Saturday, August 8, 2009

Building domesticity

By coming to Minnesota and staying for a long while, voluntarily or not, we built up a new house. A home, a place we call ours and that, as long as possible, not only does it satisfy our basic needs but also our taste.

This is something I've been thinking a lot about. About what is temporary and what is permanent. About how much is worth spending, investing, and putting up with. Adapting ourselves to a new environment, partly; adapting the environment to us, too. And how this relationship is a dynamic phenomenon - how oneself is a dynamic phenomenon -, and how something that seemed essential in the past now is accessory, and vice versa.

So a year ago, before we left, we made a list of objects we considered vital and we brought them along or we bought them the moment we got here. Winter clothing and some furniture: dining table and chairs, sofas and coffee tables, shelves, bed and mattress. And many accessories, tableware, cleaning products, bed clothes... Also a new computer for me, with all the little big options (model, capabilities, operative system) and new photo camera. It's curious, so so curious, to realize that "useful" and "necessary" are such independent concepts: no one would contest the utility of funnels, but those we bought at Ikea are still like new. The rain coats we brought with us were never used. I saved, maybe 20 dollars in more than than 1.000 of the final price in my computer by not choosing a nice cover and now, every time I look at it I thing, gosh, that's so ugly.

Useful... but how about what is necessary? If I had to make a list of what I really need in one day, or a week, a month or a season, it is startling to prove how many useless (sorry, unnecessary) things I've accumulated.

After the winter ended, and spring, and summer, the student population renovated itself actively. Many of the students graduated from the universities in the metropolis and returned to their homes, in other cities and other countries. The dumpsters were brimming with furniture and appliances in perfect shape. The list of sales in housing cooperatives filled our eyes. The question rose again: what do we really need of all this? And because so many times what is offered is free, the temptation to take it and decide after whether we need it or not, is strong.

And like Oscar Wilde, we resist everything but temptation.

This is how we've been witnesses of our home, empty and minimalist a year ago, getting filled with object of varied nature. And now, fortunately, it seems like our home. Or better said, a home of ours.

To begin with, we hated the echo and the empty walls. So we went out in the quest for things to hang. Flyers and cards from the newspaper or give outs from coffee shops at first, and more recently, textiles. The first textiles to arrive were some curtains pretty much the same color as the walls, courtesy of the car's previous owners. They are not very useful darkening the place (isn't that curtains ultimate purpose?), but I believe they absorb a little of the noise and the reflect the heat. The dining room's wall has a sheet (yes people, that's a bed sheet) with a design that reminds me of african but was bought at Free Tibet. There we also bought there a little embroidered tapestry, with tiny mirrors. In another place of tibetan influence (seems Tibetan is big here in Minnesota) we got three long scarves that we hung in the wall behind the bed. They are badly cut but I still like them. We bought a carpet (a combined moment of weakness with a low price), and the following week we were given another one, both from Ikea.

I think we reached the quota of textiles needed to absorb noise, temperature and a good deal of dust too.

Once we were offered a chest of drawers of objectionable quality and in calamitous state. It had the two tale tell signs of the low quality furniture: 1. a dark wood looking plastic veneer (as if I was going to think that's solid oak), and 2. antique gold looking hardware (oh yeah, and that must be real gold). It has a third one, actually, and it's that it looks as if it had nine drawers, but it's only five. Like a clumsy trompe l'oeil. A monument to tacky-tude, if you ask me.

Disheartened by the verification that I needed, yes, I totally needed that eyesore in my daily life, I opted to buy a can of paint and cover its ugliness. It still was ugly so I went on and also painted the nondescript Ikea bed (and afterward got the textiles), and since it's all of the same hue it doesn't scream for attention as it used to. That's where it's its usefulness. The usefulness of living surrounded of things one doesn't despise aloud and in which creation (or current aspect) one's creativity and handyman-ness were involved. This is how we became owners of the bedroom, adapting it not only to our needs but also to our taste.

There is a last thing about our bedroom I'd like to mention today. The window faces the east, so we're delighted by the morning sun. We're also delighted but the corner streetlight at night. We live delighted and enlightened, and the darkness to fall asleep was hard to get. Two friends gave us a blackout curtain, but the light flooding from 4 sides was still too much, so Fefo built an edging from cardboard. It's certainly not what you'd call glamorous, but it works perfectly. I wanted to paint it too, but Fefo suggested leaving it alone, so it goes on nonchalantly cardboard color and all.

Given this apartment is designed for people who can't cook, and was built in a time when microwave ovens didn't exist, the kitchen almost has no countertop room for anything (less a microwave oven). It has, indeed, something that seems very common: an elephant sized sink. I used to think it was an exclusive horror piece of our lodgings, but turns out it isn't. Maybe they were cheaper... who knows? So to make do for this lack of room, Fefo salvaged 3 shelves from a dumpster and built a small table. We went to Menard's looking for a thingy or whatisnameisgotit to hold all three pieces, and it was yours truly who suggested getting a square sheet of ply wood. It does work much better than the metal anglers we had originally in mind.

Some time later, the people who sold us their car gave us one of those tall racks designed to hold a sound system. We don't have any sound system to accommodate there, but it's great to hold glasses, cups, the cutlery set and the pans. It also has some tiny invisible wheels, so you can move it around to clean the floor or reach for that important paper that fell off the back. It's kind of ugly and I thought about covering its plastic veneered pride, but so far I've left it alone.

Recently a Malayan acquaintance moving out of state offered us his microwave oven, its rack and other miscellanea. The oven went to the homemade table (and looks as if it had been born there) and the rack is our landing strip and street shoe rack. It now holds boots and a box with gloves and scarves.

When I finally got to store my underwear in the formerly extenuatingly ugly drawer chest (currently simply ugly), the box with divisions under the bed got free and I thought about dumping it. But I thought it over and realized this Dell Computer box with its flaps cut off and used as inner division walls makes a great place to store my shoes (mostly flat sensible shoes). Yes, and I can move all my shoes with one swift movement to clean the floor of the closet.

I'm not very sure this is how everybody's minds work, or if this is born out of necessity. I don't know if forgetting about the original intention and just getting to see the object, its bare functionality and potential happens everyday or just when you have to make do with things and no money at all. But it makes me feel like a genius when I manage to solve a new problem with old objects, doesn't that happen to you, too?

Whenever I read people criticizing Ikea or any other furniture maker I think, designers are supposed to make things more livable but it's up to us who actually do the living, and that's a bit of a responsibility to.

It's us, with our wits and our ever changing requirements and tastes, the ones who take credit for turning grandma's old vanity into a linen chest and counters for the until then empty kitchen, and then years later, when the moths are eating it up we salvage the drawers fronts to make shelves for that child's room nook, and save the old brass handles to give the perfect touch to that closet or making a new key hanger.

I love shopping as much as the next person, but I simply can't compare the immense satisfaction painting, repurposing and salvaging give me. That satisfaction, I call, making my home my own.


You can see some pictures of the projects here

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