On (Design) Failure II

Almost exactly a year ago, I shared a story about failure in the shop. Perhaps, after 12 months of middling successes, I was due for another one. Unlike the previous failure, the Barrel Chair, this one works, in some sense of the word

Over the last few weeks at work, at the ReBuild Foundation, we've been in the middle of shuffling our studio and shop as leases change and new spaces come on line. As we palletized piles of material, we chewed through dozens of rolls of packing plastic -- a sort of industrial cling-wrap. It came on 3-1/4" diameter cardboard rolls. I found a few more tubes of a similar diameter in a dumpster in our building.

The raw materials.


The Organized Guerilla

We modern Americans are quick to pathologize. With all the pharmaceutical ads, covering a broad spectrum of real (depression, heart disease) and imagined (short eyelashes) disorders, everyone is familiar with the language of diagnosis and treatment. Those terms have quickly become part of our everyday lexicon, as people toss off armchair opinions about bosses, spouses, and co-workers -- bi-polar, Asperger-y, and, my favorite, OCD.

Every designer and craftsman has got a touch of the neurotic. A dose of intensely-focused, self-critical thinking is key to pushing the intellectual process forward. Obsessive Compulsive Disorder is a specific type of neuroticism, focused on unhealthy, repetitive behaviors (rituals) that bring a measure of calm to an anxious person. OCD, when used in a slang context, is usually wrongly attributed to someone who is (overly) organized or clean. While certain cleaning activities may be ritualized by a true OCD sufferer, merely being neat is not a mental disorder.

A small portion of the mess.


Road Sign Lounger

A few years ago, down in Alabama, I led a group of students in the construction of a fence made of scrapped road signs. I had long been fascinated by road signs -- the graphics, the reflective surface, the raw materiality of 1/8" solid aluminum -- and finally had a stockpile, donated by the county, to play around with. The fence was fairly straightforward: we just cut the signs into strips, which then served as pickets on a conventional wood frame. Offcuts and stop signs were pieced together to make gates, doors, and roofs for shade structures. 

The daycare fence and H.E.R.O. community garden gave me a chance to experiment with techniques for cutting the signs. Aluminum is fairly soft, and I found a carbide-toothed finishing blade (60 teeth) jacked into a regular circular saw to be a simple, effective solution. We also tried a similar blade in a table saw, but the kickback and strain on the motor was kind of nasty. 

The Road Sign Lounger.


Knolling (Orthogonal Joy)

Last week, America voted. Design Observer published an interesting piece on the arrangement of polling places. The layout of these school cafeterias, church basements, and VFW halls are up to the individual poll workers, and often follow no particular order. That said, people instinctively tend to set up space in certain ways -- for instance, arranging the voting booths parallel to the walls of the room, or figuring out paths for lines of people that make ninety-degree turns. 

The author, Alexandra Lange, then moved on to riff about "knolling", a term coined twenty-odd years ago by Andrew Kromelow, then working in Frank Gehry's fabrication shop. It refers to the practice of placing objects in squared arrays, aligned with the surface they rest on or the walls of the room that contains them. Kromelow, cleaning up the workshop each night, would neatly lay out all of the tools on the pegboards and work benches. As legend has it, Gehry was then working on a line of furniture for modernist heavyweight Knoll, and so Kromelow named his practice after the angular pieces. Another artist, Tom Sachs, popularized the term and made a video about it, Always Be Knolling.


Black Cinema House III

From late April through August, as previously reported here and here, I had been working as a carpenter on the Black Cinema House. One of the buildings in Theaster Gates' Dorchester Projects, BCH is a place to archive, study, and present films of the African diaspora. The basement has space for classes; the first floor has a kitchen, an office, bathrooms, and screening space; and the second floor is a private apartment.

Just recently, BCH finally got its final coat of paint, landscaping, and other finishing touches. Two weeks ago, they premiered the space with two screenings -- The Story of a Three-Day Pass, directed by Mario Van Peebles, and a Halloween event for neighborhood kids. This weekend, BCH and Dorchester Projects were host sites for the Art of Placemaking Conference, sponsored by the University of Chicago, the ReBuild Foundation, and the Bruner-Loeb Forum.

Black Cinema House, as it once was.


Lebbeus Woods

I was saddened this week to hear of the passing of Lebbeus Woods, on October 30th, at the age of 72. He was an architect, professor, writer, and theorist. Few of his designs were ever built. Other visionary, experimental designers -- Buckminster Fuller, Rem Koolhaas, Zaha Hadid -- eventually, however late in life, made the leap from paper to built reality. Woods was different. The force of his imagination was such that many of his ideas are simply impossible to realize with the technologies and cultural conditions of today. His drawings and paintings -- massive, stark, violent, beautiful -- present visions of a world unmoored from history, time, and space.

High Houses.
He wrote extensively, publishing almost thirty books, untold articles, and a lovely blog. His practice, in his own words, is described thusly: 

"Over the past thirty years, my thoughts have followed a single line, in many parallel ways. lt can be summarized in a single question: what is the place of one person - any individual - in the complex, ever-changing landscape of the world? lt is a question without a fixed or universal answer. Still it must be asked. Answers, however provisional, must be attempted. This is particularly urgent for the apportioning and use of space, which every person needs, and which the work of architecture explicitly provides. The installations I have designed and made in collaboration with others explore the phenomena of change in material and spatial terms. . . . The aim is not to disturb the stability, but to provide strategies for adaptation when transformation occurs. Even more, they celebrate change and the energies driving it, as the essence of existence."

A cityscape.


The Brothers Bouroullec

Today, I took a bike ride down the side of Lake Michigan for my inaugural visit to the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago. Despite having lived here for more than a year, I've never made it down to the MCA. Sitting in the shadow of the Hancock building and Mies' Lakeshore towers, the building is a strict concrete box.
They seem to favor the blue and green.
The show that finally lured me downtown was Ronan and Erwan Bouroullec: Bivouac. The Bouroullecs are French brothers, born in the early 1970s, who have been practicing since the mid-nineties. They first started garnering some serious attention around the time I was an undergraduate studying architecture, popping up in the design glossies and various museums. By 2009, when they appeared in Gary Hustwit's industrial design documentary Objectified, they had ascended to a rare plane, working across the borders of art, architecture, furniture design, design theory, and mass-market manufacturing. They have produced pieces for  CappelliniLigne Roset, Alessi, and Vitra, amongst others.

L-R: Michael Darling, Erwan Bouroullec, Ronan Bouroullec.


Bent Cardboard II

A few weeks back, I began an experiment, attempting to create curved, structural panels of laminated cardboard. The first shells, adhered with wheatpaste and cured in a mold, came out quite well. I buried some strips of Masonite in the edges so that they would hold a fastener, then trimmed them neat and square on the table saw.

Frame layout. Designed it in AutoCAD, then sketched on paper because I don't have a printer.
Next loomed the question of a frame. Cardboard chairs tend to acquire quite a bit of bulk as they try to solve structural problems with a weak material. I wanted to make a visually light, slim-lined frame that would highlight the cardboard shells, so I turned to plywood. Ken Isaac's book, which I recently wrote about, had a lengthy investigation of plywood stress-skin structures, which gave me some ideas about how to make a stiff structure out of a thin, flexible material. 

Otherwise obsolete hand-drafting skills still come in handy sometimes . . .


The Paper Cycle

Last week, just as I was working on a new cardboard chair, there was an article in the Chicago Reader called The Floating Forest, about the strange trip undertaken by our wastepaper. Thirty years ago, most of America's recycled paper was processed domestically, including a number of large mills throughout the Midwest. Beginning in the nineties, a Hong Kong entrepreneur, Cheung Yan, began filling empty shipping containers with wastepaper and shipping them back to China. There, her factories turned them into cardboard to make boxes for TVs, computers, cellphones, and so the cycle continued.

Baled wastepaper is now an internationally traded commodity. In 2008, prices plunged as the global recession put a crimp in consumer spending. Newspapers, another large paper consumer, have seen their readership shrink as news moves online. Recently, however, prices are back up in the face of Asian demand. With one ton trading at about $100, New York has seen a rise in the theft of baled paper. China, whose forest cover suffered over the last fifty years of industrialization, has a seemingly insatiable demand for the stuff. The paper-less society promised by the internet hasn't materialized, and, worldwide, consumption doubled between 1980 and 2000.



Ken Isaacs

This week at work I picked up an old book, How to Build Your Own Living Structures, by Ken Isaacs, to read at lunch. I didn't finish it, so I brought it home. A little internet-ing revealed this book was out-of-print, rare, and selling for a good bit at various outlets. However, I think the copyright has lapsed, because it is available online as a PDF.

Isaacs was born in 1927 in Peoria, Illinois, and served in the military as a young man. After Korea, he studied architecture, and then began to craft a career as a designer, architect, and educator. In the late fifties, he became Head of Design at the Cranbrook Academy of Arts, birthplace of much notable mid-century modernism, including Eliel and Eero Saarinen Charles and Ray Eames, and Harry Weese. He also spent some time teaching at the Illinois Institute of Technology, founded by Mies van der Rohe as a sort of Bauhaus West.

During an itinerant period in the sixties, Isaacs began to develop what he called a Matrix system for home furnishing. He theorized (rightly and wrongly) that most of the interior volume of our homes and apartments lay unused, as most furniture only inhabits the 2-D floor plane. In his own words: "traditional furniture was never organized as a whole system. the pieces were a bunch of separate, unrelated objects determined by inertia & sentiment. feeble efforts were made to organize them "visually", but that was always just another trap. the old culture has always tried to make the unworkable endurable by overlaying it with whichever "good taste" is going at the moment. unfortunately this is like trying to make airplanes look like birds. that never worked either. that's because you can't make feathers out of aluminum." (p. 35 Liberated Space) Spoken like one fierce guerilla.

Cover, via Pop-Up City.


Bent Cardboard

Me and cardboard furniture go way back. I built my first series of cardboard chairs for my freshman design studio, a decade ago this fall. I made three, each relying on a system of intersecting grids to support the seat. The next two years I also made cardboard chairs, entering them in the Chair Affair, a competition sponsored by the American Institute of Architecture Students. I made a stool from Fed-Ex mailing tubes, with a woven seat, and a cantilever chair, combining corrugated material with laser-cut chipboard and cardboard tubes. 
The FedEx stool, one of my first (and ugliest) attempts at cardboard furniture.
All five of these efforts were rather clumsy, each in their own way. They were some of my first chairs, and each was less than ergonomically ideal, suffering from a wide range of dimensions as I cast around for a set of good proportions. None of them were terribly durable, although two survive to this day, albeit with intermittent use. Aesthetically, I'm not thrilled with any of them, and only show photos here as a window to the process.

Another early effort, covered in a really ineptly applied, wrinkly-ass coat of paper-mache.


Google Maps and the Design of Memory

A few months ago, I wrote a post about Facebook's then-looming IPO and a business model predicated upon the redesign of human memory. Today, I heard a podcast from The Story, an interview show out of North Carolina. One of the secondary spots in the program concerned Google Street View. Guest host Sean Cole introduced the piece with his own Street View experience, wherein he, as a young man, realizes his bike is stolen as he is on the phone with his soon-to-be ex-girlfriend. All of this crystallizes in his memory when Cole looks up his old apartment on Google. His bike is still locked up in front of the building, waiting for its owner to hop on and ride to a date with his girlfriend. 

That is a lot of baggage to hang onto a grainy, digitally refracted photo of an old walk-up in Brooklyn. But it gets heavier. Cole introduces Erin, an old friend, who has archived several Street View screenshots of the house she grew up in. The front yard still holds her father's beat-up old Suburban, covered in University of Wisconsin stickers. It has been gone for years, sold after her father committed suicide by jumping off of a parking garage. He left no note, but did leave voicemails on Erin's phone and, unconsciously, a faint imprint on the internet. So she treasures these things, as I think we all would, backing up the voicemails to her computer and saving these screenshots in case the SV team comes back and updates their data. 

My last apartment in Chicago.


Object Guerilla on the Move

I did it. I moved again. A new place to live for the sixth time in six years. But, as moves go, this was an easy one. OG HQ moved just around the corner; the new building literally shares a wall with the old one. With a year in Chicago now, and steady employment wafting over me like a cool, comforting breeze, it was time for a little more space and a bedroom with a door you can close. 

The move coincided with my trip to Rabbit Island, which put a crimp in the whole unpacking-and-organizing dance that generally takes place in each new residence. However, since I had some time and space to plan things, I did have a chance to knock out a bunch of new furniture, and photograph some old furniture that deserved better representation. 

Moving each year is kind of a scorched-earth policy. You must be ruthless with your things, gutting the junk, eviscerating the sentimental, and slashing the useless. The continual shedding of things allows for growth. After years of nomadism and making do with temporary fixes (like milkcrate shelves and plastic cutting boards), I am trying to focus on making things that are still portable, light, and cheap but also are more permanent fixtures. I often moved and made do -- putting my mattress on the floor, for instance -- instead of moving with a precise suite of well-rendered nomadic solutions. After all, the most durable solution is frequently the most sustainable.

Now, I have two kitchen tables, a work table, a bed, and a set of bookshelves that come apart into flat-pack pieces, prepared for the next guerilla campaign. What follows is a photo tour of the new pieces, ready for action. Another post may follow as new things come into use.

The Knock-Down Shelves. 


Rabbit Island: The Trip

Object Guerilla has been a bit slow in posting this month due to a move of HQ, resultant internet issues, and because I spent a week in the woods. 

Back at the end of March, I entered an architectural competition for an artist's retreat on Rabbit Island, a 90-acre slab of sandstone and conifer off of the Keewenaw Peninsula in Lake Superior. The Keewenaw (now technically an island itself, after being cut off by the Portage Canal beginning in 1868) is part of the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, first settled by whites in search of copper in the 1840s. Long known to native peoples, rich copper deposits were commercially exploited in Houghton, Hancock, Calumet, and other towns well into the 1950s, driving the local economy. However, once the most easily-recoverable deposits played out, and copper prices declined after World War II, the mines shut down. Many people left the U.P. in search of work downstate, joining the steel and auto plants in Detroit, Flint, Milwaukee, and Chicago. The current economy is still based on natural resources -- extracting timber and importing tourists. 

Panorama at the point.


Black Cinema House II

Since the last post on the Black Cinema House, back in May, much progress has been made. 

Two weekends back, there was a a great cookout in the back of the library house, where the garden has been expanded and newly bordered in the back with a substantial brick wall. The lady and I toured the now-empty garage next to the library house, which has been gutted.

Across the street, the BCH is slowly taking shape. Finish carpentry is a painstaking craft, and the whole building is a piece of art. I feel like that is often said about buildings, usually referring to some starchitect museum complex or luxury condominiums that use imported marble and titanium cladding. This, however, really is a work of art, marked with the evidence of a dozen skilled craftsmen.

6901 Dorchester Avenue is a different, truer piece, made by hand from the bones of old buildings. Just last week I glued together a broken maple stair tread, added a piece of walnut flooring to fill it out, attached a piece of poplar to shim it up, blocked out a new structure in the stairwell, sanded it down, and re-fit it. This is not about speed, or modernity; it is about resurrecting something fractured, reuniting something split, and rebuilding with the remnants of something long since past.
The library house.


Of Roof Racks and Manifestos

It occurred to me recently, brain baking in this epic July heat, that I have never explained the title of this blog. In a way, it is a rather abstract name; in another way, it is exactly precise. It is illustrated by a roof rack I just built to haul lumber with my trusty '98 Corolla.

The first half, Object, has value in its noun and verb forms.

ob·ject n.
1. Something perceptible by one or more of the senses, especially by vision or touch; a material thing.
2. A focus of attention, feeling, thought, or action: an object of contempt.
3. The purpose, aim, or goal of a specific action or effort: the object of the game.
4. Philosophy Something intelligible or perceptible by the mind.

As a noun, first and foremost, I am in the business of objects. Secondarily, I am in the business of teaching and thinking about objects, though I have not achieved any sort of General Theory that might yet unify my aesthetic ideas.

ob·ject·edob·ject·ingob·jects  v.
1. To present a dissenting or opposing argument; raise an objection: objected to the testimony of the witness.
2. To be averse to or express disapproval of something: objects to modern materialism.

As a verb, Object brings my aims into focus. Simply, I object.

I object to disposability. I object to shoddiness. I object to carelessness. I object to overconsumption. I object to greed. I object to pollution: physical, visual, cultural.

Tighten up.


Air Conditioning

It has been an unusually hot summer in the U.S. this year, breaking temperature records from Chicago to Denver. The heat exacerbated already terrible firestorms in Colorado, and led to a so-called "super derecho" line of storms that swept from the Midwest through to the Atlantic in the first week of July. A derecho is a powerful windstorm, accompanied by lightning and rain, fueled by hot air and ripples in the jet stream. Derechos can often give rise to tornadoes. Fortunately, this year, few funnel clouds were reported but 90 mph winds knocked down trees and power lines, leaving an estimated 2.7 million folks without power.

Without power, people can't run their air conditioning. Without air conditioning, the elderly, people with respiratory ailments, and those suffering from heart disease are at risk of dying from hyperthermia.  

The air conditioning-heat wave phenomena is a bit like a snake eating its tail, however. 5% of the nation's electricity is used to run A/C, producing 100 million tons of carbon dioxide per year, leading to, well, global warming. Despite conservative counterattacks, it has become accepted science that a warming planet leads to longer, more severe weather events across the globe.

Aww, little Will is growing up. His first air conditioner!


A Museum of Early American Tools

Walking, like I do, has its avantages. The other week, on Belmont, I stumbled into a box of free books and picked up a battered copy of Eric Sloane's A Museum of Early American Tools.

I knew Sloane from some of his other books, which my parents had in the house growing up. Museum was originally released in 1962, by the venerable Funk and Wagnall's, a reference publisher that also made illustrated children's encyclopedias that I remember from the elementary school library.

My edition.



Last year, Little Black Pearl, a community arts center in Hyde Park launched a charter school called the Options Laboratory, offering an arts and technology-based curriculum for young folks that have had trouble succeeding in traditional educational environments.  They are also running a series of after-school programs, including a poetry class and a woodshop experience.  Meshed together, under the auspices of a grant won by local arts education non-profit Urban Gateways, the program was named WordsWood.  On Thursday afternoons, a crew of nine young men would be studying poetry with local writer Avery Young, and on Fridays, they would be working on designing and building some chairs with me.  

I started out the curriculum with a simple exercise: measuring our own bodies and a bunch of different chairs.  The idea was to engage the students in realizing that there are reasons behind the way things are in the world, on a meta-level -- why chairs are the height they are, why they are the width they are, why doorknobs are the size they are, etc. -- and work on the practical skills of reading a tape measure, making readable sketches, and translating real-world data into a visual form.  We discussed different kinds of drawings -- elevations, plans, and sections, and got familiar with the dimensions of our world.

The modern wing of Little Black Pearl arts center.


Guerilla Truck Show

This week, after a long day of sanding redwood and making desktops out of doors (and door jambs), I hustled over the Fulton Street Market for the eighth annual Guerilla Truck Show, a loading-dock party thrown by the Morlen Sinoway Atelier.  I was covered in sawdust, and reeked of turpentine, but hey, a sucker for all things guerilla, I got there right as it opened at 5:30. The timing was a little unfortunate; many of the food trucks had yet to show up, a number of the booths were still pulling up, and the low, hard sun had my camera messing up.  So, I will apologize at the top here for some of the photography, which, even by my own mediocre standards, suffered due to the time of day, the dim trucks, the crowds, and the inability to step back and get a full shot of nearly anything.

West Fulton Market Street is a mix of old, industrial Chicago and newer, cultural manufacturing.  Right down the street from hip design-firm lofts, art galleries, and mid-century modern antique stores are truck repair shops, meatpacking plants, and empty silos formerly full of wheat.  A mix of gastropubs and fancy sit-down restaurants are slotted into soaring-ceilinged spaces, facing a street that is largely uninhabited after dark.  The El and industrial train tracks provide a steady background grumble of rattling steel.

At times, the street is lined on both sides with high loading docks.  Taking advantage of the loading docks, the Guerilla Truck Show uses 16' rental box trucks as show booths.  This makes a lot of sense -- cheap, fast, light, and easy to set-up and break down, with minimal investment by the backers.  The show runs only one night each year, during the week, which cuts down on interrupting traffic and costs.  

The following is a selection of my favorites, as far as my brief visit allowed.  The selection is somewhat limited by time, and booths that weren't set up yet.  My choices, and the show itself, is mostly about furniture, but there were art booths, theater booths, and food trucks.  

I really don't want to be a part of the unfortunate conflation of "guerilla" and "gorilla", but hey, here we are.


Sonic Trace

Despite my best efforts, I failed to put up a post last week because I have been devoting my spare time to another architecture competition.  Unlike my last contest experience, this one had a much shorter timeframe, and I was in quite a rush to get it done.

KCRW is a public radio station in Los Angeles.  I have listened, as podcasts, to many of their programs over the years, including Good Food, Morning Becomes Eclectic, and DnA.  I was visiting my old favorite BLDGBLOG the other day and came across one of Geoff's periodic link roundups, which included a number of upcoming contests.  One was for Sonic Trace, designing and constructing a mobile sound booth for KCRW to use to collect stories from around California.

I couldn't resist.  This one hit all of my architectural obsessions: design/build, small-scale, mobile, sustainable, and engaged in the telling of stories.  It has a tight budget, and includes some video on DIY soundproofing, a boot-strapping approach with which I am quite familiar.  Coincidentally, I had just been looking at a teardrop trailer on Instructables, and thinking, as I often do, about the nomadism that has brought me here to Chicago.

I built a model in SketchUp, printed it, traced layers, re-scanned those layers, and composited the result in Photoshop. 


Black Cinema House

Over the last two weeks, I've shifted from the ReBuild Foundation shop down to a couple of houses on the south side, on Dorchester Avenue.  Theaster Gates lived on Dorchester Avenue for some time, and has gradually acquired a couple of pieces of property up and down the street.  The main project right now is the Black Cinema House, a two-story brick building, with generous basement, at the corner of Dorchester and 69th St.  

Front of the Black Cinema House. 
Corner, with sweet overhanging second-story bay.
Developed by the ReBuild Foundation architectural design team, it is going to be a place for the study and scholarship of black films, with space for screenings; a large kitchen; an office for archivists, students, and scholars; open programming room for events and classes; and living space for artists on the second floor.  Funded largely with an NEA Creative Placemaking grant, the project has been chronicled over at ArtPlace America.  Films, scholarly support, and collaboration will occur with the Chicago Film Archives and South Side Projections.

Gorgeous round window on first floor.
From the rear.


Shop Class as Soulcraft

I bought a book, Shop Class as Soulcraft, by Matthew Crawford, a while ago, a few months after it came out.  At the time, I was teaching in G.E.D. and job-skills training program for at-risk youth in rural Alabama.  At work, I was designing and building small pieces of architecture; at home, I was designing and building small pieces of furniture.  I got about halfway through the book, letting it lull me to sleep right before bed each night.  Worn out from the day's labors, digging fencepost holes and slinging around railroad ties and absorbing the resentment of angry teens, Crawford's words failed to penetrate too deeply.  I eventually gave up on the book, finding it too abstract and philosophical to handle at that hour of the day.

I picked it up again recently, determined to wade through his arguments.  It proved to be much easier this time, partly because I now deal with the metaphysical aspects of craft a little more directly in my daily work.  

The book began life as an essay, published in 2006.  Expanded into a book, and pushed into a wider, less academic realm, Crawford's carefully researched, highly personal story became a minor phenomenon.  He landed everywhere from the New York Times to the Colbert Report, frequently accompanied by the photo of him from the book jacket wherein he leans casually against a doorframe, left hand tugging the dormant brake on a motorcycle, right hand holding a crescent wrench.  His story was compelling; after completing a Ph.D in Political Philosophy at the University of Chicago, and landing a job at a prestigious D.C. think tank, Crawford abandoned it all and opened a motorcycle repair shop, Shockoe Moto, in a leaky warehouse in Richmond, Virginia.  It had all the makings of a classic fish-out-of-water comedy, some hapless Woody Allen-type fumbling around in a garage, lighting grease fires and busting ass on dropped ball bearings.  

Matthew Crawford, from the New York Times.


Facebook and the Design of Memory

Facebook's $100 billion IPO is just peeking at us over the horizon, inspiring floods of cheap ink and cheaper pixels.  A recent Huffington Post article recounted the key stats from Zuck and the gang's SEC filing: 845 million members; 483 million daily users; profit of roughly $1 billion on revenues of $3.7 billion.  Unlike competitors like FriendsterMySpace and Google Plus, Facebook seems to have found the hidden wardrobe into our minds, a backdoor to ubiquity.  These networks thrive on pervasiveness, and Facebook has won the all-important popularity contest.  

However, there are chinks in the hoodie.  Facebook has reached 60% market penetration in the U.S. and the U.K., a saturation level that may prove difficult surmount.  China, a tempting new market, is closed to them unless they submit to draconian censorship laws.  Advertising comprises 85% of company revenues, which is likely to fall as third-party sites use the Facebook Platform to allow users to interact with their content directly.  Zuckerberg's autocratic style and majority of voting shares has raised questions about corporate governance, especially after his questionable recent purchase of revenue-less Instagram for $1 billion.  And, the existential question: other than its size, what is to prevent Facebook from becoming MySpace once something shinier and faster comes along?

Some of the comment sections for these articles scroll on endlessly, a cross-section of complaint and bluster, wondering at Facebook's omniscience while simultaneously submitting to it.  I mean, after all, what does Facebook make exactly?  What does it all mean?  The Atlantic's Stephen Marche recently wrestled with these philosophical issues, writing:

"What Facebook has revealed about human nature—and this is not a minor revelation—is that a connection is not the same thing as a bond, and that instant and total connection is no salvation, no ticket to a happier, better world or a more liberated version of humanity. Solitude used to be good for self-reflection and self-reinvention. But now we are left thinking about who we are all the time, without ever really thinking about who we are. Facebook denies us a pleasure whose profundity we had underestimated: the chance to forget about ourselves for a while, the chance to disconnect."


Working Bikes / Blackstone Bikes

I needed a new bike for the spring.  'Ol Blue was in rough shape after the winter.  The front chainring got bent; the rear wheel was bent; the frame was showing a lot of rust; and the gears stopped working.  The old-school caliper brakes were rough in any kind of wet, even just riding through a puddle.  But, mostly, I was tired of the weight.  It was so heavy.  People zipped past me on modern road bikes, smooth as you please.  One-speeds, fixies, all the snobby hipsters -- everyone was passing me like I was standing still.

Now, some of this had to do with my backpack -- drill, driver, batteries, block plane, square, tape measure, lunch, water bottle, lock.  But, I was getting stronger, and better at navigating traffic all winter, and I felt like the bike was holding me back.  

The new ride.  I've since added a rear rack and a tool bag.  The bicycling carpenter.

So I upgraded for spring.  I ended up with a 1987 Schwinn World Traveler, snappy in black with gold and pink accents.  It has new straight-across handlebars, new brakes, new tires, tuned-up wheels, and restored original derailleur.  The12 gears and shifter are SunTour, a solid, sought-after component group.  I added the bar ends and zip-tied flashlights for nighttime visibility.  The difference is amazing -- I felt like I used to be pedaling through mud, constantly uphill, wheels rubbing the brake and chain wobbling off the gears.  But the real story has less to do with the bike itself and more to do with where I got it.  

Page from 1987 Schwinn catalog.  My bike, same color scheme, is in the upper left corner.  Image courtesy of  bikecatalogs.org.


RX Workshops

I signed up to teach some of the ReBuilding Exchange's Make It-Take It workshops this spring.  Each Sunday for a few months, I taught two three-hour classes on how to make a simple home project -- a wine rack, a laptop/bed-in-breakfast tray, a bench, an end table, a kitchen blackboard, and a crash course in bandsaw taxidermy, creating a wooden facsimile of a mounted deer head.  Promoted through Groupon, we got a healthy turnout throughout, though we lost some folks to the wiles of good weather and playoff hockey.  

All the projects are crafted out of lumber from the vast RX warehouse.  For the wine rack, I wanted to go as simple as possible while retaining a healthy dose of visual theatrics.  Given the beauty of our source material, we didn't need to go too crazy -- the old-growth pine and fir speaks for itself, dense, rich, and finely-figured.  I settled on a slanted L-shape, punched with three holes, allowing the bottles to cantilever out into space.  This makes the bottles the centerpiece, leaving the rack to recede somewhat.  

Rack 'em.


Rabbit Island

I first heard of Rabbit Island on Cabin Porn, the sort of escapist, Instagram-tinged Tumblr that sets your mind adrift on a Sunday afternoon.  The island sits in the middle of Lake Superior, a few miles off of the Michigan coast.  Bought by Rob Gorski in 2010, the land was put into a trust, and conceived as an artist's colony.  The hope is to put up artists -- visual, performance, musicians -- for temporary terms.  

Some have already spent time on the island, finding inspiration in the solitude, spacious sky, and long water views.  At 90 acres, there is a substantial amount of land to explore; yet, as an island, edges are clearly defined.  The island, as archetype, fulfills a primal, childhood dream, same as a treehouse, or blanket fort, or backyard hideaway -- it limits the big, bad outside world, circumscribing a complex universe into a simple, manageable space.  What one of us didn't fantasize about having our own island as a child, filling it with pools and waterfalls and ziplines and basketball courts and video game caves?

All photos, except renderings, by Rob Gorski, available on the Rabbit Island Flickr page.
From the air.


Going Against the Grain

The ReBuilding Exchange, one of my places of employment, has a DIY fest, called Going Against the Grain, every year.  This past Sunday, a laundry list of hands-on crafters, improvisers, builders, and designers descended on the warehouse, fueled by the folks at New Belgium brewers.  So, like the good little green citizens that we are, we biked over a little after noon, skies threatening overhead.

The amount of bikes there was kind of out of control.
The lady and I, and some good friends, gathered much information on our nascent, studio-apartment-sized experiments in homesteading, home-brewing, bread baking, furniture building, and food growing.  Unfortunately, we don't have room for chickens just yet, but all in due time . . .

Right as we walked in, there was a badass rickshaw contraption by Alex Gartelmann and Jonas Sebura.  

Puts a regular 'ol Harley to shame.


The Neuroticism of Craft

Last year, I designed and built a series of six chairs from road signs, all nearly identical.  The chair shells were folded aluminum signs and the bases were made from good 'ol Alabama pecan wood, milled, sanded, and lacquered within an inch of their life.  They turned out pretty well. I wrote an article about them, got paid, and enjoyed them for about a week.  Then, one day after work, I sat down in one of them, and the two joints in the back legs blew out.  The chair collapsed.  I smacked my elbow and my head pretty hard on the way to the floor.

Time passed.  The rest of the chairs seemed fine, more or less; the broken one had a flawed joint in the back, which gave way once my weight was leaned back into the seat.  However, I was nervous every time I sat in one from there on out, and especially nervous that someone else, perhaps bigger than me, might sit in one and break it.  I'm fine with breaking my own creations, but the paranoia and anxiety and embarrassment around the idea of someone else possibly injuring themselves and thinking I was a moron was almost too much to handle.  

I had broken a cardinal rule of design -- putting form above function.  In my desire to have a sleek, light form, I had ignored some structural considerations.  The back legs were extremely slanted -- over 20 degrees.  That joint, where the cross-piece intersected, bit too deeply into those back legs, weakening the wood there.  The legs splayed in only one axis -- front-to-back -- which made the chair unstable side-to-side.  The stock for the legs, at 1" square, was not strong enough to resist the twist and tension in the folded aluminum signs, which meant the legs didn't all hit the ground evenly once the base was bolted to the sign.  The 3/4" dowels I used as cross pieces were also not strong enough to resist side-to-side motion.  The base was essentially a series of parallelograms, with no triangulation, which led to a lack of stiffness.

The original chairs, pretty as you please.