Design Philosophy & Work Practices
What do I mean by those three words? To begin with they are the ideal against which I measure everything I design. I have been designing for almost 40 years now. In the beginning I was building from the designs of other people. Some of them trained architects, others were “building designers”. Some were homeowners or business owners who knew what they wanted clearly enough to give a builder a starting point. In almost every instance, I was unable to resist tweaking the designs as I built them. In part this has been a result of my lifelong interest in design. It has created an inability to look at a design without wondering what would happen if we just...
The other drive to change a design is getting to know the client. I have found that many architects, designers, interior decorators, kitchen designers, etc. have a tendency to create designs which don’t take the clients into the equation. Once I am on the project and spending time with the clients, getting to know them, I notice things in the designs which seem out of place with the people whom I am getting to know. The years of building from other designers’ work in this way gave me the belief that the first rule of design should be... “get to know your client”. What colors do they like? What are their patterns in their daily life? Who cooks? Do they bake? Is it a simple household, or one which is filled with books, artifacts, photos, etc? Is there a thread of whimsey in the way they relate to one another and to others? The basic ergonomic questions cannot be left out either. Are they tall? Should the kitchen counters, vanity counters, etc. be taller than the standard 36”? I often build kitchen counters taller than standard. Most people are more comfortable not having to bend so far to prep and cook. I want to know if they entertain, and if so is it formal or casual? Are they morning people or night owls, or one of each? I have built master suites where one partner can leave the bed, go to the shower, closet, etc. to get ready for the day, without ever needing to go back into or through the bedroom. This allows for the other partner’s sleep to be undisturbed. It is simple enough to build an arrangement allowing for this once you know that their schedules are out of sync.
When I meet new clients I like to spend a good amount of time just chatting with them in order to get a sense of who they are. This also allows for the client to get comfortable with me as a partner in the process of altering their home and their life. We are going to be in each other’s pockets for a period of time. If there is a basic difference in life philosophy it might be better for both of us to step away. In selecting a designer/contractor reliability, honesty, skill experience are very important factors. But whether or not the client and contractor can like one another is also important and too often not considered. A comfortable relationship with good communication can go a long way to smoothing over any project hassles and can actually be more effective than the contract.
I am a California casual person in many ways. I like to feel that I can be on a first name basis with most anyone. I want my clients to be comfortable with me and with letting me know what they do and don’t like about a plan. It is much easier to change it on paper than in studs and drywall. Despite being casual, I am intense about my work. I want things to go right. I have used many of the same subcontractors for many years and when I bring in a new one it has to be someone who can fit into the existing team. I dislike conflict so I try to avoid it by avoiding problems and clearing them up when they do occur.
I believe in the importance of a clear contract. It is so much better for clearing up disputes than memory. My contracts are usually quite detailed with a full list of the scope of work, line item costs from the subs and material suppliers, payment schedule, etc. Because I dislike dispute and conflict, I try to cover as much as possible with the contract notes. I usually write a design contract which covers the actual design time, drafting, engineering, Title 24 preparation, surveying of setbacks where appropriate. It will include everything from the commencement of design to acquisition of permit. Once we have the design settled I will start getting the estimate/quotes from the subcontractors and pricing materials. At this point, usually while the design is in for plan check, I will write the construction contract.
So, back to those three words. I believe that a design must first be functional. Are we creating a kitchen? A bedroom? A bathroom? Most of us agree on the basic functions of those spaces. So, if the design accommodates the basic definition of use for then we can consider the variations on the theme. What sort of cooking does a client do? Do you want an open kitchen which allows for entertaining? Do you want a spa style bath so that you are able to escape the tensions and strains of the work day in a private haven? Is the bedroom a place where you read, watch TV, or just rest?
To me, simplicity implies that there are no unnecessary design elements cluttering up a space. I like the clarity of natural materials. I use stone/slate a lot in my work. It is easy to care for, difficult to damage, and very natural. I can use it inside, outside, on the floors, walls, etc. I like natural wood but I prefer to use it inside where it doesn’t become a maintenance issue. So, simplicity is not just a visual element but also a consideration of long term use, ease of care, lack of clutter.
I dislike what I refer to as “visually demanding” architecture. I prefer that the design is something which effects a viewer below the level of the first impression. This leads to the second word, eccentricity. I enjoy playing a few visual games with the design. The floating benches which I use often. The “deconstructed” floating stereo cabinet in the French Creek house. The entry door and back hallway door at French Creek. These are all slightly eccentric details. I want a viewer to turn back as they catch something in their peripheral vision and the voice in their head says, “ wait...what was that?” The second look is what I am after. As you walk up to the front door at French Creek, particularly at night, there is a visual disconnect about what you are seeing. The floating desk in the 15 Burgoyne House, the angled door and entry wall at 10 Burgoyne, the glass railings and gates at 3635 Ralston, these are all my little visual games. My design eccentricities. The design passed the first test of function, we’ve tailored it to the end user, now it is time to add a little bit of fun.
The final design parameter, Finish, is sometimes the most difficult to achieve. There is a saying in construction that it is easy to get to 95% complete, it is the final 5% which is the struggle. To make every detail complete and polished. It has to be accepted that in the real world 100% is nearly impossible. But the effort to get there is what makes the 95% t0 98% look as good as it can. A good example of all three of these elements is in the detail photos of the master bath at 2028 Lexington. The building inspector himself noted to me that it is the hardest thing to make simple look finished. In that particular detail, where the glass pocket door, the bamboo storage cabinet, and the casing all fit together in an obviously designed way, without the need of extraneous trim bits to cover up misfits and glitches. In that small piece of work is the full explanation of my design philosophy. The simplicity is evident by the fact that there is no part which is not absolutely necessary. The eccentricity is there with the whole stained bamboo/glass pocket door/recessed storage into the wall. The finish speaks for itself.
A second, and possibly even clearer example is the quilted maple stereo cabinet floating in space at 40 French Creek. There you have simplicity defined. Three doors, of equal size, with a natural wood pattern running across them and over the ends. A simple golden rectangle in clear multiples of height/depth/length which is soothing to the eye even of those who don’t know why. The eccentricity is also evident. There are no legs and yet it is obviously not “on” the wall. The top not only floats 1 1/4” above the top of the cabinet but the edge is the only non rectilinear item in the space. As to finish, there are multiple coats of hand rubbed lacquer on the box and the top has 5 coats of clear epoxy before it was shot with vivilon, a clear car finish designed to protect against UV damage.
This is the sort of thing which runs through my head at night, in the shower, on a long drive, in the dentist chair at any time when my mind is free to wander and I find myself designing furniture or cabinet details. It is then that the desk is defined or the way the roof fits over the office. It is like playing chess against myself.
I find the challenge of suiting each space to the needs of its’ owners the most fun. Trying to get to know my clients well enough in the limited time we have together so that I know what will delight them on a daily basis every time they look at it. It is the limitations, the restrictions which drive good design. A wide open space with no limitations is almost more difficult to work in. Given a pre-existing design, a home already built and lived in with all of the problems inherent in it, makes the design work more interesting. I don’t always get it right the first time, but I don’t quit.
I don’t play golf, I don’t fish. I design. That is what I want to do with my time. It is my work and my passion.