Sunday, December 26, 2010

Slow Travel: Bicycle-Friendly Hotels

We're crowd-sourcing a list of hotels and hostels that rent bicycles as an amenity for their guests over at Loop-Frame Love, a vintage bicycle blog where I am a coauthor. Why mention it here?

Well, Slow Travel is all about engaging with the local culture, trying local foods, and checking out local independently-owned shops and galleries in the less-touristy areas of your destination - and walking and cycling are a wonderful way to get a feeling for the place you're visiting and what makes it unique. Slow Travel is about connecting with the place you're visiting in a more meaningful, mindful way, rather than flying in and rushing around for 36 sleep-deprived hours to see all the sights before you must catch the flight home.

My favourite memories of a visit to New Orleans aren't of the tourist traps in the French Quarter and the fake Mardi Gras parades thrown for the benefit of conference attendees, but a day spent meandering through the residential neighborhoods and indie shopping districts along Magazine Street, and an evening in a soul-food bistro recommended by one of the shopkeepers I met. Before that day, I felt like a visitor; after that day, I felt like a guest.

If you're new to the idea of Slow Travel, I recommend the excellent Jorg & Olif blog's "So, How Do You Travel Slowly?" - it's an excellent primer on ways to plan your vacation with slow principles in mind.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Slow Pastime: Making Hand-Hooked Textiles

Once upon a time, seemingly a lifetime ago, I was an unhappy biochemistry grad student whose supervisor suggested that, since I enjoyed it so much, maybe I should hook rugs for a living instead.
"Artist at work" by Pat Kight (Creative Commons licence).
I considered it for a heartbeat - longed for it, actually. I loved rug hooking. I loved hunting for wool skirts at thrift shops, then felting the fabric to use as-is or overdye. I loved the half-science-half-alchemy of using acid dyes in a big enamelware lobster pot to alter the colour of a piece of recycled woolen fabric. I loved the moving meditation of cutting the strips with a hand-cranked cutting machine, and of hooking itself: push, hook, lift loop, repeat. I loved my hook, handmade by my great-grandfather for my maternal grandmother, a tangible reminder that I was carrying on a family tradition. I loved the challenge of getting the tension right so your finished mat wouldn't ripple or pull. I loved applying colour theory and choosing textural variations to make a pattern pop. I loved the camaraderie of hook-ins and guild meetings, loved soaking up the wisdom of the inspiring women surrounding me. I learnt to crochet and whip-stitch so I could get a professional-looking finish on the rug's edges.

Neither of these rugs are my handwork; they are antiques from my collection. The naive, coloring-book style is typical of utilitarian hooked rugs made by rural women before World War Two, although these may be later examples from Mennonite colonies where the style has persisted. I love the bold colour schemes of these rugs, and the evidence of reuse: the beiges and peaches in the blue mat are pantyhose, and the white background of the pansy rug almost certainly started its life as long woolen underwear from Stanfield's.

However. I had already done my financial homework: all the hooked rug artisans I knew were operating at a significant loss and being subsidized by significant others with day jobs or substantial retirement savings, despite busy schedules travelling to teach at camps and hook-ins, creating patterns and kits for sale through their fledgling e-businesses and basement workshops, exhibiting and selling their handwork in galleries, and writing books and magazine articles that educated the public and showcased their expertise. They continued their work purely for the love of the craft. These were not isolated stories; I knew many of the leading teacher-designers of the day. The received wisdom was that most fine crafts, like rug hooking, were expensive and time-consuming hobbies even for renowned artisans. 
I told my advisor to get real.
It was 1995, and I was the compiler of the Rug Hooking Frequently Asked Questions file posted to the Usenet rec.crafts newsgroups, editor of the WOOLGATHERINGS e-zine/newsletter, and webmistress of the HOOKED! website and the then-new website of Rug Hooking Magazine. There were no WYSIWYG editors, so coding the HTML by hand for those sites was a considerable accomplishment. My husband spent days rendering a single realistic image of a rug hook for the now primitive-looking Rug Hooking Online logo:

Much has changed in the past 15 years. I completed my degree, worked for several years in biomedical research, started collections of antique hooked rugs and antique hooks, started a family, and switched careers. Like most young rugmakers, the demands of my career and family left little time for hooking, or for maintaining websites, and I gradually drifted on to other pursuits (There is a reason that most hobbyist rug hookers are retirees). Archived versions of my articles and the FAQ  from that time were generously hosted for a few years by Rug Hooking Magazine, but gradually destroyed through server changes and editorial staff switchovers; few remnants of them remain online now. I'm sure I have the original files on floppy disks somewhere; I really should rescue them and give them new life.
The past 15 years have also brought unprecedented changes to the fine craft industry, most notably the ability to directly market and sell your work to the public through online communities like Etsy and ArtFire. Blogs abound with inspirational stories about people who quit their day jobs and followed their passions to become full-time makers. Craft itself has had an extreme image makeover, going from quaint and old-fashioned to young and hip.

Fifteen years later, I'm pleased to see small hooked items and rugmaking supplies selling quickly on Etsy - I created the treasury above to show the variety and depth of the work being sold by emerging rugmakers there.
However, I particularly want to bear witness to the success of Red Spruce, who are using the traditional rugmaking technique to create large-scale rugs with a modern colour palette and design sensibility. (That they're based in my hometown of Dartmouth, Nova Scotia gives me a completely unreasonable feeling of pride in the rave reviews of their recent exhibition at NYDC's Odegard and nomination for a Best of Year Award from Interior Design magazine. As if I was somehow responsible. Heh.) Theirs isn't just a craft success story, though; it's also a story about slow design. They chose to keep the creation of their rugs in Nova Scotia, using traditional techniques and materials. They use the word "terroir" to describe their work in their manifesto. Need I say more?

an abstracted historic map of downtown Halifax and the Citadel. 
Please go to Red Spruce's site and look at their complete portfolio.

These artists' work has me so inspired to pull out my stash of wool and start hooking again. I have several rugs close to completion, and ideas for the designs of several more. Poke me and ask me how they're coming if I haven't posted anything more about them in six months or so.

Friday, December 17, 2010

What is Slow Design?

pink snail by °Dirk. (Creative Commons licence.)

(This post is a synthesis and update of my two previous posts on slow design on the ecoDomestica reDesign blog. Every blog needs a keystone post or manifesto; this is that post for Sustainable Slow Stylish.)

Slow Design is a philosophical cousin of several movements with similar goals: slow food, slow fashion, Platform 21's Repair Manifesto, relearning traditional skillstransition initiativesvoluntary simplicity, and the Zen Buddhist concept of wabi-sabi. Some bloggers have misconstrued the principles behind all these movements as being simply a variant of the old Alexander Keith's India Pale Ale slogan, "Slowly, Carefully, Taking The Time To Get It Right." Others seem to think keeping it local is the key to being Slow. Those are good starting points, but I think the principles of the slow movement go much deeper, right to the core of our behaviour as consumers. As they become more widely adopted, they'll have the potential to be truly world-changing. 

The published Slow Design Principles (Strauss and Fuad-Luke, see are couched in academic language, and the case studies cited mostly involve the design of objects or artistic installations. However, the principles and practices of Slow Design are tools that are useful to sustainable designers, decorators, and artisans of all disciplines. To summarize (and loosely quote) that document's main points:
Slow Design:
  • facilitates 'slowness' and provides a balance to the industrial-consumerist model of design.
  • seeks to shift the user's awareness and attitudes about materials, processes, time, and natural environment.
  • reveals experiences and materials that are often missed or forgotten.
  • strives for truthful, exposed use of materials and process (so the hand of the maker is visible).
  • facilitates creative interaction between the user and the object or its location.
  • makes users think about where the object came from, inducing contemplation & 'reflective consumption'.
  • allows the object to change, grow, or alter over time to reflect its history and usage, and continue to be used; and reflects its history prior to its current usage.
  • comes from open-source, collaborative, transparent, and evolving processes.
  • focuses on localness and community, through collaborations and co-design with the local community and local artisans, mapping and using local knowledge, reflecting local values & visual vernacular, and using affordable local materials, to give the finished design an authentic sense of place.
  • celebrates diversity and pluralism by engaging a large range of stakeholders in the planning process. (For example, the charette process used in LEED building projects.)
  • recognizes the urgent need for stewardship of the natural environment and resources, as well as honoring local knowledge and traditions, and encouraging engagement with place.
So, slow design is thoughtfully conceived, thought-provoking, flexible in use, collaborative, personalized, timeless, and sustainable. Slow design is not anti-industrial, per se, but it asks its users to think of themselves as codesigners or participants, instead of as passive consumers. Process is also important in slow design, and can involve creating open-source data and holding do-it-yourself workshops in order to foster collaboration, build skills, and stimulate conversations around local issues. Slow design is, at its heart, about making holistic choices that support communities and their traditions and skills. 

Furthermore, the frugality and do-it-yourself aspects of slow design really lend themselves to our changed economy. The Shelton Group's green marketing blog has noted this shift and suggested that marketers are going to need to pay attention to it, instead of just appealing to 'a more aspirational way of life' in order to sell products.

This list illustrates what these ideas mean in everyday life:

Slow Design is:                                                  Slow Design isn't:
authentic                                                           mannered, artificial, phoney
heirloom-quality                                                 semi-disposable
refurbished Victorian homes                                 NeoVictorian subdivisions
modern (while respecting the past)                      like living in a museum exhibit
gardens                                                             outdoor living rooms
rain barrels & watering cans                                automatic irrigation systems
clotheslines                                                        tumble dryers
timeless                                                             trend-driven
cedar shakes                                                       vinyl siding
handmade                                                          machine-made
reupholstering & refinishing                                  buying new
Etsy                                                                   Ikea
personalized and creative                                     impersonal and off-the-shelf
local                                                                   imported
reduce, reuse, recycle                                          buy, buy, buy
limited-edition or one-off                                     mass-produced
renewable                                                           fossil fueled
high quality                                                         brand-name-driven 'luxury'
thought-provoking                                                thoughtless
walkable, bikeable neighborhoods                         car-centric gated 'communities'
built for the ages                                                 planned obsolescence
...So, what do the principles of slow design mean to you?