Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Inbuilt furniture at Enfield Shaker village, New Hampshire
original photo by Walter Parenteau

Back to moving.

More and more I find the idea of carrying furniture around close to insane.
If you strip down pieces of furniture to absolutely vital ones: namely, perhaps your bed and some storage - do we really need to own them? At the scale of a city, does it make sense to be moving around thousands of similar looking bed frames, wardrobes, and bookshelves, like a huge swaping game which in the end consumes gas, human energy, and leads to the familiar left-behind casualties on the curbside?

Recently I've been mulling over possible alternatives. Among the first solutions: inbuilt furniture. One where architects and designers would participate in taking the load off the inhabitant's back, by making it a necessity to provide inbuilt storage.

The 'student dorm' model, improved. Of course it means accepting the idea of sharing furniture over time, but that's what we already do with buildings. A little clean up, and it's back on tracks for a new life. Wouldn't it be a fine system, where in theory you would only have to bring in your 'soft material' - linens, clothes, books, etc.?



A wonderful example of integrating furniture into the design of buildings. Among the most graceful features of this practice: 'The drawers graduate in height from top to bottom, a typical Shaker design feature that combines practicality with pleasing proportions - the larger drawers are a the bottom so that heavier contents are not precariously near the top.'

Storage cabinet in Hancock Shaker village, Massachusetts
photog by Daveybot

Another thrilling highlight: 'cleanliness - no dust could collect on top or underneath'.

Both quotes are from the wonderful book 'Shaker: Life, Work and Art' by June Sprigg and David Larkin, with photographs by Michael Freeman.


Monday, November 7, 2011

Visit of Cienfuegos, Cuba
photograph by Patrick Nouhailler

I was browsing through available data on ecological footprint - the previous article about overconsumption made me want to know more.

A type of graph that often pops up on the internet is the one below, showing, for each country, human development index vs. ecological footprint:

 graph by the Global Footprint Network
(they have great reports, by the way)

The Human Development Index is a single statistic which serves 'as a frame of reference for both social and economic development'. It combines 'indicators of life expectancy, educational attainment and income'.  

The Ecological Footprint represents 'the amount of biologically productive land and sea area necessary to supply the resources a human population consumes, and to mitigate associated waste'.
(source: wikipedia

Looking at this graph, it is striking that the only country which consumes less than its share of the earth's biocapacity AND has reached significantly high human development is Cuba.

I know very little about Cuba, beyond the postcard pictures and the occasional political bits in the media. Regardless (but not disregarding) of what one may think of the Cuban regime, the fact that it is up there, alone, in the green window, makes me immensely curious about the details of its functionning.
I want to research and post more on this - meanwhile, if any of you have stories to share about Cuba's economy, things you've experienced yourselves there, feel free to tell in the comment section.


Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Yesterday there was an interesting article published in French newspaper Le Monde, titled
'The real threat on the future: overconsumption' (also available here - sorry, no English version).

I couldn't find a lot of information about its author ('Frédéric Julien, a political science PhD student at University of Ottawa, in residence at King's College Departmenf of Geography.') - but the contents are worth mentionning.

Julien's thesis is that society should fear overconsumption much more than overpopulation, as it is growing at a faster rate, and unlike demographic evolution, is showing no sign of being curbed any time soon: there are no 'growth control policies' equivalents to birth control policies.

If they are accurate, the following numbers are quite telling:
[note: 'ecological footprint' means the productive surface of soil and water necessary to sustain a lifestyle]
  • 'between 1961 and 2007, North America (the United States and Canada) have seen their population grow by some 39%, whereas their ecological footprint has made a leap of %160'.

  • 'as a result, in 2007 North America represented %5 of the world population, but %17 of its ecological footprint'.

I also like the phrase 'increase of revenue - i.e. 'permit to consume''.

patching post #1 : Woolfiller

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Woolfiller® was invented in 2009 by Heleen Klopper, a Dutch designer working in Amsterdam.

photographs by Mandy Pieper

Woolfiller is a patching device for woolen thingies - 'jumpers, cardigans, jackets and carpets.'
It consists of
- very loose felt (any color you like)
- that you push through the weave by pricking it with a felting needle
- while a little foam pad underneath provides the right surface porosity to work on.

video by Pieter Wackers

The genius of Woolfiller® comes from
1. The brilliant observation that wool fibers bind to each other, if they are mechanically encouraged to do so
2. Apparently survives washing
3. The process requires no sewing skills. ANYBODY can do it, from children to clumsy men to grandmas. Truly democratic, and easy to pass on.

I love the simplicity of this project, the fact that it comes from somebody who tried to listen to the properties of a material, and derived a graceful solution from this understanding. AND that it brings patching into the present, in a fun and easy way.

All images and references are reproduced with the kind permission of Heleen Klopper.


Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Starting a category of posts dedicated to the action of patching.

cropped photography from an original by Dorothea Lange
'Ex-slave and wife who live in a decaying plantation house. Greene County, Georgia' - 1937

1. A piece of cloth sewed on a garment to repair it.
2. A small piece of any thing used to repair a breach.
PATCH, v.t. To mend by sewing on a piece or pieces; as, to patch a coat.

I think it's relevant to the theme of bare necessities.
Selective ownership + intensive use => wear and tear
=> [disposal (=> acquiring new stuff)] OR [repair.]

As the author of this blog I can only advocate for postponing the acquisition of new stuff until it's really, really necessary. Repair is something you have to at least try.

less stuff, more happiness

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Got lots of things to say about it - good and bad -, will publish soon.
Am investigating his LifeEdited website as well, will be back with thoughts.

Opening remark: TED’s 6 minute talks are so frustratingly short they border on the ridicule – speakers can blurt out any kind of nonsense they want, and run away without having to elaborate. But they are also cool because they plant just enough of an idea in your head to start you thinking.

Criticism: I agree with the general intent of that talk (encouraging people to live with less things in less space), but its interpretation / implementation by GH leaves me more than perplexed.

How can you with a straight face tell people to ‘edit ruthlessly’,
then describe the brief for your ‘small’ 420 sq ft apartment as: ‘I wanted it all: home office; sit-down dinner for ten; room for guests; and all my kite-surfing gear. ’
Dude. What the heck did you edit out of your Soho yuppy lifestyle? The talking oven?
‘And, of course…my own movie theater’.
Oh, sorry. You were not done.

The final, completely refurbished apartment looks slick and clever, yes. However:
1. It is doing exactly the same thing as the stackable chairs, Russian-doll bowls, and magic digitization that makes ‘everything disappear’: finding a clean way to cram a lot of stuff into less space, i.e., the opposite of editing.
2. The big elephant in the room is the nasty question which designers do not want to hear: is it relevant today, especially within the framework of a ‘green’ discourse, to even think of designing anything from scratch?
As Christopher Guignon once said: 'sustainability must redefine itself as a tool for dynamic transition, not a tool for sustaining an existing modus operandi.' 

Which is exactly what GH doesn’t seem to have the guts to do.
The entire experience of the LifeEdited contest, while very interesting in terms of space optimization, seems to offer, as the main final deliverable, the design of a highly-customized apartment to sustain the lifestyle of a wealthy New Yorker, while easing up his environmental guilt through some ‘green’ patches.

To me some important questions haven’t surfaced: what does ‘simple life’ mean when societal pressure requires most of us to be connected through technological devices which we must more or less own? Do we really need to each have a fully equipped kitchen? What are daily utilities we could start sharing? Aren’t good plumbing and safe, natural materials more important than home-theaters? How can we be effectively coherent between what we preach and what we do?

emergency needs

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

This is a post I started a while ago, as Hurricane Irene was hitting the east coast of the United States.

Since the tsunami/nuclear accident in Japan, I have been thinking about how times of crisis suddenly make a population focus on bare necessities, and how some belongings suddenly shift value, becoming enormous advantages (ex: bottled water) or huge impediments (ex: high heels).
Suddenly the fact of being old / sick / living alone is more blatantly difficult than any other time, as having family and friends may define your chances of making it through.

For the sake of the exercise, here is a rough checklist (compiled from the internet) of things that turn out extremely valuable in such situations:

- drinking water (critics of plastic bottles: forget your fight just this once)
- clean water for washing and flushing
- non-perishable food (canned, dried)
- slow-perishable food not needing refrigeration (apples, carrots, green bananas)
- medicine
- first aid kits

- shoes that protect your feet from debris and allow you to run (sorry Jimmy Choo's)
- blankets and warm clothing

- filled batteries
- battery-powered radios
- flashlights
- cell-phones
- access to real-time, local information (tv or radio)
- a car filled with gas

- having a plan with your family (know how to contact everyone you care for, have an out-of-state common friend to call if you are separated)
- have evacuation routes in mind (and good maps too I presume)
- have a place to evacuate in mind (friends are priceless)

- know how to drive
- know how to shut down utilities

- a well constructed home, in accordance to building code

- insurance policies (on your home, belongings, office)
- photographs of your belongings (the less you possess, the easier the photographing)
- protection from flying objects (the less you possess, the easier the protection)

I like the fact that these requirements are solid arguments for fighting against the production and selling of junk - be they objects, food, buildings. In these cases, junk will hinder your chances of survival.
Also, it points to the futility of A LOT of life-accessories we surround ourselves with every day, even if they are well-made.

Lastly, it scares me to think how easily it is to be unprepared, and NOT have these very necessary items at hand. All it takes is a bit of lazyness, and a set of priorities dictated by fashion rather than need.

The Weather Channel
The Ready Store
Virgin Islands Information
University of Louisiana
New York Times blog

paperbasket made of paper

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Stumbled on this very smart object by Studio Verissimo, the firm of portuguese designers Cláudio Cardoso and Telma Veríssimo.

photograph by ricardo faria, 
used with the kind permission of Studio Verissimo

It's a paper basket woven from pages of newspaper.
Seems to be doing just what a paper basket should be doing: stand up straight, hold paper!
Most likely disposable and compostable at the end of its life.
What more does the people want, eh?

Japanese brand MUJI sells a similar paper basket made from pages of phonebooks, handwoven in the Philippines.

- I say: I want a how-to guide for weaving it myself - people could start making those at every street corner
- my better half says: 'why are we producing the big wasteful phone books in the first place?' - he has a point.

the haves and the have-Nots

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Kenya-born, England-raised photographer James Mollison has created a series called Where Children Sleep: 'stories of diverse children around the world, told through portraits and pictures of their bedrooms.'

I find this work thought-provoking from many angles - social, political, etc., and in the context of this blog, a good representation of clashes between 'material cultures'. Not so much linked to the country (a lot of the extremes shown here probably have a replication everywhere you go), but rather linked to revenues, customs, and spending patterns.

Here are 2 bedroom photographs from the series, with the personal belongings of the children laid out in the space:

The bedroom of Kaya, a 4-year old girl in Tokyo, Japan

The bedroom of Ahkohxet, an 8-year old boy in the Brazilian part of the Amazon Rainforest.

- the first photo fascinates me because
1) the accumulation of objects in the room seems to overcome the life that can take place within it - more museum than bedroom, at least from that angle
2) light, furniture/flooring, and most of these objects are artificial (neon light, particle board, fake wood, hard & soft plastics, artificial fabrics & fur)
3) through sheer number, they overfulfill a need (hundreds of toys vs. the basic need to play / 20+ heavily decorated outfits vs. the basic need to be dressed).

- the second photo fascinates me because
1) the presence of raw materials is almost brutal (earth floor, clay & wood walls, reeds on the roof, etc.) + natural light
2) it seems we could trace each object back to a basic need (a backpack to carry things, a pair of shorts and underwears, blankets to be warm, a platform to sleep on, a rope to hold clothes...)

I wonder about the kind of society that creates the former - I feel that I belong to it, and that photograph is simply one of its most radical illustrations - where 'comfort' is created through the massive production of heavily designed items, relying heavily on the petro-chemical industry, taking up space and blurring our vision of necessary vs. superfluous. What kind of action/behavior could turn it around?

Even if I can never tell whether Ahkohxet is happier or not than Kaya, poorer or not in all the possible meanings of 'poverty', burdened by the same petrochemical industry but in more complex ways, I am attracted to the idea that anybody, regardless of their wealth, could make the choice of owning very few, but useful and therefore meaningful, things.

Thoughts from my friend Scott while this article was still in the works :'In addition to the obvious conclusions about material obsessions and waste, another way of looking at these is to ask "who has more?" in a broader context. Maybe the roles are reversed? Material possessions can isolate people. It would be interesting to see what each child's "outside" looks like, and what they experience in a typical day with family and neighbors.'

And from my friend Nick, who lives in the US: 'Ahkohxet's room looks like my bedroom when I was his age - drab drab drab :)'

Photographs published with the kind permission of James Mollison.
For those interested, the book Where Children Sleep is currently sold out, but will be reprinted later this year by Chris Boot.

object peripheries

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Here is a diagram I want to keep refining as I go.

It's a mapping of belonging according to necessity, with the most necessary items in the innermost circle, and the less-necessary ones on the outer peripheries.

Basically, a diagram which would help me organize what I own (and pack my luggage much faster for sure).

For the moment it's slightly gender biased - or maybe not, you tell me.

no-waste ice-cream

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Today, a micro-subject again.
(even though minuscule in scale, micro-subject can demonstrate great principles).

We'll be comparing, once more, two ways to do the same thing, with radically different conceptual qualities and environmental impacts: the edible ice-cream cone and the disposable ice-cream cup. A simple choice we make in a split second at the ice-cream store - ['we' the spoiled-enough to have and go to such places - if you're reading me from rural Burkina-Faso, this entry and probably the entirety of this blog is indecent, but maybe that's the reason I am writing it too].

So yes, when asked 'cone or cup', we choose what we're in the mood for:

Option A: THE CUP

Paper cups at Toscanini's Ice Cream, Cambridge, MA - original photo by surlygirl

- it's either paper coated with plastic or wax (i.e. difficult to compost) / or polystyrene foam / or a plastic cup.
- often printed with advertising (an extra industrial step)
- inevitably creates the need for a plastic spoon or several
- quite dumb structurally (holds ice-cream by stopping it with walls)
- after consumption, has to be discarded, overflows the garbage at the JP Licks, fills the landfill, etc.
I am no specialist in CO2 emissions or manufacturing, but cups seem quite energy-intensive with a relatively ugly, polluting ending.

So take a look at the marvellous alternative that sits next to them on the counter:

Option B: THE CONE

A wafer cone - original photo by TheCulinaryGeek

After doing a bit of fascinating research on cones (waffle, sugar, wafer, etc.) - the winner in my view is, hands down, the molded wafer cone.
- made of a mix of flour, starch, sugar, fat, water, shortening and baking powder
- is the result of one process which apparently creates little waste
- is an extra light structure whose shape has only been determined by its ability to carry the weight and droppings of ice-cream - a great piece of engineering (sugar and waffle cones, although quite good themselves, do not reach the same level of refinement when it comes to design).

'Cone designers refine the waffle pattern and other shape characteristics and make trial batches to find the best design that releases from the mold without burning, breaking, or creating weak spots that won't hold ice cream or will break when the scoop is applied. The molded cone has a lip around the top that keeps drips contained inside the cone. The row of teeth helps firmly seat the scoop of ice cream and provides added strength where the upper lip of the cone meets the cylindrical base.'
(from How Ice Cream Cone is Made, by Gillian S. Holmes)

Ribs inside a wafer cone - original photo by seanfraga

- can be eaten entirely by a human being after the ice-cream is done with.

There. Isn't this a brilliant example of good design, providing just what is needed, while having a seemingly benign environmental impact? Packaging turned into food, so old and so essential as an idea.

So, next time you have the choice, do the right thing:
be a cone-(wo)man.

Note 1: I recommend taking a peak at (weird and great).
Note 2: Cones appear to me to be a lesser evil, however they'll reach perfection only when we can trace all their ingredients to safe and sound production methods. Hopefully this is not wishful thinking.
Note 3: We don't need to eat ice-cream.


Monday, August 8, 2011

After my move I had to get rid of one western-style mattress.

Aside from being one of the most difficult things to transport - large, heavy to carry and you never know where to grab them -, trying recycling one and you're in for a treat:

1. mattress manufacturers want to have absolutely no business taking them back for the raw materials (I called)
2. most people are paranoid about bed bugs (understandable)
3. most people are uncomfortable with using another person's old mattress (probably the most personal piece of 'furniture')
4. it is illegal to sell a used mattress in the state I live in (bye bye Craigslist)
5. places such as the Salvation Army or Goodwill very rarely accept them
6. shelters for the homeless welcome mainly single / double size, but not bigger

Therefore, a very likely ending is this one:

So the question is: WHY?
Why do we keep making > selling > using > discarding such inconvenient objects, with a lifecycle which doesn't loop?

Ok, mattresses are, technically, among the awesomest inventions to put on bed frames, and do whatever you use a mattress for. Which makes them very tricky to renounce to.

2 ideas I've been mulling over recently:
Replace the solid king and queen sizes with two halves that can be strapped together with a clever device. That way when you move, you only transport 50% of that inconvenience at the time. Also, the two halves of a couple could each have the firmness they enjoy - say goodbye to compromise!(and couples therapy bills)
'the traditional style of Japanese bedding consisting of padded mattresses and quilts pliable enough to be folded and stored away'. Heavenly for transporting.

Folded shikibutons and kakebutons - photo by renfield

From personal experience - sleeping for three months on a futon on a wooden floor - the comfort level is pretty high. Not as bouncy as a spring mattress of course, but cushy enough. You do feel the straightness of the floor below you, but nicely buffered, and maybe even good for your back.

Futons in action - photo by Debs

Sleep tight.

the right cotton swab

Sunday, August 7, 2011

In my country, most Q-tips come with a plastic stick - white or colored, opaque or translucent.

Q-tips with PVC stick

In the US I discovered an amazing invention: the paper stick.
[amusing historical fact: originally made of wood in the twenties, the sticks became paper in 1958, churned out by british machines that had been producing them for candies]

It seems so beautiful and minimal: just structural enough to be used once, fully compostable, no artificial colors, some even unbleached. Just fulfilling the need it was created for, no more, no less.

Paper stick Q-tips - photograph by DragonWoman

Made me suddenly realize the material overkill ('unbreakable'?! - it's a Q-tip!!) and polluting consequences of the former.

A huge environmental gap between 2 almost-identical objects, isn't it?

Buying nothing new

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Saw a TED talk called 'Wearing Nothing New', by Jessi Arrington.

The talk itself was nicely punchy, although a bit predictable - about finding all necessary items of clothing second-hand.

One problem is that she appears to advocate for saving resources, but doesn't acknowledge an obvious contradiction: fashionistas shop for way more clothes than they need - quite a wasteful starting point for a tree-hugger. Ok, she gives them back to the store in the end - and I like the statement 'It's OK to let go', to a certain extent. But then, you'd have to be pretty loaded on the long term to buy new clothes for a week, then give them all up and start again.

However, if you disregard the bobo incoherence, the idea contained in the title is pretty great.

Often I wonder if we could achieve this and for how long: living in a society where all available 'things' are visible / tradeable, and our first move would be to buy objects already 'in the world', instead of getting everything new.

Why do we need and end up getting NEW stuff?
Undoubtedly there is something about our psychological approach to self, wanting to be the first to use/wear something, associating NEW with a certain idea of CLEAN, good old-fashioned social pride to be able to afford NEW, etc.
But also, it still seems easier to buy NEW than USED, doesn't it - just compare the IKEA online catalog and the sexy Craigslist of results if you type 'wardrobe'.

More on this later.

Material - Immaterial

Monday, July 4, 2011

Ok, maybe I don't want to talk only about objects.
It's more about: how do you lead your life while using just what you really need. Things, food, energy, time.
So I am changing the subtitle: 'a blog about material possessions' into 'what exactly do we need'.

It's a bit tricky to be starting this blog because I have a backlog of thoughts to write, but need to feel I've defined the terms of the discussion beforehand.

So yes, this is also about immaterial things, and at all scales too. What do I really need as a person, to function? What does a building really need to function? What does a city really need to function? etc.

The subject is of interest to me because doing a bit of sorting would be soothing. There is so much stuff, everywhere. Matter, media, choice until you can't take it anymore. Stuff keeps coming, and we end up having to fend it off. No, I don't need a plastic bag. No, I don't need ten little pouches of ketchup with my fries. No, I don't want to receive your special offers.
It's tiring.
Being happy with just the necessary shouldn't be so hard.

Wasting ressources shouldn't be an Opt-Out behavior.
And we should pay something in return for the extras.


Sunday, July 3, 2011

If, like me, you live in a western(ized) society, leading a nomadic life (i.e. moves every 1,2,3 years) yet having a sedentary lifestyle (i.e. owning a queen size bed frame), moving is an extremely stressful time in your life.

It's probably the only time when you are forced to really face how much s... you have.

I recently moved for the 13th time.

Every time I think to myself: next time you will be lighter.
Slowly getting there, but even when being uber-careful about the things I agree to own, every time I am surprised by the amount.

This is my dream: Travel lightly. Live lightly. Bring with yourself only the necessary.