Bottom-up Urbanism

In another great video from Fair Companies, Johnny Sanphillippo gives a tour of his Sonoma County rental property. Johnny describes himself as a “rodent who scurries about finding the opportunities other don’t recognize.” A lot of the things he talks about in the video are things we’ve done in our own very small Los Angeles house, such as adding sheds and making the garage space usable, all strategies for getting by on the expensive West Coast. The video even includes a bonus visit to a Murphy bed manufacturer.

You can follow Johnny on his blog Granola Shotgun and hear him talk more about his rental property on episode 120 of our podcast.

A Better Garage Organizational System

I gave übermaker Federico Tobon a tour of the garage when he visited the Root Simple compound back in 2017. He took one look at the pegboard and asked, politely, if I liked it. I could tell by his tone of voice that he was skeptical of this ubiquitous garage storage strategy.

Technically known as perforated hardboard (Peg-Board is an expired trademark), the idea dates to the early 20th century. You can still pick some up at almost every lumber yard or big box store here in the U.S. But here’s the thing. It sucks. Even with the little plastic doodads that are supposed to keep the metal hooks from falling out, in my experience, half the time you you go to retrieve a tool off the wall the damn metal pegs fall out.

This past week, inspired by an article in Fine Woodworking by Jason Stephens, I decided to put all my furniture building plans on hold and replace the pegboard with a more usable and robust home-brewed hanging system using 1/2 inch plywood and custom made tool holders.

The first step was a Marie Kondoing of the workshop. I decided to only keep tools that I know I will use. Since I’m focusing on woodworking this was fairly simple. A flurry of furniture projects in the past year taught me which tools are useful and which ones are not. But don’t worry, I also decided to keep the tools that I use for non-wood related household emergencies (toilet augers and stuff like that).

Stephens’ tool storage method begins by attaching 1/2 plywood to your workshop wall. Then you make a custom hanger for each tool or set of tools. This is easier than it sounds and took only a few minutes per tool. Having a table saw and air nailer makes this go faster but you could easily make hangers with hand tools. It would just take longer. For many of the tools I just put a nail or screw in the plywood to hang them. You could also make a small version of this system for an apartment and attach the plywood to the wall with a French cleat.

While what I put together was a storage wall for a wood shop, you could easily adapt this idea to any other craft. I could see a sewing or crafting room organized the same way. It does help to know which tools you need and to place the most frequently used ones close at hand. In my case that meant the measuring tools and hand planes were placed close to the workbench and the table saw accessories are on shelves next to, you guessed it, the table saw.

Rolling with Stephens’ suggestion, I used French cleat hangers so that I could remove tool sets, such as my drill bits and chisels, from the wall. As you can see I made a base so that you can put the whole set on a table.

There were a few other changes to the workshop I made in order to make it more useful for furniture making such as being sure that I could access my workbench from all sides, as well as improvements to the dust collection system. I can detail these changes in a future post but I’m more interested in showing that a well organized workshop can benefit any activity from sewing to gardening. Taking the time to plan a workspace makes work go much easier.

Aesthetics are important too. It helps to have a workshop that’s inspiring to work in. Towards this end I hung a few mementos on the wall. A St. Joseph icon reminds me to not cut off my fingers. And my late grandfather’s shop glasses, from his time riveting airplanes at McDonnell Douglas, look down from above the nuts and bolts.

So Much Stuff

A Silver Lake estate sale.

Over at Granola Shotgun, a blog you should follow if you don’t already, Johnny has a post on what happened to all the stuff he and his tenants stored in the basement during an earthquake retrofit. Spoiler: it exposed the hoarding tendencies of even the most committed neatniks in the building. Here’s what Johnny had to say,

Wow. So. Much. Useless. Crap. I was designated as the guy to transport the donation items to Community Thrift and organize the bulk trash pick up. Getting up close and personal with other peoples stuff made me relax about any suggestion that I was a hoarder – a term that’s tossed my way on a regular basis. KonMarie wasn’t up for this job. I needed battlefield triage. Even the minimalists in the building had ridiculous things salted away that I know haven’t seen sunlight in a decade. Honestly, I think this is what almost every American has packed in their dark corners. Clothes that will never be worn. Broken things that will never be fixed. Sentimental objects that will never be fondly looked at or ever touched.

Estate sale in Altadena.

We had a similar experience this summer. I had to clear the house and box up the contents of three rooms so that we could sand the floors and paint the walls. Not once during those months of restoration work did I pop open any of those boxes. In the past week I’ve spent a lot of time going through the contents of those infamous boxes, a process that has made me exceptionally cranky. Why do I lack the courage to just pivot and dump all those things in the garbage? If I could write a letter to my younger self I’d say two things: don’t accumulate anything, especially sentimental items and failed artistic efforts. It may sound harsh but why should any of us be defined or burdened by the things we own.

Glassware at Altadena estate sale.

Last weekend I went to an estate sale, not to accumulate any more crap but just to see the inside of a majestic old house next to the Silver Lake Trader Joe’s. At the sale snarky hipsters laughed as they tried on the clothes of the deceased former residents. This has become a new momento mori for me. The less stuff I leave behind the fewer giggles there will be at my estate sale.

To that end I’ve taken to looking at pictures of estate sales as a way of reminding me of the importance of doing with less. Think of this as a gentler form of the late Medieval cadaver tomb. There’s nothing like a pile of seldom used glassware or blank stationary dating the 1960s to scare you away from a trip to Costco or make you want to drive a stake into the cold, vampyric heart of Adam Smith.

Food Storage Revisited

Kitchen spice pantry at the Joseph D. Oliver House, 1946. Photo: Library of Congress.

My post on de-cluttering our food storage hit a nerve proving, yet again, that the most direct path to the deeper issues of our culture is through the mundane details of our daily lives. Through the neglected field of home economics one can address collective vs. individual action, city planning, capitalism and, gasp, even eschatology.

To clarify my original post, I was not arguing against keeping a pantry stocked, rather that our pantry had accumulated a lot of useless items. I also contend that the storage in our house, built in 1920, is adequate for our day to day and emergency needs without having to add more shelves. In addition to the cabinets mentioned in the post on Monday, our house also has storage under the seating in the breakfast nook as well as built-in cabinets and drawers in a hallway adjacent to the kitchen. And there’s another set of cabinets that hold our dishes. I should also clarify that if you live out in the country and have a big vegetable garden you will need a larger pantry or basement. We are urban dwellers with, at best, a tiny vegetable garden (which has been neglected this year while I work on the house).

That said there are some big differences between the kitchens of the 1920s and the kitchens of today that present new challenges. Some of those changes:

  • We have a lot more kitchen gadgets and consumer electronics.
  • With the ascendancy of the personal automobile we have fewer small neighborhood markets in walking distance.
  • Pervasive cable TV food porn that pushes us all to turn our kitchens into the next elBulli.

Helms Bakery delivery truck alerting us all to the dangers of baking at home!

One thing that went away during the mid 20th century and has now returned is food delivery. In the 1920s lots of things were delivered: milk, baked goods, ice etc. Food delivery has returned in the form of services such as Instacart and Amazon’s purchase of Whole Foods. Unfortunately, many of these new services rely on gig economy serfdom, which has made me uncomfortable about using them, though Instacart was handy when my mom could no longer drive herself to the market. I suspect we’ll see a lot more food delivery in the near future and can see how helpful it is to busy families with young children or elders to take care of. I’d just like to make sure that the folks delivering the food can also afford to buy that food.

I think if I could “immanentize the eschaton” of our 21st century pantries I’d see those shelves holding useful, healthy staples always ready to turn into basic meals. While that sounds simple, it’s not. Can we please bring back those home economics classes and make them co-ed?

On the Problem of Food Storage and Hoarding

Food pantry before and after.

If there’s one thing that life in this bungalow has taught me is that what we call “minimalism” is simply the way people lived in the 1920s. The original inhabitants of this house made do with one small closet and a few built-in cabinets. If there’s another thing I’ve learned it’s that building additional storage always leads us down the path of over-consumption.

If the Food Network ever makes a foodie hoarder reality show, we could have been on an episode thanks to the shelves we added to the utility room. Those shelves quickly filled with aspirational but never used ingredients such as tapioca flour as well as mediocre food preservation projects that I just couldn’t admit defeat on.

Our kitchen’s ample built-in cabinets.

When it came time for our painters to work on the utility room we decided to take down the shelves and try to live with the storage built for the original inhabitants of this house. Now I’ve noticed that when I go to the market I’m more conscious of the choices I make knowing that we don’t have the room for ingredients that won’t get used much.

Transportation nerds have a phrase for this phenomenon, “induced demand.” Build extra lanes for a freeway and those lanes will fill to capacity and you’ll end up with worse traffic jams than the ones you thought you were preventing. The same goes for storage space. Built it and you’ll end up with a lot of crap you don’t need.

Of course, if I followed this pre-WWII logic to its extreme, I’d have to start dressing more sharply and stop walking around what, in the 1920s, wouldn’t even pass for pajamas. Hey Kelly where did I put my spats?