The Design of Things

human endeavor + the natural world

Category: the design of Connection

What really lasts: Enduring decor


“What really lasts.” This is the theme of my favorite issue of House Beautiful, published in January, 2008, and it’s amazing to me that every picture in its pages has, in fact, lasted in its appeal. One of the core tenets of sustainability is durability, a quality in short supply these days. I’ve noticed a kind of liquidation quality to décor magazines over the last two years – garish color, insanely competing patterns and textures, weird 1970s and ‘80s references utilizing far too many finish materials that rely on mining, all within homes that are too new and (still, when will it end?) far too large.

This issue inspired my own home though I copied none of it exactly. Not all of it reflects my own personal taste – I don’t love rolled arm sofas; I wouldn’t choose Chinoiserie; some of it is too preppy for me. But the threads that run through it show us exactly what lasts.

In each feature the rooms are furnished comfortably, easily functional without large spaces to traverse between rooms or among pieces. There are balances of sizing – normal-scaled sofas and chairs in a relatively low-ceilinged living room are dominated by wall-sized oil paintings from the hunt. There is a balance of color —  airy neutrals are interrupted by an oversized brown check on the armchairs;  tall walls painted in the airy  pale green of Benjamin Moore’s “Nantucket Breeze” are offset by long orange silk drapes, the color echoed in the striped upholstery of French dining chairs. Color is present but threaded through these palettes, allowing light to dominate.

In each layout the quality and location of the light is clear, whether it’s the cooler grey bright light filtering through the windows of an antique Newport, RI cottage, or the open, warm weight of the air in New Orleans. The home signals and responds to its surroundings, in a way that is both immediate and timeless. None feels “decorated” – that imposition of ideas that might not relate to the home’s geography or quality of life outside.


You can feel these houses. The soft hush of the home in Atlanta, pastels warmed by dark wood. The airy high ceilinged gorgeousness of the New Orleans townhouse, filled with antiques but made fresh with white trim and bare touches of gold. The cozy breeziness of the Newport cottage, all the way up to the toile covered tiny bedroom at the top of the stairs. You can be their guest. You would love to visit and stay, year after year after year.




A stick shift, a map, and a little French to get by…

We arrived in Martinique after dark, suddenly overdressed for the humidity, gearing up to make our rental car transaction in French. We didn’t have much in the way of a guidebook (there don’t seem to be any in English about Martinique and Guadeloupe) – just a ripped-out chapter of Fodor’s Caribbean 2014 that we’d found in a used bookstore. The iphone hadn’t come back to life in the new country, and we weren’t sure of the directions to our first hotel — on a peninsula across the island. While we waited, the shuttle driver came in to tell the woman behind the desk that the customers off the American flight all wanted automatiques and he did not have enough cars for them.

She did not speak English. At first, when we requested a map, she told us there was one in the rental car. When we asked whether it would give us directions to the Peninsula Caravelle, she smiled and produced a large, glossy map of the entire island. A map of major and minor roads, topography, the names of beaches and coves and major sites. Big smiles all around, and merci beaucoups for such a treasure. And that was the beginning of our figuring things out for ourselves – a ten day escape from technology that was freeing and relaxing…eventually.

Soon after collecting our stick shift Renault, we were lost in Martinique. Several times. We ended up on a highway going the wrong way and not going fast enough according to the drivers behind us. We squinted at signs in the dark, many of them so faded as to be unreadable as we hurtled into rotaries. We pulled over and used our map, righted ourselves, calmed down. But when we arrived at the peninsula where our hotel was supposed to be, we found that the address we had been given indicated it was in the next town over, on the mainland coast.

We learned later that everything addressed “Trinité” meant the province of Trinité and not necessarily the town. For the moment, we were confused and dismayed. The phone had found a signal by now but the map app decided we were in California. (Does it go by vegetation and temperature? Did it not notice everyone was speaking French?) Calling the hotel phone number didn’t work. We drove into the seaside town called Trinité and pulled over. Improbably, at eight o’clock at night and the streets deserted, there was a barbeque going on under a canopy, with people eating at a picnic table behind it. When we addressed the women operating it we discovered that Martinicans really are formal, as Fodor’s suggested. They greeted me with “Bonsoir, madame,” and were calm and friendly as they guided us back on to the peninsula.

We drove up a winding road, in the true dark of a nature reserve, then dipped down into a quiet fishing village, the occasional restaurant lit but not occupied, looking for Rue de la Distillerie. When we found it, we drove up and down its steep hill unable to find our hotel – discreetly tucked away as it was.

A half an hour later we had parked on the side of the main road, the Atlantic lapping at the strip of sand just beside it, stars glittering in the black sky overhead. The hotel website did not mark the spot on its own map. We walked into the neighborhood and knocked onsomeone’s door and the someone turned out to be the hotel owner. He led us down the street to the entrance and we were greeted by warm smiles and offers to help us with our luggage, a place to park the car.

Over the next week, we found our way around using that beautiful map. We learned more French, discovered a stick shift was very handy on the steep, winding roads and got comfortable driving fast. While I was working on a proposal in the hotel one day, Kevin went for a run, encountered bulls on a hillside, got lost in a tangled jungle, found his way out, got caught in a tropical downpour, and found a Creole chicken and rice dish to bring home for lunch. The whole adventure made him sparkle with the happiness of the tales to tell.

martiniquestpierreWe discovered that whoever wrote the Fodor’s Martinique chapter had possibly not visited Martinique at all – or not ventured much past Club Med. We learned that every beach, however small, might have a place to shower and a wonderful spot to dine, even if hidden in the trees. We found a funky cafe frequented by neighborhood surfers at night, down a dark path with a slim boardwalk right under the palms, tables in the sand, buffeted by the ever-blowing trade winds. We used our French to have a high time with the Creole owner of another hotel on an island off the island for two nights, making friends with her and a French couple who stayed there, too.

caravellemangroveWe never again consulted our phone or computer for directions or ideas. We brought phrasebooks and a bird guide to breakfast with our novels. When we went online for the news and email, for columns exulting in the Patriots andTom Brady, it was like being shuttled into a very narrow experience, chosen and curated by a few people but somehow claiming to encompass all the world. We had proof that it didn’t — being, just for example, on a major island Google couldn’t find.

I hope we can remember how fun it is to discover the world without the help of technology. But then I remember when a friend of mine and I came back from Switzerland vowing to be more European. A central tenet of that plan was to wear more scarves. I think it may have lasted a week. But do your kids know how to read a map? Have you ever spun a globe together? Have you tried a trip through your state on the backroads, looking and figuring out where to go? It’s a big world out there, and even Google hasn’t found all of it.

From top: Cocoa Beach Cafe owner Jeremy – we never saw this cafe by day, only by night when the surfer dudes and dudettes gathered for beers and Champagne; a typical Creole lunch on a madras tablecloth, easy snack places on the main street of Tartane, a hummingbird we saw in the gardens that looks black until you see the blue-green flash of its wings.

Above: Our beloved map. A mangrove area on Caravelle. The beautiful town of St. Pierre, the description of which first led us to believe no one at Fodor’s had visited Martinique.

nature abhors a rectangle


The American backyard is generally a fenced-in and mown space of grass. Any trees or plants stand along the edges, based with mulch in an attempt at clean perfection. But designs for clean perfection are static, and often devoid of life – they miss the chance to reference and nurture the greater environment. They require artificial aids to maintain, because nature works against squared off, scrubbed portions of the outdoors.

Lawns are lovely, for sure. Though our “lawn” is about a third crabgrass and violets, it’s a sweet expanse of green when it’s just been mowed. I imagine lying on it, on a blanket, on some Saturday afternoon when I commit to relaxing in my backyard with a book. But it dries out easily. Weeds spring up. It’s not very interesting. The basic rectangular views leave no mystery – no secrets or surprises. We have a panoramic view of this yard out our kitchen windows. What we mostly see is the back fence.

Our yards are part of a much bigger landscape, even if we work to keep them as barren nicks in the canopy. Where I live, the original landscape is composed of forests, meadows, wetlands, and ponds. A few miles east of me, salt marshes signal the transition from land to sea. Wildlife travel across and thrive within these landscapes where they can, though humans disrupt their habitat and corridors not only with concrete but also with mulched and pesticided perfection.

It doesn’t take much to turn your small piece of the rock into an oasis of flora, a connector and resting place for the fauna that belong where you live, and something much more soulful to enjoy. When planted with depth, yards become more visually intriguing and sensually pleasant.

Rather than decorating the edges with the usual plant fare at Home Depot – plus mulch – consider disrupting the rectangle, even when it’s fenced in. You can start small, as we’re planning to in our yard this year. I’d like to plant a few smaller trees throughout the interior, trees that might naturally succeed in a sun-drenched forest clearing and would look pretty out the window in the winter. I discovered that two such natives in my state are black birch and serviceberry. I also learned that the right trees would support not only birds and other usual arboreal customers, but would also provide hatcheries, in their bark, for butterflies and moths.

Start with one change this year – a single tree in the center, three or four native shrubs to one side, or an area of native grasses and perennials in your own private hummingbird and butterfly meadow. Take down a side of fence and plant a natural barrier of native shrubs that will thrive in that spot, with a native ground cover, rather than mulch, to spread beneath them.

Then sit outside, or look out the window, and start documenting the new life that you see – the birds that visit, butterflies, bees – it’s addicting once you get started.


Here is our yard at its bleakest: After the winter, before the spring. Soon the leaves will be cleaned up — they were left deliberately to mulch the lawn. The bushes and trees will leaf out, and the rhododendrons, azaleas, and forsythia will bloom. Birds will sing, and bunnies will continue to bound out of our leaf pile. It’s a sure sign we got our piece of the rock. So why is it so… square?


If you give Nature an inch, she will take a mile: In the corner of our yard, shared with our neighbor, stands a five story tall hemlock. Its lower branches spread above our sprawling leaf pile. While I took the dogs out yesterday I heard a tap tap tap that made me look up, and I saw a small woodpecker making its way around one of those limbs. Closer to me, several chickadees trolled for seeds, their gray and white, black-capped bodies hopping around just above my head. Two blue jays flew out of the middle. We’ve seen red tailed hawks regularly landing at the very top, many other birds at the mid-section, and rabbits, possums, squirrels of course, and a fox beneath it.Just looking up brought busy and multi-colored life into view, all around one tall tree.



Nature in the New Year

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A year or two ago, we went to the Boston Ballet to see a program of three contemporary pieces. The second, choreographed by Jorma Elo, was set to solo piano music, selections from The Well-Tempered Clavier by J.S. Bach. Like the music, the dancing was complex, classical and precise, and yet organic – rather than big numbers interspersed with solos and duets, it was presented as an endlessly changing tableau, varied in rhythms and tenor, in a long, continuous thread. Sometimes there were many dancers, sometimes there were only two or three or even just one, the many combinations moving seamlessly in and out from one to the next and next. The audience seemed rapt, silent beneath the music, hardly a cough or rattling of a wrapper among us.

About twenty mesmerizing minutes into it, I realized, “This is nature.” Here comes one thing, and then another. There are interactions and couplings, there are outcomes, and then there is disintegration. Things come together and apart, it is all part of a whole, and it never stops. It was what you might see if you sat still for any length of time beside a pond, in a forest, in a meadow, or in your own backyard. It was so beautiful.

I wrote recently in an article for Rensselaer alumni magazine that while the twentieth century may have been about conquering nature, the 21st century may be about trying to take our place within it. So much of what we did in the 20th century was critical to the human experience, from fighting disease to growing and preserving and transporting food to radically improving communication to finding other ways to lengthen and enhance our lives. But our environmental problems all stem from not noticing nature and eradicating its connections, even to ourselves. Never mind on a grand scale – even in our private lives we stamp out biota, let poison casually run from our pretty grass, raze or bulldoze or pave resting spots for birds and butterflies, and in many other ways reduce the number of species that reside around us, from microbes in our soils to flora and fauna that we can see.

I don’t believe we’re going to continue on this path, necessarily. There are hopeful signs around the world, from preserving rainforests in Brazil and Indonesia to growing awareness here at home of the effect of pesticides on honeybees and habitat loss for Monarch butterflies, for example. I believe enjoying modern life no longer means arming ourselves against the natural world – I think addressing these problems can bring new meaning that we crave, give us deeper satisfaction and peace, and train our children to excel in the sciences. This year I’m going to blog about small but meaningful changes we can make in the design of our lives, our homes, our yards and our communities that can invite nature back in and draw our deeper selves back out. I’ll also let you know about changes in products and commerce that may make a big difference. I’m looking forward to it, and I hope you are, too. Thank you so much for reading The Design of Things, and happy 2015!

photo credit: Boston Globe.

in my own backyard


I’m in a science book club. I’m the only non-scientist. There are three ecologists, an ornithologist, two biologists, and a physicist. (They all walked into a bar…) They named it Dangerous and Wondrous Science (DAWS) and our instruction is to choose books that offered “dangerous” – table-upending – ideas that also transmit the wonder of the world to readers. We started with the Origin of Species.

One of my persistent worries is about the state of the natural world. I’m not helped right now by our current book selection, The Sixth Extinction, by New Yorker writer Elizabeth Kolbert. You can imagine what it’s about. Things are not looking good. So far, the book is wondrous in the sheer magnitude of what it presents – it’s kind of mind-blowing to get the sense of the vastness of geologic time, time that contains entire previously populated Earths (ending in various types of apocalypse) that look nothing like this one. Or, get this, the idea that extinctions might occur in “periodic bursts” having to do with “the passage of the solar system through the spiral arms of the Milky Way,” as two scientists surmised in 1984 (later debunked.) Or even just the idea that humans are the only species that can and do go everywhere – one effect of which is tramping fungi around that are killing off the world’s amphibians.

It’s freaking me out.

I fret that modern people are not connected to the natural world and so will speed the rate of destroying it. Then I looked at how I spend my days. I hurry through, intent on work and to-dos and do not take the time to notice that much.

Today was warm for October. (Let’s not even get into that.) The garden looks tousled and beautiful in that fading autumnal way. When I was finished working, I took my laptop and yoga mat and set out to do stretches in the backyard along with “My Friend Maia,” to enjoy things just as they are right now. I also took our terrier out, because he, too, needs some time just hanging outside, rather than being hurried down the sidewalk twice a day by preoccupied and impatient me.

It was already getting dark, and the leaves on the trees looked even more orange against the cloudy sky. I started the stretches, tried to enjoy. (“Have some pleasure!” said Mrs. Soprano to Tony.) A little bird flitted around in circles overhead. Only it was a bat. Winging around in that batty way, as if its wings were pulled by strings. He circled and circled and then disappeared.

Aren’t they going extinct too? Aren’t they afflicted by a mysterious fungus also? He was gone for a good ten minutes, and then he came back. Then he left again. And then he came back. And then he came back.

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