The Icing on the…erm…Chair

Being Crafty is something other people do. I admire the feats of those who can crochet spectacular Afghan blankets seemingly out of thin air or decorate their homes for the holidays with recycled coat hangers and tuna tins and somehow make them look like a magazine cover. People who have the know-how, skill and patience to embroider babies’ bonnets, build palatial birdhouses out of scavenged fence pickets and carve perfect portraits of great historical figures out of turnips impress me greatly.

I, on the other hand, have been known to abandon ship mid-craft, or at the very least change directions radically when I feel I haven’t a hope of getting the hang of what my project was initially intended to be. My youthful embroidery days were ended when I spent a lengthy evening working on the details of some would-be floral tea towel‘s featured bouquet, stood up to gather my sewing and head off to bed, and discovered I’d embroidered through both the tea towel and the lap of my nightgown. My candle-making artistry had only its propensities for melting and burning (and thus, quickly, disappearing) to recommend it. Unlike those who are able to make fabulous sand mandalas with the grains arranged perfectly meditatively into millions of delicate otherworldly patterns would be, if not appalled, then at least mystified and probably saddened, by the strange mud-pies that would be the only produce of my efforts in that direction.

Pretty well any craft that takes any real focus and attention, let alone proficient control of the medium, is likely to remain out of my reach.

There are, however, certain tools, materials and proficiencies in the land of Craft that I can and do manage. One of the media I have enjoyed manipulating for playful, if not crafty, purposes at times is lightweight spackling compound. This stuff, made initially for repair of wounded wallboard and the filling of trim gaps by builders and handy-persons, resembles cheap bake-shop frosting so strongly in texture (and, I daresay, probably in taste, though that’s moot here) that it goes through an icing bag and tip wonderfully well. So it’s great for not only creating faux frosty baked goods but also all sorts of the same kind of detail work that plaster and woodcarving and metalworking artisans have used to create architectural accents and furniture details for eons, especially in combination with other small sculptural elements. Thinning the spackle just enough with water to go through a pastry icing tip and retain its proper density and texture and shape while drying is virtually the only difference. In fact, the spackle can be tinted in many of the same ways as frosting, too, though it may be painted and colored in many ways after the fact.photoIn any event, I’ve had fun with this magical past on occasion. I’ve made customized and personalized ceiling medallions with it. I made a nice big window valance that had all kinds of pieces and parts–food and cookery gadgets and the like–blending its own form and meaning with the rest of the dining room in which it hung. I’ve used it to create baroque picture frames and mirror frames. Probably the most fun project with it so far was making a couple of very rococo side chairs by upholstering them with tapestry-like fabrics and then building equally over-the-top sculptural frames and backs out of small objects, some pre-made and some of my own making from plasticine or wood, bone or clay or metal, and then faithfully infilled with spackle ‘frosting’ before I gilded it all with metallic paints.photo montageWhat’s next? Who knows. But there are boxes full of fun waiting for me to make them into something new, and that little yet persistent itch returns from time to time, so undoubtedly there will be a next thing. Just you wait and see.

Outlets for Creativity

The bane of poorly placed or unattractive light switches, outlets, thermostats and other mechanicals is one of the great challenges to the average homeowner’s creating truly cohesive and attractive decor. Frankly, I’ve never understood what could be so hard about putting all of the functional and utilitarian elements of any building into very easily accessed and yet unobtrusive locations throughout, but that’s never happened in any building I’ve seen let alone in the houses where I’ve lived. Home design is generally pretty dimwitted in terms of simple practicality. But then, it offers a dandy problem-solving adventure to those of us who like such things.

So I say, if you can’t lose it, use it.photosExposed under-sink plumbing but not a lot of room for real cabinets? How about a half-height set of portable drawers and a counter skirt that fills the gap and hides the plumbing? It’s cheap, especially if you can use a ready-made window valance as I did in this instance, which also means that when your tastes change, changing the treatment won’t take a major investment either. A nasty old tile countertop that’s set in such hard concrete that it can’t be removed without demolishing half the room can be overlaid with a simple piece of laminate and a hardwood facing raised to be level with the edge of the top. Again, a cheaper fix than demo and new tile or stone, and easier to replace when the time comes even if you’ve still not saved up enough for the super-cool high-end stuff.

Another problem that’s pretty common in modest homes is a den (in this case the spare bedroom) where you want to be able to sit among your books and read but can hardly fit in your little old slipcovered sofa and still allow enough room for the adjacent door to clear, and then run out of space for the actual bookshelves. One fairly easy way to deal with this problem is to mount the bookcase on the aforementioned door. When I did this, I did install casters at the bottom of the case so the door hinges wouldn’t have to bear the weight of all the books as well, and ended up not only with handily located books for our cozy little reading nook but just a touch, however modest, of the secret thrill of a hidden doorway, even if this one only went to the attic. Add an old highboy dresser with some drawers removed for extra shelf storage, and for tucking away additional materials, there’s no end table or footrest like a stack of old trunks and suitcases. VoilĂ ! A small and comfortable snug for reading, with a lot more stored in it than would seem probable or meets the eye.

With no space for a sewing room, I got a little creative finding a spot for that work, too. I found an inexpensive storage cabinet, the white laminate particle board kind, in about a 6’H x 2.5’W x 1.5’D configuration, at the local builder’s supply store, installed a hinged pull-down bench I could put my sewing machine on (or when it wasn’t in use, put behind it), added small weight-supporting posts in the middle of the shelves, and had a simple little sewing center that I used easily for quite some time. By setting my serger on the shelf adjacent to the pull-down bench, I had a comfortable corner where I could sit in my cheap swiveling office chair and go from one machine to another while I was working on my projects, reaching up to the stacked fabrics stored on the top shelf or underneath to the other tools and notions and sorting boxes on the bottom shelf. Finish work, push the sewing machine back in the cabinet and fold the bench up in front of it, latch that in place, and close the cabinet doors. No sign of Sewing Central in the guest bedroom until next time.photosThat house was more than big enough for the two of us, but in typical older-house style the space was divided oddly and not quite a perfect design for us as-is. What was not typical of the place’s vintage was that it had quite a high proportion of windows to wall space, a very nice thing but also a little limiting when it comes to placing furnishings and hanging art. That drove the placement of the antique china hutch (whose back side, happily, was finished in the same rustic style as its front) as a room divider to frame the dining room without overlapping either of its flanking windows. Having a wood-stove could have been a delight, but since the area where we lived had frequent burn bans because of the local microclimate, we hardly ever had the chance to play with it. Eventually I traded the stove to a friend and fellow artist in exchange for helping me redo the flooring and counters in the kitchen, but in the time while the stove crouched there using up real estate in the living room, it got a customized cover of lined taffeta (made at my little sewing station, of course) that made it into an extra end table with a hint of insulation. The living room itself was quite spacious for a house of that vintage, so with its location practically next door to the campus where we both worked, it was a handy post-concert gathering place for debriefing the concert over a glass of wine.

That meant we wanted to put as much seating as possible in the place without making it feel like one of those seedy recliner showrooms where salesmen lurk in the shadows and try to sell you chairs that look like poseable hippopotami. We already had a couple of heavy mid-eighties pieces of furniture that needed a little touch of camouflage for their portly nature (the white-draped tub of a chair on the left of the first photo above was later ‘darkened’ with multiple shades of purple into the equally chunky but less omnipresent chair on the right of the second photo, and its variety of textures and shades helped at least marginally to distract from the bulk of the whole. To get a slightly airier feel among the furniture occupants of the room, I took my grandparents’ old Jenny Lind double bed and made it into a little post-Victorian settee that kept us company for a goodly while after. That way the frame was virtually free (the seat slats were pickets salvaged from backyard fence repair) and all I spent was on the fabric and padding for upholstering the piece.

Still, I was irritated that the first wall anyone approached on coming through our front door was ‘decorated’ with an inconveniently placed thermostat. Never mind that the thermostat was located directly downwind of the only exterior door in the area, it was just plain an eyesore and a pest to hide. So I made it part of the art arrangement, ‘gilding’ it with metallic ink to match the background of the small icon and the frames of the larger artworks with which it was prominently grouped. It may still have been a pig, but I liked its looks better with the lipstick on it.

Now, I told you that I think virtually every place has some of these irksome ill-placed or hard to disguise quirks in its construction, and those I’ve dealt with were hardly limited to the one house. Our current place has them, too, and I’m working my way through them bit by bit, like the hideously ugly and out of date but perfectly functional doorbell box in the front hall that now lives behind a small basket that I think was originally meant to be an office Inbox but is mercifully less attention-getting than the egregious original bell cover. And it’s ‘breathable’, so there’s no worry about the sound being muffled or the mechanism overheating in a closed box.photoFurther episodes must wait for another day. The hunt for better, easier, more practical and attractive but less expensive solutions never ends. There will always be another touch of decorative deceit needed, as long as there are builders who don’t think through the way their buildings will actually look and work when, wonder of wonders, people live in them.