24 December 2011

It's Christmas

No holiday on the western calendar has the body of music devoted to it that Christmas does. Some of the greatest composers and lyricists who've ever lived had included Christmas music in their repertoires and the legacy they left is some of the most emotional music there is.

I have a bunch of favorite Christmas songs and carols, It would be impossible to pick a single favorite. One that rarely fails to bring a tear to my eye is In the Bleak Midwinter.

In the Bleak Midwinter was originally written as a poem by Christina Rossetti some time before 1872. The American Magazine Scribner's Monthly requested a Christmas poem from her and she delivered In the Bleak Midwinter.

In 1906, no less than Gustav Holst set it to music and a classic was born. Holst set his arrangement up for congregational singing and his version, the version here, is known as the Cranham. In 1909 Harold Edward Darke rearranged it to accommodate soloists and the Darke setting comes across as feeling more triumphal and is the version usually performed by full choirs

So now that it's Christmas, I want to wish all of you a merry one and I want to thank you for another great year at Kitchen and Residential Design.

23 December 2011

Today would have been the last day of Saturnalia

The ancient Roman holiday best known today is Saturnalia. In the late Empire, Saturnalia was a five-day festival that would have run from December 17th through December 23rd. That happens to be today.

The cultural mishmash that is modern Christmas got its start with Saturnalia. The Roman god Saturn ruled over agriculture and harvests, but more than that he represented a time in the past when abundance and peace reigned supreme.

During Saturnalia, Romans reverted back to that nostalgic time that never existed. Masters served slaves and what was normally forbidden was allowed to thrive. Publicly, the festival was celebrated by a sacrifice at the Temple of Saturn and unlike every other festival in the Roman calendar, Saturnalia was observed by everyone under Roman rule. It didn't matter where you lived or how close you were to the nearest temple of Saturn, you celebrated Saturnalia.

Where that festival fits into modern life is that a hallmark of it was that the Romans exchanged gifts with their loved ones during Saturnalia.

Human beings are today what they've always been and it's a human characteristic to express affection through a gift. The Romans turned it into a holiday and theirs is a practice modern people continue today.

The point of this is not to discount why people do what they do in 2011 or to pretend the cultural significance of the next few days isn't different now than it was then. Rather it's to show once again that everything modern westerners do is built on the people who came before us. Every aspect of our culture sits on the shoulders of our ancestors, be they genetic or cultural.

So while you're standing in line to buy gifts over the next few days, blame the Romans. But more than that, thank them for their legacy and for giving you the excuse to express your love for the people who mean the most to you.

22 December 2011

I am the explorer

That's right. I'm the explorer, Jamie Goldberg's the communicator, Susan Serra's the Entrepreneur and Grace and Ken Kelly are the showroom-focused design company.

Or so read the pages of Kitchen and Bath Business yesterday. What a thrill to be called out by the industry I call mine and what a great group of colleagues (who are also friends) to be counted among. Pardon the self-promotion but my traffic's down significantly this week and I figured I could squeeze it in.

In a season when I'm counting blessings, I have too many to count. None of this could have happened without the support of a whole lot of people, including the five profiled in the article with me.

Endless thanks to Lori Dolnick for thinking of me and thank you again to Blanco USA for bringing all of us together.

21 December 2011

Happy Hanukkah

Detail from the Arch of Titus in Rome, which was built to commemorate the sacking of Jerusalem.
Last night marked the first night of Hanukkah and to all of the members of the tribe I know (and those I don't) I want to wish you a joyful Hanukkah.

Hanukkah is an eight-day celebration that dates to the year 165 BCE. Sources vary but the traditional view of the festival is what follows. In 167 BCE, Antiochus who was the ruler of the Selucid Empire sacked Jerusalem and outlawed Judaisim. Further, he ordered the installation of a statue of Zeus in the Temple. The Selucid Empire was a Greek/ Macedonian Empire made up from the eastern conquests of Alexander the Great. Antiochus' actions provoked a rebellion.

A Jewish priest named Mattityahu and his five sons, Jochanan, Simeon, Eleazar, Jonathan and Judah led the revolt. Judah came to be known as Yehuda YaMakabi, or Judah the Hammer. By the year 166 Mattityahu had died and Judah became the leader of the revolt. By 165 the revolt was successful and the Selucid Empire was beaten back. The Temple was reclaimed and rededicated. Judah ordered that the Temple be cleansed, that a new altar be built and that all of the vessels be remade.

According to the Talmud, the Temple Menorah needed to be fueled by olive oil and further, the Menorah had to burn through every night. However, there was only enough oil for one night and making more oil was an eight-day process. Miraculously, the one-day supply burned for eight days.

So now you know. Please join me in extending warm Hanukkah greetings to everyone who's celebrating for the next week.

20 December 2011

If you can't afford the tip you can't afford the meal; a Blog Off post

Every two weeks the blogosphere comes to life when bloggers of every stripe weigh in on the same topic. The topic this time is If you can't afford the tip you can't afford the meal. Here's my take.

Since about 1980 or so, the United States and the whole of the developed world has been locked in a race to the bottom. Though it's most apparent in North America, it's evident in Europe, Japan and Australia too. Competition based on innovation and smarts seems to have been replaced by competition based on low cost.

We were sold a bill of goods called the Information Economy and rather than working in factories, we'd work with our brains and usher in a new era of prosperity. But in the course of exporting our manufacturing base, the so called job creators failed to bring about this new prosperity. What they did bring forth was the big box store and the promise of ever cheaper consumer goods.

But how cheap are those cheap consumer goods and what effect do they have across our economies? In Robert Greenwald's documentary Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Low Price, the film maker explores in depth how big boxes, and Wal-Mart in particular, depress wages, impose high social costs and gut local businesses. A 75 cent bottle of shampoo is a shiny object few can resist and the act of buying it sets in motion a whole host of unintended consequences.

The first consequence is that the margin on that bottle of shampoo is so low that Wal-Mart can't afford to pay the cashier who's checking you out anything close to a living wage. Another consequence is that the company who actually made that bottle of shampoo is making so little money that they have to cut wages, benefits or to leave for the developing world.

Every time that happens by the way, it's another job exported to Mexico or China; countries where living wages and environmental regulations are considered to be quaint ideas at best.

When manufacturing jobs go away, what jobs remain are positions as cashiers at Wal-Mart. A society can't support a robust middle class on the back of Wal-Mart or any of the big boxes.

Yet the draw of that 75 cent bottle of shampoo is so strong that municipalities fight to lure in big boxes. The suburbs in the US are covered with strip malls built around them. It doesn't matter if they're Wal-Marts, Targets, Office Maxes or Pet Smarts, they have the same effect. The promise of low prices brings with it a host of social ills that range from low wages to non-existent healthcare benefits.

Furthermore, the obsession with low prices extends out from the retail sector. It extends into government where gutted education budgets and calls to eliminate the postal service are met with applause. It extends into other businesses where staff reductions and increased productivity to accommodate them are considered to be normal. It bleeds into the professions too and everyone from doctors to designers feels the same pressure to compete on price rather than value.

So what is there to do? Well, for starters stop spending money in big boxes. I have never been a fan of them and I've always been suspicious of bottom line prices. I don't buy 75 cent bottles of shampoo. I buy $4 bottles of shampoo at a grocery store where the cashiers make a living wage and have health insurance. Now that we're part of a thoroughly consumerist culture, pay attention to how and where you spend your money. I consider it to be an obligation to spend my money locally and as painful as it can be sometimes, to pay full prices. When I buy anything I think about its repercussions. What am I supporting with my dollars? Where is my money going once I spend it? Is it staying in the local economy and helping to support my neighbors or is it swelling the coffers of someone far removed from me? What do you think? How far can the push for cheap go?


19 December 2011

Cotto d'Este rethinks what tile can do

One need look no further than newspaper headlines to see that utility deregulation has been a bust. As public utilities have been allowed to consolidate and behave more like private concerns, their dividends to shareholders may have increased but their rates have have gone up significantly at the same time. Similarly, a near obsession with reducing labor costs has left them with a power grid that's as prone to breakdown as any business that cuts itself off at the knees in order to maximize its quarterly earnings. With increased earnings, utilities are better able to lobby legislatures to advance their agendas. As so-called public utilities buy off legislators they're able to pass along more of their costs to their customers. The utility I deal with, Progress Energy (Soon to be Duke Energy), has managed to convince the Florida Legislature that it's a good idea to have their customers pay for a new nuclear plant before it's even built. My electrical rates will increase by nearly 50% over the next eight years to pay for this new plant. As Fukushima demonstrated so perfectly, is nuclear power capable of living up to its promise?

Clearly, a central supplier of electricity is a losing proposition. But how to get out from under unresponsive and increasingly expensive "public" utilities? This isn't a failure of government as it is a failure for government to behave like a profit-making business.

So what there is to do is to start to take responsibility for electrical power away from the utilities and to make it more local and more personal.

My travels to Europe in the last year have shown me that there are a lot of ways the US can improve on our business as usual. The technologies evident over there during trade shows do point to a way out.

The rage these days in Europe in architecture is to install ventilated facades. These facades are a way to remake a building and insulate it at the same time. But the Sassuolo-based Cotto d'Este takes the idea of a ventilated facade and turns it on its ear.

Cotto d'Este's ventilated facades make electricity.

While solar power and photovoltaic cells can't obviate the need to electrical utilities, it's an enormous leap forward. Since utilities don't feel any pressing need to actually provide the services they're tasked to do, why not set about making our own electricity?

Cotto d'Este has a ceramic product that carries a 25-year warranty and that you can walk on. That's amazing. I live in a part of the world where the sun shines for an average of 360 days per year. I look at my roof and my neighbors roofs and wonder why we're not putting them to use. Between the incredible sunshine we enjoy and the sea breezes we experience ever day, why aren't we harnessing those forms of energy? Why do we rely on a power plant that burns coal, degrades our air and dumps mercury into The Bay?

Why does burning fossil fuels hold the appeal that it does?

How did oil- and coal-based energy generation become the standard for what constitutes a prosperous society? Isn't it time to look for another answer?

14 December 2011

Scandinavian Made, a webshop

I think I'm in love with this bowl.

Ceramicist Simon Koefoed made only one and it's available through a new webshop called Scandinavian Made.

Scandinavian Made is the brainchild of my brilliant friend Susan Serra and her daughter Kelly Serra Donovan. The Serra women's roots run deep in Denmark and Susan's long made it a habit to bring back handmade items she found on her annual trips to Denmark for her design clients.

With the recent launch of Scandinavian Made, anybody can benefit from Susan's discerning eye and love of her ancestral homeland. Here are some highlights I just pulled from her site.

There's a definite eye at work here and the whole site is a testament to her good taste and willingness to share the one-of-kind, hand crafted vases, bowls, servicewear, wall hangings and more that she finds on her travels.

Susan's one of the most generous and talented women I know and it's a pleasure to help introduce Scandinavian Made to the world. Give Scandinavian Made a look and tell Susan I sent you.

13 December 2011

Save the dates for Coverings 2012

Coverings is a must-see show and conference for the tile and stone worlds and Coverings 2012 is coming to the Orange County Convention Center in Orlando from April 17 through April 20.

Whether you're looking for the next big idea or the bottom line, you'll find the inspiration you're after at this year's show. There are over 1000 exhibitors from 50 countries signed up so far, Coverings 2012 promises something for everybody in the architecture, builder, design and fabricator communities.

Coverings 2012 features a robust conference schedule including accredited seminars and live demonstrations led by some of the most reputable authorities in the industry. Oh, and it's all free.

So add it to your calendar and make it a point to be in Orlando on April 17th. I know I'll be there!

You can learn more and register to attend on Coverings website. See you in Orlando.

12 December 2011

Christmas in New York

On the upper east side of Midtown Manhattan, on the corner of Fifth Avenue and East 50th Street, sits one of the world's most iconic department stores, Sak's Fifth Avenue.

Despite the fact that Sak's has grown into a department store chain, their 1924 building across the street from Rockefeller Center remains their flagship.

Christmas is a big deal in New York, obviously. Every year Sak's rises to the occasion and rolls out a display that integrates their historic facade.

Last year, their night time display broke new ground in projected animation with their story of "The Snowflake and the Bubble." I remember standing on the West Side of Fifth Avenue on a Friday night in mid-December last year and being blown away.

I figured that they'd spent so much money on that animation that they'd use it for a couple of years.

Clearly, I underestimated Sak's. Two weeks ago they rolled out "The Snowflake and the Bubble: The Sequel."

I don't think I'm going to make it up there before the display ends on January 6th, 2012 but this new animation makes me want to drop what I'm doing and just get on an airplane.

05 December 2011

Seeing wasps in another light, a Blog Off post

Every two weeks, the blogosphere comes alive with something called a Blog Off. A Blog Off is an event where bloggers of every stripe weigh in on the same topic on the same day. The topic for this round of the Blog Off is "What is Home?"


I moved to Florida nearly 20 years ago. and within those first couple of weeks I ran into what my dad would have called Florida's "bug problem."

My first exposure to Florida's insects took place in the wee hours of the morning. I was living in Orlando then and I thought that hermetically sealed suburban house I called home at the time could shield me from anything Florida could throw at me.

Hah. In the pre-dawn hours one morning I was lying in bed, drifting between consciousness and unconsciousnesss. I was on my back when I felt something crawl across my naked chest. In the same motion, I grabbed the bug crawling across me and leapt out of bed. With my heart still racing, I decided that the only good Florida bug was a dead one. That was my first exposure to the Palmetto bug. Palmettos are a large species of cockroach. Unlike most roaches, palmetto bugs don't set up house in a house. Rather they get in when they're looking for water or by mistake. I didn't know that then. To me, what had just crawled over me was the largest cockroach the northeast had ever produced. Ugh.

Despite Florida's tropical climate, I was going wage a one man war against the worst Florida could throw at me. So I spent the next 15 years or so killing anything that crawled, buzzed or spun a web. There was no pesticide strong enough so car as I was concerned.

I moved to St. Pete in 1996 and when I got here there was a bug I hadn't dealt with before. This is the Gulf Coast of Florida's mud dauber wasp.

It's commonly called the black and yellow mud dauber but technically, its real name is Sceliphron caementarium. S. caementarium is nearly three inches long and is a pretty intimating creature. When I first encountered one of them it was just another thing that was waiting to sting me and I couldn't kill it fast enough.

However, they just kept coming and wherever they ended up they would make their fist-sized nests. Every time I'd knock one down it would be full of dead spiders. That always mystified me.

At around the same time I was mystified by the contents of a mud dauber's nest the internet was taking shape and for the first time, I could track down information easily. In doing searches I found out the name of my wasp and I started to read about its way of life.

S. caementarium is a solitary wasp and once I realized that it wasn't going to sting me, I could see it for the beautiful creature it is. I mean look at it. It's abdomen pretty much defines a wasp waist. What a gorgeous animal.

Female mud daubers are skilled hunters and they hunt spiders. Once they catch one they sting it. They don't sting to kill, merely to paralyze. Once their prey's been stupefied, they transport it back to structure like this.

I took that photo on my patio yesterday.

These structures that I used to assume were nests are actually brooding chambers. It take the wasp a couple weeks to construct and it's made from soil and saliva and she makes it one mouthful at a time. It's not until it's completed that she goes about her hunting missions.

Her goal in life is to pass along her genes and she does so by building a structure, filling it with paralyzed spiders, and then laying a single egg on top of them. Once the egg's sealed into the chamber, it passes through its larval and pupal stages unseen and without any help from its parents.

Now that I know this stuff about our mud daubers I don't kill them on sight obviously. How could I kill something with such a life story? Learning about them had a couple of effects I never would have imagined. It made me reconsider the entire family of insects and the entire kingdom Insecta.

If S. caementarium had a story to tell what other bugs did? Well it turns out just about all of them do. Even my much-loathed Palmetto bug, or Eurycotis floridana, as it's more properly known. Though I still can't prevent myself from killing every palmetto bug I see, I stop and consider the rest of them. Our humble mud dauber gave me a window into a world I would have ever seen otherwise. The creatures we consider to be pests are every bit as evolved as we are. In some ways they fit their environments better than we do.

01 December 2011

I love New York so much it hurts sometimes; the Delancy Street "Low Line"

This is the Williamsburg Bridge.

It connects the Lower East Side of Manhattan with Mid Brooklyn and on its Brooklyn side, it marks the start of the Brooklyn Queens Expressway. On the Manhattan side, The Williamsburg  crosses over Roosevelt Drive and what appear to be endless housing blocks.

The approach to the Williamsburg is Delancey Street, a pretty non-descript patch of well-traveled road that looks like the rest of the Lower East Side.

 However, underneath Delancey is an abandoned rail yard.

It's but one of countless abandoned rail yards in Manhattan and it always amazes me that the city with the most expensive real estate values in the US has so many under utilized nooks and crannies.

A couple of years ago, an abandoned, elevated railway was turned into New York's now-legendary High Line. However, a couple of forward thinkers have an similar idea for the Delancey Street only instead of a High Line, they've come up with the idea that's come to be known as the Low Line.

The Delancy Underground is its official name and at this point it's in the process of raising money to make the dream a reality. I remember when the High Line was in a similar situation and just look at it now. I have no doubt that the Delancey Underground will happen and based on the speed of the High Line's development and conversion, it will happen pretty quickly.

However, the Delancey Underground is very different from the High Line, primarily because it's underground. However, the plan for the Delancey calls for a host of sky lights, solar collectors and fiber optics to bring the light of day underground. The light levels underneath Delancey Street will be intense enough for trees, shrubs, flowers and grasses to grow. check out these renderings.

It's going to be amazing and if any city in the world can pull this off, New York's definitely the one. No where else in the world can mount projects on the scale New York can and nowhere else on earth can channel ambition and vision the way New York does so regularly.

Man I love that town and the Delancey Underground is one more reason to hold it in as high a regard as I do.

New Yorkers aside, what public space initiatives has your city undertaken? Are publicly-funded, public spaces important and worthwhile? Talk to me about this stuff.

30 November 2011

Coverings is looking for a few good jobs

Coverings, North America's premiere trade event for the tile and stone industries, is looking for entries in their Installation and Design Awards.

Coverings takes place between April 17th and 20th at the Orange County Convention Center in Orlando.

The competition is open to architects, designers, builders, contractors, distributors, retailers, and installers, and everybody's being encouraged to submit multiple entries. All projects must have been completed within the past two years (January 2009 – December 2011), and be located in the United States. Multiple winners will be selected in each of the two basic categories— residential and commercial. The deadline for submissions is Wednesday, February 1, 2012, with entry forms available at Coverings' website and on their Facebook page.

This is a terrific opportunity to show off your work to the rest of the industry and to prove that tile and stone aren't the sole province of the Europeans.

There's no fee for entry but if you want to win the cash prizes involved, you have to be at the show in Orlando on April 19th. What better reason to come to Orlando?

Graff wants to spread the good cheer

Graff makes faucets and bath fixtures that will bend your mind. Check out this collection called Luna.

Wow, what a bath!

It being nearly December and with the holidays approaching, Graff has a promo going on right now on their Facebook page that worth checking out.

Every week, from now through the week of December 16th, Graff is giving away a $200 American Express gift card. All you have to do is go to Graff's Facebook page and like them. A new contest will be revealed every week, but the only way you can know about it is to like their page.

Because this is a new promotion, I'll tell you this week's. Between now and Friday, post a link to your favorite or least favorite Christmas/ Hannukah/ or Eid (even though Eid was a month ago) song and if you post the best and or worst, you'll be $200 closer to the end of you holiday shopping.

Because I'm as much a nerd as I am a snob, I'll let you know my favorite Christmas carol of all time. It's "Tu Scendi dalle Stelle" as performed by Luciano Pavarotti. Chistmas and all of December are meant for classical music and Tu Scendi sums it up perfectly.

$200 toward my shopping this season would be a real boon and I'm sure I'm not alone in that. So why not give Graff a like and get the chance to make this a holiday season to remember. So go like Graff!

29 November 2011

My Brassavola nodosa bloomed today

After three years of utterly bizarre winters, my favorite orchid bloomed today. Mercifully, I have a blog to take note of such things because the last time it bloomed I wrote about it. That was on 20 December 2008.

Even though the climate's not changing and even though it's in the same spot where it's been for the last ten years, my prized orchid hasn't bloomed in three years. My bromeliads haven't bloomed since then either, bit that's a topic for another post.

There was a time when B. nodosa bloomed like clockwork the week before Christmas. It was always the same, year after year and it was always there perfuming the air for my annual Christmas Eve dinner.

Here's how I described it three years ago:
I think yesterday was the worst day in human history. I swear, people formed a line for the chance to be mean to me. Horrible day. Horrible day! I came home late and paced and growled like a caged animal. I went out onto my patio and something happened to make all of that drift away.
I walked out the door and stepped into a cloud of the most delightful fragrance on the planet. My Brassavola nodosa is in bloom and nothing I've ever encountered comes close to the scent of these otherwise nondescript white and green flowers. B. nodosa blooms in the winter here and it's fragrant only on warmer, wind-free nights. Last night was one such night. I stood under a waning gibbous moon and inhaled a scent of such complexity I had to sit down to process it. It's almost as if it's a combination of the blossom of a key lime with a flutter of vanilla and a black pepper end note. If I stand farther away, it's kind of caramelly and chocolatish with a whiff of nutmeg thrown in. At mid range it's a buttery jasmine with a hint of damson plum. Man, I could spend an hour circling the thing and inhaling, dreaming of moonlit nights in exotic lands. Ahhh. One good whiff and I was transported to a cliff side terrace in Grenada, a balcony in old Rangoon or a moonlit night in the same highlands of southern Mexico where B. nodosa originated.
Having a bad day? Stick your nose in a blooming Brassavola nodosa and it won't matter anymore.
Three years ago something strange happened. We had a frost and then a few days later we had an actual freeze. It was the first time this part of Florida had recorded a freeze. Ever. Two years ago we had three more frosts and last year we had a frost and another freeze. My orchids live outside and even though they made it through the cold temperatures, their internal clocks have been thrown off significantly.

So B. nodosa may be a couple of weeks early, and it may have only mustered a single flower, but at least it's here.

Its one and only bloom opened this morning so for the next six weeks or so, I'll be treated to the same incredible scent I last smelled three years ago, and I'll be treated to it every evening until its flower fades. I can't wait for the sun to go down tonight.

Starck towers over Warendorf

German kitchen manufacturer Warendorf just rolled out a new collection called Tower. Tower is the result of a collaboration between Warendorf and the design world's enfant terrible, Philippe Starck.

Tower consists of three components, two tall cabinets and an island.

Starck's forever deconstructing things and looking at every day objects and setting in a new light, hence his enduring popularity as a collaborator.

The towers are function-specific. One tower is for dish and pantry storage, the other holds a refrigerator/ freezer, a dishwasher, an oven and a steam oven. Each tower takes up a single square meter of floor space and they rotate to allow easy access to their contents. The appliance tower has electric, waste and water lines that run up into it through the floor.

The island holds a stainless steel sink and an integrated induction cooktop. Power and water run into the island from the floor and are hidden by the chrome leg under the sink.

Open kitchens are all the rage in Europe these days and this open kitchen takes that concept into the stratosphere. A set up like this could be installed in any open space. When it's not in use, it becomes just a few pieces of furniture but come meal time, it's a full kitchen.

It's a pretty wild idea and even though it's not for everyone, I'm curious to see how this idea trickles down into the rest of the industry and how it affects aesthetics on both sides of the Atlantic. What do you think? Is there any appeal to the idea of a kitchen not being in a dedicated room but instead being another furniture vignette in an open space?

Endless thanks to my brilliant cousin Tim for bringing this to my attention.

Real design stars and a concrete counter guy

During my travels last fall, I had some incredible opportunities to meet some people whose work in the design world I admire greatly.

Everything started at Cersaie in Bologna last September. Endless thanks to Chris Abbate, Novita Public Relations and Tile of Italy for making it possible for me to meet and talk with some people whose work I've long admired.

In order of appearance, I met Patricia Uriquiola,

Philippe Grohe

and the Bouroullec brothers, Ronan and Erwan, all in the same day.

I've written about these peoples' work quite a bit over the years. I shower with a shower that Ms. Uriquiola designed and Mr. Grohe brought to the market. It was great to be able to tell them how much I appreciate their vision and hard work in person.

Later in London for BlogTour 2011, I met such notables as Nicky Haslam,

Barbara Barry

and Lee Broom.

There were more people whose work I admire during those weeks on the road but I don't want to be too much of a name dropper. BlogTour 2011 dropped me into the middle of the London Design Festival and were it not for BlogTour I'd have never been there otherwise. So thank you.

But out of the entire who's who of the world design scene I met, none can compare to a man I had the pleasure to meet in San Francisco last month.

I'd been brought to San Francisco by Zephyr to attend a design event at their spectacular showroom in San Francisco's Design District. One of the night's speakers was Fu-Tung Cheng, the man who brought the decorative and functional possibilities of concrete to the world's attention.

There were at most 30 people in attendance at Zephyr's event and most of us knew one another. It felt more like a dinner party than it did a formal function.

After Fu-Tung spoke, he mingled with the everyone as if he were just another guest at a party. Never mind that there was a stack of his books by the door.

Here's a little back story. In 2002, Fu-Tung Cheng published his first book, Concrete Countertops; Design, Form and Finishes for the New Kitchen and Bath. I was a relative newbie to the kitchen and bath industry then and his book was nothing short of a revelation. It gave rise to a new aesthetic in my work but far more than that, his first book showed me that I could forge my own way and that I could create a career for myself. All I needed to do was channel my passion and my energy as tirelessly as I was able.

Concrete Countertops was far more than a book about a new idea in surfaces, it was a wake up call for me and it challenged me to strike out and make a place for myself in the world. Fu-Tung Cheng's generous spirit jumped off the page as I read his words and I realized that my making a place for myself wasn't a matter of my ambition. A career of my own making could only happen if I could be of service and use to other people.

Part of me knew that already, but Cheng's book about concrete drove home that point and sent me on my way. I'm not kidding when I say that his first book changed the trajectory of my life.

Fast forward to October, 2011 and I found myself in the same room with the man who'd had such an impact on me. I walked up to him and told him essentially what I just wrote in the previous few paragraphs. He was as gracious as he was grateful to hear that he'd impacted me so positively.

We ended up having a longer conversation and later, exchanging business cards when the event was breaking up for the night. And in a final gesture, he inscribed his latest book, Concrete at Home for me.

I'm a fortunate, fortunate man. I say that all the time and I mean it. I have opportunities extended to me on a regular basis that make my head spin, not the least of which are numerous opportunities to meet some of the  people I admire. So thanks Zephyr for a great event and thanks for allowing me to complete another circle.

28 November 2011

Three reader questions for a Monday morning

Help! My husband and I are planning to finish up our kitchen with all new appliances and by fixing our old cabinets at some point after the new year. Ideally we want to replace the cabinets rather than just fix them, however  we want to keep the granite counters we had installed a few years ago. Is it possible to replace cabinets and keep our existing granite counters?
I hate to be the bearer of bad news but here goes. No.

Except for cases that are very few and very far between, a granite counter can't be reused. The act of removing them carries with it the very real chance that the counter will crack or break all together. Granite's a very hard material, but it's also very brittle. I has to be supported completely when it's in a horizontal position. That's why it's always transported vertically. Sliding a counter off of the cabinetry where its's resting will leave it very vulnerable to being held in an unsupported, horizontal position.

Adding a layer of complication and risk to all of this is granite's sheer weight. 3cm slab granite weighs between 18 and 20 pounds per square foot, depending on the density of the stone you have. So if you have a counter that's eight feet long and 25 inches deep, that single counter will weigh around 330 pounds. Manipulating a large object that weighs that much will take a team of people. Dropping it will destroy whatever it lands on, be that a floor or the feet of the people carrying the stone. If it breaks while it's being carried, potentially catastrophic injury and damage await. Do not attempt this on your own. Please.

Since it's not a DIY project, one would think that a stone yard would take on a project like that. Don't hold your breath. You'll be amazed at the cost if you look into it. A team of stone workers' labor costs that aren't folded into the cost of an installed counter can be pretty steep and that's if you can find a company willing to take on the liability of moving a previously installed counter.

Barring some miracle, you'll end up saying goodbye to those counters unless you're willing to do a cosmetic do-over on the cabinets you have already.

Since you asked me this question I'm going to tell you what I think is a better plan. For 2012, have you and your husband set a goal to save between $25 and $30,000 so that you can renovate your kitchen correctly and without having to resort to Band-Aid solutions. Once you have that goal set, make an appointment with a local, independent kitchen designer. If you need a referral, I will find someone for you. In that appointment, tell the designer your budget and talk about the items on your with list for your new kitchen. Explain too the time frame you have in mind.

If you have a rapport building, terrific. Any designer I'd send you to is there to help you get as much for your money as it's possible to get. It's his or her job to do the math, figure everything out that needs to be addressed and to make sure that everything not only looks great, but that it works too. You'll spend less money with a good designer at the helm than you would on your own, as paradoxical as that sounds. Good luck!

Help! Do you have any idea how to refinish brass cabinet hardware? The knobs in my kitchen are legion and I'm in no hurry to buy new ones. I just replaced my faucet with a new one that has a brushed nickel finish. I really like how that looks and I'm wondering if there's a way to change the finish on my knobs to brushed nickel. Is there a product out there that can help?
No there isn't, sorry to tell you that. While it's true that there are metallic spray paints out there, they cannot accurately recreate the appearance of something like brushed nickel.

Spray painting cabinet knobs is a surprisingly enormous undertaking because all of those knobs have to be removed from the doors and drawer fronts, attached to something like a piece of cardboard and then sprayed evenly. Spray painting is not as easy as it looks under normal circumstances and in the case of kitchen cabinet hardware, the existing finish will will working overtime to prevent you from painting it.

Metal knobs and pulls (and faucets and just about everything that gets installed in a kitchen) have a stain-resistant clear coat applied to them while they're being manufactured. This clear coat locks in a factory finish and makes cleaning up spills a whole lot easier. It makes adding a new finish over top of that clear coat nearly impossible at the same time.

While it's true that you can remove that clear coat with a solvent, you'll probably end up damaging the metal underneath as you rub off the clear coat.

A much better use of your time and resources is to bite the bullet and replace everything. Lee Valley Hardware sells a plain, brushed nickel knob from their Atherly collection for $2.80 and if you buy ten or more, the unit cost drops to $2.40.

Start saving up your shekels and save yourself a whole lot of heartache and replace your brass knobs.

Andrew Coppa, Vis Vitae/In Touch Weekly
I get it that in certain areas of the country like Florida and California there's a historical and cultural link to Spain, so the architectural heritage of that country informs the aesthetics of those parts of the US. But in the northeast, kitchen designers are still pushing miles of tile, corbels, distressing and glazing in an attempt to recreate their idea of Tuscany. I think theme rooms belong at Disney hotels or Graceland. Any thoughts?
Oh you bet I have some thoughts. You hit a nerve. But before I get to that, let's have some geography first. While it's true that Florida and California were once Spanish territories, so was the rest of North America. However, it was only in the southern areas of what's now the US that the Spanish actually did any kind of development. Surviving Spanish structures in California were primarily missions and the surviving Spanish structures in Florida were forts and a handful of homes. Oh, the wild pigs that wreak havoc in our great state are their legacy too.

Furthermore, Tuscany is a region in northern Italy. Tuscany, while lovely, is a very different place than Spain is and the Italians never played a role in the colonization of North America.

What passes for Tuscan design in the United States is a uniquely US creation and yet another embarrassing example of trying to prove one's cultural awareness through excess. The nightmare in the photo above has nothing to do with Tuscany or anywhere near the Mediterranean. It is however a testament to the striving ambition of the nouveau riche vulgarian standing in the middle of it.

Here's a kitchen in a home for sale in Gandia, a coastal city 70km south of Valencia in Spain.


The hole on the left side is where a washing machine will go and the hole on the right side is where a dishwasher will go. Notice the oven and the cooktop. They're the metric equivalent of 24" wide. Note the absolute lack of "Mediterranean" details. By Spanish standards, this is a large kitchen and by Italian standards, it's enormous.

Here's a kitchen from a villa in Montagnana, 20 minutes outside of Florence, the capital of Tuscany. That makes this a real, Tuscan kitchen.


Where are the corbels? Where are the multi-step glazes, the dried flowers, the tapestries and the enormous appliances? I'll tell you where they are. They are in every cul de sac subdivision in the United States.

I've said it here more times than I can count, a home is no place for themed decor. Architecture should look the time when it was built and it should reflect the place where it sits.

There is no way someone walking around the streets of Florence or Valencia could conceive a kitchen such as the fist one show at the top of this question and then call it Tuscan or Mediterranean. A kitchen such as that is the product of some kind of warped nostalgia, too many weekends in Las Vegas and too many dinners at the Olive Garden.

But all of that excess is expensive and I believe very honestly that it's the expense of that stuff that drives peoples' asking for it and designers' willingness to give it to them.

So there you have it. My thoughts.