The photo is from 1978. My son, his truck. Behind him, my truck.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Soss Hinges: A Touch of Grace

Friday, June 15, 1984

Before I knew any better, I would take any job that paid.  Any style, any client.  Even Mrs. Mullenstein.  Her house in Los Altos was unlivable, a decorator's statement with major wallpaper and white carpets.  The glass furniture would be lethal to a child under the age of ten. 

My taste has always been for the rough and natural.  And kid-friendly.

Her teenage son had a bedroom the size of an auditorium, painted black.  Immaculately clean.  He had dark wood furniture, heavy drapes, a lamp made out of a giant vodka bottle.  The bed alone was larger than my son's entire bedroom.  On the ceiling was a mirror.  The kid was seventeen and had his own dark blue Mercedes convertible.

I was working in an alien land.

Peter the decorator was an import from San Francisco, 30 miles and an entire culture away from suburban Los Altos.  With a boyish smile, he looked slightly younger than Mrs. M's teenage son.  To my surprise, I liked him, though I hated his style.

Peter's plan called for remodeling the front entry.  Peter wanted smooth, uninterrupted walls with a barely noticeable closet.  What should be noticed was wallpaper.  Expensive, glossy wallpaper which had a well-deserved reputation for telegraphing any slight imperfection in the plaster beneath it.

Mrs. M told me first thing that she was a perfectionist.

I'm not an elegant guy.  Nor a perfectionist.  I enjoy a certain earthiness in a structure, an acceptance of the funky side of life.  I love natural wood.  My bias is for the strong, the competent, the long-lasting, the safe.  Within those parameters I try for touches of grace. 

In other words, I'm not a glossy wallpaper guy.  And I was so wrong for this job, this decorator, this client. 

But the closet was an interesting challenge.  I removed a conventional single door with a conventional knob, conventional hinges, and conventional wood molding surrounding the frame.  In place of the single, I installed flat double doors.  Instead of a doorknob, I installed touch latches.  Instead of wooden molding around the frame, I filled the gaps with smooth plaster to be covered by wallpaper.  Instead of conventional hinges with their exposed barrels, I installed Soss hinges.

A Soss hinge is a touch of grace.  Soss hinges are simple in concept and yet elegantly engineered.  They work smoothly and quietly, visible only when the door is open, anonymous when closed.  Up to this point, I'd never installed one.

The hard thing about double doors is mounting them to line up so that the edges meet at the same height and the perimeter has an even gap - and Peter wanted any gaps to be minimal.  With these doors surrounded by glossy unforgiving wallpaper, any unevenness would be glaring.

I did it right.  I got the doors aligned and even.  I gave them so much attention, I may have slacked off on finishing the plaster around the frame.

There's a good reason for door molding.  You can run drywall flush against a door jamb, but the wood and gypsum respond differently to changes in temperature and humidity.  In addition, opening and closing the door will put strains on the jamb and cause microscopic movement.  Cracks are inevitable.

When the wallpaper went up, the frame showed.  It was my (nearly impossible) job to prevent that.  I failed.

"I don't blame you," Mrs. M said.  "I blame Peter.  That silly child."  Another example of her bad judgement.  It was truly my fault, not his.  But she called me back for more jobs, and they were the type I do well.  I replaced a hideous light with an even more hideous one.  I repaired the garage door.  I repaired and refinished some outdoor furniture - sanding, scraping, rejuvenating - just my style.

After that, I never heard from Mrs. Mullenstein again. 

Life goes on in its messy way. 

A few years later working at another house, same street, I got an update. Mrs. M's son wrecked the Mercedes, ran into a few legal problems, entered rehab.  And - so I heard - the glossy wallpaper was still there. 

I asked about the Soss hinges, but the neighbor said she'd never noticed them.  Which is just right.

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