Category: Interior Design San Francisco

Stripped to the Bones and TBD (To Be Designed)

My husband and I just bought a house in Carbondale, near Aspen, Colorado. Although the photos posted on the MLS didn’t look all that great, I could see that the place has wonderful possibilities.I’m eager to start a design makeover on my Rock Court house, and I will be sharing my progress here in this blog.

Right after the previous owners moved out, I walked around the naked house and took lots of photos. The house has lots of potential, and it was easier to see it with the house stripped of its furnishings.

Talavera tile with cobalt blue insets - one of the handsome features of this house

It has good bones.

I have been looking for clues that would tell me what the house wanted to be.  As I walked through it, multiple details have caught my eye. It is as if the house has been whispering, “I feel a bit Latin.”

It wasn’t about to break into a Tango, but the clues were there: a handsome Talavera tile floor. A round arch in the entryway. Rooms clustered around a central social space.

It’s not built around a courtyard, as would be traditional in a Spanish house. (Those courtyards serve a cooling function in warm, Mediterranean climates. Here, we’re in ski country.) But all of the rooms do radiate off of a central, open-plan living room which serves a social function similar to the courtyard.

Granite inset in the living room - another nice detail.

This light fixture would look good in a New York studio or a very modern interior. But it's all out of whack with the Mexican tile --looks like the Jetsons landed at the wrong airport.

The house also has exposed beams and a nice inset of granite in the living room.

Best yet, the place is oriented perfectly on its lot; the long axis lies east/west, and the kitchen window and dining room, with its sliding glass doors, face south. This means that the house is appropriately oriented for solar heating and cooling, and I mean to take advantage of that.

Even though the interior is a bit dark, the orientation of the house should make it reasonably easy to improve amount of natural light available inside the house.

Dark interior colors have made the low level of lighting even worse than it might be. There’s a lime green entry hall, a cobalt blue accent wall in the dining room, and a half wall that is painted a dark brown. (When I posted photos on Facebook, a friend asked, “Did the owners have something wrong with their eyes? They seem a bit color-challenged.”

This interior is going to have plenty of color, but I’m starting by painting it all a warm, creamy white.

That’s the contractor’s second job. His first is to install insulation under the floors and to order energy-efficient windows. Replacing the windows is going to be a bit of a juggling act, with winter coming on, but we’re just down the valley from Aspen here and that’s a priority.

Although it’s not a priority, I couldn’t close this post without a nod to the infamous “Bronco’s Room” — aka “the man cave.” What can I say about this eye-popping spot? Maybe the realtor who wrote the copy for the MLS listing handled it with just the right note of understatement: “Wait until you see the Broncos room.”

The wait here will be very short. Just look below.


A New Kitchen, A New Life Free from Fear

AFTER: Here's how the west kitchen will look after the remodeling. This side of the kitchen features wheelchair-accessible counters and sinks, and there's a handy counter where the kids can eat.

BEFORE: Here's what the west kitchen looks like now. It houses six refrigerators. In the new design, triple-wide, side-by-side commercial style refrigerators will as hold just as much food while taking up far less space.

I recently volunteered to redesign the kitchen of a domestic violence shelter. Quite a challenge!

Picture your own kitchen after a party, a potluck where a dozen people prepared different dishes. Now, imagine how it would look if it were used by 50 people every day! That’s roughly how many people use the kitchen in a domestic violence shelter, which provides a safe haven to as many as 25 women and their children all at once.

A shelter’s kitchen needs to be as tough as a restaurant or hospital kitchen. But considering the tough times the residents been through, I didn’t want it look or feel institutional. Having taken some similar lumps myself, I think I know how these women are feeling. They want to feel safe, cared for and valued. They need a warm, welcoming space.

Architectural plans and interior designs can’t fill all those needs, but the spaces in our homes – even temporary ones like this one – do carry strong messages. I wanted this one to deliver a very positive message.

I hope to do it with the golden glow of maple cabinetry, Formica 180 FX backsplashes, and counters that look like rosy granite. (A tip of the hat here to kitchen designer and fellow blogger Paul Anater, who suggested using Formica FX for backsplashes.) A handsome floor of Daltile Passagio Nocino ceramic adds an Italian flair. I opened up windows and let the light pour through, and opened doorways and pass-throughs to link the rooms.

Giving Back

I did this pro-bono job over the Christmas holidays. It was an offering I gave in recognition of the good souls who helped me through a crisis similar to those experienced by the residents of SAVE. SAVE, (Safe Alternatives to Violent Environments), is located in Fremont. California, but the address is kept secret to protect its resident women and children from stalking and further violence.

As I told Diane Anderson, Grant Writer and Counselor at SAVE, “What goes around comes around. I know that good will come from this for many people, me included.”

AFTER: The southwest corner of the kitchen will feature a pass-through that enhances safety by reducing kitchen traffic. A newly widened doorway and pocket door on the south wall will open the kitchen for wheelchair access. On the west wall, a Dutch door will prevent collisions and allow moms to keep an eye on kids in the dining/living room.

BEFORE: Here's how this cramped corner looks now.

My kitchen design is a contribution to SAVE’s “Raise the Roof” campaign, an accessibility and remodeling effort that began in 2010. I hope that my plans and drawings will help SAVE win a reconstruction grant from the City of Fremont, and to raise funds from private donors. If there was ever a kitchen remodel that deserved doing, this is it!

As SAVE writes in their grant application:

The kitchen was last renovated in 1998 after a fire destroyed it.

Since then, the kitchen has been used by about 25 people daily (resulting in more than 120,000 uses) and is in need of significant upgrading.

Our kitchen is also not wheelchair accessible, but this renovation will significantly improve our accessibility.

A New Life for the Kitchen

The SAVE kitchen is part of a large house that originally was home to a doctor’s practice and family. The kitchen wasn’t originally intended for the amount of traffic it now receives, and the strain is showing. The counter around the cook top has cracked and there’s a big gap in the surface. The vinyl flooring is curling and pulling up around the edges. Cabinet hardware is loose, and the cabinets are nicked, bumped, and bruised. The finishes and surfaces throughout the kitchen look very, very tired.

In addition, the kitchen suffers from accessibility and traffic problems.

SAVE’s leaders have been gradually upgrading the house to make it accessible to those who are disabled. The shelter usually serves two people each year who are wheelchair-dependent, and many more who have mobility limitations. As they write:

These residents can remain with us for up to 90 days. We recently had a resident who decided not to bring her teenage wheelchair-dependent daughter into our shelter because of the kitchen accessibility limitations. This event really highlighted for us the need to do what we can for all our residents to be as accessible as possible.

The need is especially keen because none of the other three other domestic violence shelters in the area are accessible to those who are mobility impaired.

To fill the gap, SAVE has already installed ramps in the house and built an ADA-compliant bathroom on the first floor. The kitchen is next. My plans will enable SAVE to  make the kitchen wheelchair accessible with widened doors and passages, a pocket door and a wheelchair-height sink and cooking area.

SAVE: Providing More than Walls

The damage that is inflicted on the body in cases of domestic violence heals faster than the emotional, social and financial wounds. As one woman told me eloquently years ago, “The bones have long since healed, but the nightmares remain.”

This visualization was created by the author, interior designer Nicolette Toussaint, using the Revit software program and Photoshop.

Women who muster the courage to escape from their abusers must often leave behind friends, family and jobs, severing ties for their own safety and that of their children. (Although men do sometimes suffer domestic violence, more than 90% of the victims are women.) To survive, some women must leave with nothing more than the clothes on their backs.

To understand how hard this is, I ask men and women to visualize the process: Put your wallet, your keys, your credit cards, and all your money on the table. Now walk out of your house. Leave your car. Keep walking. Could you do that? Could you go to a new city where you know no one and start over? Could you leave all your friends and family? Call no one? Ask for nothing? And could you do it without using any part of your identity – education, licenses, business contacts – that could enable your abuser to track you down?

Tools for Starting Over

Because the clients of domestic violence shelters face the daunting task of re-creating virtually every aspect of their lives – as well as those of their children – domestic violence shelters try to offer far more than the safety of their four walls. Here, again quoting from the grant application, is what SAVE has to say about the enormity of the challenge, and what they provide:

Victims of domestic violence suffer hunger, homelessness, underemployment, psychological trauma, substance abuse and a range of mental health issues secondary to the abuse. Children suffer too, with a myriad of problems from poor academic achievement to increased rates of depression, anxiety and conduct disorders. Our program addresses the barriers that victims of domestic violence face on their path toward safety and self-sufficiency.

Formica has changed! This handsome surface is the new FX 180 from Formica, Red Montana pattern. Extremely beautiful, but durable enough to stand up to lots of kids.

Daltile Passaggio 12 x 12 Nocino, a beautiful floor that will withstand traffic and water.

We provide safe housing, food, clothing, financial literacy, employment readiness, and counseling among many other services.the period between July 2009 and June 2010 we received over 4,000 calls to our crisis hotline and provided more than 7,500 shelter and motel bednights. We served about 250 women and children where 94% of the families served had an annual income below $35,000.

Putting a Face on the Issue

Who are these women?

Statistics say that nearly one-third of American women (31 percent) report being physically or sexually abused by a husband or boyfriend at some point in their lives. I was once one of them, despite having two university degrees and the social privilege that comes with white skin.

The fear sparked by that experience led me to leave my home state of Colorado, severing ties with all but one friend and my parents. I moved to Illinois. Years later, I became a domestic peace advocate and spoke and wrote publicly about the topic in California and other states, but I always remained wary of publicity in Colorado.

The physical bruises fade, but the emotional ones can linger for years.

Thus, I feel a kinship with the women of SAVE. I met a few of them in the process of measuring their kitchen and drilling a few exploratory holes in the wall. The women’s names, like the address of the shelter, must remain secret to ensure their safety. But profiles of some of them are sketched on the SAVE website, and I have taken the liberty of reprinting them here, so that my readers can meet them. Please meet:

  1. Sara, who graduated from SAVE’s transitional housing program,  got a great job with the County and is raising her son in a violence-free home.
  2. Elena, who told SAVE that the first night she spent in our shelter was the first night she had slept without fear in 10 years.
  3. Annie, who got her son back and who told us that the people at SAVE were the first people who believed that she could be a good mother.
  4. Hosina, who told the staff at SAVE so matter-of-factly about all the terrible things her daddy had done to her.
  5. Shelly, who just today got the keys to her new apartment, after 17 years of abuse and almost a year in shelter.

If you would like to help these women, and others like them, I encourage you to visit SAVE’s website and make a donation. The shelter could certainly use your help. Last year, SAVE served more than 4,500 clients while having to cut staff due to loss of funding. What’s more, they desperately need a new kitchen (plans below)!

Floorplan for new SAVE kitchen. Designer: Nicolette Toussaint

I encourage any reader who has a friend or relative who has suffered from domestic violence to donate in the name of their loved one.

If you’re a contractor or manufacturer of appliances, cabinetry, tile or stainless steel countertops, you could do a good turn by making an in-kind donation of your products (hint, hint).

You will find links to SAVE’s website below.

Links for SAVE

Links for Author Nicolette Toussaint

Design Icon Brian Graham’s Saber Dance

Brian Graham is describing his kind of nirvana: “It’s like that acrobatic act that happened on the old Ed Sullivan show – to the tune of the Saber Dance.”

City Hall side chair, Geiger. Design by Brian Graham. Photo courtesy of Geiger.

He hums a few insistent bars. Ta dah, dah dah dah dah. Ta-dah dah dah dah. “I have plates spinning on sticks in the air. One here. Another there. And another the. Oh oh, the first one’s wobbling…”

“Three plates,” I say. “You only have two hands.”

He smiles. An eminent furniture designer — Graham has received awards from the  American Institute of Architects, the Institute of Business Designers, the International Interior Design Association, and the Chicago Athenaeum Museum of Architecture & Design, among others — he’s nonetheless a very approachable, witty, and refreshingly unaffected man.

Last fall, just prior to the NeoCon interior design show in Chicago, Graham’s saber dance involved balancing three high-profile projects: 1) Reff Profiles for Knoll furniture, 2) seating for Martin Brattrud, and 3) the City Hall and Advocate side chairs for Geiger. “I loved balancing the three projects,” he says. “They were all so different; each for a different area of interest, each a different scale, each for a different design culture.”

Brian Graham in his San Francisco studio.

The understated beauty of Graham’s design shines through each of these projects, but my favorite is the City Hall side chair, shown above. Its angular arms and legs are in counterpoint to the gentle curve of the back, and the interplay of positive and negative spacial planes creates a spare elegance. The composition works because the weights, the ratios and lines are just right. As Graham put it, “with a wood side chair, there’s no place to hide.”

The Bandon swivel chair Graham designed for Martin Brattrud captured a silver award at NeoCon, a laurel that celebrated not only good design, but also an enduring relationship. More than two decades ago, Brattrud’s response to Graham’s ideas opened the doors to Graham’s furniture design career. At the time, Graham, a humble graduate of Cal State Long Beach, was working at Gensler design in a role that he describes as “low man on the totem pole.”

Brian's sketch in Nicolette's notebook

The task at hand was the design of some custom banquettes for a law firm. Graham knocked out some informal sketches; he shows me what they looked like by making a couple drawings in my notebook. Soon, Brian suggested that Brattrud produce its own lounge chairs with the firm’s name on them.

Currently, Graham has designed the Bandon, Dominique, Earl, Homestead, Keating, Nancy, Raymond and Wynand line for Martin Brattrud, and today, 26 years after his original collaboration, a couple of the orginal banquettes he designed are still in the Brattrud catalog.

Graham’s first design job was for a small husband-and-wife remodeling firm, and it was there he first started drawing furniture. He was also sent out in the field to help a guy named Wayne install window blinds, much to his distaste at the time. “I was working with all those small metal fittings. Realizing that ‘this thing is too close to the end and can’t be installed without scratching the window’ caused me to design differently,” he said. “Today, I want to see the guys installing my furniture, because if it’s taking too long to install the overhead, I know I need to change it.”

Brian Graham's business card reclining on a furniture model.

Graham next worked at Gensler for nine years, then worked in partnership with John L. Thiele, AIA for another six years before starting his own studio, Graham Design. Today, Graham designs furniture and related products for firms such as Knoll, Halcon, and Decca, and for clients such as Apple Computer, Collins & Aikman and U.S. Trust.

Graham did not grow up in a design-oriented family. “No one in my family was in the arts or in design. The only one who remotely understood my desire to draw was my grandfather. He was in advertising in L.A”

“My father said I should be a cartoonist. Fast forward 20-some years and in a way I am, except that most of the things that I draw are made of metal and wood.”

Since I too have been in the advertising business, and Brian and I are really interviewing one another — he’s kindly agreed to give me some advice about me career and I have volunteered to write about his — he asks about what job I have liked most. When I mention the three years I worked for Dailey and Associates in San Francisco, he says, “Is that related to Dailey and Associates in L.A.?” Yes, it was.

Models in Brian Graham's office

Turns out that our networks overlap. At a long-ago Christmas party, the Creative Director of San Francisco’s Dailey and Associates, John MacDaniels — still my favorite all-time boss — once introduced me to his Los Angeles’ opposite number, Cliff Einstein. Einstein, I learn, was a client and friend of Graham’s father. I think I was probably so over-awed by Einstein and MacDaniels, two towering ad men, that I was tongue-tied at the time.

But I have had no trouble talking to Graham, who’s now a renowned figure himself. Brian and I talked our way through two cups of coffee, and at least a demitasse of design philosophy.

One Graham’s design heroes is Florence Knoll, who would design pieces because she couldn’t find them. She designed what she called “fill-in” pieces that would complement, rather than compete with, a building’s architecture.

Reff Profile office group from Knoll. Photo courtesy of Knoll.

Brian Graham’s approach is similar. “My specialty is about understanding the market,” he says. “I consider myself first an interior designer, and I’m concerned with how someone is going to use a chair, or a desk, or table in an overall space and project. I find that lots of products need to be quiet and understated, and not shout for attention.”

The oxymoron that comes with this minimalist approach is that it often produces designs of such elegance that they not only stand beautifully on their own, but have also stood the test of time. This is certainly true of Florence Knoll’s work, and I think it will also prove true of many of Brian Graham’s designs.

Empty Nest Filling Up? Here’s Help.

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 for around $3000.


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?

Bats in the Belfry, Angels in the Attic

You would think,  among the 33 lamps I found while cleaning out and renting my mother’s house, that at least one would have contained a genie! As the sampling here shows, they did appear to be that sort of lamps.

But alas, no genie appeared.

Perhaps I didn’t rub hard enough?

Frankly, I was reluctant to rub or stir too much. As often happens when people get Alzheimer’s, the house had suffered considerable neglect. The cobwebs, the dust, the deceased lizards and several one-and-one-half-inch-long dead cockroaches were both creepy and contra-indicated for someone with dust allergies and asthma.  I hired a cleaning service.

Cranberry glass is supposed to valuable, or at least collectible...

But what of the purported treasure in that house? What of all the times mom enjoined me to keep her three sets of china “in the family forever.” (Huh? I have no children. I live a few miles from the San Andreas fault.)

What of the gilded demilune chest, standing tiptoe on tiny feet, filled with dozens of jade and ivory elephants? The antique books? The treadle sewing machine? The colored glass in hues of blue, turquoise, amber, green and cranberry?

China and more china! Blue willow, Welsh copperware and a whole set Haviland Limoges cornflower and wheat pattern china. Unfortunately, it was too used to be of much value, and demand for collectibles has dropped.

Antiques, Americana and the Wild West are not really part of my design vocabulary – not my thing. My style runs more to Barcelona chairs than to bootjacks and hobnob glassware.

Still, it was my job to sort out the house, and my mother’s collection-mania. Somehow.

Even before her Alzheimer’s diagnosis, my mom was eccentric. She named the spiders in her house and protected their webs. She hung a stuffed witch in the kitchen and a stuffed bat in the breakfast room. (Had she owned a belfry, I’m sure she would have put it there.)

Mom intentionally kept her house dark. She had to carry a flashlight around to be able to match earrings or read the phone book. (Not one of those lamps had more than a 40 watt bulb!) And despite the volume of her collections — rabbits, teddy bears, pigs, milk glass chicken bowls, goblets, earrings, yarn, buttons, creamers, dolls, and Beanie Babies — she had the virtue of thrift. She wouldn’t want waste electricity. She saved old clothes and towels. And she usually shopped at second-hand stores.

I suspected that the “provenance” (the ownership history) of most of her “antiques” would lead to Dollar Tree or St. Vincent DePaul, but I couldn’t be sure.

The catch was that the house contained not only my mother’s possessions, but also those of my mom’s five great aunts, her parents, her husband, and her husband’s parents and grandparents. A few of those folks had money, and quite possibly, they had passed on something worthy of  Antiques Roadshow.

What the lamps failed to produce, the internet provided. Not a genie, but a firm with the improbable name of “Angels in the Attic.” (It’s bit kitschy for my taste. And for the record, I don’t believe in angels. I don’t collect little angel statues and stick them on top of my bookshelves either.)

A small portion of the herd of elephants.

Wrapping and cataloging the elephants. Oh, yeah, I had a cast on my hand for two broken fingers during all this cleaning and furniture moving!

Brian and Anastasia are a husband and wife team who have an interesting business: they stage, advertise and host “estate sales” for folks who need to clear out entire homes. They have differing areas of expertise, and each of them has a little black book stuffed with the names of collectors, buyers, antiquarians, decorators, and appraisers.

For a person asking “who you gonna call?” it’s great to have the option of calling someone who is connected.

Confronted by the mountains of furniture, antiques, collectibles and junk in my mom’s house, I had no idea of where start! Despite the fact that I was once married into a family that ran a British antiques business – and thus know about Tobies, horse brasses and copper bed warmers – I still felt unqualified to sort the gold from the dross.

For example, my mom insisted that the gilded demilune in the living room was genuine and dated from 1700. She insisted the elephant herd inside the demilune was priceless, and that the humble sugar chest in the bedroom was “worth a fortune”. I suspected otherwise.

I turned to the internet and first called an appraiser, letting her know that I wanted to her to let me know what things worth, and that I would not allow her to buy anything.

Mom's house before the cleanup. The neighbors asked when she was going to trim the trees. Her answer, "Never."

The amount of rubbish that came out of just the back yard. Photo taken at 5 am - that's when gardeners start to work in Phoenix, where the midday temperature can be 110 degrees.

What it looked like after my brother Gene and I got done.

This is a wise procedure in most cases. Unscrupulous dealers will low-ball good pieces and then turn around and sell them for a handsome profit. But it left me with all that stuff still on my hands.

The cleaning service, at my request, dragged 12 garbage bags of stuff out of the kitchen for the garage sale before Brian and Anastasia ever arrived. (The two of them wished we hadn’t done this, but I’m still sure that it was all everyday stuff: pots and pans and Tupperware. I told the cleaners, “If it’s edible, throw it out. If it’s not, stick it in the garage for the garage sale.”)

My brother and I, with the help of good neighbor Troy, actually had 11 days of garage sales! At the end, I still had to hire a guy with a truck to go take a mountain of miscellany to the dump, and I advertised free items on Craigslist. Luckily for me, some kindly thief stole eight garbage bags of old clothes and linens that I had left out on the porch one night.

But back to the Angels in the Attic.

Brian, it turned out, had a background in weapons and military antiques. The Colt .45 that was handed down to my step-father from the Texas side of his family – a firearm colloquially known as the “Peacemaker” and the “gun that won the West” – was probably the most valuable item in the house. (I gave it, as a thank-you, to across-the-street neighbor Troy, who was mom’s go-to guy for a whole series of crises prior to her emergency move.)

Anastasia not only knew the value of the Eastlake chairs, the silver flatware, the Victorian-era Limoges china and the antique dolls, she also knew who would be interested in buying them. While we didn’t have enough – or good enough – stuff for an estate sale, we did have a whole series of buyers. Thanks to Anastasia and her little black book, they came to the house one by one, handing over cash for antique books, war medals and old photos, as well as the demilune and the sugar chest.

The demilune was, as I suspected, a reproduction. It dated not from 1700, but from around 1900. But it was a good reproduction, worth hundreds, not thousands, but we were happy to have the money. At some point, mom may need round-the-clock care for her Alzheimers. Anastasia found us a buyer.

Anastasia also found a buyer for that sugar chest – the one that was worth “a fortune.”

At current prices, a fortune turns out to be about $300.

Correction! That’s what Anastasia originally gave us from the sale she made for us. After the buyer took the sugar chest home and looked at it in good light (something sadly lacking in my mom’s house), he thought it was a much better piece than he had originally thought. Unbeknownst to me, he called Anastasia and told her about this, and made arrangements more appropriate to the integrity of their relationship.

Next morning, Anastasia presented me with a good bit more money, an explanation, and an apology.

This tale ends with several lessons and morals:

  1. Phoenix is different from San Francisco. Neighbor Troy, who is studying to be a police officer, repeatedly cautioned me about letting strangers in the house, about trusting folks and about theft. Several times, he warned me, “this is the Wild West.” He was right about things getting stolen, but he didn’t realize how helpful I would find the loss of all those garbage bags filled with linen and old clothes. (I was not happy about the fact that a con man forged a title and stole my mother’s whole darn house, but that’s another story.)
  2. Good neighbors do exist, and nice guys do get rewarded. I feel really good about giving that Colt Peacemaker to Troy – and I don’t even want to know what it’s worth. I wouldn’t let Troy tell me what he found out on the internet. I think justice was done in Phoenix, Arizona.
  3. Angels just might exist.  I might have been a bit premature in what I said about the angels. I suspect I may have met one. Her name was Anastasia. Her partner Brian is a pretty good guy too.

Dream homes: architectural rendering as escape


Recliner in a Sunny Courtyard. Marker Rendering by Nicolette Toussaint


Irregular readers of this blog may have noticed that its main author has mysteriously disappeared for a couple months.

I say “irregular” because the blog itself has been pretty herky-jerky this summer. Those who have checked in will have found some fine guest posts, but little content from me.

That’s a bit out of character for me, but at least I have a good excuse. Actually, several good excuses,  all having to deal with aging, real estate and home renovation.

These are common themes in Living in Comfort and Joy, and I will be reporting on my summer activities in subsequent posts. But this time, I thought I would share what I was doing to keep my sanity while doing home renovation and moving work that really should have gotten me a guest spot on Dirty Jobs.

The image above is a marker rendering (yes, like Magic Markers).  It’s where I would liked to have gone: Southern France? Perhaps a rented house in Tuscany? Maybe just a week at a four-star hotel in Sonoma, California. Those are the places I imagined that went while drawing it.


I painted Serdar Gulgun's color-saturated interior over the July 4th weekend after I broke the fingers on my right hand. Medium is watercolor.


Another of the places I went this summer was Turkey. The room at right is in Istanbul. It’s the home and the work of interior designer Serdar Gülgün, as featured in the August issue of Architectural Digest. I love Serdar’s use of saturated color, as well as the mixing of materials and artifacts from different cultures. The design, like Istanbul itself, sits at a cultural crossroads.


Interior rendering in marker by Nicolette Toussaint


I painted this Turkish interior in watercolor over the July 4th weekend. That was less than a week after I fell off a Razor Scooter (long story, not my clumsiness, and not my fault) and broke the third and fourth finger of my right hand. I am right handed, and thought maybe my goose was cooked. But looking at Serdar’s Chinese dogs convinced me that I was wrong about that goose; I have working in watercolor for many years, and it’s my favorite medium. (NOTE: About a month after this post was originally published, Serdar saw the blog and left a message in the comments section. I am truly honored to have such an important guest here on Living in Comfort and Joy.)

The book-lined room at left offers another great escape. I don’t know where this one is, but I’m imaging someplace like Aspen, Colorado. Maybe it’s Indian summer, the aspen leaves are turning gold, but the evenings are cool and crisp. We’ve rented a nice sunny condo with a fireplace, great places to take walks among the whispering aspens, and a sunny nook that just beckons, “come read a good novel.” (I love Barbara Kingsolver, and even if the reviews say it’s not as good as Poisonwood Bible, I’d love to read The Lacuna.)


Kitchen Rendering by Nicolette Toussaint. Watercolor.


Kitchens are always nice places to hang out, and over the summer, I dreamed up a couple. The one above, rendered in watercolor, is in Illinois. It reminds me of my former mother-in-law, Reina Krause, who was a wonderful, cordon-bleu trained chef. I spent many happy hours hanging out with her in kitchens in both Illinois and Southern California. In real life, the kitchen above is mostly black and white. I redesigned it in shades of green to bring integrate the indoors with that wonderful, arboreal scene outside.



Revit three-dimensional image with colored pencil.


Revit three-dimensional image with colored pencil.

The two versions of the kitchen shown at left are truly imaginary places – those wonderful places that exist only in the mind of the client and designer until a skillful contractor brings them to life. (I’m pleased beyond all measure that such a contractor has come into my life. Her name is Cynthia Casarotti, and her firm is called “Casarotti + Design. I seem to be the “plus design part,” since she and are collaborating on a couple remodeling projects. One of them is an accessible bathroom, and you will be hearing about it in subsequent posts.)

I designed the kitchen at left with Autocad’s Revit three-dimensional drawing program. I then experimented with changing the palette using colored pencil, another of my favored media. (While I love Revit’s three-dimensional abilities and its accuracy, I feel somewhat limited in its color and decorative abilities.) I used colored pencil to create two different palettes and styles for the same kitchen, one I designed in the spring of this year. I’m not quite sure how Revit creates its 3-D views; it doesn’t seem to use a typical one- or two-point perspective, and since it’s a software program, I can’t very well ask it.)

Which one of these ktichens appeals most to you? Is the red energizing? Or do you prefer the quieter green?

And if you could have a vacation trip to anywhere you wanted to go – for real – where would it be?


Sometimes I just paint for fun. Here’s an example. If you’re curious, you can find more of my watercolors on my website, a portfolio of pencil drawings on my website, and a portfolio of my architectural renderings on Behance. (And yes, I am very interested in freelance gigs for architectural rendering and for paintings.)


Cabin in Indian Summer. Watercolor by Nicolette Toussaint.


Buildings of Comfort and Joy: Low-Cost Green Building Basics

By David Bainbridge

Guest blogger, author and green builder David Bainbridge

The Greek writer Aeschylus described the barbarians, “Though they had eyes to see, they saw to no avail; they had ears, but understood not. They lacked the knowledge of houses….turned to face the sun…”

Living in Comfort and Joy welcomes guest author and green builder David Bainbridge.

Reprinted by permission, this post was originally published by Triple Pundit at this link.

David Bainbridge has focused on the challenge of sustainable management of resources and people for the last 40 years. He is the author of 17 books, many book chapters and more than 300 articles and reports on sustainable management.

The basics of climatically adapted design have been known since Greek and Roman times.

They have been studiously ignored by architectural schools, by architects and engineers, and by LEED and building codes; but the rising cost of energy is encouraging reconsideration of these smart design features. Climatically adapted design can improve comfort, security, and productivity and dramatically reduce the cost of operation. It can also reduce construction cost.

The best orientation is usually for a building to be longer east-west that it is north-south, with a major wall the equator, many of the windows facing the equator, and few facing east or west. This orientation will maximize solar heating in winter and minimize summer overheating by making best use of the seasonal difference in sun path. This was well understood in Ancient Greece and Rome where houses were solar oriented, some cities were laid out for good solar access and where legal action could be brought to maintain solar access to keep a home warm in winter.

The second step in building or remodeling for energy efficiency is reducing unwanted conductive and convective heat loss (or gain). Most homes and commercial buildings are under-insulated and leaky.

Congregation Beth David--Natural heating, cooling, ventilation and lighting. Includes straw bale wall elements. Design: San Luis Obispo Sustainability Group 80% less energy than Title 24 code

Water wall for architectʼs office, also natural ventilation, daylighting with light shelf and windows. San Luis Obispo Sustainability Group

More insulation and better weatherization can improve efficiency and provide controlled ventilation so that fresh air comes in when and where you want it. With a good building shell we can apply the following design principles for a naturally heated and cooled, ventilated and daylit building where people will be dancing in the sunlight.

Five Rules for Low-Cost
Natural Heating

  1. Make sure the building shell is very well insulated and weathertight.
  2. Orient the building properly, with windows on the equator facing side. A rectangular shape that is wider east-west than north-south is best in most climates.
  3. Use the minimum amount of equator facing window area needed for heating (often only 5-8% of floor area).
  4. Include high performance windows with insulated shades or shutters in winter. Use high solar heat gain glazing on the equator facing windows.
  5. Use the simplest, smallest, and most economical method of providing needed thermal mass. This will often be doubled sheet rock in south rooms, thicker plaster, concrete or tile floors and water tanks

Five Rules for
Natural Cooling

  1. Make sure the building is oriented properly with most windows on south and north, few on east and west.
  2. Provide shading for all windows in summer (awnings, overhangs, etc.). 3. Use light roof colors and light wall colors.
  3. Choose and place windows and vents for good ventilation and convective cooling. Use paddle fans for air circulation, use night ventilation (consider a whole house fan) if night air temperatures are low.
  4. Use thermal mass (water tanks, doubled sheet rock, plaster, rock, tile or concrete) to store nighttime coolness for use during the day.
  5. Use landscaping to cool the building environment.

Five Rules for
Effective Ventilation

An off-the-grid straw bale house. Photo by David Bainbridge.

Daylighting with interior diffuser for upper windows. Water wall thermal storage for lower windows. San Luis Obispo Sustainability Group.
  1. Consider wind direction, speed and temperature in window type and orientation of openings and the design of interior spaces and connections. Undercut doors, use transom vents, or use open plans to provide good ventilation.
  2. Embrace stack ventilation, by adding roof monitors or high and low vents.
  3. Consider dust and allergen issues and install filters to reduce problems.
  4. Consider security, so open windows to not compromise safety and security.
  5. Add mechanical ventilation as needed with optimized efficiency ceiling fans and vents.

Five Rules for
Effective Daylighting

  1. Orient the building properly, integrate windows in daylighting design.
  2. Use exterior light shelves to bounce light onto ceilings from high windows.
  3. Use interior diffusers to soften and reflect light when exterior light shelves cannot be used.
  4. Use roof monitors, clerestory windows and solar tubes for daylighting interior spaces.
  5. Use courtyards, transparent or translucent interior doors, walls and windows to allow light into the building core.

These rules work together to make buildings more pleasant and healthful to live and work in. A well designed naturally heated and cooled building can reduce energy demand for heating and cooling from 80-90%. This was first demonstrated in the 1960s, perfected in the 1970s and ’80s and implemented by the Germanʼs in the 1990s in the growing passivhaus movement.

The ING Bank building in Amsterdam demonstrated that these savings can be achieved by large buildings as well as homes. If climatically adapted, solar design is correctly integrated in buildings we can improve comfort for one tenth the energy commonly used today. For retrofits we can expect savings of 50-70% If we count productivity gains and reduced absenteeism (usually 10-15%) passive solar doesnʼt cost at all – it pays.


About the Author

David Bainbridge is a certified GRI sustainability reporting instructor for the ISOS Group. His pioneering work has included:

  • developments in environmental impact analysis, land capability evaluation (including land value issues),
  • planning for sustainable communities,
  • natural heating and cooling research,
  • alternative building materials research and education (including straw bale building systems),
  • research and education work in agroforestryand sustainable agriculture, desert and grassland restoration, and
  • environmental accounting and sustainablemanagement for businesses.

Resource Links for David Bainbridge

  • To get trained by David, click here
  • For a free download of his latest book click here
  • To read the original version of this article on Triple Pundit, click here


Where’s Nicolette?

Before: Mom's overgrown yard in Phoenix.

During: Yard work starts around 4 am when the temperature is over 100 degrees. This is just the debris from the back yard!

After: Neighbors were surprised to learn that the house was painted white.

Regular readers of the Living in Comfort and Joy blog will have noticed that author Nicolette Toussaint has been noticeably absent and slow to post.

She is navigating a rough patch: early this summer, her mother was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. Soon after, Nicolette was laid off. Not long after that, she fell and broke two fingers on her right hand – the drawing and typing hand. (This last calamity was discussed in the post “Look Ma, Only 80% hands”.)

After investigating her mother’s business affairs, Nicolette noticed that fraudulent documents had been filed giving the ownership of her mother’s Phoenix house to a handyman acquaintance! Neighbors also reported stalking and threats, so Nicolette and her brother undertook an emergency move for mom.

It took several weeks – and numerous conversations with attorneys, police detectives, social workers, doctors and neighbors – to get the fraud reversed. (Naturally, blog posts on hoarding and other aspects of the house clean-up adventure will soon appear in Living in Comfort and Joy.)

Nicolette reports that her cast has been removed and her right hand is largely functioning. The Phoenix house is mostly clean and rented. She is now gainfully employed and will return to writing her blog in the next couple weeks.

Meanwhile, she’s very grateful to her friend and green builder David Bainbridge for his guest post.

This post – which David called “Buildings of Comfort and Joy” all on his own with no input from Nicolette – was originally published in Triple Pundit.

It is reproduced here with that publication’s permission.