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The Improvised Life: A Guide to the Daily Possible

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h1If you look closely at how something is made ... you can use the information as a jumping-off point for your own innovations.

Sally Schneider, The Improvised Life

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Doing less with more, making it up as you go along, cultivating the creative spirit … whatever you call it, you'll find a zillion examples of winging it to greatness on The Improvised Life. Created by Sally Schneider who is herself a master improviser, the site shows you how to repurpose materials to create cool new things, how to transform limited spaces into beautiful ones, how to copy cool furniture and design for less, and how to apply DIY energy to just about anything – including restaurant-worthy food.

Sally's own life is, of course, an improviser's dream. She is a regular contributor to public radio's The Splendid Table and author of the best-selling cookbooks The Improvisational Cook and A New Way to Cook, which was recently named one of the best books of the decade by The Guardian. She has won numerous awards, including four James Beard awards, for her books and magazine writing.

The Improvised Life is her latest endeavor and is also part of the Shelter channel in the SAY 100. We caught up with her to find out what some of the most popular improvs are, what other sites are must-reads for improvisers – and some simple ways anyone can improvise right now.

The Improvised Life idea is about doing more with less … for people new to the idea can you give us some examples that anyone can apply to their life to get started? The Improvised Life presents found ideas from every field: art, technology, design, cooking, music, and applies them to everyday living. For instance, we cover lots of ideas for ways to transform your home with simple house paint, many inspired by artists. Check out Ernst Caramelli’s Fab Painted Walls. Chuck Close’s Notes to Self, Eight Perfect Rules for Living, are vital lessons for navigating life and creativity – that's the essence of the improvised life. We sourced inexpensive copies of Noguchi’s sculptural paper shade lights that are used widely in modernist homes. I also recommend checking out our Pinterest boards, where you can browse ‘the improvised life’ by images.

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How is the improvised life philosophy related to the DIY movement? Or is it part of it? The improvised life is about thinking as creatively and broadly as possible about whatever problem you are trying to solve. It ranges from home design to food to time management to life-changes such as illness, career or attitude shifts. We are not hardline DIY’ers although we embrace the fearless, can-do spirit of that movement; it’s one of many points-of-view we present. We tend to post DIY solutions that debunk the thinking that you need to spend a lot of money or hire an "expert" to make something both stylish and practical. We’re all for buying well-made, enduring products but want people to know that they don’t have to buy style; they can create it themselves.

What was your breakout post on The Improvised Life that really got people's attention? Or were there several that put you on the map? What’s clearly gotten people’s attention is the constantly surprising mix of content that addresses both the tangible (cool, stylish, easy-to-apply design-thinking) and the less-tangible "inside" of living creatively (fear of trying an idea out, self-doubt, the folly of perfectionism, how to break old patterns).

We throw in unexpected posts designed shake up thinking, which is what our diverse cross-section of viewers say they value most: reading us daily reminds them of other ways of viewing things until gradually, they find themselves thinking differently and solving problems in new ways. Hence the popularity of a Duct-Tape and Phone Book Dress.

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Our "big hits" have run the gamut:

D-I-Y Leather Cabinet Pulls devised years ago by artist and friend Holton Rower: an utterly stylish, and inexpensive version of ones we’ve seen at expensive, cutting-edge design stores.

The Scoop on Safe Shipping Pallets provides essential information about building with shipping pallets safely (some have toxic residues). All our shipping pallet posts get high numbers; it’s a serious passion with our readers and on the blogosphere, so we basically created Shipping Pallets 101 as a service.

The Scar Project, compelling and very candid photographs of young women who have had mastectomies; they completely dispel the usual secretiveness and taboos around scarred bodies, and shift notions of identity. I was concerned that this post might be too intense; it got an incredibly positive response.

A Stout Beer and Ice Cream Float for Grownups: our simple, seriously divine formula continues to make the rounds.

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What did you improvise this week? Over the past several months, I have been renovating a space that will become a laboratory for The Improvised Life. Trying to transform a very ordinary space on a very tight budget has pushed my improvisational skills beyond measure; I’ve had to shift gears constantly in response to financial constraints, design problems, unanticipated glitches...

The recent improvisation I’m most proud of is an optical illusion. It was the solution to a long living room wall that butts right up to the edge of the window on the adjacent wall (a product of the original cheap, corner-cutting construction). I had a mirror the exact size of the window placed on the wall to form an L with the window; the mirror reflects the window, giving the illusion of a big corner window. This simple optical illusion vastly expands the space, bounces more light to the back of the large room, while reflecting the best part of the park view outside. I tested the initial idea out by propping a cheap mirror that had been left in the apartment next to the window.

The Improvised Life is a group blog – you've got writers like Anthony Giglio contributing as a resident sensualist. How do you decide what other writers to bring on as contributors? Although I write most of the posts, the "we" voice is expressly designed to get away from the over-used "I-I-I" that is rampant on the internet, and foster a sense of a community, which has, in fact, grown up around The Improvised Life. Contributors write occasionally, and more often send in ideas. They have all been chosen for their ability to think outside-the-the box in whatever their field of expertise may be. Anthony Giglio loves to break the prevailing rules of wine, liberate people into pleasure, and is one of the best home entertainers I know. When we post a cool home-design idea and want to know how you can make it at home, we turn to Nina Saltman, our Construction Consultant to explore materials and logistics of actually making it.

What other sites are a must-read for improvisers? Who else is doing it right? I don’t know of any other site that expressly addresses improvisation in all aspects of life, with such a strong focus on style, visuals and mindset. Out of the 75 to 100 sites I scan daily, must-reads include:

Mondoblogo and Open Culture that regularly feature artists and designers whose mold-breaking ideas can be applied to daily life.

The eclectic Swiss-Miss and Kottke regularly run posts about personal paths and processes that are both useful and inspirational.

We comb home design blogs like Remodelista, Bloesem, and The Selby to find useable ideas hidden within photos that are often meant to illustrate something else.

You've been a journalist, radio commentator, food stylist, professional chef, cookbook author - and so much more! What's next? A few years ago, I took stock and realized that my entire work-life had been improvised – one thing naturally lead to another: from chef to food writer to stylist. I created several mutable spaces, which were designed to morph from comfortable home to photo studio to test kitchen to office. I wrote a couple of award-winning books about cooking improvisationally. I styled food with brilliant photographers like Irving Penn and Maria Robledo. The working principles were improvisation – asking ‘why not do something’ and going ahead and trying it - paired with a strong visual sensibility.

The Improvised Life was the natural next step, a ‘leap’ into a broader field that weaves together improvisation, design, art, food, lifestyle, self-expression, liberation from the usual thinking. It has been called "a zeitgeist-perfect blog." I’d love to make it more-so.

Follow Sally and The Improvised Life on Twitter @improvisedlife.

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