How Low Can You Go (Sofa-wise)?

Advice for decorating, cleaning and warming your home.,

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This article is part of our latest Design special report, about creative people finding fresh ways to interpret ideas from the past.


What is the ideal sofa height? I’m pretty tall, but my partner is about six inches shorter than me.

I was in Milan a couple of weeks ago and went around to a number of showrooms to see the new products. One thing I noticed was a bunch of very low sofas and chaises, some even right on the floor, sans legs. Although appealing in an opium-den-chic kind of way, they were pretty difficult to get up from, and I’m a fairly nimble fellow. Curious about this concept, I decided to go straight to an expert and called the interior designer Alexa Hampton to get her take.

Ms. Hampton declared the perfect sofa height to be 19 inches, and said her method for dealing with people of different heights is a fairly deep model with lots of pillows, even if men tend to revile them. “A deep sofa,” she added, “can also be put into service for a nap.”

And what of the slouchy sofas I saw? “I think that lower pieces look more modern, partly because you do not need to sit erect in them,” she said. “In fact, you cannot.”

She further noted that, set against very traditional molding and plasterwork, “the counterpoint of these low-slung, modern pieces is delicious.” And I agree.

I believe I’ll have a nap now.

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Credit…Klas Fahlen

My Ikea bookshelves have served me well, but it’s time to graduate. I have a lot of books so I’d like a large system, but I don’t want to go to the trouble of custom built-ins.

It’s not surprising that many grown ups still have Ikea or other (relatively) inexpensive bookshelves. Cheap solutions can be quite attractive. But if you’re ready for something that requires a larger investment, drill bits or a contractor, there are plenty of great options, from vintage classics to streamlined, contemporary systems.

Among the old-timers, you’d be hard pressed to find anything more stylish than the Danish wall unit by Poul Cadovius for Cado, produced in the 1960s. It’s a modular teak system that includes shelves, cabinets and even drawers. Friends of mine in London have a three-column arrangement in their dining room that holds tableware, and it’s tremendously chic. They bought theirs on eBay years ago, but units can be found online at 1stdibs.com, starting at about $1,800.

For a versatile contemporary unit, see the 606 Universal Shelving System by Dieter Rams for Vitsoe. It’s simple, sleek and a little industrial, but looks great in traditional as well as modern rooms. The modular system includes shelves, cabinets, trays, desks, accessories and more (so universal!) and almost disappears once you put your stuff on it.

The system can be attached to a wall or remain free standing, supported by poles that compress between the ceiling and floor. This system is an investment. A modest wall-mounted unit, about 5 1/2 feet high by 3 feet wide, with four shelves, would run about $900. Cabinet units begin at about $1,000. vitsoe.com/us

Friends who live in a Brooklyn brownstone have a more industrial unit from Soil and Oak that has a faint whisper (faint is good) of steampunk. It uses pipes and planks, available with different metal and wood finishes. Prices begin at about $700. soilandoak.com

If you still don’t want to spend much money or have a fear of commitment, Ikea’s Kallax is quite attractive, a roughly 6-by-6-foot free-standing unit in three finishes for the low price of $179. ikea.com

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Credit…Klas Fahlen

I want to be more environmentally conscious, but green cleaning products can be really expensive. Can I make my own?

You certainly can. In fact, it’s easy to prepare products that are gentle on the planet, smell nice, cost much less than over-the-counter examples and are less likely to irritate your eyes, skin or lungs.

When I was an editor at Domino magazine, I did a story on green cleaners, and spent weeks putting dozens of products through their paces. I learned that the ones with the icky ingredients often worked better. (Bleach is bleach for a reason, and a lot of us have an emotional attachment to that smell, which equals “clean” and “safe,” especially in a pandemic.) But that didn’t mean I wanted to use them, and the whole process left me feeling it might be better to make my own.

Similarly, several years ago, for The Times, I did a test drive of window cleaners, both natural and highly unnatural. While my favorite was a foam that smelled vaguely of incense, the homemade version of vinegar and water performed extremely well. My preferred ratio is one part white vinegar to two parts of water. One caveat: it is very runny. Adding a couple of tablespoons of rubbing alcohol makes it work even better and evaporate more quickly. I was delighted to find that wiping with newspaper was more effective than using paper towels or rags. That’s an incentive to buy the paper, by the way.

Laundry detergent is trickier. The classic homemade recipe available online contains a combination of washing soda, borax and some sort of soap (such as Dr. Bronner’s).

Another recipe omits the borax, which is of questionable safety, but adds baking soda to soften fabrics and eliminate odors; kosher salt for enhanced cleaning and softness; and essential oils for their aromas. (Eucalyptus and lavender are recommended; I have also tried chamomile, which is dreamy on sheets.) You can add a cup of hydrogen peroxide or half a cup of white vinegar (the smell will disappear) to the wash cycle to help whiten clothes.

Baking soda is itself a miracle worker. Sprinkle it on rugs, let them hang for a few minutes, then vacuum to remove odors. You can mix it into a paste and use it to clean grout with a toothbrush. I recently burned some curry sauce onto the bottom of a Le Creuset Dutch oven, and it would not come off with multiple soaks of hot water and dish soap. I found a remedy online: boil a couple of inches of water and a cup of baking soda for 10 minutes, then scrape with a wooden spoon or spatula (metal will scratch). The gunk disappeared like magic.

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Credit…Klas Fahlen

Fall is here and it’s getting drafty at my house. How can I seal the sources without major renovations?

In PBS series and Merchant Ivory films, you see people closing massive interior shutters over tall windows and drawing thick, floor-skimming drapes to keep out chills. Few of us have such things. But with a combination of high- and low-tech solutions, it’s easy to stop drafts before they have a chance to chill the room. This, naturally, saves on heating costs, which is a bonus.

Let’s start with (very) low-tech approaches: long, cylindrical, pillowlike things to put at the bottom of doors and windows to block drafts. Some are filled with regular pillow stuffing, others with sand or (my favorite) buckwheat kernels, which can be molded.

The Maine Sales Company offers three diameters of buckwheat-filled cuties in various solid colors, starting at $19.99, but have some fun and go for a print: cats, dogs, butterflies or lobsters. themainesalescompany.com

Moving up the complexity scale are clear films that you apply indoors to the framing around a window with double-stick tape, then blow dry to shrink and make taut. The result is reasonably clear during the day. (Some report that it looks hazier at night.) Several types are available from Duck Brand and 3M, including a system that goes outside if you’d prefer not to see it. Prices start at about $11. duckbrand.com; 3m.com

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