Thursday, December 2, 2010
GREAT DESIGN TRANSCENDS TIME AND PLACE: MODERN MEETS TRADITIONAL
History proves that trends come and go; what’s trendy one moment becomes passe the next. But, great design transcends the barriers of time and place. The qualities that rise above the shabby-chic or super minimalist modern are those of attention to detail and quality workmanship. These two attributes expressed through the eye of the professional create timeless, classic masterpieces that defy the age into which they were born. This is not to imply that a Deco or 18th Century interior could not be identified as such, but that if placed in a space in any century, it would look as though it perfectly belonged there.
In an age where niche marketing is the song of the brand professional, great design defies any compartmentalization. As Cole Porter writes, “Anything Goes,” that is, whether a room is modern or traditional or both, the Renaissance approach is best. It is, if you will, a more holistic tendency to harmoniously blend all elements into one synesthetic experience. It is a fulfilling composition because the scale, proportion, and ratio of the parts are happily married. Was it not Da Vinci’s perspective that many different points of view encompassed a more humanistic approach, thereby making man, a thinking man, one whose boundaries are endless? Like so with design where, when done to a degree of excellence, the imagination soars and poetry presides.
Robert Adam, the 18th Century Architect, Designer, and Decorator was one such creator, designing houses, furniture, and accessories all in symbiotic relationship to each other. The 19th Century poet, architect, artist, wallpaper designer, etc. William Morris had a similar vision, as did Charles Rene Mackintosh, Frank Lloyd Wright, and Le Corbusier. These visionaries were not compartmentalists. They envisioned their craft as a confluence of harmonious elements. Like a bespoke suit, when one walks into their spaces, all seams disappear and spaces flow.
So, here we are in the 21st century, where specialization reigns. In truth, whether modern or traditional, the elements of great design breaks these barriers. In the pictured traditional room, attention to detail is sublimely subtle and quality craftsmanship is superior in these rooms. It is difficult to tell when one surface material drops off and another begins, all is so effortlessly blended together. It is as though this room was created in one century and stayed at home for several more.
In more moderne spaces, attention to detail is also preeminent. Workmanship is beautifully crafted, no one element takes reign over another. Here, too, the elements are successfully married. In this Renaissance approach, the exterior architecture meets the interior design with an inner calm. The decoration, that is, the furnishings, are also sewn together to create a painted whole. And, while the materials may be stainless steel or cast glass, modern to say the least, they fit into their natural landscape with grace and ease. Even with the use of an historical color palate painted upon flying beams and glass block, the spaces fit, inside and out. It is not niche driven; rather it is all encompassing. An apartment designed thirty years ago, looks new and maintains its integrity.
As Michael Simon, the Designer, so succinctly notes, “Great design does transcend time and style. We are all familiar with famous rooms that have been repeatedly published in books and magazines. These rooms traverse many different tastes and time periods, yet they are always fresh. There's a reason certain rooms resonate and it has nothing to do with the latest fad or what is considered to be fashionable. There isn't a new idea under the sun. Everything has been done at one point or another. Technology changes, but ideas do not. People tire of any expression that reaches the point of saturation. That's why the pendulum always swings. There must be a reaction to a point of view once it trickles down to the most common denominator. Since construction and decorating are so expensive, clients would be better off trusting their instincts and personal taste rather than following the crowd. Those who follow the crowd get lost in it and there's no fun in that!”
“Scale, proportion, line, rhythm and counterpoint are the underpinnings that separate good work from mediocrity,” Michael notes. “Style is almost incidental. Those foundational elements are necessary in any art form, whether it be music, dance, literature, cuisine, or design. In addition, everything has historic precedent. Rooms that are of our time, but draw on the past, last because they have soul. Soulless interiors cannot last, they fade into the forgotten landscape of bad design. “ And, so it goes...”Thank you, Mr. Vonnegut!
Questions: What types of design challenges do you face with your space? What areas of the home most perplex you? What have you tried to make it better? Are there particular areas or topics you would like me to address?
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Saturday, October 2, 2010
If slight of hand is the magicians forte, then slight of imagination is the professional designer’s expertise. What distinguishes the so-called ‘do-it-yourself’ decorator from a real pro is basically the magic they create in sculpting and creating space. No mere pretty pink polka-dots on a wall, but perhaps a floating wall, one which seems to exist in space with no apparent support. Is this magic or professional know-how? It is both one and the same; it is an understanding of how a room can be made to look other than it is, and for a space to be constructed to look as though it’s imperfections were perfectly manicured.
To begin, the narrow passageway is oftentimes an easy problem to solve. The professional knows that by dropping the ceiling, the side walls “seem” to expand it’s breadth, thereby increasing the width of the space. Was the space really widened? Was the neighbor’s apartment encroached upon? Of course not. It is simply a trick of the trade. Another bit of magic in making a floor appear larger than it is, is by tiling or laying the floor on the diagonal, so that it appears that it opens up the space spreading off into some undetermined distance. Put a border around it, the magic is destroyed, the illusion cut short.
When visiting Malmaison outside of Paris last week, I noticed an abundance of antechambers, spaces designed to create the expectation of surprise and a breathing area, like a stop in music, where one waits in wonder as to what comes next. Often, these antechambers have dropped ceilings so as to create a sense of enclosure while simultaneously making the entering space feel even larger and more majestic. This sculpted drama is sensual in its appeal of the unknown. And then, when the individual passes into the major room, it is grander than thought. There is really a type of physics going on here, as one lessens the feel of one area, the conjoining area seems enlarged. Niches do a similar thing; they carve out space, yet make it look larger. They create diversity and a sculpted sense that something lies beyond and within.
Another bit of magic is that created by the half-wall. Instead of building all the way up to the ceiling, and closing off a space, a half or three-quarter wall is created to divide spaces, while maintaining an open, airy feeling. These partial walls, which may be made of glass block, cabinetry, sheet rock, sandblasted glass, metal, basically any material add interest and intrigue. It begs the question of what is beyond....and yet visually it is completely open. This too is magic, as the viewer must now postulate on what lies ahead. Mirrors create magic as well. Basically, they expand space in addition to reflecting light. So, for instance, poised in a narrow hallway, they open up that area at seminal junctures. Also, if cleverly placed, say diagonally across from a window, it opens up the view by reflecting it. In addition, if the wall colors surrounding the mirror are light, this brightness will add to the walls reflectivity. Putting mirrors on every wall, including the ceiling will NOT enhance the room, but make it look ridiculous. A true professional knows how to and how not to use mirrors to their advantage.
As to the magic behind furniture placement, common sense dictates. Too many do-it-yourselfer’s align pieces with the direction of the room, so that a long couch will sit against a long wall, emphasizing the length of the room, instead along its horizontality. Instead, furniture should be placed against the grain, with the couch/s adjacent to the long wall, creating a more harmonious, balanced effect.
Pocket doors create magic by disappearing into walls and economizing space. They are also very elegant, when outfitted with beautiful hardware. Another trick behind enlarging space is to lay wall-to-wall carpeting down throughout the major connected spaces. This makes the room feel larger and more balanced. In rooms, like the kitchen, employing a soffit, which adds light in a consistent, yet focused stream, gives the illusion of light all around. Like cove lighting, it enlightens and enhances the area.
In terms of drapery, it is typical to assume that they will cover the view. While this may very well be the case, if it is done correctly, they will not. Instead, side panels can actually enhance the view by framing it, as opposed to covering the opening. It may not be obvious to some, but built in cabinetry, when designed correctly, will enlarge a space as well. It becomes recessive and disguised as part of the wall, while serving a major storage purpose.
And, finally, the creation of an entry foyer is perhaps the single most aspect of designer magic. By carving out a space, albeit small, it serves as a preface of what is to come. Again, it gives the illusion of grandeur beyond. So as not to enter directly into the living room, it is a transition area for circulation and surprise. What exactly lies beyond this curved wall, or veiled panel?
These are some of the slights of hand, flights of imagination that the professional designer and architect conjure up to create the magic of space.
Sunday, September 5, 2010
THE UPSIDE OF A DOWN ECONOMY:
WHY RENOVATING, DECORATING, AND BUILDING MAKE SENSE NOW
It’s an Upside Down Economy; so, why would it make sense for the consumer to spend dollars on renovating, decorating, or building now? In addressing this question to a residential real estate broker, architect, and contractor, I received some very interesting, yet rational answers. When dollars are most precious, does it make sense to spend? Is there an upside, a positive, if you will, to actually renovate now? And, if so, why is it a really intelligent move. The answers are varied and numerous.
To enumerate a few incentives to renovate are the following: labor costs are less expensive, the consumer gets better prices on goods and services, the trades are available, ready, and willing to start work, remodeling and building are executed at a faster pace due to availability of sub-contractors, more attention is paid to the client, more attention is paid to detail with work executed in a more meticulous manner, the consumer gets more for their money because of more rigorous bidding, and the interest rates are at a low point.
William Vilkelis of Barak notes that there are a number of reasons why now is a good time for the consumer to consider buying and renovating. “With historically low interest rates and the availability of tax credits, the market is stable because lenders have tightened their lending requirements and there is the perception that ‘value’ exists in the market right now.” Vilkelis says that in “just a little over six months, the market went from a buyer’s market to one of equilibrium. “ That is, it is now a well-balanced industry that sees buyers and sellers on relatively equal footing. For this Barak broker, for instance, inventory is moving quickly on the Upper West Side, where he can’t get a buyer in quickly enough to see a property because of an already written commitment. Unlike the previous markets which saw a sharp rise in seller’s prices, this one is more stabilized. Buyers are seeing more reasonable prices; that is, they see value in the marketplace and are therefore purchasing fairly priced properties."
For the contractor, similar observations are made. Jeff Streich, of Prime Renovations, Inc. believes that this economy “presents an opportunity to work with the best available labor, which is now ready and willing.” From his perspective, “with a more relaxed economy, building is performed at the highest level of standards with an eye on detail.” In addition, the industry has provided various building materials and energy rebates, along with various tax credits. Streich notes that “Renovating saves the cost of selling and moving. “ He encourages his clients to invest in their current homes or build anew for increased property value.
And, for the architect and designer, this upside down economy actually provides an excellent venue for the client to renovate and redecorate. First and foremost, the best of the best in terms of labor and materials is available. The service element is excellent; vendors are motivated to supply the architect and designer with materials almost on demand. As David Estreich, of David Estreich, Architects notes, “This is a superb time for the consumer to renovate; they get lots of attention from vendors, and the best available pricing from the contractors.” From his perspective, the three most valuable investments for the consumer now are: the kitchen, the bath, and the master plan. Of course, kitchens and baths, while the most expensive rooms in the house to renovate are also the most remunerative investment. They add an enormous value to the apartment or house. A more discrete and less obvious investment, which in theory is the most valuable, is a concept, a Master Plan. Estreich believes that this two-dimensional layout is extremely important to the success of the flow of the house. Before anyone invests in beautiful furniture, they need to invest in a developed scheme, one in which all the pieces fit perfectly in place. He says that “once you have a plan, you can then implement it one piece at a time.” “Invest in a plan, and you invest in the basic foundation of your home, one that will last forever.”
For these three professionals, this economy has an upside. The positives preside for the consumer, as they enable the buyer to get both excellent service and great value.
Thursday, July 8, 2010
As Ludwig Mies Van der Rohe exclaimed “God is in the details.” The famous architect knew that what separates the sublime from the mundane is the attention to detail that an artisan expresses in their work. It is refinement of technique, if you will, a stylistic turn of the hand that somehow transcends the mediocre, bringing the work into the realm of the ineffable. As Nelson Algren, the writer says, “it’s all in the wrist.” Of course, we are not talking billiards here, but about the loving care and eye that the master craftsperson creates, when sculpting his work of art, whether that be a painting, a building, or an interior.
Attention to detail goes hand-in-hand with quality workmanship. It is a creative process in two ways: one is the evolvement of a work of art from its inception in the artist’s hands, the other is where the artist leaves off and the work becomes a living entity unto itself. That is, the work that is built, from this creative process, now relates to the world at large, its form having transcended the admixture of material and inspiration. What is the outcome? Sometimes something so beautiful, it is inexpressible; sometimes something so witty, that it transcends humor, sometimes something so subtle, that its refined sensibility, its synesthetic appeal to all the senses is, just “is.”
As an interior designer, attention to detail is expressed in many different ways. Perhaps, it is the result of the unexpected: using materials known to function for one purpose, and used as another. For instance, one generally doesn’t see drapery cornices composed of metal tiles. Doing so, not only greets the viewer as a surprise, it evokes interest and an element of perhaps intelligence in its relationship to its surrounding environment. Another such detail, used mainly in architecture, is the reveal. It is a subtle groove, a void, between elements, whether that be between the floor and the wall perpendicular to it, giving the wall an elevated feeling , or a carving out of part of the baseboard, giving it a lighter, more sculpted look. Reveals are more commonly seen in door frames or cabinetry, where, in effect, it says to the viewer, that it is separating one architectural element from another - in this case, the door from the frame, or one piece of wood from another.
Attention to detail encompasses the materials and finishes used to create a piece of furniture or structure. Something as common as a doorknob can become a work of art if the one chosen is of superior quality and design. For instance, a hand hammered knob by Butler, which takes many hours of careful labor to create is not the same as the typical Baldwin knob produced on an assembly line. A desk hand-made of straw, piece by piece, hour after hour, with a great labor of love, is a tour de force. Costly, yes; worth it, definitely. It sublimely surpasses the ‘sameness’ of most furniture. Other elements of attention to detail like using nail heads on a sofa delineate and distinguish these differences as well. As small an element as the cord or trim on a chair or pillow can speak volumes in separating it from the mass produced. Parchment, woven meshed metals, shagreen, cashmere, cerused woods are all materials and techniques which are different and unusual. Even employing a striae wall technique can alter the appearance of a wall.
Perhaps it is the sheer element of the unexpected, such as a prison-like stainless steel water closet in a very high end bathroom that evokes that illusion. Or, the ironic composition of putting a leather wall tile in a bathroom contiguously poised next to irregularly Erin Adams’ hand-cut tortoise shell tiles, installed bit by bit, that creates a beautiful juxtaposition. On the humorous side, it may be a kitchen bar faucet that looks like a vodka bottle. Or a Jean Cocteau illustration drawn directly upon a wall. Kohler’s new HatBox water closet is a humorous expression of the common day toilet. While perfectly functional and exquisitely designed to look like a hat box , it is, in the end, just a toilet. It’s serendipitous combination of form and function transcends the usual.
And, then, there are the master craftsman, who manifest these masterpieces, who have the vision to create and recreate originals in their own mind’s eye. Artisans like Jean-Paul Viollet’s Atelier sculpt pieces that combine precious and unusual materials into aesthetic and functional forms of furniture. For example, he regularly uses straw, shagreen, horn, and exotic woods like amboyna, with mother of pearl inlay, materials and finishes not commonly seen everyday. Within the fabric arena, one finds Gretchen Bellinger’s pearl and diamond studded silks that are so subtlety woven that, though sounding over the top, are subtle productions of woven goods rendered absolutely gorgeous. Carolyn Ray’s wallpapers are so ingenious and witty; they combine historical and humorous images, like that of a collage, to create interestingly patterned walls. With leather, we have fabricators such as Dualoy, who combine colors, techniques, and designs, making their goods look rich, luxurious, different, and clever. And, lastly, there is ornamental plasterwork, which separates the ordinary from the unusual. Here, the master craftsman like Balmer carve and sculpt beautiful images, whether modern or traditional, for the ceiling, walls, or cabinetry. They add depth, interest, and fascination, when looked upon.
What distinguishes the good from the great, the mundane from the sublime, the slapstick from the witty: it’s all, as MVR says, “Attention to Detail.”
Wednesday, May 5, 2010
LIVING WITH ART by Gail Green, Green & Company, Interior Designers
More than ever, the design and decoration of a space play a significant role in the successful display of art. The landscape against which the art or sculpture sits becomes its surrounding background, highlighting the work like a secondary frame. This framing device- be it a wall, a visual opening, a table, or the floor - becomes an essential component to the artistic expression. The message is the same: it is about how space relates to art and how both compliment one another, emphasizing each other’s best lights.
Although most art collectors, connoisseurs disclaim the importance of decoration, the eye knows differently. It senses disproportion, conflict of space, adversity of color. That disharmony pits the art against its environment, rather than working with it. In many ways, this is comparable to the painter choosing to frame the art himself as – frame and art - bear a direct relationship to one another.
Having accepted the importance of design to art, the owner can position their art in numerous ways: on tables, on floors, on walls, in between walls. In addition, sometimes a painting is created directly onto the wall itself so that the wall becomes integral to the art. As art collector Paul Frankel notes about his Sol Lewitt that sits permanently on his dining room wall, art becomes “a transcendental experience enhancing one’s personal environment on an intellectual as well as visual level. It is a perfect example of where art, design, and decoration converge.”
Art consultant and appraiser Beverly Jacoby sheds some professional light on the subject. She maintains, “Great art and great design create an ideal environment for living and working. The design and architectural plan exert a decisive influence on the art choice, particularly regarding size, placement, proportion, color, and choice of medium. For a client with a panoramic window wall with southern exposure I would recommend sculpture, works of art, painting, and perhaps a multi-media piece. Works on paper and new media like digital should be placed in low light areas, such as in a library, gallery or hallway.”
Therefore, for a work of art to be successfully illuminated, it needs to bear a direct and significant relationship to its context.
Saturday, March 13, 2010
VALUE, VALUE, VALUE: 21ST Century Accent on Design
With the current economic downturn, homeowner’s are not only seeking the ‘right’ location, they are seeking VALUE. Value matters because it insures security for the future, an investment that will increase its inherent worth. Homeowners want to invest in improvements that last. In addition, these home renovations – whether architectural or decorative – are a “return to basics;” that is, a return to core values, items that show a useful purpose and are not mere flourishes. Basics parley into quality investments where “less is more.”
In terms of Comfort, one needs to start with warm, inviting, casual environments. Neutral fabrics and colors for decorating the inside and solid building materials for constructing the exterior are all important. Not commercial grade fabrics, but good quality, long-lasting classic fabrics are essential to both the warmth and comfort of the family, who is now spending a lot more time at home. Soft fabrics, quiet fabrics (with little or less pronounced patterns) are timeless and best. For instance, velvets, smooth cottons, sueded leathers with tone on tone patterns create these more subdued images. Not slick, but soft; not loud, but subtle – these are the hallmarks of today’s style. In addition, more inviting furniture arrangements require an ambiance that allows for better communication, bringing people together.
Three aspects of home / apartment building assure good value: Kitchen renovations, bath renovations, and an excellent master plan. The first two working projects are obvious. Customers look at the state of the kitchen and bath when making explicit value judgments about home investments. David Estreich of Eastland Kitchen and Bath Design says, “What is less apparent, but more important, than the physical alterations to the kitchen or bath, is actually how a space “Feels.” He continues, “It is an implicit understanding that before a space can ‘look attractive, it must evoke a good feeling. It is not something seen; it is something felt. Therefore, one needs to get a good feeling.” The space flows, properly. Like a bespoke suit, it feels as though it was meant to be, falling into its proper place, fitting just right. No bias pulls, just soft and easy.
The Secret: An excellent Master Plan. The plan sets the pace, the pace sets the place. Like a puzzle, the pieces fit perfectly together. This is true Value. All great designers and architects know that to begin with the general, with a coherent concept is key to great architecture. This notion has fallen from design graces. We seem to think that pretty backgrounds, fancy furniture, fussy finishes will increase value. They do, but only after its foundations are set firmly in place. We value the explicit, where trends dictate perpetual change. But real inherent value lies in the subtle, quiet, classic and classy choices. When one enters a house or apartment, it is the entry which evokes a sensibility that all is well and in place. The rooms effortlessly flow from one to another. “Value” is knowing that your investment will last, that it will pass from one generation to another, if so desired. Quality generally infers something more expensive, but it also means a product that will be longer lasting, an investment that is not ‘spur of the moment’. It means thinking before buying, knowing that less is more and investing in a piece of furniture that will not depreciate the next month, but perhaps perpetuate. Well-upholstered pieces that will endure and solid finishes that are not flashy and cheap are those that will stand the test of time and endure.
Renovations need to be utilitarian, quality-conscious, and comforting, as more households spend more and more time at home. Along with kitchen and bath renovations, quality merchandise creating comfort and ease, the mark of design success is a great plan. VALUE, VALUE, VALUE is the keystone of today’s building marketplace.
Wednesday, January 13, 2010
LOOKING UP: THE LOST ART OF CEILING DECORATION
Angelo Dongia, the famous interior designer, referred to the ceiling as the most ignored, but interesting, of the six planes. Fortunately, it hasn’t always been that way. Michelangelo and his patrons didn’t exactly perceive it as such. All the great architects through centuries past have ‘looked up’ and found an interesting surface to adorn. It seems that with the advent of the hi-rise apartment and its lowered top, the ceiling has seen better days. Not to despair. With all of the other five surfaces well explored, the design/decoration of the ceiling has much left to offer the design professional and enthusiast.
There are several options in considering the design and decoration of this sixth surface. It can be painted, carved, plastered, upholstered, covered with glass, covered with metal, wallpapered, tiles, beamed, mirrored, leathered, trussed, and any combination thereof. The purpose behind its decoration is both aesthetic and/or functional. Thus, aesthetically it can be pleasing to the eye, while functionally, it can house lighting, define space, and carve out great sculptural shapes (i.e. skylights, domes, etc). For those optimistic, spiritually minded, the ceiling is a refuge of delight that both enhances and embraces the space at large. Let us consider some of these applications to see how successfully the ceiling can accomplish its art.
Perhaps the most obvious application is that of painting the ceiling. But even within this genre, there exists a multitude of choices. Certainly, the early painters like Michelangelo used the ceiling to express the zeitgeist, the spirit of the times incorporating religious and political motifs into majestic murals. But apart from these magnanimous pontifications, which predominated ceiling painting up until the 18th Century, the ceiling has recently been painted in a number of ways. Faux paint such as striae, trompe l’oeil, abstract motifs, silver or gold leafing, and just plain paint (in perhaps a different color) represent just a sampling.
Another early technique, which has survived the centuries, but not now as predominant, is that of the plastered ceiling. Very common in castles, estates, and homes for the wealthy is the highly decorative, plaster pattern. Seen mostly in university clubs and bastions of elitism, plasterwork is expensive and conveys a message of importance to the room. Allied to this technique, is the application of woodwork, that sometimes looks like plaster but is actually wood painted over. In its more obvious rendition, is the wood coffer, creating patterns of three-dimensional relief upon the ceiling. This is a more masculine, library look found for the most part in studies, dens, and libraries.
More recently, the ceiling has been adorned with wallpaper or fabric (which includes leather). Not only wise for sound insulation, this use can provide an interesting, warmer aspect to the environment. Some designers even tent the fabric, gathering it at the top as to suggest an Eastern, oriental feel. Mirrors have been used on the ceiling as well, but mostly in bachelor pads and discos. Its counterpart, glass is used in more functional ways, admitting light and creating a halo-like aura. Skylights, as they are commonly referred to, enlighten and add to the breath of the room in which they are situated.
The use of stone or ceramic tiles on the ceiling has also become rather common. Here, we find it most regularly used in bathrooms and spas, where the stone can accommodate the moisture build-up. It can be most pleasing to the eye, by creating a continuous look throughout on all six walls. Metal, whether in tile or sheet form, is also used on the ceiling. This material can be painted or lacquered to protect the finish, or left raw to oxidize, depending on the desired look. And even, shells, leaves, horn, and bits and pieces of different materials together have appeared on the ceiling to create and express the owner’s personality.
On the more architectural side of ceiling design is the carved dome, dropped surface, beamed structure, and opened space all serving a specific yet aesthetic function. For instance, by carving out a section of the ceiling in the shape of a circle, square, oval, etc., the designer actually defines the space below. As in the picture illustrated, the sculpted ceiling gives that designated space definition; it makes it special. It lets you know that it is a space unto itself; it’s not just walk-through circulation. The modern beamed ceiling accomplishes the same thing; only it’s more architectural in feeling. It draws lines in the air, overhead, telling you where and what your limits are spatially. In addition, by creating coves or dropped beams at the ceiling, lighting can be housed and wires concealed. Cove lighting combined with some ceiling sculpture can create very interesting, atmospheric effects. Functionally, through the use of dropped soffits and beams, the ceiling can house all types of electrical and audio wiring, air conditioning ducts, vents, recessed down lights, and speakers to name a few.
The “Ceiling” has resurfaced. In recognizing both its aesthetic and functional capabilities, the designer now sees the potential of this forgotten surface and the advantages of “Looking Up.”