Archive for May, 2006

The May garden

Monday, May 29th, 2006

I’ve been busy since April’s gardening post. In the back yard, I pulled out all the old rectangular raised wooden beds, recontoured the plot into a more natural looking border, extended a cobblestone wall, created several new beds and a new flagstone path, spread some grass seed, pruned, edged, transplanted a whole mess of plants, and added some new ones. In the front yard, I hired a crew to haul the woodchips from the stump of the lost Norway maple back to the compost, till up a new (and huge) bed, install a couple of largish shrubs, and spread a truckload of mulch. Then I jumped in and planted a ton of perennials, transplanted more things from the back yard, and topped it off with a few annuals for instant color.

So, now almost the whole yard is cultivated, weeded, planted, and mulched (I never get it all under control at any one time, but each year I get a little closer). We’ve had a cool spring and everything looks neat, clear, and crisp. It won’t look so trim all summer, once the heat and bugs arrive, but the plants should mature and produce a good flower show anyway.

Here’s what’s blooming in late May:

Ageratum Azalea Bearded Iris Tuberous Begonia

Bleeding Heart Perennial Bachelor Buttons Chives Clematis

Coral Bells Coreopsis Cranes Bill African Daisy

Deciduous Azalea Tiarella (Foam Flower) Fuschia Gardinia

Gaura Geranium Gerbera Daisy Impatiens

Lamium Marigold New Guinea Impatiens Peony

Philadelphus Rose Salvia Siberian Iris


Thursday, May 25th, 2006

I opened my email this evening to Contract Magazine‘s newsletter and navigated to an article entitled Clients are from Mars; Designers are from Venus by Martha G. Rayle of Rayle Associates. Rayle discusses why designers and clients often seem to speak a different language. She enumerates the complaints that these two groups have about each other and ends with a list of what clients want.

As part of this discussion, however, Rayle mentions the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, a personality test that purports to pinpoint the way one focuses attention (Extroversion or Introversion: E or I), looks at things (Sensing or Intuition: S or N), makes decisions (Thinking or Feeling: T or F), and deals with the outer world (Judging or Perceiving: J or P). The test assigns a “type” based on scores in these four areas.

Rayle avers that 83% of designers are Intuitives as opposed to Sensing types. She says, “The thinking style of Intuitives begins with generalities and funnels down to specifics,” arguing that this style fits well with the design development process. She then notes that the majority of businesses are Sensing, Thinking, and Judging, with a strong tendency to solve problems by moving from specifics to the general. It is this dichotomy between the Intuitiveness of designers and the Sensing-ness of business that, she argues, causes miscommunication.

I took the Myers-Briggs test about 12 years ago and tested as an ISTJ (Introverted, Sensing, Thinking, Judging). According to the blurb on the back of my score sheet, ISTJ people are “Serious, quiet, earn success by concentration and thoroughness. Practical, orderly, matter-of-fact, logical, realistic, and dependable. See to it that everything is well organized. Take responsibility. Make up their own minds as to what should be accomplished and work toward it steadily, regardless of protests or distractions.”

My score on the Sensing-Intuition scale, however, was nearly at the middle, telling me that a couple of questions answered differently might have made me an INTJ, described as “Usually have original minds and great drive for their own ideas and purposes. In fields that appeal to them, they have a fine power to organize a job and carry it through with or without help. Skeptical, critical, independent, determined, sometimes stubborn. Must learn to yield less important points in order to win the most important.”

This is all pretty interesting, but the front of my test report form also says if the type you got assigned doesn’t fit you, “try to find one that does,” which suggests that this test is, by its own admission, not particularly precise. If I look at the descriptions of some of the other types, I can indeed recognize myself. Life’s not so simple as a personality test would suggest, but it’s fun to contemplate the results and their implications.

Besides, I’m ticking off my courses one by one and it won’t be long until I’m ready for the Big Job Hunt. Relating Rayle’s article to my own Myers-Briggs results makes me wonder – if I’m right in the middle between Sensing (business) and Intuition (design), does that mean I can do both equally well and therefore be useful to a design firm as a bridge between a design team and its business clients? I think so. This Myers-Briggs information may ultimately be helpful in figuring out how to fit myself into the design world.


Monday, May 22nd, 2006

My summer class is Advanced Lighting and Acoustics. It’s an elective sequel to our required Basic Lighting course, where we learned about light, lamps, and luminaires, but got little hands-on experience in lighting design. This 6-week summer course is supposed to take us deeper into lighting design and touch on acoustics. We’ll have some field trips, some lectures, and a project.

I feel as if lighting deserves a lot more attention than it gets in my program. After all, lighting is what makes a space sparkle. A brilliant design goes flat without effective lighting and lighting can perk up an uninspired space considerably. Reading textbooks and listening to lectures goes only so far, so I’m hoping this class will provide some opportunity to see good lighting at work. We also need, but don’t have, a lighting lab at our school that would allow us the time to fiddle with different lighting scenarios.

During the Basic Lighting class, which I took a couple of years ago, we did take an informative field trip to the Philips Lighting Application Center (LAC) in Somerset, New Jersey. The LAC has more than 20,000 square feet of education and demonstration space and sponsors a long list of 1-, 2-, 3-, and 5-day lighting classes and workshops, touching on commercial and residential applications. Our school trip lasted only a few hours, but we were able to see the ways different types of lighting affect space in the LAC’s full-size room setups and see how different lamps affected color. It was a valuable day. (Philips’ website also contains a variety of downloadable lighting design and product brochures and a number of calculation tools.)

Despite all this, I still feel as if I don’t know nearly enough about lighting. It’s frustrating. I want to get my hands on materials and equipment and really experiment. A couple of the classes at the Philips LAC would be great, but that’s not in the cards for the moment. I’m hoping I’ll feel more knowledgable after this summer’s class.

Macaroni and cheese

Saturday, May 20th, 2006

Time for some comfort food. I’ve tried a number of recipes for one of my favorites, macaroni and cheese, but always come back to this basic recipe. As with any project, use good quality ingredients for the best tasting result – organic butter and whole milk, fresh flour (King Arthur is the best), and great tasting cheese.

Serve this with a nice salad of tender lettuces and baby leafy greens and a balsamic vinaigrette and a cold glass of orange juice!

Macaroni and Cheese

  • 1 lb elbow macaroni
  • 1/2 c. butter (1 stick)
  • 1/2 c. flour
  • 4 c. milk
  • 1/2 tsp. dried mustard or up to 1 tsp. Dijon mustard (optional)
  • A few shakes of cayenne pepper (optional)
  • 10 oz. extra sharp cheddar (I like Cracker Barrel New York Aged Reserve Extra Sharp White Cheddar, in the black wrapper)
  • Salt and pepper

Bring a big pot of water to a boil, add about 1/2 T. of salt to the water, then cook the macaroni according to the package directions. Be sure to stir the macaroni from time to time so the pieces don’t stick together. Drain off the water.

While the water is coming to a boil and the macaroni is cooking, heat up the milk (on the stove or in the microwave), but don’t let it boil. Grate the cheese coarsely (a food processor with a grater disc works fast for this).

Melt the butter over medium-low heat, then stir in the flour with a whisk (this is called a roux). Turn the burner down a bit and let the roux bubble a few minutes (continue to stir) to cook the flour a bit. Don’t let it brown. Stir in the hot milk all at once, stirring vigorously with the whisk to smooth out any lumps. Whisk in the mustard and cayenne if you are using them and let the sauce bubble gently for about 2 minutes.

Remove the sauce from the stove and stir in the grated cheese. Stir until it is melted, then add salt to taste. Stir the cheese sauce into the cooked macaroni and taste it again to see if you need more salt or a grind or two of black pepper.

You can eat it as is, or you can put it in a baking dish, sprinkle more cheese or some buttered breadcrumbs* on top, and bake it for 20 or 30 minutes at about 375 degrees. The baked version is less creamy and has a crusty top.

Serves 4-6.

*Buttered bread crumbs: Heat up some butter in a small skillet, stir in the crumbs, which you make from good quality bread. Forget about the pre-made crumbs from the grocery store, they’re no good.

Balancing work and life

Tuesday, May 16th, 2006

Everyone seems to be under increasing pressure to work harder and faster to produce more in less time. This may seem to make sense to the bottom line of companies or their stockholders – after all, more hours on the job means more widgets out the door. But this stress takes a toll, not only on workers, but also on their employers. Unhappy workers aren’t as productive as happy workers, and this is bound to affect the quality of the widgets. Clearly, what’s needed is a decent balance between work and the rest of life. The not-so-new question is how to do this.

Sometimes it can be as simple as saying “no.” When I was a young lawyer at the US Department of Justice, I was involved in a big case and had worked hard to pull it together. As often happens, the trial judge scheduled argument for a routine motion right in the middle of my long-planned vacation. But instead of cancelling my vacation, as many people might have done, I told my boss I couldn’t argue the motion and handed him the file with everything prepared. He was somewhat stunned, but accepted the file, argued the motion for me, and was so impressed by my work that he recommended me for a departmental award (which I later received for my work on that case). Obviously this approach wouldn’t have been appropriate in many situations and might have gotten me fired, but it didn’t. In fact, if I hadn’t done it, my boss would probably never have known how good my work was and I’d never have gotten the award. Go figure.

A round-about way to say no is to simply take some time for yourself during the day. For example, I slip out in the middle of the day a few times a week to go to the gym. If I can make this a routine, I can concentrate on my work much better. It is time well spent. It puzzles me that employers don’t recognize this and make it possible for their employees to get a bit of exercise.

Sometimes there really isn’t any spare time and this requires a different tack. For the last 13 years, I’ve been a single mom of three with a full-time job and am now a grad student as well. No number of no’s will make much difference here. This situation requires me to set priorities, hone my planner down to the minute, give up my notions of perfection, and forget about sleep and time for myself. It’s quite amazing how much one can actually tolerate, but over the years, it does begin to take a toll.

Productivity is really the key after all and both employers and workers have a role in ensuring productivity. Employers have a right to expect their employees to work hard and work efficiently, but employers who work their employees to the bone will end up with high turnover and, in the long run, lowered productivity. This makes no economic sense.

I would argue that a smart employer makes sure employees have some down time in their schedules. Judging by what I hear about real life as a designer – impossible deadlines, insufficient fees, too much turnover – it doesn’t appear to be happening in the design field. Is a more sensible balance between work and life possible in design? I guess I’ll find out after I graduate.


Friday, May 12th, 2006

In browsing through a website called HouseBlogs, I came upon House in Progress. This site is a diary of the restoration of a bungalow in Chicago. One entry, Uncluttered Living, Part I, sounded appealing, so I read on. Well, this post and the author’s subsequent Part II and Part III posts really touched home.

The author is a packrat at heart and so am I. Over the years, I’ve collected materials, tools, books, and sundry other things (see previous post, Tools) and it’s nearly impossible for me to let them go. After all, someday I might need something . . . and, to tell the truth, I frequently do need something and it’s satisfyingly handy to go down to my basement and simply bring it up. This packrat tendency does lead to an almost oppressive abundance, however, and the author has some good approaches for reducing the clutter.

Nevertheless, it is not these suggestions that I find the most compelling about this post. Rather, it is the author’s comments on design. She seques into design through an analysis of why she feels driven to save everything, concluding, in part, that her stuff allows her to “distract my eye from the room itself.” Thinking back to apartments she had lived in in the past, she notes that the actual size of the apartment was less important than how the apartment was conceived and built. The space in which she felt the least comfortable was one of the biggest, but was “a dwelling that symbolized a complete failure of imagination.” Awkward room shapes, cheap materials, drab colors, and dead end passageways left her feeling “itchy and restless.” She contrasts that apartment with another much smaller space that she loved that had well-maintained hardwood floors and lots of natural light.

Here’s her conclusion, which I think is right on all points:

Now I am beginning to get it. The design of the space needs to stand on its own. So much so that if I moved into a room with only a large pillow and a vase of tulips, I could call it welcoming and warm and live comfortably there.

“The design of the space needs to stand on its own.” This is what one of my professors was attempting to get across when he objected to the nice plants I wanted to plop down in the corners of one of my school projects. At the time I ruffled my feathers a bit – I love plants and this seemed a bit snobbish – but now I too am beginning to get it. Good design really does make the difference between an “itchy” space and one that is livable and alive.

So what are the keys to good design? If I had the answer I’d probably be rich, but at the minimum good design requires truly thinking about the problems of a space and the needs of the humans that will occupy it. My sense is that bad design occurs when it’s cheap, fast, and what-we’ve-always-done.

Thinking about this stirs me up. I’m appreciative of the training I’ve had, extraordinarily eager to learn more, and – I’m not sure what words to use – incredulous, exasperated, and bordering on belligerant about the preponderance of poor design. So, other than finishing school and getting that first job so I can actually put my passion about this to practical use, what’s next? Perhaps I’ll start with my closets.


Tuesday, May 9th, 2006

Trying to find the perfect product for a project takes up an immense amount of time. I suppose eventually I’ll begin to know manufacturers and their wares, but as a student, I still know very little. So, when I’ve needed to specify, say, a sidechair for a school project, I end up flipping endlessly through design magazines and Googling for “designer sidechair” or something equally vague. The magazines will provide some ideas, but not always what I have in mind, and a general web search is almost always futile.

I’ve tried to develop efficient ways to organize the products and materials I have discovered, but so far haven’t hit upon a workable solution. My little collection of catalogues and materials doesn’t even scratch the surface, and since they’re not centrally indexed, it’s back to flipping. Keeping folders or notebooks with notes or cutouts never seems to get off the ground and I can’t find anything in these collections of notes anyway. I need a way to access just the information I need, when I need it.

I may have just found a tool that might be useful: Rollyo.

Rollyo is a website that allows you to create customizable search engines. You create or “roll” your own lists (“searchrolls”) of websites you know that pertain to whatever subjects you decide to organize. Then, if you are looking for something that falls within the scope of one of your searchrolls, you can search just within your designated sites, saving you the hassle of combing through the thousands of sites you’d get in a general web search for the same thing. You can view and search other people’s searchrolls too and add their searchrolls to your collection.

You can use Rollyo even if you don’t have your own searchrolls by entering a search term on the explore page. When I plugged in “design,” I got a long list of searchrolls, most of them pertaining to web design, but a few on architectural or interior design. A general exploration of others’ searchrolls is not likely to help me find a product, but it might lead to something interesting.

I’ve just started several searchrolls – lighting, architectural hardware, wallcoverings, windows, architectural tiles, and independent living – based on ads, articles, and websites I found in a recent magazine. I also found a searchroll that someone else had created that looked interesting enough to add. As I find companies or websites that have products or information that I’d like to remember, I’ll add them to my searchrolls. Once my lists are comprehensive enough, my hope is that I will be able to find things I am looking for much faster.

This is a great use of the internet – fast access to specialized information. Rollyo could be a terrific tool for organizing a personalized product “library.”

On history

Thursday, May 4th, 2006

I feel as if I should write about history. I’ve just finished my school year, which included three courses on the history of architecture and interior design, and clearly there should be plenty to say, but no one period, building, interior, or piece of furniture inspired me to click on “write post.” When I look back at the entire year, however, I realize that the three courses did give me something valuable – a stronger sense that the “modern” life of today is not the be-all end-all, but is just another instant in the continuously developing story of humankind. Clearly, this is not a novel idea, but what’s new for me is that history now seems quite real and exciting.

But back to history and how I came to appreciate it.

History is one of those subjects that is either completely engrossing or totally boring. When I was in high school, I hated it. I don’t even remember my teachers, which probably means they were not very skilled, but I do remember how deadly dull the textbooks and the curriculum were – strings of dates, military events, political leaders, all presented in stilted, repetitive language. It was not a story of how life was; it was a list of the political-military conquests of white men. Not that this can’t be interesting, but it’s certainly not the whole picture and I couldn’t identify.

College offered better exposure to history through sociology, anthropology, Shakespeare, and music and art history courses and, since then, I’ve periodically delved into various history topics. Still, I kept thinking I didn’t like history based on that old high school dread.

This school year I took History I, History II, and Modern Architecture, the first two of which were required. I expected to have to trudge through these courses, but I was surprised to find that I actually loved all of them. Each class seemed to supply a piece of a puzzle. What that puzzle was was initially unclear, but now I can see it – it’s the story of the continuum of human development and how we fit into it.

History I began with ancient Egypt, a culture whose art and architecture reflected complex notions of religion and social hierarchy. The class progressed through Greece, Rome, the Middle Ages, and into the 17th and 18th centuries in Europe, focusing on what life was like in those times and how the architecture responded. The story of the development of human civilization is entangled in the structures and art of these cultures. I was struck by the exponentially increasing pace of advancement as I studied each culture. Ancient Egyptian culture lasted thousands of years – the Industrial Revolution has been going on a mere two hundred. It’s dizzying.

History II covered the 18th and 19th centuries and was more about furniture than architecture. I kind of hit the wall during this class as the chairs, commodes, and tables all began to look alike to me, but what they revealed about the progression of thought, economics, craftsmanship, urban development, technology, and social and artistic attitudes in the 18th and 19th centuries provided a great background to understanding contemporary times. These centuries were the precursors to the Modern Era in so many ways and having studied this progression, I now have a greater appreciation for that period of history and its impact on our lives today.

Modern Architecture covered architectural history from the mid-19th century to the present. The course helped me understand the who, what, when, where, and why of the forms and lines used in architecture today. Going back to the beginning of various modern styles and learning what was happening in the world at large and the social pressures to which the designers responded has made me see modern work in a new light. These modern buildings are not just structures; they embody the thoughts, emotions, and technology not only of their designers but also of the times during which they were built.

Ultimately, history is about understanding our place in time and why life is the way it is today. Today is merely a continuation of yesterday, and tomorrow will simply be the next step. In a sense, nothing is new – everything has a past, be it technological or inspiration of line or form. It’s understanding these links with past societies, thoughts, designs, and people that make history so important and give us a vision for the future.


Tuesday, May 2nd, 2006

I have an enormous cookbook collection. A few years back, I bought several gourmet cake cookbooks (see partial list below) and wanted to make all the recipes. Because my family couldn’t handle that many cakes, I formed a small company, Charlotte’s, and roped in several of my friends to be my guinea pigs. Each of them got a new cake per month. I got to bake and experiment, and most importantly, taste each cake.

Eventually I got through quite a few recipes and even had a couple of wedding cake jobs. The most fun project was a Three Little Pigs scene for my daughter’s class.

This little business was a lot of fun. Not only did I have a chance to bake, but I got to take cake decorating and dried flower arrangement classes, amass shelves of mixers, baking pans, decorating tips, and other tools, learn how to make sugar paste flowers and candied violets, work with marzipan and fondant, and figure out how to transport three-tiered wedding cakes without collapse.

Here are a few of my favorites.