The Design of Things

human endeavor + the natural world

Category: the design of Commerce



I think it would change the world if we reintroduced “good” to our vocabulary. As in, my good coat, my good purse. A good sweater. Good in this sense implies well made, worth taking care of, exceptionally designed, will last a long time.

We could stand to make a few more purchases that will last – both materially and stylistically, the intersection where excellent design resides. (But not last to eternity, like a Fisher Price plastic castle in a landfill or water bottles in the ocean.) I realized that I found this combination in our patio furniture, made by the French company Fermob. I bought a small cafe set after we redid this porch and painted our house – it was featured in a shop in town but cost more than I’d planned to spend.

It was so pretty I started rationalizing right away. The set was more expensive than what I could find somewhere like Target – not so expensive as to be “luxury” but not so cheap that it would fall apart in a few years. It was made in France, not China, which means a lower carbon footprint because it’s shipped a shorter distance and is made in a country that is reducing its greenhouse gas emissions. And best of all, that gorgeous color was guaranteed to hold through every season, for years.


I put in the order. A few weeks later, I happened to go to New York and saw hundreds of chairs and tables like mine out in Bryant Park. Sure enough, Fermob. Putting furniture outside for public use in New York
is like asking an elephant to step on a Timex. (Imagine what would happen if I put my West Elm foyer sofas in a hotel lobby for a week.)

I thought about what makes them such good design. They’re made of steel, but don’t use a lot of it. The graceful swoop of the chairs makes them pretty and also surprisingly comfortable though they are quite light and foldable. They come in dozens of other colors and chic, retro-inspired but fresh styles, including those with cushions and arms.

Fermob’s website features a section on production and “eco-design.” They point out that steel is nearly universally recycled, their colors are UV-protected so they won’t fade, and they use solvent-free paints and upholstery. As we all become more budget-conscious, climate-conscious, and overwhelmed by clutter, good design should incorporate all these considerations. I think our sensibilities may be swinging back that way – I hope more companies will find it important to make products that meet us there.

My Fermob set is now my “good” cafe set. I love it every time I look out the window, or pass by with my groceries, or sit down for lunch or a glass of wine. I’ll love it for years, probably decades, to come.


To Go


One of my guilty pleasures is to buy hot coffee or iced tea out in the world. A dog walk is an opportunity to go by a café. Errand running, another chance to just stop by Dunkin’ Donuts. Waking up in the morning: a chance to figure out where and when I will be forced to buy a caffeinated drink.

What really makes me feel guilty about it is the paper and plastic waste I am generating. The paper cup, the plastic lid, the cardboard sleeve I take, the plastic cup, the straw…. It’s all bad, even if it goes in the recycling after spending some time on the floor of my car.

I hate buying a thing to solve a problem. For awhile I pretended to myself that I would cut this habit and make most of my coffee and tea at home. But I am addicted to the experience of someone else making it and of carrying it around in an adult’s sippy cup.

I started looking at reusable containers. The huge plastic cold drink containers at Dunkin’s seemed even more environmentally egregious and are just plain ugly. The reusable coffee mugs have annoying (to me) handles and are either made of plastic or have a dark cavernous inside that would never get cleaned. The ceramic cup with silicon lids are gorgeous but a.) bound to get broken and b.) isn’t silicon a bad-mining thing?

When I stopped looking, I found Kleen Kanteen’s steel pint at the grocery store, lid sold separately. The steel conveys that industrial chic while camping thing. The lid contains a small amount of silicon and of course hard plastic. The entire thing is “responsibly sourced” which means, at least, somebody thought about whether it created emissions or eroded mountain gorilla habitat or some other bad something.

For me, I think it will last a long time, I’ll like it which means I’ll remember to use it, and it won’t get too gross (which goes back to liking it enough that I’ll remember to use it.)

It was expensive. Ten dollars for the cup and seven for the lid (as if you would buy a sippy cup without a lid).

The guy who rang me up was Somali. He looked at it and said, “This is cool. We had these for our cups at home in Somalia. Just this kind of steel cup.”

I said, “I bet they didn’t cost $10.”

“No,” he said. “For ten dollars you could do anything, go anywhere you wanted.”

We laughed about that. Then I bought it anyway.

Grocery Store News


The big news in our town is that a Whole Foods is opening around the corner tomorrow.

This event has generated mainly two reactions. The first was dismay at the closing of the original grocery store, part of a depressing and yet oddly comforting local chain called Johnny’s Foodmaster. The stores reminded me of at store where my Granny might have shopped. You could definitely find Crisco there, and Christmas napkins for cheap.

The real outrage came from some people at the idea of Whole Foods coming in – old people wouldn’t know how to shop there, it caters to the rich, the town soon wouldn’t be recognizable. An outright class war was brewing, a partisan brouhaha as bad as when Carol Band proposed banning leaf blowers in the summertime.

The other reaction was excitement, which if you think about it is equally outsized. Yet people have been talking about it, and tonight two of my neighbors called to ask if I wanted to go by tomorrow, on opening day. I said yes, even though I already go to a Whole Foods nearby and I tell myself it is mainly to buy olive oil – which, at Whole Foods, is cheap.

Of course Whole Foods has worked to generate this excitement. Communicative and cheerful during construction, they used the wait to create a buzz about being Arlington’s locally sourced grocery store. The papered over windows were plastered with descriptions of local businesses in working class towns who would be involved – the bakery in Medford, the fishmonger in Gloucester, the distributor in Everett.

So tonight I walked the dogs over, just to see.

I found a sparkling new grocery store, all ready to go. It’s beautifully designed with pretty colors, stenciled signs over the deli and seafood, and a seating area in front with butcher block tables and retro metal chairs enameled in a ‘fifties pistachio green. Pumpkins and chrysanthemums lined the sidewalk outside the front door just to remind us it’s a grocery store like any other in New England this time of year. Chalkboard signboards with the latest sales and specials drawn on stood ready to put out, along with one that said “Whole Foods: Now Open!”

The whole effect was endearing – like the kids had gotten everything ready for the big production tomorrow. It was also filled with little messages that could definitely provoke disdain. Scrawled on the wall above the seafood were the words “100% Traceable”. At the front of the pretty produce I could see a sign for “eco-apples” – apples that hadn’t been treated with pesticides. Small carousels of reusable grocery bags topped the registers.

But they pulled it off, design-wise, without it looking like a Whole Foods. It kind of looks like a cheerier Johnny’s. Very clever.

A young policeman came walking up from the parking lot. I assumed he was there to protect the pumpkins.

“I’m just looking,” I said.

“Oh, no,” he said. “I was just wondering what time they were opening tomorrow.”

He peered in the window.

“Aw, it looks nice in there.”

After we compared notes on Stop N Shop (“They’re awful,” he said. “So expensive. And you never know where their stuff is coming from.”) I had to wonder about this grocery store class divide and whether Whole Foods might be aiming to change it.

Whenever I find myself starting to be impressed by a corporation, I imagine a rich guy with a cigar in his mouth and his feet on the desk laughing that I fell for the chalkboard signs and the eco-apples.

I know many environmental activists who call any corporate efforts on this front “greenwashing”. And I don’t want to know all the people who have to eat quinoa. But there is power in purchasing and marketing basic ideas of sustainability, and being places where these products and values can become normalized. (I do wonder about all the stuff they sell, but that is another post.)

This Whole Foods, like others popping up in the area, is small for a grocery store these days. They kept the Johnny’s footprint – didn’t try to make it enormous or reject the in-town location because it couldn’t be made bigger. They’re bringing us eco-apples as if we asked for them, and maybe someone who never thought about pesticides might begin to (as long as the apples don’t look wormy, which I couldn’t verify from squinting in the window).

One of my neighbors is just hoping there will be a cookie bar.

restoration hardwood


In 1998, I remember looking out my office window and seeing a woman trying to get out of her car, clutching an enormous drink, wearing an enormous parka, tumbling out of an SUV that was too big for her. My mind flashed to all the other oversized items cluttering up our lives – like giant candles with seven wicks from Pottery Barn – and thought, “We’re going to look back on this time and think…‘big’.”

It was the heyday of no limits, presided over by President Bill with his cheeseburgers and his outsized appetite for “is”-ness. The Rainforest Action Network was turning us on to forests through caramelized nuts, leading us to believe we could save them by eating candy. The stock market banged along taking us all with it crazily upward – just grab a leaf on the vine, whichever one makes sense to you! Starbucks! Microsoft! ExxonMobil!

That flying high lasted another ten years until the whole debt-laden tower fell with a crash. We’re still climbing out of the rubble. The Asian rainforests, as predicted in 1998, are largely gone, replaced by plantations to fuel our thirst for hardwood and palm oil. McMansion production has stopped, with 40 million of those homes (the destination of much of the rainforest wood) standing empty after foreclosure. The carbon from those forests has now irretrievably been added to the atmosphere.

Enter the Restoration Hardware catalog, relaunched last year amid the Great Global Bubble Burst. A company that used to offer Mission furniture with witty accessories, the new RH is full-on romance, blazing forward with a “limits be damned!” gigantic attitude. The new CEO looks like a Ralph Lauren model who takes himself very, very seriously. His letter opens the door to 654 pages of distressed wood and linen neutrals all shaped to remind us of various eras of the past. The references are slightly unclear: Amelia Earhart biopic with some Midnight in Paris thrown in, a little Gatsby, perhaps? The English Patient, complete with leather-covered cigar case dressers? I’m not sure. But all of these are presented as imagined and rebuilt on a Universal Studios set because, as the dresses and gloves from my great Aunt Agnes tell me, things (and people) were much, much smaller back then.

The 188 inch sofas, the ceiling fans that look like they are from the front of a prop plane (though possibly bigger than the ones Roald Dahl flew for the RAF), the $3000 3 foot birdcage chandeliers, and the tall hooded armchairs that might have a tiny vial propped in the middle for Alice, labeled “EAT ME”, all scream big is best.

The catalog seems to hope we are sitting in McMansions trying to find the perfect 15 foot sofa just before the house is, in the parlance of easy money, “flipped”. It seems to think there is no reason, no reason whatsoever, to eschew the excesses of the past.

Instead, it suggests we can repent with nods to naturalness, such as using colorless rough linens and making the furniture from plantations where rain forests once stood. Or from salvaged wood, or just from wood meant to look salvaged.

This no-limits nostalgia leaves the whole 654 page package somehow not all that interesting.  Make the catalog heavy enough to give the mail carrier bursitis? Fill it with furniture that could break your foot? That doesn’t translate to real sophistication.

The historic reference that’s missing is to the last ten years – the need to do more with less, to scale down while bringing quality up, to add wit to indulgent whimsy.

The overarching reference – revealed in the French Empire section of the children’s catalog – is to Versailles. The Louis XIV chairs clothed in pale linen look like the ghosts of opulence.

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