that has come to be known as “SketchUp Moderne,” a Hardie Boarded byproduct of our Capitalist Realist hellscape.

Notre Dame on Good Friday

When the roof of Notre Dame Cathedral went up in flames this week I thought immediately of the book I’ve been reading in the evenings for the past few weeks, J.W. Mackail’s Life of William Morris. Morris was obsessed with Medieval architecture and visited Notre Dame and many other French churches on a trip in 1855. Later in his life Morris founded the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings (which still exists) as a response to the poorly considered renovations of Medieval buildings that grew out, ironically, of a Gothic revival movement during the Victorian era.

Morris’ believed that historical buildings should be kept in good repair and stabilized. As the University of Maryland describes his philosophy,

While the Gothic Revival drew renewed interest to the medieval aesthetic, some architects sought to restore old buildings to an ideal state by removing original detail and adding new construction- trends Ruskin and Morris both found troubling. Morris championed an alternative building preservation model based on retaining all surviving building fabric, no matter how flawed by the passage of time, while employing minimal, non-intrusive reinforcement of the existing infrastructure to prevent future damage. He coined the name, “Anti-Scrape Society” for the SPAB, a humorous shorthand that embodied his philosophy of honoring the artisans who constructed old buildings by preserving their work without alteration.

He would not have liked the 19th century spire that collapsed in the fire this week nor many of the other alterations that took place to Notre Dame in that period. I’m sure he’d also be worried about Macron and his fashion billionaire friends who have some alarming restoration notions. Hopefully cooler heads will prevail. Thankfully, Morris’ forward thinking ideas have become mainstream in the restoration world.

Ship of Theseus

The tragedy of this fire is also a reminder, as Nassim Taleb pointed out, that all building restoration efforts bring up an old philosophical paradox known as the Ship of Theseus. This thought experiment asks the question “If, during a journey, I replace all the planks of a ship do I arrive at my destination on the same ship or a different ship?” Anyone who has worked on an old building faces this weird ontological conundrum all the time. And the law can make this abstract thought experiment a confusing reality. Keep one wall of a building and a municipality will deem what is in reality an entirely new house a cheaper to permit remodeling. This can get absurd as in the flipper palace under construction in my neighborhood, seen in the photo above. It would have made for a much more interesting building had they kept that old wall rather than removing it as soon as the inspectors left.

Part of Morris’ philosophy is keeping earlier modifications intact so as to show the passage of time. Paradoxically that would mean leaving the surviving 19th century modifications to Notre Dame that he, no doubt, hated. Notre Dame has been altered and wrecked so many times that Ship of Theseus questions about how to fix the current damage will provide years of difficult architectural conundrums.