There’s more to see in France than architecture. We were warned, so we waited, but didn’t see anything.
When I design wall niches, rarely do I know what the homeowners will put in them. I love to visit the home years later (or days later if they’re serving dinner) and see what they contain. It’s almost like opening a present.
The owners of this home, astute product designers with their own successful company, chose simple vases of a light, complimentary color to the orange wood walls. The result has a crisp, bold appeal. I suspect these are changed out frequently, given the breadth of products made by their company (deep down, I’m secretly holding out for something out of Ripley’s, maybe the world’s greatest collection of belly button lint).
That’s the secret of museums around the world, by the way. Not lint, but change. Rotation of art. It’s also what keeps an interior space interesting. Even your favorite piece of art or memento disappears from your view when seen day after day. You may see it, but you don’t SEE it.
Step into my Wayback machine and I’ll take you on quick trip to 1994 – back to a time when I really, really, really needed a job. Really. Why did I need a job? Because, I stupidly quit a perfectly good one to start my own company – a house design company without any houses to design. And, did I mention, I desperately needed a project. Any project. If someone had asked, “Will you design a house for me?” They wouldn’t have gotten past “Will” before I replied, “Heck, yeah!”
“Outhouse?” “One or two level, sir?”
“Cathouse?” “I… suppose I can do that.”
“No, no, not that kind of cathouse.” “Oh. O.k., (meekly) I’ll do it.”
The reality of the world came down on me like a hammer (a hammer, I might add, that could have been better used to build one of the many house projects I didn’t have). I discovered the hard way that it’s a wee bit difficult to stay in business without any work. Not to mention, Robyn was tired, and just a little embarrassed, watching me on the street corner holding a cardboard sign (nicely lettered in architectural handwriting), “Will design your home with Pop Tarts.” I meant, of course, “FOR Pop Tarts.” Probably explains why no one stopped. I still don’t understand why Robyn never corrected me, though. I guess she thought it was some kind of artsy, architectural thing (O.k., I confess, that last part only happened in my recurring nightmares. I think. I hope.).
Most people start their architecture companies as a spin-off from another company, with stolen clients and projects already in the pipeline. Or, they have wealthy parents, friends or connections to draw upon. I was foolish enough to try it without any of that. I quit my real job, spent my only savings on a few advertisements in a local magazine, printed some business cards and crossed my fingers. Look up “fool” in the dictionary. You will find my picture next to it (in full color, with flashing neon arrows pointing to it).
If you can imagine the cliché, love-struck, teenage girl waiting by the phone, praying for it to ring, you can almost picture me. Just add a slightly deeper voice, sweat, tears and a few expletives (maybe more than a few), and you have it. To answer the phone when it finally rang, I had to set down the toaster with which I was about to share a bath.
Hallelujah! I have an interview!
Setting up the interview for the following week turned out to be a snap. Preparing for it was even easier. I had nothing to prepare. My portfolio was empty. My resume was as blank as my stare. I had NOTHING to prove that I was capable of doing the job. I had never designed a house (although I liked houses very much, thank you, especially the one I dreamed of living in someday). I spent five years after college working on very large commercial buildings, and not one of them had so much as a bedroom.
So what qualified me to design a house? Again, nothing. To land this job I needed to rely entirely on words – to talk my way into the job by painting a picture of the client’s future home. My mantra for the days leading up to the interview alternated between “Be one with the home, young grasshopper” and “Don’t blow this, idiot.”
Finally the day came. After sitting in my car for an hour on a neighboring street to ensure I wasn’t late (listen up youngsters, you could learn a thing or two), I drove into the driveway of my prospective client . Was I nervous? Let’s just say you couldn’t stuff more butterflies into a stomach without a ram rod (and that just makes a mess). Or, jitters into a chest. Or, ants into a pair of pants for that matter.
Straightening my ill fitting suit and tie (again, pay attention, youngsters), I rang the doorbell, all the while chanting “don’t blow this, idiot.” After the door opened, a man stepped out holding a tiny dog that couldn’t have weighed 5 pounds. In my most charming manner I said, “Hi, I’m Tim. Nice to meet you. What a cute, little dog. I have a Labrador Retriever. She could eat your dog for lunch.” The man looked me in the eye, quivered ever so slightly, and replied, “For dinner yesterday, my neighbor’s German Shepard ate her brother.”
Yes, this really happened. Sadly it is not the dumbest thing I’ve ever said, either. But I still have all my teeth, so that’s a plus.
How does the story end? It’s a multiple choice:
- I lost the job, but learned an important lesson (yeah, right). Go ahead, guess this one. I dare you.
- I got the job, proving once again you can be a smart ass and things will always go your way. Oh, and I lived happily ever after.
- The man turned to me and said, “I’m so glad one of these yappy things is finally out of my hair. I just wish the Shepard had saved room for dessert. Come inside, young man. I like the cut of your jib.”
And the real ending is…. a modified number 2. Happily ever after, yes, but only because I got lucky. This time the faulty connection between my brain and mouth didn’t land me in hot water. It should have ended my career. Instead, I got the job and published in Architectural Digest to boot. Not all my doing. The bulk of the credit and thanks goes to a thoughtful, kind and generous client (and now dog-less friend).
Stay tuned for before-and-after pictures and to read the rest of the story.
I just found one of Robyn’s dusty sketchbooks, long since forgotten in a closet. Here are a couple of her beautiful sketches of St. Malo, France, drawn during our honeymoon to Europe in 1990. Read the story here.
Here’s a sneak peak of a modern kitchen I am hoping to revive in Minneapolis. The home is a fifties rambler. While the existing, white kitchen has not quite flatlined, it’s close, and I intend to defibrillate it. Here’s how (stand back):
- Open up the kitchen to the dining room
- Reconfigure the generous formal dining room to include a small family room.
- Remove the wall between the dining room and living room. Construct a visual screen in its place to retain privacy and create interest.
- Lower the scale of the vaulted space to a more comfortable human dimension by adding a horizontal soffit and wall that give the occupants a visual clue to the true height (a datum).
- Add color and texture to surfaces as a relief to the bland sheetrock walls.
- Add a skylight in the kitchen.
- Accentuate the horizontality of the space to make it feel larger.
- Provide interest with layering and transparency.
Stay tuned. The next step is mouth to mouth (aka, refine the design).
With some credit also due his mother, the Renaissance hill town of Urbino, Italy gave birth to the renowned, Raphael (the painter, not the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle).
In homage to both Raphael’s, here are two of my sketches, one of pencil using a light hand ala Raphael the painter, the other of ink with the heavier hand of a Ninja Turtle. Let the match begin and may the best man, or cartoon reptile, win (betcha thought turtles were amphibians)!
And the winner is …………………….. ? Raphael!
(didn’t see that coming, did you?)
How long is the journey to paradise? All I know, young grasshopper, is it begins with a single step. Or, in this case, a single drawing. Then more drawings. Ultimately, lots of drawings. And then a few more for good measure. Here is a sampling to give you a glimpse into my house design process.
Here is the result:
O wise and honorable, dead architect, what do you mean the details aren’t the details? If they aren’t the details, then what are the details?
There are no details.
Huh? There are no details? How can…?
Of course there are details, they make the design. They create the big picture. Aren’t you paying attention?
Wait a minute. Didn’t you just say [finger quotes] there are no details? Yet somehow, these nonexistent details create the big picture?
[slight, enigmatic smile] There is no big picture, either.
O.k., Yoda, now you’re just messing with me.
Calm down, apprentice. Perhaps you are familiar with Schrodinger’s cat, a thought experiment in quantum mechanics that posits we cannot know the state of a cat’s existence until it is observed? A similar concept applies here. If you observe (focus on) the big picture, then there are no details. Observe the details, voila, no big picture. We are incapable of focusing on both simultaneously. You know, can’t see the forest through the trees and all that.
So, there are details and there is a big picture, but never at the same time?
Think of it this way, the whole is the sum of its parts, right?
The whole and the parts are one and inseparable. While the whole may be considered as merely the sum of the parts, the whole is also the raison d’être for the parts. The parts cannot be conceived without the whole. So, the parts are as much of the whole as the whole is of the parts.
Let me give you an example. Most houses designed today are functional, but uninspired. And, frankly, uninspiring. Why? Because, when most people create a house, they focus on the big picture and work linearly to create the parts. They inevitably start by designing the floor plan, erroneously assuming that it is the most important aspect of a home. When the floor plan is complete, they extrude the walls up about 10 feet, throw in some windows and cover it with a roof.
But, dead Master, that is not great design. That is not even good design.
Of course not, but it is easy, and most people have neither the time, talent, training or patience to create good design. The focus is typically on expediency, speed and cost. That is why we so value good design when we see it. It is rare.
Hey, this is starting to make some sense.
To craft an exceptional home, one must start by designing the whole and all the parts at the same time, the roof, the walls, the plan, the landscape, the kitchen, the exterior, and especially the three dimensional spaces. Each part affects the design of the whole, and in turn the whole affects each Part. Parts also affect other parts. It’s as though you are a ping pong ball bouncing back and forth between parts, as they all slowly coalesce into a whole. The plan is but one piece of the whole.
Remember Schroedinger’s cat? Well, there are lots of ways to skin it, just like there are countless alternatives for a good floor plan. Why lock in on one plan at the expense of everything else? We must let all the parts of the home shape the plan, in addition to the plan shaping the parts. Keep in mind, we don’t live in plan. We live in three dimensions, and that is how we should design.
Now, I understand! This explains why I am always flustered when a potential client asks me to just “do a quick design” of a home to see if they like it before we get too far along in the process. I cannot do it because the process of good design does not allow it. How can I know what the exterior will look like when I haven’t designed the interior spaces? How can I design the interior spaces before I know how the landscape will affect the views from those spaces? It’s all a giant tapestry, or puzzle, where everything affects, and is affected by, everything else.
Very good. You have made much progress. I shall leave you with one last thought. All along you have assumed I was discussing architecture and design. You were so focused on the details of your own profession, instead of [finger quotes] the big picture, that you didn’t realize I was, in fact, actually talking about… life.