Design’s Goldilocks Moment

Trade Secrets originally published in New England Home

by Louis Postel

The first woman to become a licensed architect in New York and Connecticut,  lay like a sack of cement on a raft of corpses.

This was May 7, 1915. The luxury liner RMS Lusitania had been torpedoed and sunk by a German sub. It was an unprovoked attack not unlike the unprovoked attack that occurred in Boston’s Back Bay this April 15. There on the heaving Celtic Sea, someone thought she saw Theodate Pope Riddle blink.

Rescuers cut away her fashionable silks. Riddle was still alive; miraculously, they brought her around. In 1926 she was appointed a Fellow the American Institute of Architects.

Now the question remains how does the New England design community bring itself around after April 15? Those builders, architects, designers, landscapers who have dedicated their careers to making people feel safe and held, suddenly felt at an enormous loss. How can we make others feel safe when it can all be blown away by a couple of pressure cookers?  What difference, really, does the height of a stair riser make when you have dancers trying out a prosthetic feet?

David Christian

David Christian of the University of Vermont teaches “Big History.”

“Big History” offers some healing insights. It describes the ongoing miracle of cosmic design from Big Bang to us wee humans in 2013. Back in high school, remember, we learned in physics class about the Second Law of Thermodynamics. Eggs inevitably turn into scrambled eggs, castles into ruins, and people into dust. Everything beautiful and useful depressingly turns to mush, according to the Second Law. But there is another equally powerful phenomenon scientists are just beginning to quantify.

Professor Christian refers to that phenomenon as Goldilocks Moments and they alter Big History just as powerfully as the Second Law. Goldilocks Moments create rather than destroy. They occur when everything comes together in exactly the right amounts just at the right time in the cosmos: molecules of water and gas performing feats of chemical magic.

One bowl of that cosmic porridge is too hot, one is too cold, but one is just right. 

What then are the molecules of chemical magic forming Goldilocks Moments in Design? Scale, geometry, sustainability, ideas about color, texture, stone, wood, trust in craftspeople, vendors, clients… to name just a few of those elements that go into the creation of a safe and healing space.

Interior Designer Celia St. Onge in Portland, ME sees the April 15 attack as a particularly cruel and ironic twist. “People were just beginning to have fun. They were waking up from the depression were: the endless war and recession. From monochromatic schemes with an eye to re-selling the house, my clients were beginning to ask for to pops of bright color. Most of my work is along the Coast and most of my backgrounds are blue, but now we’re going for colors my clients used to do all they could to stay away from: hot pinks, yellows, tangerines, lime, raspberry…All the fruits. Someone just ordered a quince –colored vanity from my furniture line. “That’s a fairly permanent decision. And even I would stay away from that, but if you have the budget, why not?”

In 1988, architect Milford Cushman of Stow, VT designed the largest house in the US entirely off the energy grid. Now he has again defied the Second Law: disassembling a 970 square foot antique house down to its bare bones, added an additional 1,300 square feet and at the same time cutting the owner’s energy bill in half.  “Millions of buildings across the country are candidates for this kind of deep-energy retrofit,” notes Cushman.

This chair is too big. This chair is too small…

Reached at High Point Market, Garry Martin of The Martin Group pondered briefly whether there were any surprises this year. “Yes,” he replied. “My own behavior. We decided to take a quantum leap with a new line of furniture made in Valencia, Spain, but stocked here at High Point. It’s called Hurtado, designed for the condominium dweller. Our showrooms have carried traditional almost exclusively, but Hurtado’s a very Euro contemporary look, featuring very uptown high gloss finishes and chrome; there is nothing distressed or heavily carved about it. Martin and his wife Marion celebrated their 25th anniversary owning The Martin Group  this year..

But this chair is just right.

Patti Watson

More than pops of color, Patti Watson of Taste Interiors in Jamestown, RI is seeing LED accents come into their own as integral features of custom cabinetry. “Some clients are finding they can give up a little warm-up time in under cabinet lighting, for example. They understand that those old fashioned incandescent Edison light bulbs are going away. Nevertheless, it is our particular challenge to find the latest technology to meet all their expectations for warm, dimmable light.”

Designer Patricia Westgate has been hired on by Sunapee, NH design/build firm, North Cape Design to handle all its cabinetry and furnishings work, LED lit or otherwise. “It’s a good fit,” says North Cape Founder Everett Pollard, “we have to sub out less and less; meanwhile, there are more and more choices clients need to make after the architect submits his drawing. That is where we all come in as what I call Selection Coordinators. Take a simple window. Double hung awning, fixed picture window, munnions or moveable grilles sandwiched between the glass, roll-down screens or removable, pre-finished aluminum trim to match the cladding, rubbed bronze hardware or brass?”

Not far from Theodate Pope Riddle’s Hill-Stead home (now a museum) is designer Kellie Burke’s studio in Hartford, CT. Her particular Goldilocks Moment is taking her away from transitional styles back to the old world. “You know when a cab driver gives you a good tip on a stock; you know it’s time to get out? I realized that everyone is doing it. Big retailers are going through High Point knocking things off. We used to have to design transitional ourselves, now you can get it anywhere. Your guests can’t be blamed for mistaking a very expensive transitional piece for the latest knockoff from Crate & Barrel Pottery Barn.”

Architect Jay Litman of Warren, RI had a meeting April 15 at the Westin Copley Place. The guy he was meeting with was still in lock on down on the 19th floor. Litman made his way to a restaurant on Dartmouth where he logged in and let the meeting proceed remotely. “But,” says Litman, “the whole notion that cell phones and laptops have somehow eliminated the need for home offices is just false. I am designing more home offices than ever.”

“You know, home offices just sound outdated, like a place in your house where you go to pay your bills with an adding machine. But nothing could be further from reality. People are going in to the main office just a few days a week. The rest of the time they are at home, or they are travelling. But when they are home working eight, ten, twelve hours a day, they want an office that feels like an office. The kitchen table just does not make it. They have to have the right acoustics as well as privacy. Cheap microphones in cell phone and laptops are not doing my clients any good in a conference call to India at 3 am. The interior and lighting, too, has to be right for video hookups such as WebEx.”

Litman just renovated a 1605 former toy factory in Amsterdam for a client whose home in South Dartmouth, MA he did as well. “His home office there in Amsterdam is shaped like a boat deck with its prow overlooking the canal. It’s all done in mahogany with multiple screens surrounding a cockpit where he works in front of his computers and AV equipment. He also happens to be friends with a number of 70’s rock stars and that’s where they hang out.” The image suggests quite a Goldilocks Moment, right down to the three bowls of porridge. Goldilocks author, Gerda Muller, attended art school not far away, perhaps not incidentally.

Colleen Lake of The Look Interiors based in Stratham, NH was on Big Island, Hawaii for a client April 15. She believes The Look today is all about leading a simple, easy, beautiful life. “Everyone is cleaning out their old stuff, all those tassels and trims hanging from the ceiling. Remember when brown was the new black? Really drab. No longer.”

Colleen Lake

There’s a shoe commercial on TV Lake gets a real kick out of and that portends at least for her the Goldilocks Moments to come. “Sparkle earrings are back. South Beach and skinny guys in bright plaid suits and hot pink socks with these metrosexual glasses and lime green ties. The girls have these eight inch heels and Priscilla Presley makeup and they are having so much fun! And once the bones are right in a house, the energy and the site lines, how outside looks in and inside looks out and guests are greeted, we can be bright, fun and exciting.”

More than a few Goldilocks Moments graced the life of Theodate Pope Riddle, FAIA (1867-1946) before as well as after her deadly, Second Law voyage aboard the Lusitania. The rhapsodic Sunken Garden Riddle designed on the grounds of her Hill-Stead mansion in Farmington, CT draws major poets from all over the country to read their work aloud on summer evenings.  Riddle would be proud to have made space for this series of creative, healing and life-affirming Goldilocks Moments, moments that have gone on for twenty years with no end in sight.