Caught by its tail, desperate to escape but unable to avoid the shrieking woman who’s discovered it, the poor creature cowers beneath the kitchen sink, held fast by a slice of plywood and a metal spring.
Unable to summon the courage to carry the mouse outdoors, unwilling to set it free and even more unwilling to dispatch it in place, the woman – my mother – makes a reasonable decision. Snatching up her white enameled dishpan with the pretty red edge and the unfortunate dent, she slaps it over the mouse.
Closing and latching the doors to the storage space beneath the sink, she turns to look at the only witness to her bravery. “There,” she says. “That’ll hold him until your father comes home.”
Whether the mouse survived, I can’t say, but a clutch of disconnected, early memories remains vibrant – the wash of morning sunlight across worn linoleum, a vinyl tablecloth dotted with blue and yellow windmills, scalloped yellow trim around the kitchen ceiling and glistening, clean white woodwork.
I suspect it was the summer of 1948 when I watched the unfolding drama from my high chair. Too young by far to tell time, I see the clock’s hands in memory and know the hour – eight-fifteen. The kitchen is filling with light, the breeze stirs through the window, restless and fresh, as I wait for my breakfast.
To my child’s eye, the kitchen was perfect, small, pieced together like a puzzle. The aluminum coffee pot resting on a back burner of the stove matched the aluminum canisters arrayed along the counter – flour and sugar, coffee, tea, spices. Pushed into a corner but still accessible was my mother’s pride and joy, a modern, two-slice automatic toaster. It sported a cheerful yellow-and-white gingham cover, the same yellow gingham that fluttered at the windows and decorated the kitchen as hot pads, aprons and trim for hand-embroidered tea towels.
Like plastic-covered furniture, ironed bed linens and crustless sandwiches, toaster covers were de rigueur in the 40s and 50s. Even after tumble-dry replaced weekly ironing and the bridge club’s taste changed to fruit salad and quiche, the toaster cover soldiered on. Years after leaving home, I still was carting one around.
I’d never given it a thought until a much younger friend offered to help me unpack after I moved back to Texas. Pulling a rectangular bit of fabric from a pile of kitchen towels, she held it up by one corner, obviously mystified. “What’s this?” she said. “A toaster cover.” “What do you do with it?” “What do you think I’d do with it?” I said. “I cover the toaster.” Bemused, she turned the cover this way and that before fluffing it a bit and setting it upright on the table. “Why would you do that?”
Why? I didn’t have a ready answer. To my knowledge, no one in the whole sweep of human history ever had questioned the practice of toaster-covering.
My first explanation, that the cover was meant to prevent dust, was dismissed out of hand. “I’ve never had dusty toast in my life,” my friend said. I tried again. “No, not the toast. The toaster. It keeps the toaster from getting dusty.” She wasn’t buying it. “Nothing in a kitchen gets dusty, except maybe the top of the refrigerator. Maybe the vent hood. But a toaster? How could a toaster get dusty?”
She had a point, “But that’s not all,” I said. “The cover keeps it from getting splattered when I’m cooking or using the mixer.” “If you get batter or spaghetti sauce all over it, don’t you have to wash it? Doesn’t that end up creating more work?”
Just slightly miffed, I snatched the cover from the table and tossed it into the corner, mentioning in passing that I didn’t intend to spend the rest of the afternoon defending the honor of toaster covers. She promised to stop giggling her way through a list of household items that could be covered – blender, coffee pot, mixer, sewing machine, vacuum, paper towel holder, broom - and we went back to work. Before long, the unpacking was done.
With the coffee pot re-programmed, the cannisters refilled and the neatly-covered toaster secure in its corner, all was right with my world until the morning I pulled the cover from the toaster and saw it needed washing. Smudged with jam, it had picked up a coffee stain or two and there were tiny crumbs in the piping. I laid it aside, then noticed one corner had edged into the butter dish. Sighing, I picked it up, wiped off the butter and glanced around for an out-of-the way place to stash it while I finished my breakfast.
Suddenly, I saw the trash can.
The vertiginous impulse to live with a naked toaster was completely unexpected. I might as well have developed a sudden hankering for yak milk in my coffee. On the other hand, looking at my toaster – the gleaming stainless steel surface, the luscious curves, the perfect integration of form and function – I realized that, in any competition with a slightly faded, smudged and edge-worn cover, the toaster was a sure winner.
It wasn’t the cover’s fabric that was the problem. It wasn’t poor construction or an out-of-date style. It was the concept itself. “Toaster cover,” I thought, as though hearing the words for the first time. Which bored or obsessive hausfrau had been first to imagine such a thing? Why had we adopted it? What, really, was the point? Like Paul on the road to Damascus, I’d had my vision. The cover had to go.
Years later, having been introduced to the Arts and Crafts movement with its attendant bungalows, Stickley furniture, exquisite tiles and back issues of Elbert Hubbard’s magazine The Fra, I discovered that textile designer, bookbinder and writer William Morris had provided in the mid-1800s a perfect rule of thumb for 21st century folk nearly overcome by the waves of “stuff” washing over their lives.
Never mind toaster covers. Morris had a word for anyone wearied of useless pillows, flimsy furniture, too-cute curtains, rugs on top of rugs, matching plastic bath goods and cheap Chinese imports. Here, I’ve matched his words with a favorite of his designs.
It’s a high standard Morris sets. What is useful to one may not be considered useful by another, and the definition of beauty varies from person to person. Still, Morris says, we are the ones responsible for the environment in which we live. We give assent to this and reject that, and to whatever degree possible we should strive for a unity of pleasing design and useful purpose when making our choices.
Unfortunately, perfect combinations of function and form aren’t always possible. And, as proponents of the Arts and Crafts movement learned, while the work of artisans may be superior to mechanized production, artisanal work can be inordinately expensive - a problem that helped bring about the demise of the movement.
On the other hand, when beauty joins with utility to inspire, to delight the eye, to rest the spirit and provide enjoyment, the wisdom of seeking quality over quantity becomes apparent. The combination of art and craft – an eye for beauty, a skilled hand joined by patience and a hunger for perfection – leads to something far greater than the simple “arts and crafts” projects of our childhood.
Morris was consistent in his beliefs, willing to assert that what holds true for the architect or designer is equally true for the crafter of wood, the potter or painter. Even as a bookbinder, printer and illustrator he was consistent in his approach to form and function, saying:
“I began printing books with the hope of producing some which would have a definite claim to beauty, while at the same time they should be easy to read and should not dazzle the eye…
I found I had to consider chiefly the following things: the paper, the form of the type, the relative spacing of the letters, the words, and the lines; and lastly the position of the printed matter on the page.”
Reading his words today, I can’t help remembering my poor toaster cover. In the end, it landed in the trash because it violated both of Morris’s criteria – it was neither useful nor beautiful.
On the other hand, nothing delights more than an object which exceeds Morris’s expectations, managing to be at once both beautiful and useful. I’ve come to think of such objects as “useful bits of beauty”, and in a series of upcoming posts, I’ll be sharing a few examples from my own home. Some are so common I’m certain you have them, too. My hope is that you’ll come to see them in a new way.