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Junction of art and function

September 11, 2003|Susan Carpenter | Times Staff Writer

The World War II generation had Sunset Magazine. Boomers have Martha Stewart Living. Now twenty- and thirtysomethings are putting their own spin on home improvement with ReadyMade -- a do-it-yourself quarterly that teaches readers how to turn everyday items into functional art.

Got an empty milk jug? Why not make it into a lamp? Just broke your umbrella? Try sewing it into a skirt. ReadyMade will show you how, with handy instructions detailing every aspect of the item's construction.

In decades past, consumers bought products that were built to last. But in today's use-it-and-lose-it world, products have a planned obsolescence that reduces their life spans to months, weeks, days -- sometimes mere minutes.

For most people, such things have one place -- the trash. But to ReadyMade's creators, the seemingly worthless is ripe for reclamation and refashioning. They are the raw materials for fun and funky designs that are inexpensive and beautiful.

"This generation has sort of grown up in this mass-produced, over-saturated consumer kind of culture, and people are rising above that, hence the rise in customization," said publisher Grace Hawthorne, 34. "They want to put their personal stamp on things, especially their environment."

Just because your bank account is running on empty doesn't mean you've got to give up high design. So what if you can't afford original Frank Gehry furniture. Using instructions found in ReadyMade, you can make your own corrugated cardboard chairs and recliners with boxes you'd find at any grocery store. All it takes is a little time, some inclination, a few power tools -- and a lot of patience.

Projects can take an hour or two days to finish, as indicated on stopwatch graphics. How difficult will it be? Check out the accompanying Evolutionary Skill Chart, which grades each project's skill requirements with the stages of man's evolution: Monkey, Cro-Magnon, Drudge or Craftsman.

"The magazine started out of the feeling that all of our friends were doing creative, inventive redesigns on their home spaces and nobody was publishing a magazine sharing that content," said Shoshana Berger, the magazine's founder and editor in chief. "The 'This Old Houses' of the world were covering the baby boom generation, but no one was speaking to us."

Two years ago, Berger set out to fill that void. Working with a designer who shared her love for handyman instruction manuals and retro comics, the 33-year-old Berkeley native and freelance writer put together an issue that rolled together the clean style of Dwell, the sass of Jane and the how-to of Better Homes and Gardens. The first issue came rolling off the presses in December 2001, with a print run of 5,000. Since then, the magazine has gone on to publish instructions on how to make Styrofoam cup chandeliers, FedEx envelope wallets, rice bag rucksacks, even a sod couch. Seven issues later, the magazine's circulation is up to 60,000. Issue 8 hits newsstands next week.

Ace Hardware has been an advertiser since the magazine launched. "It's the one magazine that speaks to an audience that's probably not well served by other magazines, so that's why we're in it," said Brendan Kelly, national media specialist for Ace Hardware. "The editorial is DIY-focused, which is what we obviously are about. We also like that it's an entrepreneurial magazine."

ReadyMade is an unusual magazine, and not just in its content. It is read equally by men and women, a surprisingly "gender neutral" ratio for a magazine in which instructions require power tools. It is also popular in the Northern and Southern parts of the country, not just the East and West coasts like most design magazines.

According to Hawthorne, "Some of our most rabid fans are from Alabama."

No matter where you live in this country, a Home Depot or Wal-Mart is never too far away. In a world dominated by monolithic mega-retailers pushing one-size-fits-all products, ReadyMade provides a means for readers to find creative fulfillment.

IN addition to the MacGyver Recycle Challenge, where resourceful readers are asked to come up with innovative uses for old telephone books, blown-out light bulbs and CD jewel cases, 85% of the designs in the magazine are submitted by the readers themselves.

According to Berger, the magazine receives about five submissions a day. The staff then curates the ideas, and the cream of the crop are prototyped at their office by a staff of unpaid interns. "We get some pretty wacky stuff," Berger said.

Example: A woman who knitted a bustier from VHS tape.

Despite an emphasis on reuse and recycling, the magazine's creators say their inspiration wasn't environmental but artistic. They titled the magazine ReadyMade in tribute to Marcel Duchamp, the genre-defying French artist who used the term "ready made" to describe the ordinary objects he displayed as his art.

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