an alternative to an "entertainment center"

given any room's odd configurations of walls and openings, furniture arrangements can be a bit difficult in older buildings and newer ones, too.   in chicago, one long living room wall perfectly fit five ikea modular cube shelving units (now discontinued) which held all the electronics, records, cds and dvds.

sometimes i pine after this particular chicago apartment.  i do miss the city's nice stock of vintage buildings.
similar to the logan square apartment, it makes sense for one wall of our durham apartment to hold all the same equipment within the ikea cubes.  the flexibility of these pieces has served me well as i've moved hither and thither.

in durham, three of the shelving modules fit.  the remaining two serve as a buffet near the dining table.
i dislike the black void of the tv and have tried to distract the eye away from it with the papier-mâché zebra head and other interesting objects.

i like the up-and-down visual rhythm of the pieces that hang on the wall.
 the latest addition to the wall's collection is the "turkey work" embroidery piece just above the lamp.  some sort of odd children's tale illustrated?  a bear and lamb eating cake?  a dog and a goat eating cheese?  who knows exactly, but i love its whimsical charm.

animals are becoming a theme at home.
though we may not stay in this apartment past the end of our lease next summer, a week off from work gives me the urge to nest and make this place as cozy as possible, even if only for another six months.


stripes beat not stripes everyday of the week

what is it that i like so much about a space that doesn't scream its function?

take this bathroom.  it is used by polo players in martin orozco's argentinian horse breeding ranch.  but does this room look explicitly like a bathroom?  nope. 

world of interiors, november 2011
is that a sink over there in the corner?  yes.  
are the pipes completely exposed?  yes.  
are those towel rings made of painted coiled wire? yes.  
are the grey stripes the simple width of a paint roller?  yes.  
are the concrete walls rumply?  yes. 

i realize we don't all have easy access to our ancestral family ranches abroad but wouldn't it be uncommonly refreshing would it be to stripe your own walls in grey?  stripe the vanity cabinet while you're at it-- it's just some piece of junk from home depot anyway -- it needs some life!  red suites me anytime anywhere and the oversize hoops of wire are hand-drying sculptures.  there's probably all kinds of bugs in this old room- after all it is a converted stable.  there's probably dirt galore and germs, egads.  but you know what?  i'll take this unpretentious and unregulated horse stall over a pristine marble master suite mausoleum any day. 


crammed with delight

a room in novelist umberto pasti & fashion designer stephan janson's tangier home is inspiration for what i'd like the office in the new place (or any room ever) to look like:

image from world of interiors, apr. 2007
deep red walls as background to so many intriguing and mysterious hangings and objects.  a lifetime of collecting manifested. 

naturally, if the office were adjacent to this sort of room, also from pasti & janson's home, i'd like it even more:

image from world of interiors, apr. 2007
the things i really fall in love with don't come from this continent, like the whale vertebrae on top of the armoire.  and despite being apparently windowless, this space has some kind of interesting indirect light source.

what are the chances of my generic 1970's apartment building in north carolina ever remotely looking like this?


a cheerful corner

at the yorkshire flat of british artist-designer mark hearld  (image from world of interiors, nov. 07)
 the smallest of kitchens made delightful with hand painted plates, a couple potted geraniums and abundant sunshine.


an antidote to light poisoning

as i mentioned in this post, the lighting our new apartment's kitchen is dreadful.  

fluorescent death.
with the garish fluorescent on, i felt like i was in the inside of a refrigerator, everything cold and white.  the most complementary way i could have described the kitchen is that it was amply lit, but man, it killed me to be in that kind of icy blue atmosphere.  

first, i considered trying to take down the fluorescent pillow fixture altogether but quick googling led me to believe that removal would more difficult than it would be worth in a rental.  i also looked up ideas online for creative ways to cover/disguise the long rectangle of the fixture, but again, nothing struck me as being very aesthetically pleasing or functional. 
turns out one of the easiest solutions was also one of the cheapest.  with the help of three of these inexpensive fas lights from ikea, the kitchen sitch is now much improved.  

i attached two of the fas lights to the top of the cabinetry over the sink wall.  (the fas light has optional hardware that can clamp onto a shelf, but it also comes with a little bracket that allows you to screw it onto a surface more permanently, which is what i did here.)

warmer and more atmospheric and but still lit well enough.
the cords run along the top of the cabinets and drop down into the void behind a filler piece between the cabinetry and the wall to the far left, perfectly aligned to the outlet there.  i also had an extra lamp that i placed on top of the fridge to provide more light near the washer/dryer.  


a piney picnic spot

one of my worries about leaving extra-attractive-and-scenic oak park is that our nearby walking routes in durham wouldn't be able to compete in the looks department.  turns out our new neighborhood is quite charming and even the raggedy parts are at least partially masked by the thick greenery.

an unexpected, pleasant and very nearby discovery is a little park named wrightwood which, coincidentally, was the street name of two of my six chicago addresses.  the primary view of wrightwood park from the street is of a small semi-defunct baseball diamond and off to one side is an large playground.  but just beyond the ball field, up a slight hill, is my favorite part. 

a room with trees for walls.
this magical little spot emanates that spirit of place that i continually seek.  so much of the woods in north carolina are extraordinarily dense with foliage, but this part opens up below the pine canopy like a room with very tall ceilings.  i first came upon this park as the sun was setting and the sifted low light coming through the needles made me wish that i was just arriving there for a festive picnic with friends.

the late afternoon light in early fall.
i love how the pines don't allow for much undergrowth, so the space below is airy and light.  between the tall bare trunks, you can easily see who comes and goes through the park, runners, dogs, and children, but you still feel you have your own private little space away from such activity.  these tables are at a distance from the bordering two streets so there is a great sense of quiet and relaxation here, allowing you to fully enjoy that bon vivant lifestyle to which you aspire. 

and should you be picnicking and should it begin to rain and get a little cool, you could, of course, head under the adjacent arts & crafts-style shelter and light yourself a fire in that big stone hearth and continue on enjoying your company and your bread and cheese and grapes and wine and chocolate, all the while keeping dry and warm.

the view up the hill towards the picnic shelter.  tables from previous images visible center-right.
yes?  yes.


sliding door solution

we're here!  north carolina is glorious, what can i say?  chicago, i'm sorry, but you just weren't my thing.

so it turned out to be difficult to find a living situation that suited us.  i guess september is not a hot month for rental turnover.  what was available seemed to be small, gross, generic, sketchy or some combination of those qualities.  we prevailed in the end and found an apartment that met two of our major requirements: no carpet and an in-unit washer and dryer.  

the place does have a couple major drawbacks though - one being the horrid fluorescent pillow light fixture in the kitchen which makes me want to shrivel up rather than cook.  i know that fluorescent bulbs are more efficient and "green" but honestly, the light is a killing light.  it makes everything look flat and plain and unmoody and garish and dead.  the solution to the kitchen lighting situation will definitely be the subject of its own post to follow.  

the other major offensive item were the vertical blinds.

what is particularly annoying about vertical blinds, aside from the institutional ugliness of the things, is the fact that either you're completely on display to passers by when the blind are open (we live on the first floor facing the street so that's an issue) or you're completely in the dark with no natural light coming in when they're closed.  though the large sliding door faces east, the heavy woods block most of direct sunlight until 11am or so, so the living/dining room are a bit on the dark side.  (hopefully, come winter when the leaves are off, it will be brighter in the mornings.)  

barf, without privacy and the chopped up view drives me nuts.
to solve the issue of allowing light into the space, while still affording privacy, i used the kvartal sliding track system from ikea with translucent but opaque rice paper panels in a grouping of five.  i connected two of the triple rails at full length (you can cut them down to length and ikea even sells a miter box and saw expressly for the purpose) and added five panels. 

inexpensive and so much better.  light comes in even on a cloudy day.
installation was pretty easy, though time consuming as most ikea assembly projects are.  the two rails together are about 16" longer to each side than the total width of the sliding doors.  this means that when all the way open, the panels are almost completely open to the width of the doors.

open if i so desire.  in this photo the panels could still open wider.
depending on the time of day or my mood, i can adjust how much of the outside is visible.

total versatility as each panel slides individually.

when the sun is shining and panels are closed, the rice paper glows!

on a sunny day.  (i may have look into switching out the sofa cover as i'm not loving all the horizontal line action.)
so much better now.  onto the next new apartment project.


diy drum shade

our oak park apartment has so much architectural charm, especially in the dining room, with the original picture molding frames around the room, the large windows and the french doors that separate it from the kitchen.  

one of the less charming modern elements of the space was the builder-grade "chandelier".  when we moved in, i was not a fan of its brushed-nickel, swirly-white-glass octopus-armed style.  the light this thing put off was overly bright for what's supposed to be an inviting stay-a-while kind of room, even when using the dimmer switch.  buying a new chandelier for a rental apartment would not have been beyond my usual scope of decorating madness, but instead, i came up with a plan to diy a giant drum shade that would utilize but hide the existing fixture.  here's that cheap looking eyesore:

when lit, the downward-facing light bulbs glare in the eyes.  ugliness also glares in the eyes.
the first thing i had to figure out was how to create the skeleton for the shade.  given the large diameter of the light fixture, nearly 24" even with the glass shades removed, i needed something something circular that would be both large and lightweight.  quilting hoops were just the ticket - preformed circles made of balsa wood.  as it turned out no local stores here had large enough hoops in stock, so i ordered two sets online that looked like this: 

quilting hoops are composed of two rings: one solid inner ring and another larger outer ring cut with an adjustable brace that allows the fabric to be tightly stretched between the two rings.  to prepare the hoops for my drum shade skeleton, i used one inner ring as is and broke off the blocking pieces of the two outer hoops that hold the bolt and wingnut and then glued and taped the separated ends together to make fixed-sized circles.

for the shade itself, i had had some fabric for at least ten years (which i bought from denver fabrics, a fabulous independent shop whose existence makes me question why chicago's fabric store selection sucks so much) and i knew it would be awesome for my purpose with its small colorful pattern.  

magenta, gold, and blue.
after preparing the quilting hoops, i measured out the piece of fabric i would need to wrap the circumference of the hoops.  turns out the fabric i had wasn't long enough to wrap the entire thing in one go, so i had to join two equal sized pieces of the fabric, which meant that instead of having one seam, i had to have two.  i also had to determine how tall i wanted the shade to be.  since i was going to hang this shade over top of the existing fixture, i had to ensure that the light bulbs weren't too close to any of the fabric and that there was plenty of room for the heat to escape all while keeping the overall size in proportion to the room.

measuring out both the length of the fabric and the height of the overall shade.
i did a test run of the shade, temporarily stapling the fabric to the hoops and haphazardly attaching it to the fixture chain.  as you can see here, it looked rather disastrous.  wrinkly and wobbly and, of course, the underside of the ugly chandelier was still visible.

test run.  um, not the look i was going for.
to give the fabric some much needed structure, without having to add more wooden pieces to the skeleton, i ironed on medium weight fusible interfacing to the wrong side of the printed fabric.  this simple solution worked perfectly to stiffen the sides of the drum shape.

now that i was sure the fabric would hang properly with the addition of the interfacing, i used fabric glue to permanently fasten the fabric/interfacing to the outer quilting hoops and clamped it all in place with binder clips while it set up.
fabri-tac glue is stringy and messy but very strong and permanent.
i also knew that i didn't want any of the existing fixture visible (except for the chain), so i had to create a cover for the bottom.  this step was as simple as taking basic muslin fabric and stretching it over an inner hoop and gluing it all up.  

the bottom of the shade, drying.
the next step was to figure out exactly how to hang the drum shade over the top of the existing ugly one.  i bought very small eye bolts and s-hooks and picture hanging wire and strung an x shape at the top of the shade.  the sharp tip of the eye bolts easily pierced this soft balsa wood which meant i didn't have to use a drill or any special tools.

detail of the removable and adjustable hanging system.
it took a bit of finagling and test runs to get the length of the wires equal and proper.  you can see here that the shade itself still looks a little crumpled, but before hanging it for the last time, i ironed out the wavy spots.

looking through the top of the shade with its hanging system and bottom cover in place.
as i mentioned earlier, i took off the glass shades of the original fixture in order to decrease the circumference of the light.  to hang the finished drum, i strung the wires over the top of the  fixture and hooked the s-hooks into the eye bolts.  the shade stays put just by being balanced and is not tightly affixed in place, which means that if it gets bumped, it gets off-kilter but seeing as it's hung over a dining table, bumping into it isn't really a problem.

the shade strung over the existing fixture.
here is the drum shade all completed.  the bottom muslin cover is just held in place by tension and easily pops out if i have to change a bulb (or dump out accumulated dead insects).  the magenta and yellow of the fabric does soften the light and gives off a warm and cozy glow.  the finished shade is about 24" in diameter and about 16" high.  being so big, it is something of a statement piece, but i feel the dining room is large enough to accommodate its size.

thar she blows!

i made this shade only two months after we moved in so you can see that the drum shade has lasted well and hasn't burned up or fallen off in the intervening two years.  here's the dining room a month ago:

drum shade in situ.

now that we're packing this place up in preparation for the move, i'm taking the fabric shade down and replacing the glass shades.  i hope to be able to reuse the drum shade in our next place.  if it turns out that this one isn't the right size, at least i know now how to make another one easily enough.


color matters: house paint

when i lived in california, i had a friend who joked how she wished she could leave post-it notes on the front doors of less-than-lovely houses with suggestions on how to improve their curb appeal.  i think of her idea often, especially when i see a house like this every single day.  

clearly this is a grand home with tons going for it, and i applaud the owners for giving it some tlc, but believe or not, this unfinished-looking cold gray stucco color is brand new.  until a few weeks ago this exterior existed in an even rougher, splotchy, pre-finish-coat state of incompleteness for at least the two years we've lived in oak park (and surely longer).  the yard has been continuously torn up with mounds of dirt shifting from right to left as various areas of the foundation were excavated, which has resulted in loose dirt washing into a muddy sludge on the adjoining sidewalk every time it rains (which has been occurring in a record-breaking manner all summer long).  i was curious when i saw the stucco guys re-appear, wondering at how the colors would finally turn out.  um, primer gray?  not at all what i was hoping for.

i don't actually know for certain whether the dark cool gray is in fact the final color, but i have a sinking feeling that it is given the sluggish pace at which these people complete projects.  if i were to leave a post-it note on this front door, i'd suggest they paint it like so:

a deep rich brown with undertones of red and purple, just like the leaves on the crimson king maple trees flanking the house.  see how easily that would warm up and make more inviting the hulking mass of the house and complement the green lawn?

(while you're at it, why don't you get rid of that orange safety fencing over to the right and how about seeding that barren slope with grass.)

just a thought...


(the end of being) at home in chicago

the current view from the sofa...

yes, boxes and more boxes.  we're moving!  in three weeks, we are moving to my home state of north carolina. at long last!  chicago has never truly felt like home to me even after six and a half years and now i’m ready to live where i’ve got roots and where i’m ready to put down more.

to be brutally honest, the first time i visited chicago in 2002, i thought it was the ugliest city i'd ever seen and i couldn’t remotely imagine myself living here.  i found/find it so flat, so gray, so heavy, so barren, so un-ornamented, so, to quote carl sandburg, "stormy, husky, brawling".   but in 2005 i did move here and it's hard to believe it’s now 2011.  i accept that my aesthetic standards were unreasonably high upon my arrival having just come from some of the most picturesque cities in the united states: portland, oregon and pasadena, california.  but i was still sort of appalled by how grim most of the streetscapes seemed.  turns out the most visual and aesthetic pleasure i’ve gotten from chicago has been not through its exteriors, but instead through its interiors.

and plenty of interiors i’ve seen: during my time here, i’ve lived in six different apartments.  six!  three of those were within my first year here.  my first place was in the logan square neighborhood - a nice condo building but nothing homey and i didn't spend much time outside of my room or the kitchen.   its major perk was the in-unit washer and dryer but that luxury was fleeting.

apartment #1.  top floor, somewhat ornamented, but a crappy street otherwise. duration: maybe five months.
the second place was a rough, raw and incredibly cheap loft shared with four roommates in wicker park.  living in a house full of artists, i didn’t mind the sketchy alley entrance, the peeling paint on every surface including the floors, the rickety rusted death trap ladder to the rooftop, or the lack of real visual or auditory privacy.  in fact those elements felt exciting and very cool for the short months that I lived there.

apartment #2. top floor, alley access only. duration: maybe four months.

i pretty much would be horrified by the same situation now, but in the end the advantage of such a undefined space is that you could do no wrong to it because it was never going to be civilized or tamed.  i did pick up two valuable DIY skills there: i learned how to plumb a pedestal sink (which had been found in an alley by a friend) for the bathroom where there wasn’t one before and i learned how to frame a stud wall to create a new room within the vast open space.

my third home was with a new roommate i‘d found on craigslist, still in wicker park.  my room was teeny tiny and required me to loft my bed in order to fit both it and full size drafting table below.  it was like a tree house nest.  such tininess i really did not mind when it was all to myself.

apartment #3.  top floor, upstairs from a knitting shop.  duration: 6 months.
the roommate and i were a good match and six months in, we moved to my fourth apartment only two blocks away.  being that it too was shared, i still didn’t feel the urge to prettify anything beyond my own room, and even there, my decorating was pretty minimal.  

apartment #4.  top floor, south facing windows galore.  duration: one year.

apartment #4.  barely decorated interiors.
 all those months of transience thankfully came to and end when, in january of 2007, i met my love while on a trip to omaha.  just months later in april, i had moved out from the wicker park roommate and found a fifth place to call my own back in logan square.  i was alone in the new place (just one block from my apartment #1) for about one month before my main squeeze moved from omaha to chicago to be with me.  i was so happy to be able to share the apartment that i loved with someone that i loved.

apartment #5.  top floor, ugly exterior.  duration: one and a half years.
here was where i really started to decorate in earnest.  the space got incredible southern light in its handsomely proportioned bedroom and living room. i painted the living room twice, the kitchen got a red accent wall, then i painted over that.  i stenciled a louis sullivan-inspired design on the bedroom walls.   i painted the bathroom, hung art, got custom wooden blinds to replace the horrible vertical blinds in the living room, bought more real furniture.  i guess i felt a much greater urge to make the space personal and cozy since i had a partner to share it with.

apartment #5.  evolution of the interior.
alas, one and half years later, a new job in the far western suburbs was impetus enough to move yet again.  after swearing while living in logan square that next time i moved, it would be out of chicago, i made it as far as oak park, a town which lies just west of chicago.   so technically i held true to my promise, though i didn't make it as far as i had hoped.

apartment #6.  top floor, pretty outside, pretty inside.  duration: two years.
this sixth place is the best yet.  incredible walkable neighborhood with legendary architecture all around, impossibly huge houses, lovely gardens, parks and shops galore.  this space has a separate dining room with room enough for a giant work surface.  good morning and afternoon light.  original 1920s bathroom tile.  a decorative fireplace.  the only real drawback is the impossibly small kitchen, but that has been pretty easy to overlook for all other great features.   i will miss this interior and exterior; it has been good to me and to us.

apartment #6.  evolution of the living room and other rooms.

but now: onward!  homeward!


the french know how to put a room together, no?

a bedroom with that je ne sais quoi.  such a simple space but so strongly beckoning with those incredible smoke purple walls and color matched roman shade, sunshine yellow matelasse, and of course, a tribal dhurrie.  and how about the casual and irregular hanging of the etching and the porcelain plates?  lovely.
a guest room in textile designer dominique kieffer's normandy home, image from world of interiors april 2003


an urban patio - REVEALED!

remember this?

the mood board i created for friends' previously unused outdoor space.

well, the near future is here!  almost exactly two months from the plan's conception, the urban patio plan has come to full fruition.  here's the new outdoor room in all its summertime glory:

come on outside with me.

it's a beautiful evening.  would you like to stay for dinner?

there's room for three, or more if we pull the table out.
al fresco dining, urban style.
have a seat, or better yet, have a little lie down.
endless relaxing possibilities.
when it gets dark out, we've got lights to keep the party illuminated.
morning, noon or night, your behind belongs here.

your book/magazine/newspaper belongs here.
and your coffee/water/cocktail belongs here.  stay a while, won't you?

chicago's summer is its best season and it can now be enjoyed stylishly and comfortably.  what was once drab empty nothingness is now a cozy and colorful spot perfect for meals, entertaining, reading, napping, whatever strikes your fancy.
so glad you came for a visit! 

(coming soon: the how, what and when of the whole urban patio process.)


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