Archive for February, 2011

Put an owl on it!

A detail of a carved wooden door designed by Yelena Polenova at Abramtsevo in the 1890s, at the Abramtsevo Museum. (Via AT)

Something that fascinates me about the current enthusiasm for the handmade and local (knitting, crafting, canning, homesteading!) is how participating in these activities is a form of protest against large-scale globalization and industrialization. By making something yourself, you are opting out (perhaps only symbolically) of the general cultural obsession with consumption.  This pendulum seems to swing back and forth periodically and there is much about our present era that echos the reaction against industrialization in the 19th century as exemplified by Art Nouveau and the Arts & Crafts Movement.  William Morris and his circle are probably the most well-known example of this, but a renewed emphasis on folk arts and handicrafts was prevalent in most European countries as well as the United States during this period.  Last week’s Retrospect column on Apartment Therapy covers the two little-known centers of Russian Art Nouveau.  Did you ever wonder where the Russian nesting doll came from?  Take a look to find out!

it is interesting to see the recurrence of certain visual themes that connect people to craft and folk art.  I loved seeing the carved wooden owls designed in the 1890’s in Russia and how perfectly they would fit into any hipster craft fair today.

When we see owls today, we tend to think of the retro trend back to the 1970’s, not the 1890’s, but this folk-art derived motif has been around for a long time and has been having a definite resurgence in the past few years. I would love to know more about owl iconography, as the theme turns up in so many culture’s artistic traditions.

Were owls the universal symbol of hipster craftiness in the 1890’s? Were they, too,  “putting a bird on it” to make it art?


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Who owns the Urban Homestead?

Well, according to the U.S. Patent and Trademark office, as of October 2010 the Dervaes Family does – or at least the term “Urban Homestead” and “Urban Homesteading”.  If you are are following such news, you might know of the recent fracas surrounding this issue.  The Dervaes Family are pioneers of the urban farming movement, having started their micro-farm in the mid-1980’s in Pasadena.  Their project has evolved into a full-fledged institute and now they are looking to trademark the terms they feel describe what they do.  Trouble is, the phrase “Urban Homestead” isn’t just about them.  As it turns out, there are all sorts of people in practically every state (including one nomadic Vansteader) doing the same thing, and in the past several years, a loose community has formed on the web.  Pretty awesome, in my opinion.  In fact, when I was poking around  the web looking for a name for this blog, I typed in Urban Homestead and got a whole long list of variations on that theme in the form of URLs.  Now some of these people have received “cease and desist” letters and had their Facebook pages shut down.  Suddenly, this random community of urban farming folks has galvanized to try and convince the Dervaes to stop being so damn un-neighborly.

Aside from my attempts at worm-composting and indoor mushroom cultivation, I don’t really qualify as an Urban Homesteader, but I find this community inspiring and would hate to see what seems to be a growing movement stymied by having to re-identify themselves to avoid legal action by the Dervaes. So I have stopped linking to their site and will be joining the Facebook protest today.  The upside to this controversy is the amount of publicity urban farming is getting and I hope it makes the whole thing more accessible to people who wouldn’t ordinarily be rushing out to install WindowFarms in their apartment or canning their own beans.

To that end, I bring you a few links (among many) of the various urban homesteading projects out there

And a few links to recent articles on the controversy:

If you are so moved and are on Facebook, visit the page “Take Back Urban Home-Steading(s)”, to find out more about how people are coming together online to defend a term that describes a lifestyle, not just one family in Pasadena.

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An Apothecary of Spices

Not long ago, our friend, Forest, invited us for dinner at his jewel-box of an apartment in Chelsea. Forest is a designer who has helped me immensely with this blog, and we seem to  share the same inclination to put things into containers.  He lives in a studio where space is minimal, but when you are there, it feels big and comfortable.  Why? Because everything in it has a purpose – either that of use or beauty.  Perfectly edited.  But my favorite feature is his lovely collection of jars and containers used to house his herbs and spices.

For some time, Forest has been collecting old apothecary jars, antique beakers, and random glass containers to house his herbs and spices.  At first glance, the collection appears to be haphazard, but it is connected by an underlying structure of criteria: each container must be of glass and have either a cork, glass or metal cap, and they are all unified by the same label that he creates himself on a color laser printer – after that, anything is possible.  When you open his kitchen cabinet, the effect is that of visiting a 19th-century apothecary, connecting you to a time when spices were used just as much for their medicinal qualities as they were for food preparation.  There is something about putting things into special bottles that imbues them with an almost magical quality – elevating cooking to the level of alchemy.

I wanted to feature Forest’s spice cabinet for a couple of reasons: on a practical level, it is a beautiful way to organize something mundane and I am  reminded of how much the collection and display of everyday objects is somehow so appealing (see A collection a Day or Things Organized Neatly, for evidence).  Taking ordinary household spices out of their containers highlights just how un-ordinary they really are.  The spice trade has profoundly affected human history, yet I know next to nothing about it.  To correct this, I have picked up a copy of, Spice: The History of a Temptation, by Jack Turner, which is one of several books out there on this subject.  I foresee future posts on this topic as I learn more about what’s in my kitchen cabinets. I think a trip to Kalustyan’s is in order, too.

As appealing as I find Forest’s Apothecary, my spice line up is pretty basic: some jars on a rack on a wall.

Although I would love to start collecting extraordinary jars, I think I might need to start with a simpler solution. How do you organize your spices? I found this roundup of ideas on Apartment Therapy, but would love to find more.

Further Reading:

  1. Andrew Dalby, Dangerous Tastes: The Story of Spices, 1st ed. (University of California Press, 2002).
  2. Giles Milton, Nathaniel’s Nutmeg: Or the True and Incredible Adventures of the Spice Trader Who Changed the Course of History (Penguin (Non-Classics), 2000).
  3. Professor Paul Freedman, Out of the East: Spices and the Medieval Imagination (Yale University Press, 2009).
  4. Jack Turner, Spice: The History of a Temptation (Vintage, 2005).
  5. Fred Czarra, Spices (Reaktion Books, 2009).
  6. Wolfgang Schivelbusch, Tastes of Paradise: A Social History of Spices, Stimulants, and Intoxicants (Vintage, 1993).
  7. Charles Corn, The Scents of Eden: A History of the Spice Trade, 1st ed. (Kodansha America, 1999).
  8. John Keay,The Spice Route: A History, 1st ed. (University of California Press, 2007).
  9. Michael Krondl, The Taste of Conquest: The Rise and Fall of the Three Great Cities of Spice, Reprint. (Ballantine Books, 2008).

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Apartment Therapy

It was exciting to have our “dry goods library” featured on Apartment Therapy yesterday!  Most fascinating were the comments on the project: would the light degrade the food inside? Would the jars get dirty? Why the heck did you take the doors off of your cabinets?  To clarify: the shelf is part of a built-in that never had doors and is in the dining area just off of our tiny galley kitchen.  Since we get almost no direct light in our living room (sigh), I’m not so worried about the food degrading due to being stored in glass.  Overall, the project has been a success because we can see everything in our pantry and it has inspired us to use ingredients we had previously forgotten about.  Since we cook  at least 2 meals a day, we go through a lot of the food quickly, although I’m sure over time we might find that things go bad.  But not any worse than when the stuff was stashed in our cupboards.  One drawback to the square canisters is the fact that you can’t scoop things out easily because the mouths are not large and they don’t pour all that easily.  But I’ll take that trade-off for the extra space this project has given us.

I loved the suggestions about painting the cabinets or decorating them with contact paper.  Perhaps our next project?  In the meantime, I’m working on a post about spice storage (we don’t have spices in this line-up).  My friend, Forest, has a gorgeous solution for organizing his spices.  Coming soon!

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Matchbox Valentines

Valentine’s day on a Monday is like a gift to parents with school-aged children.  While I love the idea of making things (hence, this blog), for the past couple of years, this “holiday” has caught me unprepared the night before trying desperately to come up with something for almost 40 of my children’s classmates.  Oh, the despair of the unprepared parent on the night before!

This year however, we had a whole weekend stretched out before us and the girls wanted to make their own cards.  A couple of years ago, I came across a post on Inchmark showing valentines made out of matchboxes.  At the time, I didn’t have nearly enough empty matchboxes lying around (a sad reflection on our lack of restaurant-going these days), so I set out for Amazon and soon had 100 blank boxes in my possession.  Once you have emptied out the matches, all you need is some scrap paper, tape, glue and markers and you are on your way to making mini-valentine boxes of chocolates. Boxes so small, not even the most rabid anti-sugar crusaders could fault you for passing them out.  Not on Valentine’s day, at least.

Using red and pink construction paper, scrap origami sheets and doilies, my husband and I helped the girls wrap the boxes.  At least the first couple.  The wrapping was actually kind of frustrating for the young, and fearing we would lose their attention altogether, we set up an assembly line whereby my husband and I wrapped the boxes and the girls decorated them with the names of each of their classmates.

Next, came their favorite part: filling the boxes with m&m’s.  Using the “one for the box, two for me” method, their valentines were done in no time! A completely pleasant way to spend an afternoon.

If you have an excess of match boxes cluttering up your home, this is your project.  It doesn’t even need to be for Valentine’s day  – who wouldn’t welcome an extremely small box filled with chocolate on any day of the year? Happy Valentine’s Day!

Update:  So, I must admit I was feeling pretty awesome about sending my kids off to school with their groovy valentines.  That lasted for about 20 minutes until my husband called and told me the teacher reminded everyone at drop-off about the “no candy in the valentines” rule.   Oops, guess I didn’t get that memo.  But of course, why would one send extra junk food to school when they are getting plenty of it in their school lunch?  Next year, I suppose I will have to fill the boxes with raisins.  Or matches.

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