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.