Monday, August 28, 2017


High tech, Victorian style: Close up view of a
leading-edge shower faucet of the era.
For the past thousand years, housing technology has advanced with all the urgency of dripping molasses. Perhaps every half-century or so, some fairly important breakthrough has come along to change the way houses are built. It happened around 1840, when heavy-timber construction methods dating back to the Middle Ages finally gave way to the lighter, 2x4-stud “balloon framing” system still in use today.

There was another big technology blip in the late 1800s, when gas lighting, telephones, central heating, indoor plumbing, and finally electricity all made their appearance in Victorian homes within the span of a few decades.

Nutone intercom "master station" of the kind fitted to
many super-high-end houses of the 1940s-1960s:
In the hundred twenty years since, there have been very few substantial changes in the way houses are built. Today, however, the incredibly swift advances in computing, combined with the second generation of internet technology—the vaunted "internet of things"—promise another revolution in housing. Systems such as communication, lighting, climate control, security and entertainment will all be linked via the web. In the resulting smart house, we’re told, the position of the drapes, the fire in the fireplace, even the temperature of your bath water will be monitored by a central brain somewhere in the Cloud, waiting to be controlled by little old you at the touch of your smartphone.

While exercising all these godlike powers over your furniture and appliances might be exhilarating to Silicon Valley propellerheads, they also engender some problems.

To begin with, I'm not at all sure I want the faceless Cloud—much less some mighty Big Brother corporation—to know how warm I like my bath water or what time I draw the drapes at night. But such privacy issues aside, it’s worth remembering that time hasn’t been kind to a lot of domestic innovations once considered state-of-the-art.

The incredible Electro Sink Center, which not only
featured push-button controls for a whole slew of
faucet functions, but also had electric (!) motors
at either end for food preparation.
No doubt you’ve strained to make out the garbled speech from those hokey and unintelligible intercoms that ultra-high-end houses boasted in the Fifties. In the early Sixties, there was the Electro Sink Center, an elaborate kitchen tap with a Jetsons-worthy control panel that dispensed cold, hot, and soapy water at the press of a button. And, it also had a built-in blender! Wow!

Is this the omniscient thermostat of the future,
or the Electro Sink Center of the future?
Only time will tell.
The Eighties brought us one of my personal high-tech favorites: A shower faucet knob containing a digital readout of the water temperature. Just so you could tell exactly what temperature "uncomfortable" is.

For their time, these features were the at the leading edge of technology. Today, they’re just charming anachronisms that draw chuckles instead of awe.

Now imagine a whole galaxy of outdated hardware built into a formerly-smart house. That could be just as embarrassing. After all, no matter how advanced the software might be, drawing drapes and opening valves necessarily requires good old-fashioned electromechanical actuators—very old-school industrial items in themselves. Their slow but inevitable failure could provide enough hijinks for a Lucy Show episode.  

The key to making a house smart lies, not simply in having every doorknob and coat hanger wired up to the internet, but doing it in a way that can grow and change with today’s rapid advances in technology, whether electronic or simply physical. If you’re in the market for smart house systems, make sure both the software and the hardware can be easily updated. Like a person, no house can claim to be smart unless it keeps on learning.

Monday, August 21, 2017


The Romp-Him. If it's such a trend,
why isn't anyone wearing it?
If you've ever seen reporting on those purportedly trend-setting New York fashion shows, you'll be familiar with the sight of models strolling the runway exhibiting outfits made of aluminum foil, Handi-Wipes, or old inner tubes. The latest such trend—or so we're told—is the RompHim, a sort of baby suit for grownup men. Fashionistas tell us—with straight faces—that this is the men's look of the future. Maybe so, but I think I'll just wait and see.

While most people find fashion shows amusing at best, fashion-industry types take them very seriously indeed. There’s a good reason: At last report, clothing fashions alone represented a $1.7 trillion industry worldwide. Add to that the changing fashions of the furniture and appliance industries, not to mention those of interior decoration, and you’re talking some real money.

And a good morning to you, too, madam.
Which inevitably brings us to architecture. Too often, when fashion gets its fluffy paws into residential design, it leaves the homeowner with the aesthetic equivalent of a RompHim. Today’s hottest home fashions can turn ice cold in a few short years—anyone with a black refrigerator can tell you that.

For the most part, residential fashion trends are simply a means of stirring the home industry’s economic pot. Unlike genuine innovations—such as new materials or methods of installation—changes engendered by fashion alone have no functional basis. They’re formulated solely to startle the consumer’s jaded eye.
I'm not sure he's convinced either.
During the early 2000s, for example, chic design magazines relentlessly showcased barren, urban-hipster interiors in which you might find only a chair, a cactus, and an unfathomable piece of artwork to break the chill. This look, we were assured, was the cat’s meow.

Fortunately, most people had the common sense to see that such interiors were utterly unlivable, so this manufactured “trend” never progressed beyond what it really was—a rather forced fashion statement inflated to epic proportions.

If they're just kidding,
why isn't this lady laughing?
While it’s easy to ridicule certain architecture magazines for their permanent enslavement to evanescent fads, it’s architects and interior designers who provide the subject matter. They’re only human, and are themselves susceptible to the tidal pulls of fashion.

Consequently, while you should take the suggestions of design professionals seriously, you should never cede your judgment to them completely. Maintain your own voting rights. If your architect or designer suggests colors or materials that don’t appeal to you, or that you feel may be too trendy, don’t be afraid to exercise your veto power.

Lastly, don’t worry if your own preferences aren’t fashionable at the moment. There's no shame in being un-trendy. You'll probably look a lot less silly down the road.

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

TILE DESIGN: Don't Be A-Skeered of Color

Moorish revival staircase dating from the 1920s:
Now that's some real tile work.
Quick—what color is the tile in a tract-house bath? That’s right—a bland, off-white.  Developers choose off-white ceramic tiles for a simple reason:  They’d much rather bore prospective buyers than risk offending their tastes.

Boring tile colors haven't always been the rule, however. Ceramic tile work reached a peak expression of color and pattern during the Twenties, with the popularity of Moorish and Middle Eastern design. Inspired by the incredibly ornate mosaic work of Islamic architecture, such designs made full use of tile’s color and pattern possibilities. Entrance foyers were frequently inlaid with ornamental motifs or mottoes, and bathrooms became showcases for intricate mosaic tile decorations.

The Art Deco movement of the 1930s brought tile to a high point of another sort. Rather than the intricate tile ornament of the Twenties, Art Deco delighted in bold geometric designs featuring zigzags, stripes, and zigurrat shapes. Colors became more strident as well, with combinations such as pink-and-purple and yellow, gray, and black.

Art Deco tile work of the 1930s wasn't afraid of color either.
During the Modernist years, abstract tile designs based on modern art became popular. No doubt you remember those pastel-tiled showers sprinkled with constellations of multicolored squares.

Given this, er, colorful history, you needn’t feel obliged to use bland tile schemes just because developers do. The real fun of ceramic tile lies in its unlimited potential for adding color and pattern.

•  To explore the possibilities of designing in tile, try drawing on graph paper with colored pencils, using an appropriate number of squares to represent each tile. Better yet, if your computer has a drawing program such as Sketchup, set up a grid of the correct proportions and experiment with color and pattern that way.

Classic 1x1 tile pattern of the
Mid Century era, with its
characteristic preference for
pastel colors.
Remember that, in addition to creating patterns with color alone, you can form designs by placing tiles diagonally or by cutting them into smaller shapes. One suggestion: the larger the tile size, the simpler the design should be. Fussy depictions of objects should generally be avoided altogether. Don’t aim for a rendition of the Last Supper behind your drainboard. Try to stick with straightforward geometric designs.

•  Many tile manufacturers offer decorative pieces designed to complement their regular tile lines.  They’re usually available in a range of colors; some also have embossed textures or hand-painted designs. By combining them with the basic field tiles, you can create some striking combinations. However, try to use such pieces sparingly, both to avoid diluting their design impact and to keep costs in line.  

Glass tile: Pretty hip, but like all other fads, it will
date stamp your remodel "right around 2017".
•  Tile grout is also available in a range of colors. However, be aware that eye-popping grout colors may call more attention to minor defects in the installation, as well as distracting from the tile colors themselves. Colored grout may also be harder to match later on if it becomes necessary.

•  One obvious caveat applies to both tile and grout colors: Unlike paint colors, they’re permanent. Choose color combinations because you like them, not because they happen to be in vogue at the moment. The current fad for glass tile, for example, is sure to date-stamp your remodel with "Designed in 2017". Rather than going with the latest thing, choose a personal favorite you can live with for a long time.