Watts Style, Chapter Three: Velvet Resistance

Cacti by night

The biggest obstacle in doing the room was getting the draperies right. Part of it was the mechanics of securing them into a wall. It was a constant guessing game in this old building of whether I was dealing with steel or wood studs, drywall or concrete. There’s nothing like the sinking feeling of an anchor plopping out of the wall when you try to screw into it. This will hold 30 pounds of fabric?

The other component was placing existing draperies in a room they were not designed for. I wanted to reuse the eight foot long black pair from my bedroom in Mother’s Indiana condo. My ceilings are 12 feet high.


Coachella Cacti two years on. Thrive.

I’ve previously blogged about these velvet warriors but, to briefly recap, they are an art deco swirl fabric that had not been manufactured since the 1930’s. To prevent the Nazis from melting the huge production drums and using them for ammunition, the French Resistance buried the dies in the forest. It was an effective job. They went undiscovered for seven decades. Around the Millenium they were found and used again in production.

Cut velvet for the free world.

The original idea for the new installation was to create the illusion of longer panels with a two foot cornice hiding the space between the rod and the ceiling. That left a two foot gap at the bottom to be hidden by furniture. It was a messy solution.

There’s nothing to be gained by pointing fingers or trying to assess blame in a one-man project, but the quality of the execution was severely lacking. As the year progressed I watched the cornice warp, come off its supports, and sag. It looked like the trailer trash vicious rumors say frequent this room. And it was depressing to live with.

Then it occured to me that the fake-out should all be at the bottom not the top. So I raised the draperies to the ceiling and constructed a shelf that runs the length of the room. The hem of the cut velvet now stops at a faux window sill as god intended.

To hide the rod (a favorite bedroom past-time) I used a single row of Aalvar Aalto black dots. Below the new sill is additional shelving for the unending stash of books. And for the daily ephemera generated by the busy life of an unemployed, social security recipient.

When peafowl cry.

My budget constraints were alleviated by the discovery of an architectual salvage yard in Hunters Point. They seem to make the prices up every day depending on which clerk you ask. I bought three planks of wood, a half dozen four foot glass shelves and 16 brackets all for $18. (For emphasis I reiterate: I live in San Francisco.)

Emboldened as an urban survivalist, I now forage the bowels of the city jonesing for an interior decorating fix. With some success, as will be seen in an upcoming post on the wood slat blinds I spotted on the curb. They are being transformed into crown moulding for the kitchen.

I’m satisfied with the overall effect of the art deco velvet in my bedroom window. However, although I don’t mind accepting limited praise for my gumption, any attempts to closely examine the workmanship will be met with an armed response.



Watts Style, Chapter Two: Memento Mori

The south wall of my bedroom is where the hodge-podge flourishes. Sundry items collected throughout my life.

There were casualties in the past year’s chaos. In 1956 I saved my allowance for the dimestore at the corner of Roscoe Blvd. and White Oak Avenue in Northridge. I had my eye on and purchased a green ceramic Mama Squirrel. To her neck was tethered a gold chain that harnessed her two babies at either end.

Her issue were lost years ago and Mama S succumbed recently. She got clipped by the tail end of a step ladder and crashed on the floor.

That’s one way to handle old sentiment.


Watts Style, Chapter One: Primeval

Uncle Fritz was one of the anomalies in my family. Among the throngs of do-gooder farm folk was this urbane swell who was an executive for a Santa Monica construction company. He took a shine to me through his martini haze and lavished his Jack Paar wit on us during his annual visits.

He even wanted me to live with his family when I was a high school senior so I could establish residency and attend UCLA.

Mother put her foot down. She was never controlling after I left home but Bloomington was about as far as she was willing to go for starters. Partially this was a result of all my childhood illnesses. But mainly it was because she had a powder keg on her hands and LA would have been too much, too soon. I probably would have become a junkie.

The Last Frontier: it took a year but there is finally space to walk around the bed.

One summer Uncle Fritz was perplexed by my sudden involvement in 4-H. We lived in the country, though not on a farm, and I had succumbed to peer pressure at my junior high. Out of boredom I needed something to do.

I pursued things like Forestry, where I learned about Indiana’s indigenous trees. And something called Wild Life which took on new meaning after two days of Uncle Fritz’s double entendres: “Has your Wild Life group made it to that strip bar on Harrison yet?”

And there were rabbits. They were cute at first but their fecal production was astounding. I did my best to keep the cages clean but it soon became overwhelming, I couldn’t manage. The bunnies grew as did the mysterious organisms they lived with. One was so ill it expired during the summer judging at the Allen County War Memorial Coliseum. There’s material for a Kenny Rogers’ song there: She Died at the County Fair.

Subtle lighting effects. They’re calling me the Master of the LED Palatte.

Needless to say attempts to be lumberjack or outdoorsy have never been convincing. But it doesn’t prevent me from appreciating the primitive aspects of it all. Like the Naive landscape that dominates the north wall of my bedroom.

On a slow day I hide in the thicket and practice my duck calls.

I marveled at the 7′ by 9′ behemoth for years in a Fort Wayne junk shop. At $80 I couldn’t understand why no one hadn’t swept up this masterpiece from some back room bar or VFW hall.  I finally decided it would be the perfect backdrop for Christmas in the condo’s family room. So I bought it ten years ago.

Besides its size, it was painted on wood and weighed a ton. I borrowed a short bed pickup and rather precariously secured it with rope to transport it home. The slow drive was via back streets as I anticipated a crash and boom at any moment. Thankfully, I made it without incident.

The Eiffel Tower: appropriate in any decorating scheme

The last hurdle was the nosey 80 year-old retiree next door. His personal radar picked up every click of my remote opener. He was usually out in the drive before the door finished rolling up. After the tense ride home I was in no mood for small talk about the curious piece I was hauling. As the door opened he was nowhere in sight so I accelerated slightly to get in quickly.

Then there was a thud, a squeal and I was stuck. I jumped out to see I had not waited long enough for the door to clear. The impact from the top of the picture over the cab had caught it and bowed both side rails. One-quarter of the two-car garage door was hanging limper than last Saturday night’s trick. The painting, on the other hand, survived the collision like the Hoosier hard woods I’d studied and admired.

Instantly Mr. Buttinsky was out advising me on what needed to be done immediately. In a way I was relieved he had something to talk about. At least I didn’t have to explain the principles of Outsider Art.

The candles are a reminder of the Palm Springs experience. Look for my new hit single dedicated to the Viagra generation, Like a Candle in the 120 Degree Heat. I will be performing it at Prince Charles’ State Funeral.


I’mma Gonna Do Something!

Kathy was one of the few friends who saw my bedroom last year in transition purgatory. With a dismayed look she commented, “I would never have guessed the state of things from the photos.”

That was not by hazard. In focusing only on elements of design I wasn’t addressing overall living conditions. It was perpetual squalor. Especially on the bed that doubled as a work bench. Many nights I would roll over to feel the sharp pain of a staple gun in my back. Or sometimes the pain was from a stud finder–and not the good kind.

The pressures of the blog demanded that I keep posting results that were awesome! And a success!! Yes!!! I did it!!!! No one wants to read a bummer.

In reality I was spinning a project that evolved from the abstract, was fraught with a lack of money and skill, and plagued with numerous do-overs. I was uneasy describing it plus I couldn’t really photograph the perseverance. But persevere I did and finally I can go wide-angle. This time it is well and truly done. (Almost.)

My bedroom is a hodge-podge of things I’ve accumulated and loved through the years. They are a small portion of the larger inventory headed to the Antique Emporium. By whim these few items were given a reprieve to be used one last time.

I’ve always enjoyed the power of the unexpected in decorating, like small things in big rooms or big things in small rooms. It confuses the hell out of people: “what style is this?”

In retrospect, if I were to flatter myself with having a style, I would like to think it’s along the lines of a Joseph Cornell box. The juxtaposition of found objects that make you feel “aahhh.” He’s sui generis, however, and off-limits. There will never be another.

Then I thought of the Sir John Soane House in London. He was an eccentric collector who threw everything on the walls without much design or planning. There’s a cluttered sense to his messy presentation of high quality pieces. Sadly, my decision-making never rose to the level of choosing placement for the Hogarth or the Watteau.


In 1974 I went with friends to South Central Los Angeles. We’d read a newspaper article about this hidden gem called Watts Towers and were determined to find it.

We stayed with my friend Bob who I knew from Bloomington. He was the Curator of Education at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and felt it was his duty to familiarize himself with a local attraction he’d only read about. It still didn’t prevent him from continuously mumbling on the drive out, “I can’t believe you’re making me go into this neighborhood.” It had only been seven years since the Watts riots and this area of town was not exactly a day at the beach for locals.

Upon finding the towers, their incongruity did not disappoint. Strangely wonderful, they soared above their desolate surroundings evoking early concepts of space age design. Like Fritz Lang’s Metropolis or Lucy and Ethel on top of the Empire State Building posing as Martians.

Watts Towers was the creation of Simon Rodia, a first generation Italian-American. They consist of 17 inter-connected towers that were added on as needed. They were made from steel rods that were covered with wire mesh and concrete. He embellished the wet concrete with pieces of broken pottery or glass that was either found or donated. The color scheme for each day’s work depended on pieces he had on hand.

Built on his private property from 1921-1954, the City of Los Angeles tried for decades to tear them down. When they failed to bust him on permit violations they went after him over stress conditions. The towers were so well constructed the process destroyed the City’s testing equipment.

Today Watts Towers is a state park. When he was once interviewed about his motivation for constructing the towers, all Simon Rodia could do was to keep repeating “I’mma gonna do something! I’mma gonna do something!”

Those who question my “style” baffle me. It implies it’s been copied or that it could be replicated again. Who would want to? But if I were to associate my thinking with anyone’s it would come closest to Mr. Rodia’s. The bedroom plan created itself as it happened. And it seemed to take 30 years.

To the great schools of 20th Century design like Bauhaus, Mid-Century Modern, and Hollywood Regency we should add Watts Tower. I hope that’s what my style is perceived as anyway. And not as Hamburger Mary’s.


Tomorrow begins a four-part visit to my private bed chamber. Most guests don’t last fifteen minutes in there. Lucky you will have four days.

I’m ready for my long shot Mr. DeMille.