When Too Much is Just Right

We are taught from childhood that excess is inherently negative. Certainly, as a trained artist, I had a certain version of that idea reinforced throughout my studies. But thankfully in that training, there was also the affirmation that part of the purpose of knowing the rules and boundaries thoroughly, and especially the valid reasons for those having been codified as The Way to Do Things, is so that when we choose to break the rules, cross those bounds, and color outside the lines, we will do so intelligently and with purpose as well.

Otherwise there would be no invention at all.

Imagine if those who developed the magnificent decorative beauties of the art and designs prevailing in Art Nouveau work had always held back and refrained from going a bit beyond the norms, never mind whether any of the magnificently ridiculous extremes of the Baroque and Rococo would have bloomed in the darkness. Think, if you dare, of a world where experimentation and thinking outside the proverbial box were forbidden: would any of the useful, meaningful, and beautiful inventions that save lives and enrich them ever have happened?

This idea can be expressed on a much smaller and more modest scale, too. Why not let our joy in excess sometimes shout its existence for others to bask in its reflected glow!

Over the Top

An iconic sight along the edge of Alki Beach in Seattle, this home has grown, literally, into a garden of earthly delights that we all enjoy as we pass along our ways. Sometimes being ‘over the top’ is the perfect solution.

All in the Details (Small and Large), Part 1

photoI’m an avid, and truly amateur (in both the worst and best senses of the word), changer-upper of things. My father warned my fiance, as if the poor guy hadn’t already seen it in action, that when we lived together he would likely come home from any trip–overseas or two doors down the street–and find the furniture rearranged or a room fully repainted, or possibly, that we’d moved to another house in his absence. I promised I would always leave a forwarding address and directions with his new house key if I went so far as the latter. He married me anyway. And I have indeed continued in my blissfully mercurial attitudes toward what feels comfortable and desirable, or looks beautiful, to me in my places of work, play and general living. Aside from the occasional piteous whimpers of ‘Who Moved My Cheeeeeeeese?‘ my husband has also continued to be an exemplary, even sometimes equally avid if not outright participatory, supporter of this habit of mine.

I assure you, this hobby of mine might have run even more wildly rampant had I had the time, tools, skills and bottomless budget required for such extravagances. But though I might chafe at having to think so hard or wait so long, I’m also addicted nearly as deeply to the problem-solving puzzles presented by having to prioritize and/or simplify my fantastical plots and plans. As we’ve lived our sixteen-plus years together thus far in five homes of our own plus a couple of stints living briefly in other places where we had a bit of free rein if not ownership, there have been plenty of opportunities for these kinds of happy dreaming and scheming. Since I’m unlikely to live even overnight in a motel room without itching to Improve upon something or other about it, you can well imagine that Things Happen whenever I’m plugged in for any length of time at all.

You’ve heard hints here recently that I have had a few such projects in mind and/or in hand at home once again, so I think it’s about time to unveil some of the things I’ve managed to do or have done. And some that are still early in their incubation, perhaps. When we came to Texas to house-hunt for one whole week in 2009, it was the first time I’d set foot in the state outside of the airport. My spouse had been to the town we were moving to live in as much as twice during the interview process, so between us our experience and ken of the town didn’t add up to much, so we knew it was best to hold off on buying a home until (a) we saw if the move was a ‘good match’ (or the university or denizens of our town would run us out at pitchfork-points, or we would pack up our carpet-bags in the dark of night and slink off to places yet unknown) and (b) we had some clue what part of town spoke to us and could house-hunt at leisure.

Thus, a rental for our first Texas home. We spent a comfortable year living in a very decent place in a quiet neighborhood and with marvelous landlords, but hoping to find something with better space for inviting students and colleagues and friends to visit, not to mention where we could put visiting relatives for overnight stays without having to stand them up in a coat-closet or bed them down in the bathtub. The real bonus of our rental locale was that the neighborhood was virtually across the fence from a second neighborhood that was both inviting for cooler-weather walks on the weekend and somewhat hidden–we know lots of longtime townspeople who still didn’t know this neighborhood existed until we invited them to our current place.

When we found the house we would buy, we had been ‘scouting’ the neighborhood, with its mature oaks galore and hidden charms, for a bit and we were first to see the For Sale sign sprout and the first to come and look through. A second couple had asked for a tour before we turned around and opted to make an offer, and that was about it. Both of us had an instant liking for both the house and the nice 88-year-old lady who sold it to us, but it took both of us wearing our creative goggles to see through her 30-year-old decor to see what we would make of it as our own home. So the negotiations began with our plan to remain living for an overlapping month in the rental house a short walk away while I joined the construction crew that we hired to do the many small repairs and updates and the one larger task that would lend it such personalization for us rather quickly.photos x 2The big idea was to open the wall between the kitchen and dining rooms, which made this three-decade-old house leap forward into the Open Concept era and our plans for group entertainment with great alacrity. The removal of lots of wallpaper and beautifully crafted but dated window treatments and a few old-looking light fixtures, and adding many fresh coats of paint throughout, went a long way toward modernizing the place, so that’s what I did to keep busy while The Guys were generally wreaking havoc in the adjoining living areas. I ripped out the wall to wall carpeting in all the bathrooms–the en suite master bath being effectively three whole rooms even without counting the walk-in closets in them, plus a Jack and Jill bathroom between two bedrooms that we’ve made into an office and a TV room, plus the guest bathroom on the other side of the house. I ripped out the carpeting in the kitchen. It was partly glued down and mostly just welded with age to the slab all around, and the baseboard was a bit brittle with age, so it was slow going, but despite that and the gritty heat of the work it was worth the effort, and a huge delight to see the unwelcome, inconveniently dirt-gathering flooring in the ‘wet rooms’ give way to concrete over which we could get something more appropriate set.

Once I had the rugs ripped up and most of the wallpaper stripped from the kitchen and entry, the contractor’s crew came in and began the kitchen renovation, knocking open the inside wall, repairing wall and ceiling cracks, replacing the refrigerator and dishwasher and cooker fan hood (with a microwave/vent), and extending the lower cabinets to fill the new half-wall with wonderful storage. New and gorgeous granite counters went in, fresh paint went on and with masterful matching, new Saltillo tiles from Mexico were laid in the kitchen and adjoining hall and guest bath and stained to match the existing entry/dining room floor. While the men were busy with the kitchen and some painting of the higher-ceilinged entry, living and dining rooms and kitchen, I kept busy repairing small holes and scratches on walls and woodwork to prep for my paint work, removing all of the broken, torn or dated window treatments, and replacing light fixtures and hardware (grouping light switch and outlet face plates and towel bars and door handles to better match each other in various rooms). My favorite improvement in that category came from removing the Oh-So-Eighties white ceramic knobs on every cabinet door in the entire built-in-filled house and replacing them room by room with new hardware better suited to each space.

Now, I must add to all of this that this is a house I would never have designed in the first place. It’s not precisely my style. But I love it. I’m an old enough hand with this stuff to know it would have been a huge mistake to take an essentially solid and well-made house and try–at least without gutting and rebuilding it with ridiculous infusions of money–and make it into something it isn’t. This is how a person who adores Craftsman style, cottage style, mid-century modern, minimalist contemporary, Gothic and Art Nouveau styles, among many others, ends up living in and paying homage to, an updated ’70s colonial. Ha! Needless to say, it requires submitting my own instincts to an appropriateness-test each time I make a tweak, and looking for whatever I do find attractive and lovable that is suited to the situation. First and foremost, of course, that category includes the people I want to spend time with in this place. (!)

One of the distinctions of this house’s style is the aforementioned large amount of built-in cabinets everywhere. It makes for an atypical ’70s house to have such abundant storage. I don’t even use all of the space in any one of the rooms. I can credit a bit of that to being a pretty good organizer and fondness for occasional purging rampages on both our parts, but much of it’s simply having more space than we really require. We quickly found in house-hunting that nothing in our expected choice of home sizes (two bedrooms, two baths so we could accommodate our overnight guests) ever had enough contiguous living space for a dozen dinner guests, let alone twice that or more as we’ve sometimes had on hand. We have, therefore, much more space than absolutely necessary for a whole lot of other things besides mere hospitality purposes. I do find it’s nice, over time, to figure out what use serves us best in which part of the house.

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Need more storage despite the cupboards? A wire rack cut to fit over the door jambs keeps the laundry basket out of the way, close by and dust-free. Doors cross each other when they’re both open and pinch your poor hands in between? Replace one of the two with a bi-fold door.

That’s how what at first seemed like a uselessly illogical cabinet in the front hall became the ideal mid-house location for my most-used small hand tools and hardware stash so that no matter where the need occurs, everything is in fairly quick and easy reach. An innate urge to find the easiest route to every necessary task drives me to make many of those changes that can drive change-haters and husbands batty at first but often lead to eventual simplification in daily life. Having two supposedly unwanted extra bedrooms led to our having a place to keep and watch a giant television without it living in our guest space and distracting from lovely conversations with visitors in the living room. Coincidentally, it makes a very cozy ‘away’ space for reading or napping that means neither of us ever has to be underfoot if the other wants to do something different (or more asleep) than the other is occupied with at the moment. It also gives us an expansive home office space so that my spouse can continue his university tasks after hours as needed, without stealing my favorite desk space as I work. No dueling over desks here. No dueling at all, really, in such a big house that I now have my own comfy recliner in front of the TV too. No, I’m not even going to try for custody of the remote; I don’t know what is on when or where anyhow.

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From the kitchen, an open view: dinette at lower left, door to laundry at upper left, guest bedroom with its frosted window shining just beyond it; a big built-in hutch for kitchen storage; living room at upper right, with its opening into the dining room at the very far right, and on the lower right, the kitchen counter over which *that* room opens into the dining room.

The latest round of fix-ups and mix-ups around the house waited a couple of years after our buying the place so that we would not only have saved up a little to do them but also, one hopes, have a far better idea of how the house works and how we can best operate in it. The guest room furniture got reoriented so that there was enough more room to add in our exercise cycle and more importantly, also a small desk for guests’ use. One of the happy quirks of room re-arrangement is that sometimes even when there’s more stuff in a space, if it’s better arranged it can feel bigger. Physics aren’t always obviously logical. Go figure. The living room furniture underwent a similarly needed reorientation and now allows room for a small tertiary dinette–besides the eight person dining table and the kitchen one that can stretch for six, we can now put a few diners in the living room too without even moving the conversational seating group. My small seating group out on the back patio is very rarely used. It’s almost always too hot, of course, for sitting out there, even if there weren’t also the Texas-sized insects lying in wait to chew us right out of our skins, not least of all those recently arrived terrorists, the West Nile carrying mosquitoes. Still, there’s something both comforting and welcoming in the mere sight of a pretty outdoor ‘room’, so that’s on my list: how shall I make the space outside our kitchen windows extend our sense of place out into the greenery? How can I bridge the gap between my dream garden out there and the small changes I can bring that will improve the yard much more affordably in the short term? The plot thickens, indeed. The outdoor chandelier has moved closer to the seating area now, and more will come soon. I hope.photoHaving begun the recent round of improvements with a new TV room recliner (a supposed outdoor piece, and bought at the grocery store, of all things) and that blessed new cooktop I was bragging of recently (where eggs do not perpetually run downhill and cook from one end to the other over time anymore), we moved on to more complicated things.photo

(To be continued tomorrow . . . )