It was a potholder that finally did me in. Or more precisely, a potholder hook. This after the three-month renovation of my 100-year-old townhouse had stretched into a year-and-a-half— while we camped out in the basement. This after humoring an artiste architect who’d move a doorway three inches one day, then move it back the next. This after suffering through a contractor who’d rush in to demolish essential infrastructure, then hide out like Osama bin Laden for long stretches. So, after all these renovation tribulations, how could a tiny piece of curved metal so utterly undo me? Allow me to explain.

After eight years of trying to find an architect in tradition-bound Washington, D.C., who could pull off the modern, minimalist almost-industrial look we wanted, we settled on Robert M. Gurney, whose edgy designs won him the American Institute of Architects’ top national residential award in 2001. There’s no doubt his results are breathtaking. The stainless steel-clad kitchen gleams day and night thanks to a backlit cantilevered aluminum wall. The green stone and glass master bath evoke a cool Asian waterfall even on the swampiest of summer days. The living room skylight illuminates the entire house as it filters sunbeams down the skeletal two-story stairwell. (While within legal code, that last feature and a few others are so thrillingly child-unfriendly that we joked they will decimate our home’s resale value— despite the huge cost overrun.)

The renovation was a labor of love for my architect-wannabe husband, a student of Mies Van der Rohe’s school of “less is more.” What he soon discovered, however, is what “more” really means—  more money. That heartbreakingly spare toilet paper holder, for example, is a lot pricier than some swan-shaped brass job. Ditto the breathtakingly bare towel rail our contractor calls the “Rolls Royce of bathroom fixtures.” This came as rather a blow to my husband who, in real life, is actually a cost-conscious economist. But he soon rose to the occasion with all the rigor of a design despot.

Since the renovation, some friends find walking into our home alienating— particularly those who’d walked into the unrenovated version exclaiming over the 19th-century wooden fireplace mantel— the first thing to go. One wit dubbed our abode “The Museum,” and another quipped: “I don’t think I have the clothes for your house.”

And then there’s the usual: “Where is all your junk?” Personal clutter is, of course, antithetical to minimalism. Our lofty ceilings accommodate tall cupboards that can accommodate all that offending junk. Problem is that, once stored, that food processor or tennis racket is inaccessible for all practical purposes. Someone suggested stilts, but where would you stash them? The obvious answer was a stepladder. But it had to be one that could be part of the furniture, so to speak.

Where to find a “museum-quality” ladder? Why the Museum of Modern Art has just the ticket in brushed aluminum and trendy orange treads for just over $100. Whew

The dog posed the next big challenge. Fortunately, “Legs” is an aerodynamically engineered greyhound, whose elegant form complements the streamlines of the house. Thank goodness he didn’t need to be stowed out of sight. He’s so bony, though, that he requires (very large) beds to protect him from the vast stretches of hardwood floors that sweep through the house.

His beloved fleecy cushion, obviously, would not do. Gucci does make a divine divan for Fido that resembles the ubiquitous chrome-and-leather Wassily chair. But since my own bed cost nowhere near $3,000, I was not about to spend that on a dog. Happily, I stumbled on a space-age beanbag chair by the French designer Ligne Rosset, available in a spectrum of trendy primary colors. Since the $400 price tag still smacked of pampered poodle puffery, I justified the extravagance by offering it to the design despot as a Christmas gift. His present to me that year was a diamond ring, prompting one friend to comment incredulously: “Let me get this right, he gave you a diamond ring and you gave him a dog bed?!” Hmph! I’m happy to report both dog and husband love the bed.

The most user-unfriendly room in our house has turned out to be the kitchen. I discovered this during my first round of Refrigerator Wrestling, in which I discovered that opening the Sub Zero’s industrial-sized door took both hands and all my might— and still didn’t open. “I don’t see the problem,” said my husband, as he swung the door with ease. Was I losing my mind or just my upper body strength? I studied the manual, but no help there. Then I found the following consumer review on a Web site: “I hope you aren’t one of those people that close the fridge door and decide you need something else. These are sealed very tightly and when the doors close you need to give them a few minutes to seal shut before you can open them again. I am a big guy and I can’t even pull open the doors when they are sealing.” Oh.

Other hurdles beyond the refrigerator awaited. I like to cook, like real food, like often. I was not about to succumb to the “Metropolitan Home” fruit bowl— the one with artfully arranged, monochromatic Granny Smiths or yellow bell peppers. I did, however, want to keep the pristine surfaces clear and shining. So, just damp sponge a little more than usual and stash the utensils, right? 

Wrong. Damp sponges leave huge smears on the ceramic stovetop and stainless counters, which require polishing with special polishes— and will scratch if you breathe on them. Our stainless-steel man— another award-winning artiste— happened to be doing some finishing touches the day I first emptied the dishwasher.

“You can’t set dishes on the counter!” he cried in horror. “They’ll scratch it!”
Indeed, I saw with dismay, I already had. Imagine putting dishes on the kitchen counter! How stupid could I be? Apparently, just as stupid as my dear despot, who committed the same blunder before I could warn him. To my delight, his response when I raised the alarm was to clutch his head in despair and cry: “I can’t live my life like this.

So, we’ve decided to live with a few scratches, but what about those pesky utensils? And what about potholders? (Yes, we have arrived at the denouement.) Potholders must be quickly accessible to avoid third-degree burns, but despot standards preclude hanging the usual quilted or flowered jobs in an exposed area. Happily, I found despot-friendly rubber ones in the requisite mod colors. But there’s no way to screw hooks into the stainless steel backsplash or the frosted glass panels. (We have few regular old walls in the house, a strategy I suspect our architect employed to keep us from hanging things like pictures that would distract from his design.)

So, I simply had to find magnetic hooks for the potholders. Sigh. Hours spent scouring hardware stores unearthed nothing but despot-unfriendly brass atrocities. Finally, I discovered finely wrought brushed silver ones at the hip Home Rule housewares store for a reasonable $7. Overjoyed, I raced home and slapped them on the sleek metal surface— only to watch them drop with a heart-stopping clang on the unscratch-proof stainless counter. I tried again and again, unable to fathom the nature of the problem. I tried the Sub Zero door. Same result. OK, so I barely passed Physics for Poets in college, but even I know magnets are supposed to stick to steel.

Humiliated, I called the nice man at Home Rule, who sympathetically informed me that Sub Zero and other newfangled kitchen surfaces are coated with a fingerprint repellent that also repels magnets. He assured me that the manufacturers have been alerted to this little problem by not a few similarly unhinged homeowners and that they are working on it.

So, it was back to the drawing board and back to the shop where the nice man exchanged the magnetic hooks for suction-cup hooks. They were clearly not up to design despot standards, I saw sadly. But they were cheaper than divorce lawyers, and that was a point I could bring home to the design despot, who is, in real life, a cost-conscious economist.

Robert M. Gurney Architect, Washington, 202-744-6862
B&B Italia Coffee table and chaise, 1300 Connecticut Ave., Washington, 202-955-8380  
Contemporaria Kristalia bar stools, 4926 Del Ray Ave., Bethesda, 301-913-9602
Home Rule Kitchen hooks, 1807 14th St., Washington, 202-797-5544
Mobili Dining chairs, 2201 Wisconsin Ave., Washington, 202-337-2100

Gretchen Cook is a free-lance writer in Washington, D.C.

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