Trade Secrets by Louis Postel | Published in New England Home Magazine November 2014
You don’t have to be an Episcopalian. You don’t even have to be an architect, designer, or builder to experience the beauty of Trinity Church in Boston this yuletide season… Nor do you have to be a Catholic to experience the beauty of the Basilica of SS Peter and Paul in Lewiston, ME, or the gothic revival SS Peter and Paul Cathedral in Providence, or St. Patrick’s in Norwich, CT.
You don’t have to be any of these things. You can just step inside and take a deep breath. Maybe even say a prayer for more beauty and less ugliness in the world. Join countless others with the same prayer — in Chartres Cathedral, or The Sultan Ahmed Mosque, popularly known as the Blue Mosque in Istanbul, or Phra Kaew, The Temple of the Emerald Buddha in Bangkok, Thailand. You have our best wishes in whatever ancient house of God your prayers are made, or your secular visions transcend. Design can be LEED-certified, comfy or classy, but if it’s not beautiful, what is it?
And that’s the problem. What is beauty in a building? After we leave the cathedral to go caroling or egg-noggin’, humanity finds itself perplexed and befuddled, according to Harvard psychologist Howard Gardner. All that we have universally agreed upon as being beautiful — beautiful Romanesque, Gothic, Renaissance hit a stone wall, he says, at least one hundred years ago. What once struck believers and nonbelievers alike as undeniably beautiful is no longer under construction.
The “frozen music” of design, in fugues of ribbed vaults and flying buttresses, stained windows and gilded statues, traceries, columns and pinnacles, marbles and tiles are no longer part of our universal design language. Sadly, we just don’t agree anymore on what’s beautiful today, or even if beautiful has any relevance in today’s post-modernist, “I know what I like when I see it” culture. (May we see a show of hands for all those who have successfully created a Shared Vision on the basis of “We’ll know it when we see it?”)
Some would argue beauty is all about classical proportions and scale. But even for Master furniture maker William Thomas of Rindge, NH golden sections only go so far. “There’s really no formula,” he says. “For example, before I make a cabriole leg for a traditional table I first cut a model to see how it looks: too thin, too fat, too high, or low. There’s really no way for me to know if it’s right just looking at a drawing. That said, the book has never closed on the 18th century and its references to classic Greek, Roman, and Egyptian architecture.” For many of Thomas’ clients and the clients of other distinguished members of the League of New Hampshire Craftsmen, classical principles define the alpha and omega of beauty.
Interior Designer Pam Manchester of Westport, MA is excited that clients are becoming far more open to the beauty art adds to a space, despite the fact that it takes time to and patience to agree on what, is, in fact, beautiful. While acknowledging that the ‘less is more’ philosophy has done much to dispel clutter, Manchester finds herself layering walls with original oils, and enriching sitting areas with fine antiques along with contemporary furnishings. “I used to get frustrated when the room was ‘done’ — and yet there was no art on the walls. It can be the hardest item to find for a a client, but it’s essential to making a space truly amazing. That’s why people need help. I’m increasingly taking them on tours of local studios and galleries, try to find them something that’s meaningful to them: fishing, sailing, gardening. A client and I recently found a street scene of Main Road here in Westport by Dora Atwater Millikin. From the minute you enter the front door, you see the painting hanging in the kitchen. It’s perspective draws you in to a beautiful world, while extending the house considerably.”
Wouldn’t a pane of glass make that extended feeling even more compelling? In place of art, a real garden? Maybe yes, and maybe no. We may be entering an era what lots of glass may not always equal lots of class.
This past summer, architect Jeremiah Eck of New England Home’s Hall of Fame invited the distinguished Witold Rybcznski emeritus professor of architecture at the University of Pennsylvania and the author of many books to lecture at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design. In a follow up phone call about his latest book “How Architecture Works: A Humanist’s Toolkit” Rybcznski (pronounced Rib-chin-ski) remarked that “any idiot can design a building of all glass walls. Architects absolve themselves from actually designing a building. Then they add silly details and modules that don’t relate to anything in particular. It’s the fashion of the moment.” Rybcznski offers the Boston Public Library that faces Trinity Church in Copley Place as to illustrate the hazards of silly historicizing details and the follies of architectural fashion. While Mckim, Mead, and White’s 1892 design looks fine, he says, over a hundred years later, 1972 addition by Philip Johnson the architect celebrated his Glass House already looks tired.
Does that mean Boston has to give up its position as the Athens of Design? “Hardly,” says Rybcznski. “I once did a study to find out what was actually the center of architecture in the world, based on the number of competitions won. Of course, New York ranked number one because of its size, but, surprisingly, Boston — a relatively small city — was number two.”
Also last summer, Jim M-Geough visited the A. Rudin factory, one of twenty-five manufacturers his showroom represents at the Boston Design Center. “It’s a 100,000 square foot factory, based in LA. It’s a family business from grandfather to father and now son — and no, they have never considered going overseas. It’s all custom furniture work, and when something needs to be done, it’s done. The people there are working overtime,” said M-Geough, who confessed to gaining four pounds making the rounds. Inside, craftsmen and craftswomen move in choreographed steps, measuring and selecting, stopping at a bench, conferring, tapping, folding, sewing, measuring again. There is dignity to this work of coaxing beautiful objects from fabric and wood.
Professor Gardner writes that one hallmark of beauty is that it’s a place you want to return to. Kitchen designer Eileen Kollias of Woburn, MA sees her clients responding and returning to the laminate doors of the 80’s, but with a more humanist perspective and a technological twist. “The laminates are much more real looking than they were, because of digital imaging. When run on a horizontal grain, the book-matched laminates gives a beautiful, easy-to-clean contemporary look.” A manufacturer in Texas that Kollias represents, Bentwood Kitchens, features one of her projects using uses their vertically-grained rift-cut veneers on the home page of its modern style gallery bentwoodkitchens.com.
Digital imaging has dramatically affected Annie Bradshaw’s Martha’s Vineyard Tile Company, as well. “Our number one request now is for large format, laser-jet-printed, porcelain tiles, starting at 24” x 24” and going up to 18” x 36”, even 4” x 48”. Liz Stiving-Nichols is one of our clients. She’s probably the go-to designer on the Vineyard right now. She and others feel the large format offers a much cleaner look than the smaller, traditional tiles we’re used to, especially now that they come rectified, meaning they are all exactly the same size, requiring only a 1/16 of an inch of grout. The presses that print the porcelain are the size of this showroom, about 2400 square feet. They can not only to mimic the swirly marbles like Carrera and Calacatta, but limestone now as well, with its toned-down movement and fossilization. Most people, including designers, can’t tell the difference.”
“My mother used to own the largest tile warehouse in New England, Mohawk Lighting and Ceramic Supply in Malden, MA. Back then tiles were made in plaster molds using liquid clay,” says Bradshaw, whose deceptively small showroom is tucked between Vineyard Haven harbor and the lagoon. “But then about twelve years ago, tile manufacturers in Europe and South America started changing their factories from ceramic to porcelain, the main difference being that porcelain is fired at a much higher temperature. Despite the image one conjures up of a fragile porcelain doll, porcelain is actually very strong and durable, and it’s impervious to mildew and liquid.”
Beauty, then, may be something that lasts a long time, that fills a place you want to go back to, that mimics nature, that invokes classical ideals, that calls for dignity and skill. Pausing in Trinity Church during a light snow, we wonder will there ever be another time in human history when all can agree we got it right?