Tag: interior design for seniors

Disability: Rolling with the Changes

Having lived 46 years with Muscular Dystrophy, “The Strength Coach,” Greg Smith has endured constant change for the worse. Every year, becomes physically weaker. But his accomplishments and satisfaction with life grow stronger every day.

Greg Smith is the author of the best-selling, “On A Roll: Reflections from America’s Wheelchair Dude with the Winning Attitude,” and founder of the14-year-running syndicated radio show “On A Roll: Talk Radio on Life & Disability,” later renamed “The Strength Coach Radio Show.” Photo courtesy of Greg Smith.

Although he only weights 65 pounds and cannot sit upright without support, his list of accomplishments is one nearly any adult would envy. Greg has been honored as an “Exceptional American” by the National Liberty Museum in Philadelphia; you’ll find his plaque and picture right between Stevie Wonder and Christopher Reeve.  Greg’s remarkable life story was revealed to over two million Americans in the ‘Audience Award Winning’ PBS documentary film, “On A Roll: Family, Disability and the American Dream,” which aired in 2005.

Greg is an active father of three, and radio and television host. He’s an author and professional speaker and travels the world with a message of inspiration. How does he do it? Greg has become an expert at adapting, at accepting change, and at moving through challenges with great courage. Although I haven’t had the pleasure of meeting Greg personally, he’s a long-time friend of my childhood sweetheart, a radio professional who lives in Chicago. Through Aubrey, Greg has become an online friend of mine.

Recently, CNN ran a moving story called “65 Pound Dad.” I have had experience in remodeling for disability, and it reminded me that I wanted to ask Greg about both how he has adapted his home to living with disability, and how he has adapted emotionally. Greg kindly agreed to be interviewed for Living in Comfort and Joy.


Q: Greg, I have three friends with MS, but all of them were diagnosed with it as young adults. You began developing MS as child. Did your parents change the physical layout of their home to foster your independence when you were growing up?

Greg Smith travels the nation as a motivational speaker.

A: Well first of all, I have muscular dystrophy (MD) which is a neuromuscular condition, not multiple sclerosis (MS) which attacks the nervous system.  It is a common mistake.  When I was a young child, I could ambulate very effectively, although with a severe limp which caused my spine to gradually curve to the left.

When I was 13, I had what’s called a spinal fusion.  Metal rods were attached to my spine because I didn’t have the muscles to hold myself upright. I hobbled into the hospital to have that surgery and rolled out three weeks later in a wheelchair.  I could still walk around in the house until my late 20s when the ability sort of drifted away and one day, I realized I couldn’t stand up.

Ever since, I’ve been using a wheelchair fulltime. When I was growing up, my parents didn’t have to modify their home at all for me because I could climb up stairs on my hands and knees and functioned as normally as possible.  It took me longer and was more difficult, but I believe that made me stronger.

Q: What kinds of changes have you made in your home where you live to accommodate your wheelchair?

A:  When we built this home, we wanted a no-step entrance, so the house is built on a flat slab. All of the hallways are a little bit wider and every door is 36” wide. We have ramps leading to the various patios and the deck. The floor plan allows me complete access to the entire ground floor.  There is a guest room and another full bathroom upstairs, but I don’t access that area of the house.

This stunning interior is the dining room of Cynthia Leibrock's Green Mountain Ranch, a showplace and educational center for accessible design.

Q: I know that the wheelchair doesn’t begin to meet all the mobility challenges you face. Having heard your Pepsi story, I know that picking up dropped items and reaching things also poses problems. What kinds of changes in your home or adaptive devices help with those problems?

A:  Well there are some things that are especially difficult for me and picking things up off the floor is one of them.  I have a dressing stick, a long wooden stick with a rubber hook-like mechanism on the end which allows me to reach some things.  I don’t have the strength in my hands and arms to use one of those grabbers effectively, but I’m very good at using my feet to slide things dropped on the floor up against the wall to a height where I can reach them.

It’s amazing how creative a person can get when in need of a certain result.  When something falls on the floor that I need, it’s frustrating, but I know that I can always get it up if necessary.  I know it’s going to be a struggle though. My secret to success is that I look at those situations as opportunities to grow stronger and build the confidence in knowing that no matter what situation I face, I can usually find a way out.

Q: My husband and I had a great friend, Lucille Lockhart, now deceased, who was a great disability access advocate. It’s thanks to her that you will see curb cuts throughout San Francisco. Lucille was wry, and so smart she crackled. She was not about to let anyone think that disability was something that would never impact them. After my husband declined her invitation to serve on an access committee for our church – he told her that he wasn’t qualified because he wasn’t disabled – Lucille snorted and retorted, “That’s just a temporary condition.”

Accessible landscaping near Greg's home. A handsome mix of textures mark the walkways and ramps provide easy access.

It’s true that as we age, almost all of us develop a variety of disabilities. But many, perhaps most, of the elders I know, are in denial about these changes. They limp around the house, clinging to walls almost as frantically as they cling to the notion that they are not mobility impaired. Since I’m specializing in remodeling for disability – sitting here eager and able to guide them in home adaptation – I find this denial doubly frustrating.

You haven’t had the luxury of being able to deny disability and change. How have you coped? And what advice do you have for us aging Baby Boomers when it comes to embracing change and making plans that will (if we can muster our courage) actually extend our independence?

A:  I would argue that I have had the advantage of insight about change… just at an earlier age than most people. With muscular dystrophy, I’ve gradually lost strength and abilities. I understand what it is like to be able to do something one day and then a year later, you can’t do it anymore.  I can’t easily climb into my wheelchair from a bed.  I can still do it, but it requires a lot of effort and it isn’t something I’ll be able to do forever.

I cannot sit up in bed anymore.  I can still turn over in bed but it is a struggle and if I’m under a heavy blanket, forget it!  Sometimes when I wake up in the middle of the night, I have to condition my mind to resist the desire to roll.  To accept it, and just go back to sleep.  I can not dress myself anymore.  I cannot sit upright in this wheelchair without a strap holding me into place.

So I know it’s possible for people to accept change and the loss of abilities and still be able to maintain independence and live an enjoyable life.  I believe independence is the freedom to make all the decisions about how things are done in your life. It doesn’t mean you have to do them without assistance.  It just means you get to decide how and when the help is needed. I think once people embrace that definition of independence, they are free to enjoy life.

Green Mountain Kitchen
Accessible kitchen at Cynthia Leibrock's Green Mountain Ranch

Q: I have a couple disabilities: asthma and hearing loss.  Neither one is immediately visible and sometimes I can “pass” as abled for quite a long time when I’m getting to know people. But in my middle years, I decided not to do that, but instead, to come right out and tell people about my hearing loss – it really helps if they know that they need to look at me when they talk to me.  I need to be able to see their lips to aid my understanding.

I’m thinking about this because I find that when I am redesigning a house to accommodate a disability, one of the things that clients really like is when I can make the accommodations invisible.  I am quite good at this, and would love to find more clients who want my services. I understand that people just hate the idea of their home “looking like a hospital.” I don’t know how much of that is related to personal taste and how much of it has to do with accommodations “announcing” one’s disability to visitors. Or even to family.

Cynthia Leibrock, the doyenne of high-end, universal design – and an extremely gracious person –  always makes a point of making disability accommodations invisible to visitors. Those who visit her showplace, Green Mountain Ranch, just see a gorgeous home.

This prompts me to ask how your kids and friends have reacted to the accommodations in your home. Do they like the accommodations? Hate them? Not really notice? And how did all that make you feel?

A:  I don’t think our home is built in a way that makes it obvious that a person with a disability lives here.  There is no step to enter and the halls and doorways are a bit wider, but I don’t think that is at all noticeable. It is a beautiful home. I don’t think accessible has to be ugly.

Q: What room of the house is hardest for you to use, and why? What have you done about that?

A:  The kitchen is somewhat inaccessible to me but that is because I live with my parents and my mother has her way of doing things. I know that we could make the kitchen more accessible, but I don’t cook, so it’s not really an issue.

Q: Do you have a roll-in shower? Do you use a bathtub? And if so, what modifications have you made so that you can use it?

A:  I have a roll-in shower but I use a shower bench and have someone assist me transferring out of my wheelchair onto the bench.

Q: What advice do you have for me, as an interior designer and home remodeler who is interested in helping people to adapt their homes to overcome mobility impairments?

The front door to Greg's house - there's no step to impede his wheelchair.

A: Well, first of all, I would like to see a day where home designers and builders start thinking “someday, someone with a disability is going to live in this house, and somebody with a disability is going to want to visit this house.”  I think it is entirely possible to build all homes with at least one no-step entrance and bathroom doors wide enough for a wheelchair to fit through.

The concept of “Visitability” was introduced by Eleanor Smith of Atlanta many years ago. She has made significant progress in her efforts to make all new homes include basic accessibility including at least one no-step entrance, doors 32 inches wide and at least one half-bath on the first floor.

Q: I’d like to give you a chance to pitch your motivational speaking here in my blog. Tell me about where you’re going to be and what kind of gigs your seeking.

Thanks for the opportunity. I specialize in teaching people how to turn their challenges and weaknesses into incredible strengths.  I love to speak to audiences and share the lessons I’ve learned from the unique perspective I have as a person with a severe disability.

I think my knowledge can be useful to anyone. In my presentations, audiences will discover the three ingredients to building inner strength and learn how to use the power of addictions to their advantage. I love to roll around the platform in my power wheelchair and connect with my audiences.  I always get a few laughs. I always get a few tears. And I always have people come up to me afterwards and say how much they have changed since hearing me speak.

If anyone wants to hear me speak, they can call me at 228-424-3896 and we can find a local university to sponsor my visit.

Greg, I hope that someone will bring you out here to San Francisco to speak. I have enjoyed interviewing you over the net, but I’m sure I would enjoy meeting you in person far more. Thanks for joining me here at Living in Comfort and Joy.

Resource Links


I often end my posts with an inspirational verse. This one is a favorite of Greg’s.

Greg Smith in the broadcasting booth.

Out of the night that covers me
Black as the Pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul.

In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance
My head is bloody, but unbowed.

Beyond this place of wrath and tears
Looms but the horror of the shade,

And yet the menace of the years
Finds, and shall find me, unafraid.

It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll,
I am the master of my fate;
I am the captain of my soul.

Obstacles to Overcome: An Accessible Kitchen

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).


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.

Of Scruples, Scams, Divas, and My Evil Twin


NEWS FLASH, 10/30/2009 – Thanks to the wild popularity of this post – 554 visitors in the 6 weeks since it was published – the Evil Twin has written a goodbye note and is signing off! Thanks to all those who read and supported Nicolette Toussaint’s and Wendy Hoechstetter’s blogs!

Years ago, in the middle a huge matrimonial argy-bargy, my ex accused me of having an Evil Twin. The notion struck me as so funny that it entirely derailed my anger.

The real T. Nicolette Toussaint

Now it turns out that my ex was more or less right! This week, I learned that I have an internet doppelganger. I found out when a respected interior design colleague, Wendy Hoechstetter, called to ask me – in the most diplomatic and gracious way – if I had lost my mind.

What Wendy was wondering was why my taste had turned to schlock? And why I had sold out to a company that was abundantly represented on websites warning of internet ripoffs?

Let me hasten to add here, that I feel a professional kinship with Wendy. She and I share a strong set of ethics, a similar view of the role an interior designer should play, and mutual devotion to using design to enable those who are aging or disabled to become healthier and more independent. We both blog, comment on one another’s blogs, and belong to a Bay Area networking group affiliated with LinkedIn. I admire the legislative work Wendy has done on behalf of interior designers’ rights to practice.

Like me, Wendy changed careers in mid-life, and as a former paramedic, she has a gracious “beside manner.” She would never have put her concerns into the words I used in the paragraph above. It took the better part of 45 minutes before before I was able to figure out what prompted the undertone of concern in her voice. It was only after she mentioned the term “design diva” the second time that I started to catch her drift.

What’s in a Name?

My Evil Twin
My Evil Twin

The bottom line was that Wendy was uncomfortable with the links that “Nicolette, the Design Diva” had left in her blog’s comments section. And knowing my penchant for alliteration, Wendy had assumed that I had actually left those links. Therein lies the rub. If Wendy was confused, then others are too.

For years, I have enjoyed having a first name unusual enough to allow me to be a one name wonder like Cher, Madonna, and the artist formerly known as Prince.

But here’s the downside: If you have a common name like Susan Black or Jack Smith, everyone knows that other people share your name. They also know that everything they read that seems to be associated with your name isn’t necessarily about you.

There are very few other Nicolettes around. I have met only one since I began using Nicolette at the age of 14, when I came home and announced to my startled parents that I had changed my name. I had introduced myself at my new school using my middle name. Because my teachers would never learn to pronounce my first name, I had decided to stop using it. I would sign legal documents with the initial letter of my first name and my middle name: T. Nicolette. (No, I won’t say what the “T” stands for. And yes, my initials really are TNT.)

Bitch, Bitch, Bitch

But wait! The plot of this mistaken identity caper thickens even more, giving me yet another thing to bitch about. It turns out that Other Nicolette is also “Nicolette T.” S/he, the Design Diva, is purportedly “Nicolette Teek.”

But what’s in a name? Why should I get my knickers in a twist about Nicolette the Design Diva? In some ways, this mistaken identity is a bit absurd. Not in my most absolute, atavistic attack of alliteration would I assign myself the appellation of Design Diva! Those close to me find it a ludicrous label. My friend Coral’s comment was, “A classy lady like you doesn’t need such a ‘diva’ title.” My client and friend Alexei, said, ever so succinctly, “Never in a million years!”

Exactly. I have serious scruples about design divas. To know why, you need look no further than the Urban Dictionary. Here’s an excerpt of what it says:

  1. Diva – a bitchy woman that must have her way exactly… Often rude and belittles people, believes that everyone is beneath her and thinks that she is so much more loved than what she really is. Selfish, spoiled, and overly dramatic.
  2. Diva – female version of a hustler…

Friends, if you ever suspect that I’m becoming a Diva, please, throw a bucket of cold water over my head to try and snap me out of it!

Divas v. Decorators v. Designers

Nicolette Sheridan. People frequently get confused between us.
Nicolette Sheridan. People frequently get confused between us, but she's taller than me.

A diva, is, my opinion, the last thing my potential clients need when they’re thinking about making changes to their homes. Speaking as a survivor of three remodeling projects, I can testify that it’s a pretty stressful business, and it can be costly. You don’t want to do something that quickly becomes dated, falls apart, or otherwise needs to be redone in a couple of years.

You do want to wind up with a design that’s functional, that lasts, that meets your needs, that promotes health and safety, and that respects the environment in addition to being attractive. Designing to those standards requires training, professionalism, project management expertise, and a willingness to put one’s own ego aside in favor of attending to the needs of others.

If a person who purports to be an “interior designer” is in a rush to tell you what’s in style, what the new colors for this fall will be, or is otherwise pushing you to keep up with the Joneses, my advice is to run the other way, fast! The person you’re talking to is probably an “interior decorator” – someone whose skills are largely limited to picking out colors, curtains, and fabrics – rather than an interior designer.

Interior designers, by contrast, are trained to follow building codes, fire regulations, and federal disability access standards (in accordance with the Americans with Disabilities Act), to anticipate the environmental impact of various architectural materials, and to apply wear and flammability standards to meet your needs. They are taught to read and create floorplans and blueprints and to apply formulas to determine whether hallways and flow patterns are safe and practical. They know how to find reputable contractors, how to manage projects, and how to save you money and multiple patches of new gray hair.

They start work not by jumping in and recommending trendy products, but by asking questions about your needs, your frustrations, your budget, and your plans for the future. Come to think of it, that’s true not just of interior design, but also of graphic design, and internet design, all of the forms of design that I practice!

Internet Marketing and Transparency

    Remember the movie "Paper Moon"? I loved this exchange: Moses:I got scruples too, you know. You know what that is? Scruples?  Addie: No, I don't know what it is, but if you got 'em, it's a sure bet they belong to somebody else!
    Remember the movie "Paper Moon"? I loved this exchange: MOSES: I got scruples too, you know. You know what that is? Scruples? ADDIE: No, I don't know what it is, but if you got 'em, it's a sure bet they belong to somebody else!

Before becoming an interior designer, I spent 20 years in marketing and communications, collecting BAs in journalism and English, and master’s degree in graphic design, and additional training in radio reporting, public speaking, web design and social marketing. I have designed and launched no less than eight websites, created a social media campaign notable enough to have landed a front-page mention in the San Diego Union Tribune, and have a long record of success in running paid and “natural” search engine campaigns. I conform to professional standards in all those activities. Specifically:

  • Authenticity – I am who I say I am. I never post to my blog – or anyone else’s  – under any name but my own, real name. I also identify myself with either the link and name of my blog (Living in Comfort and Joyhttps://nicolettet.wordpress.com) or of my business website (Comfort and Joy Interior Design – www.comfortandjoydesign.com)
  • Transparency – I am often asked to promote or endorse products and websites. I find dozens of links in the comments section of my website. (I too got a comment and link from Diva Nicolette.) I delete most of these. On the rare occasion that I do include a requested product or link on my website, I do so only because I find it worthy of interest. I have never been paid to write about anyone or any product. I strive to disclose conflicts of interest, affiliations, activities, and personal agendas.
  • Truthfulness – I tell my readers the truth, in so far as I am able to determine it. I state facts when I know them, and when I’m stating an opinion, I try to make sure readers know that it’s only my opinion.
  • Fair Attribution – When I write about someone else’s work, ideas or opinions, I attribute them to the originator.
  • Accountability –  I will admit mistakes and correct them promptly. I resist sources that offer information for favors, and if I ever do accept favors, I will disclose them. I will also expose unethical practices of other bloggers when I discover them.

These ethical standards, by the way, are my adaptation of a Blogger’s Code of Standards developed by Cyberjournalist.net. That organization adapted its code from the ethics of the Society of Professional Journalists and Sigma Delta Chi. (I became a member of Sigma Delta Chi years ago as an honors graduate in journalism.)

Buyer – and Reader – Beware!

Nicolette Larson. People get confused between the two of us too, but she sings better than I do. A LOT better.
Nicolette Larson. People get confused between the two of us, but she sings better than I do.

Up to this point, I have been somewhat lighthearted about this case of mistaken identity, but I also want to sound a “caveat emptor” about the Other Nicolette to my readers.

Wendy and another reputable interior design colleague – I will call her Carly – did some investigating after Diva Nicolette left a comment on Carly’s blog. For reasons none of us can discern, Diva Nicolette affiliated herself with Wendy’s business, Hoechstetter Interiors. This is misrepresentation, fraudulent, and illegal, and Wendy has contacted her attorney about it.

Carly was the one who called our attention to the problem. In her words, here’s what happened:

I have a blog and receive several emails a day from manufactures and PR companies that would like me to insert a press release or review a product and write about it in my blog. I do not respond to everyone and am very selective in what I choose to talk about. I responded to Mr. L from company C who requested to write a guest blog on bathroom design on my blog.

After reviewing the article I rejected the offer due to content and the multiple SEO links placed within the body of the article. It was a pure commercial endorsement for Company C which I was not interested in promoting… Immediately after rejecting his offer, I received an onslaught of emails indicating that comments were ready for moderation on my blog. They were always from “Nicolette” and always had a link to Company C’s sponsored web site. I deleted them once I noticed the link and simply treated them as an irritation. The last one that caught my attention. The sender name showed my friend Wendy’s business. I thought, “that’s weird, why is my friend Wendy calling herself Nicolette?”

When I complained to Mr. L in a recent email, he told me that several people write under the name “Nicolette” for his company’s blog. He was unable to identify what writer is responsible for assuming my friend’s identity…

In other words, not only do we not know who was fraudulently using the name of Wendy’s business, we don’t even know whether Diva Nicolette is singular, plural, masculine or a genuinely feminine Ms. Teek. (This is starting to remind me of the plot of Ken Follett’s novel The Third Twin in which a man discovers that he not only has an unknown criminal twin, but also that he has been secretly cloned 13 times to evil intent.)

But Wait! The Plot Thickens!

Nicolette Teek's Facebook image. It's an illustration, not a photo. Is she real? Or is "N Teek" a hominym and play on the word "antique"?
Nicolette Teek's Facebook image. It's an illustration, not a photo. Is she real? Or is "N Teek" a homonym and play on the word "antique"?

My colleagues researched the links that Diva Nicolette had left on their respective blogs and dug up more unsettling facts:

  • A Google search on the name Nicolette shows that this “entity” has commented on hundreds of blogs
  • Many of those links lead to a furniture company named “Cymax”
  • A Google inquiry on the name Cymax turns up dozens of web links from rip off report, fraud links, and consumer complaints
  • Wendy’s attorney discovered that the Better Business Bureau has given Cymax a “F” rating

Holey Moley! You’re known by the company you keep, and Ms. Teek certainly hasn’t been living up to my professional standards as blogger, a journalist, or an interior designer.

Is it too late to go back to using my first name? And no, I’m still not saying what that “T” stands for! 😉


Resource Links


From Othello

Good name in man and woman, dear my lord,
Is the immediate jewel of their souls:
Who steals my purse steals trash; ’tis something, nothing;
‘Twas mine, ’tis his, and has been slave to thousands;
But he that filches from me my good name
Robs me of that which not enriches him
And makes me poor indeed.

“Othello”, Act 3 scene 3
William Shakespeare (1564 – 1616)

No Longer Lost in Space

Image of Claires living room
Claire's living room now

I’m told that mice prefer to skirt the walls of a room, avoiding the center. They don’t feel safe when they are exposed in open places. Some people have a similar reaction to the wide, open spaces of the Great Plains. Folks can even be stymied by trying to figure out how to place furniture in a loft or large room.

Wide open spaces can be daunting.

My friend and client Claire is certainly no mouse! She’s an extraordinarily self-possessed and capable person, but the living/dining area of her new condominium – pictured below and at left – posed problems similar to those encountered by mice.

Claire’s wry comment about this was,  “If I did what I usually do, and put the furniture around the edges, I would have just wound up with a big hole in the middle!”

A Spatial Puzzle

The solution to this particular lost-in-space problem wasn’t obvious to me either, at least not initially. The space is a bit like one of those 16-space number puzzles that hold 15 tiles. Each time you want to reposition one tile, you have scoot several others around to compensate.

Claire's living room a year ago. It was a big, bare box! The windows on the left face west.

While my clients’ needs imposed one set of problems on the room’s layout, the openness of the room imposed another. Somehow, the room needed to be divided into separate, functional spaces:

  • a dining area,
  • a living room conversational area,
  • a media entertainment area, and
  • a writing area that would highlight Claire’s large, antique roll-top desk.

As you can see,  the room is a large box that receives strongly directional natural light. Windows wrap around two sides of the room, stretching the full length of two walls. The largest wall of windows faces west, catching the low, slanting rays of the late afternoon and early evening sun.

This makes it difficult to figure out where to place the TV.  Judging from the placement of the previous owner’s satellite cable, a TV had been placed in the left front corner of the floor plan below, behind the red chair. This placement led to two bad options: It would either force viewers to squint into the sun, or they would have to struggle with a sideways glare across the TV screen.

Providing Face-to-Face Conversational Areas

The obvious solution to the TV viewing problem – placing the television so that the outdoor light enters behind the viewers, as shown below – solves the viewing dilemma.

However, it introduces other problems. When chairs are placed at a comfortable viewing distance in front of the TV, WeberLROverviewthe resulting entertainment area takes up more than half of the room’s width. While this does leave enough space to place a couch and coffee table under the windows (which, in this 3-D image would be on the cut-away wall nearest you), it does not leave enough space for a separate conversation area. If a chair were to be placed on the other side of the coffee table, it would block the circulation path through the room and into the kitchen.

So how can the room be set up to enable people to have face-to-face conversation? The obvious  – but impossible –  solution would be to make the room six feet wider!

Instead, I hit on the idea of using the available living-room-to-kitchen circulation path for both viewing distance and a walkway. It was far easier to come up with this idea in a scaled plan than in the actual room, and I’m sure the movers would have been grateful had they known this.

WeberLayout copy
Floor plan for the living/dining area. You can see a larger version of this by clicking on the image.

How many sitcoms have we seen in which the movers have to haul the heavy pieces of furniture here and there around the room while the new resident tries to figure out a floor plan?

Long before these particular movers came onto the scene, I had asked Ron and Claire to measure all their furniture. I had measured the room and created both the floor plan and the three-dimensional rendering you see here, so that I could shove all the furniture around on my computer.

By the day of the move, I had solved the space use problems and Ron and Claire knew exactly what they needed to move. This also meant that they could avoid moving furniture they didn’t need. In addition, it meant that I could be shopping for the few pieces they would need to acquire while they were busy packing.

A Few Other Needs

At the start of this project, I interviewed Ron and Claire in their previous apartment. In addition to getting a feel for their tastes, I asked them what annoyed them in their living space. Both of them said that they were pressed for closet space, and both felt that they were awash in papers. (Indeed, surfaces were piled with papers. Knowing Ron and Claire, I suspected that this had more to do with inadequate filing space than personal habits.)

Claire and Ron also wanted to highlight a few prized possessions: a large, antique roll-top desk, a glass-fronted china cabinet, a brass samovar, a collection of hats that commemorated their globe-hopping travels, and a three-foot high wooden giraffe decorated with thousands of daintily-strung seed beads. (You can see her in the photo above.)

The Old Switcheroo

My space plan, shown in the plans above, divided the living and dining areas with filing cabinets that serve multiple purposes: they allow Ron and Claire to file their papers, they serve as a side board for family meals, and they also can be used as a buffet surface for entertaining.

Entry to the condo: the brass samovar claims a place of honor. Picture lighting and glints of metal brighten an area that receives no natural light.
Entryway: the brass samovar claims a place of honor. Picture lighting and glints of metal brighten a windowless area.

The cabinets that were purchased are shown in the photo above. They are matched credenzas that are finished back and front so that they’re attractive seen from both their living room and dining room sides.

One key feature that opened the space to multiple uses was replacing two old recliners with new swivel recliners that would  lend themselves to a quick switcheroo – they could be oriented either for watching the TV or turned 180 degrees to face the conversation area. One of the new recliners that I found for Ron and Claire can be seen in the photo at the top of this post.

As noted earlier, the room’s architecture is functional and austere. That, coupled with a paint and trim scheme of neutral colors, meant that attention would be focused on Ron and Claire’s furnishings, rather than the room itself. Accordingly, I created a color palette that is keyed to a couple dominant and repeated hues that are featured in the rugs: a deep red, a celadon green, and an off-white.

Deep red is the most prominent hue in the tribal and Oriental rugs, and I used it to actively define the social spaces in the room. Two existing red leather chairs and an existing love seat were grouped around one Oriental carpet to create a face-to-face conversation area. Another handsome rug demarcated the TV viewing area, while yet another defined the breakfast area. These three rugs  are all visible in the photo at the top of this post, while still another is featured in the entry area shown above.

Showing Off Prized Possessions

Another featured item: Claire's china chest

Prized possessions, such as that beaded giraffe and the china chest at right, were featured prominently in this layout. “We have acquired lots of art and other things we really like over more than 40 years,” said Claire. “But we have never tried to get things that were particularly harmonious, so we didn’t know how to make them look good together. Nicolette managed to make the things we already had look good just by placing them differently and showing us how they coordinated.”

“Nicolette also recommended a few pieces of new furniture that we have acquired over the past year. She also helped us solve a long-term problem of not having enough storage for lots of papers and books. Her suggestion was creative and looks good in our condo.”

If you’d like to see more detail in the floor plan and 3-D plans for this project, I invite you to visit the space planning page on my Comfort and Joy Interior Design website.

The valances of the windows that wrap Ron and Claire's living and dining room areas are topped off by a collection of hats from all over the world. They're mementos of many trips abroad.


Ready, Fire, Aim!
(A Cautionary Tale about Space Planning)

Since I’m pretty sure my ex-husband will never read my blog, I think I can safely tell a story about his foibles here.

My ex was (and presumably still is) a fabulous cook. Our Eddy Street condo had a huge kitchen, two ovens, and vast expanses of counter space. My ex loved to prepare complex and sophisticated dinners, and it wasn’t long before he began to complain that the refrigerator was too small. Dan (not his real name) wanted a big fridge that served water and ice through the door.fridge

I measured the space and we went shopping. The features he wanted were available only on a significantly larger fridge. Dan looked at my measurements and insisted that the side-by-side refrigerator/freezer he wanted would fit.

I was dubious. The new fridge was stout, measuring only about half an inch less in width than the available space, and I wondered aloud about the lack of clearance on the sides. What if the bordering walls or the counters weren’t square, how would the unit get any ventilation, how would we clean, how… Dan interrupted my comments – more loudly this time – insisting that it would fit.

“But where’s the door going to swing? There’s no clearance…” I whined.

“No one needs to walk through the door when I’m cooking!” he fumed. By this time, the volume of our debate was starting to turn heads, so I gave up and let Dan arrange for delivery.

Okay, when the refrigerator was delivered, it did fit – but only when the doors were closed! The hinged side of each door was actually wedged shut by the counter on one side and the wall on the other.

That refrigerator sat protruding several inches into the doorway for months. It was replaced only when I decided to replace the chef who went with it…

Get a Grip: Eco and Ergo Handles

This post is devoted to handles, knobs and pulls – those humble fittings that scarcely merit a thought until they cause trouble. They command our attention only when they break – or when we do, losing strength and digital dexterity due to aging, injury, or arthritis.

Blue sky glass drawer pull from All That Glass.  Size: 4 1/4 Wide X 1 1/2 Projection
Eco and Ergo: Blue sky glass drawer pull from All That Glass. Size: 4 1/4" wide with 1 1/2" outward projection.

Pulls and handles can be ergonomically designed to make it easier to get a grip. Both the choice of materials and the shape of the handle play a role in ease of use. But what’s easy to use can differ quite a bit for differently-abled people.

Ecologically speaking, knobs and pulls, like every other product that we use, should be designed and chosen with an eye not only to how we will use them, but also to what will happen to them after we’re done using them. (I have been reading the book Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things and becoming keenly aware that the notion of throwing or giving things “away” is wrong-headed. Realistically speaking, there is no “away.” Everything we throw away remains somewhere on earth, piling up in someone else’s back yard or buried in the product graves that we call landfills.)

This post will cover both “eco” handles  – those made from recycled and earth-friendly materials – and “ergo” handles that are designed for comfortable use. In some cases, I have found handles and pulls that meet both eco and ergo requirements and are beautiful as well. They meet my definition of elegant design.

Skipping stone cabinet pulls from Natures Hardware. Theres also a C shaped stone cabinet pull if grasping is a problem.
Eco and Ergo: Skipping stone cabinet pulls from Nature's Hardware. Because the stone is flat, you can hook your fingers underneath and pull with the whole hand. There's also a "C" shaped stone cabinet pull available from the same supplier.

I hope that you will find the discussion that goes along with these finds interesting. If instead, you find yourself amazed that anyone could make choosing a simple drawer pull so complicated, I invite you to simply enjoy the beauty of the fittings I have found.

At the bottom of this post, you will find learning and shopping links that will lead you to suppliers for everything that is pictured here – and more.

Ergonomics and Aging

Ergonomically speaking, drawer pulls that are shaped like the letters “C” or “D” and doorknobs that are levers are far easier to use as we age. The reason? We can exert pressure on them using our large arm muscles rather than having to pinch or grasp with our fingers.

Older people tend to lose strength and/or fine motor control in their hands, making twisting and pinching motions difficult. That’s the case with our friend Joe, whose arthritis has advanced to the point where he can no longer make a fist.  Both “universal design” and “accessible design” propose approaches that attempt to help folks like Joe. Both approaches work, but both have downsides.

This brass lever interior door handle, available from homehardwareplus.com, comes in either a left-hand or right hand model.
Eco: This interior door handle, from homehardwareplus.com, comes in a left- or right-hand model. Lever-style handles are the best choice for those with arthritis, and are also helpful for those whose hands are busy holding onto packages or small children.

Over the past couple decades, interior designers have been researching, debating and getting seriously hepped-up over the competing merits of universal and accessible design. (Who but an interior designer could devote a whole blog post to knobs and handles, for goodness sake?!)

Universal design aims to create products and environments that work for everyone – the young, the old, the tall, the short – instead of just creating things with an “average” user in mind. A universal design kitchen, for example, usually has counters of varying heights, so there’s one area that’s the right height for grandma in her wheelchair,  another for a school-aged child making a peanut butter sandwich, and yet another for dad, who is very tall. Universal design is concerned first and foremost with form, and it eschews frills. Accordingly, the International Style that is associated with universal design has been faulted for monotony and homogeneity. In Cradle to Cradle, authors William McDonough and Michael Braungart write that the International Style has evolved into “a bland uniform structure isolated from the particulars of place – from local culture, nature, energy and material flows…[and] reflect little if any of a region’s distinctness or style.”

DuVerre Kuba Recycled Metal pull from Natures Hardware
Eco and Ergo: DuVerre Kuba Recycled metal D-shaped pull from Nature's Hardware.

Accessible design is generally focused on creating products that work for people with disabilities such as low vision, impaired mobility or limited reach – a continual problem for people who use wheelchairs. Whereas universal design aims for a sleek, modern look, accessible design tends to look sturdy, utilitarian and even institutional. Another drawback is that changes made to accommodate one sort of problem can wind up making life difficult for people with a problem of another sort.

For example, after drinking fountains were lowered to make them accessible for people in wheelchairs, people with bad backs were unhappy about having to stoop down to drink. The universal design compromise mandated by the Americans with Disabilities Act has been to install fountains called “high/lows” – a pair of fountains at different heights. This has meant ripping out a lot of metal and rebuilding big chunks of the core plumbing area in many high-rises, an expensive undertaking that has contributed tons of metal and stone to landfill sites.

While universal and accessible design approaches overlap somewhat, both seek to create products that anticipate the physical needs of various groups of people, leading to compromises such as the high/low. If you know that specific individuals are going to use a room, fewer compromises are needed.

So what constitutes sound, elegant design? To my way of thinking, it’s a design that works to enhance the comfort and joy of an interior for you and yours, and one that simultaneously enhances the health and beauty of the earth, now and later. The offerings in this post don’t meet all those requirements in every instance, but they move in the right direction.

Opening the Door with Style and Ease

If functionality were the sole requirement, the fastest and easiest way to enable someone like our friend Joe to cope with a round doorknob would be to put a plastic sheath over it. For $5-$20, you can buy slip-over products that cushion the doorknob and provide greater traction or sheaths that will change the door knob’s shape from round to an oval or a lever.

Victorian styled ornate oval doorknob from House of Antique Hardware
Ergo: Victorian styled ornate oval doorknob from House of Antique Hardware.

I’m afraid that I find these remarkably homely, and I feel bad knowing that since they’re plastic, they are fated to wind up in a landfill where they will wait centuries for archeologists of the future to dig them up. Instead spending $10 to $30 for one of these aids (and being reminded of my disability every time I opened the door!)  I would rather spend $20 to $100 to replace (and recycle) the round door handle. It’s actually easy to replace interior door hardware using nothing more than a screwdriver. Assemblies that hold oval and lever-shaped doorknobs will fit usually fit right into the holes that were drilled for the old hardware assembly.

When it comes to doorknobs that aren’t round, you have a myriad of choices. Your minimalist, modern home might  look great with brass lever door hardware shown above or with  a sleeker version of the same design in brushed chrome.

But what if you live in a Victorian style house? No problem! The Victorians favored ornate oval doorknobs, and the House of Antique Hardware sells oval doorknobs made of many materials. You might choose the brass knobs shown above. Or you might opt for a plain white, black, or brown porcelain, in which case, you could feel good about choosing an environmentally friendly material.

Hand blown doorknobs from Light Impressions in Maine
Eco: Hand-blown doorknobs from Light Impressions in Maine

If you’re looking for a dazzlingly colorful, earth-friendly choice and have no problem gripping a round doorknob, you might want to visit the website of All That Glass. This Portland, Oregon studio creates hand-blown glass doorknobs, as well as a variety of pulls, knobs, and even sinks.

Another supplier of fine art glass doorknobs is Light Impressions. Their work is shown at left. These blown glass creations are so beautiful that they could be considered art or jewelry. Moreover, glass is a green material. Glass is made from silica, a commonplace natural substance that requires no complicated extraction; it’s found in beach sand. Better yet, old glass can be ground up and made into new glass, making it very eco-friendly indeed.

Ocean-Friendly Knobs and Pulls

Turban Shell pull from Pacific Shells
Eco and Ergo: Turban Shell pull from Pacific Shells. Because each shell is unique in size and shape, when they are used as pulls, blind people can use them to differentiate between one drawer and another.

A colorful collection of pulls made from natural sea shells can be found at Pacific Shells. Most of their pulls are made from empty shells that would have otherwise have been thrown out after people have eaten the shellfish that lived in them.

Pacific Shells uses a patented system to strengthen the shells to allow them to resist tension and torsion. Here’s how the hardened shell handles are made:

  • 10% to 30% of the handle is a shell of a shell-fish rejected from the food chain (such as fish bones).
  • 25% to 80% is the handle is filled with sand that  has been mixed with 11% hardening synthetic resin.
  • the resin makes up 3%  to 9% of the shell handle.
  • A metal base makes up 2% to 10% of the item.

Pacific Shells says its “handles are among the most earth-friendliest or ecological products on the market”. The shellfish that produced the shells would been consumed anyway, and their shells would have become trash. Instead of becoming waste, the shells are processed into handsome crafted items.


Woven bamboo knob from Natures Hardware
Eco: Woven bamboo knob from Nature's Hardware. Their offerings include pulls made from bone, antler, shells, wood, recycled metal, stone and bamboo.
  • All That Glass -art glass fittings
  • Aurora Glass – a wonderful organization in Portland, Oregon that recycles glass and upcycles people! Aurora Glass is part of St. Vincent de Paul’s strategic recycling initiative for a healthier community.  All profits from the Aurora Glass Foundry are returned to the community in the form of assistance for homeless and low-income people through emergency services, housing, jobs, training, and other charitable endeavors.
  • Comfort and Joy Interior Design
  • Cradle to cradle overview in Wikipedia
  • Cradle to Cradle: Rethinking Sustainability – article and book review in Alternative Energy News with video and commentary
  • Drawer Pulls, Drawer Handles – the end-all, be-all collection of links to collections of pulls
  • Hafele fittings – source for a vast selection of ergonomically designed pulls, handles, fittings and hard-to-find items such as pull-down shelves and organizers
  • Green Mountain Ranch– Created by interior designer Cynthia Liebrock, this “aging beautifully” ranch house in Livermore, Colorado showcases more than 180 ideas that demonstrate how universal design ideas complement green design. (She is also a wonderful person. After I wrote about Cynthia Leibrock in this blog, she contacted me and spent almost an hour mentoring me on the phone!)
  • Intersel – a very handsome collection of lever-shaped door knobs
  • Light Impressions – art glass fittings
  • MyKnobs.com – every sort of doorknob and pull you can imagine
  • Nature’s Hardware – knobs and pulls made from a variety of natural and recycled materials
  • Pacific Shells – knobs and pulls made from real seashells
  • Susan Goldstick – handcrafted resin pulls and knobs


Sarah Cynthia Sylvia Stout would not take the garbage out

Sarah Cynthia Sylvia Stout
Would not take the garbage out!
She’d scour the pots and scrape the pans,
Candy the yams and spice the hams,
And though her daddy would scream and shout,
She simply would not take the garbage out.
And so it piled up to the ceilings:
Coffee grounds, potato peelings,
Brown bananas, rotten peas,
Chunks of sour cottage cheese.
It filled the can, it covered the floor,
It cracked the window and blocked the door
With bacon rinds and chicken bones,
Drippy ends of ice cream cones,
Prune pits, peach pits, orange peel,
Gloopy glumps of cold oatmeal,
Pizza crusts and withered greens,
Soggy beans and tangerines,
Crusts of black burned buttered toast,
Gristly bits of beefy roasts…
The garbage rolled on down the hall,
It raised the roof, it broke the wall…
Greasy napkins, cookie crumbs,
Globs of gooey bubble gum,
Cellophane from green baloney,
Rubbery blubbery macaroni,
Peanut butter, caked and dry,
Curdled milk and crusts of pie,
Moldy melons, dried-up mustard,
Eggshells mixed with lemon custard,
Cold French fries and rancid meat,
Yellow lumps of Cream of Wheat.

Ornamental drawer pulls from artisan Susan Goldstick
Ornamental drawer pulls from artisan Susan Goldstick
At last the garbage reached so high
That finally it touched the sky.
And all the neighbors moved away,
And none of her friends would come to play.
And finally Sarah Cynthia Stout said,
“OK, I’ll take the garbage out!”
But then, of course, it was too late…
The garbage reached across the state,
From New York to the Golden Gate.
And there, in the garbage she did hate,
Poor Sarah met an awful fate,
That I cannot right now relate
Because the hour is much too late.
But children, remember Sarah Stout
And always take the garbage out!

– Shel Silverstein

Of Sexy Seniors & Tasteful Tree Huggers

Interior of the greenest house in Rockridge
Inside the country's greenest house

I have always loved the ideals of accessible and sustainable interior design. But in reality, I usually found the former as ugly as sensible shoes and the latter as odd as Earthshoes. I’m not a fashionista, but I do believe that good design should be able to sustain the health of planet and people, while also providing a daily dose of beauty.

In this post, I share two tales that prove me right. Not coincidentally, each story is also about a person who built a home that was a tour-de-force demonstrating how to put his or her principles into practice. I hope that you will find them as inspirational as I do.

David Gottfried & the Nation’s Greenest Home

The nation’s greenest home is where David Gottfried, the founder of the US Green Building Council, and his family live. The family remodeled a 1444-square-foot Craftsman bungalow that was originally built in 1915. Having had hands-on experience in remodeling 1906 and 1930 houses and also building from scratch, I can testify that modernizing an old house holds quite a different set of challenges.

Gottfried Craftsman house


The exterior green paint is from Mythic and contains no VOC’s, meaning it’s not “off-gassing” unhealthy chemicals.

Click here to visit the Planet Green website where you can view David Gottfried’s video on the renovation and the home’s green features.

Done well, a remodeling project should be an exercise in recycling and re-use writ large. Because remodeling usually occurs where people are already living and identifying problems, remodeling challenges us to think deeply about the patterns of daily life. How can these walls and windows, colors, shapes and patterns of movement enhance the relationships that people have with one another and with their immediate environment? Those are fun questions to ask and answer.

In answering some of those questions, the Gottfried house has won the distinction of a LEED Platinum rating, the highest green certification anyone can get.

LEED®, an acronym for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, is a certification system for sustainable buildings. It’s used more often for commercial than residential buildings, and it’s used more often for new construction than remodeling. (There’s a historic Green Building in Kentucky that is currently working toward certification.) Buildings receive points for satisfying various categories of green-building criteria. Projects are then ranked as silver, gold or platinum. Gottfried’s house scored 106.5 points out of a possible total of 136. That’s way over the 80 points required to qualify for a platinum rating, and it’s the highest score of any house in the US.

One of the things I find most refreshing about this house is its size. It’s modest, about the size of a two-bedroom apartment. For reasons that were initially financial, I have lived in small houses for years, working toward turning them into well-thought-out jewel boxes, where everything has place, where everything fits perfectly, where every detail is useful and where nothing was just for show. As I learned more about architectural history, necessity has become interwoven with know-how and living small is now a deliberate choice.

My own tastes – which I don’t necessarily press onto clients – lean toward the clean-lined and unfussy. I find inspiration in Shaker design, which dates back more than a century, and I’m an unabashed fan of Susan Susanka’s Not-So-Big-House books. I like the looks of modern design, and love to work in a modern office and visit galleries done in the sleek international style, but I don’t really want to live amongst their steel, glass and industrial fittings. It feels too cold. And that eye-popping post-modern Memphis-style design just sets my teeth on edge.

I can imagine living comfortably and happily in the Gottfried house. The modest scale of the house cuts against the tide of fashion, and I like that too. I find the twenty-year American trend towards McMansions environmentally and ethically unsettling. The environmental publication Jetson Green expressed my sentiments very well when they wrote the following:

Beyond the green features and record-breaking certification, however, there’s a more important lesson on display. This home is an unassuming, renovated, 1440 square foot space healthily housing a four-person family. It’s so refreshing! With the burgeoning belt of American life pushing the average size of American homes to ~2500 square feet, the Gottfried represents true leadership from a seasoned green building leader and his family.

Among (some of!) the notable green features of David Gottfried’s house are these:

David Gottfried fpunded the leading green building organization in the world. He has more than two decades of multidisciplinary experience as a real estate developer, construction manager, and sustainable development management consultant.
David Gottfried founded the world's leading green building organization. He has more than two decades of experience as a real estate developer, construction manager, and sustainable development management consultant.
  • It’s a walkable site, close to shops, parks, BART rapid transit and schools
  • It reuses a 93-year-old existing home
  • It saves energy because it has cellulose wall insulation, closed-cell foam in the attic rafters and batt insulation in the crawl space
  • It has energy-saving new Marvin low-E double pane windows
  • The cabinets are locally built “green” cabinets (by Silverwalker)
  • The new kitchen features Bosch appliances and washer/dryer – all are quiet, Energy Star rated and use less water
  • It achieves water-savings through dual-flush toilets by Caroma (1.28 and 0.8 gallons per flush) and efficient shower heads and faucet aerators by Bricor and Kohler
  • It uses sustainably-harvested wood for construction framing, plywood, and replacement floors
  • It features tile and countertops with a high recycled content (Oceanside and Syndecrete tile and Syndecrete counters)
  • It heats its own water with solar hot water panels (HSC) and produces energy with solar photovoltaics (Envison Solar/Suntech) – 16 panels = 2.72 kW
  • It has a solar hot water heater (Phoenix System by HSC)
  • Used “greywater” and rainwater are recycled in the garden and toilet
  • Greywater is used in a drip irrigation system in the garden, where vegetables are grown among drought-tolerant plants
  • Reclaimed wood was used for entry stairs, framing and deck; old doors and hardware were also reused

And to think I got a thrill just from recycling a set of slats from a futon that was left on the sidewalk in front of a neighbor’s house; I nailed the slats together to make a trellis for an overgrown passion plant. Mr. Gottfried should be feeling ready to walk on (grey) water about now.

Universal Design & Aging in Place

Interior of Leibrock home
Interior of Cynthia Leibrock's Green Mountain Ranch home

If you have been reading my posts for awhile, you know that I moved in 2007 so that I would be able to age in place. This was proactive. I do not want to find that I need to move an assisted living facility when I am too frail or discombobulated to be able accomplish the move, as with some elders I have observed.

This makes me a bit of an “early adopter” in the aging in place movement. Aging in place is predicated on the notion that a home’s features should be planned well in advance so that they can accommodate the likely losses of mobility, vision, hearing and dexterity that usually come with aging. Accordingly, aging in place homes draw on advances in both “universal design” and “accessible design.”

Universal design is rooted in the work of Ronald Lawrence Mace, an architect who had polio as a child. In the 1970’s, Mace, who had pioneered barrier-free design in his work, helped to develop the country’s first accessible building code.

What is Accessible Design?

Accessible design is specifically about enabling people to live full and vibrant lives despite having to contend with disabilities: lack of mobility, hearing, vision, weak hearts and other frailties. Accessible design became the law of the land with the 1990 passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). An appendix known as ADAAG, ADA Accessibility Guidelines for Buildings and Facilities, codifies clearances for wheelchairs, braille signs for the blind and TTYs and flashing alarms for the deaf. (Sadly, it doesn’t yet provide help with the poor acoustics that hamper hearing impaired people like me.)

Sexy Design & the Senior Citizen

The diva of the aging-in-place movement is an interior designer named Cynthia Leibrock. Her compassion awakened by the plight of a brother who has had to be repeatedly hospitalized, she has devoted her career to mainstreaming accessible design. Leibrock has built an “aging beautifully” ranch house in Livermore, Colorado. Here’s how the New York Times described Leibrock:

If there were a glitzy, razzle-dazzle competition for cheerleading captain of the Aging in Place movement — and given the boomer resistance to anything to do with aging, there certainly should be — Cynthia Leibrock, designer, consultant and Harvard instructor, would be a contender, strutting down the barrier-free, skid-free runway of a well-lighted arena; tossing an easy-grip baton in the air; blinding the judges with a smile and that fascinatingly taut face.

Cynthia Leibrock founded of Easy Access to Health,  a firm that offers consulting services in patient-centered design, planning for independent living, product analysis, and judiciary witness services.
Cynthia Leibrock founded Easy Access to Health, a firm that offers consulting services in patient-centered design, planning for independent living, product analysis, and judiciary witness services.

The Green Mountain ranch house contains more than 180 ideas that demonstrate the complementary aspects of green and universal design. Over a period of years, Leibrock has proactively used design to prevent injuries and encourage a lifestyle that leads to health and longevity. People in wheelchairs can easily visit the house. It has shelves and counters that adapt to both tall and short people, and its design helps people with low vision and poor hearing. All these special features are “visually integrated” so that a person who uses them doesn’t feel stigmatized by doing something different that advertises their age or disability.

An energetic 60 year old, Leibrock consults and designs, having done prominent projects for the Betty Ford Center and the UCLA Medical Center. She created a universal design exhibit for the Smithsonian, a universal design showroom for the Kohler Company and has a “living laboratory” in Fort Collins where she is researching the environmental needs of older people.

Using four passive solar greenhouses, Leibrock’s home cost-effectively provides the warmer temperatures that older people need. The house is well insulated, with all its doors and windows sealed and tested to prevent heat loss.

In the kitchen, cabinets are mounted at 42″ above the floor for ease of use by tall people. Leibrock has anticipated retrofits however; with a minor remodel, they can be lowered to 32″ for shorter people or wheelchair users. (Sounds good to me, I keep a mechanical grabber in my kitchen so that I can reach the shelves up near my 10-foot ceilings. I am 5’1″ tall, and I often find my feet danging above the floor in airport chairs. I sometimes solicit tall strangers to help me collect top-shelf items in the grocery store.)

Below Leibrock’s cabinets, in the kick space, there’s a 10″ removable drawer that can be used to lower the cabinets for wheelchair users. As shown in the top photo at right, the inside of the cabinets are white. That provides contrast that makes it easier to see a shelf’s contents, even if your vision is fading. It also reduces the need for lighting.

The kitchen also features Hafele shelves that can be pulled up or down, as shown in photos two and three at left. Leibrock has installed pulls and handles that are easy to grasp and require little strength to operate. There are Hafele lazy susans and an ironing board in a drawer for easy access. Leibrock, who is also an accomplished cook with a published cookbook to credit, has even included what she calls “appliance garages” on the counters so that she doesn’t have to lift food processors or other hefty devices.

While I can’t begin to draw on the wealth of expertise (or the consulting fees!) that these two pioneers command, I have infused my own home, and those of my clients with their green and aging-in-place principles. I thank Cynthia and David (neither of whom I have met) for their design leadership and humanity. I’m not only inspired by their work, but I also feel a personal connection to the places where these homes are located. The country’s greenest home is located about 10 miles away from me here in San Francisco, in the Rockridge area of Oakland. The “aging beautifully” home is located in Colorado, where I grew up.


Visit Nicolette’s Comfort and Joy Interior Design website


Short People
(Excerpt – listen to the whole song)

Fountain in Aging Beautifully house
Fountain in the Aging Beautifully house. The rocks look a lot like the ones in my "Zen Stones" watercolor painting, which is used in the masthead at the top of this weblog.

Short people got no reason
Short people got no reason
Short people got no reason
To live…

They got little baby legs
They stand so low
You got to pick ’em up
Just to say hello
They got little cars
That go beep, beep, beep
They got little voices
Goin’ peep, peep, peep
They got grubby little fingers
And dirty little minds
They’re gonna get you every time

Well, I don’t want no short people
Don’t want no short people
Don’t want no short people
‘Round here!

Short people are just the same
As you and I
(A fool such as I)
All men are brothers
Until the day they die.
(It’s a wonderful world.)

-Randy Newman

Object Lessons: Designing a Strategy to Deal with Loss and Aging

This week, I got two pieces of devastating news – one personal and one financial – within a single day. This crisis, and my reaction to it, has caused me to reflect deeply on why have I chosen an interior design specialty focused on aging in place.

In starting “Living in Comfort and Joy,” I had initially planned to blog about things like bamboo floors and beautiful furniture. Writing about the emotional challenges of aging feels a bit risky, especially since both the New York Times and the San Francisco Chronicle have recently outed my age by interviewing me in stories about retirement and the current financial crisis. Nonetheless, the emotional challenge of aging is my topic for this week, and I am firmly convinced that without risk, there’s little reward. I’d love to hear how you, dear reader, feel about this different-kind-of post so I will know whether to repeat this kind of philosophical writing in the future.

Growing Emotional Wisdom

If I had gotten this much bad news when I was in my twenties, I would have stormed and cried. But in middle age, I can no longer afford that kind of emotional sturm und drang. It’s likely to produce an asthma attack, and that can send me to the emergency room. Net result: a painful reminder of my physical limitations, but no forward progress toward solving the original problem.

Theres nothing about aging that requires a rocking chair, but if you want one, make it a beauty. This Cygnus rocker was made by Robert Erickson and is featured on the Furnitude blog. Furnitude is written by master craftsman and furniture maker Mitch Roberson, who has the most beautiful collection of rockers I have ever seen. Click on the rocker to visit Furnitude.
There's nothing about aging that requires a rocking chair, but if you want one, make it a beauty. This "Cygnus" rocker was made by Robert Erickson and is featured on the "Furnitude" blog. Furnitude is written by master craftsman and furniture maker Mitch Roberson, who has the most beautiful collection of rockers I have ever seen. Click on the rocker to visit Furnitude.

Although the aphorism “with the decline of the flesh comes the beginning of wisdom” has at times struck me as mere sophistry, it is also true that I am now capable of managing myself in ways I could not have imagined in my teens and twenties. I believe that the ability to step outside oneself, observe, plan, and consciously alter one’s own behavior is a key component of what has been termed “emotional wisdom.”

While decline of the flesh is mandatory, wisdom is optional. I know a handful of people in their twenties who have a measure of emotional wisdom, and I also know septuagenarians who have virtually none.

I suspect that those of us who gain emotional wisdom usually begin to do so in our thirties; I have a couple of close friends of that age who have become aware that while they can’t choose what happens to them, they can choose how they will react. And when it comes to aging, that makes a whale of a difference. There are now plenty of medical studies about multiple diseases, as well as about depression, which conclusively demonstrate that the ability to change one’s own attitude and behavior improves physical outcomes.

Insight and Interior Design

So what does this have to do with interior design? As it turns out, a great deal. I have written elsewhere about the process of learning to understand and control my asthma, and how I was able to dramatically improve my health by making changes in my living space. I have also written about how changes in the interior of one’s home or office can help one cope with hearing loss, or with loss of mobility.

I have an interesting anecdote to relate here. My friend Elisa, who is not yet 40, has been making a concerted effort to decorate and claim her apartment over the past couple of years. A PhD engineer, Elisa is analytical and applies the scientific method to her life without even being conscious of it: she observes, collects data, tests, and looks for patterns. She is also very studiously and intentionally acquiring emotional wisdom, learning to manage work relationships and her own reactions to situations.

Elisa recently told me that her newly decorated bedroom was marred by the fact that the floor was “always cluttered with stuff.” I was afraid that she would go on to say that she was too lazy to put her things away, so I interrupted and challenged her to apply her investigatory skills to figuring out why she didn’t put things away. I asked her to “observe the behavior of the animal called Elisa” and see if she could discover patterns to this creature’s behavior. Maybe the closet was too far away. Maybe the things on the floor wouldn’t fit in the closet. Or maybe the closet wasn’t in the regular path of travel the animal called Elisa would follow.

I’m happy to report that Elisa was able to step outside herself, observe what was happening and then plan a course of action. Drawing on what she learned, I took her through an interior design evaluation and planning process I use with clients, then lent her a bit of design help. The result: three re-organized closets, one set of peg-hooks in the bedroom, one set of coat hooks in the hallway, and an uncluttered bedroom floor that nicely shows off Elisa’s new French blue carpeting.

Creating a Design for Aging

Another beautiful rocker from the Furnitude blog; this one was created by Leslie Webb. Click the rocker to visit the Furnitude blog.
Another beautiful rocker from Furnitude; this one was created by Leslie Webb. Click the rocker to visit the Furnitude blog.

When it comes to aging, there’s far more to consider than just habits or convenience: How do we sustain our spirits in the face of the inevitable losses that come with aging – losses of hearing, vision, mobility, income, status, friends, and loved ones? Variations of these questions echo in my thoughts as I’m thinking about several potential clients:

  • How can I help Sandra to physically and emotionally plan for the fact that she’s going to be eventually be dependent on a wheel chair?
  • How can I help Stella to nest in her own apartment, creating a life for herself when her husband of 40 years has left her and moved in with another woman, without ever getting a divorce?

There is very little I can do for my friend Katie, who has been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. It’s an aggressive killer, and few people survive even five years with aggressive treatment. Katie, who is a single mom with a son who had just graduated from college, may need to move back in with her own parents. She doesn’t know yet whether there’s enough upside to warrant going through cancer treatment. I haven’t had the courage to call her yet. I’m trying to come to terms with my own grief about losing Katie before seeing her. I want to offer support, not become someone she needs to comfort. 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. Children have no trouble with this. Unencumbered by habits and expectations, they can always change course and learn something new. Adults who aspire to a measure of emotional wisdom have to consciously practice to attain a state of “beginner’s mind”.

A spiral symbolizes the circular nature of seasons and generations, but moves through space to also signify growth and change. I use this spiral as a symbol for my Comfort and Joy Interior Design business for that reason, and because it is also covered with exclamation points. Life should be full of discovery.

Like adolescence, aging is marked by continual change. To fully live while passing through those changes, we need to be able to learn from our own mistakes and failures (including the failure of bodily functions). We also need to be able to learn from the object lessons of those around us. I have been consciously trying to do that for several years – to create a design for aging – that will enable me to sustain my quality of life despite living with loss. I want to avoid some of the object lessons I have seen along the way:

  • One older woman I know has become completely isolated following her husband’s death. He was her whole world, and when he died, she was left without sustaining relationships.
  • Another older woman has maintained a suburban house which is now falling into disrepair because it’s much too large for her to maintain, and it has also made her wholly dependent on her car – a huge problem when she blacked out at the wheel and lost her driver’s license.
  • A gentleman I know thinks he’s losing his ability to find things in his house. That’s partly true, but a huge contributing factor is that he’s clinging to possessions which have become a tide of flotsam and jetsam shifting through his house. He needs to both improve storage and learn to let go of things that are now physically blocking his path.

As I have written elsewhere, I have been prompted to design my own plan for aging both because of the awareness of the difference in my husband’s age and my own (he’s a generation older than I am, and so he’s almost certain to go first), and by watching older relatives who have dealt well and not-so-well with the challenges of aging. My plan includes the launching of Comfort and Joy Interior Design, and also a move that should allow me to age in place. Last year, I moved to Valley Street to anticipate and accommodate social issues related to age. Among the advantages I gained in this “sustainability move” are the following:

A painting on glass by Nicolette Toussaint. One of the roses in my garden.
A painting on glass by Nicolette Toussaint. One of the roses in my garden.
  • I am not car-dependent; I can walk to the grocery store, the bank and the hardware store.
  • Socially, I have a good friend living just steps away, which means that I won’t be isolated when my mate dies.
  • I have room to grow my interior design business – an endeavor that will allow me to work as long as I want, making contribution to those around me.
  • I have a garden where I can putter to my heart’s content, tend my roses, and reaffirm my connection to the earth.
  • Because it’s in a sunny area of often-foggy San Francisco, I mostly escape the blues that come with Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD).
  • I have strong supportive relationships with several good friends who I see several times a week in the normal course of events. (I don’t have to make an appointment!)
  • It’s a beautiful house, and an attractive interior. Beauty feeds joy, and joy gives root to energy.

In closing, I’d like to recommend a couple other blogs and websites that you may find helpful if you, like me, are conscious of the need to design a plan for aging. (I seriously doubt that you would have read this far if that wasn’t the case!) So here are some recommendations:


How Can I Keep from Singing

(excerpt: Full lyrics)

My life goes on in endless song
above earth’s lamentations,
I hear the real, though far-off hymn
that hails a new creation.

Through all the tumult and the strife
I hear its music ringing,
it sounds an echo in my soul.
How can I keep from singing?

Traditional Shaker hymn