Boston Magazine Gets It | from New England Home


They really get it.  And if they occasionally miss the mark, doesn’t that just prove how on target they usually are?

by Louis Postel

First published as Trade Secrets in New England Home May 2013

For nigh over forty years, super-smart Bostonians have turned to the estimable publication for advice on the good life. The best podiatrist. The best pizza. The wealthiest Bostonian (not it’s not Gisele Bundchen, or haven’t you been paying attention?).

Such is Boston’s well-earned  authority a hypothetical blurb any January naming a “Best Tanning Salon” has staying power well into May and June. Even the sunniest of sea-side patio-scapes by a Katherine Field, Maho Abe, Matthew Cunningham, or a Morgan Wheelock will somehow pale in contrast to Boston’s Best ultraviolet beds. 

Because really, why not experience the best? Boston’s Best?

 If only life were so simple, but it is not. Boston’s March 2013 issue had even the smartest Bostonians surprised and confused. The magazine’s theme about “Best Places to Live” just wasn’t making the kind of sense Boston’s known for. “Starting out. Moving up. Going huge,” read the cover:  Starting out as in Medford. Moving up as in Needham. Going huge as in Weston.

Now, wait one minute. Didn’t Boston’s editors catch designer Leslie Fine’s seminar at the Boston Design Center, the one where she talked about how so many of her clients were down-sizing and moving to the downtown? Their selling off their mansions where once they “went huge” in the suburbs; snapping up luxury digs at the InterContinental, Heritage Garden, the Mandarin, the Millennium, or a little brownstone on Beacon Hill. These clients aren’t not necessarily going huge, they’re going quality of life. Designers from all over New England were there at the talk, nodding in concurrence; so where was Boston? Why didn’t they get it, like they so often do and we so much count on them for doing.  Otherwise engaged in yet another round of taste-testing of Chef Todd English’s Kentucky Maples famous cocktails, perchance?

In down-sizing, Fine’s empty-nester clients are in fact, living larger than ever before. (Let someone else deal with the plumber and electrician and snowplow guy). Now, finding themselves back in town, everything important has become minutes away: a short walk through Boston Garden to visit the office on Wednesdays and Fridays, a hospital board meeting, a harbor walk with grandkids to the Aquarium; Symphony Hall as practically an extension of one’s living room, and an occasional water taxi to Logan with St. Kitts awaiting. For Fine as well as many others involved in New England’s burgeoning design community “Best Places to Live” translates into a penthouse in town and a net zero summer place on the Cape or Lake Sunapee.

A meme, a shared cultural belief is hard to break. And a design meme is maybe the hardest. Big house = good; small house = bad. Every kid knows that. Starting out, moving up, going huge. Once again, Boston has its finger on those shared beliefs. Right or wrong, they certainly meme what they say.

Architect Jeremy Bonin designs homes around Lake Sunapee, NH for well-to-do Bostonians in pre-retirement mode. “They’re interested in building custom homes not just for what they need now, but for the future, as well. That’s why we are doing so many flex spaces,” says Bonin at his New London, NH office. “We build a home office, for example, but we will be sure to put in closets. Now they can hold books and computers, but down the road that same space can become a bunk room for grand kids, and the closet make a big difference. The whole grandchild factor is a relatively new phenomenon for baby-boomers. They want to retire somewhere nice where the whole family can gather.”

Designer Edward Williams in Newport might add that “somewhere nice” means somewhere where everyone especially young children are protected from environmental pollution: toxic building materials such as chemicals in fabric, carpeting, VOC paints. “I just read an article in Huffington Post by a cancer researcher who says as much as 90% of all cancers may be environmental and only 8% genetic. Educated clients understand that a healthy home now a necessity; whereas a few years ago not as much,” says Williams.

Moving up, going huge, or more to the point, moving downtown, clients are coming to realize that a great home begins at conception. “Designers and architects, builders and vendors are looking to build a team far sooner these days,” says Nicole Hogarty of Boston. Recently elected the President of the New England Chapter of the International Furnishings and Design Association (IFDA), the designer is upbeat about the possibilities of collaboration and cross-pollination across disciplines. “Homeowners understand the benefit of working as a team. They want real numbers in advance, which can be different than the ones they get in a bidding process.” Hogarty is equally upbeat about the prospects of the New England Chapter of IFDA.  International in scope, New England holds the title of largest US Chapter with 130 members, 60% designers and 40% trade. “Our work with graduate design students at the BAC and other great design schools will secure our future for many years to come.”

The benefits of teamwork and a positive attitude were born out not long ago in a kitchen Lisa Clement working on. “We live in a world of duality,” says the Falmouth, ME designer. “It can be a good day and a bad day and both stories can be true. You can choose which story you want to tell; shift the energy of a project with just a few kind words….”

“So it happened that a big piece of soapstone for a countertop and backsplash chipped during installation. There was no extra material to be had.”

Rather than pointing fingers, or second-guessing, Clement got her team to relax. The ensuing calm allowed her to come up with a solution that was actually an improvement on the original design according to her clients. She commissioned a local cemetery worker to chisel even more chips into the afflicted piece of stone. That piece then became a sculptural four-inch border above the backsplash. We hereby nominate Clement for the Best Thinking Out of the Box Award.

Nominated in the same category is architect Mark Hammer of Truro and Cambridge, MA. A creator of the Cape Cod Modern House Tour, Hammer can take credit for sharing the little known Trade Secret that Cape architecture entails a lot more than the classic Cape we know and love. Hammer opened the door to many of out-of-the-box, mid-century homes hugging its shores by masters such as Marcel Breuer, Serge Chermayeff, Paul Krueger, Nathaniel Saltonstall, Paul Weidlinger, and Charles Zehnder. Hammer’s studio is busy creating new homes and new legacies, as well. “I now think of Mark Hammer as the heir to Zehnder, who designed so many homes for artists here on the Cape,” says photographer and Modern House Tour veteran Ray Elman, whose close-ups of the Cape Cod’s creative class grace the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery in Washington.

The urge for out-of-the-boxes is not, however, confined to the Coast of Maine or Cape Cod. If Moving up, Building Huge is a meme that’s seen it’s day, increased confidence in one’s own tastes is trending up everywhere. “Five years ago ‘out-of-the-box’ would have been looked on askance,” says designer Meredith Bohn (pronounced as in ‘bone’), a Boston Architectural College alum now based in Hollis, NH. “For example, if I suggested an accent wall of really distinctive patterned wall paper or large piece of graphic art that is very dramatic my clients would have looked at me like I had two heads. They would have been afraid of spending on something that may not be long-lasting. Now they have far more confidence, and a lot less concern about eventual resale values. They’re not going to spend a lot of time and energy worrying about what some mythical creature of a buyer is going to want or not want five years from now. It’s more about putting their own personal stamp on things. Just the other day I showed a young couple some Thibeaut wall paper and was pleasantly surprised by the option they chose: the big bold one with the three-foot paisley pattern. They wanted a statement, as opposed to something safer. There was no question in their minds.”

OK, Boston Magazine Please do not feel snubbed just because you got the Best Places to Live business wrong. You’re out-of-the-box, too. Just not every time. Here, then, is a cover concept for July, absolutely no charge: “Becoming Creative, Going Green, Making Statements” printed in bold over a photo of the InterContinental wrapped in a million square feet of that three-foot paisley Bohn sold to the young couple. Now that’s a Best Cover if ever there was one.