Thursday, December 23, 2004

Who's winning battle of the trees?


Thursday December 23, 2004

Who's winning battle of the trees?
* It depends on who is doing the spinning. Everyone agrees: Fewer trees are going up.

By Steven Barrie-Anthony, Times Staff Writer

That fresh-cut Christmas tree in your living room has a press agent and a marketing campaign. That's if you've put up a tree at all.

Fewer than 7 in 10 Americans reportedly will bother with a tree this year, and the number who will spring for a fresh-cut tree is in dispute. Reports put the number of people who've embraced faux trees at a whopping 70%.

The people at the National Christmas Tree Assn. prefer to say that the market for "real" trees is on the upswing, that when this season closes they will have sold a million more trees than last year. Still, 4 million fewer trees were sold in 2003 than in 2001. It's enough to cause the St. Louis-based trade association to treat a hallowed tradition -- which in America stretches back to 1747 -- much like a Happy Meal promotion.

The campaign includes a link to Warner Bros.' "The Polar Express" -- a $3 discount per tree, with a movie ticket stub presented at participating Christmas tree lots -- and a "Help Santa Find the Perfect Real Tree" essay contest for kids. (Grand prize: Something even Santa would be hard-pressed to deliver: a $10,000 college scholarship.)

Rick Morris of Smith & Harroff, the Alexandria, Va.-based public relations firm that's trying to get people to warm up to the extra work of a fresh-cut tree, says that if you're concerned about the environment, you should spring for fresh-cut: "Real trees are recyclable; you can use them for mulch, to put in ponds for fish and wildlife."

Real trees, he says, suck up carbon dioxide and produce oxygen, which is pretty important stuff. And nearly all Christmas trees are grown on farms, "just like corn -- it's not as if we're going into the forest or taking down trees in parks." Faux-tree makers counter that their unnatural versions last at least 10 years, so wreak less environmental havoc.

Fresh-cut trees have taken a hit, admits Morris, but the industry is pinning its hopes on the generation coming of age and on future generations. For them, buying a real tree "is almost a kind of retro thing," he says.

Environmental impact aside, the real-tree people are battling an increasingly sophisticated impostor crafted of plastic and silk, and most likely made in Asia. With vintage aluminum trees last popular in the 1960s again in vogue, it's enough to make the fresh-tree growers set up a computer game on their website called "Attack of the Mutant Artificial Trees."


In the game, "the artificial trees have mutated and are sucking the spirit out of Christmas," according to the website. "Help the elf beat these bad guys by hitting them with snowballs!"

There is no fight to join, says Leon Gamze, owner of the artificial tree store, who is declaring more than virtual victory. "Live tree-ers have lost a tremendous amount of business to people like myself."

Since Gamze launched his Web business in 1995, he says it has grown 30% every year. Trees with the lights already wound around the plastic branches are bestsellers, as is a simulated Fraser fur, Gamze says. Others trace the popularity of faux trees to the boom five years ago in prelighted trees.

Still, anecdotal evidence across the country shows signs of resurgence of a tradition that can be traced to pagan ceremonies -- often celebrating rebirth, renewal or the winter solstice -- in ancient Egyptian, Roman, Chinese and other societies.

"At a wholesale level, we've sold about everything we can ship this year," says Ron Hudler, national spokesman for the tree association and owner of a North Carolina tree farm. And every grower he's talked to has "had a better year than they had last year, or the year before."

Both sides say that aging baby boomers are a factor -- once the torchbearers of the real tree tradition, perhaps their backs have grown too weary to wrestle these trees home. The fake-tree folks say that their product is easier on the back and maintains tradition, while the real-tree purveyors argue that in our ever-more-virtual society, a tree that's touched by nature is something worth having.

But why even put up a tree, especially if your nest is suddenly empty? The trend toward having no tree "is alarming, and it's on the upswing," says Jay Smith of Smith & Harroff.

Finally, something both sides agree on: Christmastime without a tree -- whatever it's made of -- is not Christmastime at all.

Tuesday, December 21, 2004

Her gratitude is ringing true


Tuesday December 21, 2004

Her gratitude is ringing true
* Shaking a Salvation Army bell is tedious, but it's Terri Brown's way of saying thank you.

By Steven Barrie-Anthony, Times Staff Writer

Sav-on Drugs on Sepulveda at National -- too hot and dry to be nearly Christmastime. Too hot and dry to be standing out in the sun swaying back and forth and ringing a bell at 11 o'clock on a Wednesday morning, but somebody has to ring the bell because if nobody rings it, then people forget to toss their extra pennies and dimes and quarters into the red Salvation Army kettle, and the change ends up on dressers and in laundry lint traps, doing not a whit of good.

So somebody has to ring the thing. And it might as well be Terri Brown, whose debt to the Salvation Army is second only to her debt to the Lord, whose husband, Cedric, is also a bell ringer, who, with her brown-black curls and kind green eyes, tries to remember, with each flick of the wrist, where she's coming from and where she's going to.

God bless you, merry Christmas. God bless you, merry Christmas. God bless you, merry Christmas....

Hers is just one of 299 bells ringing across Los Angeles County, bells that have heralded Christmas for 114 years but may not be ringing as loudly much longer. Volunteers are scarcer than ever, holiday shoppers leave stores with credit card receipts rather than loose change, and Target and some other national chains are sweeping solicitors from their sidewalks, including bell ringers and their iconic red kettles. So it's Sav-on for Brown.

Most people avert their eyes this morning, but that's OK. Brown keeps smiling; she can't afford to look down on anyone. Remember where you're coming from. Remember when you were 17 and your baby girl died and the pain was like a heart attack and you had to run away to keep on standing. Remember being raped, each of four times. Remember smoking crack on Los Angeles' skid row. Remember sleeping with the rats.

The kettle and the bell saved her, the kettle and the bell and Jesus -- when Brown and Cedric and their six kids found themselves homeless in Vegas three years ago, the Salvation Army sheltered and fed them and Brown tossed the crack pipe for good and began shaking a little silver bell. She rang it in Vegas and she rang it in San Francisco, and now she's serenading Angelenos.

Doesn't pay much, minimum wage, but who cares? Try to understand that some day Brown aims to start her own shelter that lifts up homeless people, physically and emotionally and cognitively. Try to understand that some day Brown will fill a book with the lessons she's learned over 37 years. That's why she's smiling, and also because her children are honor students living with their grandmother in Moreno Valley, and because when the Salvation Army van drops her home each evening, she and Cedric watch the news and read the Bible and remember where they've been, beam together at how far they've come.

Staying upbeat

Sure, there are people like the fiftysomething man wearing an American flag cap who flies out of Sav-on at 12:42 and insists to the world that Brown wants to take and take and take everybody's last hard-earned cent.

God bless you, merry Christmas.

Or the homeless guy in a soiled green afghan who sets up camp nearby and explains to Brown and to anybody who stops and roots for change in pockets and purses that Jesus is a punk.

God bless him too. Brown won't ask him to find another sidewalk -- she can't be that person. She can't whitewash this moment of its sadness and ugliness because, even while he slanders her god, she sees herself dressed in his afghan, feels his hunger and desperation deep in her gut, knows his hell.

If anybody will stop at the kettle, children will. They point their tiny fingers at the oscillating bell and yelp and giggle. They pull their grown-ups by jackets and pant legs toward this red-vested woman. And when they leave, their curiosity hardly satiated, they stare back at Brown and she tells each of them goodbye, sweetheart. Merry Christmas, sweetheart. Goodbye.

The Christmas spirit isn't universal; many people walk by and stare straight ahead without giving, without God blessing in return. That's why the Salvation Army can't find enough volunteers this year; it's why many shoppers in the Southeast will be greeted by cardboard bell ringers built with motion sensors that trigger a recording, ding-ding-ding.

When too many people don't believe in Christmas, Brown slides on her headphones and hums and sways to gospel. Today, it's Karen Clark-Sheard who helps her remember, helps her smile. Then an old woman stops and spends six minutes dredging the pennies from the folds of her ancient change purse.

God bless you, merry Christmas.

A retired Verizon executive named Pearl stuffs a bill into the kettle. Target is terrible, she says, never shopping there again, she says, Target ought to be ashamed.

The shrill ding-ding-dinging follows Dana Troubridge and her frizzy purple sweater into Sav-on, it wafts from cosmetics to the candy isle, it echoes in her skull as she waits and waits at the register. Since the brain injury, noises like this hurt her, they puncture her.

It's not fair to make me hear this. She shouldn't be ringing a bell in my face. It's not fair to force your holidays on people.

God bless me? Merry Christmas?

Happy Hanukkah, she tells Brown, and Brown smiles.

Kevin Considine from Amsterdam isn't into that religious thing, either. And the bell ringing is annoying; it makes sense that they're getting kicked out of places, really, but he drops his change into the kettle anyhow, because there are lots of hungry people out there, because he's not one of them.

It's too hot and dry to be standing and ringing, and it stays that way until about 4 o'clock, when the rough concrete wall of the Sav-on begins to throw a shadow over the sidewalk and into the parking lot. If not Jack Frost weather, it's certainly cooler, and Brown and her bell ringing seem less ridiculous because it feels a little like Christmastime, and now maybe one in three people stops to chat or donate, and a few go as far as to God bless Brown too.

At the end of the day the take is $150.85, which isn't bad, but the kettle is locked so Brown can't know this and so this isn't what makes her day. What makes her day, if you really want to know, is the old man wearing tan slacks and a pristine gray sweater -- he could be a banker -- who shows up at 5:30 to do the jitterbug on her sidewalk.

He bobs to-and-fro, bends his knees and sways, taps Brown on the arm and grins. Somebody -- a brother, a friend? -- drops him off every day so that he can hang with the bell ringer. There's something wrong with this guy, definitely, but there's something wrong with most of us, and Brown knows you either like somebody as they are or you don't like them at all.

That's why she'll be here tomorrow. Because people like this are counting on her, counting on her bell and on her smile. That's why she can't give up, on this or on herself, because, as she sits in the van heading home, she remembers to remember all the obstacles that stand in front of her, that she wants to overcome.

Saturday, December 18, 2004

Molding, a Paramount production


Thursday November 18, 2004

Molding, a Paramount production
* Looking for a rare pattern, style or period? Insiders head through the studio gates, to the 'best-kept secret around.'

By Steven Barrie-Anthony, Times Staff Writer

When Pacific Palisades architect Virgil McDowell needs classical French moldings that look as if they were made in the 1920s, he takes his drawings and heads to Melrose Avenue in Hollywood, to a shop whose business it is to leapfrog through place and time -- the Paramount Pictures lot.

Most people don't realize that Paramount Wood Moulding is open to those who will never compete for an Oscar or hold a SAG card. In addition to work for Paramount and other studios, about 30% of the shop's projects are for nonindustry clients who hear about it through word of mouth.

"They're the best-kept secret around," McDowell says. "They actually sit down and work with you. Whatever you want in wood, they can do. They are really artisans. Other places hand you a catalog and ask you to pick between a, b, c or d -- and if you ask for custom work, they laugh at you."

Paramount is the foremost of a few remaining industry molding shops (Disney and Fox run smaller operations) where customers can rub shoulders with fully costumed movie and TV stars. After making an appointment, customers drive directly onto the lot, which is its own ecosystem: golf carts instead of cars, trailers instead of houses, a gated community peopled with famous faces and with set designers and craftsmen busy transforming soundstages into alternate worlds.

Mark Goldstein, owner of local Madison boutiques, arrived on the lot clutching glossy cutouts of fireplaces from Decor magazine and Architectural Digest when he was remodeling his Brentwood home in 2002.

"I had gone to fireplace stores, but I just didn't like the fireplaces. They looked too tract-homey," Goldstein says.

Paramount replicated Goldstein's cutouts -- "one fireplace is painted ebony brown and antiqued," he says. "Another is white and looks like it was taken from a 150-year-old house in Connecticut."

Goldstein was so pleased with the work that he ordered his other moldings from Paramount as well.

"They just have interesting moldings that you don't find at any molding stores," he says.

Moldings are priced slightly higher than at Home Depot or other national chains -- per-foot costs range from 21 cents (window stop) to $9.74 (large crown molding) -- but clients say that Paramount's moldings are far more diverse, detailed and have larger profiles than what can be found elsewhere.

The shop itself, near the set for the TV show "Charmed," offers a view of the entertainment industry that few of us get to see: union workers feeding raw lumber into giant machines that chisel it into molding and spew sawdust into tubes snaking up and along the cavernous ceiling; boxes and piles of baseboards and casings and all variety of trim fashioned from sundry hardwoods and softwoods; custom-made doors and window frames and columns leaning against the walls.

"On a busy day, we fill a 16-foot-long dumpster with sawdust," says Mark LeCompte, head of Paramount's wood molding department.

Because there is never a lack of molding, wood turning and custom door and window orders to be filled and filled pronto, and because sets are rarely recycled, most days are busy. All profits are folded into the studio coffer.

Paramount moldings are also sold through Anderson Moulding in Culver City, Topanga Lumber in Topanga, and the lumberyards at Warner Bros., CBS and Sony Pictures.

The Paramount shop is a favorite of architects and designers who are looking for rare and custom molding -- and the workers' set-designing expertise makes them uniquely suited for these jobs, says Paul Staheli, production designer for the WB's "Charmed."

"Generally speaking, the molding we get out of here has a lot more detail to it than what you would normally get in your houses," says Staheli.

Filming requires exquisitely detailed molding, he says, because the camera picks up variation, and if the molding doesn't clue you in to place or period, a room is "nothing but a square or rectangular box. My office, for example, is nothing, a zero space. But if I were to trim out the windows and doors, I could turn it into a Victorian room, an Art Deco room. Name your period."

If you've watched TV or movies in the last 90 years, you have undoubtedly seen molding and other woodwork by Paramount. Angelenos may have also seen the shop's work around town, such as at Pasadena's Castle Green, an 1898 Moorish Colonial and Spanish-style structure refurbished last year with Paramount detailing.

Or at the former SAG office building at Sunset Boulevard and Sherbourne Drive in Hollywood, which was restored in 1999 using Paramount moldings.

Alan Graybill, whose carpentry company C Six contracted the Sunset and Sherbourne job, says he removed all deteriorating moldings and asked Paramount to duplicate them exactly.

On a recent morning, LeCompte demonstrates the process of creating a custom molding.

"Because we're so in tune with doing one-of-a-kind things for movies, we don't mass produce anything," he says, trudging up a sawdust-covered staircase into the storage room where he keeps a scanner and computer-controlled saw called a router.

Hundreds of custom knives and sample wood moldings spill out of dozens of boxes emblazoned with the Paramount logo. The Hollywood sign is visible from a nearby window.

"This used to be the breakaways glass room," LeCompte explains, where the studio manufactured faux-glass items like windowpanes and bottles that shattered without injuring actors.

First, LeCompte scans the molding he is duplicating or the customer's drawing into a computer-aided design program, and the router cuts a fiberglass knife template. The template is sent downstairs to the grinder, a sandpapered wheel that works like a key cutter to shape a steel plate and sharpen its edges.

The customized knife -- or knives, if it's an intricate molding -- is mounted onto a cutter head, which fits into one of four molding machines. LeCompte and his workers use rip saws to size lumber down to a fraction larger than the intended molding, then feed the planks through the molder, which cuts all sides at once.

And that's the easy stuff. Complicated wood turnings, such as ornate radius castings, have to be carved precisely by hand on a lathe. "They know how to turn and mill columns, how to do what people did in the '20s and '30s that nobody else does anymore," says McDowell, the architect. "When we use their moldings in a new room, people come into the room afterward and say, 'Wow, this looks old. A fine restoration.' "

Seems like a lot of work considering that many of their creations are blown up in action scenes or for special effects, and that even surviving sets eventually land in the trash.

But LeCompte, who has clocked 26 years in this industry and whose father ran the now-defunct Universal Studios molding shop, doesn't mind. "Putting them in the trash is good for business," he says with a chuckle. It keeps the orders coming.

For clients outside of the industry, Paramount moldings are more than quality detailing -- they're also conversation pieces.

"You feel special," says Michelle Smith of Cypress who ordered a set of oak double doors. "You get to see a realm that we've all wondered about.... And when somebody asks me where I got my doors, and I say 'Paramount Studios,' they look at me dumbfounded."



How to get on the lot

Paramount Wood Moulding is open by appointment only -- call (323) 956-4242 and arrange to drop by 555 Melrose Ave. in Hollywood between 6 a.m. and 4 p.m., Monday through Friday. You can also view the catalog online at (click on the links "enter the studio group," "production" and then "wood moulding").

Thursday, December 9, 2004

Web will do the walking


Thursday December 09, 2004

Web will do the walking
* My Personal Shopper

By Steven Barrie-Anthony

Wouldn't it be nice if somebody would do your holiday shopping for you? That's the idea behind My Personal Shopper (, a new computer program that does just that. Download and install the free software, fill out a form for each gift recipient -- name, birthday and what kind of gifts he or she likes (say, favorite authors or clothing designers). Enter your budget, and the program scours the Web and returns the best deals to your desktop.

The program, which docks on the right of your screen and works like a rotating billboard, will annoy those who don't want consumerism invading their space, but you can always hit "minimize." And be sure to peruse the privacy policy before installing. For the spam-phobic, the admission that "Some ... vendors are given access to ... your e-mail address" is not reassuring. Advertising could migrate from desktop to inbox.

Thursday, November 11, 2004

The post-granite age


Thursday November 11, 2004

The post-granite age
* Concrete in the hands of an artisan or even an industrious do-it-yourselfer sheds its gray, institutional image and takes on color, polish and presence in a variety of roles.

By Steven Barrie-Anthony, Times Staff Writer

Berkeley -- In Fu-Tung Cheng's hands, a formerly cold, gray, rough material of little aesthetic charm is transformed into surfaces smooth enough to lay your cheek on, into lavender and rust and celadon-colored counters that dip and curve into sinks and basins, into a critical element of home design.

Concrete, the stuff of cinder blocks, sidewalks and freeway overpasses, is moving into high-end kitchens and bathrooms whose owners, like developer Wendy DeCenzo of San Francisco, are "way, way past granite." On the leading edge of this innovation is Cheng, whom architect Will Bruder calls "the master of the craft of concrete on a residential scale, bar none. Nobody even comes close."

Other artisans of concrete are finding an increasing demand for their work as well. In Venice, James DeWulf of DeWulf Concrete says, "Every time I complete a job, I get five more referrals. There's something about concrete that draws you in. You just want to run your hand across it."

Although granite has for decades reigned supreme in high-end kitchens, consumers looking to get creative are increasingly turning toward concrete. "Granite is going to continue to be popular, but people are looking for alternatives," says San Francisco designer Joanne Cannell. "Concrete can produce a more unique look. All counters don't have to be the same."

In former AOL Chief Executive Barry Schuler's Napa Valley kitchen, they're not. He recently hired Cheng to design his entire kitchen. "I wanted it to be a piece of sculpture in and of itself," says Schuler of the 500-square-foot room, built with concrete, stainless steel, bamboo, zinc, granite and cast polyurethane. "I smile every single day I'm in that kitchen, because it's like you're standing in a work of art."

But concrete isn't just for multimillionaires. Cheng has published a book and made an instructional video that walk everyday folks through the process of pouring their own countertops. He also manufactures NeoMix, a line of concrete mixtures and mix-ins.

Try this at home

Jeanine SMALLEY, 26, and her husband found "the ultimate fixer-upper" in Danville, Calif., last May and decided to build countertops themselves. After consulting Cheng's book and video and using a healthy supply of NeoMix, they hammered together a mold in their garage, then mixed, poured, waited, polished and mounted.

The process took nearly a month, and there were snags -- such as when Smalley, her husband and her father added too much cement to the concrete mixer "and the powder was sliding everywhere," she says. "Then we finally added enough water, and concrete just started flowing out, and I was trying to catch it with my hands."

But despite being covered head to toe in concrete for weeks, Smalley would do it again if she had the chance. "I love the fact that this was a creation of our own," she says. "There are some imperfections, but it's OK. It looks fabulous."

DeCenzo decided that she wanted concrete countertops in her new San Francisco penthouse, and she turned to Cheng. "My philosophy," says DeCenzo, "is that when you run into great designers, you let them do their thing." She loosed the master and his team on the 4,700-square-foot space, with few restrictions, and the result is pure Cheng: warm, deep, earthy-toned concrete floors and countertops inlaid with semiprecious stones, fossils and shiny rows of copper. Bamboo walls and cabinets. An oversize concrete hearth in the living room. A kitchen wrought with concrete, but also stainless steel, wood, plaster and handmade tile.

"Architects and designers have been combining materials for years, but Cheng breaks all the rules," says DeCenzo, in the way he uses materials. He lays granite tiles upside-down sometimes. He cuts patterns into plaster as it dries. In DeCenzo's guest bathroom, faucets above the sink protrude from a concrete backsplash that looks as if it's covered with shattered glass, but the surface is smooth.

"It's about making accidents happen, but keeping it so the glass won't slough off," Cheng says when he arrives, dressed in black slacks and a turtleneck. He poured the backsplash, he explains, covered it with glass, then drilled through until the bit hit the back of the mold, and bang! The glass shattered but the surface remained intact.

"To me, that's what's fun," says Cheng. "The ultimate freedom is to respond in the moment to what's going on.... Now I have all these tools in my arsenal. I'm always looking for new ones."

Accidents and serendipities have always informed Cheng's design, his art. He rarely tosses things and starts over. He studies unintended results, learns how to replicate and control the processes that produced them. He admits a mistake to DeCenzo.

"I guess I should tell you this, because it's in my next book," Cheng says, smiling. He walks toward the focal point of the living room, the blue-gray wall and countertop striated with green that serves as an elevated hearth. A few minutes before, DeCenzo had praised this installation as an example of Cheng's genius. Now she listens as the designer tells her about everything that went wrong.

The plan was to pump concrete up from the street and pour it into the form in place. Cheng told his workers to protect the form with plastic -- any nicks or tears in the mold transfer to the concrete's surface -- but the wet concrete spewed from the hose so quickly and with such force that it pulled the plastic into the mixture, "sucked it in like a sea gull into a jet engine," Cheng says. "They were desperately trying to pull it out of the concrete, but it tumbled inside and trapped air."

The result was a disaster, a surface marred by deep gullies and covered in melted painter's plastic.

Instead of tearing out the bad pour, Cheng studied its cratered surface. He used a blowtorch to burn out the plastic. Then he filled in the holes with rocks and green-tinted cement, and sanded and polished until the wall and countertop were smooth -- hence the striations that turned a simple concrete surface into a piece of art. Ruin first, then salvation.

Echoes of his past

There is a history that's ingrained in each Cheng design, that informs each accidental innovation. Rub your hands over the contours of any Cheng creation and, know it or not, you are invoking a Los Angeles evening in 1954....

It was already dark when the Cheng family climbed out of their Nash Rambler and carried empty rice sacks down to the Los Angeles River. Fu-Tung was only 7, but he clasped his flashlight and followed his mother and four older brothers onto the banks below, where they quietly filled the bags with sand and hauled them away. In the days following they collected thousands of smooth, round pebbles from Redondo Beach, and stockpiled the sand and pebbles at their farmhouse in the Valley. The Chengs were making concrete to pour themselves a driveway.

If Cheng could shout back to himself and his mother and brothers, standing outside in the midday sun mixing concrete in a wheelbarrow, he would explain that beach pebbles are too smooth and uniform to work effectively as aggregate, and that using more sand and pebbles and less cement powder isn't the best way to cut cost.

Or maybe the memory is too sweet to interrupt. As Cheng writes in the acknowledgments to his first book, "Concrete Countertops" (2002), he will never forget "the sound that driveway made when we drove over it for the first time." It sounded like crunching potato chips.

Cheng is not an architect, although he employs three, and what he knows of construction he mostly taught himself. It would be easy to assume that Cheng fell in love with concrete while tiptoeing toward the L.A. River with his brothers. But that is not the case. After pouring that ill-fated driveway, it would be years before Cheng would fool with concrete again.

"In tai chi, when you do sparring, you can't ever have the notion that you're going to take someone down," says Cheng, sitting on a black couch in his Albany, Calif., living room. "It's almost like an accident. Like you dropped some keys and you catch them."

This modest Schindler-esque bungalow has been Cheng's accidental laboratory for 34 years -- it is the confluence of happenstance and hard work. No building material here is simply a material: Each concrete countertop, each polished floorboard, each inch of plaster is linked by memory to the circumstances that shaped it. As Cheng recalls the story of his house, he is also telling his story.

It was 1973 when he saw the flier at a local health food store: "Albany's Finest Victoriana," it read. "Squirrels, raccoons, a well. Death of my love makes it a drag to continue." The price was $16,500 -- about 16 times what Cheng had in the bank -- but when you're young and you have nothing, anything seems possible. He jotted down the address and hopped on his Vespa. What he saw was less a house, he remembers, than a ramshackle heap. He turned and putt-putted away, but in a second the screen door flew open and the 50-year-old owner chased Cheng down the street.

Five minutes of convincing, and Cheng was taking the tour. "It was terrible," he remembers. "There were rats. I tried not to touch anything." Some rooms had dirt floors -- the owner had torn out rotting boards and hadn't replaced them. The kitchen floor seemed straight out of a carnival house: dozens of mismatched slabs of particleboard had been cobbled together, and the effect was "like walking on some rocky surface," Cheng says.

A week later Cheng decided it was too good a deal to pass up. He borrowed the down payment from his businessman brother -- the only brother who isn't an artist. And two years after graduating from UC Berkeley with a degree in fine art, Cheng began to remodel. He knew the smart move would be to tear the wreck down and start anew. But he had no money, no job. "It was going to be my house," Cheng says. "So I started working on it."

The dirt floors and uneven kitchen would have to wait. He was inspired by a Greene & Greene house on the Berkeley campus -- "I loved the way they did the roof beams," Cheng remembers. So he spent his last dollar on the front roof eaves and a new redwood gutter.

For money, Cheng became, an expert at modifying and repairing Vespas. "Then I'd reel home at about 1 o'clock," Cheng remembers, "take a nap and start working on the house at about 2:30." He would work until dark. He kept to this routine for the next 10 years.

To learn new building techniques, Cheng wandered onto construction sites and asked if he could watch. For materials, he would scour the local salvage yards and offer to haul away scraps from demolition sites. When the city of Berkeley tore down Willard Junior High School, the gymnasium floorboards became his living room floor. When the Navy abandoned Treasure Island, Cheng salvaged lumber from military bungalows and used it to rebuild the rear of his house.

Learning by doing

Cheng grew confident enough to hang a sign in the local tai chi studio advertising his skills in "carpentry, plumbing and electrical." Before he had the chance to redo his own kitchen -- for the time being, he covered the floor with Astroturf -- a cousin hired Cheng to design his kitchen. "What seduced them was my drawing," says Cheng. "But once I had the drawing, then I had to build it." Next, Cheng used his sketches to win over a Berkeley professor. And it was in designing this kitchen that Cheng again encountered concrete.

"We did a sink and had to go through a long, elaborate process to waterproof it," Cheng remembers. "That was the first time I realized that maybe I could do something with concrete." For the next sink he designed, Cheng built a mold, mixed and poured concrete, waited for it to dry. He planned to tile the sink, but the shape he pulled from the mold was smooth and beautiful in its own right. Cheng was hooked; he began to experiment with concrete by adding fiber for strength and pigment for color, by changing the ratio of ingredients to create distinctive effects, by hammering together elaborate molds.

Cheng's early work in concrete coincided with Santa Monica architect David Hertz's development of a lightweight concrete called Syndecrete, and the two are friends . Hertz's work has an environmentally sensitive point of view. "I wasn't happy with the existing choices, petrochemical plastics or ceramics and polished stones," Hertz said.

Cheng Design (www.cheng now employs 20 designers, architects, fabricators, marketers and crew. Once known mostly for kitchen countertops, Cheng is increasingly asked to carry over his unique materials and design sense to whole interiors and exteriors. He has designed dozens of bathrooms and kitchens nationwide -- and six entire houses. He hates being typecast as the "king of countertops" -- he wants to be known for his larger projects as well -- but he will admit that the anti-granite movement has been good for him.

When author Terry McMillan burst into his studio in 1994 and told him, "If I have to see any more granite, I think I'm going to puke," Cheng drove her to his Albany house. There, in the 21-year-old kitchen of a once-ramshackle heap, he showed her a stainless steel sink ensconced in gorgeous gray-green concrete, raised copper strips inlaid to protect the countertops from hot pots and pans, an ammonite fossil -- Cheng's signature inlay -- and a custom hood, covered in what looks like engraved plaster.

"If I had found Fu-Tung earlier, he would've designed my whole house," says McMillan. As it is, he designed her kitchen, bathrooms and fireplaces, and the walkway around her pool. Oh yes, and her driveway. This one doesn't have the sound effects, but like everything Cheng builds, it has the history.

Thursday, November 4, 2004

On scent, we've barely scratched the surface


Thursday November 04, 2004

On scent, we've barely scratched the surface

By Steven Barrie-Anthony, Times Staff Writer

Peek into the fragrant life of Danielle Roska. After waking up to the "fresh air" linen smell she sprays on her sheets, she slips on vanilla-scented slippers and heads to the kitchen, pulls a mug from her lemon-scented dish strainer and steeps a cup of tangerine tea.

Her unnaturally scented day has only just begun.

Roska grabs her strawberry-scented soap and hits the shower, moisturizes with "buttery raspberry body lotion" and finishes up with "mulled cider body cologne." Her car greets her with a fresh cucumber air freshener, and she toils at work with a mint-scented pen.

Back home, she moves between rooms known by plug-in scent as much as purpose: cinnamon stick in the living room, buttercream in the home office, and Macintosh apple in the bedroom. "As I'm getting into bed, I put on cookies and cream foot cream," says Roska, the 27-year-old creator of the 16-month-old retail website

Scented products are increasingly dominating our homes, our cars and our lives.

"Scent is absolutely one of the key driving forces of today," says Marshal Cohen of the market research firm NPD Group. "We're seeing it enter into many businesses. In the apparel and cosmetic industries, in home furnishings, accessories, food, the auto industry.... The scent industry has -- forgive the pun -- not even scratched the surface."

Follow your nose and you'll discover lavender-scented rugs, eucalyptus-scented pillow-covers, jasmine-scented mattress pads and chocolate-scented socks. Who needs a morning cup of java when you can inhale the coffee-scented watch you bought on impulse from Or the Nokia cellphone with the coffee-infused faceplate sitting on your bedside table?

"Everything is going to smell, to the point where there's a conflict of smells," Cohen says. "Smells are going to start fighting each other."

Some would argue that they already have. Scents that soothe one person irritate another, and perfumed products, like secondhand smoke, wind their way into unsuspecting nostrils.

"This is more complex than the tobacco issue ever was," says Betty Bridges, founder of the Fragranced Products Information Network and one of a number of people nationwide who say they get sick when subjected to chemicals found in scented products.

Bridges lives in a world where a sleepover has the potential to turn into a giant smellfest -- if you don't forget your scented PJs. "I Need a Barbecue Man" pajamas are infused with a "tangy barbecue sauce" scent, while "I Need a Handyman" provides a whiff of cedar and "I Need a Lawnmower Man" the odor of fresh-cut grass.

Because scent recipes are considered trade secrets -- and fragrance manufacturers are not required to divulge the ingredients -- Bridges spent eight years trying to isolate the chemical that made her sick. A sympathetic fragrance chemist finally identified the ingredients and helped her solve the riddle.

Enough people have complained about scents to spur organizations such as Kaiser Permanente and Boston's Brigham and Women's Hospital to adopt fragrance-free workplace policies. But Bridges and others say that even the good-intentioned have trouble staying scent-free: Many soaps marked "unscented" actually contain fragrances to mask the odor of other ingredients.

"I have a good quality of life, but the logistics of it are difficult," Bridges says. "I had to go to my kids' high school graduation wearing a respirator-type mask. The social isolation is difficult at times."

A few new products hint at the high-tech olfaction to come. Take the 2005 C4, a midsize by French automaker Citroen: "The C4's most exciting feature," writes Automobile Magazine, "is a cartridge that drops into the interior air vent and dispenses perfume...." Then there's Scentstories, a home fragrance machine released in August by Procter & Gamble that retails for $34.99 and "plays" scent cartridges that look like CDs, complete with individual "tracks." (The "album" called "Wandering Barefoot on the Shore" for instance, cycles through such scents as "Under the Palms," "Splashing in the Waves" and "Sailing in the Bay.")

Why has scent become an all-present force in modern life as well as a critical marketing tool? Because, of the five senses, scent is the least controllable (we can hold our breath, but not for long) and the most direct. Because the corridors of memory are lined with smells from the past. Marcel Proust knew this when he shut himself in his cork-lined room and conjured "Remembrance of Things Past" from the aroma of literature's most famous cookie, that tea-soaked madeleine.

Nearly a century later, science has finally caught up with Proust. Richard Axel and Linda Buck shared the 2004 Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine for their discovery of a large gene family that produces the olfactory receptor cells in the nose. Neurologists and psychologists are fast mapping the pathways between smell and the brain, defining the relationship between scent and cognition -- some are even studying the functionality of scents, unearthing smells that they say can make us thinner, smarter, more productive.

Market research continues to demonstrate that consumers gravitate toward products that "smell good," and most industry analysts suggest that things will only get smellier.

In the future, "Odors will be used not just for their pleasure value or for consumer appeal, but for their functional value," says Alan Hirsch, the neurological director of the Smell and Taste Treatment and Research Foundation in Chicago. Hirsch says that he frequently fields phone calls from businesses wanting to deploy the functional use of scents in their products.

In 2010, says Hirsch, "your alarm clock will spray a scent to make you feel more awake and alert. In the kitchen, there will be a scent to increase appetite if you need to gain weight, decrease it if you need to lose weight. At work, there will be an odor to enhance your efficiency and creativity.... In the living room, a scent to reduce anxiety. In the bedroom, a smell to enhance your amorous nature, and then to help you sleep."

Hirsch's studies have found that a mixed floral aroma increases the speed of learning by 17%. This, he says, will spawn all kinds of floral-scented products to enhance learning -- scented test-taking paper, perhaps, or pencils. The odors of strawberry and buttered popcorn make people burn more calories, Hirsch says, so look for strawberry-scented treadmills and popcorn-scented barbells. And for dining room items that smell like garlic bread (a scent that has been shown to increase "familial harmony.")

But the newest research on scent, by Hirsch and by researchers at the Monell Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia, shows little or no universal correlation between specific scents and emotions. Rather, we feel the feelings that we've learned to associate with a given aroma.

Odors that induce nostalgia are different for each person, and often correlate with how old you are and where you grew up. According to one Hirsch study, those born in America between 1900 and 1930 report that "natural smells" make them nostalgic -- trees, hay, horses. From 1930 to 1980: artificial scents, such as Play-Doh, Pez and jet fuel. For people who grew up on the East Coast, the scent of flowers; the Midwest: farm animals; the South: fresh air; the West Coast: meat cooking.

For Judy Brown, a 55-year-old freelance writer who grew up in Birmingham, Mich., the smell was always warm apple pie.

Here we encounter the first wave of postmodern nostalgia: Brown's mother didn't bake. The apple pie scent that bathed the Brown household radiated not from the oven, but from scented plug-ins.

Artificial though it be, the aroma lingered throughout Brown's most formative years. It faded into the background of her awareness, and this is typical -- as we grow acclimated to smells, they disappear from our immediate consciousness.

Brown's father died of cancer in 1999, and her mother succumbed two years later.

Brown and her siblings packed up and sold the family house. And then it was gone. What was gone?

That scent -- "it was the wonderful scent of apples and cinnamon. My mom's home was awash with the comforting scent of warm apple pie straight from the oven." She needed to find that scent.

"The rational side of me knew I could never have my mom near me again. But the heartbroken, longing side of me began a desperate search for anything that would bring me as close as possible to the umbrella of unconditional love that was my mom," Brown says.

So, did Brown bake an apple pie? Nope. She went online and searched until she found the very same apples and cinnamon plug-ins that her mother used. She leaves them activated 24 hours a day and keeps backups at the ready.

Saturday, October 30, 2004

Poker's hold on teens, tweens


Thursday September 30, 2004

Poker's hold on teens, tweens
* TV and the Web spur the trend, which has kids betting potato chips and push-ups. Some worry: Is it too soon?

By Steven Barrie-Anthony, Times Staff Writer

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Saturday, October 23, 2004

Modern living, 365 days a year


Thursday September 23, 2004

Modern living, 365 days a year

By Steven Barrie-Anthony

Six more years, and renowned architectural photographer Julius Shulman will be a centenarian. But Shulman, whose iconic black-and-white oeuvre captures the stark beauty of Southern California Modernist architecture -- think: Frank Lloyd Wright, Pierre Koenig, Richard Neutra, Rudolf Schindler -- has yet to put down his camera. There's no indication that he will.

When a Los Angeles County Museum of Art fundraising group contacted Shulman recently for permission to publish a calendar of his photographs, with proceeds to benefit LACMA, he says, "I was pleased to do it. We all agreed, let's make this a little different."

The 2005 Julius Shulman Calendar ($26 from the LACMA bookstore; available at bookstores and museums nationwide) is certainly different: a dozen immaculate, 11-by-14-inch loose-leaf Shulman photographs on heavy stock, with elegant date demarcations beneath.

A month apiece is hardly enough time to study each of these masterpieces; chances are, your favorites will wind their way into frames.

When LACMA feted Shulman a few weeks back -- a dual celebration of his 94th birthday and the calendar's debut -- Shulman got up to speak and "began flirting, asking us to come over to his house and see his birds," says Jan Weimer of AMC Public Relations. "But before you knew it, he had said the most beautiful things about nature, about seeing and enjoying the moment."

Chalk it up to Shulman's charm, if you will, but by the end of the celebration the museum had sold $9,000 worth of calendars. Shulman says the people who bought them all remarked, "I've never seen anything so beautiful." That, he says, "is a compensation in itself."

Thursday, October 21, 2004

It's part of their 15 minutes


Tuesday September 21, 2004

It's part of their 15 minutes
* Reality wannabes Amy Scholsohn, Bruce Milam are in party spotlight.

By Steven Barrie-Anthony and Louise Roug, Times Staff Writers

Sure, Kelsey Grammer was wandering around with golden validation, and rumor had it that Sarah Jessica Parker was there with her Emmy statuette too.

But at the Mondrian, where "Entertainment Tonight" and People magazine hosted their gala Sunday night, the spotlight was trained on Amy Scholsohn and Bruce Milam Jr., would-be reality stars who were brought to the show blindfolded.

"I'm just a regular guy," said Milam. "This is a dream." He paused for his Kodak moment, getting comfortable with the 15 minutes. "Oh, hi, Diana," he said, as Diana Ross sauntered by. "Hi," she responded, flashing her pearly whites.

The two, who had tried out and been rejected for "Extreme Makeover," were brought to Los Angeles and told they were going to be in a "new reality show."

Picked up at their hotel and blindfolded, they found themselves introducing the award for outstanding reality series.

The two just thought they were going out to dinner, Milam told anyone who would listen, and on this night, many would.

"I met Al Pacino -- he said, 'You looked good!' " said Milam, a 26-year-old aroma therapist from Illinois, who was wearing a white cap, tan slacks and jacket. Scholsohn, who just graduated from college in Florida, felt underdressed. "I need a little more bling," she said fretfully in her simple black dress.

Surrounded by cameras, celebrities in designer duds and glittery gowns, the two kept repeating the story of their journey to the stage: How they'd been watching the limos going to the Emmys from the window at their hotel when the "Extreme Makeover" people came to call.

And they were thrust into celebrityhood.

Grammer came up to congratulate her, Scholsohn said. "Sarah Jessica Parker said hello. It's great."

Marla Brodsky, the casting director who selected the two for their surprise appearance at the Emmy Award show, accented the postmodern moment: "These are real people.... I'm the person that made them real."

A few miles away, HBO's party at the Pacific Design Center (in the belly of the "blue whale," so to speak), "real people" -- as Parker put it, "the passerby" -- got to rub elbows with the stars.

"Hi, my name is Joe, we have about 6,000 friends in common," a stranger called out to Joe Pantoliano, who was ordering champagne. "Mmmm," said Pantoliano, and turned back to his friends in a cloud of profanities.

A group of guys surrounded Bill Maher: Please, could they have their picture taken with him? He obliged.

The red-on-red decor -- crushed velvet and burgundy roses projected on the ceiling of the massive tent, in bouquets on every table -- was some designer's idea of heaven. Always the contrarian, Maher thought it was more like hell.

Near the bar, Jeff Garlin of "Curb Your Enthusiasm" was telling Billy Crystal about an upcoming episode: the Make-A-Wish Foundation Meets the Playboy Mansion.

Around the corner at Morton's, Showtime filled one cabana with Barbra Streisand holding court with James Brolin. In another, Kirstie Alley chatted with Anne Heche -- perhaps recruiting her for Alley's new unscripted show, "Fat Actress."

Dressed in a black pinstripe suit, white shirt, polka-dot tie, Pantoliano had visited the TV Guide party across the street from the Pacific Design Center earlier in the evening.

"This is like our prom," he said.

Like teenagers with prom jitters, most steered clear of the dance floor in the TV Guide tent, trying to act blase while clutching neon cocktails.

"It's fun to get out of the house once in a while," said Kerr Smith of "Charmed" and "Dawson's Creek." "I got ready in two minutes. Didn't even take a shower -- just put my head under the sink." Charming.

On the red carpet, civility reigned -- by necessity. It took a concerted group effort to figure out who exactly were the people trickling down the interview line.

"It's pretty bad if you have to keep asking, 'Who is that, who is that?' " said one publicist. Wait, was that Diana Ross? Yes -- but skipping the media circus entirely, slipping out to her limo and speeding away.

Tuesday, October 19, 2004

Of stogies and state


Sunday September 19, 2004

Style & Culture
Of stogies and state
* The governor makes his pitches in a smoking tent as some pitch a fit.

By Steven Barrie-Anthony, Times Staff Writer

Sacramento -- There he is, Juan Vargas, the state assemblyman known for his antitobacco leanings, in the state that prides itself as having the strictest smoking policies in the country -- there he is, watching from his Capitol building office as newly elected Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger puts flame to stogie in the courtyard two stories below.

In the weeks following, Vargas watches as Schwarzenegger's people cover the cement with artificial grass and erect a large tent -- then strike that one and assemble the 12-by-16-foot cabana-style tent that remains standing today.

Word travels up through the six floors of legislative offices that surround the courtyard on all sides: "It's a smoking tent," an aide tells another aide. "A meeting tent," says an assemblyman. "A deal-making tent," says a senator.

"I hate tobacco," Vargas says. "I think it's a terrible thing." But Vargas doesn't mind the smoking tent, which has become the governor's de facto office. The only time Vargas noticed Schwarzenegger breaking the law -- a law that Vargas sponsored: no smoking within 20 feet of a public building's windows or doors -- "was when I lured him," he says.

A group of children visiting Vargas asked to see Schwarzenegger. Vargas glanced toward the courtyard, noticed a muscled silhouette and suggested the children "bang on the window."

After a minute of enthusiastic pounding, "I saw the big arm come out and literally swat his aide out of the way," Vargas says. Schwarzenegger emerged, cigar in teeth, to give the thumbs-up and pose for pictures.

"He didn't put his cigar down, but that's fine," Vargas says. "It was a very nice thing for him to do."

The governor's new office

CIGARS have long been part of Schwarzenegger's public persona -- father-in-law Sargent Shriver introduced him to cigars, and he has twice graced the cover of Cigar Aficionado magazine. The smoking tent is no surprise to those who know him. It's "typical of his creativity" to construct a business environment where he can "smoke a cigar, schmooze and drink coffee," says longtime friend and personal financial advisor Paul Watcher. Schwarzenegger came up with the idea on his first day in office, Watcher says, and he paid for it himself.

The location of the courtyard allows Schwarzenegger to control access: A California Highway Patrol officer guards the entrance to the governor's outer office, and another officer flanks the door leading to a conference room, which leads outside to the tent. "I don't know about security at the White House," says one CHP officer, "but this is pretty close." The setup means that while anybody can peer down from above, only the select have the chance to gaze up from below.

On a recent Thursday morning, a reporter sits in the governor's outer office for nearly two hours, waiting to spend less than five minutes in the tent. The office is filled with chatter and movement -- Sierra Club activists lobbying to protect Hearst Ranch; business interests lobbying for this or that legislation; kids who ask to see Schwarzenegger but get his business card instead. Kristen Garner, the receptionist who worked under Gov. Gray Davis as well, says there has been "much more traffic" since Schwarzenegger moved in. When she leaves to use the restroom the crowd swells and the line to her desk winds around the room.

Then Terri Carbaugh, a Schwarzenegger spokeswoman, arrives and whisks the reporter into the inner sanctum. First Lady Maria Shriver has lined the conference room with paintings of the California countryside in spring, but there's no time to dawdle. Carbaugh raises a screen, unlocks another door and ushers the reporter outside. The tent is fashioned of brown -- one might say cigar brown -- Sunbrella fabric, and it luxuriates in the center of the courtyard, surrounded by plants and metal picnic tables and chairs.

One side of the tent is open; another is partly open and draped with mosquito netting. Inside, the faux-grass floor is covered with a woven mat, and a small but powerful fan creates a pleasant breeze, keeping the tent remarkably cool. Six brown rattan swivel chairs surround a large glass table on which sits a crystal ashtray emblazoned with the Cuban cigar label Montecristo. Two cigar stubs lie in the ashtray. Somebody has left a silver hand-exerciser on the brown humidor nearby. There is a pile of magazines on a table at the opposite side of the tent, topped by an issue of Muscle & Fitness featuring: Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Time is up. On the way out, Carbaugh tells the reporter, "It's really no big deal. Just a tent."

A Hollywood precedent

"ONE can safely say," says State Librarian Emeritus Kevin Starr, "that never before in the history of California has its governor conducted significant business in a smoking tent."

But if there's no precedent in Sacramento, there is precedent in Hollywood. Just look as far as the governor's buddy John Milius, who directed Schwarzenegger in "Conan the Barbarian" (1982). Milius long ago stopped requiring his own trailer on movie sets -- like Schwarzenegger, he prefers to work while smoking cigars in a tent.

Actually, Milius claims it was he who introduced Schwarzenegger to stogies in the first place. Good stogies, that is -- Cuban stogies. "When I did 'Conan,' " he says, "I made sure there was a box of cigars open so anyone could come get one. Issue cigars, Montecristo No. 4." Schwarzenegger had "smoked cigars a little before," Milius says, "but it doesn't take you long to get hooked on Cuban cigars. He got started on good Cuban cigars. It's probably a narcotic of some sort."

When Schwarzenegger arrived in Sacramento, he announced his intention to bring Democrats and Republicans together, to unify the fractured Legislature -- and has since held many negotiations in his smoking tent. This is not the first time he has guided opposing points of view into his own smoke-filled province. Milius remembers the monthly cigar nights at Schatzi on Main, the Santa Monica restaurant formerly owned by Schwarzenegger. Brother-in-law Bobby Shriver would sit on one side of Schwarzenegger, and Milius, a staunch fiscal conservative, on the other. "We had great political arguments," he says.

"Arnold would always get up and go to every table and talk to people," Milius says. But no one could sit at Schwarzenegger's table without his invitation.

Likewise, not all California legislators have been invited into the tent. Those who have usually return to their offices with a keepsake. "You can always tell when someone has been to see the governor," says Assemblyman Greg Aghazarian, because "they're running around with a cigar in their hand."

'Do you like stogies?'

An economy of cigars has burgeoned in the Capitol. Even nonsmokers, who predominate in the Legislature, seek out the governor's personal stogies -- which are actually Daniel Marshall cigars with "Arnold Schwarzenegger" printed in gold on their cellophane wrappers. (Daniel Marshalls retail from $100 to $200 for a box of 25.)

Aghazarian describes the gifting process: Schwarzenegger invites you into the tent, opens a humidor or a box of cigars, pushes it toward you and says (cue heavy Austrian accent), "Do you like stogies?" or "Here. Have a stogie." Aghazarian says he has received "a number of them."

Assemblywoman Nicole Parra has received none, but says that Legislative Secretary Richard Costigan "was supposed to get me one."

Assemblywoman Sarah Reyes: "He hasn't given me one, but if you speak with him, please tell him that Assemblywoman Reyes wants one." (Schwarzenegger has given Reyes "big gummy candies" in the likeness of his head. "My nephews got a kick out of biting the governor's head off," she says.)

Sen. John Burton finds smoking "a detestable habit," so when in the tent he sits downwind. "Beats talking to somebody in the bathroom," he says. Still, Burton has accepted cigars from the governor, which he promptly gives away. The ranking Democrat in Sacramento, he apparently receives better cigars than most. "I think they're Cohibas or Montecristos," he says. "Contraband from Cuba."

Sometimes, cigars flow toward Schwarzenegger from outside the Capitol. Pleased with the governor's workers' compensation reform, Renwood Winery founder and former cigar manufacturer Robert Smerling sent a box of cigars to Schwarzenegger via Assemblyman Alan Nakanishi. (Nakanishi, for the record, has received four cigars from the governor. One immediately went to his wife, the rest to constituents.)

Schwarzenegger is one of the cigar world's "charismatic leaders," Smerling says. "I can't think of too many politicians who would have the moxie to build the tent.... When I bring tourists to Sacramento, from all over the world, they want to see the tent.... Arnold is standing up for the average man.... Arnold is taking us out of the closet."

Where there's smoke, there's ire

The smoke wafting from Sacramento has drawn criticism from health organizations and antismoking groups. A letter addressed to Schwarzenegger, cosigned by the American Cancer Society, the American Heart Assn. and the American Lung Assn. of California, reads: "... we are deeply disappointed at several recent public depictions of your use and promotion of cigars, and we urge you to refrain from modeling this dangerous habit."

Laurie Comstock, founder of Tobacco Survivors United, organized a Valentine's Day protest on the Capitol steps. The governor's smoking tent "sets a horrible example for children," she says. "It's wrong of him to flaunt it. Everybody who reads about him reads about his cigars."

Jim Walker, director of Stop Tobacco Abuse of Minors Pronto (STAMP), points out the "cute irony" that Schwarzenegger's "most notable accomplishment when he came into office was passing a $15-billion bond measure. But each year the cost of tobacco to California is $15.8 billion. Dollars, as well as lives, are at stake."

On this Thursday afternoon, Boy Scout Troop 550 from Northridge -- in Sacramento for a river rafting trip -- is exploring the Capitol.

Does the governor inspire kids to smoke?

"It might attract stupid kids," says 11-year-old Scout Ricky Primerano. "But cigars aren't as bad as cigarettes."

"Yes they are!" shouts an older, taller Scout. "They're much worse."

Seventeen-year-old Chris Thompson says he admires Schwarzenegger. "He brought himself up from nothing," Thompson says. "From Austria, to a movie star, then to governor.... I have asthma, I should hate smoking, but I think he should have the freedom to smoke. If I saw him, I wouldn't even notice the cigar."

As the Scouts walk away, 14-year-old Cera Duchan -- along for the rafting trip -- hangs back. "I don't think he should smoke while he's working on California business," she tells the reporter, shyly. "There are so many people who admire him for his movies, and he has been promoting health issues. To go and smoke a cigar, that's an oxymoron," she says.


USC anthropology professor Alexander Moore notes that Native Americans have long gathered to smoke tobacco. Tribes generally congregate in "enclosed spaces, separated from the outside," and smoke tobacco to "drive away angry spirits," he says. Their purpose, like the governor's stated purpose, is generally to "bring the community together."

Moore doubts that Schwarzenegger modeled his tent on Native American traditions, but says, "In human evolution and culture we find the same patterns arising for the same purposes. The people doing it are not consciously looking at the old pattern. We call it 'convergence.' "

Psychologists consulted for this story are divided on assigning cigars a special significance. It was, after all, Sigmund Freud who supposedly said that "Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar." But stogies do keep appearing in the mouths of powerful, charismatic men -- such as Freud himself, Bill Clinton (who either smokes or chews, depending on whom you ask) and Schwarzenegger.

The smoking tent is "something of a government within a government," says Occidental College psychology professor Elmer Griffin. The governor's decision to fill his domain with stogie smoke, Griffin says, "makes you want to ask again a question that has been answered so much that it seems passe: Why the cigar?"

Few legislators purport to know, or care, why Schwarzenegger smokes cigars.

"These are not the details I spend my time on," says Assemblywoman Jackie Goldberg. "I don't care where he smokes, when he smokes, or who he smokes with." (Goldberg has not received a cigar from the governor.)

Sen. Roy Ashburn (score: one cigar, sitting in a cup on his desk) says, "Every governor has had items with their names on them. Davis sent me a birthday card with his name stamped on it. [Pete] Wilson had his name on pens. This governor likes cigars. They're just thoughtful little mementos."

As the workday wanes, aides gather on the Capitol steps to inhale cigarettes.

"Sometimes we find cigar butts in the ashtray," says a self-described "little slave staffer" who refuses to give her name. "We hear that Schwarzenegger walks the halls at night."

Her compatriots giggle and nod. The staffer has been warned against speaking to the press, she says -- but the reporter keeps listening and she keeps talking.

"You can't smoke in buildings in California, but you can smoke in a hole in a building?" she says incredulously, and looks toward the building's entrance. "They would like to ship us smokers off to Canada." Did you know, she asks, that the air intake valves for the building are located in the courtyard, near the tent? That you can smell cigar smoke in legislative offices?

Greg Schmidt, secretary of the Senate, confirms: "Smoke gets into the intake valves and gets into the offices," he says. "People gripe." But the reporter was unable to find any legislators willing to gripe on record.

Outside the tent

After a long Thursday on the Assembly floor, Majority Leader Dario Frommer is spending his evening at Sacramento International Airport, his flight to Burbank delayed for over an hour. Even worse, a reporter happens to be on the same flight.

Few legislators will complain about Schwarzenegger's tent on record because "the governor is thin-skinned," says the unshaven Frommer. "People who say things critical of him find themselves in his crosshairs. He does not take criticism well."

That aside, "I'm a cigar lover," Frommer says. "He hasn't invited me in yet."

Saturday, October 16, 2004

A love that's built to last


Thursday September 16, 2004

A love that's built to last
* A Passion to Preserve: Gay Men as Keepers of Culture Will Fellows University of Wisconsin Press, $30

By Steven Barrie-Anthony

The author sets out to write a history of gay men as "keepers of culture," as avid and effective preservationists. Gay men, he claims -- and he makes a good case -- have long joined with women to protect and preserve architectural gems. Will Fellows tells of neighborhoods across the U.S. where gays pioneered rehabilitation: New York's SoHo, Boston's Beacon Hill, San Francisco's Pacific Heights.

Perhaps more interesting than the core idea is the framework that surrounds it -- the idea that "gay sensibility is an essential facet of human nature." This notion is bound to encounter resistance, but Fellows makes his case by analyzing his life (his "culture-keeping tendencies" emerged early: At 14, he opened an antiques shop in a poultry shed on the family farm) and by including nearly 30 essays by other preservation-minded gay men. (Poet Mark Doty meditates on his love of an old, worn silverplate pitcher and on rehabilitating an 1884 Italianate Victorian house in Vermont.)

Fellows says gay men are "drawn to preservation because it involves a cluster of concerns that resonate ... with our intermediate natures: creating and keeping attractive and safe dwelling spaces; restoring and preserving wholeness and design integrity; valuing heritage and identity; nurturing community relationships; fostering continuity in the midst of change." Judging from the life stories in this book, at least, these characteristics ring true.

Thursday, October 14, 2004

When he runs hot


Thursday October 14, 2004

When he runs hot

By Steven Barrie-Anthony

Is your pooch refusing his walks? Is the new kitten more peevish than usual? If only pets could tell you what ails 'em. Well, now they can -- sort of. If your cat -- or dog or rabbit, guinea pig, ferret or chinchilla -- isn't herself, you can take her temperature with the Pet-Temp Ear Thermometer from Advanced Monitors Corp.

Ease of use will depend on your animal's temperament.

Normal ear temperature for resting dogs and cats is between 100 and 103 degrees Fahrenheit; higher and they have a fever, lower, hypothermia. Abnormal temperatures might merit a trip to the vet. Obnoxious behavior at normal temperature? Perhaps an appointment with the doggie masseuse or kitty chiropractor is in order. $49.95 from .com, or (877) VET-TEMP.

Thursday, October 7, 2004

Just rise above that clutter in the garage


Thursday October 07, 2004

Just rise above that clutter in the garage

By Steven Barrie-Anthony

Want to clear some space in your overcrowded garage? Easy. Stow your motorcycle -- or anything else weighing up to a ton -- on a shelf that tickles the ceiling.

That's the idea behind Loft-It, a "garage elevator" from HyLoft USA, which allows you to free up an extra 192 cubic feet of garage space by storing motorcycles or other heavy objects up to six feet in the air. Load the 4-by-8-foot platform, flip the keyed switch, and a hidden 120-volt electric motor lifts your cargo along two vertical tracks made of aircraft-grade aluminum.

Now your car can finally return to the garage. Or you could always buy another hog....

Priced at $1,795. To find a dealership near you, go to

Saturday, October 2, 2004



Thursday September 02, 2004

A bargain hunter's natural habitat

By Steven Barrie-Anthony

Habitat for Humanity, the nonprofit organization that builds homes for low-income families, relies heavily on donations of labor, building supplies and cash. In 2001, with the economy in a downturn, Habitat for Humanity South Bay/Long Beach was sorely lacking the third. At the same time, it had a surplus of building supplies: "We were getting up to 100 calls a week, people wanting to donate materials from renovations, etc., and we were turning people down," says President Erin Rank. "It occurred to me that we could utilize the donations by opening a retail home improvement store."

Rank began banking donations and found a 10,000-square-foot warehouse in Gardena. Word spread among homeowners, construction firms and manufacturers, and when the Habitat for Humanity South Bay/Long Beach Home Improvement Store opens its doors Labor Day weekend, expect a broad selection, with prices at about half retail: new and used windows and doors, tile and brick, furniture, carpeting, appliances, paint, roofing materials, lumber, cabinets. And, with donations being tax deductible, inventory expands by the hour.

Grand opening: Saturday, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Regular hours are Tuesday through Saturday, 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. Habitat for Humanity South Bay/Long Beach Home Improvement Store is at 17700 S. Figueroa St.; (310) 323-5665,

-- Steven Barrie-Anthony


Dashboard dining in decline

Americans are notoriously busy. We're so tethered to work that we resist vacationing -- more than 30% of us forfeit vacation days due us, and when we do take time off, 32% check office voicemail and e-mail, according to a recent study by Kids are equally busy, prepping for the SATs in grade school and slogging through college-level classes in high school.

But contrary to our workaholic reputation, "dashboard dining," or dining on the run, is on the decline: 75% of Americans eat dinner at home with their families at least five nights a week, according to a recent study by the American Furniture Manufacturers Assn.

Among other dining habit findings:

* 88% dine at the kitchen table

* 74% eat at the dining room table

* 72% occasionally dine on the sofa or couch

* 97% chat while dining

* 74% watch TV

* 30% read.

Thursday, August 26, 2004

Say goodbye to paint chips


Thursday August 26, 2004

Say goodbye to paint chips
* Design My Room Armstrong and ei software, $12.99 for CD, $9.99 to download (

By Steven Barrie-Anthony

Until recently, even the priciest home decorating software was so complicated that using it was nearly as labor intensive as the project itself.

Design My Room, a collaboration between flooring company Armstrong and ei software, changes that. The Windows-only software installs on your computer in minutes, loads in seconds, and is relatively easy to use.

Choose from an assortment of preloaded photos or upload digital pictures of your own rooms. Outline the areas you intend to redo -- floors, ceilings, walls, cabinets -- and let the fun begin. Boring linoleum becomes stained hardwood with one mouse click. Save, print or e-mail finished designs, along with an automatically generated shopping list.

Caveat: Redecorating options are limited to Armstrong brands, and paints by Benjamin Moore and Sherwin-Williams. Still, this is a strong software package that deserves space on any remodeler's hard disk. (Psst, kids: Surprise your parents by "redoing" the home office in pink and chartreuse and e-mailing them the results.)

Thursday, August 5, 2004

Climb on up, everyone


Thursday August 05, 2004

Climb on up, everyone

By Steven Barrie-Anthony, Times Staff Writer

Tree forts used to teach kids how to be exclusive -- no girls or little brothers allowed -- but a Vermont-based nonprofit is trying to change that.

"Our goal is to build treehouses for everybody regardless of whether you're black, white, gay, straight, disabled, happy or depressed -- if you're a human being, you can get in our treehouses," says Bill Allen, president of Forever Young Treehouses, which builds wheelchair-accessible versions.

Allen's fixation began when the then-insurance agent noticed a Peter Nelson book about treehouses on a friend's coffee table. "It would be neat," he remembers thinking, "to hang out in one of these after a game of golf."

A surgeon acquaintance offered to let Allen build on his land in Burlington, Vt., and as Allen climbed and sawed and hammered, he says he got to thinking: "If you're a kid in a wheelchair, you've never had this experience."

So Allen quit his day job, started Forever Young Treehouses, and pledged to change the world, one treehouse at a time. Forever Young has built seven wheelchair-accessible treehouses in four states since 2001 for organizations such as Paul Newman's Connecticut Hole in the Wall Gang camp for kids with cancer, and the Crotched Mountain Rehabilitation Center, a New Hampshire residential treatment program for kids and adults with spinal and brain injuries and disabilities.

Allen's goal -- to build a treehouse in each state by 2008.

The building process is "half the journey," says Donald Shumway, chief executive of Crotched Mountain Foundation. Kids are heavily involved throughout. "We formed a committee, picked out a location and worked with the treehouse guys," he says. People came together during the five months of construction -- the young and old, able-bodied and disabled. Kids from the children's hospital labored alongside kids from nearby middle schools, church groups and Boy Scout troops.

After cutting the ribbon in February, "the kids set up rules: No adults allowed," Shumway says.

"You mean," he responded, "as long as adults are up there, we have to remember we're kids?"

Exactly, they said.

Dreamhouse in the trees


Thursday August 05, 2004

Dreamhouse in the trees
* More home offices, guestrooms, even entire residences are migrating skyward. The appeal is obvious: Not only are they a great escape, they make you feel like a kid again.

By Steven Barrie-Anthony, Times Staff Writer

It usually starts as a joke. Even you think you're kidding, at first. A treehouse? Grow up. But then fantasy overwhelms your rational instincts, bit by bit. "Doesn't everyone want a treehouse?" Kit Sickels asks. That's a common assumption among adult treehouse owners, who often have trouble pinpointing the exact nature of their fascination. "You'll know what I mean when you visit," they say.

Sickels, a San Diego real estate developer, and his wife, Karen, a retired schoolteacher, started talking treehouses while vacationing in Colorado. They followed their whim to an Aspen bookstore, where they bought two books by treehouse maven Peter Nelson.

Nelson's Seattle-based company TreeHouse Workshop has built more than 60 treehouses in the last six years, many of them for adults. The world's largest treehouse builder, Scotland-based TreeHouse Co., fields "far more enquiries from the States than from all other countries combined," says president John Harris, whose company will build more than 150 treehouses this year, up from 40 in 2000 and three in 1996.

In the past five years, home offices, libraries, guest rooms, even entire houses have increasingly begun migrating skyward, aided by a tightknit cadre of treehouse architects, carpenters, arborists and engineers who build treehouses full time.

Buoyed by the realization that plenty of perfectly sane people choose to spend time in the trees, the Sickelses arranged to meet Nelson in Seattle. In the weeks following, Nelson drew up a plan and a 32-year-old carpenter named Bubba Smith rigged himself a temporary home in a tree on the Sickelses' 70-plus acres in northeastern San Diego County. In June of last year, construction began on what would become one of the few full-amenity treehouses in the country.

For the central figure in the American treehouse movement, it all began 34 years ago in front of a tiny Dutch colonial house in Ridgewood, N.J. Eight-year-old Nelson -- a lanky, blond, would-be hippie wearing colorful bell-bottoms -- grabbed a hammer and began nailing two-by-fours into a nearby maple. First he built a ladder, then a platform sprouted in the elbow of the split-trunk tree, then a roof.

Over the next eight years, Nelson and his tomboy kid sister divided their time between trees and the ground. About the time he got his "driver's license and discovered the opposite sex," his arboreal gene went into "deep freeze," he says, but it resurfaced when he was 25 and working in Colorado as a carpenter.

"I imagined that there were some adult-size treehouses out there," says Nelson, who began photographing any he could find. To gain access, he told people he was working on a coffee-table book. "Treehouses: The Art and Craft of Living Out on a Limb," was published in 1994 -- and still sells.

While swinging through palms in Hawaii, Nelson heard of a guy in Oregon who had just built his first treehouse -- so he flew to Portland and drove to "the middle of nowhere" to Takilma, a former copper-mining town. There he met Michael Garnier, a man with an imposing French fur trapper mustache who had opened a bed-and-breakfast hundreds of miles from any potential guests.

"I started a bed-and-breakfast with a cabin, but nobody came," says Garnier, who decided to fulfill a fantasy that had taken ahold of him as he pounded an impromptu treehouse for his kids -- hoping that with luck, it would jump-start his business. He eyed a sturdy redwood and grabbed his toolbox. "I was going to make the treehouse that I always wanted," he says.

Word spread about a treehouse bed-and-breakfast, and in the early 1990s people such as Nelson started arriving -- people who say they are busy indulging their childhood dreams.

There was Charlie Greenwood, a former Silicon Valley engineer, and Jonathan Fairoaks, certified arborist. These men and others formed the nucleus of the American treehouse movement, and for the past eight years they have returned to Takilma each Columbus Day weekend to participate in the World Treehouse Assn. Conference.

Conference attendance has grown to about 60 and includes enthusiasts from Japan and Europe who seek workshops on treehouse design or engineering. Each year they toast breakthroughs such as the Garnier limb, an artificial branch that minimizes puncture damage to the tree while providing an anchor that can hold up to 9,000 pounds.

Today, Garnier's Out'n'About Treesort features 18 treehouses up to 37 feet in the air, connected by swaying rope bridges and treetop platforms. Families can opt for the Suite -- replete with queen bed, loft, dining table and antique claw-foot bathtub -- or Treezebo, a gazebo-style pad nearly 40 feet above ground. To get to Treezebo, follow the Mountain View Treeway: a spiral staircase and 135 feet of suspension bridges.

It's a veritable city in the trees -- bed-and-breakfast, plus Treehouse Institute, where visitors with arboreal inclinations enroll in courses from Treeminology to Treehouse Construction 301.

The team goes to work

By the time Smith is sleeping in one of your trees, you'll realize, as the Sickelses did, that building a treehouse is no longer a summer afternoon filled with lemonade, two-by-fours and rusty nails. Three forces are at work here: you, the planners and carpenters, and the tree. And the tree, say treehouse builders, is always in charge.

Enter the arborist, who will stage an elaborate dance, kneeling to gauge soil quality, prodding and measuring roots and branches to get a feeling for the site. Enter the engineer, who will "assess the critical geometry of the tree or trees," explains Greenwood. Measure base dimensions. Taper. Wind mass. Sail area. Watch Greenwood plug data into the same computer software used to design the International Space Station.

Nelson patiently draws and redraws, Smith and another carpenter spend the next nine months hammering, and the Sickelses learn to go with the flow. For lumber, the team fells standing dead oaks on the property, and Nelson ships beautiful refurbished wood from old demolished buildings in Seattle. A brick fireplace? Skylights? Let's give it a shot! Finally: plumbing, electricity, heat and air conditioning. In the end, the house is 980 square feet, 10 feet off the ground.

Kit Sickels "got writer's cramp from signing checks" -- around $350,000 worth -- but few treehouses are so elaborate and expensive. Most treehouse owners willingly sacrifice the practical for the fantastical -- why bother with a/c and plumbing when you can be like Andrew Fisher and build 40 feet in the air and install a zip line that zooms you directly to a homemade archery range?

Fisher, a San Francisco interior decorator, is a Napa-based Tarzan come weekends. He followed the whim, got the books, but Nelson was too busy to call back. So Fisher phoned Jonathan Fairoaks and soon the arborist was in Napa, climbing and examining bark. About four months later, in July 2002, Fairoaks and a crew of two put the finishing touches on a 400-square-foot room high in the swaying pines.

"I wanted it to gray out to nothing and fade right into the trees," says Fisher, and unless you're looking for it you're liable to miss this guesthouse and weekend hideaway ensconced in the boughs above. The end of construction was only the beginning for Fisher, who built "make-believe furniture" -- such as an oversize "fantasy Indian daybed" -- and upholstered the walls in gold lame. He installed a gilded steel chandelier fashioned to resemble tree branches sprouting from the ceiling and mounted jasmine-filled planter boxes outside.

Treehouses "are just inherently dreamlike," says Fisher. He and his partner host cocktail parties, and sometimes offer the room to newlyweds who "find it extremely romantic." All's well until windstorms kick up and buffet the treehouse 2 feet from side to side: time to descend -- or all part of the adventure, depending on your perspective.

Then there are the unwearied do-it-yourselfers. Inspired by a treehouse photo in Smithsonian magazine, Pasadena magician Mike Caveney scaled the giant willow in his backyard and "basically never came down." In 1997, he donned a mountain climber's harness, anchored himself to the trunk, and built a platform 18 feet up. Next, he spent two years in the garage fashioning redwood walls and a shingled roof. "I went as slowly as I could," Caveney admits. "I didn't want this to end."

When Caveney emerged, he and wife Tina Lenert, also a magician, staged a "treehouse raising" party. Friends and neighbors cheered as Caveney used a pulley system to hoist each piece into place. The Craftsman-style treehouse took less than an hour to assemble. Solar panels on the roof generate enough electricity to power reading lights and a small TV. Even so, Caveney and Lenert often find themselves just ... sitting. Sometimes for hours.

Far from the ground, sheltered by fluttering willow fronds, the mind slows and turns inward. "Decisions get made up here," Lenert says. New magic tricks bubble from the deep.

An ancient inclination

Treehouse living reaches back to ancient times, says Harris, a self-appointed historian of the treehouse movement who enjoys putting this "treehouse revival" in context. Long ago, "humans used to live in trees," he says. "It was the most hygienic way to live." Eventually people descended, but throughout history they have built in the boughs again and again. In 16th and 17th century Europe, for instance, "any well-to-do person had a treehouse," he says. "They were the places that the landed gentry took their girlfriends."

Winston Churchill had a treehouse at Chartwell Manor, his country estate in Kent, England, as did John Lennon during his first years as a Beatle. Chances are, though, that they never had to deal with what Garnier calls "Legalitrees" -- the, "Hey, you up there in the tree! That thing isn't up to code."

"One grouch can take all the wonderment and fantasy away," says Jeri Chiavetta, a Huntington Beach grandmother who in 2000 was forced to remove her Greene and Greene-style treehouse after a neighbor complained. Few cities have specific treehouse zoning regulations, so negative attention can be a death knell. Locals rallied with petitions and "Save the Treehouse!" signs, to no avail. Greenwood, the engineer, is working on a model treehouse code that may someday, he hopes, be adopted by city governments.

Until then, make friends with neighbors. Invite them skyward. Once people leave the ground, say treehouse owners, they are more likely to build their own hideaway than to nix yours.



Those wild neighbors

You're never alone in the trees, says Mike Caveney, who once flipped open the trapdoor of his Pasadena treehouse and encountered 10 glinting eyes.

He backed down the ladder and watched as a family of five raccoons filed down after him, one by one.

He can hear woodpeckers tap-tap-tapping, and the phone cable intersecting the willow is like a freeway for squirrels.

But beyond the colonies of bees that have twice taken up residence in his treetop birdhouse, Caveney doesn't mind keeping company with critters.

It is a tree, after all.

0 BDR, 0 BA, great view

How do you put an earthbound price on something as blissful and Elysian as a treehouse? Well, you turn to the comps, of course. In the area of Pasadena where Mike Caveney and Tina Lenert built their treehouse, homes sold in June for a robust $412 per square foot. The treehouse is 196 square feet, which makes their tiny Craftsman-style addition worth about $80,752 in today's market.

The squirrels are probably negotiable.

What about the tree?

Treehouses can bring a hidden benefit to their living hosts by extending the lifespan of the tree, if the structures are installed properly. They can, for instance, make it more stable by lowering the tree's center of gravity and strengthen weak branch structures.

"Let the tree design the treehouse," says Jonathan Fairoaks, an arborist and treehouse builder who considers trees "very intelligent.... Their chemical makeup allows them to adapt to new stresses."

To cut down or eliminate damage to the tree, hire an arborist before picking up a hammer, major treehouse builders say, and follow this advice:

* Build below the tree's center of gravity.

* If possible, let two or three trees share the load.

* Puncture the tree as infrequently as possible, and drill holes at a distance from one another so that wounds don't coalesce.

* Use bolts and hardware designed for treehouses -- this way, the "tree actually grows over the bolts, and connections grow stronger over time," Fairoaks says. Nails will be slowly expelled.

Rent a bough for the night

Stay in a treehouse without building one. Some options:

Out 'n' About Treesort: Takilma, Ore. $90 to $170 a night.

Treehouse Cottages: Eureka Springs, Ark. $139 a night.

Cedar Creek Treehouse: Ashford, Wash. $250 a night.

Tree Houses of Hana, Maui: Hawaii. $100 to $130 a night.

A 5-Day Treehouse Stay in Pristine Wilderness: Outside of Anchorage, Alaska. $880 for five nights.