No Fool for A Client | Design Times

Louis Postel interviews Tom Sokol for Design Times
Louis Postel interviews Tom Sokol for Design Times

 When an architect also designs his own interiors, the result is total environmental design.

Louis Postel interviews architect Tom Sokol in Design Times.

Bob Ostrer of the Donghia showroom at the Boston Design Center called with a hot tip to check out the apartment of Dick and Judy Wurtman at Heritage on the Garden in Boston. Coming from Ostrer, we knew we were onto something good. Bob is a hard sell, and a man of discriminating taste. So, it turns out, is the architect and interior designer of the project, Tom Sokol of Dion & Sokol in Sudbury, Massachusetts.

Sokol is a man with a mission. He wants to design projects from the ground up and from the inside out. His commitment is to total environmental design, in which a single design team takes charge of the architecture, building, landscape design, interior design, and decorating. Sokol is a hands-on detail man, with considerable talents in architecture and interior design. But he is no jack-of –all-trades. He is a master of orchestration. He is the guy who gets the bricklayers and the draftsman and the clients all in the same room working together. It is sokol who calls the tune.

In this interview with Design Times publisher Louis Postel, Sokol talks about the Wurtman project, his design for the Ostrer House showroom, and what it was like –

when he was designing his own house – to have a fool for a client.

DT: In Boston, a lot of architects design the outside of buildings and then leave it to an interior designer to do the inside. In other parts of the country that isn’t true. What’s going on here, do you think?

TS: It’s a matter of attitude. Architects here aren’t, generally speaking, as open to new ideas and new creations as people, say, on the West coast. Neither are clients. We’ve all compartmentalized responsibilities.

But one of the goals at our office is to do total environments, to have control of the landscape, the house, and the interiors. Because if you have a wonderful building and a wonderful siting and you turn over the interiors to another design professional, that person could interpret the space differently. So we like to try to do an all-encompassing project, as at the Wurtmans.

DT: How did the job start out? Were you involved in the spatial planning?

TS: We walked into an apartment that had been built and furnished on spec. It was very traditional: Traditional doors and moldings, yellow walls, white wall-to-wall carpeting. And it was very boxy. The Wurtman’s were enthralled by the view but there were a number of problems that had to be resolved.

First the style of apartment. It was very sterile, very much like a New York apartment with hallways and divided rooms. It didn’t have a sense of personal space and didn’t allow them to appreciate their very diversified collection of art.

They also had requirements for very small focus areas where they could meet privately with friends. They also needed office space where they could work separately but also together – they are both scientist and they sometimes collaborate – and yet the office space couldn’t feel commercial because it was part of their residence.

DT: Were you working on a deadline?

TS: Oh yes. They purchased the unit in July and had to be out of their existing unit by Labor Day, so we had maybe three months to get the apartment into some sort of livable form. We hired a contractor we had had experience with [Graham Contracting] and who could understand us. The design evolved as the construction evolved.

DT: What did you do to make the apartment special, to give it that personal sense of space you said had been missing?

TS: No matter what project you get involved in, you try to create around the client’s needs and desires. When you deal with a residence, there are keepsakes that get brought along. The Wurtmans enjoy artistic form. They enjoy craft. They enjoy professionalism and uniqueness. We tried to take those things and put them into a format.

For instance, one of the Wurtmans’ special pieces of memorabilia is a dining room set that they purchased shortly after they were married. It was a monastic-type table with King Arthur-type chairs. It was heavy and bulky, stained in dark walnut with old black leather embossed seats and backs – very unusual. We kept the set but turned it around into a fun piece. We stripped the stain, changed the colors to claret with a copper rubbing, and replaced the leather with a very contemporary artist’s palette-type fabric in jade and copper.

DT:  Wasn’t there something about fossils, too?

TS: Yes. We were creating a greeting space beyond the entry. The ceiling is open but it is rough, like a dried pond, and it has fascinating gold and iridescent colors. We were trying to find something that would define the floor space and also be an art form, and one day we tried fossils. We brought in hundreds of fossils and different types of polished stone, but finally it seemed almost sacrilegious for the home of two scientists. Judy said she just couldn’t walk on them. Instead we used an old mosaic pattern in laid with Chinese fluorite.

DT: Did your skills as an architect come into play in any way in particular?

TS: Yes. The space wasn’t decorated; it was designed. The apartment has a tremendous view of Boston Garden and Back Bay, all the way to Cambridge, from the living room and dining room. The nice thing about it is that the view changes all the time – with the weather, time of the day, night lights, and traffic going by down below. It’s a dynamic still life, so to speak. So we’d never want to touch that.

But the rest of the apartment needed a sense of openness. To create that we moved a lot of walls around so you always have a vision of the outside and there are no dead ends. To keep the flow in the space we did a combination of half-round walls and large, free-flowing curved walls that always ended up with the openness of the windows and the view. The other thing we did was to drop the walls down and have the ceilings flow over the walls so that the natural light from the outer spaces flows into the inner spaces.

DT: In College did you know you were going to be an architect?

TS: I guess I knew I wanted to be an architect back when I was six or seven years old. When I was seven, I started building my first fort, then I went to a tree fort, then an underground embankment. When I was in  high school I designed a community center for the science fair. They didn’t know what to do with me because it didn’t fit into  math or physics or biology. Finally, they put me in math, and If I remember correctly, I placed second or third in the state.

DT: So how did you get your architectural degree?

TS: I went to Rhode Island School of Design and got my Bachelor of Fine Arts and Bachelor of Architecture. Though my main focus was in architecture, my last year I spent in land planning and landscape. I also took a number of minor courses in interiors, and worked for an interior design firm, a structural firm, and a landscape firm. So I got all ends of the spectrum.

DT: When you were at RISD who did you feel your influences were? Who did you admire then? Who do you admire now?

TS: I like taking a little of everybody, but I’ve always admired Frank Lloyd Wright for his belief in organic architecture and his use of glass. He also believed in putting together the outside of a building with the furnishings to create an entire environment.

DT: It sounds like you do that, too. You work with a lot of artisans.

TS: I don’t think architecture is a finite art. I like to use it as a coordinating place for all consultants and artists who, coming together, create an environment. Historically, architects were masters of all. But times have changed; we’ve become a specialists in our own fields. So it’s nice to bring in talented people who can add to architecture. In the Wurtman residence we brought in a number of artists.

DT: Do you want to name names? Or do you want to keep them to yourself?

TS: No, I’d be happy to. Dan Dailey of Kensington, New Hampshire, did the glass block work, creating a kind of stone relief where the light reflects off the ceiling and casts shadows on the block, almost like an ice effect. Anne Bassett, of Bassett Stained Glass in Northboro, did the stained glass work. Wayne Towle of Boston did beautiful work refinishing the furniture and the bird’s eye maple doorways we used to frame the stained glass. Julia Clay and Claudia Biddle, of Medusa in Somerville, did the ceiling painting, and we had a wonderful installer who wrapped all the built-in desk work and shelving with multi-colored leather at very difficult angles and curves. The plasterer, the painter, the stone cutter, the glass worker – all the craftsmen we had on the job were artists as far as I’m concerned.

And Graham Contracting was marvelous at coordinating all these people. Sometimes artists aren’t the easiest people to coordinate, especially on a high pressure job.

DT: Let’s talk about some of your other projects.

TS: Well, one thing I’d like to talk about is my own house, because that was changing point in my design.

When I bought a piece of property down the Cape in the early ‘80’s I designed a house for the lot that I thought was nice. But I decided not to build it for a couple of years, just to see how the design would grow on me. Two years later I threw out the entire design and started again. I had become critical of my work and was afraid to spend my own money on it.

The house I finally built was more sensitive to the neighborhood on the front, more in keeping with the Cape Cod traditional style, materials and proportion. On the back, the house relates directly to the ocean. It has the stern of a ship rounded windows off the living room, portholes, and a lighthouse tower for the staircase. The furnishings then fell into place. I used a lot of strong pastel colors that you find in the landscape of the sand dunes and water and sky over Cape Cod.

DT: What was wrong with the original design? Was there something that you found was trendy?

TS: Yes. It was preconceived. It was a building that had nice proportions. It was a style of architecture that was very catchy. It looked great, but I had forced it on the property.

DT: What was catchy about it? What would you define as trendy architecture?

TS: It wasn’t professional. It responded to a client’s needs but didn’t respond to all the needs of the environment. It was a house unto itself that you could pick up and move to another location. The house I’ve built, if you moved it 100 feet down the road, it wouldn’t relate as well as where it is now, because of the way it cuts into the slope of the land and the tightness of the property we had to build on.

DT: What about the interior?

TS: I did the interior. It is very simple, a combination of antiques and Shaker style in a semi-open-space house. The rooms are divided by either free-floating staircases or free- floating fireplaces, so that you can see from room to room. Also, I had placed the windows at different heights so they could frame pictures of the view as opposed to a massive expanse of glass.

DT: Most people who buy beach houses say, Give me as much glass as I can get.

TS: Well, we have to feel comfortable inside a house in the wintertime, looking at acold ocean. It’s pretty hard to feel cozy when there’s snow outside and a wind blowing at 50 miles an hour and you have a 20-foot wall of glass.

DT: How do you relate to your street?

TS: A residential street-scape should have a rhythm of buildings and character that creates a cohesive neighborhood. There was no one built either side of me at the time, but I tried to anticipate buildings of the future. The house keeps all the feel of the Cape with weathered shingles, the white trim, the Cape Cod proportions, and the double-hung windows with true divided lights, and the extension of the roofline picks up the dune line down to the street.

DT: It sounds like something happened to you while doing this house of your own.

TS: Yes. It did. I learned first-hand what I really believed in. When I realized who the client was , then I could treat it differently.

It’s difficult to analyze yourself. You always have a perception of who you are, but that’s not really who you are: It’s who you want to be. Looking back at the original design, I realize I had designed it to fit my image of myself as an architect, not as a house fitting into the landscape for someone to live in. I wasn’t being true to my own direction in architecture which is that total environment. Architecture, interior design, decorating, and landscape design is more than a business; it’s a cohesive art.

DT: Let’s talk about your partnership with Bob Dion.

TS: In my junior year in school, I took a job as an office boy in an architectural firm and that’s when I met Bob. He had just started on his own and while I was in college we kept in contact.

Bob and I are like a marriage of opposites. Bob’s approach to design is very classic; mine is more eclectic. We always consult and work together because we respect each other’s criticisms. Because we are so opposite, we can work very well together.Bob specializes in ecclesiastical architecture and has done probably 400 churches up and down the East Coast. I, on the other hand, have done a lot of restaurants and bars. Bob does the communion rails; I do the bar rails. As a firm, we can offer a great diversity of specialization.

DT: This appeals to you?

TS: I love diversification. It’s like the Boston Design Center. On the exterior, the Design Center is just a warehouse, but there are so many fascinating spaces internally. It’s like a playland, because so many designers had opportunities to express themselves.

I had one of the most enjoyable experiences designing the Ostrer House showroom with [Design Times board member] Bruce Rhoades, the director of interior design at Perry, Dean, Rogers. He is a fascinating person and very open minded. I love his approach to things. There are no standards except for quality, so every space you design will be different and that’s wonderful. We need that type of change in our lives. We created a nice space that allows for a continuous change of furniture and show pieces that are being promoted.

DT: How did you do that?

TS: Through the play of interior spaces. There is a formal promenade, so to speak, as you walk in under the cloth ceiling. It’s like an interior pergola, and the fabric in the showroom is the landscape. Then there’s the control space at the desk, all white, black and gray. And the piano becomes a great conference area and layout space with its three- dimensional elements like columns of fabric that create a classical space like a mini- Parthenon. There are spaces within spaces, so you can move around and feel like you’re in a different location every time.

DT: It seems to me that you’re talking about an architecture that is more interiors and renovations than the Grant Statement school of soaring monumental edifices that last forever. Does that have meaning for you?

TS: Interiors are as much a major statement as exteriors are. They may not be as permanent, but spending 12 hours a day in your office, it might be more important to you to have a nice interior than a grand exterior that you only look at 5 minutes a day when you walk in and out of the building.

I think interiors are especially important in cities where we have less and less exterior environment. There are architects who are best building long- lasting, major complexes, and we need them. But we also need the architects doing the small projects that relate directly to people. Each architect has to find his niche.