Design Rules – Strange Closets people, homes, travel and stuff Mon, 29 Apr 2013 17:29:23 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Design Dilemmas: The wall behind the flat screen TV Thu, 01 Sep 2011 18:14:08 +0000

Dear Readers, figuring out what to hang on the wall behind, above and around flat screen TV’s has always vexed me. Currently, I have three Chinese screens, which I bought several years ago at the now shuttered Bucktown store Wow and Zen. I like them well enough, but my aesthetic has continued to evolve, and frankly, I’m bored of them. What’s stopping me from changing them? Inertia and lack of imagination. Advising other people how to resolve their design dilemmas seems so much easier than solving my own. I’d love to do something really interesting and over-the-top (or at least something). Any ideas? Sincerely, Confused in Chicago.

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What glows within? Sun, 28 Aug 2011 17:38:50 +0000

I’m drawn to the mysterious glow emanating from these homes. What’s happening behind those walls, and how do I score an invitation? I can practically smell the incense, and it’s easy to envision seances, dancing and chanting. In fact, the answer is likely far less exotic, but lighting can make a very powerful statement in home decor. If colored bulbs aren’t your thing, try adding dimmers to all your lamps and overhead lights. Dimmers are an inexpensive way to transform a space, at least in the evening, and as an added benefit, using them may help conserve electricity.

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Design Rules: Context is king Thu, 07 Oct 2010 02:13:50 +0000

Last week I wrote about the perplexing array of products in the Neiman Marcus home department, and my friend, KitchenLab and design in a bag‘s Rebekah Zaveloff left a thoughtful comment about the important role context plays in shaping our perception. “I kept thinking, it’s all about how pieces are put together and the context of collections and the power of someone who understands merchandising. I saw a lamp, rug or side table that if I viewed them in the context of Jayson Home or ABC carpet I’d love it, but assembled with all these other pieces, they didn’t hold my interest.” She’s so right. I overlook all kinds of amazing, many valuable, finds at garage sales and thrift stores simply because I can’t help but associate things with their environment and merchandising (or lack thereof). The inverse is also true. I’ve bought far too many perfectly merchandised but way too expensive pieces that looked positively pedestrian when isolated in my place: furnishings, accessories, rugs and candles. Lots and lots of candles. Making generally accurate snap judgements based on context seems like an evolutionary winner to me, so responding to spectacular merchandising is probably hardwired. Maybe that’s why I love Kartell’s gnome table when I otherwise despise gnomes. Sure, there was something I liked about them before I knew they were Kartell but only because I’d seen them pop up in gorgeous magazine spreads (thanks to Kartell). And to tell you the truth, I wanted one a lot more intensely when I realized they were so pedigreed. What’s up with that? Einstein famously theorized that time was relative depending on the speed of the observer, and I’m pondering a similarly revolutionary (but design-centric and less math-y) theory of context. Stay tuned. In the meantime, please consider the following questions when formulating your (much appreciated) comments:

a.) Do you ever wonder what influences your own aesthetic preferences?

b.) The gnome table – that’s cool, right? Or have I been seduced? Is it high design or a joke on the consumer?

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My dream office (what do you think?) Sat, 10 Jul 2010 07:24:01 +0000

Tanker desk – The Old Cinema.

Eames Executive Chair – Herman Miller .

Cast iron wood school table – Get Back Inc.

Desk lamp – Barker and Stonehouse.

Perpetual calendar – Design Within Reach.

Chalk globe – Cathie Filian’s blog.

Rare Saul Bass Vertigo movie poster – Ebay.

Laptop sleeve – @Work Design.

Vintage phone – Robert Topie Collection.

Lacquer boxes – Lille – a Shop.

Golden Age Flash statue – Amazon.

Tivoli Radio – Amazon.

Last but not least, I really want one of these. This Lab/Collie mix is very adorable.

Dog Breed Information

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Design Rules: Design for all the senses Wed, 09 Jun 2010 21:20:51 +0000

While reading this post, I recommend that you dim the lights, take off your shoes, settle into a comfortable chair and sip your favorite cocktail or beverage. And don’t forget about the music, because creating a splendid environment takes more than optimal furniture layout and killer color coordination. It’s about ambiance, a lesson I first learned from The Food Network’s Barefoot Contessa host Ina Garten. When your guests arrive, their favorite cocktail should be chilled and waiting for them, mood-appropriate music should fill the room, and the aroma of food should be wafting throughout the space. While it’s common sense advice, I’ve often caught myself neglecting those details in favor of pillow fluffing and clutter clearing; or in other words, things the guests probably won’t notice anyway.

Ina Garten also writes a terrific House Beautiful column.

When done well, designing for the senses creates unforgettable environments. For example, if I were blindfolded, kidnapped and taken to the Hotel Bourg-Tibourg in Paris, I’d immediately discern my location from the spicy scent of the house candles burning at the front desk and the sound of DJ Stéphane Pompougnac’s techno lounge music playing softly in the lobby. Every detail reinforces French designer Jacques Garcia’s colorful, Moroccan-inspired design, and makes the experience distinct, engaging and memorable. The result? Happy guests and fewer police rescue raids. By contrast, I’ve stayed at equally gorgeous hotels with bigger rooms and more amenities that I barely recall, because my memories of them blend together into one homogeneous clump.

So I’m striving to create the same kind of feeling in my own home. While I can manage the candles, flowers and hors d’oeuvres, music is my Achilles Heel. I don’t have surround sound, and I’m terrible at making mix tapes, but fortunately, Sonos recently sent me their new Sonos S5, and it effectively renders my excuses moot. The wireless music system will play practically any music format, including tracks from iTunes (from either your laptop or iPhone) and countless Internet radio stations. I’m impressed with the Sonos functionality, ease of use and most importantly, the sound quality, which provides a rich audio umami (which would be a great blog name). Click here for models and information.

Do you follow this rule already? What tricks do you employ to engage your guests? And does the decor dictate the music? I’m learning, but something tells me I’m still behind the curve.

Sonos S5 – The system is small enough to be placed on a bookshelf or unobtrusively in a corner.

Sonos S5

The Hotel Costes candle is also used at sister site Hotel Bourg Tibourg. Click here to purchase.

Top image of Hotel Bourg Tibourg from Urban Partners.

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Design Rules: Follow the Golden Gate (a contemporary classic) Fri, 05 Feb 2010 09:47:30 +0000

Describing a place as touristy conjures up images of senior citizens on tour buses and camera-toting oblivions holding up traffic. The Golden Gate Bridge is definitely touristy. I was the camera idiot, and there were loads of senior citizens and everybody else too. The word ‘throngs’ seems apt. But the landmark’s also spectacular and even more impressively, it holds up under the scrutiny of repeated viewing. After all, the suspension bridge, which was completed in 1937, is the perfect accoutrement to the hilly city on the bay. And if you think about San Francisco as a giant, very eclectic house, the Golden Gate is the piece de resistance. Putting it in design / decor terms, it’s the original Rosewood Eames lounge chair between the oversized brick fireplace and the floor to ceiling frameless windows that reveal sparkling city lights in the distance.

Like many of Eames’ classic designs, the Golden Gate offers both function and form. Its cables echo the surrounding hills, and the bold but serious shade of orange looks like ripened California sunshine. But its art deco design would be pretty damn spectacular left gray as the day it was made. It was consulting architect Irving Morrow who decided to paint it and even chose the ‘international orange’ color. And that made all the difference. But can you imagine the outcry if somebody suggested painting Hoover Damn, the Statue of Liberty or the White House something like international pink? But why not be bold if there’s even a glimmer of hope that the results will be San Francisco fab? I’d rather have a city full of gaudy than a vacation destination with nothing san-frantastic.

So when decorating your home, channel your inner Irving Morrow (or see my upcoming new blog, Channeling Your Inner Irving) and paint your most prized piece an unexpected hue. It doesn’t have to be international orange, but if you’re partial to that color and the potentially kitschy result, the Golden Gate Bridge official website has the color formula (the PMS code is 173 or the CMYK colors are: C= Cyan: 0%, M =Magenta: 69%, Y =Yellow: 100%, K = Black: 6%). Take a classic piece with great lines, for example the armoire your great grandfather handcrafted before leaving the Amish to marry your pragmatic but lively grandmother, and lacquer it royal blue, lemon yellow or kelly green. Take a chance with something precious (see disclaimer below) to create your own pot of design gold.

Disclaimer: There is a pretty good chance you’re going to screw it up. In many cases, finding the perfect shade proves frustrating so the piece remains permanently assigned to life in the basement atop an old newspaper and next to a dry brush.

This place had a remarkably good pesto pasta salad, and the people who worked there were very friendly.

Perhaps best exemplified by this portable outhouse, San Francisco’s very thorough when it comes to the paint. But this reminds me of the too sloppily painted outlet cover. I prefer to leave outlet covers white, but if they must be painted, no drips please. So . . . close but no cigar.

Almost, but no quite, huh J?

Hmm, it’s just my opinion, but I think they should stick with the orange. But it’s really hard to picture the final result based on a paint swatch, so maybe they should try it?

I realize that was jarring, and I’m sorry if you were frightened.


Strange Closets once again tries to shoehorn design into what read to me like a “what I did last summer” post. Does the “writer” actually expect us to follow these rules? I’ll go out on a limb and say he’s sunk to a new low. –

Painting grand papa’s armoire? Outrageous! – Anonymous

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Follow wedding rules for design bliss (Make It Better) Wed, 03 Feb 2010 19:56:18 +0000

Making your house better can be as easy as saying “I do.”  Read all about it at Make It Better.

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Confessions of a Design Burglar (part 1) Thu, 24 Dec 2009 10:19:46 +0000 4209604565_bcf25bf3ca

When it comes to design, distinguishing black from white is child’s play: Stealing is bad, and revolutionary new ideas are good.  Unfortunately, life’s rarely that simple.  Most “new” designs, whether plucked from the collective subconscious or inspired by a New York Times article, are derived from the work of others in one way or another – gray zone territory.  Since little in life is black or white, “playing the gray” is rather important to compete successfully.  The decisions you make – and the arguments you employ to justify them – will determine not only how you make out but how also well you sleep at night and whether or not you’ll face incarceration.  This post is my justification, my thesis and my confession – the confession of a design burglar.

Sometimes the best way to express your creativity is to copy another person’s expression of their creativity.  By copying I mean stealing, albeit in the best possible way (and never to sell).  Of course, ideally all our ideas and projects would be completely original, but I suspect that would get rather tiresome – not to mention confusing.  Imagine how vexing it would be to live in a world where every washroom was completely distinct, where recognizing the difference between the toilet and the sink required reading an artist’s statement.*  So last October when I spied a rather elegant looking vintage anatomy print in Tony Cenicola’s New York Times photo essay Farmhouse Palette, I decided to knock it off and hatched a plot right then and there.  Sure, mistakes were made.  And I’ll admit things got messy.  But would I do it again?  You betcha.


The photo that sparked a new Design Rules. From Tony Cenicola's New York Times photo essay Farmhouse Palette.

It didn’t take long to find a similar anatomy book on Ebay.  After receiving my purchase, I bought a reasonably priced horizontal frame kit at Target. While the Plexi-glass leaves much to be desired, many hardware stores will cut glass to your specs, so it’s a problem that’s easily fixed.**  Next I visited Staples and color copied each head, leaving the original undamaged bad boys (why ruin the originals when I can sell the originals?), which I cut out and pasted onto a very substantial piece of black poster board.   It was all very Kindergarten (minus the over cloth).  While I don’t recommend such a cheap and tawdry concept for long-term displays, the technique works particularly well for trend-y images that you believe you’ll find tiresome in the not-too-distant future.

Surely this confession may come as a shock, and I’d throw myself on the mercy of the court if I were sorry, but frankly, I like the way it turned out.*** It goes without saying that it’s better to buy or create something completely innovative (good luck with that by the way), but if you have the desire and skill to knock off something for your own personal use, I’m OK with that.  What do you think?  Have you reached a verdict?

And with that, I bid you Happy Holidays.  You’re all the bee’s knees.



*When viewed in that context, the bidet seems quite ordinary, but everybody in my posse reacts to the French invention with a shock ordinarily reserved for key parties, a concept I somewhat naively first learned about in the director Ang Lee’s 1997 cinematic adaption of writer Rick Moody’s novel The Ice Storm, which boasted an all-star cast, including my the very talented Kevin Cline and Sigorney Weaver, who hasn’t aged a day and has a very beautiful voice for narration.  But back to key parties, depending on the neighborhood (so to speak), they can be either deliciously disgusting (ala Jon and Kate) or pretty disgusting, so if you’re a budding entrepreneur, think facilitation.  If I’m right, I predict when the resurgent key party movement reaches a certain cultural apex in late 14 or early 15, NBC, still smarting from the failed Leno experiment, will hit ratings gold when it launches the hybrid game show / reality drama Key Klinks the Bowl, which will hopefully lead to Celebrity Key Klinks the Bowl, the thought of which makes me very happy.

** I guess by the time I’m done I’ll have managed to put together a really poorly constructed, low-quality frame that took weeks to assemble and cost about the same as having it professionally framed.

*** Shirley Frankly is the name of the detective I’m now writing a book about.  Not really, but I might.  Do you like the name Shirly Frankly?  For a guy?

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Sun porch lessons: inexpensive, simple changes can make huge impact Tue, 01 Dec 2009 07:23:08 +0000 2620628920_1043eca2e1

Language is reality.  Words are created to explain, categorize and contextualize the world around us, but they can also limit us.  Thinking about my desk as a “corner desk” with “suburban style” is what delayed me from making a cheap, simple change that significantly improved my apartment’s feng shui.  Words man.  As much as I love them, sometimes you have to brush them aside and see things for what they are, which is often different than what people named them.  Read all about my sun porch saga on a special edition of Strange Closets.




In the Beginning


I had grand plans for the sun porch when I closed on my 2-flat way back at the height of the real estate market in 2006.  The 8 x 17 space was separated from the living room by two large windows and a door, which coupled with its brick walls makes me suspect that it was meant to be a three-season porch when it was built in 1913.  By the time I saw it, a long ugly furnace took up much of the room’s usable footprint, an exposed heating pipe cut through the room and its brick had been painted many times over, most recently Pepto Bismol pink.  I know, blech!




Mission accomplished.  Now what?


I envisioned the sun porch as a part of the living room so I replaced the door with an arch, which had the added benefit of allowing more of the south facing light to reach the adjacent living room.  I also drywalled the brick and replaced the ratty wall-to-wall carpeting with hardwood floors.  The entire heating system had to be replaced with gas-forced air, so I was able to have the pipe cut out and the radiator removed.  After painting it the same taupe-y gray tone as the living room and adding matching mission-style oak molding, the room was ready to be used as an office.  I placed the “corner desk” on one side of the room (at least as dictated by that form and that word), I decided to use the opposite side of the porch as a seating area.  It all sounds quite lovely I’m sure, but something wasn’t quite clicking.  In fact, I wound up trying a couple of different options to balance the massive hunk of desk, first a cream plush chair (which is so not me, but I guess it once was) with side table followed by a marble topped table I bought at the Andersonville home store Room Service:






Both were lovely, although neither made the room feel any better.  For one, the long hall leading from the kitchen to the living room / sun porch ended at the living room, which made me feel like Moses, the living room and sun porch divided to allow my passage.  Oh dear, oh my.  It lacked something, I shan’t lie. To use a phrase much mocked by my friends and family, it was like all the energy just rushed out of the house.  I know; it is deep.






A Proposed Solution?

Then Leo Designs co-founder Stephanie Wirth stopped by, and she suggested a long table under the front windows instead of the corner desk, which she felt wasn’t partcularly stylish or well suited for that area.  The idea of replacing the desk with a long table appealed to me immediately, especially when I realized how good the same concept looked in former Open House stars Sean and Eric’s office, which I’d always loved:




And I’d also liked the way a long desk looked at Greg and Maribeth’s place:




I could picture it if I closed my eyes, and I envisioned a tall lamp in the middle of the long table, which would replace the visual dead zone on the sun porch with one of golden light.

I’d seen a stunning example of a lamp used as a focal point at Nick and Rebekah’s Chicago place:




Hmm, I guess this post should be called Design Rules: Steal ideas from Friends and Colleagues.  But I’d need a long table, and I became so fixated by the idea that I considered a couple options from Restoration Hardware, a store about which my feelings are ambivalent at best.



Restoration Hardware Flatiron dining table.  $1195



Restoration Hardware salvaged wood table.  $2725


But long tables aren’t cheap, and I resigned myself to living with bad feng shui.  Then a couple weeks ago, I began to wonder if I could accomplish the same look as Stephanie suggested with my existing desk.  Because in actuality, it’s not a corner desk, but rather two desks designed to work together in that way.  Eager to try it out, I made the switch, pulled in a pair of mid-century chairs I bought at Scout years ago and used my recently purchased lamp from Andrew Hollingsworth as the focal point.  Here’s the result:




I don’t think I’ve ever made a decorative change that so dramatically impacted how my space felt.  I know it’s not perfect.  Color is not my forte, and I think it’s oppressively brown.  I’m thinking about sending the desk out to be painted, and I’m envisioning a milky gray.  If / when I do, I’ll probably also change the hardware and maybe even the drawer fronts to make it feel slightly less suburban.  But my house feels good, and it still surprises me pleasantly every time I make the long walk from the ktichen to the living room, so I’m in no hurry to make any other changes for now.  I even think all that brown and off-white look kind of beautiful.  Now that’s a miracle.  So remember the sun porch lesson.  Inexpensive, simple changes can make the biggest impact.  And if the words are hanging you up, brush them aside and take another look.











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Design Rules: It’s not necessarily about the money Mon, 23 Nov 2009 05:59:54 +0000 _DSC3892

Last month I attended an opening for Lucy Slivinski and Janet Mesic Mackie at interior designer Michael Del Piero’s Bucktown boutique.  Slivinski has outdone herself with her new line of salvaged metal chandeliers, which are strange, spiky beautiful works of art.  And photographer Janet Mesic Mackie’s foray into fine art photography is a success, particularly her sepia-toned Mehendi Hands series featuring the hands and arms of women with henna tattoos.  So be sure to visit Michael Del Piero Good Design at 1914 N. Damen.

However despite the abundance of good design at Michael Del Piero Good Design, today I’m writing about the boutique’s bathroom.  Del Piero had her work cut out for her when she took over the retail space in 2007, so she focused on the public areas, paneling a wall niche with horizontal boards and wallpapering the opposite wall in a custom cream textured wallpaper.  Rather than spending time and money gutting the decidedly bla but functional bathroom with its 4 x 4 white standard commercial tiles and white walls, Del Piero painted them with Ralph Lauren metallic paint (in gunmetal) and glued a seagrass rug atop the existing floor tiles.  After installing a frameless mirror and a sleek Home Depot light fixture, Del Piero called it a day.  The result is gorgeous – a prime example that it’s not about the money.  At least it doesn’t have to be.

Continued . . .


Sure, spending a little dough can help pull a room together more quickly.  And of course, wealthy people have access to the most prominent designers and to the finest in high-end design.  On the other hand, wealthy people are the only kind of people we label by the deliciously trashy term nouveau riche.  Am I right?

I realize this sounds very HGTV, but it’s true that things like paint, fabric and lighting, when used right, are inexpensive ways to transform a room.  And imagination’s literally priceless. (Trademark MasterCard).  Imagination! Get some.  (Trademark Strange Closets).  The bathroom at Michael Del Piero’s Bucktown boutique prompted me to move up the timetable to add a bathroom to my now nearly finished baseme . . . lower level, which still lacks, well, everything, including plumbing.  I can swing the cost of the pipes and labor, but Kohler’s promises of a more relaxing tomorrow had seduced me into believing I needed four kinds of tile, a heated stone floor, a steam shower, double vanities (with a TV in the mirror) and an over-sized infinity soaking tub.  But at this freelance but fancy free time, holding out for such luxuries would indefinitely delay my Calgon life.


Fortunately, Del Piero’s own pragmatism helped me put things into context.  And what I concluded is that no matter how much wall-to-wall I install, it’s still going to be a basement.  So I’m going to take a page from Michael Del Piero’s book and think about low-cost ways to finish this project.

Such a realization is momentous for me, who’d spend ten grand on an end table if I had the money.  I most certainly believe there’s a place for high design.  Creating a classic furniture design, for example, costs more than you’d think, and the artisans involved often toil away unrecognized for years.  They and artists like Lucy Slivinski, Janet Mesic Mackie and Del Piero herself deserve to be compensated for their efforts.  But as evidenced by Michael Del Piero’s bathroom renovation, high design can be accomplished at relatively low cost.  All it takes is a little creativity and good credit (joke).

Thanks to Michael Del Piero for allowing me to run this photo despite the fact that she hadn’t styled the bathroom.  It looks terrific Michael.  Thanks for the inspiration.





Click here to see more of Janet Mesic Mackie’s art and here to see Lucy Slivinski’s lighting now at Michael Del Piero Good Design.  Or just keep reading for my favorites.



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