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Starbucks likes to say that one of the keys to its success in the current rough economy is that a double-tall mocha whip represents an "affordable luxury"a small but real indulgence that goes a long way in our new age of austerity. And you get to order it any way you like: nonfat, whole, 2 percent, double shot, extra hot, whatever. With that notion in mind, we ask: Why not treat yourself to a hand-forged fire poker? Or a Murphy bed fitted to your own apartment? Or a personally tailored chair? Or a hand-built water garden? Or a specially designed TV room? Even in these hard times, there are small, satisfying, and surprisingly affordable ways to augment your home. Local artists, artisans, and businesses are eager to help, as we discover below.
TURF: GUIDE TO URBAN LIVING • Playing Hardball in a Soft Market • My Pipe-Dream House • Custom -Made for the Rest of Us • The Upside of Death: Estate Sales
Just under the west Seattle Bridge, in a big industrial building owned by Alaskan Copper Works, a dozen ironworkers are practicing their centuries-old craft. According to the denizens of Big Building (as it's known), theirs is the largest concentration of independent blacksmiths under one roof anywhere in the U.S.
Here you can get things like pot racks, gates, railings, end tables, framed mirrors, candleholders, sconces, and fire toolsall made without cut prefab parts crudely welded together. Instead, they're shaped by force and fire, with a red-hot forge, anvil, and massive, 100-year-old power hammers.
Matthew Tilton, 36, is one of the Big Building blacksmiths. During the late tech boom, Tilton says he'd often do work on $1,000-per-foot railings and elaborate garden gates. But that sort of high-end business has fallen off significantly. So what are some more modest ideas he can offer to your average Anhalt renter or Beacon Hill homeowner? (The stuff looks especially good in the kind of Craftsman architecture that abounds in Seattle.)
You might try something as simple and graceful as a coat hook ($12) or coat tree ($130; all prices depend on the specifics of the job) or as subtle as handmade cabinet pulls in the kitchen. The basic fire poker ($40) is actually something that Tilton trains his students on, since it embodies all the basic blacksmithing techniques: punching a hole for it to hang from; twisting the steel to form a handle; chisel-splitting the hook and tapering it at the end. Match it with a broom ($50), tongs ($120), a shovel ($50), and a screen ($400 and up). Or maybe just warm up the room with a drapery rod ($100) that was shaped by a real person, not cast in a mold.
A little handcrafted indulgence is like the mocha of home furnishings. And besides, as Tilton observes, "Site-specific design almost guarantees greater value on the house."
Mark D. Fefer
The artisans at Big Building will throw a big open-house party in July to raise their profile. Meantime, you can reach Big Building tenants Matthew Tilton at 206-898-4610 or Maria Cristalli at 206-789-4878, or stop by the building at 3600 E. Marginal Way S.
Sleep to Fit
The hush of the showroom, along with its meticulously crafted parlors (each boasting an upright wooden box as its centerpiece), brings to mind the display area of a funeral home. Call me morbid, but if Murphy beds (a.k.a. wall beds) had been popular in the days of Edgar Allen Poe, the victim of his "The Tell-Tale Heart" could have ended up in the bedroom wall.
In fact, Murphy beds originated not for the purpose of concealing crime but in order to impress a babe. When inventor William L. Murphy moved to the crowded city (San Francisco) at the dawn of the 20th century, he was limited to a cramped studio apartment. According to the Murphy Bed Company (www.murphybedcompany.com), the sleep impresario began fooling around with ideas for a folding bed after meeting his future wife, and because "he wanted to entertain." (Nudge-nudge, wink-wink.) From such humble desires came the product that would inspire countless silent-movie and cartoon gags where characters get snapped up in Murphy beds, unable to escape.
Fortunately, the wall beds of today are guaranteed not to gobble you up. But the resurgent Murphy bed is more about space than safety, according to Albert Logan at Wallbeds Northwest: "We have people from all walks of life looking into this option." In other words, wall beds have lost their efficiency-apartment stigma. If you've already spent a lot for a small Belltown studio, you're willing to spend a little more to hide your mattress and maximize your living space when company comes over. They're not so much custom-made as engineered to customize your living spacebe it bedroom, living room, or whatever. A typical unit runs from $1,500 to $3,500; at the high end, you can even get a flat-screen plasma TV as part of the sleeping/home-entertainment-unit package!
John Weinberg at Emerald City Design speaks to W.L. Murphy's enduring spirit of space-saving pragmatism: "Most of the people who are interested in wall beds fall into a couple categories. One [is] people who are downsizing [their houses]. Then there's a lot of people whose sons and daughters have gone off to college." So empty nesters, too, are reconfiguring their lives to fit the higher-density future of Seattle, where every extra square foot is precious and folding beds can be worth their price.
Wallbeds Northwest: 2801 First Avenue, 206-256-1700, and three other area locations. Emerald City Design: 2560 Third Avenue, 206-374-9100.
Chair Man of the Block
Good taste and fat bank accounts do not necessarily go together. On the contrary, there's an entire subpopulation of rich folk without the slightest sense of style. How else can we explain the popularity of the Hummer? Then there's the plight of the Seattle pauper who fancies a French Empire-style chair but hasn't the means or the know-how to fetch an antique all the way from France. Fortunately, one need look no farther than Greenwood, home of the showroom and workshop of Steven F. Balter, Maker of Fine Furniture.
Balter has a flair for chairs. With 14 years in the carpentry trade, two years in cabinetry, two years at Boston's North Bennet Street School's Cabinet & Furniture Making Department, and a big dose of artistic vision, he can custom-design and craft just about anything for your home. Because full antique chair sets are rare, chairs have become his specialty. Clients commission him and his two employees to design, build, and restore full sets.
Price is determined by hours of labor (his rate's about $50 per hour), so the total cost of a piece depends on how much detailornate carving, custom-made silver feet, rosewood veneer, obtuse angling of the legs, etc.it has. Surprisingly, the materials are of little consequence in cost calculations; mahogany, cherry, and walnut all run about the same. Want your very own hand-made French Empire-style chair? It'll take about a week to create and run around $1,800. (Or maybe just a nice kitchen stool, perhaps, which Balter ballparks at $700-$800.)
Just think about the splendor of owning a custom-made French Empire- style chair. What would you do with yours? Cozy up next to a raging fireOK, space heaterand read Jane Austen? Watch The Bachelorette? I'd have my name engraved on the back in regal lettering. And I'd definitely see about some built-in cup holders (sorry, Steven). Then I'd invite friends over to my lowly Greenwood living room, now graced with my magnificent Balter-built chair, and charge them $15 a tush to sit in it. I'd take pictures of them, maybe with plastic tiaras, and charge them for those, too. Then, with the money, I'd start saving for a footrestbecause I'm worth it.
Steven F. Balter, Maker of Fine Furniture, 7406 Greenwood Ave. N., 206-789-6052.
Paradise in a Pot
It's March, and my custom-made water garden doesn't look like much: just a huge blue jar of quiet water with two goldfish dozing near the bottom. Come summer, though, the water garden is a focus of life at my 1908 house in Ravenna. What exactly is a water garden? Mine is a 2-foot-high blue-glazed container. The relaxing burble of its bamboo pump drowns out car traffic and other distractions from nearby Northeast 65th Street. Family and friends settle next to it on the front porch with food and drink, wrapped in the sweetness of climbing roses, honeysuckle, and sweet peas. The pot holds a fragrant yellow water lily; waiting and watching for the lily to bloom has become something of a neighborhood event. By midsummer, the lily's round leaves cover the entire surface and provide shade and shelter for the fish. Who was the contractor of this marvel? Me. I did it myself, and you can, too.
You can make your water garden much more elaborate than mine. I've seen photos of one that has a remote-control train (!) to carry fish food from the house to the pond. But yours doesn't need to be fancyor particularly expensive, either.
I bought my pot at Oasis Water Gardens in Georgetown for about $300. The nursery is well-named: For several years now, I've been dropping in on my lunch hour to stroll among the ponds and admire the koi, garden furniture, and plants. (If you visit Oasis in spring, look for tadpoles in the ponds on the propertya rare sight in Seattle these days.)
I added the water lily, also from Oasis, for about $30. The bamboo pump came from Bamboo Hardwoods (about $35). The goldfish I already had, but they had been indoor goldfish until I liberated them into the much larger container last spring.
What about water-garden maintenance, you ask? I bought outdoor fish food and some kits to test the water, but regular testing hasn't been necessary. If the water looks a bit murky, I freshen it with the garden hose. It's pretty low-tech.
Surprisingly, goldfish in an outdoor pond don't need to be fed. ("People buy fish food because it's fun to feed the fish," a clerk at Oasis told me, "but they don't really need it.") They grow fat on bugs and algae. You should not feed pond fish in the winter, when their digestion slows down, as it can kill them.
The water lily needs fertilizer once a month (in the soil, not the water), spring through fall. In winter, I take away the pump and trim back the water lily, and the garden is quiet. The fish slow down, and they're fine even if the surface of the water freezes.
Now that March is here, it's time to bring the water garden out of hibernation: scrub it down, fertilize the lily, and set up the pumpall ready for another relaxing spring and summer on the porch.
Resources: Water Gardening Basics, by Helen Nash and Marilyn M. Cook (Sterling, $21.95); Oasis Water Gardens, 404 S. Brandon St., 206-767-9776; Bamboo Hardwoods (6402 Roosevelt Way N.E., 206-529-0978).
Craig Abplanalp is related to the famous Abplanalp who invented aerosols and recently negotiated the truce between Julie and Tricia Nixon regarding their dad's library. Since Craig works for Definitive Audio, I thought he'd have the right genes to solve another problem involving technology and a potentially domestically controversial major cultural institution (between me and my wife): my home-entertainment systemwhich I want customized for our entertainment needs.
And, man, do I have needs. Surveying the Sony Wega 36-inch TV with a busted antenna that dominates my remarkably small bedroom, Abplanalp was gentle with me: "Most people end up buying [a TV] like a toaster, but they don't think about how to integrate it into their lives."
That's what I wantintegration. Abplanalp devises four scenarios, since I plan to pay for my new home theater with the pitiful remainder of my stock portfolio, and who knows how much it's going to be worth when I dump it?
Post-Toaster Plan A: bring my Wega into the era of true movie sound with a surround-sound receiver, DVD player, and VHS (all Sony, so I can use one remote), a Monster HTS 1000 power center, five Paradigm Cinema speakers the size of my hand, and a subwoofer. Total cost: around $1,708.
Post-Toaster Plan B: save space with plasma. When my tiny house was burgled, the burglars couldn't even lift the Wega; today, thin-screen plasma sets are affordable, says Abplanalp: "I think we're probably halfway through our journey with plasma." So he recommends a Sony KE42TS2 42-inch plasma TV (with the sound system from Plan A). This readies us for the superior image quality on today's progressive-scan DVDs and digital TV broadcasts. (And it buys us some floor space.) Total cost: $8,857.
Then there's Post-Toaster Plan C: a true home theater in my garage that Abplanalp's team would design for my contractor. Then I'd have a 40-inch-tube Sony KV40XBR800, with a STRDA5ES receiver, a beefier Monster/Paradigm sound system, and HDTV/DSS satellite system. Total cost: $8,316.
Nice, but if I'm going to rebuild my garage, why not step up to Post-Toaster Plan D: a 7-foot Stewart Velux Luxus Screenwall front-projection TV with the Pioneer Elite VSX47 receiver using certified THXthe same sound system real movie theaters use. Total cost here: about $14,000.
Hmm. We're in a Bush administration, so it's not like my stock portfolio is going way up. Where can I get 14 grand? Wait a minute, I've got it! With my garage turned into a theater, I can sell my wife's car!
Definitive Audio, 6206 Roosevelt Way N.E., 206-524-6633.