Saturday, December 17, 2011

It's My Blogiversary!

The Tortoise and The Hare, bronze on brick, by Nancy Quint Schon.
Copley Square, Boston, Massachusetts. Photo by Wally Gobetz.
One year ago today, I began a blog about the slow movement. My goals were to learn more about how the ideas of the slow movement are being applied in a variety of disciplines, and find ways to apply them in my personal and professional lives. I was embarking on a two-year sabbatical to refine my ideas and aesthetic, with the goal of rewriting my business plan and relaunching my sustainable interior decorating practice as a slow lifestyle business. I wrote,

This lifestyle blog is about slow design, slow homes, slow fashion, slow food, and slow living - and the Big Idea behind them that just might save the world.

I never did really explain that 'might save the world' part, did I? The biggest problems facing the world in the next century are climate change and environmental degradation. We collectively need to change our lifestyles in a holistic way, and stop (literally) burning through carbon-based fuels and other resources. We need to dial back on consumerism and materialism, and reconnect with our communities and ecosystems. We need to do it because we want to, because it feels good and looks great and has all kinds of other benefits, not because we've been guilt-tripped into it. We need to do it because it's part of the 'good life' that we aspire to living. As part of a community of designers, makers, builders, and writers for whom environmental and ethical considerations are synonymous with good design, it is my goal to help build a slower, more sustainable world, to lose the silly granola stereotypes and political baggage, and create a covetable, sensuous, hopeful version of environmental consciousness. That's where the slow movement has an edge on environmentalism (which, let's face it, can be kind of a bummer) - it reaches an audience outside of eco-geeks like me. The slow movement celebrates craftsmanship, tradition, community, and beauty. Slow living is living locally, sustainably, ethically, and authentically. Slow is beautiful. Slow is personal. Slow is stylish. Slow is smart. Slow is sexy.

In short, the slow movement has the potential to be world-changing. I feel so fortunate to have started writing about it and incorporating its principles into my life just as it began to achieve widespread attention. It is really exciting to watch the monthly slow news roundup growing as more blogs about aspects of the slow movement emerge and more mainstream media do articles about it, and it's fascinating to watch the design innovations and new ideas that are coming out of the movement.

In the past year, I have written 35 articles and 11 slow news summaries. I'm so grateful to those of you who have been reading. According to Blogger's stats, you have visited from Canada (18%), the United States (60%), the United Kingdom (7%), Australia (4%), and other countries (11%) including Germany, France, Denmark, Russia, Ukraine, Romania, Puerto Rico, Brazil, Argentina, Chile, Saudi Arabia, India, Japan, and China. (Wow.) About 8% of you are reading on mobile devices of one kind or another. Several of you have reached out on Twitter or by email to speak kindly of what I've written or offer words of encouragement, or shared my writing on Google+ or Pinterest or Twitter (or even your own blogs!), and it means so much to me. Thank you.

The most popular search terms that bring many of you here have surprised me a little (variants on 'Tangled birthday', 'Cardboard Rocket Ship', and 'Project 333'). Here are my ten favourite posts from the past year:
My goals for Sustainable Slow Stylish for the next year are:

1. Make It Prettier. I know my writing style is a bit wordy and academic, and that writing as inspiration finds me works better for me than having a set blog schedule. So, I'll never make a good professional blogger - and I'm perfectly okay with that. However, there are things I can do to make the blog more visually appealing, starting with a redesign (which will also make it easier to navigate), and learning how to take better photographs.

2. Make It Myself. I already have some craft and sewing projects on the go, and several more in the planning stages - I'm terrible about collecting the supplies I need then not following through and finishing the project. However. I really should take a few extra minutes to document and write up my DIY projects - not only so I have blog content, but as a reminder for myself of what I accomplished and how I did it.

3. Make It A Party. Last spring I partnered with a friend to organize a slow-fashion-inspired fundraising party, which will be back next spring as a gender-inclusive sit-down dinner. I have some bicycle event plans up my sleeve, too.

4. Make A Move. We love the house we're in, but we need a home where all the bedrooms are on the same floor and we can see the kids playing the garden while we're working in the kitchen. So, we've been house-hunting in our neighborhood for a home with a floor-plan that works better for our young family, and in preparation for that I have been gradually decluttering and getting organized. I'll be documenting that process along the way, and talking about choosing and decorating a slow home.

5. Make It My Business. I need to get down to brass tacks and write that business plan and figure out how, precisely, I'll incorporate the principles of slow design into my work. I do know that I'm disillusioned with the planned obsolescence that many interior decor business models rely upon; I'm still figuring out how that will change the services I offer or objects I create.

6. Keep It Real. While I haven't ever been dishonest in my writing, I tend not to talk much about my personal life. I suffer from mild depression (who doesn't these days?), and most of my family and my social circle live thousands of miles from me. So sometimes, finding the motivation to write or declutter or make things or exercise or volunteer or make new friends or network is more difficult than it should be. Pushing myself to be a superwoman does not help. Reading blog posts from perky twentysomethings with no responsibilities or baggage that wax poetic about the power of positive thinking does not help. Sometimes I tell myself chocolate helps, but I know I'm lying (*grin*). It's easy to beat yourself up for being human and having a bad day, it's easy to let your idea of normalcy be skewed by the carefully-styled images and how-to articles found on most websites and print magazines, and it's easy to self-censor and self-censure. It's harder to open up and be real. It's harder to be kind to yourself and silence your inner critic. But I think writing about my reality, instead of a fantasy version of slow living, is important. One of the dangers in the aspirational version of magazine and blog writing is that it can make things seem unattainable and exclusive. That's fine, if your goal is to market high-end items to a small number of people based on elitism. However. I don't believe the slow movement is only for those who who have cash and spare time to burn. I think our lives can be authentic and sensible at the same time as they're sensuous and stylish. Watch me prove it.

Thank you again for reading!  

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Slow Christmas: Vintage Artificial Trees

I've written about the great green Christmas tree debate before. The current consensus - brilliantly summarized by this pros-and-cons post at Simple Organic - is that live trees are the most planet-friendly and healthy choice (especially if they're organic and you can replant them). In North America, live trees have been more popular than artificial trees ever since the Christmas tree tradition became widespread. However, artificial trees remain the best choice for families with environmental allergies (such as to mold and pollen), and if you already own an artificial tree, experts say you should use it for at least ten years to minimize its environmental impact, and preferably more - unless it has issues with offgassing, lead content, or electrical problems.

If an artificial tree is the best choice for your lifestyle, remember that even the Charlie Brown trees at thrift shops can look fantastic with a little TLC and the addition of garland and floral picks to fill in gaps created by damage - and that made-in-China PVC trees are reported to have issues with lead content in addition to offgassing that lovely new-plastic smell. With that in mind, I thought it would be fun to take a look at the types of vintage trees that are out there.

Tabletop feather tree, via amlibrarian on flikr.
Bigger feather trees often have forked lower branches, with red 'holly' berries or candle holders on the branch tips.

A full-size white feather tree. From 1900-1915 the vogue for all-white trees with silver accents actually led to many Victorian-era glass and metal ornaments having their coloured paints washed off. Via
Feather trees were initially made as a response to deforestation in Germany, starting in the late 1800s, using dyed goose or turkey feathers, and sometimes silver or lead tinsel mixed with feathers or on its own. The branches on feather trees are straight and widely spaced (to reduce the risk of fires from the candles that were originally used to light them), which makes them ideal for displaying collections of large ornaments - but can also make them challenging to decorate. After World War I imposed difficulties on the import of German-made goods, feather trees were also manufactured in Britain. When most people think of antique trees, they think of feather trees, partly because American-made reproductions have been available since the 1980s. Feather trees are mostly sold in table-top sizes, because they're mostly being sold to ornament collectors who are following the early-to-mid-Victorian custom of decorating a separate small tabletop tree for each family member (or each themed collection of ornaments) - oh, and because they're kind of expensive.

1960s flocked tabletop bottle brush tree, via Chippy!-Shabby!
The 2007 reproduction 58-inch bottle brush tree by Kuno Prey
is great fun partly because it scales up (WAY up) the proportions of the 1930s tabletop versions.
It looks modern and minimalist, but it's actually a throwback. Love it! via Casa Sugar
Most bottle brush trees for sale now are miniatures or wreaths, but starting in the 1930s, table-top and full-size versions were the US-made replacement for the German-made feather trees. The first manufacturer of bottle brush trees, Addis Brush Company (the American affiliate of the British company that invented the toothbrush), supposedly used the same equipment as used to make toilet bowl brushes to make the tree branches - a fact live-tree proponents take such delight in repeating that I wonder about its truth. With no shortage of real trees in North America, bottle brush trees were mostly exported to timber-starved Britain. The wire used for them was heavier, so bottle brush trees are said to have been less fragile than feather trees and better able to accommodate heavier decorations. Initially they were made of sisal, but cellulose and viscose bristles were also used, so sometimes they're listed as 'early plastic' trees by dealers. This is the kind of tree I remember my maternal grandparents using, with soft 'needles' and wire branches that actually branched and were fuller and more closely spaced than in earlier feather and bottle-brush trees.

Aluminum pom-pom tabletop tree, from Martha Stewart Living Dec 2009.
Martha Stewart's done a great article on the aluminum trees that debuted in the late 1950s - although it misses that Addis also invented them. Aluminum trees were designed to be sparsely decorated, and were sold with rotating stands and lit with coloured floodlights. They were sold alongside bottle brush trees made in the same way as before, but with more modern materials like vinyl (the PVC and tinsel trees sold today are still mostly made using a variant of the bottle brush technique). Flocked bottle-brush trees in unusual colours (including black) were introduced in the 1960s - but the flame-retardant flocking used tended to yellow badly, so it's hard to find these in good condition. I'm not sure I'd want to bring those flame retardants into my home anyway.

By the 1970s, there were also injection-molded plastic trees; my parents had one of these, with brown hard plastic for the trunk and branches and green soft plastic needle clusters that slipped onto knobs on the branches. We decorated it well into the 1990s, mocking the telltale molding lines and flaps of extra plastic on the needles, and we found that by piling an exuberant amount of handcrafted ornaments onto the tree we could distract from its obvious fakeness. I can't find a closeup photo of these anywhere - I must ask my parents for an old photo of theirs - but you know how Playmobil make the plants that come with their hard-plastic playsets? Imagine that, writ large in soft plastic. Connoisseurs of kitch would love such trees, I think. However, the softness of the plastic probably meant it was PVC with a fair bit of phthalates and lead added, so it's probably just as well that these type of artificial tree are no longer in our homes.

I must have missed some artificial tree types; there must be more than three. I have also seen one reference to early tabletop trees made only of wood - if only I could find it again! - and I'd love to think that some of the stunning wooden trees now appearing on design blogs are descendants of that tradition, if it existed. My paternal grandmother preferred a tabletop tree made of driftwood she collected at the beach and hung with garlands, and I'm sure many families have similar traditions of decorating a home-made artificial tree or large potted plant.

Did you grow up with an artificial tree? What did you love (or hate) about it?

Friday, December 9, 2011

Using Trend Colours in a Slow Home

By now, if you're in the design, decor, or fashion biz, or you follow anyone who is, you'll have heard about the other day's announcement that Pantone's Color of The Year for 2012 is Tangerine Tango. You know, that colour we called burnt orange in the seventies, and fashionistas call Hermes orange? We'll be seeing a lot of it for the next few months.

(Here's why it's called Hermes orange, from eBay via Pinterest.)

You may think there's no place for a trend colour like red-orange in a Slow Home, particularly a colour that psychologists tell us is associated with cheap goods, and that a third of women say is their least favourite colour (source). However, orange is also cheerful, energetic, and youthful, and this tone has a nostalgic midcentury-and-seventies feeling. It's surprisingly versatile as an accent colour.  

As the complementary colour of blue, a touch of it has the ability to make a navy blue or turquoise room sing.

Library for a home in South Hampton by Porter Design Company,
via Effortless Style. I'm dying to do a navy blue room.
From Architectural Digest's June 2011 issue, via Live Like You.
With greens and yellows it reads as fresh and summery.

Christmas citrus via Tobi Fairley
With reds and pinks it's a bit bohemian and exotic.

suzani chair at Black & Spiro, Brisbane, Australia
via Absolutely Beautiful Things
With grey or geige walls, it brings much-needed warmth.

via Black and White {Side by Side} - okay, this is yellow orange, but you get the idea
In a neutral room with lots of wood (which is categorized as orange on the colour wheel), 
it brings out the wood's beautiful grain.

Kitchen by bright designlab via Design*Sponge. Mmmm, walnut and marble.
As I said before in my post On Trends and Slowness, it's human, even desirable, to crave novelty and want to bring trends into our homes and wardrobes to keep them from feeling stale. A slow home ought to feel timeless, but not stuck in a time warp. The trick is to incorporate trends (like the vibrant colours of the last five years) without treating our stuff as disposable. Luckily, trend colours run on a (roughly) thirty-year cycle. Using a handful of carefully-chosen, locally-made, handmade, sustainable, or vintage pieces that can be swapped out or repainted is an ideal way bring our homes into the present.

Penguin paperbacks via My Villa Life
So, give Tangerine Tango a whirl with a pile of old Penguin paperbacks or a bowl of Mandarin oranges. If you love how it looks with the things you already have, you can easily bring in a bigger hit of it with a great vintage fiberglass shell chair or new textiles. If you hate it, consider using the same strategy to bring one of the other current trend colours into your slow home!