Louis' Writing Samples

Deliberating a Lifetime in Design

Home in Harmony's Christa O'Leary
Home in Harmony’s Christa O’Leary

Trade Secrets by Louis Postel | New England Home July – August 2015

If you were to design your own life — not someone else’s house — what might it look like, when you’re over fifty, or sixty, or seventy plus? It’s nice to think about walking the shoreline, the sandpipers scooting away, then quickly resettling.

How to readjust oneself in midflight to inevitable change?

Keep going, but cut back? Try something altogether new, or quit altogether? One could walk all the beaches of Cape Cod, the coast of Maine and even do a turn around Lake Winnipesaukee without arriving at The Answer to what comprises the Well-Designed Life. Quitting altogether in favor of grandchildren may be attractive, but giving up on the connections and creativity of the design world could be a deal-breaker.

Travel, golf, volunteer, back to school, second career — all of which involve slowing down a lifetime in design, and cutting back and may not be a fit, at least not yet, if ever. As Bob Grossman of Wolfer’s explained at a recent IFDA/New England Home cocktail at Wolfer’s showroom in Brighton, MA — even contemplating retirement is hard to do, especially for Grossman just now as design, lighting technology and the economy have combined to create the perfect wave.

What’s more: if you’re a designer, or architect, builder, vendor, artist, craftsperson who has dedicated your life to instilling timelessness in everything you touch, is there any real cut-off point that doesn’t seem totally arbitrary? Timelessness means timelessness — a virtue that can follow generation after generation quite literally. William Hodgins once remarked when approaching the conventional retirement age “when you’ve done the houses of the parents and their children, and now the children of those children who want help, I can’t see turning them away.”

haydelPerhaps the well-designed life is a life in which there’s space and time to even contemplate what it means — a space as long and as airy as one of New England’s aforementioned shores along cape, coast and lake.

Public art offers not a literal shore but certainly wide space to deliberate on one’s life, and one’s life specifically in design. In that spirit, we rose to the seventh floor of Mass Art for a discussion entitled “Public by Design” sponsored by the Fenway Alliance and IFDA in conjunction with Design Week in March

Panelist Murray Dewart of the Boston Sculpture Group remarked on how Augustus St. Gaudens’ bronze bas-relief of the Civil War Colonel Robert Gould Shaw leading the 54th Regiment of African-Americans spoke to him at an early age, awakening a passion to do public art. “St. Gaudens was for sculpting only Shaw, the martyred hero,” said Dewart, “but Shaw’s mother insisted that the blacks be in the picture.” He also mentioned Robert Lowell’s poem “For The Union Dead” — how, touchingly, permanent art becomes subject to constant change, as in the building of the garage under Boston Common:


a girdle of orange, Puritan-pumpkin colored girders

braces the tingling Statehouse,

shaking over the excavations, as it faces Colonel Shaw

and his bell-cheeked Negro infantry

on St. Gaudens’ shaking Civil War relief,

propped by a plank splint against the garage’s earthquake.

Two months after marching through Boston,

half of the regiment was dead…

Timelessness then can be captured in bronze, or in a few lines of a poem, or lately a series of design-inspired, temporary installations by Boston designers reviewed at the “Public by Design” program. One standout was “Sparkle and Chime” by architect Jean Kim of Shepley Bullfinch, an installation which did much to help define the Fenway Cultural District last year.

Fellow panelist, architect, and director of the public design initiative SHIFT/Boston Kim Poliquin described Jean Kim’s “Milky Way of tiny dancing stars” in a recent post: “His concept was simple– he affixed a lightweight web of stainless steel cable and fishing line between trees and from this network the team suspended hundreds of reflective disks—hardware parts from old Shepley computers to make the chimes.”

Whether retiring or just getting going, finding someone to delegate to can make a critical difference.  That person can sustain growth, as well as succession. Justin Zeller of Red House Custom Building in Barrington, RI works at the top of his field with designers such as Patti Watson and Kim LaFontaine. Part of that success rests on his ability to delegate tasks to employees such as Eric Marchand, who just became a CLC, or Certified Lead Carpenter.

“I have found that Project Managers aren’t in a position to take ownership, while a Lead Carpenter assigned permanently to a single project is invaluable. He goes home thinking about my client’s project and that’s it. A CLC like Eric can do everything I used to do. This includes scheduling, collecting payment, fielding questions, managing subs. There are just so many moving parts, which explains why so many contractors have earned the reputation for not returning calls. They just don’t have the time,” says Zeller.

“At the same time, CLC’s don’t necessarily have to have the skills of a finish carpenter. Organization, honesty, a focus on customer service — that’s what really counts.”

As we walk the beach contemplating our next chapter, we can delegate more, and we can mentor in the design field as a whole. Designer Eric Haydel, the incoming President of ASID/NE considers mentorship as key goal in insuring that design in New England not only survives but thrives.

“We can’t just sit back and say to emerging professionals ‘well, you just have to earn your stripes.’ While celebrating the accomplishments of established professionals is a good thing, we need to focus on developing a platform for people coming along.”

“And, frankly, mentoring is not a matter of creating competition for yourself. The whole idea of competition is an idea of the past. Which is to say, if people have been going to you over a long time, they’re going to you for a reason.”

Lucky are those who have designed their lives — and careers — to be unique in this way.

Designer Christa O’Leary, based in Hingham, MA finds herself coaching clients on the good life more than anything else. Her new book “Home in Harmony: Designing an Inspired Life” became an Amazon bestseller in the US, UK, India and around the worlde. Trained in psychology, O’Leary brings that knowledge to her clients’ homes which should be, in her words, “a recharging station — a space that nurtures as well as supports.” The good news is that not only women, but men too, are becoming open to this notion of supportive space. “They are no longer happy being relegated to the man cave. They actually want a voice. This can express itself in a more industrial look, heavy canvas, nailheads and so on.”

But what’s energizing to O’Leary and so many others in the field is this shift. With men becoming increasingly involved in design decisions, and with other issues such as sustainability, aging in place, healthy design, community vs. private space growing into major importance, it’s hard to imagine that anyone would not feel energized or be in a rut. And if not stuck in a rut, one can imagine how tempting it would be to keep working till the sands of time run out for real.

On the other hand, if there is one thing that can get people to retire early, it’s working in a state of constant contentiousness. “The build community and the design community don’t play nice together,” says Charlie Allen of the Design-Build firm Charlie Allen Renovations in Cambridge, MA. “And this makes the owner into a referee, even though he doesn’t know the business.”

“We used to have Housewrights that would design and build, but lately we’ve divided those functions and now it seems one of main roles of the American Institute of Architects is to protect homeowner from contractors. And I understand its concerns. There’s nothing about calling yourself a Design/Build firm that guarantees either good design or good build. Indeed, our industry has many blemishes, but tearing someone’s house apart to renovate it is pretty scary to begin with, let alone asking him or her to judge between the architect and builder.  We have AIA architects on staff, and we collaborate between disciplines from the very beginning of a project.”

If constant contention wears us down, a static, unyielding state in which nothing ever happens can send us running to retirement equally fast. Architect Michael T. Gray of Carpenter & MacNeille, based in Essex, MA reminds us not to worry — because there is a new and welcome culture of ideas and feedback coming from clients who have already done their homework.

“Due to the explosion of social media, they’re coming in to see us a lot further down the road than they used to. And there’s definitely some push-back for smaller, more efficient design in the 2,500 square foot range, as opposed to the 4 to 6,000 square feet of not long ago. Whatever the size, they’re insisting that what we do is people friendly and personal.” Gone, in other words, is the big cathedral ceiling with the Palladian window meant to impress from the street, but too often vacuous when you get inside.

One of Gray’s clients coming from the UK just bought a 1740 Colonial in Newbury. She wanted Carpenter & MacNeille to renovate while making the house look like it had always been there. There was considerable back and forth, a dance between historical accuracy and modern building codes. But the dialogue also proved fruitful in unexpected ways that makes design dynamic and worth staying in as long as possible.

The client had bought two leaded glass, decorative windows in the UK that she just happened to like but had no idea where they would go. “We had originally designed a standard water closet with no windows — we were able to use her windows to dramatic effect.”

Now as we gather stones along the beach, we can skip them to represent every option. How much will we miss engaging with clients? Will we miss them only for one skip or an infinite number? And how about the joy of creating public art and the proper settings for it, the satisfaction of mentoring the next generation of designers in of non-competitive collegiality, the pride in harnessing technology to save energy — (and maybe the planet), and the generous act of making spaces where both women and men feel at home and can age there gracefully. How many skips over the glittering waters do these portend — only a few left, or an infinite series at the close of summer?