In praise of specificity

Posted on January 12, 2016

When I was in Japan a few years ago, I went to a place called Tokyu Hands. It blew me away: floor after floor of stuff, so much of it incredibly specific. A container to hold sliced tomatoes so they wouldn’t sit in their own juice. Teapot brushes. 15 different types of scissors for ikebana. A knife specially designed for cutting chestnuts. An those were just the things whose use I could fathom.

I found it fascinating but perplexing: even if some of the products were clearly genius (I loathe soggy tomatoes) why oh why would you want all this stuff in a country where houses were so minuscule?  Would you even use it? Wasn’t it all a bit silly? Was it just another example of Japanese nit-picky obsessiveness? This was, after all the land of obsessive ritual, of Zen Buddhism, of blessings and ceremonies for all kinds of things, not the least of which is the vaunted tea ceremony (which quite honestly, I’d never been able to really embrace.)

Nowadays, and in particular, in America, we typically don’t go in for this kind of specificity. Ironically, in this land of sprawling homes and walk-in closets the size of Lichtenstein, we embrace the all-in-one, the multi-functional younameit. It’s more efficient. It’s just so much more modern.  It’s all about smartphones, the all-in-one printer, the Cuisinart, the sofa bed, the murphy bed, the all-in-one remote, the spork, and so on.

And when that doesn’t work, we just make do – we don’t sweat the details, we don’t want to try too hard, and we don’t want to fuss and be fussy. So maybe we just use a little Yankee ingenuity and improvise. We use something designed for one thing in another. We put up with things that aren’t quite perfect. But it’s all good.


And yet, I’ve been won over to the side of ultra-specificity, drawn in by a little bamboo brush.

A few years after the Tokyu Hands experience, I found myself organizing a Japanese home goods pop up store and  ended up buying a little bamboo brush for those flat Japanese ginger graters, the ones with double rows of tiny razor-sharp teeth. As it was pretty inexpensive, I picked up this ridiculous little object, mostly as a novelty item, something to poke fun at. One day, after I’d spent about five minutes, a newly serrated fingernail, and gallons of precious running water trying to clean out those little grater teeth,  I decided to break out that little bamboo brush.

Of course, it worked a charm. A few sweeps and the ginger was gone.  This was a revelation. Out went that pre-grated jarred ginger that I’d been using, mea culpa, and I’m now free to let my love of ginger run wild: I have my little bamboo brush.

While I’m certainly a fan of less stuff, I’ve become a major convert to the idea of having and using the right stuff.

It means I’m not just making do, but making it right. Why not fuss and be fussy and be seen as fussy? As every craftsman and chef and DIY enthusiast knows, the right tool makes all the difference between abject failure / injury / death and toast-worthy success. The right tool is beautifully designed for a very specific use. It is not wasteful. Quite the opposite, as a matter of fact.

It shows that I actually care about what I’m doing, that I care about that most precious resource-my time and the quality.  That is the opposite of wasteful. Having the right stuff makes me feel oddly grown up and serious.

All those all-in-one / multi-functional things?  Look at that list: most of them don’t work that well, at best doing one thing moderately well. The spork? Really?

So now being a convert to the allure of the specific, here’s my list of favorite ultra-specific stuff that makes my life easier, gives me rather pleasure every time I use it, and just makes me smile, smile, smile.

And just in case you find yourself needing a little bit of ultra-specific products, there’s a list of links at the end for some places that make my geeky little heart beat faster.)

That ginger grater brush, of course. But following on to that, maybe my Jonathan’s Spoons pasta drainer, or even my newest find: a hand-hewn spreader that manages to render flat brownie batter without becoming a stuck on mess. (Something about friction, the butteriness of the finish?)

A hot water bottle. It does one thing (heats the bed on a cold night) and it does it brilliantly. Just make sure you close the cap properly and you change it out every couple of years.

Electrical stripper. This is not my favorite device, but that of my partners. It’s not just that it helps us do things like replace switches but that it’s given him greater confidence in DIY land, a source of joy.

Bodkin. A clever little item for retrieving errant drawstrings. Looks like a roach clip. Utterly life changing.

Barbour Jacket. Not terribly stylish, and too clearly raincoat to be just another coverup, but it’s kept me bone dry for over a decade now. The Brits know a thing or two about rain.

And my favorite: a book. A real one. Not something that sends email too and requires charging at inopportune moments. A quote from Umberto Eco sums it up: “The book is like the spoon, scissors, the hammer, the wheel. Once invented, it cannot be improved. You cannot make a spoon that is better than a spoon… The book has been thoroughly tested, and it’s very hard to see how it could be improved on for its current purposes.”

One last thought: as I look at these, I realize that I’ve had most of these in my life for a long, long time, forming a good long relationship with each. And that’s the other thing about the idea of specificity: the pieces don’t outlive their usefulness: the need for them lasts, along with the product. Would that all things were that way.


Here are my six go-to stores for the ultra-specific needs of our lives. Unfortunately Tokyu Hands doesn’t sell online.

Korin: knives, kitchenware, and more from Japan

Tortoise General Store: beautiful, functional mostly Japanese wares for the home

Umami Mart: kitchen goods but an awesome array of Japanese barware, too. Because everyone needs a three-pronged ice pick.

Maido: anything, everything you might want for your desk.

And just in case you think it’s only the Japanese who are good at this, the Scandies and the Brits are a pretty dab hand at it too:

Iris Hantverk: fabulous brushes for cleaning from Sweden.

Labour and Wait: London’s famed housekeeping store.










Have the chocolate

Posted on January 2, 2016

I recently came across a reasonably compelling piece on how eating for pleasure could be the best diet plan. And, it reminded me that what goes for the body, goes for a lot of other things, I do think.

Headspace, a favorite modern mindfulness blog/app, reminded me that often,  we go on holiday, eat what we want, and, miraculously, return to “real” life with minimal weight gain, feeling amazing. Not to mention having some pretty amazing memories (and dishes to add to a culinary repertoire.) Why is that?

“Pleasure is an important appetite regulator. With every meal, the body registers feelings of fullness (the stomach expanding) and levels of satisfaction (has the body received what it was hungry for?). When we deprive ourselves of pleasure, our brain continuously signals the one command it knows how to give: ‘Hungry!'”

Ray's chocolate cake

Just have the chocolate. Image courtesy of Lee and Lou Cook.

Yes, the article ultimately concludes with what we all know (eat slowly, breathe, appreciate what you’re eating, be moderate) but it does a beautiful job of walking through the data behind it, concluding that it’s nourishment that counts, not just nutrition.

A reminder that it’s not just eating good food, or food that’s good for you (particularly if you don’t love it) but food that you truly want. Junk food is the food we don’t really enjoy, body, soul, and senses. So that big bowl of quinoa may have more in common with a Big Mac than any nutritionist will admit.

And what goes for eating goes for the rest of life as well.

So often find that when I’m feeling unfulfilled or stressed in one bit of my life, the cravings start in other parts. The stress/eating relationship is pretty clear to me and to most people on the planet. But more subtly, I find that when some project or job is boring me or making me anxious, it’s not just trips to the fridge that increase. It’s trips to sites that sell lovely and completely unnecessary fripperies for home or person. Or the sudden need to binge watch Scandal.

What’s most interesting for me is that the behavior is so often a leading indicator: it comes before I realize that I’m cranky about that project, job, situation, etc.

How often we settle for things rather than going for what we really want? When we settle, it’s inevitable that we’ll act out in some way, or stress ourselves out. Or, we take on a bigger task when what we really want is that little nugget of a task/activity in the middle, like starting a company/becoming a manager when all we really want to do is to code/write/create, or vice versa.

It’s the life equivalent of eating a giant chocolate chip cookie when all we’re really craving is the chocolate. All that unnecessary stuff.

This of course requires you to know what it is you truly want, really getting to the essence of it. It requires listening to yourself. And maybe, waiting. Because even though I think that I don’t know. I do. Because my body knows, and probably my heart as well. It’s just about slowing down and listening to it, of course.

Then taking no compromises, no substitutes. Being picky. Being unreasonable.  Holding out for pleasure. Cutting out what you really don’t want, because you don’t need it.

Maybe it’s not about less is more (which, because it focuses on less really does make me feel cheated). Maybe it should be more is less, as in more pleasure and more of the right stuff, less junk. That’s real nourishment.

So just go for the chocolate. That’s my motto in 2016.

Image courtesy of Lee and Lou Cook.





Doing the holidays, right.

Posted on December 25, 2015


I am an unabashed lover of the time that starts just before Thanksgiving and runs to about mid-January. It’s the darkness. The layering and the coats. The focus on bringing light into the world. The way people just smile at you on the street, even though you know they’re over-stressed, over-fed, and under-rested. I even like the shopping, yes I do. And the wrapping. And the giving. Here’s what makes me love the season so…

The smells. It is all about the cedar and juniper and fir. And the decadent Feu de bois candle. And a new favorite since last year: my German wooden Dragon Smoker from legendary toy company Dregeno (extra points for its utter ridiculousness) and its Crottendorfer incense cones.

The Dregeno Dragon

The Dregeno Dragon Smoker

I’m also newly in love with Lite + Cycle’s Urban Forest candle (thanks, Anna!) Palo Santo wood incense sticks from Atomic Garden.

The sounds. My seasonal playlist has developed a very specific arc that goes something like this: starting in late November, it’s Thanksgiving by George Winston from his December album. Then on to my very personal mix: everything from John Lennon and Chrissie Hynde on the respectable end to Wham on the highly despicable end. And if you’ve never listened to Bing Crosby and (ohhh yes) David Bowie crooning a duet of Little Drummer Boy, this year needs to be the year. For bonus points, see the video and watch Bing trying not to get too distracted by our David’s mascara.

But I digress.  The pop is followed in early-mid December by a little Eartha Kitt before we go straight to the main event: Handel’s Messiah, and Carols from St. Pauls Cathedral, starting with with the lone boy soprano singing Once in Royal David’s City and ending with Hark the Herald. And a continuous loop of O Magnum Mysterium (Morten Lauridsen) with its meditative, swelling choir makes for a very happy, very chilled out girl. And yes, it’s Ella on the way to New Year’s. Thank God my car is reasonably soundproof. At least I think so.

The sights. Like Anna, it’s got to be Love Actually. Though my favorite scene is, uh, differently sweet than Anna’s though I absolutely adore hers too. It’s embarrassing how much I love that movie.

Christmas Rose Bakery

Christmas comes from the Rose Bakery

The taste.  It’s all about Christmas/Dundee Cake—yes, a fruitcake—made with my version of the recipe from the incomparable Breakfast, Lunch, Tea: The Many Meals of Rose Bakery by Rose Carrarini. Trust me on this: anything that relies on the maceration of Thompson and golden raisins, currants, cranberries in whiskey for 8-24 hours has got to be good.  If you’re completely put off by the fruitcake idea, though, you should try Lee Havlicek’s Panettone. Sublimely better than store bought.

The feel. Ah it is about touch. The hugs of friends. The bracing cold and the joy of coming into a warm room. The indulgence of a morning in bed. And good 3-ply cashmere. I don’t think there’s anything else to say.

Mostly, though, I love the relative calm of the season after a crazy year, and the time to think about what makes me happy at this time of year, and to share it with friends. That feels like the biggest gift. Happy holidays and yes, Merry Christmas, everyone.  May you savor every moment.


The gift of procrastination

Posted on December 10, 2015

When I think about what impedes the quality of my life, about what saps both my pleasure and my energy, it’s got to be procrastination. But not in the way you’d think.

What's procrastination about anyway?

What’s procrastination about anyway?

While I procrastinate a LOT, I think the problem is the quality of my procrastination, not the fact that I do it, or even do a lot of it (which I do).

Google “procrastination” and you get all these ways to stop it, get around it, get beyond it. It is evil. It gets in the way of progress, moving forward, making things happen, growth, achievement. All those things that are what we (in the west) are supposed to be about.

Yes of course, there’s “bad” procrastination: not getting important work done (note the word, important); putting off a trip to the doctors when you feel that lump; not paying bills.

The problem with the bad, wishy washy type of procrastination is that it oozes insidiously into our lives, along with the attendant guilt.

But there is such a thing as “good” procrastination, and I believe it can improve the quality of life.  The etymology of that particular word is instructive, or at least inspiring:

1540s, from Middle French procrastination and directly from Latin procrastinationem (nominative procrastinatio) “a putting off from day to day,” noun of action from past participle stem of procrastinare “put off till tomorrow, defer, delay,” from pro- “forward” (see pro-) + crastinus “belonging to tomorrow,” from cras “tomorrow,” of unknown origin.

I love the optimism of this: it’s saying that there’s a tomorrow (always a good thing). Procrastination is actually a profound privilege: it means that we have the option of putting something off till tomorrow – something that our subsistence forbears didn’t really have. I also love the wisdom of it. Maybe there are acts that aren’t supposed to be in the now. Not everything can be in the now: this is about what deserves to be compartmentalized into the tomorrow. Or the never.

Done right, good procrastination could bring us more joy, more pleasure in our lives. It could mean the time to be idle, to be inspired, to explore, try new things, to do something you want to do, or just to be. Instead, when I procrastinate (badly), I feel guilty, and my inner critic comes out and has a good romp at my expense. Given the amount of time I procrastinate, and how guilty I feel for the bulk of that time, it certainly means that I’m not living as well as I could be.

The key to better procrastination is to own it.

Own your priorities. Let’s be honest: not everything is important. Philip Stanhope, 4th Earl of Chesterfield, famously wrote to his son, “Never put off till tomorrow what you can do today.” What sanctimonious blather. Not everything needs to be done today. Sometimes it’s too early. Sometimes problems do go away and you’ve either wasted your efforts or created an even bigger problem. Often you irritate people by jumping the gun.

As a friend once told me, “Every project has its own rhythm. It happens in its own time. Don’t fight it.” When I heard it, I thought this was utter bullshit, excuses for not working to MY schedule. But it worked out. And it worked out again. What he was saying was that big deadlines matter. Little ones, not so much.

And I came to understand that so many things are like that. Listen. Don’t push. Let it happen. And if you call that smart planning, being canny about timing, or procrastination, who cares? (The reality is that someone is going to call it procrastination.) I think it’s about being efficient, and it’s making time for what really counts, which is what you really want to be doing – or not doing.

Own your time. For me, I’ve found that “bad” procrastination often comes from making too many commitments. Make fewer commitments; get rid of the should’s and you’ll have less to procrastinate about. Ask yourself if something really matters. Commit – really commit – to being good enough, not perfect in some areas of your life. (Most research agrees that the root of most procrastination lie in the fear of not being perfect). Then stop thinking about it and let it go.

Own your decisions. I often put things off when I can’t – or won’t – decide what to do. Here’s the deal: you do know. Your body knows, so listen to it. Make the decision (which for me is usually “no”) and just say it. And move on. Less guilt: more time for pleasure.

Own that you dislike, or might even hate whatever it is that you’re putting off. Don’t sugar coat it. Don’t rationalize it. You don’t have to love it. In fact, revel in your hatred of it (there’s energy there.) There’s crap we all have to do, so just do it in short sprints at your most tired, grumpiest time of day (3 pm for me, when the urge for chocolate is strongest). I like to think of these as sprints, where you go all out to do it for 60 minutes. For things that take longer, I’ve taken to scheduling a day a month when I ruthlessly tackle everything on the refined (see above) to do list. In fact, I’m trying to create a procrastination list on both the home and work fronts. Anything I put off for more than a couple of days goes on that list, and I tackle it in my sprints. It’s working so far.

Own your pleasure. I’ve of course, waited till the end to say the most important thing. There’s no point in putting something off till tomorrow if you don’t know what you want to do today. Maybe it’s reading the paper (offline, even). Web surfing mindlessly. Social media. Shop. Organize your shoe collection. Pet the cat. Bake something wildly experimental that’s likely fail. Have sex in the afternoon. Have a  drink. Stroll the city. Browse in a library. Read philosophy. Learn origami. Smell the flowers. Take a walk. Take it slow. Explore. Fall in love. Do nothing. Nap.

Just own it. Know that you want to do it and do it. And commit to being in it. All that other crap can and will wait.

I think I’m going to take a nap now.


Maybe she has a point









Undone by design

Posted on November 16, 2015

Just over a year ago, my partner and I moved house. Radically different from what we’d lived in before, it required a big rethink of how we wanted the space to be. And it was more than that: moving house was something I’d done a dozen or so times before, but this time it was about making home.

This was great. I adore design. I work in a design-focused company and write a blog about craft, design, and aesthetics. I hang out with people who venerate “Design”. (Cue grand music.) As a result I consume an endless succession of shelter magazines, blogs and books and my head is daily filled with beautiful spaces, places, and things. I have a sense of my own style. I have opinions. So doing my own space would be easy, and even better, an utter joy.

Well, you see where this is going.

I became unduly obsessed with the idea of “designing” home. Being trained to solve problems in a reasonably linear manner, I should, I thought, have a grand vision for the space: a quick two word sound bite of what our “style” was, something I could execute against, quickly, and make the house a home. Hey presto.

Creating home

The small moments that matter

I followed all the old conventional wisdom. My head spun with the images of pages torn from magazines, Pinterest pins, snaps of store vignettes, stylist/blogger “advice”. “Style” tests informed me I was variously contemporary zen, or contemporary industrial. (What on earth does contemporary mean?) Suggestions that I “decorate” the way I dress was laughable: unremitting black is not exactly my roadmap to creating a home.

Some days, it seemed that sense would only be quelled by just doing something – anything – which meant, of course, buying something. So we did, only to have it arrive and realize it just didn’t work. Which of course just reinforced my sense of inadequacy. Why couldn’t I figure this out? What was my problem?

It didn’t help that well-meaning friends would persist in asking whether it was “done”. There was also an additional occupational hazard: various editor friends who’d ask when the house would be ready to feature. Ego started whispering in one ear. Anxiety whispered in the other.

So I pinned faster. Clipped more furiously. And fretted, oh how I fretted.

And then the light bulb finally flickered on. I had completely bought into the whole design industrial complex, the one that promises fast perfection, the one that has easy styling rules, even though I know better.  Where was the pleasure in all this? Where was the joy? All that “wisdom” and all those “rules” only work for magazine and styling shoots, and for decorators and stylists who need to have a “process” to walk their clients through.

What it didn’t work for was creating a home that’s about substance not style, art not artifice, soul not surface.

So here are my rules on design. Or rather, my non-rules.

1. Slow down. As a society, we want it all, and we want it fast. Even me. Especially me. Yes, I, lover of the idea of slow, struggle mightily with the reality.

But making a home just does not, should not, and cannot happen fast. Creating a space where you can feel the soul and the love and the identity of the people living there takes decades not months or a year. The best homes are the ones that bear the imprint of lives well lived.

Should you need it, there’s even solid data to support the notion that slower decision making is better decision making. And it’s cheaper (see above.)

But whatever you do, don’t invite the relatives over for Christmas. Fake deadlines create all kinds of bad decisions.

2. Yeah yeah yeah, but…Faced with empty rooms, telling yourself to slow down and let it happen is akin to being on a diet and craving chocolate. You will give in. And it will be ugly. Some ways that worked for us:

Trick your eye. The home design equivalent of drinking  lots of  water to fill yourself up is to invest in plants. Lots of them. They’re great for filling multiple corners and areas, adding a sense of fullness and abundance, and they don’t break the bank.

Another way is to trick the eye with light. So often, light is an accessory, an afterthought. But lighting is magical and powerful, creating mood and atmosphere, that all-important (for us) sense of coziness and warmth. It’s also imbued with an ability to carve and sculpt space – which you’d otherwise need to rely on furniture, artwork or even walls to do. We have cans on floors hidden behind furniture, lights nestled in between books, under cabinets, etc. Similarly, we found that because we had so much light during the day, we needed to sculpt that light as well. In came in solar shades that not only helped modulate the light but let us frame the view as well.

Buy that wildly impractical thing you love. Do this, even at the expense of other functional things. In fact buy one thing that’s over the top wonderful, the thing you’ve always wanted, even if it’s, well, goofy,

I had always wanted a bar cart: somewhere in my head, it was something that was the height of Mad Men sophistication, something decadent, certainly not something you put at the top of your list of things to buy for the house. We still had all our books piled up on the floor, ceramics in boxes, and outdoor chairs in the living room. But my smart and long-suffering better half got me one for my birthday.

Well, that bar cart saved my sanity: it was the first thing that really made the house feel like home. It had personality, it had our collections of booze, silver, and ephemera, it had life.  It had us.

Home is where the bar cart is

Get yourself what you really want

3. Trust yourself. This is about home: your home. It’s not a showplace. It’s not something bound for a magazine or a blog post. It’s you. Stop listening to the design industrial complex and to other people’s rules.

Stop looking for that unified theory.  That really was my big problem: I kept clinging to the notion that if I could just come up with a clear “style”, that grand theory for the space, everything would be easier.

My unified theory did arrive, ultimately. It took the form of a quote by designer Josef Frank in 1958, who said,

“There’s nothing wrong with mixing old and new, with combining different furniture styles, colors and patterns. Anything that is in your taste will automatically fuse to form an entire, relaxing environment. A home does not need to be planned down to the smallest detail or contrived; it should be an amalgamation of the things that its owner loves and feels at home with.”

In other words: fill your home with what you love. You are the unified theory. I cannot begin to tell you how comforting this was.

We all know – deep, deep down – what’s right. It’s just that it’s more likely to be a feeling than anything specific. Let that be OK. We were centered on keeping it real. We’re absolutely allergic to contrivance, to that forced feeling you get with over-decorated and staged spaces. We want ease, soul, intimacy and of course, pleasures of all types. Patina yes. Great materials, always. But nothing more specific than that.

Trust me on this: being rigorous about making sure you truly do love something is the key. A space gets muddied, off course, when other voices come in, whether they’re the voices of expedience, practicality, “taste” or your favorite blogger. Stay true.

That being said, stay loose. We all have our very specific biases, a long list of what we like, or don’t like. Or rather, what we THINK we like and don’t like. As it is with falling in love, it’s nice to have some idea of your taste, but even more important to avoid rigidity. I always used to be very clear that I hated antiques and vintage. Over the years, I amended that to allowing antiques and vintage that I’d inherited but absolutely no one else’s history.  I recently found myself completely breaking with that rule buying an antique English hat stand for the bowler hat I’d inherited from my father. Intellectually it was the farthest thing from what I would ever try. But seeing it tugged something in my heart and out came the credit card. Besides, just try buying a modern hat stand: they’re hideous.

Beautiful inspiration

Inspiration that’s real

4. Practice Obliquity. A few years back, there was a great book about life written by an economist named John Kay. It was called Obliquity, and its subtitle–Why Our Goals are Best Achieved Indirectly–has always resonated with me.

Do something – anything – else. Take up a hobby you’ve always been curious about. Binge watch Narcos or Homeland (but not Downton Abbey: too much visual stimulation there). Watch LA Story. Read about quantum mechanics (not that I’ve tried that one). Travel. Meditate. Learn harmonica. Think serendipity, letting go. For us, this involved working on the garage: we now have a marvelously well organized garage, thank you very much. If you simply MUST explore the world of design, read the more thoughtful books out there: Ilsa Crawford’s Frame for Life, and (here’s the most unlikely one) The Monocle Guide to Cosy Homes (particularly the essays up front).

Relax, get less anxious, and good things will happen. Put one foot in front of the other and things come to you: you pass a store you’d never seen before, or someone gives you a gift that inspires, or an errant phrase triggers a way of seeing your space. Just wait.

The unlikely carpet

Breaking the “rules”

5. OK I lied. There is one firm rule.  Listen to what the space wants to be: every space has its own personality. Architecture and context should be the starting place for inspiration, not something to hide. There should be congruence between inside and out.

I’ve always been put off by people who do things like turning their Victorians into modernist white boxes, slapping on glass and concrete box at the back. Not that living in a Victorian should consign you to living in a profusion of gew gaws, fainting couches and silver service, but there should at least be a common language of some type that is emotional and actually understandable by a layman and not just some post-hoc architect’s rationalization. You did pick your apartment/house for a reason: play with that, not against it.

Now this can create problems. We loved our new house – more traditional than the last – with its big open spaces, the golden California light that pours in through the scaled-large windows that look out on staggeringly vast, makes-you-believe-in-a-higher-power skies and dramatic canyon views.

But this flowed counter to our love of dark and cozy and to all the images I’d torn out of magazines in those early days: all dark, moody urban interiors with Northern European blue light. Not much fit there.

So we (OK I) needed to open our (my) mind(s) a bit to respect the house, respect the space, respect what drove us.

In yet another example of breaking my own rules (to wit “I don’t care about rugs and Persian rugs aren’t my thing”), I fell in love with a mammoth Persian rug that’s all about the blues and soft gold: colors I’d never thought of before, but which matched the color of the sky and the tone of the light. With it, our living room started to fall into place.

Ditto fighting my instincts about scale and space: years of apartment living and multiple moves had taught me to think small. Because of the space I’m in (both physically and metaphorically), I’m now all about thinking big. Too many small things = clutter, and while bringing something big into our space feels like a big commitment … well, shouldn’t it be?  Now I’m about making big statements, as long as they’re my own.

So there you have it: my non-rules. Is my house done? Flippin’ hell no. As a particularly wonderful decorator friend once said to me, “A good house is never done.” I used to think that “done” was just a comment about “completion” but I think it’s also about contrivance.

But more importantly, am I having fun? Yes. The idea of inspiration for inspiration’s sake is back. The sense of looseness and no attachments is back. The sense of adventure and joie de vivre and pleasure are back.

I don’t want my home to be done because, god knows, I’m not done with being and evolving and learning. But I do want it to feel like home, and I think slowly, more than a year into it, it’s started to feel that way.

Home and hearth

It’s not about the “stuff”

And by the way, never ask your friends who’ve recently (in the last 10 years) moved house whether they’re “done” yet. And despite the fact that we love you for caring: it’s a buzzkill.

Collected stories

Posted on October 11, 2015

It seems to be that if you like the finer things in life, and are far enough along to have a lot of the basics taken care of, at some point you will confront the “c” word.  As in collecting. As in being a collector. As in having a collection.

Paul Braga's Snuff Bottle Collection. Via Bonhams.

Paul Braga’s Snuff Bottle Collection. Via Bonhams.

I think the first time I was aware of the idea of a collector was when I was living in Hong Kong. I visited the home of a lovely man named Paul Braga, a member of one of the oldest Portuguese families there.

My 7 year old self was awed by a collection of snuff bottles. I had no idea of what they were. What on earth was snuff? I was told. (Yuck, said I, the 7 year old. Why would someone want to stick something up their noses to induce sneezing, I wondered.) And why these fiddly little bottles with their intricate carvings? But I was fascinated, and whenever I could, went back to visit, listening to Mr. Braga’s stories. (He’d forgiven me the “yuck” comment.)

The word “collector” conjures up for me a certain seriousness; of studying and becoming knowledgeable in a subject; of being an adult; of investing, rather than spending; of building a legacy. Sometimes these collectors collect out of true love or a deep intellectual interest or belief in folk art or those snuff bottles…Others start out collecting for love but end up collecting because they’re relentlessly competitive and just must have that piece in their collection (what I call the ‘trading card mentality’); others collect for the financial upside.

Still others are just love with the idea of a collection, of being surrounded with a massing of things that gave them an identity, whether it’s records or Buddhas or Shaker furniture.

Some people are accidental collectors. They fall in love with roosters; with copper pans; with shoe forms; with spools; with vintage tools; with esoteric textiles from ancient hill tribes around the world. The don’t search for them but just seem to find them here and there, or they start getting them for birthdays and Christmas, or just because someone thought they had the perfect person for that obscure thing they came across on holiday. It’s not about scholarship or connoisseurship per se: it’s just something that happened and is now part of them.

And for yet others, collections are about creating a little bit of immortality: you create a collection and it goes on beyond you, will always be associated with you as you become part of its provenance, it’s history, its lore. If you collect enough, you can call what you have a collection. If it’s fine enough, it’s an “important” collection. And if your “important” collection gets big enough, you create a museum and name it after yourself.

Well as far as I’m concerned, the collections that are important are the ones born of love and connection, not ego, a hole in the soul, or competition.

And for some, like Paul Braga, their collections are both born of passion and sufficiently cohesive, beautiful and refined as to be important that it can be auctioned at places like Bonhams. Paul Braga’s snuff bottles fit that category, going on to be auctioned at Bonhams Hong Kong in 2012.

According to the auction catalogue, “The Paul Braga Collection provides a window into old Hong Kong, a bygone age when snuff bottles were displayed in baskets in antique shops and could be bought for several dollars each. Paul Braga was a true connoisseur in an era when little of substance was published on the subject….Using his own eye and experience, he built up his collection and popularized the subject.”

“The Braga family had their roots in Macau, tracing back to 1708, when an ancestor was posted from Lisbon as Chief Justice. The twentieth century was a tumultuous period for them, with fortunes lost and regained. After the Japanese invaded Hong Kong, he escaped with his young family on an epic trek through southern China, eventually hitching a ride from Kunming to India with the ‘Flying Tigers’, the American Volunteer Group who established an air route for supplies to assist the Chinese resistance after the fall of the Burma Road.”

Love. Interest. Connection. Yes, Paul Braga’s collection ticks all boxes.

Most people think that I must be a collector of something.  It’s not surprising: I’m a person who does like the finer things, and spend a fair amount of time in the world of craft, art, and design. Plus, I have rather vigorous opinions on what works in a design, or what is beautiful or isn’t.

But it seems to be that there are two types of people: those who are collectors, and those who aren’t. And maybe a third type: a person who wishes they were a collector, but just isn’t. And I am that third person.

I really wish I were a Collector – someone with expert knowledge that goes deep not wide, someone who could muster many decades worth of interest in a single topic, someone who could find something to study, and to be so passionate about as to collect it. I think in particular it’s this piece that I regret. I wish I could muster that passion for something specific, but I can’t. Nothing has spoken to me that way. Nothing beckons. Nothing tugs at my heart or at my soul. There’s nothing I’ve come across that I feel deeply, truly connected to.

I did try, once, most likely in a fit of trying to craft my identity. Years ago, I collected saltcellars: i bought them, friends gave them to me. Then one day I looked at it all and thought, “Dust catchers.” I put them in a box that I carried around from house to house, staring balefully at the cardboard box to which they’d been relegated. And then one day, I just gave most of them away.

There was also that time I found myself in London and actually went into one of the antiques dealers on Cork Street that specialized in snuff bottles. I came close to buying something – anything – so I could say there was something I collected. But I didn’t, thank goodness. These intricate, beautifully carved things were too precious to ever risk being thought of as dust catchers. That snuff bottle needed to be in the hands of someone who’d truly love it, forever.

But I do gather wonderful things that I do care about and love, a good bit of which I’ve inherited. Vintage black and white photography. Silver. Japanese pottery. Maybe vintage cameras? That all feels connected. But love of the category?  I don’t have the urge to go deep, to investigate, to expand the inklings of a collection. I define these things but they don’t define me.

Who knows, maybe one day, I will decide to go deep on one of those things: photography feels the most “right” when I think about it. But for now, I’ll focus on living with beautiful, finely crafted things I use everyday, which stir my soul, and which touch me deeply. That’s the only kind of collecting that truly matters.

The thing about things

Posted on September 7, 2015

At long last, I’m weighing in on the unlikely book that blew the minds of publishers everywhere: a book from a little known (in the West, at least) Japanese home organization consultant. I’m of course talking about Marie Kondo’s The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up.

But I’m not that surprised. Because the book taps into a very deep craving for the values she’s espousing. The values of pleasure and joy and ruthlessness and clarity. The book is not just another self-help book (though there are some embarrassingly awesome ideas on how to organize your underwear drawer): it’s a philosophy for living and even consuming.

For those who’ve been otherwise occupied, the book is nominally about de-cluttering. But it’s not it’s not the usual one about throwing things out and putting everything that remains in lovely little containers. (In fact, Kondo counsels against the buying of containers to house things believing that all those containers are just a crutch for clutter, and become clutter. Container Store, beware the Kondo effect.)

What I appreciate about the book is that it starts with a deep reverence of and appreciation for the power of things at an almost animistic levelWhile the book superficially has at its heart the notion that less is more – that minimalism is better – I think that the Kondo philosophy can be applied just as easily to maximalists, too. Not that more is better, but that more of the right thing is … the right thing.

Matt Dick's atelier at Small Trade Company

Matt Dick’s atelier at Small Trade Company

Things are not the enemy: its our feeling about them that is.

What sparks joy?

What sparks joy?

The most powerful edict in the book: keep only those things that bring you joy: not meaning, not function, not fear of doing without. This notion seems to be working its way into the zeitgeist: it’s something that I hear more and more from my friends, and even at work. This is the kind of meme I can get behind, and of course, it’s applicable to pretty much every area of my life, whether it’s what I eat, what I buy, who I spend time with, or even what attitudes to espouse.

And I like that it’s the word joy: a mix of rationality and sensuality, of pleasure both intellectual and physical. Joy is a high bar, but then why not?

Another powerful perspective: that your body often knows what your mind does not.  I love her counsel that in many cases you will only know what brings you joy by touching it (animism at work). Your body doesn’t have a sense of “I should just keep/do/buy this because…” Yes. Your body knows. Your sense of touch knows what you want, what you need.

I love that one of her insights is that there are patterns in our ownership of things (see page 210) – patterns I’ve definitely seen in myself and others. To paraphrase Kondo, those patterns fall into one of three categories: attachment to the past; fears for the future; or a combination of both. “It’s important to understand your ownership pattern because it is an expression of the values that guide your life. The question of what you want to own is actually the question of how you want to live your life.”

Why do you have what you have?

Why do you have what you have?

In other words, it’s about giving up past, about giving up should’s, about giving up fears, about letting yourself feels what it’s like to be now, what you want in the now. Get rid of what you don’t need. Don’t settle for half measures. Don’t fill your life with things that are almost right. They will only remind you of those half measures.

And like an addict who surrounds himself with alcohol or drugs that only keep him mired in that life he’s trying to get out of, surrounding yourself with these semi-steps toward what gives you pleasure, are just daily reminders of your want and your failure.

The way to stop: listen to your body, listen to your deepest pleasure, listen to your joy, now, today, every day.


In the atelier at Matt Dick’s at the Small Trade Company

Flowers at the Ace Hotel

Embroidery by Natalie Chanin