Trade Secrets | Louis Postel | Appearing in the September Issue of New England Home
September has to be the cruelest month, at least for New England design’s design community. Horrible, horrible are the choices we’re forced to make.
It’s like standing at the crossroads, stranded for all time: down this way to the right of the village green — you’ve got this proud Painted Lady, this gorgeous, over-the-top, possibly insane Victorian, with her entourage of gold and scarlet maples, while just down to the left, the fork leading to the salt marshes, there’s a flat-roofed, zero energy modernist manse in glorious repose among the gathering shadows of a late summer afternoon.
Which road would you choose?
It’s almost too much to bear — this traditional vs. modernist cold war tension. Especially now, as vacations end, and the world’s supposed to begin with renewed vigor to be stuck at those same crossroads.
Those cruel crossroads are like being everywhere at once, but truly nowhere, kind of a bad place to be in, especially when you’re thinking about home, or about to design one for someone else.. Who will ever forget the punishing beat of that classic ballad Downtown Design Blues?
“Standin’ at the crossroads,’ tween old
and new .Everybody tellin’ me I got to choose
Got to pay my downtown design dues
Right on cue ( in an almost rhyme with dues)a posse of New England’s most distinguished architects, builders and designers rode to the rescue this July. They convened over a period of two days for a crossroads brainstorming session, a session far more healing than tormenting — namely, The Creative Crossroads: Makers, Innovators, and Tradition at The Traditional Building Conference held at the Boston Common Hotel and Conference Center, among the storied brownstones and bay windows of Boston’s Back Bay.
Architect Don Powers of Union Studio Architecture & Community Design in Providence, RI was one of the main presenters at The Creative Crossroads. He, for one, doesn’t believe the only option is between traditional and contemporary and never the twain shall meet., and that’s healing and positive in itself. Rather, he is in favor of a style he describes as Contemporary Traditional, which calls for the ongoing evolution of traditional patterns.
“Isn’t your Contemporary Traditional what we often call Transitional style?” we asked. “I guess so,” said Powers, “but transitional implies — erroneously — that I’m in the process of ‘transitioning’ from traditionalist to modernist.”
“For me traditional means harvesting from whatever source possible the best ideas about how to live and making them relevant to modern people,” said Powers. “A classic design base is just a language to express modern things, or antique things. Still, there are corners of this profession that remains way too ideological, eager to put down the modern camp or the traditional camp as subpar. This is so destructive to the collegiality and advancement of the profession. It’s really possible to do both rather than either/or. Time to leave the morality and the dogma behind.”
“Take a modern, ‘open’ floor plan, part of its conscious effort to strip away boundaries and make space universal. But that concept doesn’t entirely hold up in real life. You still need a feeling of completeness, definition to various rooms. This doesn’t necessarily mean more walls and doors — some dropped beams, for example, can just as easily create a feeling of scale, of different levels, with different site lines. An undifferentiated plane of drywall with recessed lights is, however, just plain boring.”
Traditional or modern, it’s still such a pleasure to get rid of all the wiring and remotes tripping us up. “I’m recommending to all my clients that we partner with an audio-video expert to run everything off their iPads,” says Casey Timm of Studio C Interiors in Sherborn, MA. “And while they usually start with audio/visual, when the expert tells them about tying in lighting and security, they are falling in love with the idea of a fully integrated system. I am currently working with a longtime Wellesley client who has moved to the country in Connecticut. The husband travels a lot — the wife is thrilled to be able to control everything from her bedside. They’ve even tied in a sensor to the water pump to warn them if they have any leaks or frozen pipes when they’re away in winter.”
Speaking of wiring in this Contemporary Traditional world, “There’s a growing confusion over colors and bulbs,” says Bonnie Forbes, lighting designer and Showroom Manager of Wolfers Lighting in Allston, MA. “Adding lighting later rather than sooner can adversely affect a designer’s look, or palette. Too often we see electricians given the task of choosing bulbs. There are just too many options to choose from, and it’s best to come in and see how things are going look first. For example, a 2700 Kelvin bulb may read warm on the box, but 3000 Kelvin may look warmer when we test it out. Even then, a designer needs to explore other factors. For example, skin tones appear better in warm light, as do rich wood floors and antiques. Bluish light can counter this effect. On the other hand, baby boomers’ eyesight is dimming. They’re going to need more light, not less. For this generation, at least, warm is not always the answer.”
Karen Gallagher of North Yarmouth, ME is a designer-remodeler-realtor. Her grandfather and great-grandfather were both decorators, the latter best known for his work on Rockefeller family estate in New York. The classic training and traditions attached to her DNA seem to be always evolving, as Tom Powers described Contemporary Traditional style. In fact, that ongoing, incremental process often defines her very best work. “I love using client’s own pieces or family heirlooms whenever possible,” Gallagher says. “After all, it helps tell the story of who we are and where we came from. Rooms that look like they have evolved over time — and in some way reflect the personalities of those who live there — are always more interesting and enjoyable.”
Evolving right alongside her clients’ heirlooms, Gallagher sees new, or returning, colors. “Gone,” she says, “are the days of gray. Blues are back, including teal, and navy which I’m mixing in with coral, bright reds, and greens. Also resurfacing — shades of purple and lavender… I’m also mixing metals, especially brass and gold. Not the shiny faux brass of the 80’s, but warmer hues. They work beautifully with the warm accent colors I mentioned, as lighting fixtures and cabinet hardware. Move over brushed nickel.”
According to Vincent Scully’s classic: Architecture, The Natural and The Manmade, architectural tradition in America began its evolution many centuries ago. The setbacks of the skyscrapers and towers of Boston, Providence, Hartford and New York he would argue are the direct descendants of the mountain-like, pre-Columbian edifices such as the Temple of Quetzalcoatl at Teotihuacan, Mexico. That epochal reach informs the work Scully’s eldest son Daniel, whose award-winning architectural firm is based in Keene, NH.
Scully describes a recent renovation and addition in Temple, NH as “Frank Lloyd Wright come a-courting a pre-revolutionary maiden.” A new, winterized wing painted barn-red twists toward the mountains beyond to frame the view, while breaking the geometry of the historic cape itself. The addition’s Wright-like stripes and kicked up aluminum flashing above the windows lead the eye horizontally across the land, right to left, left to right, a potent exercise in Architecture, The Natural and The Manmade. Inside, Scully points out, “there’s a sequence as to how you move through building itself — sometimes there’s a path leading directly out to Mt. Monadnock, while at other times the view is denied, or only partially revealed.”
Setting aside ideologies relating to modern vs. traditional allows you to cherry-pick the best ideas. Interior designer Nancy Serafini of Wellesley Hills and Nantucket, MA offers one that is truly ripe: experiencing the real thing in real time. “Young people especially need guidance, but there are some so afraid of being fleeced, they insist on going to Crate & Barrel , or Pottery Barn, rather than the Boston Design Center,” says Serafini. “They don’t understand that there’s a big difference in quality between eight-way tied springs made in the US, and a sofa made in China, or that there’s a huge difference between digitized color and real color.
“You need to see it for yourself, sit on it, kick it, feel it. I remember one of my first clients forty years ago. I told her a fabric was indestructible. She gave it a trial run using a wet diaper.” Let that fabric signal a truce between the modernists and traditionalists — if a new idea holds up to the test, let’s keep it — and leave the rest. September, after all, may be looking up.