Thursday, December 31

Design IS Within Your Reach

I saw an article today in the NYT about the demise of the Design Within Reach (DTW) stores. I can't say I'm surprised. The company started by peddling relatively inexpensive non-licensed knock-off versions of iconic 20th century furniture designs; been there, done that - does anyone remember Palazzetti (who I was surprised to still find in existence on the Web)? Realizing they needed more products to sell, DTW started designing and fabricating some of their own pieces in the 20th C modern style - I give them a few points for that. But, then, they started doing knock-offs of their own designs to sell them cheaper. We all know what happens when your product is produced so cheaply that it has a shelf life of one week when in use. To add insult to injury, a hedge fund has taken over DWR, and they put "famous" designers on the board - as if they can just wave their collective hands and make it trendy again by association.

Two thoughts come to mind as I think about this. One is the old addage that an original anything is better than than a mass produced copy of something. The other is that there are hundreds if not thousands of designers out there who could produce the next Barcelona chair if given a chance. Our society is so driven by the "brand" vs. quality - even if the brand (which may have once represented quality) is now schlock.

I found this sculptor, Tom Emerson, who makes pieces of furniture from junk. I was really drawn to the pieces I saw because they had a great shape and made interesting use of the materials:

I recently saw an exhibition of Nendo at the Museum of Arts and Design. This Japanese design firm's work knows no bounds, as it should be. The sight of their plastic chair with the perfect faux bois finish shows how powerful a simple statement can be. I think their reinterpretation of a bookshelf allows the user to be equally creative. I urge you to go to their website to review more of their work:

Two of my favorite furniture designers are Carlo Bugatti and Harvey Ellis. Bugatti's work is over-the-top; his design sense was truly a singular voice; I'd describe it as a mash-up of the Aesthetic Style and a Moorish dream. The materials he used were as unconventional as his designs. 20 years ago you could pick up his pieces for a song, but not anymore.

I think Harvey Ellis' work represents the best of the Craftsman style furniture (other than the Greene Bros.).

This is what good design should be - original, visually interesting, functional, good construction, and without an expiration date. The next time you think about adding a piece of furniture into your life, look around and find an original piece of design. You'll never be disappointed; it will enrich your life and live on for other generations to enjoy.

Sunday, October 25

The Bell Continues to Toll

Recessions hit some professions more than others. Architecture is a profession that gets hit harder than most, and rarely recovers when times get better. If an architect can't find work due to lack of construction, they often leave the field, never to return. Unlike most professions, an architect straight out of school has very limited skills; it takes years of working in a firm to even begin to understand all the facets involved in creating a successful building. If young graduates can't find work in our profession, they never start the road to becoming an architect. I've seen past recessions decimate the ranks of my fellow practitioners; I fear the toll the current recession will have on our current and future ranks. As of 2 years ago, less than 50% of the people I graduated with were practicing architects.

What got me thinking about all this is the fact that the Prairie Avenue Bookstore in Chicago has closed its doors. I know much of their financial problems came from having to compete with online bookstores; they managed to hang on longer than most brick and mortar bookshops. It was a very special place, like most bookshops catering to architecture and design. I would make time for a long visit whenever I went to Chicago. They had fantastic collections of books not only on American architecture, but also vintage copies of books long out of circulation. It was an invaluable source for building a reference library so critical to an architecture practice. I can't imagine becoming the architect I've become without the wonderful hours spent browsing in a bookstore like Prairie Avenue. There are a few good architecture bookstores left, like Hennessey + Ingalls in Santa Monica, or Urban Center Books in NYC, but for how long? And how will the new generation of architects come to educate themselves without these great resources?

Life goes on, and people will adapt. There will be fewer architects around who will have the skills needed to produce a well designed building, especially architects with a good sense of historical precedent. I know this doesn't affect many peoples' lives, but we have lost something that has enriched our built landscape.

Thursday, September 17

Learn your styles!

I came across a real estate brochure last week that gave me a great laugh. The realtors described the following 2 homes as being "Center Hall Colonial", and for the life of me, I don't see why.

Is it because the one on the top is made out of brick? I'm totally stumped by the one on the bottom - how can you have a Center Hall Colonial with an asymetrical entrance? I guess the columns make it "colonial." Basically these are 2 examples of a contractor building a house without a design professional. More than 90% of residences built in our country are not built with the aid of an architect, and folks, this is the ugly result.

Now most of you who are design conscious would never mistake Chanel for Armani, or BMW for Mercedes. Why is it so different for architectural styles? Good design vs. bad design in residential construction is not a topic you'll find covered in any shelter magazine or major newspaper. I just read a nearly half page review why Microsoft's Zune is never going to make it in the marketplace despite a good design in the NYT last week. I've never seen such a critique on current residential construction.

Here's an original Center Hall Colonial in Williamsburg. It's Bassett Hall originally built in the mid 1700's. It eventually became the home to John D. and Abby Rockefeller, and is now a part of Historic Williamsburg.

It's design is based in English Georgian architecture obviously because the people in Williamsburg were from England. They couldn't afford brick to replicate the Georgian houses, but they were able to use the basic center hall plan and symmetrical elevation. This house has a lovely proportion and presence in the landscape.

Below a very common 20th century Center Hall Colonial. I like the fact that it remains true to the basic plan and symmetry.

Next time you're driving around looking at houses, start seeing the Center Hall Colonial vs. the pretenders.

Monday, September 7

Countertops, Part 1

I'm often asked by clients which material makes the best countertop. It reminds me of the old axiom about which is the best exercise. The answer to both is the one that best suits you. It's pretty obvious that visual taste is a huge influence. But there's also cost, maintenance and wear issues to consider. For purposes of this entry I'll stick to kitchen counter materials I'd recommend.

My favorite counter material for a kitchen is natural stone. I tend to specify very dense stones like quartzite or granite. These materials take a beating and require virtually no maintenance. You can cut on it (although not great for the knife edge longevity), you can put boiling hot pots onto it. In short, about the only damage you can inflict onto a stone surface is dropping something very heavy onto it and possibly chipping the surface or an edge. Below is a kitchen we did using a white quartzite material.For a while, marble and limestone were in vogue for counter tops, but both materials require a good deal of maintenance involving constant sealing to keep their appearance pristine. Both materials will have their surface marred if acidic materials come in contact (such as lime or lemon juice, tomatoes, wine). The more porous the material, like limestone, the more chance there is to stain deep into the material. However, if you're not the type that has to have the perfect appearance at all times, I actually like using marble and NOT sealing it - letting nature run its course. Below is a photo taken at a local fish deli, Barney Greengrass, of their marble countertop that's been there for almost 100 years; it has a great patina of wear. I think it looks fabulous.
If money is no object and you like color, then glazed lava stone (Pyrolave) is the perfect material. The finished surface has the appearance glazed tile. They can produce almost any color. Like quartzite, it's impervious to most normal wear - but again, it can be chipped if something heavy is dropped onto it.
These are my favorite stone materials. New stone materials constantly come to market as the older quarries run out of material. Right now we find more quartzites coming to market, and far less granites (which seem out of fashion) and marbles. I'll touch on metals for counter tops, as well as use of wood in my next entry.

Sunday, August 23

Food for Thought on Kitchen Design

After seeing "Julie & Julia" last weekend, it really drove home to me how kitchens have changed in the past 50 years. The kitchen Paul Child designed and built for his wife Julia in 1961 (now enshrined at the Smithsonian) is a testament to utility and practicality rarely seen in home kitchens today.Paul Child raised the countertop height so Julia would be comfortable as she worked. Every tool, pan and utensil had a home - plus the ability to entertain inside the kitchen itself made it unique to its time and owners; it's a great example of custom design.

Julia Child's kitchen presaged a change in the American home over the last 10 or 15 years. These days, the kitchen has become the place where everyone wants to hang out, often watching TV in a "family" room adjoining it, making it the true center of the house.

As kitchens have evolved in their role to become the center of the house, their design seems to have forgotten the basic use - that of cooking and eating - and ease of use and cleanup. Look at this kitchen:

What is it? Is it a formal dining room with a range (and TV) stuck off to the side? Where do you do the prep-work? There's no proper work triangle in sight. And the worst sin of this kitchen in my mind is how on earth do you keep it clean? I think Julia Child would be aghast.

Then there's the opposite approach - the ultra sleek modern version:
This would be easy to keep clean, but where do you store anything? I hate the notion of only having open upper shelves for storage (dust catchers to me). It's not a kitchen where I imagine great meals being prepared or consumed.

These last two examples illustrate what the shelter magazines tend to advertise and illustrate as "Kitchen" today. Granted, Julia Child's kitchen is dated but, to me, it is still a more inviting space, exuding warmth and cheer. It's certainly good food for thought when thinking about designing kitchens!

Saturday, August 15

It's All About the Proportion

One of my favorite things to do when traveling around the US is to go to the older neighborhoods that were built between the two world wars. When architects came back from Europe after serving in WWI, they brought back a wealth of visual information. The results can be seen in these neighborhoods; the middle and upper middle classes could have a chateau to call their own. What was truly great about this period of building is that we had an abundance of skilled craftsmen whose trade had been passed down from generation to generation. Doing these "old world" styles was a piece of cake for them. The architects and craftmen turned out homes that still exude their grace and proportion today. I never tire of looking at these neighborhoods, and marveling at all the care and talent that went into building them.

Look at the two houses above; both are in the same neighborhood. Both are described as being "Tudor". I doubt you'd have any trouble picking out which one was built in 1928 and which one was built in 2003. Granted the 1928 version has about as much of a relationship to the real Tudor period houses as the 2003 house has to the 1928 house. But at least with the 1928 house there is a quiet and balanced sense of proportion between all the elements in the house's front elevation. There's a lovely blending of details like the half-timbering patterns, the use of rough-hewn clapboard up at the gable peak, and the strong addition of the brick chimney. It's a very sophisticated composition.

The 2003 version of Tudor appears to have been designed in plan - by which I mean the clients wanted this here and that there, and the contractor slapped a few gables on the exterior container, along with 3 pieces of half-timbering so they could call it a Tudor. It is not a 3 dimensional composition like the 1928 house. It's nothing more than a super-sized suburban box. Was a designer even involved?

In this day and age when super-sizing is hopefully a thing of the past, maybe we can return to building homes where grace and proportion matter over square footage. Wouldn't you rather have a house of real rooms you use vs. vast amounts of amorphous space? I'm reminded of an episode of "Housewives of Atlanta" where the owner proudly shows off her McMansion; it was one large undefined room after another (all with double high ceilings). No one in the family lived in these rooms; the kids had a TV room in the basement; the wife spent all her time in her office. All I could think about was why on earth was this behemoth built. Why is it that people stopped caring about how their homes are used (and what they look like) vs. just owning space?