The Design of Things

human endeavor + the natural world

Category: the design of Commerce

Wherefore, boots?

For at least three seasons, maybe as many as five, I haven’t been able to find a tall boot that would work in a professional situation. At first, I thought it was me. I wasn’t really looking, or I was too picky, or the fashions just weren’t right for me. If it was the latter – well, that always changes after a season or two.

But recently I’ve realized that the current offerings are relatively permanent, and that it’s a problem noticed by other women I know. It’s an abrupt reversal of fashion and design trends that grew over decades as women entered, stayed in – and sent female children off to – the work force.

This isn’t about a boot shortage. These days, there seems to be a surplus. Online retailers like Zappo’s and Asos list pages and pages of tall boots (not to mention the equally ubiquitous “booty”). Macy’s, Lord & Taylor, Nordstrom, Nordstrom Rack, Marshall’s, T.J.Maxx, Nine West, Garnet Hill, J.Crew, Land’s End and others all list them on their websites or stock rows and rows of them in their stores. Everywhere, there are boots.

But there are none for women who want to wear them to work, looking smart and professional all day while being able to hurry down the halls of Congress or run up the stairs of the lab building or chase down an interview at the end of a court proceeding and then get back to the newsroom. For when we would want to wear trousers, dresses, or skirts.

The tall boots offered now are one of two styles: “riding” or over the knee (or riding boots with an over the knee flap, giving them a vaguely jackbootish air.) Some of the riding boots are faintly or overtly western, other Ralph Lauren-ish stiff, others elfin slouchy, still others all three in a mashup of design elements. Most of the over-the-knee boots remind one only of one profession – which might bring you to Washington or to courtrooms but not for the right reasons.

None but the highly expensive dress the ankle. None distinguish themselves through the shape of the toe bed. Almost all in the “riding” style have the profile of a rain boot: Wide in the ankle, gaping in the calf, neither square nor narrow. Some of the over-the-knee boots are fun, and some beautiful, but not really for everyday. For everyday, it seems, we have shapeless.

Did this trend emerge from girls wearing Uggs or Hunter rain boots (depending on whether they wanted to be slouchy or prim in their privilege) to college classes ten years ago? Is it a resistance to being professional? Are the stiletto over-the-knee boots being sold at department stores an outcome of internet porn?

Maybe it’s all of this and maybe it’s something more reflective of the state of our economy and of our aspirations. There is little cost to making the same boot year after year, and making it in China out of manmade materials. There is no cost to making a boot that will “fit” anyone – and there may be a profit in putting actual design up on the “luxury” shelf, so those with any style at all now cost between $300 – $800. And when we see boots that can only be worn with skinny jeans and leggings by day, or a minidress to a club at night — does it limit our imagination for putting on clothes that will take us far out into the world?

It’s a reshuffling toward the proletariat and the oligarchs – not toward a place where women are independent, buying their own clothes with their own money, succeeding and leading in the workplace and beyond.

boots from


Fossil Fall


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A Dutch friend once told me that when she visited the United States in autumn our forests “looked like a fairy tale” with the leaves turning to colors of flame. I had never considered what it would look like to someone whose home country doesn’t really have an autumn display like ours, but I think of  her description sometimes when I notice the sunlight glittering through the yellow and russet canopy and the sparkling flutter of the leaves as they fall.

This year I’ve been letting leaves cover my lawn and porch and even parts of my house before rushing to rake them up – even though I know will be overwhelmed by the twentieth leaf bag or wheelbarrow trip to the compost pile.

As I write, I’m listening to the droning blare of perfectionism, obsession and waste. Yes, the leaf blower – easy target of suburban environmental angst — but it makes you wonder why we have to attack autumn as if it were a scourge. The guys across the street, carrying big hoses on their shoulders and shooting the blowers at leaf litter, look like they’re brandishing weapons. It also makes you wonder why we purchase plastic representations of autumn to hang on our doors and adorn our porches, but can’t let the lawn be covered in leaves for a couple of weeks.

Leaf blowers seem such a minor convenience we don’t see the bigger disinterest in ending pollution. It turns out everybody kind of mis-under-esti- whoops!imated their emissions: China just looked around and discovered it has put a billion more tons of CO2 into the atmosphere than they thought. Volkswagen just announced it has been inflating the fuel economy of its gasoline cars, too, in addition to installing a device to make its diesel cars seem more efficient than they are.

How can any of us make a difference when things are happening at that scale? And what do we have to do with it? We have somehow – in very recent years – connected the need to use gasoline to blow leaves to perfection, the right to pursue that perfection to freedom, and defense of that freedom to menace should anybody ask you to stop. We saw this in our town when a proposal to ban the big gas-powered leaf blowers in the summertime inspired landscaping companies to send brawny men to stand with their arms folded in the doorways and balcony of our Town Hall.

Leaf blowers aren’t enough to cause climate change – but the principle behind using them is. Things will change when we want to be outside enjoying the real autumn, instead of inside Target or Home Goods purchasing Chinese approximations of it. When we insist that our cars burn so little fuel we roll down the windows to smell not gasoline but the last warm air before the winter. When we curse the raking of the leaves – or just pay someone to do it — but at the same time notice that our neighborhood looks like a fairy tale.


Baa warm up


This picture is from a farm I passed today about twenty miles out of the city. We still have snow on the ground. Today it only just made thirty degrees under a howling wind that blew the car sideways on the highway. Notice they are advertising “wool” blankets – not cotton, nylon, or Thinsulate. Hm. Why? Because wool is warm, because they’re not growing cotton in Massachusetts (at least not yet – we’ll see what happens with global warming), and because it’s a farm with sheep, not a chemical factory.

I’m writing this post mainly to those of us in the north, but it also applies to those of you in warmer climes if you’re planning to visit us, if you’re heading to the mountains, or if you’re going to have a stretch of cool and rainy days in the middle of your winter. It’s about something basic: Wool is warm. Wool is safe. Wool is organic. And wool will last in a way that no cotton layer you have ever will.

One evening last winter a friend remarked that she realized wearing one thin layer of wool made the difference between whining and hating winter and actually enjoying it, or at least not feeling miserable. I don’t want to get all Jimmy Carter on you, but it does matter what you’re wearing if you want to either save the planet or at least your heating bill and be comfortable at the same time. I’m amazed at how many people I see wearing cotton all winter, layering up sweatshirts and “hoodies” under their (sometimes cotton!) coats and then complaining that they’re cold.

Before Patagonia, when we went hiking, skiing, or camping we knew to wear wool. We learned that cotton won’t keep you warm and can kill you if it gets wet because it will not dry. Wool does the opposite – wicks wet away (say that ten times fast) and keeps your body heat with you.

We seem to have forgotten how to take care of ourselves in this basic way. Cotton is so cheap that clothing has joined the category of “disposable” things, so we think that just piling on a summertime fabric will get us through January. And February. And March. Walking, shoveling, commuting, and being home without turning the thermostat to eighty degrees. Maybe we feel invincible because we have cell phones. (We can call someone from a mountaintop? Or a car accident during extreme cold temperatures?) Maybe it’s because we can invent new fabrics from chemicals and plastic bottles and pay luxury prices for them. But maybe it would make sense to go back to basics sometimes.

I bought two of these this winter and I live in them. I’m old enough that I want to make sure all teenagers and twenty-somethings in my vicinity are warm enough, so I bought one for my 25 year old stepdaughter. Though born and raised in Boston, she is now “from” New Orleans, where she lived for one and a half years, and consequently doesn’t know how to dress for winter. She wears the sweater every day, too – under a set of layers of cotton sweatshirts, hoodie on the outside. But she does wear the wool as the bottom layer, closest to her skin. So that’s something.

Nesting with Google


Last year, Google decided to expand from being Encyclopedia Britannica and Rand McNally (with advertising) to becoming a little more Jeeves in acquiring Nest, a company that makes “smart” thermostats and smoke alarms. Whether Jeeves is a spy – will he tell Google when you’re not home? – remains to be seen. What caught people’s attention was the fact that Nest has made all its money on two lowly products because of the clever things they’ve done with them.

Nest made these utilitarian members of the household more beautiful and far more useful. As we in the North have been hitting one of our two most energy-intensive times of the year, I’ve become interested in the thermostat, designed to reduce energy use by addressing human flaws and appealing to human sensibilities.

Modern thermostats are already programmable but, according to Nest, only a small percentage of households program them or remember to adjust them, wasting 20% of home energy. We don’t have any immediate incentives to save energy and little awareness of our actual energy use. The person who pays the bills gets this information retroactively and in the aggregate – no tracking of our usage according to our household habits. (When the bills are high he or she might be the one following kids and spouse around the house turning off lights, turning down the thermostat during heating season, or asking said children to put on some socks, for crying out loud.)

So I like the idea of Nest – the thermostat will even program itself after a week or so of adjustments from the family. Its attractive simplicity engages us, including the fact that the whole thing is a dial you spin to change the temperature. (I like dials.) It can connect to the wireless network to adjust according to weather and barometric reports, or to be directed remotely from our smart phones, but doesn’t have to be on wireless to work. It has an “away” mode that reduces energy use when we’re gone.

But it’s expensive – still $250. I entered my zip code for rebate information and found I can get $25 back from my electric company, not enough to make a real dent in the price. So how could a family make it worth it?

Using a competitive aspect of the design could help. Nest tells you when you’re saving energy with a leaf icon, but you don’t get the leaf at a predetermined temperature. You get it according to your household’s particular energy use. And Nest adjusts the terms of getting the leaf over time, encouraging you to do better. This feature lends the opportunity for real engagement and participation from the family, from kids especially. If Nest is purchased as a family project, and its use by everyone is encouraged, it can engage kids’ curiosity and capacity for absorbing information and learning how to analyze it – particularly if there are family rewards for saved energy.

This blog on Nest’s website describes the details of earning a Leaf. It reminds me of the quarterly report I now get from our electric company that turns a utility bill into a competition. When I’m only doing “good” and not “great” compared to my neighbors, it actually kind of annoys and motivates me, even though I know that’s what they’re trying to do. (I even got psyched when I opened it to “great” – but that only happened once.) But I don’t have any other real time feedback. Kids and adults can put an app for Nest on their phones, track the usage according to family activity, and track the leaf – especially if there’s a pizza or a night out in the results.


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One of the dreary, relatively brief jobs I held in my very early twenties was as a telemarketer for Vermont PIRG – the early precursor to Environment America. The PIRGs worked to advance legislation like bottle bills. But the job was to go to an upstairs office in Burlington five nights a week and make calls asking for money.

You learn something from every experience. I learned that I hate cold calling. But I learned something else when the PIRG lobbyist came “down from Montpelier” to talk to us. This in itself was glamorous – she was older (when I look back, probably about 28), impressively on the weary side with the importance of her job, and worked at the state capitol.

The one thing I remember from her talk was her explaining the new trend of product makers measuring things for us, and that every time they did that, it was bad for the environment. Packets of cocoa is the example I think she gave. For some reason I never forgot this, and even though sometimes packets of cocoa are convenient (nice to take on a camping trip), I notice the trend continuing or even strengthening, and the consequences. The Keurig coffee cups are becoming fruitful and multiplying, already filling up landfills with difficult to recycle waste. Meanwhile SodaStream, an invention meant to reduce plastic by helping us make our own carbonated water and sodas, just came out with plastic “flavor caps.”

New laundry capsule pods made by Tide and others have had consequences even beyond their environmental impact – children are being poisoned by ingesting them, even when mothers have tried to keep them out of reach. So convenience becomes an inconvenience, another worry, a danger – and suddenly that new “design” of a laundry capsule is not good design at all. It solves a problem that didn’t exist, and creates more in the process.

The “recycle” mantra begins with “Reduce.” Reduce, reuse, recycle. Recycle is last, because although recycling is good, it still takes energy and water, just like any other process. So knowing that a package is recyclable is not really enough – better it doesn’t exist at all. Take the time to measure out your own coffee or laundry detergent, appreciating the design of machines that don’t require a capsule to operate. Already have a Keurig? As this family blogger notes, you can turn it into one of those machines by using the reusable capsules that come with it.

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