## Intrinsic beauty

Tuesday, December 25th, 2007

Anyone who has taken an art theory course or studied design will be familiar with the “golden mean” or the “golden ratio.” These terms describe a magical, eye-pleasing proportion that appears time after time in nature’s own handiwork. The mathematical formula is 1-to-0.618.

Look at a nautilus shell or the face of a perfectly-formed dahlia and you’ll see evidence of that unmistakable perfection. Artists, architects and designers have tried to attain (emulate?) this natural phenomenon. The logarithmic formula was studied by a 13th Century mathematician, Leonardo da Pisa (Leonardo Fibonacci). He developed what is known as the “Fibonacci Series,” a progression of numbers that explains nature’s structural design, especially seen in botany. Beginning with 1+1=2, and then adding the sum of the first two numbers with the second, you begin to see an endless series of numbers: 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21, 34, 55, 89, 144, etc. (Each number is the sum of the two numbers preceding it.) Count the seeds on a pine cone, daisy or sunflower. You will begin to see this beautiful, perfect, equation.

Another related, and also timeless, design notion is called the “French Third.” It is the approximate ratio of 1/3-to-2/3, which also appears in classical paintings, sculpture, architecture and design.

Now I read that scientists think even our brains intuitively respond to evidence of great beauty.

Researchers in Italy recently showed great works of art to volunteers with no artistic training (some of whom had never before been to a museum). According to a report in The Week (12-7-2007), neuroscientists showed their subjects images of Classical and Renaissance sculptures by Michelangelo and da Vinci. Some of the images had been altered, slightly modifying the original proportions. When subjects viewed pictures of the original sculptures, scans of their brains showed a strong emotional response.

There was less response to the sculptures with changed proportions. “We were very surprised that very small modifications to images of the sculptures led to very strong modifications in brain activity,” researcher Giacomo Rizzolatti was quoted as saying. The brain, he surmised, may have a special attraction to images that demonstrate the golden ratio, which shows up in nature, and is emulated in great art. And our brains interpret these proportions, responding to them positively.

It is quite humbling to realize that for all our lofty notions of “beauty,” “art” and “good design,” our very body (brain and soul) recognizes intrinsic beauty.

The gracefully-proportioned steps in the Israelit garden (Portland, OR) demonstrate the idea of “French Thirds”

## Word of the year: “Locavore”

Thursday, December 13th, 2007

Editors at the New Oxford American Dictionary recently announced that “locavore” is their word of the year.

Locavore: someone who eats locally grown food.

Watching this wonderful word move into the mainstream is both gratifying and a little worrisome. Will locavore become a politicized label, like recent research reports concluding that owners of hybrid cars are active, educated and Democrat? Will locavore suffer from overuse, watered down for marketers’ convenience, as “organic” and “all-natural” have been? I hope neither. I hope, like the Slow Food movement, that this word will remain a cherished symbol of grassroots passion about the character (and food) of a specific place on earth. Namely: your own backyard. And for this reason, I maintain that gardeners at their very hearts, are also locavores.

Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, a wonderful new book by Barbara Kingsolver, Stephen L. Hopp and Camille Kingsolver, is the authentic locavore manifesto. In it, megastar novelist Kingsolver and her family document ”a year of food life,” in which they attempted to grow and produce as much of their own food as possible. And when the food doesn’t come from their own small farm in the southern Appalacians, it is supplied by local farmers who use sustainable practices. I received this book as a gift from my dear friend Britt Olson. Reading it this autumn has given me renewed hope in the power of one’s own small patch of soil — and what can be grown there.

As I’m trying to renovate a sterile, suburban backyard so that it can be planted next March, I’m thinking about all the delicious, nourishing vegetables and herbs that it will produce (not to mention seasonal flowers that I can enjoy and use in arrangements). I’ll never reach the status of a 100-percent locavore, but if I can at least grow some of my own food supply, it will be a start. It is a gardener’s obligation, I think, to grow edible as well as ornamental crops.

Cauliflowers from Underwood Family Farms in Somis, CA

The farmer’s market is open this afternoon, and I’m off to buy organic eggs (although one has to arrive at 2 p.m. on the spot in order to get the lovely blue-green Araucana eggs), fingerling potatoes, colorful cauliflowers, and autumn fruit. Perhaps I’m a locavore-wannabe, but it’s sure better than the alternative.

## Texas wildflowers: My first movie effort

Wednesday, December 12th, 2007

During our many road trips to produce Stylish Sheds and Elegant Hideaways, I

## More British shed news

Monday, December 10th, 2007

In an earlier post, I mentioned that TWO “shed guys” from the U.K. have been in touch with Shedstyle.com. If Uncle Wilco of readersheds.co.uk is the “bad boy” of sheds, then Alex Johnson is the shed-dweller’s “boy-next-door.” I’m happy to have them both on my team!

When I first discovered Alex’s site — Shedworking — I was thrilled to learn he was the online voice of a community of people who have shunned the office cubicle for their backyard studios and ateliers. He has successfully identified and tapped into a groundswell of shed users – across Britain and (increasingly) on U.S. soil. I’m glad to join this international conversation and want to introduce my Shedstyle readers to Alex.

Q. Please provide us with a brief bio:

A. I’m a 38-year-old journalist, living in St. Albans, England (just outside London) and have worked on national newspapers and magazines in the U.K. and Spain for the last 15 years, as well as being an editorial consultant for several major charities. I’ve focused particularly on over-50s issues, Spanish culture (I lived in Madrid for several years) and over the last two years, the world of ‘homeworking,’ with an emphasis on shedworking, using a garden office as an alternative to the traditional office workplace.

Q. How/when did you get the idea to start shedworking.co.uk?

A. When I bought my own garden office four years ago, there seemed to be growing interest in the U.K. (and also to some extent the U.S.) in not only working from home, but particularly from a shed-like atmosphere at the bottom of the garden. I felt that this group wasn’t being catered to by the traditional mainstream media — indeed often patronised by it — and so decide to launch “The Shed” as a free PDF magazine to try and bring this dispersed community together. The magazine has recently celebrated its second birthday and now has 1,500 readers in countries around the globe (U.K., U.S., Spain, Italy, France, Brazil, Canada, Australia and New Zealand). I launched the Shedworking blog site just over a year ago and that has also taken off nicely – I blog daily, sometimes posting three or four times.

Q. To what do you attribute the explosion of interest in backyard office-sheds?

A. The increasing belief that the current way we work is simply not applicable any more to 21st century living and that ‘presenteeism’ is largely unnecessary. Offices as factories is a fairly recent phenomenon, largely the result of the industrial revolution, and working from home is superior in many ways – it cuts out the commute, it improves life/work balance, it can be a lot more eco-friendly, it’s more productive . . . the list is endless. And there’s a really impressive range of garden offices available on the market, too, so whatever your wallet size or architectural interest, it’s likely there’s something for the proto-shedworker out there.

A. A large number work in creative industries, particularly the media, with a roughly 50-50 split between men and women. The beauty of shedworking is that while the traditional allotment shed is still something of a male domain, the trend towards shedworking has enfranchised women to own their own sheds and work from them. Many readers are particularly interested in green issues.

Q. Are you working from a backyard shed? Describe it, please.

Alex’s “shedquarters” in St. Albans, England

A. I am indeed. It’s a green Homestead Timber Building’s garden office, a Marlow model, rather traditionally shedlike architecturally. It’s perfect since I don’t need a vast amount of space and our back garden is fairly modestly sized. It has full insulation, a heater, electrics, wi-fi and as an office it also handles my overflow for books from the house and minor bits of gardening (I keep my home-brewed cider in here).

Q. Please tell me about your online magazine, “The Shed,” and how people can subscribe to it.

A. It’s a lifestyle magazine for people who work in garden offices, sheds and other shedlike atmospheres. It covers homeworking issues such as what to wear to homework, interesting garden office structures, poetry (we have a poet in residence called Shedman, John Davies, who has just released a new collection of poems, largely about sheds), humor and the latest news about garden offices and accessories. To subscribe, just email me at alex@splashmedia.co.uk.

A. “Shedworking: the alternative workplace revolution,” will be published by The Friday Project in the U.K. in July 2008 during the second “National Shed Week.” It will look, in more depth, at the issues and structures touched on in the magazine and on the site, from historic sheds and shedworkers to examples of how people run businesses from their garden offices in the 21st century to dealing with issues such as isolation and the future of shedworking as microarchitecture starts to really take off. There’ll be plenty of examples to enjoy but it will also be a good read. I’m just finishing writing at the moment.

Q. What do you plan to do next?

A. I’d like to put together a book about shepherd’s huts – these sheds on wheels are becoming increasingly popular in the U.K. as garden offices and backyard structures (both original and reconstructed) but there are also more concrete examples around the world from Romney Marsh in eastern England (where they are called ‘Lookers Huts’) to New Zealand.

Thank you, Alex! It will be great fun to follow your progress and keep up with you!

## As always, they do it better across the Atlantic

Sunday, December 9th, 2007

Last week’s posting on Shed design tips yielded response from two of the U.K.’s shed experts who have their own awesome blogs. I first discovered Readersheds last spring, while working on “Stylish Sheds and Elegant Hideaways,” my book project.

So it is with great delight that I can share the first of two Q&As with my British Shed Pals. Appearing here is my email conversation with the “Prince of Sheds,” aka Uncle Wilco. Uncle Wilco runs a popular web site: www.readersheds.co.uk (he blogs at shedblog.co.uk).

A. I am Uncle Wilco and I am a sheddie. I’m 36 and I live near Pontypridd (where singer superstar Tom Jones comes from ) in South Wales in the U.K. I’m not sure if Tom has a shed; I’ve never had a reply from him. But I love sheds!

Q. When/how did you launch readersheds.co.uk?

A. Readersheds started as an idea in early 2000. I was looking for information about building a garden shed, but could not find much online, so I thought I might as well start a website, where people “shared their sheds” and told us how they went about it.

Ironically, the shed I went with in the end was ordered online and I just erected it instead of building from scratch. But the idea for “readersheds” had started and it just took on a life of its own! The shedblog.co.uk came later, but has been great in promoting Shed Week (details on this below)! And my general musings on shed-related matters.

Q. What was your first introduction to a shed? Did you grow up with a tool shed or potting shed in your backyard?

A. My grandfather (who turned 90 in November) used to have a big allotment garden in the Welsh Valleys. There he used to grow vegetables – and of course (it) was a place the men used to go to escape the wife!

All the allotmenters had sheds they built from scrap wood and anything else they could find. They were recycling before it was fashionable. I used to spend a lot of time there when I was younger. I don’t recall my parents having a shed, but my dad had a garage converted into a wood-shop, so the idea was there!

A. I have two. Technically, one is a normal garden shed, but it is the hub of my ‘shed empire.’  The other one is a summerhouse, which is Mrs. Uncle Wilco’s domain, so is not on the site yet, but very soon.

Q. Tell me about the response you’ve had, both in the U.K. and around the globe.

A. It was slow to start with, but I never did any advertising or Search Engine Optimisation really for the site. Over the past three years the site has gone from strength to strength in terms of global visitors. And of course sheddies from most continents have shared their sheds, from your basic off-the-shelf to unique cabins and buildings of beauty.

Q. How many readers have posted photos of their sheds on your site?

A. We have around 730 sheds on the site currently, with around 100 that have been added since “Shed of the Year 2007,” but we are looking for many more and your readers can share their sheds here.

Q. When did you start the Shed of the Year competition?

A. 2007 was the first year, but I had a small shed competition a few years ago. I can’t wait for Shed of the Year 2008. Not sure if we can top last year’s winner: Tony’s Roman Temple Shed. We have a good selection so far, but we have six months to go, so hopefully we will have some unique sheds.

Q. Tell me about the National Shed Week – it seems like it has been wildly popular with great press coverage.

A. I decided that here in the U.K., we should have a week that celebrates all things sheds. I tried to petition the U.K. government, but to no avail, as they said the idea “was intended to be humorous, or have no point about government policy.”

So I thought, well I have a shed site so I will run it myself. National Shed Week was born with the aim of getting sheds recognized. [Editor's note: National Shed Week is scheduled to begin July 7, 2008.]

I think having U.K. property guru and sheddies favourite Sarah Beeny signed up as a judge may have helped with the press coverage, but of course the British have a love affair with the shed, so really it’s just snowballed. I was lucky to do a few radio interviews. I got the impression they thought I was a nutter . . . ! But at least people realise that I have a passion for sheds, so that’s all that matters.

Q. What do you plan next?

A. Well, Shed of the Year 2008 is my next big thing. I hope to be more organised than this year – in fact I have already signed up four judges including TV property guru Sarah Beeny, the famous wind-up radio inventor Trevor Baylis, Alex from shedworking.co.uk and renowned beach hut expert Dr. Kathryn Ferry.

I hope we get lots more unique sheds on the site, as they are the lifeblood of Shed Week! I am talking to sponsors at the moment, so we should have some great shed prizes to give away as well.

After 2008, well, not sure. Hopefully, 2009! And then, Shed World Domination.

## December, Pacific-style

Wednesday, December 5th, 2007

Alex, barefoot at the beach

“We have snow in Seattle!” my friend Robyn exclaimed, her voice coming through my cellphone headset.

It was in the low-70s. I was driving home, south on Highway 101 with the Pacific Ocean and the afternoon sun over my right shoulder. It was December first.

Life is certainly a study in contrasts. While my heart is constantly in the Pacific Northwest, and while I can just picture the beautiful fluffy snow landing ever so gently on the railings surrounding Robyn’s decks, the reality is: I’m here. And this week, I’m enjoying the beginnings of winter, Southern California style.

On Saturday, a road trip was called for. We hopped in the Subaru and headed north, up the Ventura Freeway in the sunshine…(yes, like the song), to Seaside Gardens in Carpinteria.

This is a very cool place. Not only is there an amazing selection of not-so-common landscaping plants here, there is an abundance of design ideas presented in the display gardens. Located just a stone’s throw from Santa Claus Beach, where my son Alex and I stopped on the way home to dip our toes in the sand and saltwater, and watch the kite-surfers, Seaside Gardens is arranged like a small botanical garden.

We were lured by the colorful postcard that arrived in the mail box, inviting us to a holiday open house (complete with hot cider and hors d’oeuvres). Weather report: Intense sun, powerful wind. No potted plant over 2-feet-tall was immune from the swift breezes coming inland from the ocean.

But we had fun nonetheless. Shopped for succulents: we brought home lots of 2-inch pots of echeverias for \$2.49 each, plus we snagged four really enticing 4-inch pots of Sedum hispanicum‘Purpureum’ (delicate 1- to 2-inch high groundcover stonecrop that spreads up to 18-inches…unfortunately, I’m afraid the rabbits might like this one, time will tell).

Map depicts the wonderful display areas at Seaside Gardens

We took a breezy tour through the display gardens, spotting plants that caught our eyes and snapping photos to capture the moment. No thoughts of buying a Christmas tree, yet. But planting a sedum wreath, maybe!

Abyssinian banana-tree-hugger!

20 Toes…can’t resist!

## Shed design tips

Monday, December 3rd, 2007

A nice surprise arrived in my email in-box last week. It was a note from someone who has discovered shedstyle.com:

Dear Debra, My husband and I are building a potting shed. We have a footprint and general design concept.  What we haven’t been able to find are ideas or samples of interior space allocation.  I’ve preordered Stylish Sheds and Elegant Hideways from Random House but now is the time I most need some of your knowledge/experience.  Is there another source (I’ve also read your internet magazine) that you can direct me?  Is there any information you can provide? I’ve literally been hoping for this building ever since my husband and I bought our home – 27 years ago.  I’d really appreciate your help. Thank you! (signed, MARY)

Wow, thank you, Mary! She actually pre-ordered Stylish Sheds and Elegant Hideaways! Very exciting news, especially since it won’t be on bookstore shelves until April 29, 2008. Mary’s note prompted me to think about what kind of Shed Design Checklist I would give a nascent shed-builder.

Here are some general tips: First, of all, remember that there are infinite ideas to play around with. Think carefully about the interiors. So many people build gorgeous pieces of architectural wonder but then leave the shed’s inside ordinary-looking, dusty and filled with cobwebs. Even a functioning potting shed should be beautiful and reflect your own style.

Pegboard walls and exposed rafters give this shed a barn-like feeling, while a cozy area rug and rocking chair ensure comfort

Treat the interior space allocation as you would design any room of your house. What will you do with the wall? It’s fine to leave the rafters and studs exposed, but can you paint them or mount shelves or hooks for displaying collections? One woman I know lined the walls of her potting shed with pegboard and hung from it all her antique gardening tools.

Kathy’s potting counter

If you want a work counter or potting bench, consider the dimensions and proportions of the interior counters that feel best to you. Is your kitchen counter the correct height and depth? Do you like it deep enough to allow room for stacks of flowerpots or rows of gardening books to be displayed across the back? Is there storage room underneath?

Some of the most attractive countertops I’ve seen are covered in a sheath of copper or zinc. Kathy Fries, a Seattle gardener who has no fewer than four “shed” structures on her property, bought a salvaged section of classroom cabinets (probably used in a high school wood-shop or science class), complete with countertop and storage bins — voila! The perfect potting bench for her garden house.

Windows: Can you add a valance or lace panels? Can you make sure there’s a nice deep ledge for potted herbs or anything else that makes you happy? Windows should definitely be operable so you can adjust temperatures, create ventilation and — most important — hear the sounds of your garden while inside the shed. Swishing grasses, the whir of a hummingbird, bird-songs and a fountain’s trickling water are essential sounds you wouldn’t want to miss.

Doors: Just as with your home, you want the threshold and portal that lead from the “external world” to your “inner sanctum” to be symbolic of powerful and nurturing emotions: shelter, safety and haven. Don’t settle for an ordinary door from the big-box home center when you can do a little hunting to find something special. A salvaged door, especially one with glass, is a nice choice. You can add color or (as we did in our Seattle garden) allow the elements to continue the peeling process that reveals decades of life.

Floor: Remember this is an outdoor structure. It’s okay if you have a cement floor, but perhaps you should paint it and put a drain in the center so any gardening projects can be easily cleaned up. I’ve visited numerous sheds with wood plank flooring, vinyl tile, terracotta tile, flagstone, wall-to-wall carpeting and the aforementioned concrete. It really depends on the function of the room.

Space-planning: Even if this is going to be a space for working on gardening projects, designate one wall or corner for R&R; A bench with cushions, a wicker chair and good reading lamp (of course, this means electricity), a desk for your reference books, correspondence or even a small tea party. Again, look to the room-like proportions of your home. One couple we interviewed/photographed for the book built their tea-house on the exact proportions of their dining room because to them, it was a comfortable space.

On the potting shed in my former Seattle garden, designer Jean Zaputil used salvaged French doors donated by a contractor-neighbor. The weathered mailbox became the perfect planter-box for daffodils and a rose hip wreath hangs on one door

Here are some other questions to ask yourself:

• What activity draw us outdoors? Are you creating art, making music, writing, gardening, arranging flowers, playing with children, stargazing, entertaining friends, seeking solitude or meditating?
• What role will the structure play in the landscape? Is it a design focal point or is it intentionally hidden from view? Will it be a surface or “wall” in the garden for climbing vines or roses? Will you use it as a gallery for hanging objects, mirrors, artifacts? Will it hide or disguise an unsightly view (such as the back of a neighbor’s garage)? Is it for pure function or pure folly…or a little bit of both?
• To create an appropriate shelter or structure to house your activity, take time to address these functional choices: placement (where will you site the structure? how will it be oriented?); size and scale (check your local building codes to determine the maximum size allowed without a construction permit; it is often around 100 square feet); what materials will complement your home’s architecture? what utilities do you need (electricity, water, heat?); and, of course, the fun part: how will you decorate, embellish and adorn the structure?

In her book Hideaways: Cabins, Huts, and Tree House Escapes, French author Sonya Faure explores some of the emotions that the word “hideaway” can conjure. I’d like to share them here:

“The dictionary defines a hideaway as ‘a secluded spot.’. . . There are plenty of synonyms for the word, most of which emphasize its protective function: cover, den, haven, hideout, refuge, retreat, sanctuary, shelter. . . . The noun ‘hut’ and the verb ‘to hide’ share the same Indo-European root – skeu – meaning: to cover or to conceal.”

In the end, your shed should be designed for your private and personal delight. It is the place where you will feel safe, feel free to create and contemplate, and take refuge from the everyday demands of life. “Shed” also is a verb that has several meanings, most of which hint at “letting go” (as in shedding tears, sending forth, losing by a natural process). There’s something very symbolic in that notion as well. We “shed” our burdens, our cares, our sadness or pain, when we can escape into our secret backyard place.