Shelf Esteem

Attention

Houseplants, crème brule, and relationships can suffer from neglect.  If you neglect a houseplant, it wilts and dies.  If you neglect crème brule, it becomes yucky mush.  If you neglect a relationship, it turns to bitterness.

 This is a potted houseplant.

This is a potted houseplant.

Thoughtless attention can be just as bad.  Over-watered houseplants can drown and die.  Over-torched crème brule can turn to ash.  Telling your significant other about that crazy dream you had last night, when he/she/it doesn’t want to listen, will overwhelm them and drive them to shove kitchen utensils into their ears.  Care and attention means doing things appropriate for the moment.

Meaningful care and attention isn’t necessarily expensive or difficult.  To know if your plant needs water you drop a digit into its pot to check if the dirt is dry. If it is dry, you pour in a glass of water – seconds of work and close to no cost.  To know if your crème brule needs more searing, use your eyes and nose to check if the sugar is caramelized. If it‘s undercooked, you give it a few more seconds of torch time – moments of work at the cost of mere pennies of propane.  To see if your significant other needs sympathy or compassion, you stare into his/her/its soul through the eyes – the cost in both time and treasure on this varies wildly.


Brutal

In the shop next to my house I needed a place to keep ‘consumables’.  Consumables are things like nuts, bolts, screws, nails, filters, you get the picture.  We can’t create our delicious pear cider out of thin air after all.  I decided to make myself some shelves out of scrap plywood.  

While I don’t have enough experience to set out to make something in a particular style, I do have enough familiarity with how to describe particular styles to put names on things after the fact.  A simple practical design, using readily available materials, with no emphasis on decoration is a formula that leads to modernist design.  My shelves were going to be modernist.

An easy-to-build design leads to repeated shapes made out of the same materials.  Repeating themes can increase the significance of the overall composition because the individual parts fade to anonymity among its peers; this is the ‘brutalist’ offshoot of modernism.  (The word ‘brutal’ is fun, but here it refers to concrete.)

At its best, brutalism creates a sense of gravitas, an antidote to neglect.  It creates a space where it feels like the events that happen there matter.  By extension, the people who take part in those events feel like what they are doing matters, and thus their lives matter.

Schools and other government buildings used brutalist design for decades, built with the justification that brutalism creates a desirable mood.  This psychological rationalization whitewashes over the fact that brutalist designs are both fast and cheap to build.

 This is a freeway overpass

This is a freeway overpass

Freeway overpasses are good places for the brutalist look.  Roads that feel solid and durable reassure chickens like me who are scared of heights. 

At its worst, brutalism is soul suckingly overwhelming.  The spaces feel more important than the people inside.  Parking garages are almost all brutalist, and bad brutalist at that.  Parking garages are awful places that drown you with the feeling that you are a small, insignificant cog in a great uncaring machine.  They scream: "TURN COG, TURN" until you're driven to shove kitchen utensils in your ears.  I wanted my shelves to avoid this feel.

 

Gaps

Even with care and attention the brutalist path is still fraught with peril, and best left to the experts.  I am no expert, but I do know four tricks to avoid brutalism: 

  • Material changes
  • Color changes 
  • Asymmetry
  • Shadow gaps 
 New, empty shelves asymetrical to existing shelves.

New, empty shelves asymetrical to existing shelves.

Material changes aren’t an option when you commit to using scrap plywood and really only looks good when what you're making is big.  Color changes didn’t work for me because I wanted to use up some left over paint.  I used asymmetry by making the interior shelves not match the height of the shelves on the cabinet immediately adjacent - brutalism avoided.

I didn’t use shadow gaps, but they are super cool when used well.  Shadow gaps are intentional gaps left between panels to create shadows.  Shadows break repetition because, no matter the lighting, shadows vary in size and intensity throughout.  The shadow gaps create a feeling of floating lightness with their soft edges hinting at romantic secrets. Carlo Scarpa used all shadows elegantly, especially those from shadow gaps.

 These are shadow gaps in the stucco.

These are shadow gaps in the stucco.


Caulk – Banish the Darkness

When you butt two bits of wood up next to each other, there is a seam.  If you’ve done a good job, that seam is less than a 1/16th of an inch, about the thickness of a quarter.  Where gaps are too wide, the shadows ‘pop’, screaming for attention.  In those dark shadows lies the darknight of the soul; the darkness of failing to live up to Ovid’s commandment: "Make workmanship surpass the materials."

Shadows from poor workmanship are not shadow gaps (shadow gaps are at least 3/8th of an inch wide). Shadows from poor fit and workmanship are the darkness of failure.  You can’t neglect gaps and be happy with the outcome.  You can’t overwhelm the gaps and squeeze them shut with brute force without warping your structure. 

 My Gaps, my shame.  Quarter for scale.

My Gaps, my shame.  Quarter for scale.

Thankfully, there is an elegant substance made to care for these seems: caulk.  Caulk can be applied, correctly, with minimal skills and tools.  Caulk is fast.  Caulk is cheap.  Caulk is good stuff.

 A nice thin bead of caulk can really satisfy.

A nice thin bead of caulk can really satisfy.

You can see that when I'd finished screwing the panels together, some gaps remained.  Gaps that didn’t get covered up by primer.  Gaps that would have consumed my soul with their darkness.  Thankfully a little care and attention with a caulking gun banished the darkness.

 This is our hero, Caulk.

This is our hero, Caulk.

A tube of caulk costs $1.68 at the Home Depot.  With that caulk, I ended up with a set of shelves that I would have paid $20 for at Ikea. Without that caulk, I would have ended up with a pile of shame made out of wood.   So, the next time you try and put a value on your self-esteem, remember mine costs $1.68.