First published in New England Home May/June 2014 | Trade Secrets by Louis Postel
Deep in the dark woods of design a professional might easily find herself lost in mid-career. After all the meetings and memos, calculations and re-calculations, what does it all mean? What do I really want?What do my clients want? What does the world want?
She (or he) was so sure for so long…and now not so sure, despite all her successes. Like Dante on the slopes of 13th century Florence, she’s about to embark on a journey through the inferno. But not alone. She has modern day spirits to guide her wherever her work life takes her Bar Harbor, ME; Lake Winnipesaukee, NH; Little Compton, RI; Boston Garden where gathering shades of designers past crowd its paths.
Trade Secrets is no such visionary spirit guide, no poet Virgil, but we did take it upon ourselves to ask for some direction about where the industry is headed. We began with all 67,443 members of LinkedIn’s Interior Design group and 25,491 members of its Architecture Interiors group. Where we asked lay the future of design?
“In tranquility, simplicity, and naturalism,” said Pari Ya Bahmani, who studies architectural engineering in Zanjan, Iran. “In imagination,” said designer Andrea Houk in Washington, D.C. Jeanette Cataldo, closer to home in Saugus, MA heartily concurred. “In functionality,” said Lim Pay Shin, an interior designer in Singapore. “In awareness,” said Monique Menard, a designer in Montreal. “Awareness of our clients’ basic needs and aspirations and at the same time to be aware that we need to be doubly creative in our designs respecting the environment.”
“In authenticity,” advised Orange County, CA designer Paula Oblen. “It drives me crazy when you see these young couples on TV home shows. As long as they’ve got a granite countertop and some stainless steel appliances—that’s it—they’re happy. No thoughts about layout, storage, lighting, traffic patterns. I guess it’s our job to educate when we can.”
“In a Renaissance,” said designer Dibby Flint of Kennebunkport, ME and Milton, MA, “which is to say in renewed respect for classical design coupled with creativity infusing every space.”
“In value, but also in beauty and function as part of the creative process—those have to take a high priority,” said Peter Wooding of Providence, RI. “We have a strong conviction that aesthetics is not cosmetics, but something that goes much deeper to the very heart of the way people experience an environment.” A professor at RISD, an interior designer, as well as an industrial designer, Wooding’s flatware for Dansk, lighting for Nessen, and seating for Jofco might inspire anyone to find his way out of the dark wood where mid-career design doubts linger.
There were too many responses on LinkedIn to print in this space, though so many were helpful and insightful in offering new directions. They were also refreshingly free of hype. Good examples for anyone interested in being a thought leader in the design field. “The information you share should be at least 80% information and no more than 20% self-promotion,” says social media expert Beth Marie Robinson. “It’s a rule too many of us forget when posting,” Robinson’s clients include firms such as Boston’s FDO/Kravet, Brunschwig & Fils and Marcoz Antiques. Based in Marblehead, MA, Robinson says she refers to Pinterest and Instagram over LinkedIn for expressing design trends. “After all, design is such a visual medium,” she says. “Just whatever you do, don’t pass off your blogging to an intern. Pay it some personal attention.”
Now that the design market is up, a busy designer might say, Why perseverate over its direction, much less post about it? It’s hard enough just to get the work done. We called an expert to find out: Jill Rudnick, former marketing chief for AOL an House & Garden. Rudnick’s now in London launching a UK version of Town & Country. The city, she says, is teeming with Russians and Middle Easterners with very deep pockets. “The conspicuous consumption here is staggering,” she says.
But no matter where you are and even in the best of times, Rudnick insists there are at least four good reasons to devote time and resources to getting the word out about your design services: one — seize the time and distinguish your brand from competitors now that there is such a strong increase in the high net worth population overall; two—you now have the funds to create an effective branding campaign; three—if you don’t allocate them your competitors surely will; and four—when business inevitably slows down again you will have gained valuable mindshare among affluent clients, becoming a trusted source for smaller or less frequent projects. She also recommends that designers explore creating video portfolios. “Magazines will always be relevant, but given that everyone’s migrating to mobile devices, video’s become an ever-more appealing channel for visual types.”
When migrating to mobile it can be easy to find oneself lost, even in the dark woods of one’s own home. Where did I leave that stupid iPhone, we wonder. Kitchen designer Gail O’Rourke of Sandwich, MA may have the answer you’re looking for. Check what she calls a Command Central Cabinet, which she sets by the kitchen door in such a way that it allows everyone to feel a little less lost. “The Cabinet’s basically an extended wall tower instead of a counter where you used to just toss your keys and bills and stuff you’re dropping off. It also replaces the so-called ‘appliance garages’, now that we’ve taken to storing so many of those appliances in the pantry (the exception being the coffee maker.) Inside the Cabinets we’re installing multiple USB ports and outlets for recharging iPhones, Kindles, and all the rest. There is also a laptop station, and, of course, hooks for keys. The critical piece is to get the electrician to set this up inside the cabinets beforehand; otherwise stuff just ends up on the counter again.”
More electricians are wiring into the sun these days, says builder Greg Lanou of Wright-Ryan homes in Portland, ME as photovoltaic costs are coming down. However, he’s seeing less demand for LEED green building. “Owners are building smarter. Energy efficiency and better indoor air quality have become a minimum standard,” he says. Owners are also building to leave it all behind, at least for a while. “We’re getting calls for low maintenance, because so many of our clients travel. This pertains especially to the exterior and grounds where we’re doing more plantings that are native to the area.”
When homeowners are at home they’re thinking more about aging in place, healthcare and family needs. Single-floor living can be a plus, says Lanou, but other features are more custom and hard to predict. While some owners are deciding to downsize to a high-end condo in a building with friends, for example, others are going larger with what Lanou calls a “legacy build” that can accommodate grown children and their children’s children.
If designers find themselves lost on occasion in the dark woods, they have a lot of company among other successful professionals asking what’s it all about and what does it all mean. Simply relaxing in those woods and enjoying the view is gaining its own appeal, according to another Mainer, architect Tobias Gabranski of Bath. “We’re still doing big houses,” he says, “but lately we’ve been designing open-stud weekend cabins and vacation homes — one right now in Vinalhaven for a German couple who wants to visit their son at prep school here. Where we can be most helpful is in tailoring the structure to the topography of the land — to outcroppings, slope-side, a tree, or water view — maximizing the experience — and doing so yields some highly unorthodox designs.”
For those uninterested in roughing it in the dark woods for any reason, there’s another option—faux bois wallcoverings. Reporting from Atlanta at January’s International Gift & Home Furnishings Market, designer Robin Pelissier of Hingham, MA, said the massive, overscale patterns she saw of trees and other subjects will be just the thing for turning narrow hallways into enchanting spaces. Mixed sheens, matte, shiny or foiled papers will be dazzling and elegant in a master bed or bath. We are also spec’ing self-adhesive decals by companies like Cherry Walls. “There’s no need to save the drama for your mama, anymore.”
Nor, we might add, is there any reason to panic about being lost in the dark woods of design at mid-career. Like Dante himself, our descent into the Inferno leads ultimately to heights unimagined before we took the plunge. The Design Comedy makes us click.