A Breath of Fresh Air

I grew up at a time in which our parents were perfectly comfortable saying, “Go out and play. Just be home for supper.” I was an enterprising kid, and I made it my job to make the outdoors my everything. I was very accustomed to finding a place to meet my friends, to explore, to walk or ride my bike wherever I needed to go, to do my homework on a picnic table, or to spread a blanket on the lush grass for seating. I had it figured out. So, you can imagine how I felt when I was old enough to go to work.

At first, that blast of air conditioning seemed a welcome blessing. And in the winter, I was happy my hands weren’t blue. But after a while, I missed the breeze, the smell of grass, the air from outside, even if it wasn’t all that fresh or warm. I’d look out the window and wonder what it would feel like to be out there. Offices with closed windows felt like traps.

Eventually, closed in became a proper description of my feelings. And if I was bored at work, watching the clock till I could go out again became a pasttime. If it was snowing, I’d wonder how the ride home would be. Will I get stuck? Would I get in an accident? And I dreaded the traffic. Ugh. But I still wanted to get out there.

And Then …

When COVID hit, I remembered the scream of the absolute silence in my ears. No noise. No people. No cars. No this. No that. Just no. As this new reality sunk in, I joined the club as we slowly picked ourselves up and started groping for some sense of normalcy, some way to get back to work. At first, I scrambled a bit to try to make my home my office. Then I realized how much I already had to work with. A little trial, a little error, and things began to fall into place. In the end, having to make do helped me realize with a little resourcefulness, with an eye toward adaptive re-use, and with the determination to work with what I had, amazing things were possible. I began to enjoy the discovery.

With time and some imagination, my adjustment evolved. I realized I could work just about anywhere, even in my back yard (in the photo above). My yard became my office on nice days. All I needed was my laptop, my phone, a pad if I wanted to jot down some notes in longhand, a few suitable pieces of furniture, enough luck to keep it from raining, and a few birds, squirrels, and chipmunks for administrative assistance. And should the weather be inclement — or if I preferred to lounge a bit while I worked — I retreated to my sunroom with a cup of coffee, a blanket, and Eddie as my typist and personal attaché.

And So …

Now, nearly a year later, the world is slowly progressing. We have vaccines that may or may not immunize us against current and future strains of the coronavirus. But workplaces won’t ever be the same. We’ve discovered we don’t need as many of them as much as we used to think we did. Workforces, too, have progressed. They, too, won’t ever be the same. We’ve found ways to be productive and to collaborate — even face to face online — from home. We’ve learned our offices can be wherever they need to be, wherever we feel comfortable.

If you need help making your new workspace comfortable, regardless of where it is, we can help.

And I promise you: That’s not blue sky.

Life Imitates Art

One of the programs I most enjoy watching on TV is Home Town. Erin Napier, who hosts the program with her husband, Ben — simple but talented and passionate young people from Laurel, Mississippi — always starts with painted renderings showing the after versions of the houses they’re going to renovate for their clients. So, imagine my surprise when I saw this headline: “From watercolors to virtual reality: How one of New York’s top architects presents to clients”. And I found myself when I read this:

The further you remove your brain from your hand, or your hand from your eyes, the less intuitive things become. After doing this for years, it’s amazing how your hand will sometimes do things before you’ve even thought them through—the neural pathways have been so developed that it’s very intuitive. You can’t do that when you’re creating on a computer.

I’m not sure I needed the reassurance. But I’ve always wondered at the fact that I’ll write things in longhand before I ever write them on a computer. In fact, I might never write them on a computer. Once I get on a computer, everything changes: It’s all about trying to manipulate a machine to manipulate a program to get both of them to do what your creativity wants done. The flashes of creativity go by so fast that the steps required of technical manipulation and intervention to get them on a computer can’t keep up with my brain. I lose the inspiration.

To Each, Her Own

My husband thinks I’m crazy because I work on a drafting table and because I have handwritten notes and hand-drawn sketches all over it. He’s a computer-everything, project-management-system, Google Calendar, GPS kind of guy. But he loses things and gets lost more than I do. (And he admits it, God bless him.) But I’m inclined to follow my brain long before I’ll engage technology. I don’t lack for much. I don’t lose much at all, especially ideas. And I don’t ever get lost. I guess opposites really do attract.

If it’s been a while since you trusted yourself with some paper and a pen or a pencil, give it a try. You’ll definitely be surprised. But you shouldn’t be surprised if all of your surprises are pleasant.

If it’s good enough for Erin Napier and Thomas Kligerman, it’s good enough for me.

Hotel Home

It’s yet another indication of the profound effects of the coronavirus pandemic that, well, as this article put it: “Commercial designers are coming for the home.” As any angler will tell you, ya gotta fish where the fish are. And given COVID-19, the fish aren’t filling hotels. Neither are people.

I love this, from the article:

Office furniture makers … have all become work-from-home furniture makers. Some of that move was simple—a few product tweaks and some new marketing copy.

What? Talk about selling people short. Those two sentences fall somewhere on a scale between presumptuous and insulting.

Home Is Where the Heart Is

Grandpa O’Brien loved to say, “Charity begins at home.” Have we ever had a better opportunity — or more of a right — to be charitable to ourselves than we do right now? Think about this: Since the pandemic broke out, if someone asked you where you were going, have you said, “Back to the house?” Not likely. You’re much more likely to have said, “I’m going home.” And it’s even more likely your voice would have conveyed the anticipation of safety and comfort. And why not?

As we wrote in a previous post, our homes have evolved to become workplaces, schools, exercise spaces, and places of worship. As that evolution continues, our homes are becoming our favorite restaurants, our go-to hotels, our spas of choice, and the safest places for recreational activities. Our homes have become our havens, our escapes, and our sanctuaries. None of that happened because office furniture makers tweaked some products and seduced us with new marketing copy. It happened because the wheels we had didn’t need to be re-invented.

Did we need to re-arrange some things? Yes. But change is one of the healthy parts of the pandemic. Did we need to pick up a few new furnishings? Probably. That’s why God invented consignment shops. Do we need to invest a little more time and pride in the homes we already have? Yes. But didn’t we and our homes deserve that pride anyway?

As my husband has said to me (and demonstrated) during the coronavirus lockdown (much to my chagrin), “You can’t grow a beard without getting some hair on your face.” I don’t know where he comes up with those things. But I think he means — like the eggs that need be broken to make omelettes — we have to be willing to get things a little messy in order to make them better. (The beard remains questionable as to its being better.)

If you need help with your Hotel Home, we’re at your service.

The COVID Effect

Recent announcements of the ostensible availability of coronavirus vaccines had a predictable knee-jerk effect on everything, including the stock market: Shares of anything that smacked of work from home (WFH), stay at home (SAH), or work through fiascos (WTF) sold like proverbial hot cakes, including but by no means limited to home furnishings from Wayfair; home-improvement goods and services from Home Depot, Lowe’s, and Masco (owner of everything from Behr Paints to Delta Faucets); and even the recently ubiquitous online conferencing platform, Zoom.

Call me skeptical: Vaccines might be available now, but I don’t see them being ubiquitous any time soon. Nor do I see commercial real estate bouncing back overnight, home sales slowing, home-renovation projects being forgone, or people who’ve become comfortable — and comfortably productive — at home rushing to get back into their cars, back out on the roads, and back into claustrophobia-inducing cubicles or privacy-eliminating open office spaces. People can change a lot of habits in nine months.

Deep Breaths

Notwithstanding the fact that patience is in shorter supply than toilet paper was in March and April, we need to give this some air. Will things change? Yes. They always do. Will things revert to being exactly the way they were before the pandemic? No. They can’t. Will we find our way, no matter what happens? Yes. We always do. Can we know exactly what that will look like? No. Not without a crystal ball and a Ouija Board. Should we continue doing business as well as we can? Yes. It’s the only thing we can do and the only thing that makes any sense. Should we have faith? Yes. As they say in Brooklyn, “It couldn’t hoit.”

The Dutch writer and theologian, Henri Nouwen (1932-1996) once said this:

The word patience means the willingness to stay where we are and live the situation out to the full in the belief that something hidden there will manifest itself to us.

I suppose that’s possible. But I prefer to believe that in living situations out to the full, we create things that had been hidden before situations precipitated our need to create them. I also believe that those who participated in a stock-share fire sale after coronavirus vaccines were announced were aware of one saying — “Never put off till tomorrow what you can do today” — but not another: “Patience is a virtue.”

I’d rather be successfully patient than impulsively not.

Thriving in Place

The Harris Poll conducted an online survey, the “Window to Well-Being”, in August of this year on behalf of Marvin, the family owned and operated cedar and lumber company (and manufacturer of doors and windows). Harris polled more 1,300 people in the United States, including homeowners, builders, architects, and designers. In addition, Harris had also conducted an online flash poll in April of this year on behalf of Marvin, reaching more than 1,000 people in the United States, ages 18 and older.

The results were not surprising:

  • 96 percent of homeowners said their homes contribute to their happiness, just one percentage point behind the health of their families.
  • 58 percent of homeowners plan to complete a home renovation to help them feel happier at home.
  • Nearly 70 percent of homeowners and more than 80 percent of trade professionals said access to natural light is a top contributor to feelings of well-being.
  • 73 percent of architects and designers said clients have asked to increase natural light in their homes.
  • 61 percent of homeowners struggle to wake up when it is still dark outside and 81 percent feel more rested when they wake up to natural light.
  • 92 percent of respondents said outside noise is an important factor in buying a home. Nearly 70 percent said poor soundproofing would keep them from buying a particular home.
  • 95 percent of homeowners agree air circulation is an important factor when buying a home.
  • 90 percent say outdoor views are important to making a home feel happy.

None of that is surprising because we’re animals — and we’re social and nesting animals, at that.

Check for Grown-Ups

Especially during the coronavirus pandemic, a house is no longer just a home: It’s now doing duty as a workplace, a school, an exercise space, and in some cases a place of worship. Is that a lot to ask? Well, that depends who you ask.

With or without a pandemic, we’re always in favor of taking a look at our confines. What we mean is we’re always re-evaluating and re-arranging our own homes. (We think practicing what we preach is a good thing.) The dirty little secret to doing that is that there is no dirty little secret. Rather than looking for some magic arrangement or thinking in terms of right-or-wrong configurations, use your imagination. Optimize your space.

Does that thing work over there? No? Move it. Does this piece of furniture or equipment work in this room? No? Move it. Do these colors suit your taste? No? Change them. Do you have all the things you need to do what needs to be done in your home? No? Get them. As long as there are no adults around to tell you can’t do something, do it. It’s your home. And it’s your key to thriving in place.

If you need help, call us. We’re not afraid of grown-ups.

One Man’s Prison is Another Man’s Escape

I recently came across an article on the website, Business of Home — “Inside a Nashville prison, a hardwood flooring factory thrives” — about a gentleman named Don Finkell, CEO of American OEM Wood Floors. In 1996, Finkell began a program to employ prison inmates to make his flooring products. That article reminded me of two things.

First, it reminded me of one of my earlier posts, in which I’d mentioned a local company, Fresh Start Pallet Products, with which I’m working to design furniture and lighting. Like Finkell’s program, Fresh Start works to restore dignity, senses of self-worth, and independence to recovering addicts, former prison inmates, and the others in need of fresh starts it employs.

Second, the article reminded me of a particular piece of wisdom that says the priorities of the best businesses are people, process, product — in that specific order. Recalling that piece of wisdom compelled me to read the Business of Home article, in the context of people, process, and product. This is what I found:

  • People. “Finkell … [had] an opportunity to hire a number of hardworking men—inmates at a South Carolina prison … A workforce guaranteed to stay at the plant for several years could be taught complex skills, like crafting hand-scraped wood, which takes longer to master than the automated process used to make engineered hardwood … paying inmates to learn a trade was a viable option.”
  • Process. “Finkell [opened] a small plant within the grounds of the prison … More than 20 years later, Finkell has established six prison plants … [he] has 200 employees—and an additional 1,000 approved men on a waiting list … The men working in his factory earn an hourly fee that’s comparable to what civilians doing similar work in the area are paid … and earn a bonus based on productivity.”
  • Product. “Finkell’s wife [Emily Morrow, owner of Emily Morrow Home] … has become his best client. ‘This model that Don has created allows for so much more flexibility in the design process. Because this is a smaller operation and it’s not all automated, it allows me to create styles that are special and aren’t offered at the big companies.'”

So What?

That question is as logical as it is understandable. One guy did one thing. Big deal. Did it make a difference? Does it make a continuing difference? The answers to those questions depend on whether you believe in another piece of wisdom: You become what you count. Here’s what Don Finkell counts:

  • “The National Institute of Justice estimates that 68 percent of released prisoners are arrested again within three years. Finkell says that the recidivism rate for men in his plant hovers around just 7 percent.”
  • “A civilian plant in Indiana that Finkell owns is currently being run by a man who worked at a prison plant. ‘You could just tell he was a natural born leader and a hard worker. We’ve been pretty successful in helping these guys even after they get out.’”

Don Finkell counts people first. And he understands that one man’s prison is another man’s escape.

What do you count? Your answer will make all the difference.

Image by Tumisu, courtesy of pixabay.com.

Living in the Box

A long time ago, I came to realize and accept the fact that there are some things I’ll just never understand. I was reminded of that fact recently when I saw a promotion for this product. It got me wondering: If we’re all willing to pay lip service to thinking outside the box, why do we seem so willing and eager to live and work in it? And it also prompted me to think about the liabilities of short sight and the extent to which we routinely overlook our own human natures.

Yes. I know. The prevailing wisdom would have us believe two heads are better than one. By following that logic, though, we got a progression something like this:

  • If two heads are better, more than two must be even better.
  • If more heads are better, let’s get more people working together.
  • To maximize the number of people working together, let’s create open office spaces.
  • Oops.

Well … maybe that two heads thing wasn’t such a good idea after all.

“If you’re lonely when you’re alone, you’re in bad company.”
(Jean-Paul Sartre)

What Was Plan B?

Once we’d committed to the open-office concept, we’d pretty much abandoned the long view. So, since there’s no short-term, inexpensive means of getting rid of those open spaces, we opted to bring back a latter-day version of the phone booth. Take a little bit of space, a little bit of sound-absorbing insulation, a little bit of claustrophobia, and — VOILA! — we’ve created a space in which even Harry Houdini wouldn’t have wanted to work. And we’ve managed to package it with all the trappings of a good idea.

At this point, having skipped the long view that would have precluded our falling in love with open spaces in the first place, we also have to wonder if we’re skipping the math, too: How many phone booths would we have to buy at 3,500 bucks a pop before we could have just divided our open spaces into private offices?

“In order to understand the world, one has to turn away from it on occasion.” (Albert Camus)

It’s hard not to wonder what we might have been able to do with a little perspective.

Expect More

Along with everything else, it’s hard not to wonder what would happen if we all just slowed down a little. Tap the brakes. Take a few deep breaths. Think beyond tomorrow. Question everything hailed as The Next Big Idea. Think about ourselves, those around us, and what we all need.

Yes. We need camaraderie, companionship, community, and collaboration. Yes. We need each other’s creative energy and enthusiasm. But we also need privacy. We need time and space in which to take stock of ourselves, to collect our own thoughts, to experience our own periods of inspiration and wonder. After all, inspiration and wonder are the senses that make us human.

If we’re going to think outside the box, we shouldn’t have to work in one. Expect more.

“Guard well your spare moments. They are like uncut diamonds. Discard them and their value will never be known. Improve them and they will become the brightest gems in a useful life.”
(Ralph Waldo Emerson)

Community Is as Community Does

I grew up in a small town south of Hartford. My most prevalent aspiration, or so I thought, was, “I gotta get out of this place.” Other towns and cities seemed as if they had so much more to do, so many more places to go. But I stayed. And I never thought I’d be writing these words: “I’m happy to be where I am.” Here’s why:

Many of my family members and our friends were small-business owners. My parents owned a seafood store. Grandma owned the grocery store. Uncle Freddie owned the furniture store. Uncle Carmen owned the ice cream factory. (I liked him the best.) The books were kept and the taxes were completed by friends. We comprised a network, a community, all helping and supporting each other.

This growing sense of community is reflected in two of the projects on which I’m working:

  1. Parkville Market. With roots as deep as his childhood in Mozambique, the developer of this project, Carlos Mouta, is determined to rekindle the spirit of provincial kinship in the historic Parkville section of Hartford. His daughter, Chelsea, is joining him in the effort to create a community marketplace and opportunities for entrepreneurs to start or expand small businesses. and grow in the community.
  2. Fresh Start Pallet Products. Rich Carman, Ed Johnson, and Pastor Rick Kremer believe the best way to ensure opportunity for people to escape lives of poverty, joblessness, and dependency — and to help them achieve senses of purpose and meaning — is to create it. Working with healthcare and social-services providers, Fresh Start is, indeed, creating that opportunity, along with beautiful furniture, fixtures, and a rewarding community for its dedicated craftsmen. It’s also creating furniture for Parkville Market.

Back to the Future

I admire the passion and purpose the people at Parkville Market and Fresh Start embody. Their efforts connect me to my humble roots and to the community in which they grew. My mother inspired me to be whatever I wanted to be. Her only admonition was, “Just make sure you leave things better than the way you found them.” In working with Parkville Market and Fresh Start, I’m doing what she taught me to do. We’re working together to leave the world, some of its people, and some of its buildings better than they were when we found them. We’re doing it by recreating the sense of community we seem to have lost for a while. And we’re doing exactly what caring, constructive communities are supposed to do.

Now, if we could only get Uncle Carmen and his ice cream factory back ….

Image created by vectorpouch, courtesy of freepik.com.

You Only Live Twice

I’m of Italian descent. I was brought up in an Italian household with parents and grandparents who endured hard lives in Italy, came here to make better lives for themselves, only to have to live through the Great Depression. For them, wasting was not part of the program. Almost everything that came into their possession had a second life. Clothing was recycled, becoming material for rugs, being woven into quilts, or being cut or torn into scraps and used as cleaning and dusting rags. Paper bags from the grocery store were turned into book covers. Even the food (if any ever was left uneaten) was composted and used in the garden.

Dirty dish water was poured on lawns and in gardens, with the hope that the residual soap would kill the weeds. There were no paper towels, no plastic bags, no bottles, no cups. Someone else’s junk became our treasures.We wasted nothing and took pride in — and sustenance from — our frugality.

That’s why I’m so glad to see an upturn in the concern about waste and what to do about it. That’s why it feels so familiar, comforting, and right. It pleases me to see the design world purposely using products made from recycled or repurposed other products.

What’s Old is New

I recently listened to a podcast on NeoConversations called, “Design and the Circular Economy.” I was taken by the comments of one of the speakers, Guilio Bonazzi, CEO and Chairman of Aquafil, a company dedicated to new production models for sustainable development. Aquafil creates reused and reusable fibers and fabrics using waste materials, purposefully formulating those materials to have second lives, third lives, and more. Bonazzi refers often to the life cycle of materials. He and Aquafil respect the planet, respect the gifts to be derived from it, and learn creatively, every day, while adding beauty and reuse to everyday life.

Material produced by Aquafil is used by Interface in some of their carpeting, in Armani clothing, in H&M clothing, in the Adidas X Parley Collection, and in ever-increasing numbers of products for myriad uses.

In nature, nothing is lost. In Guilio Bonazzi’s world, nothing is lost. In my world, the philosophy by which I was raised is not lost. You’ll see it in my designs. Who knows? Maybe Bonazzi’s nonna and mine knew each other.

Maybe they didn’t. I don’t know. But Bonazzi, our nonnas, and I know this: Waste not, want not. Capisci?

Homes and Castles

One morning over coffee (one of our favorite times of the day), I was sharing some of my design thoughts with my husband, Mark. In particular, I shared with him an article from Business of Home entitled, “Is rental furniture the next big thing?” He was so taken — and conflicted — by the very idea, he wrote this story on Medium. I asked his permission to share it here.

I hope you appreciate and enjoy it as much as I do.