Tuesday, July 22, 2014

I Would Write 500 Posts (with apologies to The Proclaimers)

I've been struggling the last few weeks to come up with a topic for this blog post. You see, it's a milestone post. 500 may not be a lot when compared to other blogs out there, but it's ten times more than I though I would write and in a small way is a chronicle of my life over the last few years. At the very least you learned about some of the projects I worked on and what I ate in between.  

This blog started as "I Could Eat" so I could satisfy a need to write about food. It was an offshoot of my time with eGullet, that wonderful food-lovers haven that went horribly wrong. Those of you who were there know exactly what I'm talking about.  As time went on I realized I enjoyed actually cooking and eating much more than writing about it. In fact it began to feel like the posts I wrote were arrogant in a sort of "I ate this but you didn't" kind of way that I never intended. Today, I share pictures of some of my food discoveries on Instagram and leave the "unctuous comments" to the food geeks and those who actually get paid to write. 

Similarly, writing about design was started because someone told me I should write about what I knew. As a self-employed designer the blog also became another form of self-promotion which is never a bad idea. I have no idea how many people actually read my design blog and became clients (I know of only one for sure) but I was encouraged to continue writing and assured it would pay off in the end.

Useful Spaces certainly earned me a few amazing trips which allowed me to meet some amazing people who are friends to this day. I am forever indebted to Brizo, GE Monogram and the amazing Veronika Miller and BlogTour. They were amazing experiences that helped mould me I to the designer I am today. 

But as was the case with food writing, design writing began to feel like something other than trying to help and inspire my readers. I also met many other design writers who were doing what I was doing, only much better. Not that I think I'm a poor writer, but I know that in order to write the blog I really want to write, I need to put a lot more time and effort into it.  I have time.  But since I've moved over to the "full time retail world" the time I have after working a full day are spent on the important things in my life: my wife, my kids, my family & friends. 

I just returned from a 3 day visit with my son in Toronto.  We spoke about being in the moment and spending time with the people we need and who need us. That visit was important. Another blog post was not.  And before anyone asks, I wrote this on the plane home, so unless I was supposed to be speaking to the 5 year old who sat beside me on the way home my conscience is clear.

I've decided to stop writing Useful Spaces.  I will hold on to the URL (what's $80 every 5 years? Of course, if someone wants to buy it from me ....) just in case the need every arises to write again.  But for now, I'm done.  For the dozens of you who've read and responded to my posts, I thank you.  It's been a fun six-and-a-half years, but I think some kittens need more bandwidth.

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Saying Goodbye to a Friend

One of the great joys of pet ownership is the deep sense of companionship you develop with the animal.  You are their entire world, and in return they give you unconditional love.  But that love comes at a cost.  The love is as real as you would have for any human, but sadly their life expectancies are not.  Their time with us is short, and somewhere in the midst of cuddles and walks we forget that.  When their time comes to an end, no matter how long it was in terms of animal years, it seems far too sudden.  All the justification in the world means nothing.  Our friend, and their love for us, is gone.

Ringo had been a part of my life the moment I met my wife.  She had Ringo from a puppy long before she met me, but he quickly became part of my family.  Soon after Janine & I married we brought Gromit (Ringo's offspring) into the fold, and our four legged family was complete.  We lost Gromit far too soon, and Ringo filled in as best he could.  He was never the cuddler that Gromit was; he was far too independent for that.  He had his space, and his needs and wants, and he made sure you knew what they were.

But in return for satisfying those needs, Ringo was fiercely loyal.  He spent his years believing it was his job to protect us and those he loved.  True, sometimes he protected us from plastic bags floating through the front yard or hummingbirds on the patio, but our house and the people within it were his charge.  And he never let you forget it.

The past few months Ringo's body started to shut down.  We used to have hour long walks twice a day; at the end we barely got out of the front yard.  It was tough for us to watch our active lil' buddy become so tired, so dependent.  Since he left us our house has become strangely quiet.  Sure, things are simpler.  Sitters don't have to be arranged for when we go out of town.  Rooms don't have to closed off so dogs won't pee on furniture.  But I'd give all that up just to have one more morning walk with him.

Goodbye buddy.  Hope you and Gromit are finally catching those squirrels.

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

What's New in the Italian Kitchen (Part 2) - Varenna

About a 45 minute train ride from Boffi is Inverigo, home of Poliform and Varenna cabinetry.  While Varenna has only been a part of the Poliform family since the 1996, the strength of the family run Poliform ensures Varenna is on the forefront of design and innovation.  My time with Varenna was brief, but since it was immediately after the annual Furniture Fair (Salone di Mobile) in Milan, I was able to see the most recent additions to their kitchen line, as well as a surprise I wasn't expecting.

This piece of woodworking art is the IO Wardrobe.  A concept designed by Paolo Piva in 1989, it is the first thing you see when you enter the Poliform Lab. Only a few were made, but it illustrates quite clearly Poliform's commitment to tailoring their furniture to meet their clients' need. I spent several minutes inspecting every nook and cranny of the IO; I'm sure I have more to discover.

In terms of additions to their catalogue, Varenna has added one new series to their line.  Phoenix has been in the works with Varenna for a while now, and this was my first chance to see it up close.  Phoenix features an integrated handle that mimics a channel-style cabinet, and has the added feature of a "start" and an "end" handle allowing the kitchen designer to create a more furniture-like appearance in the cabinetry.  The countertop also features prominently in the design by becoming less prominent ... 6mm thick to be exact (have no fear, it's actually thicker behind the scenes and quite strong).

Combine that ultra thin stainless steel countertop edge with veneered finished panels of the same thickness and you have a kitchen that stands out due to a strengthened elegance.

And to reinforce how well thought through the Phoenix line is, here is the detailing on the handles for tall units.  Notice how they stop just shy of the bottom, recreating the terminal detail found in the horizontal handles.

This is another Phoenix display, but I'm showing it because of the storage unit that's "slicing" through the middle of the island.  It's actually made up of components from Varenna's new equipped backsplash modules.  Each module is about 7cm deep and can be combined with other modules to cover your backsplash in efficient storage rather than ceramic tile or your children's artwork.

The equipped backsplash is typical of Varenna's excellence in the area of accessories.  Having a drawer is nice; having a well organized drawer is even better.  Here's just a few examples of some of the drawer inserts and accessories on offer:

Accessories from Varenna come in a wide variety of finishes: walnut, maple, wenge, and even white Corian.  

And while it's important to keep things organized behind closed doors, open shelving is a welcome addition to any kitchen. This storage unit features Spessart Oak interiors that are trimmed with a bronze metal edge.

Finally, this is the island from the "Sharp" kitchen Varenna created with Corian and Danish architect Daniel Libeskind for Eurocucina.  They were just re-assembling it in the basement of the Lab when I was there, but the details of the project were still quite amazing.  In addition, the new version of Corian Nocturn is truly beautiful as both a countertop surface and a cabinet door.  This video clip shows the details I was unable to capture:

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

What's New In the Italian Kitchen (Part 1) - Boffi

I was invited to Italy for 3 days at the beginning of May as part of Boffi's ongoing commitment to their vendor network.  It was a great opportunity to not only fine-tune my knowledge of Boffi's extensive line of cabinetry, but also to come face-to-face with their new products and finishes just introduced at Eurocucina in mid-April.

Boffi's training centre in Lentate sul Seveso (just outside Milan)  is attached to the factory where every Boffi cabinet is made.  The closeness to the factory means that everything I saw was of the latest iteration; hardware, doorstyles, and finishes were so current some weren't even in the current pricing catalogues (new catalogues are due to be released in June).  

Countertop - Weathered Pine
The most impressive additions for Boffi this year come from the finishing department.  An environmentally friendly water based painted finish called Ecolak replaces the old Mat+, and a brand new laminate finish called Lasermat offers a repairable matte finish thanks to a new nanotechnology.  There are some new wood finishes as well, most notably Core Walnut and Weathered Pine.

Aprile Cabinets - Weathered Pine
Boffi's willingness to introduce provocative new finishes is well established; the 3D wood door is still one of the most popular in the Inform showroom.  The new Weathered Pine continues the tradition; it quite simply took my breath away.  And as good as it looks as a countertop it looks even better as a cabinet door.  The juxtaposition of the Weathered Pine with stainless steel countertops and the new lacquered metal finish in Boffi's Solferino showroom was warm and rustic, while at the same time modern and efficient.

Boffi's Art Director, Pierro Lissoni, was also inspired by these rustic finishes and used them to perfection in the Madia tall unit.  Judging from the exterior you would never guess the inside held something so sleek and modern.  This piece was introduced just in time for the annual Salone del Mobile so it's unclear as to whether or not it will be added to the regular Boffi line.  The training staff at Boffi weren't even willing to divulge the price, but a little bird in the Solferino showroom told me in Italy they'd retail close to €12,000

Open - Outdoor kitchen @ Boffi Solferino
Since I've been working with European cabinet lines, I've been wondering if, finishing materials aside, North America has any influence on European design. I received my answer just outside the entrance to Solferino.  Open is Boffi's answer to the outdoor kitchen trend that is so popular with designers in North America.

What I really love about Open is that it is not simply indoor cabinetry re-imagined to withstand the elements and surrounded by cultured stone and a fake waterfall for good measure.  It it a complete re-think of how cabinetry should interact with an outdoor environment.

Stainless steel, glass and wood are practical materials for an outdoor kitchen to be sure, but the openness of the design and the way all the services are hidden within the structure of the kitchen allows Open to become a part of the landscape, not the dominant part of it.  

Salinas - by Patricia Urquiola for Boffi
Boffi is also well known for their collaborations with great designers.  This year Patricia Urquiola joined with Boffi to create a new line called Salinas. “Salinas is the beach of my childhood,” explains Urquiola. “It is the memory of the kitchen in my grandfather’s house, with views of the beach and the emotions associated with those moments.”; open shelving, herb planters, lava-stone finishes, all hearken back to the kitchen where she learned to cook with her grandparents in Spain.

Salinas is an artistic and engineering marvel.  Each kitchen is configured to the specific needs of the cook, but the look and feel of each kitchen is instantly familiar.   It's true that Salinas is a bit of a departure from the typical Boffi kitchen, but it's a departure that will no doubt push Boffi into new frontiers.

Other introductions to the Boffi catalogue include Hide, which replaces the Duemilaotto tall system of sliding and pocket doors.  The line is essentially the same, with a few spectacular new tweaks:

While some designers focus their attentions on the faces of the cabinetry, I'm all about the mechanics of the system; will this type of door system last after years of use?  In person, the bi-fold pocket doors operate very smoothly.  I had a close-up look at the hardware and while I'm not going to say they're over-built, they certainly appear strong enough to function properly for years.

On-Off Kitchen in Black Lasermat
That's something I've come to appreciate about Boffi: they won't release a new product until they are certain they can stand behind it.  A great example of this can be found in the On-Off system.  On-Off has been unavailable for just over a year now while the design team re-worked it into something that was functional, and more importantly sell-able.  I've had a look at the old catalogues and can tell you that as a designer with 20 years of experience with all sorts of different lines of cabinetry, the original On-Off was a bear to understand.

Renamed On-Off ST, the new line is designed to work with existing lines like Xila (shown here) allowing the designer to create the "hidden" kitchen look with mostly standard units.  The bi-fold units will be available in modular sizes, and are operated with an electric motor.

True to Boffi's form, the On-Off ST is still not included in the latest catalogue, and won't be added until they've "got it right".

These are just some of the more notable additions to the Boffi line-up that I saw.  Over the next few weeks the Boffi showroom will have updated samples and literature to show off everything that's new from Boffi.  Just as I had to visit Milan, you'll need to visit the Boffi showroom at Inform Interiors to see them for yourself.

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

DIY Failures: Bathtub Conversions

If you spend any time watching HGTV, or late night television, you've no doubt come across dozens of advertisements for DIY ideas that seem to fall just short of the mark; they do what they say they're going to do, but leave you asking "WHY"?

Bathway is one of those ideas.  Their concept, and I truly believe their intensions are honourable, is a simple, inexpensive way to convert a bathtub into a shower.  How?  Call the "tub cutting people".  I kid you not:

So what you're doing is ruining a bathtub to have the same sized shower you had before you ruined the bathtub.  I suppose there's a benefit by making it easier to enter into the bathtub ... er ... fancy new shower.  But honestly is it that difficult to sit on the edge and swing your legs in?  Call me suspicious, but what are the chances the Bathway people also own a company that sells replacement bathtubs?

If this seems like a good idea to you, call me.  Call any qualified designer.  We can help.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

KBIS 2014 Roundup - Surfacing

The "wow" factor returned to KBIS this year, nowhere more so than in the surfacing materials sector. New colours and innovations in countertops, flooring and wall cladding were everywhere on the show floor giving attendees lots to absorb and consider.  

I was given a hint this would be the case on two separate occasions:  As a member of BlogTour at last year's KBIS in New Orleans, I was shown a new product called Dekton by Cosentino.  More recently, I wrote about a similar product called Neolith.  Both products are part of a new surfacing segment currently being referred to as ultracompact surfaces.  

Vanity clad in wood grain Neolith
Neolith - BETON
I'll let you read my initial post of Neolith for background.  As for my in person impression?  I'm very excited.  Ultracompact surfaces promises to do to quartz surfacing what quartz surfacing did to granite.  Why?  Not only is this material practically bullet-proof, it has the amazing ability to reproduce natural materials like marble, concrete and even wood with ink-jet imaging and textured surfaces.


I spent most of my time with Neolith for no other reason than I had seen Dekton at KBIS last year and I wanted to give the "new kid" a fair shake ... that and the Neolith people had reached out to me and provided me with more information than any other supplier.  They're aggressive, which reminded me of when Cosentino introduced Silestone several years ago.  This is good news for the design industry and consumers ... it means there's competition and than results in innovation and superior product.

Each manufacturer has a proprietary formula for their material, so for the time being deciding between the two materials will need to be based on colours and patterns available.  I'd give Neolith the nod in this department.  Their Estatuario (shown above) is insanely beautiful and so lifelike that even close-up it's difficult to tell it's not real marble.  The image only gives you a tiny bit of the impression the real thing does. 

I have no doubt Dekton will add to their repertoire of lifelike materials, and I give them high marks for showing a very beautiful high-gloss finish (shown left).  Dekton also claims to have better sheet sizes and thicknesses than their competitor which will result in more efficient use of sheets and subsequently lower prices to the consumer.  That's likely of more interest to the fabricators because if the performance of the material is equal (and so far it appears that it is) the consumer will choose based on aesthetic first, especially in the luxury price point.  

But as I said, competition is good for everyone, and in the world of surfacing USM just made things very interesting.

Saturday, February 15, 2014

KBIS 2014 Roundup - Plumbing

The strongest impression left from my very first KBIS was of my first sighting of the Kohler booth.  Kohler easily has the largest and most impressive booth at the show year after year, and its presence is a constant reminder of the importance of the plumbing industry in our business.  Not only does plumbing have serious economic influence, I'd venture to say that no other segment has a broader spectrum in terms of design and aesthetics.

Here are some of the more interesting items I saw in the plumbing category

Swanstone is a regular participant at KBIS, but they typically don' do anything quite this "out there".  Congrats to them for trying something a little different with their solid surface material.

Swiss plumbing manufacturer Laufen was one of the few European firms at the show, which is a real shame in my opinion.  Granted, they have Eurocucina in Milan this April, but it would be nice to have a more European influence at KBIS.

Something European manufacturers do better than their North American counterparts is collaborate.  Whether it's with other designers or other firms, there's always some way to benefit from a partnership.  The above items are the "Tuna" basin (left) and toilet (right) from Laufen's IlBagnoAlessi line, the result of a collaboration with Alessi designer Stefano Giovani.  The playfulness of this line is unlike anything I saw elsewhere in the show.

Laufen also featured it's new collaboration with Kartell.  The Italian manufacturer of whimsical plastic furniture fit in perfectly with the clean lines and crisp edges of Laufen's sinks.  For this line, Laufen developed a new ceramic called SaphirKeramik.  This new material is extremely light and strong which allows the sinks to have very thin walls and tight corners (1-2mm radius compared to 7-8mm standard in regular ceramic).

Native Trails also introduced NativeStone, a concrete and jute mixtures than creates the "concrete" look without the weight normally associated with concrete.  This Trough vanity sink was extremely popular at the show.

Brizo is a design favourite of mine, and for 2014 they managed to deliver yet again.  On the left is their new Sotria line.  The triangular motif in the spout and the handles is quite unusual in plumbing fixtures, but what really struck me was the use of a matte black finish.  On the right is Brizo's answer to the popularity of "Mid-Century-Modern" in the kitchen world.  Artesso will be available in various formats, including a very retro looking bridge faucet.  More on that once they're available.

What do you think?  Is the plumbing industry in North America making advances, or are the Europeans leaving us behind?  Is there anything that is missing, or anything you saw at KBIS (or Eurocucina when it arrives!) that struck you as exceptional?  As always, I welcome your comments below.

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