Tag Archives: design

3 Ways to Design Your Home for Maximum Happiness

There's No Remedy For Memory

There are many possible sources of discomfort and discontent, ranging from relationship troubles, to financial woes, to self-esteem, and more. One common source, though, which is often overlooked, is your environment and home space. Even something as simple as the shade of a wall or placement of a bed can affect your mood and take a toll on your daily life. Luckily, there are several essential warning signs to look out for, and some simple fixes to achieve the healthy and healing space you deserve.

In the July/August edition of Spirituality & Health magazine, design expert Laura Benko discusses some common sources of design-induced discomfort, with tips on how to adjust these influences. Here are 3 of the 6 tips, and check out Spirituality & Health for the rest of the article!

1. Build Confidence. Piles of unfinished work, clothing, paperwork and other clutter can indicate procrastination and induce a sense of fear that you are getting behind. Mitigate this worry and build confidence at the same time by organizing odds and ends and getting started on some of the tasks on your to-do list.

2. Build Self-Esteem. Did you know that hanging artwork and mirrors too high on the wall can lead to a feeling of never measuring up? As a rule, artwork should be roughly 5 feet from center to floor so that you see it directly at eye level. As you view your wall hangings, remind yourself of the realistic expectations you set for yourself and the achievability of your goals.

3. Embrace Change. Decorations and decor that have not been updated in ages can induce or perpetuate a fear of change and uncertainly. Break the mold by moving some furniture around, hanging a new piece of artwork, or getting a plant. Give yourself a new perspective on your space and, as a result, a fresh outlook on your life and future.

Do you have any other holistic design tips? Let us know in the comments section!

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SH_JulyAug_CVR_lrg**CONTEST IS NOW CLOSED**
Spirituality & Health
is a magazine for people who want to explore the spiritual journey and wake up to our capacity for self-healing, vitality, and resiliency. Read whole article on holistic design in the July-August edition of Spirituality & Health, on newsstands now! Get your first issue FREE here.

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This month, Intent is giving away 5 year-long subscriptions to Spirituality & Health magazine. To enter, simply comment below with your favorite empowering quote. Be sure to include your name and email so we can contact you if you win.

 

Tips to Avoid Harmful Chemicals and Make Your Home a Healing Space

Δ†In the naturopathic profession, often one of the first challenges a doctor will tackle in working with a new patient is to determine and remove the “barriers to cure” – things that are interfering with the body’s ability to heal. In the past, I’ve written about treatments for common barriers to cure such as insufficient sleep, food sensitivities and seasonal allergies. I’ve learned through many patient experiences that no matter how amazing a medical treatment or how hard I work, a patient will be hard-pressed to truly heal as long as barriers stand in the way.

Often, some of the toughest barriers to remove are allergens and irritants in the home.  Chemical usage in home products has skyrocketed in the past few decades. Everything from laundry detergent to stain-resistant carpets, air-freshener sprays and synthetic-fiber bedding is a source of chemicals that put stress on our livers and immune systems. If you’re not aware of what I’m talking about, here’s a touching video from Healthy Child Healthy World that puts this issue into focus, especially as it impacts children (who are even more susceptible to the negative impacts of these chemicals than most adults).

My mother happens to be a Seattle-based interior designer with a fluency in eco-design and hypo-allergenic products for the home. While visiting her recently, I took some time to ask her for resources and tips she could share for those of us who are looking for ways to create a healthier home environment. The following are highlights from our conversation:

Q: What kinds of materials and treated fabrics are best to avoid in order to minimize chemical exposure?

A: Ideally, avoid anything synthetic. Synthetic materials, such as polyesters and acrylics, contain chemicals that can be harmful.  In addition to the material itself, these types of products are often treated with other chemicals to make them stain-resistant or otherwise “low-maintenance”. Unfortunately, buying convenience can also mean having to live with toxins that can be harmful to health. Terms like “easy care”, “water-repellant”, “no iron”, “anti-cling”, “static-free” and “flame retardant” are all signs that the product may be treated with harmful chemicals.

Q: What are some of the healthiest and least allergenic fibers to look for when choosing fabrics and floor coverings for a home?

A: The easiest rule of thumb is to stick with natural fibers. Linen, hemp, ramie, and abaca are all natural fibers that are hypo-allergenic and tend to be free from additional chemical treatments. When possible, look for organic textiles, not just organically grown materials, but products that are processed using organic-compliant compounds. Sometime a material will be organic, but then it’s processed with a harsh, non-organic dye and that can defeat the health benefits of sourcing the original organic material.

Q: In general terms, how to you suggest approaching the design of an eco-friendly and hypo-allergenic space?

A: Keep the space free of clutter where dust and allergens can accumulate. Opt for wood or tile floors and avoid carpet. Use natural fibers for window coverings, like wood-based plantation shutters instead of heavy fabric curtains. Optimize air circulation by strategically placing doors and windows to optimize air flow and utilize the air-filtering mechanisms of plants to improve air quality.

Q: Are there certain products, brands and resources you can suggest for people who are looking for products or just want more information on how to make smart choices when it comes to creating a health-promoting space?

A: The following are all great resources to check out:

  • O Ecotextiles is a Seattle-based textile company that creates luxurious fabrics that are non-toxic, ethical and sustainable. Not only do I love their products, but they are leading experts on this topic and their website has an incredible amount of information for how to make smart choices for the home.
  • Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs) are harmful chemicals often found in paint and other home-based textiles. This site does a great job of explaining the dangers of VOCs, what products typically contain them and how they can be avoided.
  • Unique Carpets, Ltd. sells eco-friendly floor coverings made from natural fibers that are treated in an environmentally-safe way. If you are looking for floor coverings to soften a space, this brand is a great option to check out.

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What Your Home Environment Says About You

Screen Shot 2013-06-20 at 10.37.07 PMI’ve written before about Christopher Alexander’s brilliant, strange book, A Pattern Language. Few books have made such an impression on me and the way that I think. The book sets forth an archetypal “language” of 253 patterns that make the design of towns, buildings, and–most interesting to me–homes the most pleasing.

This book doesn’t need to be read from front to back; I often just flip through it and study the parts that resonate with me–and look at the pictures, too, of course.

I’m a very text-centric person, and not very visual, and this book helped me to identify the elements about spaces that I like, or don’t like. I’m able to see the world in a new way, and as a consequence, I’ve been able to do some things differently in my own space, to make it more enjoyable.

Here’s a list of some of the “patterns” that I love most–and I even love the aptness of the phrases used to describe them:

Half-hidden garden–this is an example of something that I love but just can’t put into practice in New York City, alas.

Staircase as stage–ditto.

Cascade of roofs–once I started looking, I realized that many of my favorite buildings had a cascade of roofs.

Sleeping to the east–after my parents moved to a new place, they both remarked, independently, how much they enjoyed having a bedroom that faced east.

A room of one’s own–yes!

Light on two sides of every room–after I moved to New York City, I became acutely aware of the importance of light, and it’s true, having light on two sides of a room makes a huge difference.

Six foot balcony–this pattern explained something that had always puzzled me: why people in New York City apartment buildings seemed so rarely to use their balconies. It turns out that when a balcony is too narrow, people don’t feel comfortable on it. It needs to be at least six feet deep.

Windows overlooking life–our apartment has good light, which I’m so thankful for, but we can’t look down on any street scenes, just the sides of buildings; it’s surprising how much we miss being able to overlook life.

Sitting circle–odd to me how many people place their furniture in ways that don’t make for comfortable conversation.

Ceiling height variety–I was astonished to notice how much more I enjoy places that have ceilings at different heights.

Built-in seats–yes! Window seats, alcoves, banquettes, love these. Especially window seats.

Raised flowers–yes!

Things from your life–in Happier at Home, I “cultivated a shrine” to my passion for children’s literature, as a way to make a special place for certain things from my life (for instance, my old copies of Cricket magazine, my complete set of The Wizard of Oz books, my mother’s old copy of Little Women, my Gryffindor banner that a friend brought me from the Harry Potter Theme Park.

Child caves–so true that children love to play in small, low places. My sister had the “Cozy Club” with a friend, and my younger daughter now plays in an odd little space she has decorated.

Secret place–ah, this is my favorite. Again, as I write about in Happier at Home, I was inspired to create my own secret places in our apartment. I couldn’t stop with just one. As Alexander writes, “Where can the need for concealment be expressed; the need to hide; the need for something precious to be lost, and then revealed?”

How about you? Have you identified some “patterns” in the design of the places you love?

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Speaking of beautiful places and things, I love the book sculptures of Su Blackwell.  Books and miniatures!

Are you reading Happier at Home or The Happiness Project in a book group? Email me if you’d like the one-page discussion guide. Or if you’re reading it in a spirituality book club, a Bible study group, or the like, email me for the spirituality one-page discussion guide.

 

Trunk Magazine

 Check out Trunk magazine. The name and our tagline, "The world is a fine place…", are inspired by Hemingway. See the back story here.

Trunk is a magazine dedicated to showcasing the most fascinating stories we could find from around the world. Our fall ’11 issue is covering the following destinations: Indonesia, New York City, Kashmir, London, Alexandria, Miami, Tahiti, Ethiopia, Australia, Newfoundland, and more.

Trunk is about embracing the positives that world has to offer, but with a very discerning sense of curiosity. We’re obsessed with the unique and the universal–that which makes a culture or a country familiar and foreign at the same time. In short, we choose to demystify the world rather than pigeon-hole a place into that exotic and expected role, as traditional travel magazines tend to.

We hope you like what you see on our site and that you become a follower, reader, and believer in what we’re doing. Please help to spread the word and support us on Kickstarter by pre-ordering your copy of the Fall ’11 issue and/or purchasing a signed-by-the-photographer limited edition fine art print from the pages of Trunk.

You can follow us on Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr, Kickstarter, Trunkmag.com

Hat Trick: Three Articles That Kept Me from Jumping in the Lake

I did an enormous amount of lake-side book and magazine reading over this past hot summer weekend.  Below are the three articles that stood the “24-hours-later-and-I-still-remember-them” test of time.  All worth a read or a quick scan:

How social networking triggers the release of the generosity-trust chemical in our brains.

If you only read a tiny bit, read the “Experiment No. 3…In Which I Learn to Love by Tweeting Madly.”  The subject of the article is “Dr. Love”, Paul Zak, a Professor at Claremont Graduate University who popularized “neuroeconomics”.  Turns out Tweeting causes a spike in oxytocin levels (the love/trust chemical).  Two choice quotes from the article by Adam L. Penenberg:

“Your brain interpreted tweeting as if you were directly interacting with people you cared about or had empathy for,” Zak says. “E-connection is processed in the brain like an in-person connection.”

And

“One day, a company might be better off asking not what its margins are, but what its trust factor is,” says Brian Singh, founder of Zinc Research, a social media and marketing research firm in Calgary, Alberta. Singh has begun framing the formation of connections via social networking as a form of “digital oxytocin.” The idea is that if businesses wish to thrive in our interconnected world, where consumers’ opinions spread at the speed of light, they must act as a trusted friend: create quality products, market them honestly, emphasize customer care.

How to Make an American Job Before It’s Too Late, by Andy Grove of Intel.

Andy makes a compelling case that startups (in the current model of low capital investment)  don’t really create a meaningful number of jobs and that manufacturing companies do.  He builds his case carefully so I do him a disservice by quoting just a bit.  But I thought this was a great framing of his point of view:

The story comes to mind of an engineer who was to be executed by guillotine. The guillotine was stuck, and custom required that if the blade didn’t drop, the condemned man was set free. Before this could happen, the engineer pointed with excitement to a rusty pulley, and told the executioner to apply some oil there. Off went his head.

We got to our current state as a consequence of many of us taking actions focused on our own companies’ next milestones. An example: Five years ago, a friend joined a large VC firm as a partner. His responsibility was to make sure that all the startups they funded had a “China strategy,” meaning a plan to move what jobs they could to China. He was going around with an oil can, applying drops to the guillotine in case it was stuck. We should put away our oil cans. VCs should have a partner in charge of every startup’s “U.S. strategy.”

Growing up in Detroit, much of what Andy says resonates with me.  But I find my knowledge-worker and coastal-centric friends who didn’t grow up around people who make things undervalue the technology and invention advances that are created by those environments.  Andy does a better job explaining it than I could.

Finally, I liked:

Zilch:  Get What You Want for Nothing.  How to Profit by Behaving like a Not-for-Profit by Nancy Lublin in Fast Company.  Nancy is a great storyteller and I particularly like her  introductory and closing stories in this article.  The simple, powerful narratives transfer very easily to any company.

Anachronistic Dublin Retail…Take This Tour While You Can

I wrote this on the eve of our departure from Dublin.  It’s mainly about the Dublin retail scene that formed part of our everyday lives, but it captures a bit of the overall Irish culture too.  I miss it all–a LOT.

Thirty-seventh Dublin Report ( I sent these Dublin Reports home by email every couple of weeks, during our four years living in Dublin.)

30 May 2005

It’s time to leave Dublin.  Starbucks is coming.  Our Irish friends think that we must be really happy about this.  But we know better.[1]

These were the shops closest to our Dublin home. The boys got their hair cut at this Barber.

The pace of change in the Dublin retail scene is suddenly heating up.  For our first couple of years here I marveled at the incredibly charming, maddening, uncompetitive, tiny mom-and-pop scale of Dublin retail.  There is indeed a glitzy pedestrianized street, full of international chain shops along with a small number of sharp Dublin retailers.  And there also is the random mall or two.  Many of these are kind of like quaint early American shopping centers—composed of a few open air “avenues” with a grocery store as the anchor tenant and lots of little shops to cover the basic daily needs and even some decent fashion in between the butcher and the chemist.

But more prominently for me, there are whole long streets in Dublin city centre which are populated with miniscule shops sporting handcrafted wooden signs, haphazard window displays, and inventories of unpredictable nature.  For instance, “Camden Casket” is kind of like a dollar shop, selling soap powder and tablets of paper, gift-wrap and brooms, clothespins and little toys.  My favorite, the tiny “Egg Depot” is only six feet wide.  Its cream colored wooden sign has quaint blocky turquoise and gold lettering, outlined in black.  The name of the shop gives no indication of its actual wares:  plants and flowers.  I always wondered how these shops survived and felt a combination of awe and fatalism about their future.

Camden Street, Dublin

Yet they held on, and some still do, but I have noted a rather rapid steamrolling of their closures in just the last two years.  Before we arrived, several local shops had just been shuttered, leaving empty premises and some sad blight on the road.  But these little storefronts are now steadily turning over.  Keegan’s Fruit and Veg is now the self-consciously hip “Mint” restaurant.

Mint did not make a mint, apparently.

The fishmonger is now “Kelli”, a shop marketing trendy and expensive European fashion.  Those of us who have observed the changes know that the modern Kelli sign is bolted right over the antique tiled cream and brown storefront sign that spelled out “Victualler.”   “Ranelagh Seeds and Plants” has been unused since we got here, but I noticed it is recently getting a slick vanilla colored interior painting job on its new paneled walls, and a nice crisp window display area.  For what?  Another café or shoe shop I suppose.

Des takes his shirts to the most hidden and retro of Dublin establishments—a former Magdalene laundry.  To Ireland’s great shame, thousands of teenage girls were packed off to these terrible institutions for an entire lifetime of indentured servitude, spent in silence and chapped up to their elbows by lye and laundry soap.  The girls’ “crimes” ranged from being too pretty and flirtatious, to being raped, to becoming pregnant.  The last Magdalene laundry closed in the early ‘70’s.  Now, one of its cousins—Des’ destination–is a commercial establishment, tucked deep in a dead end kind of destination, in behind the Donnybrook Garda station, with no parking or signs advertising its existence.

Donnybrook Garda (Police) Station…I have a whole other post about my time spent in this institution.

Only a very large brick steam tower signals its purpose.  To gain service, one approaches on a sort of loading dock entrance and rings a bell at a window with a sliding door.

Usually greeted by a 55-ish looking woman with a smile and a modest beard, Des hands over his cleaning order.  I noted on my one visit that Des was the only man in a short queue of well-kept matrons laden down with things like embroidered linen table cloths.  I peeked behind the greeter’s shoulder to see a haphazard array of presumably cleaned items on enormous metal warehouse shelves decorated with leftover Christmas tinsel.  The place was populated with down-at-their-luck-looking Irish men, and some bustling young Asian women.  I think only the bearded lady and a couple of her counterparts may have been former inmates, now working for a paycheck.

Photo of derelict Dublin Magdalene Laundry by 1Soanes, from Flickr. Click to see original stream.

This anachronism is not exactly charming, but not entirely without appeal either.  Last Saturday the window woman said that the place may be torn down to make apartments.  It seems like half of Dublin is being torn down to make apartments.  It’s the only way to address the impossibly tiny roads and thin traffic infrastructure—if you can’t get the people to the city, then they have to just move in closer themselves.

I reported a couple of summers ago how Carl and I had glided around the aisles of an American Staples superstore like a couple of hicks just in from Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.  We couldn’t believe the quantity of stuff in the place, the size of the carts, the width of the aisles, and the high tech hand dryer in the customer bathroom.  And that they had a bathroom!

Contrast that with my usual office product purveyor.  Reids of Nassau Street.  (Anyone who ever listens to Dublin radio for more than a day cannot read that shop name without mentally chanting it in kind of a Greek tragedy fashion, just like the ad)  Reids stocks its office supplies in the basement of its shop, hard up against Trinity College.  The shelves are packed, crammed, jammed with a total jumble of products. Things are sideways, falling, upside down and the floor is halfway covered with inventory in the tiny cramped aisles.  I used to be totally annoyed and frustrated by my visits, but now I enter with mixed sentiments.  On one hand, I’m happily optimistic that I may find the exactly right folder/paper clip/adhesive for my project.  On the other hand, I’m prematurely angry that I have to ask the disinterested staff to help me find it.  The thrill of the chase keeps me going, but I did snap at the last guy who helped me, half in French (I’d just come from the Alliance Francaise), about needing his help because who could find anything in this “desordre” of a shop.

Just like the very real Starbucks threat to the scramble of independent coffee shops populating Dublin street corners, this Reids place is going to blow over like a house of cards if Staples ever notices Ireland.

I’m watching “The Irish Yeast Company.”  Its white wooden panel sign, framed in black, with quaint, black hand lettering advertises the only retail holdout in a string of gorgeous but dilapidated Georgian buildings right next to Trinity College.  The other buildings were bought by a developer years ago, but the owners of the yeast shop refuse to sell their multi-million Euro building.  You see, they are two sisters in their ‘80’s or ‘90’s who were given the shop when their former employer, The Irish Yeast Company, sold up.  The current store has dully gleaming silver cake forms stacked up behind the nearly opaque chain-link covered windows, and the Dickensian interior offers a random selection of baking needs.  All very, very old.  No yeast, though.

I do most shopping on city streets.  I’ve never gotten used to the outdated Irish malls and don’t see the point of going to them. Enter Dundrum Town Centre.  Ireland’s first proper mall, by American standards.  Loads of underground parking. Easy access on the beautiful new French-built tram which stops practically at our door.  Reported to be the largest shopping centre in Europe (once two more phases of construction are completed next year).

Carl and I (he is always my retail co-explorer) took a foray in the first weekend of opening.  The little guy’s jaw was on the floor.   “It’s, it’s, it’s so so…. futuristic!  It’s so spotless!  There isn’t a speck of litter on the floor!”  Looking at a nice, but basically normal, sort of small to medium sized American mall, my little Irish boy was mesmerized.

But he wasn’t alone.

We’d been primed to expect the moon, what with the constant wall of media anticipation.  The front page of the newspaper had color photos of chubby girls in school uniform gaily blasting through the doors on the day of the Town Centre opening.  The radio chat lines were abuzz with genuine unbridled excitement.  Dane’s whole class even trooped off to pay a call, as an official school field trip, such was the civic importance of this occasion! I was particularly amazed at the open armed reception of the local community.  Our own two sets of friends who live within sight of the mall were delighted at its arrival.  No grumbles about the traffic, or the architectural blight, or the commercialization of their former village.

The only time I’ve seen normally cool-and-wry-in-public Dubliners look so giddy was when we went to the temporary ice skating rink at Christmas to take a spin.  What could they do but guffaw, as they landed on their posterior in full view of the gawkers who surrounded the rink?

Dundrum Town Centre

Likewise, in the Dundrum Town Centre, strangers were helpfully giving directions, laughing at their own confusion, and generally walking (dare I say waddling) around, slack-jawed, just like every mall-goer in the land that gave us Mrs. Fields and Sears, Roebuck and Company.

Open three months, I hear mixed reports on the impact on city centre shops.  Personally, I think this city is so under-supplied for its retail demand that it can absorb this mall without causing even a hiccup among the main city centre shops.  At least Euro wise.

It’s the quieter hiccup that worries me.  What about those tiny mom and pop shops that have done nothing to combat competition, but continue to survive on their foot traffic and charm, despite their often crazy prices and even crazier unpredictable stock?  What about the guy just a stone’s throw from us who sells bizarre architectural relics, mostly recovered from churches?  (I’ve got my eye on a four foot high statue of a bearded saint holding a model of a Gothic cathedral.  Just the ticket for Des’ Father’s Day gift.)  What place will this salvage man have in a totally Ikea-crazy nation?

We’re not quite talking catastrophe on a Wal-Mart scale, and Ireland has laws against big box stores, but I still worry.

Image copyright: Kate Horgan

And I noticed last month that my favorite little Egg Depot is going out of business.  So did “The Plant Store”, a strange ‘70’s anachronism—it just sold potted plants in a huge and airy prime retail space, located in one of the best buildings in town.  In four years I had never seen a single person come in or out of the place, despite passing it weekly.  But I loved that it existed and now it’s bitten the dust.

Like I said, time to go.  But I hardly dare return to Dublin for fear of what we might find.


[1] Didn’t you love the scene in Shrek 2 when the little townspeople were being menaced by the giant Gingerbread Boy?  The one where they ran from their corner Starbucks, with clutched takeaway cups, to the other Starbucks just across the street.

  by Jules Pieri of Daily Grommet

Our Discount Culture is Killing Our Economy

 

by Jules Pieri at Daily Grommet

Everyone loves a good deal, right?  What’s wrong with that?  Alas, if you care about fostering real product innovation, if you care about building vibrant American enterprises which pay a true living wage to their workers, and if you care about preserving true consumer choice and competition–there’s a whole lot wrong with the American obsession with getting a “great deal.”

EARNS TARGET

(AP Photo/David Zalubowski)

I’ve been walking around, feeling somewhat like a Lorax-like “Save the Trees” person, worrying about this idea.  I didn’t even have words for my concerns.  After all,  cheap prices are an American birthright, no?   And then I tripped on the great book Cheap, by Ellen Ruppel Shell.  I started reading it yesterday.  Her messages are so important that I won’t wait to finish the book to begin sharing them.  She needs to be heard and understood by anyone who buys anything. Consumer purchases drive 65% of our economy.  I consider the discussion of discount culture to be as important as fixing health care, in our economic recovery.  And the discussion goes way beyond economics, to the very quality of life.

cheap

Here are some excerpts straight from the first chapters of Cheap:

  • This first fact is just plain appalling. Read this and weep.  ” Factory outlets are America’s number-one tourist destination.”  Really?  Is getting 50% off of a Banana Republic shirt more compelling than Mount Rushmore?  Oh the pain.
  • Design used as subterfuge, in creating a disposable society. “In the world of Cheap, “design” has become a stand-in for quality,  Companies such as Target, H & M, and Zara offer consumers the look they love at a price they can live with–but at what true cost?….the genius of IKEA and other cheap-chic purveyors is that they have made fashionable, desirable, and even lovable objects nearly devoid of craftsmanship.  The environmental and social implications of this are insidious and alarming.”
  • We no longer associate real costs and real jobs with prices at retail. Americans habitually fret that we are paying too much.  We think paying full price is a sucker’s game.  “From Lisa Bolton, a professor at Wharton:  “‘There is good reason for this confusion.  Most of us have absolutely no idea of what goes into setting a price.  Consumers don’t think about the costs behind what they buy.  They link price to profit, and they grossly overestimate profit margins.’”
  • But we are paying less than ever. ” The fear of inflation-driven price hikes is so deeply ingrained in the national psyche that many of us believe we pay far more for goods and services than our parents or grandparents.  We barely notice that prices of most consumer goods–even food and fuel–have been trending downward for decades.  The rather astounding facts are these:  Compared with the early 1970’s, in 2007 we spent 32 percent less on clothes, 18 percent less on food, 52 percent less on appliances, and 24 percent less on owning and maintaining a car.”  (I used to sew a lot of   my own clothes, until the early ’80’s.  It just doesn’t make sense, economically, any more.  Clothes are dirt cheap.)
  • “Technology-driven globalization has pushed real prices to rock bottom in almost every category–a trend that verged on the desperate in late 2008 when even tony retailers such as Saks and Nordstrom engaged in an orgy of price slashing so extreme that it threatened to tarnish the reputation of their own brands.”

I know, I know.  About now you are thinking, free markets prevail.  The strong survive.  They are the ones who deserve to prosper.  This notion is as old as the hills, and the “haggling rug merchants of Istanbul or the teeming bazaars of Marrakesh.”  Are these venerable institutions so different from the big box retailers and online discounters?

Well, yes, the author maintains.  “The ancient marketplace was built on a balance of power between buyer and seller that is all but gone today.  A cascade of corporate scandals and screwups from Enron to Haliburton to Citibank to Bernie Madoff’s audacious Ponzi scheme has shaken whatever faith we once held in corporate responsibility, and this mistrust has dripped down to the retail level.”  As consumers we exact our “revenge” or get “our due” by seeking the maximum possible discounts on….everything.

But in the world of food production, or technological innovation, or furniture building, it is rarely the truly inventive, or quality-concerned, or creatively entrepreneurial company that can fuel massive discounts.  It’s the big guys with dominant scale who can, temporarily, sustain such pressure.  It’s only temporary.  They too lose their R and D budgets, and their staff, and their basic viability too.

Ruppel Shell neatly illustrates her basic premise with this example from George Akerlof, a Nobel Prize winner in economics:

  • Gresham’s law: Bad money drives out good. “Imagine that a quart of high-quality milk wholesales for $1.00, and a quart of watered-down milk wholesales for 60 cents.  A typical buyer might willingly pay up to 80 cents for the watered-down milk and up to $1.20 for the pure milk.  In either case, mutual gains would be made from the transaction:  Both the buyer and the seller know what he or she is getting, and both end up with what might be considered a fair deal.  But if the customer is unable to distinguish quality, both grades of milk must sell for the same price–about 90 cents a quart.  Under this system, honest brokers of pure milk go bankrupt, while corrupt watered-down milk sellers flourish.  So logically enough, soon all surviving merchants are watering their milk and pocketing large profits, and consumers believe they are getting a bargain when in fact they are being ripped off.”

She concludes, “In American today, Gresham’s law rules, with sweeping consequences, both obvious and subtle.  The way we shop, the way we do business, and the way we think about money all reflect this new reality.”

This, in a nutshell, is why discount culture terrifies me.  And this is one reason I am devoting my professional life to creating a connection between products, their stories, and consumers.

How can you willingly pay “full price” if you don’t really understand what you are buying?  I truly believe that if people appreciate how special it is to make a an all-natural caramel sauce, or the benefits of an innovative travel accessory from a tiny startup company, or the sustainable practices of a wood turner, they will prefer those choices.  But in the sanitized vacuum of most online and bricks and mortar retailers, no one is telling any story but the most obvious one…that of price.  A shallow and dangerous story, indeed.

 

Our Discount Culture is Killing Our Economy

Everyone loves a good deal, right?  What’s wrong with that?  Alas, if you care about fostering real product innovation, if you care about building vibrant American enterprises which pay a true living wage to their workers, and if you care about preserving true consumer choice and competition–there’s a whole lot wrong with the American obsession with getting a “great deal.”

EARNS TARGET

(AP Photo/David Zalubowski)

I’ve been walking around, feeling somewhat like a Lorax-like “Save the Trees” person, worrying about this idea.  I didn’t even have words for my concerns.  After all,  cheap prices are an American birthright, no?   And then I tripped on the great book Cheap, by Ellen Ruppel Shell.  I started reading it yesterday.  Her messages are so important that I won’t wait to finish the book to begin sharing them.  She needs to be heard and understood by anyone who buys anything. Consumer purchases drive 65% of our economy.  I consider the discussion of discount culture to be as important as fixing health care, in our economic recovery.  And the discussion goes way beyond economics, to the very quality of life.

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Here are some excerpts straight from the first chapters of Cheap:

  • This first fact is just plain appalling. Read this and weep.  ” Factory outlets are America’s number-one tourist destination.”  Really?  Is getting 50% off of a Banana Republic shirt more compelling than Mount Rushmore?  Oh the pain.
  • Design used as subterfuge, in creating a disposable society. “In the world of Cheap, “design” has become a stand-in for quality,  Companies such as Target, H & M, and Zara offer consumers the look they love at a price they can live with–but at what true cost?….the genius of IKEA and other cheap-chic purveyors is that they have made fashionable, desirable, and even lovable objects nearly devoid of craftsmanship.  The environmental and social implications of this are insidious and alarming.”
  • We no longer associate real costs and real jobs with prices at retail. Americans habitually fret that we are paying too much.  We think paying full price is a sucker’s game.  “From Lisa Bolton, a professor at Wharton:  “‘There is good reason for this confusion.  Most of us have absolutely no idea of what goes into setting a price.  Consumers don’t think about the costs behind what they buy.  They link price to profit, and they grossly overestimate profit margins.’”
  • But we are paying less than ever. ” The fear of inflation-driven price hikes is so deeply ingrained in the national psyche that many of us believe we pay far more for goods and services than our parents or grandparents.  We barely notice that prices of most consumer goods–even food and fuel–have been trending downward for decades.  The rather astounding facts are these:  Compared with the early 1970’s, in 2007 we spent 32 percent less on clothes, 18 percent less on food, 52 percent less on appliances, and 24 percent less on owning and maintaining a car.”  (I used to sew a lot of   my own clothes, until the early ’80’s.  It just doesn’t make sense, economically, any more.  Clothes are dirt cheap.)
  • “Technology-driven globalization has pushed real prices to rock bottom in almost every category–a trend that verged on the desperate in late 2008 when even tony retailers such as Saks and Nordstrom engaged in an orgy of price slashing so extreme that it threatened to tarnish the reputation of their own brands.”

I know, I know.  About now you are thinking, free markets prevail.  The strong survive.  They are the ones who deserve to prosper.  This notion is as old as the hills, and the “haggling rug merchants of Istanbul or the teeming bazaars of Marrakesh.”  Are these venerable institutions so different from the big box retailers and online discounters?

Well, yes, the author maintains.  “The ancient marketplace was built on a balance of power between buyer and seller that is all but gone today.  A cascade of corporate scandals and screwups from Enron to Haliburton to Citibank to Bernie Madoff’s audacious Ponzi scheme has shaken whatever faith we once held in corporate responsibility, and this mistrust has dripped down to the retail level.”  As consumers we exact our “revenge” or get “our due” by seeking the maximum possible discounts on….everything.

But in the world of food production, or technological innovation, or furniture building, it is rarely the truly inventive, or quality-concerned, or creatively entrepreneurial company that can fuel massive discounts.  It’s the big guys with dominant scale who can, temporarily, sustain such pressure.  It’s only temporary.  They too lose their R and D budgets, and their staff, and their basic viability too.

Ruppel Shell neatly illustrates her basic premise with this example from George Akerlof, a Nobel Prize winner in economics:

  • Gresham’s law: Bad money drives out good. “Imagine that a quart of high-quality milk wholesales for $1.00, and a quart of watered-down milk wholesales for 60 cents.  A typical buyer might willingly pay up to 80 cents for the watered-down milk and up to $1.20 for the pure milk.  In either case, mutual gains would be made from the transaction:  Both the buyer and the seller know what he or she is getting, and both end up with what might be considered a fair deal.  But if the customer is unable to distinguish quality, both grades of milk must sell for the same price–about 90 cents a quart.  Under this system, honest brokers of pure milk go bankrupt, while corrupt watered-down milk sellers flourish.  So logically enough, soon all surviving merchants are watering their milk and pocketing large profits, and consumers believe they are getting a bargain when in fact they are being ripped off.”

She concludes, “In American today, Gresham’s law rules, with sweeping consequences, both obvious and subtle.  The way we shop, the way we do business, and the way we think about money all reflect this new reality.”

This, in a nutshell, is why discount culture terrifies me.  And this is one reason I am devoting my professional life to creating a connection between products, their stories, and consumers.

How can you willingly pay “full price” if you don’t really understand what you are buying?  I truly believe that if people appreciate how special it is to make a an all-natural caramel sauce, or the benefits of an innovative travel accessory from a tiny startup company, or the sustainable practices of a wood turner, they will prefer those choices.  But in the sanitized vacuum of most online and bricks and mortar retailers, no one is telling any story but the most obvious one…that of price.  A shallow and dangerous story, indeed.

by Jules Pieri at Daily Grommet

 

What Was – or Is – Your Favorite Toy?

The current issue of ID (International Design) magazine has an article in which famous designers describe their favorite toy. Most picked items from their childhood.  The write-ups are priceless.  (Sorry, not available online yet.  They are overhauling their website.)  Who knew that Paul Budnitz (Kidrobot founder) rode his Big Wheel until he was so big that he had to have his dad nail a  plywood extension on the seat area?  Or that Michael Bierut was into Matchbox cars?  And John Maeda, author of “The Laws of Simplcity”  and president of RISD, somewhat predictably picked Naef Toys.

 

A typically beautiful and uber-simple luxury wooden toy, by Naef

A typically beautiful and uber-simple luxury wooden toy, by Naef

This got me pondering my own favorite toy:  Jumbo Cardboard Blocks.

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I first met these Jumbo Cardboard Blocks  in Kindergarten.  I was four, and like most of the kids in my neighborhood, I hadn’t been to preschool.  It was a brave new world. I loved those blocks and I simply couldn’t believe our classroom had so many of them.  Oh, the possibilities!  I passed many happy hours making cities and castles and school rooms, where I tripped in and out of the “doors” directing imaginary citizenry.  It was great, absorbing fun.   But the real reason these blocks are my childhood favorite is they created a shining moment of childhood.  It was the day my teacher “Mrs. Affleck” singled me out.

I was surprised to recently learn that  a fellow student hated Mrs. Affleck.  I thought she was a dream, with a melodious voice, an old-fashioned (even then) brown bob, and a colorful array of slim, friendly-looking shirt-dresses.

On the big day, I’d had one of my usual free time sessions with the blocks.  Nothing unusual, yet Mrs. Affleck called the class over and said,

Children, just look at the wonderful creation Julie Knittel (my maiden name) and Roy Stufflebean made!  They worked so nicely together.  What a great job!

That was literally the first time I realized I could do a “job.”  And that someone might notice.  And that I could get credit for it.  And it was good to “work” on a team.  The rest is history, I guess.  (But I still wonder what happened to Roy Stufflebean.)

So…I am asking what childhood toys might be the favorite for other people.  No slightly sappy psychological dramas (like mine)  need be attached.  Sometimes Play-doh is just Play-doh.  But it’s still great.

 

Putting the Om in Your Home

The defining assignment of my 7th grade French class was to create Ma Maison de Reve ("my dream house") through an elaborate process that involved my classmates and I hoarding our mothers’ copies of House Beautiful and Town & Country, toting them to school, scouring their glossy pages during class, and selecting the bedrooms, kitchens, patios, etc. that we hoped to inhabit someday. Wielding scissors, glue sticks, and French-English dictionaries, we each embarked upon the design and description (in French) of a home to suit our individual tastes. Like our personalities, our homes were drastically different. Some were traditional while others were modern. Some belonged in America, some in France, and others in more exotic locations. Come to think of it, it’s possible that my home was less of a home and more of a hotel in Greece, likely clipped from the pages of Conde Nast Traveller. The beauty of the project was simple: There were few restrictions. Your home needed to have at least one kitchen, bathroom, and bedroom, but beyond that, anything else was fair game. Tree houses, game rooms, menageries, Olympic size pools, baseball diamonds–if you could draw it, photocopy it, or clip it, it was as good as yours.

Today, my options are more limited. The leasing office for my apartment building in Boston vetoed the baseball diamond I proposed for the roof deck, and my pet otter, cockatoo, and tree monkey have already outgrown the bathroom menagerie. Alas, my design prowess is relegated to a world of more modest resources than it was in 7th grade, namely, reality.
 
To this end, I’ve compiled a few more feasible home design tips for simply and inexpensively creating your own "maison de reve." Scissors, glue sticks, and French-English dictionaries not required.
 
Friends Are More Important Than Furniture
When I consider the most comfortable and calming homes I have ever visited, they all have one thing in common: They are filled with good people. They can be sprawling second homes just as easily as teeny studio apartments, but the same rule holds true.
 
While it’s nice to outfit your personal space according to your sense of style, with design elements such as furniture, light fixtures, artwork, etc., incorporating people you love into your home will always give it a sparkle beyond spotless granite counter tops and a coziness to exceed that of a cashmere throw blanket. There are a couple ways to do this. First, you can invite people into your home, to add their warmth and energy to your space (this is the idea behind housewarming parties, of course). However, if you’re not the entertaining type or your home is too small to host friends, you can accent its design with personal touches, like my friend Alexa does (known on my blog as NYC Gal). Like most New Yorkers, Alexa makes due with limited living space. Entertaining friends would be cramped, so she’s found another way of integrating her loved ones into her home, by filling her apartment with artful photos of friends and family. These are not the conventional refrigerator door family photos, these are chronological, geographical, autobiographical collages and collections that instantly capture who she is and what’s important to her. She continually updates these pictures, keeping the energy in her home fresh and friendly.
 
Less Clutter = More Happiness
For me, few things are more liberating than the act of clearing out clutter, whether the clutter is physical, such as piles of mail on the kitchen counter, or psychological, a la the incessant, scrolling to-do list in our brains. Regardless of how clutter encroaches upon your life, you need to take proactive steps to remove it. Rather than saving a messy house for large, sweeping organizational overhauls, tidy up every day. Begin to scrutinize what comes into your home by ditching junk mail before it hits the kitchen counter or quietly sending unwanted gifts to Goodwill (I know it sounds heartless, but honestly, burying that tchotchke from Aunt Mary under your bed isn’t doing either of you a bit of good). If you can identify the key areas in your home that generate clutter- which, in turn, generate, stress and stuck energy- you can address them and begin feeling more relaxed immediately.
 
You May Multi-Task; Your Bedroom May Not
Some areas of your home (i.e. your bedroom) should be clutter-free zones, no matter what. This rule is paramount to creating bliss within your personal space. Bedrooms are for sleeping and sex, and little else. Got that? Repeat after me: Sleeping and Sex. Bedrooms are not for trolling the Internet on your computer, sending text messages via Blackberry while propped up on your pillows, watching aimless hours of late-night TV (I recommend removing the TV from your boudoir completely or, at the very least, concealing it), stowing piles of laundry, or housing purposeless clutter. People often pine for a place where life’s minutia cannot find them, but the truth is, that should be your bedroom. Stop waiting to be whisked off to a remote tropical isle without cell phone reception. Banish tech toys, information overload, and household headaches from your bedroom and you will have a relaxing retreat at home, each night, which will pay dividends in your daily life. If you have limited living space, devise a way to organize the room so that anything not relating to sleeping or sex is not in the vicinity of your bed. Buy a chic room divider or use furniture to create natural barriers. Remember, for the health and happiness of your body and mind, your bedroom should not be permitted to multi-task.
 
Invite the Outdoors In
Though we are highly evolved animals with lots of shiny gadgets that enable us to stay home and order take-out rather than hunting and gathering for our meals and communicate without actually convening in the same physical space, we are nonetheless animals. We thrive in nature. We are meant to breath fresh air, absorb vitamin D from the sun’s rays, and explore our natural surroundings. For this reason, it’s important to incorporate elements from the natural world into our homes. Whether it’s a plant, fish, or stunning environmental photograph, natural elements bring a space alive, literally. Start small- a cactus perhaps, if you’re wary of your horticultural skills- and go from there. Natural, recycled, and "green" fabrics and materials are en vogue now, so take advantage by incorporating them into your home. It will transform not only your space but your mindset as well.
 
Create With Color
When cultivating your personal space, nothing makes a bigger impact than color. If your home feels drab or energetically stale, it can usually be remedied with a few doses of one of your favorite hues. Refer to elements in the natural world as a guideline. For example, if you want a room to feel a certain way, opt for colors associated with a corresponding natural element. For a soothing effect, opt for colors that evoke water. If you want a room to feel warm and upbeat, use accents that suggest fire elements, such as reds, oranges, golds, and yellows. If you’re timid about using too much color at once, try small, thoughtful accents instead, including throw pillows and area rugs. Like any home decoration or reorganization, you’ll find that a little goes a long way when creating your own "maison de reve." Plus, how often would you really use that baseball diamond anyway?
 
May you always find the om in your home,
Om Gal
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