Archive for the ‘Green Furnishings’ Category

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Old Beams Get New Life

January 19, 2014

America’s history — tons of it — rests in the Distinguished Boards and Beams lumberyard. The timber here comes from old factories and barns all across the United States, a few dating baBarn375ck to before there was a United States.

“Right now we have wood from a 1775 Kentucky chestnut cabin and a barn built in 1890 in Michigan,” DB&B owner Robbie Williams told the Sopris Sun. “We took those buildings down ourselves and numbered all the boards, so they can be put back up again.” The barn was huge: 40-by-70 feet with a roof peak 48 feet high. The trees harvested to build it were at least 100 years old, so they began their lives around the time when Peter the Great was crowned Czar of Russia.

It would be tough today to find lumber this massive; some beams measure as much two feet square by 36 feet long and weigh more than a ton. The wood is denser than modern lumber because it came from slow-to-mature species in first-growth forests: hardwood oak, elm, ash, hickory and maple. The yard also holds softer woods like Douglas fir, redwood and longleaf heart pine.

Because DB&B relies on scouts across the U.S. to find outdated barns and buildings slated for demolition, nearly all of the wood comes from domestic forests. DB&B re-manufactures all of the lumber here in Carbondale.

main_loft3

Restaurant interior made using lumber from Distinguished Boards & Beams

DB&B’s reclaimed wood is used for flooring, paneling and ceilings in custom homes, restaurants and office projects. It can be seen in the bar at Hattie Thompson’s restaurant in River Valley Ranch, and at Town restaurant and Fatbelly Burgers on Main Street. Architects and interior designers in the Roaring Fork Valley and beyond prize the lumber because weathering, saw and axe patterns, worm holes and hand-cut mortise and tenon joints give it exceptional character.

Right now, in addition to the Michigan barn, DB&B’s stock includes two complete cabins, redwood salvaged from wine and yeast vats, and white oak reclaimed from a defunct factory — all of it dated before 1910.

Beam500

Detail of old, hand-hewn beams — lots of character!

“Every now and again, we find dates chiseled and signatures into the lumber,” Williams said. “We see Roman numerals cut in to tell carpenters how to put a building together. The builders would cut all of the wood and then move it and reassemble it in place.”

Although there are environmental benefits to recycling old trees, reclaimed lumber can contain rusty nails and hardware. It can host dirt, mold, bacteria and bugs. In addition, many types of wood shrinks and develops “face checking,” small cracks that parallel the grain, when lumber is moved from moister areas to Colorado’s dry climate.

To stabilize the wood, DB&B dries its lumber for five to 10 days in one of two kilns. Next, they square up the boards, trimming them to the client’s specifications, milling them to consistent depths and adding tongue-and-groove edges that prepare them for second lives as flooring or wall panels.

Met in college

Williams and his wife, Carbondale Board of Trustee member Pam Zentmyer, started Distinguished Boards & Beams about 10 years ago. The two met in Boulder during college. Williams, who grew up in Gunnison, spent a month climbing in Peru, and returned to the U.S. “completely broke.” He offered to housesit for friends in Zentmyer’s hometown and wound up becoming a Carbondale resident.

flooring

Flooring made from recycled wood.

The company now keeps 14 full-time staffers busy. Three of them, including Zentmyer, run the office. The rest sort wood for orders; run big, commercial Wood-Mizer saws that can churn out as much 15,000 board feet per run; and create custom millwork for clients.

Williams’s first exposure to reclaimed wood came after a friend who had done a demolition job in Crested Butte suggested, “we should try selling this to people.” Soon after, Williams’s brother Brad invited him to help him pull down a New Hampshire barn that had been built in 1780.

“We brought the barn back to Carbondale and sold it in pieces,” Williams recalls. “We rented some space and stored the barn. That got the inventory started. Then we had a bunch of wood that came out of a big auto factory in the Midwest. Those beams were 17-by-17 inches and 20 feet long. We had five semi loads of them.”

Although the auto factory is long gone, Williams still has a piece of the barn. It’s a chunk of weathered wood that holds an inscribed brass plaque and a photo, a commemorative gift to Williams from brother Brad.

>>>>>>Stair250

NOTE: This story originally
appeared in the Sopris Sun,
Carbondale’s community newspaper. Images courtesy of
Distinguished Boards & Beams.

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Empty Nest Filling Up? Here’s Help.

October 7, 2010

They call it the “Inspired In-Law” but I was more than just inspired when I saw it. I was gobsmacked. This cute little house was assembled in just one day?

Yes, it was. The pieces of this handsome pre-fab cottage were trucked in on Wednesday, craned into place Thursday and then the house was erected that same day. There it was, all put together and sitting in the parking lot at Fort Mason in San Francisco, ready for me to see it at the West Coast Green building festival. And I was inspired when I walked inside. This cottage is awash with sunshine (thanks to great window placement), beautifully detailed, and so well laid out that I could imagine myself living there.

 

The Inspired In-Law Cottage. (Photos courtesy of Larson Shores Architects)

 

While I’m having my own housing issues at the moment, the 500-square foot cottage was meant to solve the problems of folks a bit older than me.

Specifically, what do you do when mom is really no longer able to live alone, but is dead set against going to a “old folks” home? Here’s a relatively affordable alternative. Depending on options you choose, the cottage will run from $50,000 and $100,000. (In the Bay Area, where I live, you can’t buy a garage for that!)

When I wrote about the Inspired In-Law for the San Francisco Examiner recently, my Facebook pal Coral Chang noted, “It would be just as good for when your kids want to move back home.” Coral is right. Given the economy, kids are moving back to the parental nest more often than they used to: a 2009 survey found that 80% of new college grads moved back to their parent’s homes after getting their diplomas. That’s quite a jump from the 63% who did so in 2006.

As for mom and the old folks’ home, I can relate. The AARP’s most recent poll says that a whopping 89% of baby boomers and seniors do not want to move, but rather to stay home and “age in place.” I count myself in the majority on this particular issue.

Whatever the age of the person who’s extending the family, this in law unit can enable everyone to live together without having to live on top of one another.

No matter which of the four floor plans one might choose, the cottage offers up a complete little home with a separate entrance, a living room and bedroom, a kitchenette and a bathroom.

The Inspired In-Law was beautifully designed by Larson Shores Architects, who created it with an eye to both environmental and human sustainability. Inside, the cottage is finished with handsome and eco-friendly materials and details that promote better light, better indoor air quality, and better mobility.  For example, the bathroom sink is configured so that it can be used by someone seated in a wheelchair, as is the “roll-in” shower. The windows are placed to maximize natural light, minimizing the need for artificial lighting during the day and improving safety for those with dimming vision.

 

Bedroom in the Inspired In-Law. Furnishings by Room & Board.

 

Among the earth-friendly materials used in the Inspired In-Law’s bathroom is handsome Hakatai glass mosaic tile. (Long-time readers of this blog may remember me waxing poetic over the beautiful colors of their Calliope collection of mosaics.)

Among the green materials used in the cottage are cork flooring – springy and easier on aging knees than wood or tile – and Kelly Moore Enviro Coat paint, which limits off-gassing of toxic VOCs (volatile organic chemicals). Because the builders have avoided products containing VOCs and formaldehyde, the cottage provides a healthier environment for those suffering from asthma and allergies.

 

Bungalow floorplan - one of four possible layouts for the "Inspired In Law."

 

Among the in law’s other green features are a solar energy unit, rain water collection cisterns and a wall garden.

The in-law unit is a pre-fabricated cottage that can be purchased and installed in your back yard.

Given the time needed for arranging utilities, site preparation and planning, the units typically take about a month and half to put in place.

Plans for the four different types of cottages are available online from HousePlans.com for around $3000.

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A Little Reverie

When I get older, losing my hair
Many years from now,
Will you still need me?
Will you still feed me?
When I’m sixty-four?

Sigh. I remember all too clearly when 64 was “many years from now.” And when George Orwell’s “1984” sounded futuristic. Who knows where the time goes?

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Glory in Green – It’s a Color Too!

February 3, 2010

It’s hard to believe, but a bulb that I planted in the dark days of December is about to become a freesia!

Question Mark chair by Stephan Heiliger for Tonon

Mundo stacking chair by Susanne Grønlund for Fredericia Furniture

Generation office chair from Knoll

Designer Hugh Hayden used old tennis balls to create a fun chair that is bouncy and comfortable.

Hakatai Calliope collection of mosaic glass, made from recycled glass.

Green glass tile from Interstyle

Scrolled "Glassform" tile from Interstyle

Indonesian batik fabric, cotton

Ombre rug from Cost Plus imports

Up and Down knot Tibetan wool and silk rug made by Asha Carpets

As the sweet, green buds begin to open, I take my cue from ee cummings, and give thanks “for the leaping greenly spirits of trees and a blue dream of sky.”

Spring may not yet have sprung where you are, but the days are growing longer and it’s surely on its way. That’s enough to prompt me to write an ode to green.

Nowadays, “green” is so often used to mean “ecological” and “earth-friendly” that its identity as a color has almost become secondary. But it’s a wonderful color, and with St. Patrick’s Day on the way, I thought this might be a great time to take a great green design tour.

I like to acknowledge the folks who inspire me, and one of them is  interior designer Jamie Goldberg, who writes a blog called “Gold Notes.”

Jamie, who relocated from Florida to San Diego, California not long ago, gave her readers riffs on a whole spectrum of colors  last year. I loved that series. If you, dear reader, are up for it, I will celebrate spring by doing my own color series.

As a decorator color, green has enormous possibilities. It can be tart and bright, like the Italian “Question Mark” chair above, or as tenderly subdued as the Interstyle glass tile, also near the top of this post.

Green combines beautifully with other colors to create palettes that set various moods and evoke different styles. An intense apple green is the perfect, edgy accent color for a modern interior of neutrals or black and white. Bottle green and forest greens are reflective and relaxing when used with adjacent blues. Teals and turquoise greens can be energizing when paired with a complementary red, as they are in the batik fabric at right. An upscale, business look could pair a celedon green with shades of gray.

Greening our Emotions

Psychologists and market researchers who have studied the emotional responses people have to color have found that while some of our reactions are universal, much of the meaning we impart to colors is culturally based.

Because of its connection with plants, green signifies life, stability, restfulness and naturalness. For these reasons, it’s often used in hospitals. There is some evidence that  green relaxes our muscles and helps us breathe deeper and slower.

Arteriors Home Moss Green Etched Glass Lamp

Darani Chrome Finish lamp from Lamps Plus

Babette Holland Tiger Lamp from Lamps Plus

Green can prompt us to feel comfortable, lazy, relaxed and calm. It can help soothe our emotions, and that makes it a great choice for a yoga or meditation room. It’s a pleasant option for a bedroom as well, because it’s as quieting as blue without feeling chilly.

Rotten Avocados?

Handmade blown glass knob from All That Glass

This is not to say that green is all sweetness and light. Dark greens with gray or brown tones can have a deadening effect. Olive greens can look like week-old guacamole, and can remind us of decay and death. (It’s no accident that a cartoon character who is nauseated or has been poisoned turns green.)

Greening
Your Bathroom

Green glass sink from Fontaine Faucets

Green burst glass bathroom sink from Fontaine Faucets

Hollywood sage counter from Vetrazzo

Bioglass sink and counter

Green fern towels from Pottery Barn

Rainglass shower enclosure from Nolan Everitt Artglass

Nope, it's not raining Gatorade. It's a showerhead with a green LED light from Memowell.

Interestingly enough, market researchers have found that green doesn’t do all that well in the international marketplace. Green colored packaging has proved unpopular in China and France.

Of course, this being a blog that is in part about green architecture – by which I don’t mean houses that are painted avocado – I made sure to find some items that qualified as being both emerald in hue and earth-friendly in attribute.

Prespa wallpaper from Avignon Wallpapers

The Prespa wallpaper at left is a good example. It’s handmade from  paper bags by the two women who make up Avignon Wallcoverings, Caryn Outwater and Ariane Stein. The two have been friends since childhood. Outwater and Stein  spend their days creating custom painted wallcoverings.  Ariane and Caryn introduce new coverings continually and also offer full-service custom designs.  Avignon’s papers are eco-friendly, using 100% recycled paper and all water-based paints.

Krysallis lamp by Jerry Kott

Another verte-hued “green” product is Artist Jerry Kott’s Krysallis lamp, which is made from cut wine bottles. The lamp comes in both a hanging model and the table model that is shown at left. Price varies according to number of color blocks per lamp, and color choices include greens, amber/browns, and whites.

A few other wonderful, earth-friendly items made from recycled content are shown on this page. Hakatai’s mosaic tile, which is shown at the top right side of this post, is made from recycled, post-consumer glass. Their “Calliope”  series contains color palettes that knock my socks off. (I wouldn’t mind a barefoot walk in some green grass about now.) You can order a sampler of Hakatai’s mosaics quite inexpensively. Their customer service is very good, and you can have the samples in your hands in just a few days.

Another of my favorite eco-friendly products is Vetrazzo, which I have written about before. (I took a tour of their factory in Richmond, California, and wrote about that for Living in Comfort and Joy last year.) For this green-as-a-color column, I decided to feature their Hollywood Sage countertop, which is made largely from soft drink bottles. It’s called Hollywood Sage because actor Ed Begley chose it for his kitchen and featured it in his green TV program.

Another beautiful product is Bioglass, which is manufactured by Coverings ETC. The company was founded in 1998 to source natural stone and mosaics and has added many new lines since. Their ECOVERINGS® line of products are naturally occurring, recycled, and/or manufactured with concern for conserving natural resources. Bioglass is 100% recycled and 100% recyclable and comes in six natural colors, including three handsome greens.  As the image at right shows, Bioglass can be molded. The result can be a fairly complex shape, such as this integrated sink and counter, which was designed by Tsao for a residence in Miami.

Another green (sometimes) product is Memowell’s Magic Showerhead. It actually showers you in seven colors, not just green. But it does have green advantages. It contains LED lights that are powered by water pressure and need no electricity or batteries. “Why do I need lights to color my shower?” you may ask. Because as the water changes color, in two-minute rotations, you are being reminded that time is passing. The device is hinting that you should take shorter showers and conserve water.

Links for Items
Seen and Unseen

Chairs

Counters and glass tile

Lamps

Rugs and textiles

Sinks

Fusion green glass architectural artwork from Nathan Allan Studios

Walls and Surfaces

Other Wonders

i thank You God for most this amazing
day:for the leaping greenly spirits of trees
and a blue true dream of sky;and for everything
wich is natural which is infinite which is yes

(i who have died am alive again today,
and this is the sun’s birthday;this is the birth
day of life and love and wings:and of the gay
great happening illimitably earth)

how should tasting touching hearing seeing
breathing any-lifted from the no
of all nothing-human merely being
doubt unimaginable You?

(now the ears of my ears awake and
now the eyes of my eyes are opened)

-ee cummings

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Obstacles to Overcome: An Accessible Kitchen

December 13, 2009

Your average kitchen is an obstacle course for someone in a wheelchair!

I got a dramatic demonstration of that about a month ago when Dr. Rhoda Olkin, a psychologist, professor, and author, volunteered to give me a tour of the kitchen in the office building where we work. Last week, I showed her the kitchen I designed after that demonstration: my “succulent, sustainable”  kitchen. I went away from that meeting with a lump in my throat, feeling  proud and inspired.

Denim Moss from Icestone. It sparkles with chips of the post-consumer glass used to make it.

The next day, I attended a memorial service for my friend, Kari Varland. Initially, Kari was my real estate agent. Losing her has been a heartbreak for me, and for dozens of others who gathered to remember her. She gave so many of us not only homes, but also wisdom and community.

I have come away from these two experiences renewed in my desire to design beautiful, sustainable, and empowering homes for my fellow boomers and folks who are overcoming disabilities. Although this has been a tough year for me, the obstacles in my path are far less tangible than those that Rhoda encounters, and they should be more surmountable than those that Kari faced.

Encountering Kitchen Obstacles

During my initial meeting with Rhoda, the first surprise came as we left her office. Rhoda invited me to precede her, and then followed in her powered wheelchair. I had always wondered why she had a yellow dog leash hanging on the outside of her office door. Now I learned the answer.

Dr. Rhoda Olkin, Distinguished Professor, California School of Professional Psychology, Alliant International University

Dr. Rhoda Olkin, Distinguished Professor, California School of Professional Psychology, Alliant International University

To reach the door hardware  – an ADA-compliant level-style door handle – Rhoda’s arm would have to be about a foot and a half longer than it is! To solve this problem, she grabs the dog leash as she wheels by and pulls the door closed behind her.

The kitchen, however, presents far more problems than the office:

  • Counter-productive counters: It’s impossible for Rhoda to reach anything placed at the back of the 24″ deep counters.
  • Out-of-reach shelves: The upper cupboards would be totally beyond her reach except for the fact that Rhoda’s wheelchair is equipped with a lift that will raise her seat about a foot.
  • Fridge door barricade: The refrigerator is placed in a corner on the narrow side of the room, so it’s impossible for her to approach it from the side. She can’t open the fridge from the front either, because the door would have swing through the space occupied by her wheelchair.
  • Cattle chute layout: Once she’s in, she has to laboriously back out of the kitchen because a trash can and recycling bins have been placed along the wall, narrowing the center aisle so much that there isn’t enough room for her to turn around.

Introducing Rhoda Rails! See the double tracks that lead from the cooktop to the sink? They are strips of metal inscribed into the countertop, and they stand about 1/8" above the counter surface. They would allow Rhoda to scoot a heavy pan of hot pasta off of the cooktop and around the corner to the sink to empty the water. It's very difficult for her to lift a pot like that; it takes two hands. If both of your hands are occupied with holding a pot of scalding water, there's no way to move or steer a wheelchair!

Rhoda gave me the kitchen tour because I had asked her if she would comment upon plans I was drawing for a demonstration kitchen. Although it wasn’t meant for a real client, I planned this kitchen to be accessible for someone who has been diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis and is slowly losing her mobility. “Carla” can walk now, but she needs to plan her home in a way that will accommodate first a walker, and then later, a wheelchair. (Although I’m not working with them, I actually know two people who are in this situation.)

The process of planning this kitchen was an eye-opener for me, and my presentation to Rhoda was one of the most inspiring design experience I have had — a highlight of what has been a very tough year. (Kari is one of three friends who have died from cancer. Meanwhile, I have had numerous inquiries about my design business, but little paying work. The economy is bad and at times, the obstacles seem insurmountable. In moments of despair, I have thought about pulling the plug on this blog, my business plan, or both.) But for now, I will keep on keepin’ on.

A Tour of the Succulent,
Sustainable Kitchen

Carla’s kitchen was designed for two-cooks: Carla and her husband Sam. (See bottom of this post for an overhead view of the kitchen.) The south portion is designed for Sam, the chief chef. It features two ovens and a state-of-the-art induction cooktop. These features are laid out so that they are just steps from the refrigerator, pantry, and sink, a layout that makes for very convenient “kitchen triangle” that meets the requirements I talked about in my earlier blog, “One Rump or Two and Other Kitchen Conundrums.”

Carla's kitchen features multiple height counters: 33", 36" and 42" from the floor for the comfort of cooks who are sitting, standing and for both children and adults. A 42" coffee-bar height cupboard holds a chef's convection oven, while to the right, a 36" high counter holds a Fagor oven, which features a door that opens to the side.

The north part of the kitchen is designed for Carla, who is  Sam’s helper, a “sous chef” who prepares salads and vegetables, mixes drinks, and entertains while the haute cuisine comes together a few steps away. With its 33″ high counters and 9″ high toekicks, this area meets the standards of the Americans with Disabilities Act.

The south kitchen, by contrast, is meant to be “visitable”. It has regular height counters and toekicks. It’s designed for Sam, but has special features that enable a person in a wheelchair to easily use it.

In addition, I opened walls and windows to draw in plenty of sunlight, to save energy, and meet California’s new Title 24 energy codes. The succulent, sustainable kitchen uses some gorgeous, green materials, including Icestone counters, Plyboo bamboo cabinets, Hakatai glass tile, and Marmoleum linoleum floors (I have written about most of these in previous blogs).

I drew the color palette from a handsome plant called a sedum, a plant that is often used on vegetated roofs. Because I was thinking about both plants and people, I called the design “succulent sustainability.” (It turned out that Rhoda loves sedum.) My plans wound up including a host of features that were intended to be at once beautiful, beautifully invisible in function, and liberating in their use.

Rhoda’s Reaction

Storage trundle

Storage here is provided by a wheeled, trundle cart. It can be moved in another area to provide legroom to enable someone in a wheelchair to use the cooktop. In addition, it provides an easy way for everyone to get at heavy pots and pans.

I think I must have succeeded, because when I showed Rhoda the completed plans, she said, “It’s beautiful! I love the colors!”

When I started to explain the accessibility features, her voice cracked a little and she said, “You took every single thing I showed you and found a solution for it!”

“It’s rare to find a designer who really understands the barriers and is able to see creatively how to erase them,” said Rhoda. “To do it with the beauty of the design that Nicolette has created is amazing.  The Rhoda Rail impressed me as an example of really thinking from the perspective of the user in a wheelchair, and mixing design with function to achieve an elegant solution.”

Given that my demonstration project seems to have been such a success, I thought I would share some of the accessibility ideas from Carla’s kitchen with my blog readers.

Access Features in the Visitable Kitchen

The visitable, south kitchen includes:

  • Rhoda Rails – sleek silver tracks that protect the counter and enable a seated cook to safely scoot a heavy pan off of the low-profile induction cooktop and across the counter without scratching the surface (see drawing).
  • A wheeled, pot trundle cart under the cooktop that is completely removable to provide leg room for a wheelchair user (see drawing).
  • A remote-control hood over the cooktop.
  • A side-opening Fagor oven that allows an easy approach for a wheelchair user who can get in close to lift hot, heavy pans.
  • Removable shelving under the sink to allow the cabinet to be easily converted for a wheelchair user.
  • Removable, wheeled storage carts that form the front sides of the pantry, but roll out and provide access on both sides to stored items.

Features of the ADA Accessible Kitchen

The north kitchen is fully wheelchair accessible, with ADA-height toekicks and 33″ high counters throughout. Other accessibility features include:

  • Accessible dish washer drawers – it’s much easier to reach into a drawer than a recessed cave, and the drawers can be run individually to save water.
  • A Hafele insert that enables one to pull down the upper cabinets.
  • Sliding cabinet doors that are easily approached from the side by a wheelchair user; these are inset with a translucent panel of resin that encapsulates natural reeds (Varia Thatch).
  • A grab bar that is also useful as a towel rack.
  • Swinging doors into the dining room – easy to open for servers who have their hands full as well as a person in a wheelchair. An insert of translucent 3-Form Varia Thatch here enables a server or wheelchair user to know if someone is on the other side.
  • Removable storage under the sink that allows for easy conversion when Carla needs to trade the storage space on the shelves for knee space when seated in a wheelchair.
  • Taps on the sink mounted at the side for easy reach from seated position (this is also true in the south kitchen).

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In Memoriam: Kari Varland

In memory of Kari Varland, who was not only a good friend and a great real estate agent, but also a role model and an inspiration.

When my friend Kari was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer last April, I wrote about my grief in a post called “Object Lessons”. (I referred to  her as “Katie” rather than Kari, to protect her privacy.) At the time, I said:

While I know that none of us gets out of this life alive – it’s a question of when, rather than if we’re leaving – it’s especially hard to cope with the idea of someone dying in their mid-forties, let alone a bright, energetic former gymnast…

If there’s a lesson in this tragedy, I think it’s this: Be here now. Live fully now, because we don’t know how many days we have left to us. Ironically, the only way to be fully present in the here and now is to fully let go of what we have lost; you simply can’t be fully present if you’re living in the past.

Kari always lived in the present; she was chatty, energetic and, in business, she knew how to cut to the chase. She will remain vibrantly alive for many years to come in the memories of the many people who gathered to remember her yesterday. We remembered Kari as “a pushy broad” and someone who could eat, talk and drive all at the same time. We also remembered her as someone who gave parcels of food to street people, who would give back chunks of her commission to set things right for her clients, and who had a magic touch for bringing people together.

That’s why, in April, when she was diagnosed, her friends came together to create a silent auction to raise money to support her in her final months. As one vowed, “It seems that there’s no safety net for a self-employed person with a fatal disease. But if there’s no safety net, we’ll just have to weave one.”

Kari’s friends wanted to do that, because of the way she had supported them – us – through the difficult times in our lives. In both her life, and in the way she ended her life, she had the magic of bringing people together, creating friendships and community. As one friend said, “She left us with homes and with community — what a legacy!”

Kari had a magic for solving problems and creating connections — it’s something I aspire to, though I doubt that I will ever approach her energy and effervescence. I can only hope that I can be as much of a guide to my own clients, and that half as many people will show up for my memorial when the time comes. The following words come from an obituary written to Kari in the San Francisco Chronicle:

“Far more than an agent who helped with a transaction, Kari’s role was that of a guide and confidante, who used her wisdom and sensitivity to help her clients navigate through one of the most important decisions of their lives. Many of her clients became lifelong friends. In February of 2009, Kari was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. Kari lived with her illness over the past year just as she lived her entire life — with dignity, courage, passion, grace, warmth and an endless concern for others.”

Rest in peace, Kari. I will try to follow your example and your star, and I will miss you always.

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No More Senseless Acts of Beauty!

November 19, 2009

I like that bumper sticker that says “practice random acts of kindness and senseless acts of beauty,” but it’s definitely not my philosophy. Why can’t beauty be engineered into our lives?

Cho Tansu

Japanese chyotansu. Office bureaus like this one, which is an antique, were used to hold writing materials and business papers. Often choytansu were made from expensive wood.

I often tell people that I am a “decorator” because I find that it helps many folks understand what services I provide. Although an elite cartel in my profession is busy trying to push the little guys out by restricting the use of the term “interior designer”, I suspect that the general public really doesn’t know what the title means.

The fact is, both terms fall short of what of describing what value a person like me brings to a remodeling or building project.

The notion of “decorating” usually involves embellishment – adding colors or patterns only for reasons of visual stimulation and pleasure – to something that is otherwise utilitarian and purposeful. The example that springs to mind is interior painting, adding color on top of walls, structures whose real purposes are to provide privacy, keep out the cold, and hold up the roof. In daily usage, “design” usually connotes something a bit more purposeful or calculating – hence the play on words in the title of the old TV show Designing Women – but neither term really gets at the oxymoron that makes that phrase “senseless acts of beauty” so amusing.

It hasn’t always been so. The languages of many Native American cultures didn’t contain words that could describe the difference between a beautiful, celebratory calabash and a bowl for everyday use. The tribes didn’t need those words. Their values held that each day of life was worth celebrating, and thus, a spirit of reverence should infuse everyday activities.

Antique Eskimo carving

By contrast, you and I can probably think of a dozen words that would describe the difference between a plastic lawn chair and a Barcelona chair. In our throw-away, get-it-done-quick culture, beauty usually is only skin deep. There’s an enormous gulf between products that are intended only to be cheap and convenient – a Chinette plate – and good things – real bone china – that are intended to convey meaning as well as serve a purpose. Why is it that we bring out the “good china” only on two or three major holidays, when we want to ritually celebrate our spiritual values? Don’t our relationships with loved ones deserve quality attention the other 362 days of the year?

Joe Yazzie, a Navajo artist with whom I exhibited years ago in Chicago, told me that he found this ideology incredibly foreign. Joe’s father was what we would call a “medicine man” and his calling was to cure the ills of body and spirit. The Navajo traditionally don’t divide body and spirit as we do, and correspondingly, there’s no gulf between the utilitarian and the celebratory. Like his ancestors before him,  Joe’s father endeavored to unify the realms of body and spirit by making things that were useful and beautiful, and Joe did the same. Joe told me that this practice was called “walking in beauty,” and it was a way of expressing one’s reverence for life.

The practice I’m talking about here has nothing to do with taste or visual style. Native American cultures had widely varying aesthetics. Ancient Eskimo artifacts tend toward the austere, and they can look quite modern to Euro-American eyes. Pacific Northwest tribes, by contrast, tended to fill every space with symbolically significant imagery, so much so that art historians use the term horror vacui – fear of open spaces – to describe their style.

“Build Thee More Stately Mansions, O My Soul”

Chilkat blanket

A traditional "Chilkat blanket" named for the Native American tribe that designed them; this one was woven by Tlingit artist. Full-surface decoration is characteristic of most Native American Art from the North Pacific region.

The notion of embodying beauty and usefulness in domestic objects isn’t unique to Native American cultures. It occurs around the world and throughout history,  often in spiritually-oriented communities. Examples from Japanese and American Shaker buildings come to mind.

It’s no accident that a Japanese house communicates a gracefully spare Zen sense of repose. Or that Japanese craftsmen constructed wood furniture so finely that you can find tansu chests, built completely without nails or glue, that are still serviceable despite the fact that they are hundreds of years old! Both are evidence of how Japanese carpenters translated the Zen practice of mindfulness into their work.

The Shakers, whose design sensibility inspired the pioneers of the Arts and Crafts movement, a precursor to modern design, shared a similar point of view. Members of this utopian religious community lived by a motto that described how and why the quality of their work and their religious beliefs were inextricably linked: “Hands to work, hearts to God.”

It seems sad to me that we’ve come to the point where beauty could be considered senseless or random.

Architect Mies van der Rohe's Barcelona chair.

What’s more, to my way of thinking, there’s nothing beautiful about the billions of baubles we bury in the product graves that we call landfills the moment the glitter wears off. (I recently completed a green building certification, and during my studies, I learned to my horror that as much as 50 percent of the junk in our American landfills is waste from constructing, deconstructing, and redecorating buildings!) Grandma got it right: “handsome is as handsome does.”

As the Shakers proved more than a century ago, quality, beauty, and usefulness can be communally joined. The simple Shaker table pictured here was designed to be functional, hence the handy drawer and a drop-leaf that economizes on space while also accommodating another diner. Even though the table is not made from rare or precious wood and does not contain inlaid marble or precious stones, it is prized for its lasting beauty — as attested by the fact that it is currently being sold by the John Keith Russell antiques firm, which has set an asking price of $28,000.

Back to the Future: Quality is Not Optional

Shaker drop leaf table

A drop-leaf table crafted around 1840 at either the New Lebanon, New York or Hancock, Massachusetts Shaker colony.

In 2007, the architectural firm of John G. Waite Associates put together a master plan for the Hancock Shaker Village in Pittsfield, Massachusetts. The 1,200-acre site holds 20 historic buildings and has served as an outdoor, living history museum for more than 50 years. Hancock is the site of the beautiful round stone barn that inspired film maker Ken Burns to make his documentary about the Shakers.

The architectural team drew from the Shaker heritage in creating their plans, and they found in the Shakers’ history some very contemporary lessons about community and sustainability. Here’s what Ellen Spear, president and chief executive officer of Hancock Village, told the magazine of the American Institute of Architects (AIA) in May of 2007 about how the architectural team was looking to Shaker ideals for guidance:

Spear says she looks forward to bringing the Shaker story to address contemporary issues like peace (the Shakers were pacifists) and building community and sustainability, noting the ways they sited buildings and reused materials, approached construction, and looked at things in a sustainable way. “I don’t think they necessarily knew or named it that, but that’s certainly the approach,” Spear says. “The same with organic gardening and the methods they used. They had tremendous technical innovation that we see within the building and building construction, including a water-power system in the early 1800s. All of those things can address issues that are important to us today.”

Handsome is as Handsome Does

The simple fact is that quality workmanship lasts.

While it costs more at the outset, it costs less over the long run. For example, I could buy cheap vinyl flooring for a 10 x 10-foot kitchen for about $100, while a good quality linoleum will cost around $250. (Many people think that both vinyl and linoleum flooring are the same thing. They are not: vinyl is made from petroleum while linoleum is made mostly from natural oils and sawdust.)  It will cost me at least $300 to get someone to install either floor, so why would I want to spend $550 for a floor that looks pretty much the same as a $400 floor?

The answer lies in the ugly truth about what will happen over the next ten years. That linoleum floor will still look good and be wearing well in 30 years; many elementary schools contain 50-year old linoleum floors that have stood up to generations of rambunctious feet. But that vinyl floor will start to look shabby in about 3 years, and most people replace vinyl flooring after about five years. So the true cost comparison is $550 for the linoleum floor and $800 for the two vinyl floors that I will have to install in the same time period.

The shell of the chambered nautilus.

Then there are off-the-balance sheet costs that go along with that throw-away floor. That cast off vinyl flooring is going to wind up in a landfill where it’s going to do some pretty nasty things, but not before it’s had time to release a lot of toxic chemicals into someone’s home! (I’m pretty sure that vinyl flooring helped trigger the asthma that appeared in my middle years, and studies have also found puzzling links between vinyl flooring and autism.)

To my way of thinking, our homes should be beautiful in the same way that a chambered nautilus shell is beautiful. The nautilus, a squid that lives in a shell, expands its home as it grows. The new chambers not only accommodate the creature’s growth, they also function as floats. The squid can fill the empty compartments with gas that cause the shell to rise or sink in the ocean. The nautilus gets bigger quarters as it grows, adding a new chamber each year. It builds to accommodate its changing needs, following a simple but elegant master plan, and building rooms that accommodate the animal at different ages and stages of life.

Human beings think that they invented universal design, the notion that homes and products should be easy and comfortable to use through our life spans, whatever our state of ability or disability. But the chambered nautilus clan has been putting that idea into practice, with stunningly beautiful results, for millenia!

I plan to occupy my earthly shell for quite a few years to come, and while I do, I will endeavor to practice sensible and deliberate acts of beauty. My ideal is to create living chambers that are as luminously beautiful as those of the nautilus.

Because the chambered nautilus so nicely symbolizes my design philosophy, I plan to incorporate it in the redesign of my logo and my Comfort and Joy Interior Design website at the end of this year. My new logo will be an abstracted version of a chambered nautilus shell.

Resource Links

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The Chambered Nautilus

A spiral staircase at the Shaker Village in Pleasant Hill, Kentucky.

Its webs of living gauze no more unfurl;
Wrecked is the ship of pearl!
And every chambered cell,
Where its dim dreaming life was wont to dwell,
As the frail tenant shaped his growing shell,
Before thee lies revealed,
Its irised ceiling rent, its sunless crypt unsealed!

Year after year beheld the silent toil
That spread his lustrous coil;
Still, as the spiral grew,
He left the past year’s dwelling for the new,
Stole with soft step its shining archway through,
Built up its idle door,
Stretched in his last-found home, and knew the old no more.

Thanks for the heavenly message brought by thee,
Child of the wandering sea,
Cast from her lap, forlorn!
From thy dead lips a clearer note is born
Than ever Triton blew from wreathed horn;
While on mine ear it rings,
Through the deep caves of thought I hear a voice that sings:

Build thee more stately mansions, O my soul,
As the swift seasons roll!
Leave thy low-vaulted past!
Let each new temple, nobler than the last,
Shut thee from heaven with a dome more vast,
Till thou at length art free,
Leaving thine outgrown shell by life’s unresting sea!

- Oliver Wendell Holmes (1809-94)

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Living Large in Small Spaces

July 3, 2009

A small space should be designed with the elegance of a Swiss Army knife.

How so? It should be convenient and pleasant to use. It should anticipate every daily task you do, providing all manner of wonderful accoutrements that open, neatly serve one purpose, then fold, swivel, and pop into another configuration, allowing you to do something altogether different. What’s more, the room and its furnishings should do all this while looking as sleek and beautiful as – well, a Swiss Army knife!

The accordion-like center that allows the XPand table to grow.
The accordion-like center that allows the XPand table to grow.
XPand
The XPand table comes in three sizes and all can grow in length without leaves or hardware. The medium sized table stretches from 63 inches long to 82 inches long.

Although I own three of those canny little knives, it wasn’t until I began researching this blog that I learned that the Swiss Army knife’s design has been included in the New York Museum of Modern Art and Munich’s State Museum of Applied Art. So I’m not alone in finding design inspiration in this humble implement.

This post will be devoted to handsome and fiendishly functional pieces of furniture that, like Swiss Army knives, sleekly serve multiple purposes. Here’s what I have found:

  • the Bada multi-tasking table that turns into a love seat,
  • Murphy beds that disappear behind bookshelves,
  • a Study Bed that transforms into a desk,
  • an XPand table that stretches to welcome company without adding leaves,
  • Silla Garda chairs that divide and multiply,
  • children’s furniture that grows, flexes, and offers fun places to play,
  • a couch that turns into a bunk bed, and
  • storage that banishes clutter.

Furniture like this is what you need to live large in a small space!

Small is Beautiful

Small dwellings offer environmental advantages. A small house costs less to heat and cool. It requires fewer resources to build, and at the end of its usefulness, there’s less to bury in a landfill. A gentleman in Texas by the name of Brad Kittel builds charming, milk-truck-sized houses from 99% salvaged materials to make that very point. Jay Shaffer has put together his Tumbleweed Tiny Houses for similar reasons. While their houses are bit too small for my taste, I do subscribe to Susan Susanka’s “Not So Big” house philosophy. Susanka encourages her readers to invest in good design and detailing, making a smaller house truly livable. (She’s not an advocate of economy or frugality, but favors quality over quantity.)

EcoSystems Bada table
EcoSystem’s Bada table folds to become a love seat
Bada table folded into loveseat

In this age of super-sizing, my love of small spaces may sound contrarian. But among all the interior design tasks I perform, I get the most joy from solving the three-dimensional puzzle of the perfectly planned small house. I get a thrill when a piece of furniture that I have measured and chosen drops perfectly into its allotted spot, wasting no space and looking as though it was created to be there. I enjoy designing original cabinets and window seats that add balance, convenience, and function to an odd dogleg in a floor plan. I get a charge out of finding a bit of wasted or forgotten interior real estate and recovering it in the form of a closet or a china hutch.

It’s even better when I can work this magic using things that are already at hand, local, or re-purposed to some clever end. In my fantasies, I’m the McGyver of interior design, whipping out my Swiss Army Knife and transforming a dozen left-over thread spools, an abandoned automobile hood, and a broken dresser drawer into an incredibly cool coffee table.

In reality, I’m not that inventive, but Ecosystems Bada table, shown above, is! It’s made from reclaimed walnut, and with a flick of the wrist, it changes into love seat.

Your three sleek, modern Silla Guarda chairs hold twice as much seating as your first glance would indicate!

How many chairs do you see? You could sit on any of these chairs, but these three seats come from just two Silla Guarda chairs. The chair on the left has been pulled apart to double the original seating.

The Guarda Silla chairs shown at right are equally clever. Designed by Alberto Villareal, they are like Russian nesting dolls. The chair’s outer shell is made from smooth white Corian. That shell, seen empty on the far left, slips over the redwood core at the center of the photo. Together, the shell and core make up the two-tone chair shown on the right side of the photo. When you need more seating, you can pull the wooden chair out of the Corian shell to form two chairs, both equally functional.

Strive for Simplicity

In a small room, you should strive for a visual harmony. Monochromatic color schemes and neutrals tend to make rooms seem larger, and coordinated furniture and wall colors will also make the space seem roomier. Another good trick is to use see-through surfaces, such as Lucite and glass. Reflective metal surfaces and large mirrors will reflect light and visually open the space as well.

A kaleidoscope of colors, dizzying detail, or a backwash of books, papers, remote controls, wires, or tools is to be avoided.  Visual complication will make a small room feel cramped. That’s why it’s important to be able tuck things away or close a closet door on clutter.

Bo Concept coffee table comes in white lacquer, walnut, black-stained oak and wenge veneer. Size: 13H x 44 3/4W x 31 1/2D. From $1,099.

BoConcept Functional coffee table comes in white lacquer, walnut, black-stained oak and wenge veneer. Size: 13"H x 44 3/4"W x 31 1/2"D. From $1,099.

In a small living room, a coffee table like the BoConcept “Functional Table” shown here will give you a convenient spot to store small objects such as books or remote controls. Its separate table tops will provide flat, raised and stable surfaces for dining or working, so it accommodates two of the most common activities that take place in living rooms and dens.

Planning is Crucial

Frankly, I think that designing for a small space is far more challenging than designing for a large one. It requires far more planning because you need to effectively use every bit of the floorplan while being sure to leave enough room to circulate around the furniture. It requires more shopping because the difference between a 62 inch long love seat and a 65 inch love seat may mean the difference between being able to open the door and having it wedged shut! Small spaces also call for a lot of attention to storage, and that, in turn, often means designing and installing built-in shelving and closet hardware.

“Doc” has removable covers and transforms into a bunk bed. From Bon Bon Trading.

What’s more, in a small dwelling, you don’t have the option of devoting one room to  single purpose. Today’s McMansions can come with multiple bedrooms, an office, a dining room, a family room, a kitchen, a mud room, a guest room, a library, an exercise room, a laundry room – and one heck of a big heating bill. In a small space, however, you’re far more likely to wind up with multipurpose spaces. Here are some common ones:

  • a kitchen/laundry room,
  • a bedroom/study,
  • a library/guest room, and
  • a dining room/office.

The Doc sofa shown at right would be a good choice for an older couple whose library needed to also be able to serve as a guest room for grandchildren who visited every now and again.

Another fascinatingly flexible bed – one that a teenager would love – is the Study Bed. It’s hard to find the words to describe how the Study Bed folds and rotates a double-sized bed into the wall to reveal a good-sized desk. It’s even hard to show in a series of photos, so if you’re curious about, I encourage you to head on over to YouTube to watch the video of the Study Bed in motion.

Grouping Functions

The trade-offs of using spaces for multiple functions complicate both furnishing and storage, and the answers about which functions to group together aren’t always obvious. For example, what if there’s just one unallocated room, and you need a yoga retreat, a mud room and a children’s play area? How are you going to make sure your downward facing doggie pose doesn’t wind up with its nose in mud left over from the kids’ galoshes? Will you need to rout the Space Invaders before you can achieve yogic repose?

Combining these functions would require superb storage and a lot of attention to flooring. If you had a comfortable rug that could be rolled out just for yoga, and then easily stored out of sight, this combination might work.

However, it’s better to group noisy activities in one area of the house and quiet functions in another. Doing that also involves thinking about the chronology of the family’s day. If the kids are going to home playing at the same time you want to do yoga, perhaps your yoga retreat should be designed into the bedroom, the living room, or the kitchen?

Tagei table opens to reveal bench with sidetables

Tagei table opens to reveal bench with side tables. Designed by Akemi Tanaka; links below lead to Futaba, another nice convertible sofa by Tanaka.

The redesign of one room in a small dwelling frequently causes a domino effect. I find that accommodating a change in one room often requires moving functions or furnishing in another room as well. In the case of the yoga retreat, while there may not be enough floor space for a self-respecting cobra to stretch out in the living room right now, there could be.

The answer might be to use the spare room for a play and mud room only. You could practice yoga in the living room if you replaced your bulky coffee table and that seldom-used armchair with something like the Tagei table at left. (Tagei means versatility in Japanese.) This table/bench combo would free up the floor space you need for daily exercise, and it will easily open into seating for the occasional buffet or cocktail party.

Provide Lots of Storage

My final tip on furnishing small spaces is to provide plenty of storage, particularly units that do not protrude into the room. Your storage might be built in – like the closet I discussed in last week’s blog – or it might be a wall system. (If you like Asian-inspired design, there’s a firm called Green Tea Design that creates some very handsome wardrobes and wall systems using wood recycled from old Korean barns.) It’s often effective (if counter-intuitive) to shrink the room’s footprint slightly by creating a full-width wall for a closet or wall system. When the view is uninterrupted by edges, it appears less busy. Visually, a whole-wall system intrudes into the room less than a dresser or breakfront would.

Modern Murphy beds take the same approach, and they often include options for shelving and closets. Some include desks and drop-down tables that really make them more like wall systems than beds. Hardwood Artisans has a nice selection of Library Wall beds. The Wallbed Factory, which has an active green initiative, offers library and wallbeds with plenty of storage features, and prices ranging from $2,100 to around $5,000. Flying Beds offers a Murphy bunk bed, a library bed and also a computer bed.

Who You Gonna Call?

So there you have it, a whole passel of solutions for shaping up your small spaces. The links below will help you explore all of your options save one.

If it turns out you don’t care for measuring, drawing floor plans on quadrille paper and cutting out little chunks of paper to represent your furniture, you can call for help. There are odd souls around who actually enjoy wrestling with the three-dimensional puzzles of space planning. I’m one of them. Like my fellow interior designers, I’d be happy to help!

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Swiss-Army-Knife

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Glass Tile for Sustainable Style

May 20, 2009

Glass tile is a classy, eco-friendly material. In this post, I’m going to review three tile manufacturers not just to aid and entertain you, but also to give myself a chance to gorge on some delicious eye candy.

Stairway featuring Debris Tile from Fireclay

Stairway featuring Debris Tile from Fireclay. Half of that content comes from recycled glass bottles.

Regular readers won’t be surprised to learn that I have a passion for glass: art glass, doorknobs, drawer pulls, jewelry – and of course, glass tile! I find the color caught inside glass even more satisfying than my watercolors. (My paintings are not soft and watery like a Turner landscape; the colors are vivid and I love definitive line and form.) I experience a physical thrill of pleasure when I gaze into glass, observing the way it concentrates color – so pure, so transparent and intense! Then too, I love the bubbles, gradients, layers and textures that form in glass.

You can get glorious color, transparency, and texture in glass tile, and you can feel good about choosing it. Glass is an earth-friendly material.

What’s more, glass is completely recyclable, a substance that can be designed into a cradle-to-cradle manufacturing process. Old glass can easily be ground up, melted, and then recast into dishes, counter tops, tile or what-have-you.

Glass is made from three common substances  – silica, lime, and soda ash – that occur the world around, so it seems that plants making tile from recycled glass should be located all across the country.  My searches turned up numerous companies recycling glass into tile on the west coast, but I found almost none in the center of the country or on the east coast! Ecologically speaking, it’s far better to buy regionally – within 500 miles –  and avoid generating a big carbon footprint by shipping your glass tile a long distance.

Calliope Garden glass tile from Hakatai Tile

Calliope Garden glass tile from Hakatai Tile

Whether you want to bring elegance to an entry, add color to a kitchen, beautify a bathroom, or put sparkle into a stairway, glass tile offers ways to do it. Glass tile is durable, easy to clean, and comes in an amazing range of styles and colors. Because I’m writing a blog rather than a book, I will cover only a few color and style options here. But the links at this post’s end will help you find choices galore as well as eco-conscious suppliers around the country.

Glass: Handle with Care

As with most materials, glass has its weak points: Because it’s usually slippery, it’s usually not a good choice for floors, except as a small accent. Because glass will shatter when subjected to extreme heat or cold, and because it can chip or crack if you accidentally whack it with a skillet, it’s not recommended for counter tops. (There are special forms of tile that combine glass with other materials and provide a very durable counter top while incorporating glass.) Glass tile works well for back splashes, for shower surrounds, on fireplaces, in swimming pools, around fountains, on the sides of steps, and on walls.

Choosing Your Colors

Glass can be glitzy, and the color can be intense. That’s one of its wonders, of course, but it’s easy to get carried away. If you want to choose vibrant or metallic colors, it’s probably best to make that glass tile an accent, rather than the main body of a wall. Designers often use a 60/30/10 rule for balancing color; they allocate a base color to 60% of a room, 30% to a related color, and 10% to a contrasting, accent color. Colors that “work” together usually form geometric patterns when laid out around a color wheel. Designers actually have names that describe those relationships; for example, there are jazzy complimentary palettes, subdued monochromatics with tints or shades, and colorful triadic palettes.

I would avoid trendy color combinations. There’s nothing wrong with powder blue or brown, but if you choose a tile that mixes those two colors for your kitchen, they will be together for the life of the tile. Right now that combo is in. But in a few years, someone will walk into your kitchen and think, “Oh yes! That was done in 2009, when those late 1960’s shades came back.” If you want to be au courant, you can paint the room powder blue and accent it with brown tile. When that palette starts to look “so 2009″, you can replace the powder blue paint with another color, changing the color scheme with far less labor and expense than would be involved in tearing out part or all of the tile.

Brick Mirror tile from Glass Tile Oasis

Here’s how I might go about creating a palette around the Glass Tile Oasis brick mirror glass shown at left. I would first choose the room’s base color; it might be an amber or the ivory in the tile. If you’re not working with a color consultant, I would advise you not to choose a dark or unusual color as a base for your palette. (An expert can make a purple room look great, but it’s hard to do, and getting it right takes skill and practice.)

This tile includes some shades of burnt orange or magenta that might work as an accent for an amber room, and the tile’s pink and purple shades would certainly work as accents in an ivory room.  But the reverse – say a purple room with amber and pink accents – will probably prove darkly unsettling.

Fireclay Tile, California

Fireclay Tile was founded by Paul Burns, who first started making tile with his uncle when he was 10 years old. Since founding Fireclay with three partners, Paul has devoted his efforts to finding more sustainable ways to make tile, using the most energy efficient manufacturing processes, and incorporating recycled content into his materials. This has resulted not only in beautiful products like the tile pictured on the stairs at the top of this post, it has also made Fireclay an environmental leader. Fireclay Tile’s innovations include:

  • Leadless Glazes – Fireclay converted to 100% leadless glazes in 1989.
  • Vulcanite – In 1997, Fireclay created tile that was glazed and fired from pieces of volcanic lava, a naturally occurring form of glass.
  • Debris Tile – Fireclay began putting 25% post-industrial recycled content (granite dust) into Debris Tile in 2,000. This tile, shown on the stairs, also includes recycled glass.
  • Jellybean Rocks – Firetile has created 20 styles of tile made from recycled materials, including glass bottles, sea shells, or natural stone colors (sometimes mixed together).

Firetile’s website states, “We are a triple-bottom line company and ensure we take the environment into account in every decision we make and pay all of our employees a fair wage and benefits.”

Hakatai Glass Tile, Oregon

Hakatai Enterprises has been importing and distributing glass tile since 1997,  working with architects, contractors and builders, interior designers and dealers, as well as homeowners.  The company was named by its president, Marshall Malden, who has enjoyed backpacking in the Grand Canyon for years. Hakatai, which is pronounced ha-keh-tie, is the Havasupai Indian tribe’s name for the Colorado River, and Hakatai shale is a geologic layer in the Grand Canyon.

Hakatai Tile Mural

Hakatai Tile Mural

Hakatai says that it is “committed to environmental conservation and sustainability.”  Recycled glass is a key ingredient in Hakatai ‘s Ashland-eCobblestone,  Tivoli and Calliope series of tile. The stunning mosaic tile at the top of this post is from the Calliope series. All of the tiles in these four collections are comprised of between 30 and 70% glass from bottles and/or other waste glass that would otherwise wind up in a trash heap. This waste glass is approximately 90% post-and 10% pre-consumer material.

Hakatai’s designers and artists also can turn any drawing or design into a hand-cut,  mosaic mural, like the one at left. This link to their website will lead you to a stunning collection of custom murals.

Sandhill Tile, Idaho

Founded in 1998 in Fairbanks, Alaska, Sandhill is now located in Boise, Idaho. The company’s products, including the elegant grey and sage “field tile” glass shown just below, are made from 100% recycled materials. Each tile takes less than one-half of the energy to produce than ceramic tile, and less than one-fourth of the energy it takes to produce a cast-glass tile.”

Tile manufactured by Sandhill

Sandhill’s manufacturing process came out of a a two-year research project. The project was initially funded by an Alaska Science and Technology Foundation grant that was awarded to develop an innovative glass-fusing technology that utilizes 100% recycled glass.

Sandhill produces tile for both commercial and residential projects. It comes in 36 colors and matte or gloss finish. Their line includes field tile, border designs, mosaic blends, and deco pieces. Hakatai recently received the EPA Evergreen award for environmental excellence and leadership.

Glass tile from Sandhill Industries. This is a "field concept" that incorporates two kinds of tile: Riverblend field tile and a 4x4 inch Cypress deco piece.

Installation Tips

Because it’s transparent, glass showcases the skill of the installer – or lack of it – more readily than other sorts of tile. For that reason, I urge you to resist any latent impulse you feel to install it yourself.  Hire a professional instead.

You should demand to see a prospective installer’s previous jobs before you hire him or her, and it’s also good to know what to look for in an installation. Here are some tips:

  • Make sure the grout color is right before the installer begins work. You can preview the look of the finished grouting job by sprinkling a teaspoon of dry grout in between some tiles.
  • Don’t let the installer mark on the wall. Contractors customarily pencil notes and write measurements on the wall when laying tile, but with glass tile, those marks will show through.
  • Before the adhesive sets, all the grout must be thoroughly cleaned from tile’s surface.  Once the grout has set, it can’t be removed – ever! You must remove and replace the tile to fix this problem.

Bronze Pearl 1" x 4" Black Kitchen Matte and Iridescent Glass Tile from Glass Tile Oasis

  • Glass tile usually comes covered with a paper “backing” that is actually attached to the face of the glass to protect it from scratches. Problems can occur when a person gets confused about which side of the tile should be placed up or attempts to take the paper off too soon, before the tile has set into the adhesive. (Given the need to also clean grout off the face before it sets, timing can be very tricky; this is why your contractor’s experience is so important.)
  • Never throw any grout, or anything with grout on it, down a sink, drain, or toilet. The grout will bond to the pipes and ruin your plumbing. Your contractor should use containers and materials that can be placed into the trash at the job’s completion – and you should also insist that the contractor cleans up the work area and disposes of the leftovers.
  • Reserve some tile in case you later need to replace a few tiles.
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Hats Off to the Glass Artists!

Ancient Roman glass and mosaic floor

I have always wanted to learn to blow glass, so I signed up for a one-day class at Public Glass in San Franciso.
I came away from that day with an increased admiration for the gaffers who practice the strenuous-yet-delicate art of glass blowing. I’m grateful for the crews of artisans who brave the rigors of the hot shop so that the rest of us can admire the beauty of glass in total thermal comfort.

The temperature outside was in the eighties, and that made the hot shop a virtual Sahara. I needed a much-more buffed upper body to hold the heavy pontil and keep it spinning. My glass kept dribbling away like melted taffy, and it had to be repeatedly rescued by kindly instructors.

At their urging, I spent the day alternately chugging bottles of water, then dousing my hair and clothes with an outdoor garden hose. Inside, they dried almost instantly.

Glass vase by Noah Salzman, one of the fine artists represented in Public Glass' gallery.

By the day’s end,  my insides felt like a bag of broken glass. I suffered muscle aches, shakes, shivers, and a shattering headache – mostly the result of dehydration. It was a chore to muster enough energy to rehydrate before falling into bed, freezing and heaped over with blankets.

 I treasure the lumpy, transparent clear glass holiday ornament I made that day – despite the fact that it’s so thick and heavy, it could never be hung on a tree.


To top it off, I was playing with fire. I could feel the glass kiln scorching the hair on my arms, even when I stood as far back as possible. (Given the physics involved, that made the pontil even more difficult to hold.)

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