By Louis Postel
New England Home November/December 2007
If it’s true that everyone in the universe – including architects and designers –harbors a dynamite film script in their heart of hearts, well, what’s the plot? Successful screenwriters admit there are basically only two plots in our unfathomably complex universe: either someone is going somewhere, or someone has just arrived. In the case of the architecture and design community, you can substitute something for someone, and, voila, a design plot unfolds: an Oscar-winner in 3D. Take, for example, the move of a wooden-wheel wheelbarrow from Shandong province in North China to the breezy island of Aruba, roughly 12,000 miles away. How did it get there? Certainly it didn’t roll there by itself. Cut to military attaché Michael Byrnes, who ended his Army career in Beijing in 1997 to go into private enterprise. “My wife, Marie, and I fell in love with all things Chinese, especially porcelain and furniture,” says Byrnes, who with Marie opened the Olde China Trader Shop in his hometown of Bristol, Rhode Island, in 2002. About one hundred years old, made of locust wood and elm, carved on its side, back and wheels, the wheelbarrow held many memories of hard work on the farm. Surely, it deserved a rest! And sure enough, into Byrnes’s Shop came a designer and her client who had homes both in Bristol and Aruba. Their long search for the perfect wheelbarrow had finally ended, and this particular wheelbarrows new life had just begun.
Now let the design camera pan across the years and probe the grainy light infiltrating the basement workshop of young Marshall Audin. The teenage architect-to-be is building his first drafting table. He was determined, he recalls, “to make the wood not look like wood –something continuous and seamless as is the style today.” From the corner of the frame appears Grandfather Audino (not yet Audin), a tailor from the old country, who liked fashioning models of buildings for his grandson in his spare time (“bits of linoleum made for the marble of a mini-Penn Station, a broken watch was the big clock”). The laconic old man with the thick accent saw what Marshall was doing to create what he describes now as a “sleek, clean, but basically expressionless” table and gently intervened. “You need to celebrate when two pieces of wood join together; don’t try to hide these things,” he said. The grandson went on to the MIT School of Architecture, where he had ample opportunity to explore this bit of wisdom. Based in Arlington, Massachusetts, Audin works with Glod Renovation and Restoration as well as private clients.
Someone is going somewhere, or someone has just arrived. But through what door, you ask? At the new Studio Verticale in Boston, a showroom of “vertical furniture,” there are fifty-five doors on display and ten wall/storage components, as well as gorgeous Italian chandeliers (those count as vertical, too, we assume). The challenge for founder Mila Talibov and her architect, Edmund Chang of Chang and Sylligardos, was to display all these doors without having them cancel each other out visually. All of the doors are operable and presented frontally, installed in related groups and top-lit with halogens. A door gallery! And none too soon, because it seems everyone living in lofts and large spaces is finding they need at least a little privacy, a door to close.
These doors give us the confidence that the large spaces we design can be subdivided.” says Chang. Confidence, indeed: you can’t exactly go to Home Depot for a door and then swing over to Montage for a sofa!
LED is the new architectural jewelry spreading throughout our neon-fatigued culture. There are LED lights on some of the doors at Studio Verticale, for instance. You can tickle them red, blue, green at your leisure. And a lovely strand of it can be seen limning the outside edge of a new New Hampshire Institute of art building in Manchester. “It’s an exclamation point for the student entrance at night,” says architect Dennis Mires of Manchester-based. The Architects, who won an adaptive reuse award for the building, once a storage depot for utility meters.
To accommodate great design plots, you don’t always need LEDs, of course, for entrances and exits. Subtler forms will sometimes do. The newly refurbished corbel (or projecting bracket) that supports the overhang over the front door of Dennis Vincent, decorator and upholsterer in Jamica, Vermont, is a case in point. How inviting, how lovely and welcoming it is left unpainted —like a pale, outstretched arm. Pursued to the front step by the media when he and his partner became the first gay married couple in Vermont, it’s nice to see Vincent hasn’t shut the door on the world.
We’re saying that design has a plot, just like the movies. After being executive producer on thirty-three whole-house projects for This Old House through seventeen years, Bruce Irving of Cambridge, Massachusetts, knows a design plot when he sees one. Now a “renovation coach,” marshaling the right teams to tackle various projects, he’s an interesting guy to chat with even if you don’t have a project.
Among Irving’s recommendations for the kitchen is switching out busy (and ubiquitous) granite for Pietra di Cardoso, a stone that resembles soapstone but has a harder, more durable surface that’s easier to care for, Or, he says, consider the quartz-based, engineered stones like CaesarStone.
Someone going on a creative journey is rug designer/maker Emma Gardner. Born in Japan, raised in New York City, and now with a studio in Litchfield, Connecticut, Gardner creates brilliant hand-knotted silk wool patterns you could get lost in: giant, captivating blooms, kimono riffs and organic shapes of feathery, fern-like purples on black. And now, Gardner’s teaming up propitiously with Dennis Miller showrooms to create interpretations of the work of 1950s Miami Beach design maestro Morris Lapidus.
Have you noticed that Newton, Massachusetts, is as abundant with Victorians as Miami Beach is with Deco? There are so many of them, all beautiful and giving lie to the bad rap they get for being “stuffy” and “dark.” One very unstuffy, multi-prize-winning Newton Victorian just completed by Sage Builders, also of Newton, made a seamless journey to the modern world with fiber-cement clapboards. “They look like the originals but will last longer, cost less and help save the environment,” says Sage principal Jonathan Kantar. The clapboards are made from Brazilian ipe, a highly sustainable hardwood which , adds Kantar “makes a fantastic substitute for mahogany decking.” Those Victorian plots would seem to have the best twists of all!
Of course, in our postmodernist times, a design story can also be a nonstory, positive Kafka-esque. Consider the tribulations of designer Gene Lawrence whose work was recently featured here in connection with the “English Rose” mansion in Brookline, Massachusetts. Shopping in Paris, he says to the antiquaire, “These are perfect, we’ll take this and this and this.” “Mais non,” is the reply, “Zere are all taken,” and by another designer from Boston, no less. A few months later, designer Lawrence finds himself in an antique shop on Melrose Avenue in Los Angeles. “I’ll take this,” he says. No, says the manager, that’s not for sale. “Well, how about this, this and this,” says Lawrence. No, those are not for sale as well. “Why?” demands Lawrence.
“they are all in the owners’ private collection,” says the manager. “You mean for ten million bucks you won’t sell me this? asks Lawrence. “No, it’s in the private collection, as I said,” replied the manager. Lawrence finally walked out, understandably steamed. Woe to those who frustrate a designer’s well-schemed plots with their own little dramas! NEH
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