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Suburban Zen

Where interior design meets a houseful of kids.
April 25, 2010
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Sometimes an Herb Garden is Just an Herb Garden


By coincidence, I've received copies of the NYTimes article "The Femivore's Dilemma" from three different people recently.  It seems my status as a working mother, pescetarian, Farmer's Market shopper, composter, and farmer in our suburban backyard garden makes me a likely candidate for this new movement of self sustaining feminists who not only serve their families organic food, but feel compelled to grow and harvest it themselves.

While I admire the women who have the time and fortitude to raise their own chickens, grow all their food, and take up beekeeping as a hobby, I just don't have the time at this stage in my life. The truth is, we grow tomatoes, peppers and herbs in our backyard because Katie likes to help tend the garden and it gives us a another good reason to be outside with our children. We shop at our local Farmer's Market because it's a fun thing to do on a Saturday morning and we live in glorious Northern California where the Farmer's Market produce is beautiful and delicious. We compost because we can and should, but truthfully, we haven't quite gotten the hang of it yet. We have fresh limes in our margaritas during the summer because the lime tree came with the house. The good things we do, we do because they fit within our lifestyle today.

I hope that someday I'll be able to indulge in a more rural lifestyle. In fact I have dreams of living like Tim and Karen Bates of the Philo Apple Farm. But for now, the herb garden is just an herb garden.

April 18, 2010
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Extreme Recycling

With Earth Day on the horizon, we always give a little extra thought to how we can reduce waste and improve our energy efficiency in our house. Of course, we all try to take our re-usable bags with us when we go shopping, but somehow there always seem to be a few plastic grocery bags that get into the house. Rather than throw them away, we’ve made an extreme sport out of re-using a bag as many times as we can before finally abandoning it to the waste stream. The trick is to find uses that allow the bags to be used over and over again until every possible use has been exhausted. Here are our favorites:

  • Use them as packing material instead of Styrofoam or bubble wrap. And be sure to put a note in the package reminding the recipient to reuse the bags.
  • Make a soft nest for your Christmas ornaments while they’re in storage.
  • Pack some in your suitcase: they’re great for isolating your laundry and shoes from the rest of your clothes.
  • Tuck them into your beach tote for wet towels and swimsuits.
  • Use them for your toiletries when you travel. I wish I could say that I have a snazzy, monogrammed cosmetic bag for travel, but I actually use the same plastic grocery bag (or sometimes a big Ziploc) over and over again. Who’s to know?
  • Line the bottom of something that needs filler: a flower pot, a basket filled with candles, and shredded plastic bags make great confetti for a gift bag.
  • Cushion your china while it’s in storage.
  • Store your outdoor pillows inside them during the off-season.
  • Put one in your carry-on bag when you travel. How many times have you purchased food at the airport for your flight, and had it leak all over the contents of your carry-on?
  • Our dog Jasper likes to eat the fluff out of his dogbed. When it starts to deflate, a few plastic bags make it nice and puffy again.

We stop just short of this:

Although we do admire the industriousness and creativity of Tyler Velten, an architecture student at Yale who designed and created the chandelier, we're not quite that extreme. Yet.

April 11, 2010
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Like a Fresh Coat of Lipstick for My House


We're planning to paint our house this summer, so I'm deep in the research phase of choosing the right colors. I recently asked some readers their opinion on my plan to paint my front door red. The response was overwhelmingly "yes!" Lisa Holmes mentioned that a red front door is supposed to bring prosperity to the house. Kamille Caple mentioned that studies show houses with red doors sell faster. In addition to the enthusiastic thumbs up I received from readers, I read somewhere that in China, it's tradition to paint the front door red before the new year, to invite good luck and happiness. And then the kicker was this endorsement from Suzanne Tucker in a House Beautiful article "The Best Colors for your Front Door:


"I wanted to draw people to the door like bees to a flower, and this luscious red did the trick. The color has such clarity. It's like the most kissable lips. It's like the best manicure you've ever had."

How can I resist? Red it is.

I'm partial to Benjamin Moore's Aura line of exterior paint because it's low VOC, they have beautiful colors, and the paint is easy to apply. I'm also partial to Benjamin Moore because they have an iPhone app that allows me to take a picture of something that's the perfect shade of red, then it will recommend the closest paint color to match that item.

Now I'm off to find a beautiful manicure or some kissable lips. Whichever I encounter first.



April 04, 2010
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As most Suburban Zen readers know, I have a love/hate relationship with my TV. I like to watch movies and Survivor with my family, I love the Food Channel, and whenever I come across a Mythbusters or What Not to Wear episode, I’ll watch it. I dislike having to talk over TV, having to compete with it for my family’s attention, and every time my children start arguing over what TV show to watch I hide all the remotes and declare a temporary electronic blackout.

Because of my dysfunctional relationship with my TV, I’m always looking for the perfect media storage solution that looks pretty, hides all our stuff, and has doors that close so I can hide the TV from my family when I want them to pay attention to me.

I’ve come across some pretty great solutions in my quest :


I'm always a fan of the armoire as a solution, because it looks pretty when it's closed and has lots of room inside for all the other stuff I want to hide. I prefer a vintage clothing armoire that's been converted to fit media components, rather than one that's been designed for media storage, as the attention is paid to the design of the face, finish and hardware that's sometimes sacrificed on a piece that's designed purely for function.


Many people are putting their TVs in wall alcoves and covering them with art, photos, mirrors, or a pair of vintage doors.

I've toyed with the idea of painting an unframed canvas and hanging it over my TV.

And if I must look at my TV, this is a pretty cute idea:


But honestly, I'd still rather look at this:



I think I feel a blackout coming on.

March 28, 2010
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Read Me.

I love typography. I always have. Maybe it's the years of writing thank you notes when I was a child, maybe it's my years of art training, maybe it's that I secretly hope having letters and type everywhere around the house is a subliminal reminder to my family that they should be reading. I don't know, but I love it.

If something can be monogrammed, I monogram it.
I collect vintage letters.

I've watched the movie Helvetica three times now. I want to buy the DVD just because I love the cover.

I just bought the new Taschen book "A Visual History of Typefaces and Graphic Styles" because it's beautiful, and because it comes with a code that allows its owner to download 1000 new fonts to use. Heaven!
So when I noticed this trend in graphic design lately, I felt I had finally found a style of art that spoke to me (see post "Art Shmart" for context):







If you'd like to display your art and boss your children around at the same time, good resources I've found for this type of art are Keep Calm Gallery (thanks, Melanie, for the tip!), Concrete Hermit, Typographic Posters. Go wild. You may even find one that says "I'm not going to tell you again: clean your room."

March 21, 2010
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Scouting from my Sofa

I've always been a fan of using vintage finds to add character to my home. Whether they're heirlooms handed down through the family, items picked up during my travels, or flea market finds doesn't matter to me as long as they're beautiful and functional. If they carry an interesting story with them that I can share with my children about times past, all the better. Like the claw from a claw foot bathtub that we use as a doorstop -- my children have never seen a claw foot bathtub, so that item was quite the novelty when I brought it home.

With three children, a husband, a dog and a job, I don't find as much time as I'd like to build my collection. Our local Alameda Flea Market is one of the best, but the first Sunday of each month usually finds me snuggled up on the sofa catching up on my reading or watching movies with my family. I've noticed lately that some really good big retailers are starting to integrate vintage finds into their collections, so collecting is a little easier than it used to be. Here are some of my favorites:
Flatware by the Pound from NapaStyle. The pieces are collected from old hotels around Europe, and recall a time before plastic forks and paper plates. This product is great for parties, just store it in a big glass jar and let your guests grab what they need.



Dough Bowls from Pottery Barn. Each is hand carved from a single piece of wood, and they're great for storage under the coffee table, at the end of the bed, on a desk. Anywhere really.



Vintage Grain Sacks from Pottery Barn. These make great pillows or table runners, and have a very interesting story: each stripe and monogram is custom to a local farm and farmer. When a farmer delivered his grain to the mill, the flour was returned to the farmer's own grain sacks so he could easily recognize his own product. Now that's a story you don't hear anymore.


Vintage suitcases from Jayson Home and Garden. They're not cheap, but if you feel like splurging, they're very chic for storage or stacked up next to a chair in place of a table. My children only know rolling suitcases now -- the concept of carrying a suitcase by its handle is completely foreign to them.
I still prefer to do the bulk of my treasure hunting myself, but it's nice to be able to let someone else do the leg work sometimes. I think of these big retailers as my own personal vintage scouts. I'd like to collect vintage flatware myself piece by piece from hotels around Europe, but really, who has the time?
March 14, 2010
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Galvi Envy


I've noticed in the last year or so a modern rural decorating trend spreading itself across America. It could be that the recession makes simple design more appealing to Americans, it could be the popularity of The Carneros Inn in Sonoma County, CA or it could be that Martha Stewart made the trend hot 20 years ago and it's never quite died down. Either way, I like it.

The element I like most is the creative use of authentic galvanized containers. They're perfect for my house: they're simple, they look great and they're impossible to break. (see previous post Everyone Can Use a Little Luck to understand the importance of that specific point.)
My favorite ideas are:



Hanging galvanized pails for storage



Feed troughs used as planters



Buckets used inside for flowers



Little buckets used for organizing



Or lined with parchment on the table



And the ultimate indulgence, fountain made from a feed trough
A great resource for the authentic pieces is my local Alamo Hay and Grain. If you don't live in my neighborhood, though, Dover Parkersburg has a great assortment and will ship anywhere.

Whether the trend stays trendy or not -- no matter. Durable, low maintenance things that look good are always in style at the Furber house.
March 07, 2010
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Everyone Can Use a Little Luck

I recently asked some Suburban Zen readers a simple question: "What's Your Secret?" My intention was to learn what people like me do to keep the level of contentment high, and the level of stress low in their homes. I was surprised that all the responses were very similar, and all credited a positive attitude and joie de vivre as their secret. (Except the one reader who said her secret was that she kissed her husband's best friend the night before her wedding. I don't judge, but that's not really what I meant.)

I'm with you readers: I'm also a huge fan of the power of positive thinking, in fact that's what helps me turn a blind eye to the mess in my family room most weekends. I'm also a big fan of good luck charms. I like the symbolism they represent for our children: you make your own luck, but a little extra help can't hurt.

My favorite good luck charm in the Furber house is our money tree.


Chinese legend is that a money tree can bring money and fortune to its owners and is a symbol of affluence, nobility and auspiciousness. I don't know about that so much, but I do know that JP and I bought a money tree seven years ago and sold our house the next day. Since that day, we've been convinced that the money tree is one of the things standing between us and destitution, so we tend the tree very carefully and get a little nervous when a leaf or two falls off.
Even the kids have adopted our superstition. They're very careful not to disturb the money tree and often will give us advice on how to tend it. A few weeks ago Jack was doing what Jack does sometimes (flailing around crashing into things) and he knocked over the money tree and broke its pot. The Furber family swung into action as if my wedding ring had been flushed down the toilet, and now the money tree is enjoying its new home in a much bigger pot. And wouldn't you know, right after that happened I came into a little unexpected money. Hmmm.
February 28, 2010
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Pass It On



It's coming upon the gift giving season. Mother's Day, Father's Day, graduations and weddings loom and each beg for the perfectly selected gift.

In an age when it’s hip to re-use and recycle, re-gifting is also making a comeback, although not in the traditional “get rid of something you don’t want” sense. Today’s version of re-gifting consists of sharing or passing along something that’s meaningful to you. I'm especially happy to see this tradition return, as many of the decorative items in my home have been given to me as gifts or have been passed along from someone who knows I have a passion for decor. I would always rather have something that carries a story than something brand new.
While it takes no less time to choose, the perfectly selected re-gift can be more memorable and meaningful than something newly purchased. For instance:
  • A bottle of wine from your cellar
  • A piece of a collection that’s meaningful to you. When I got married, my mother-in-law’s sister gave me a beautiful gift: she added to the collection of teacups my mother had given to me over the years with a cup and saucer from her collection of flow blue china.
  • A book that you’ve enjoyed. Write a passage in the front of the book about what you enjoyed, and pass it along to someone you think will like it.
  • A plant or tree that you’ve nurtured. When my daughter Katie was born, a friend gave me a tiny Christmas cactus that was an offshoot of a plant she received when her last baby was born. Now I’m about to pass along an offshoot to one of my friends who just had a baby.
  • Something someone’s admired. I once admired a friend’s enamel butterfly pin, and on my next birthday, she gave it to me as a gift.
  • A stack of magazines on a topic of interest. A stack of vintage National Geographics is a perfect gift for a 10 year old boy.
  • A Christmas ornament from your collection.
  • A collection of letters and photos.
  • Something from your family. My husband wears a lapis Polk family crest ring that will someday be passed onto our son, and I wear his grandmother’s diamond ring that will someday be passed onto one of our daughters.
  • Something that feeds someone’s interest or talent. If you have an old manual typewriter, pass it on to someone who shows a talent for writing.
Practice with the upcoming gift giving season, then you'll be a pro when Christmas arrives.

February 21, 2010
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Maria Callas Is My Soulmate

I'm lucky to have one of those jobs that lists "getting inspired" as part of the job description, and occasionally I just hand an entire day over to the idea of inspiration. Friday was one of those days.

My friend Christopher prepared an agenda of 25 inspiring places to visit, starting with the San Francisco Flower Market, and ending with a warehouse full of french antiques that used rickety old shelving as it's only merchandising technique. In between there were approximately 25 other visits around the city of San Francisco. As Christopher, Pallavi and I traipsed across the city and back (and then back again) we saw beautiful things, met interesting people, and ate delicious food (like the cappuccino and apricot/anise donut at Four Barrel that got our day started).



As I search for ideas that I can apply to my daily work, I always keep a corner of my mind open for ideas that I can apply to my home, or things my family would like. Friday was a good day for that. For example:

Start your day with flowers if you can. It makes everyone happy.

Even the most utilitarian corner of your house can be beautiful. I've never seen packets of Equal look so pretty.


If it's meaningful to you and your family, it's art.


Everyone works better after taking a break for some ice cream.















Remember and share the stories of the things in your house. These guys could have talked for hours about each of the products in their shop. That's one of the big differences between visiting a chain store and visiting a small privately owned store. And it's one of the big differences between a model home and a warm and comfortable family home that's been built over a lifetime.


Old and beat up is OK. Just like with people, the richness of life experience can show in the things you choose for your home. My red leather chairs aren't worn out, they're wise and experienced.
If you've got a skill or talent in your family's history, keep it alive. One store we visited, The Parish Trust, dedicates its existence to collecting and curating antiques from dead and dying industries. The store was a treasure trove of manual typewriters, vintage cameras, and other items my children might not even recognize in twenty years.
And last, in case I or anyone in my house has forgotten:



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