Olympic Design: Custom or Off the Rack?

Trade Secrets by Louis Postel | as seen in New England Home May/June 2015 

Louis Postel, not a former Olympian
Louis Postel, not a former Olympian

Let’s just assume we win the Olympiad XXXIII sweeps.

It’s easy to picture a freestyle swim race around  WaterFire at the convergence of the Moshassuck and the Woonasquatucket rivers in Providence. Or discus throwing over the thirty-seven foot high Green Monster, especially now that Red Sox owner John Henry has offered to vacate his park for the occasion. And surely, one can get excited about the Olympics as a walking Olympics here in our constellation of walking and cosmopolitan cities, as outlined by Olympics organizer John Fish of Suffolk Construction.JohnFish

But will the XXXIII Olympiad make a lasting impact on the architecture of Boston and all New England? Whether the citizenry can rise to the occasion is an open question.

What, first of all, have been the lessons learned from designers and architects from past Olympics in Barcelona, Beijing, Sydney, and London> In March of this year, the BSA launched a series of Olympic conversations with a sold-out symposium featuring a-list architects  Dennis Pieprz of Sasaki Associates, Gavin McMillan of Hargreaves Associates and Kyu Sung Woo, moderated by former city councilor Mike Ross.

Excitement was indeed high about this unique opportunity for thinking big, despite all the reservations about security, traffic, and the public transportation melt-down this winter: “Why attempt the Olympics when we can’t even get the subways to run in a snowstorm?,” we couldn’t help asking ourselves. …followed by our own answer: “The Olympics may be just the kick in the butt we need.”)

Ok. But beyond such reservations a looms a darker question — is there even interest in great design, or is great design no longer on the cultural priority list?

One of the big problems is that great design takes a lot of work, and always has.

True, a stylish guy today can hop over to Nordstrom, pick up a nice pair of Ferragamo Double Monk Strap shoes for $760.00, and be walking them around our cobbled streets within minutes. They’re very nice, but they’re nevertheless — at the risk of sounding snobbish —  mass merchandise item

A truly beautifully designed, custom pair of shoes involves wearing out some shoe leather. First book a flight to Florence, enduring the humiliation of waddling around beltless and shoeless at check-in, then after much searching track down a maestro cobbler who is now semi-retired and only works when in the mood, and who nevertheless insists you cancel your return flight reservations so you can come back for yet a fifth fitting.

A pain, yes, but the results can be unique and exquisite. Does the citizenry of New England have the will or desire to put in that kind of work, or will we settle for less than great design, pricey but off-the-rack?

rose ann humphriesDesigner Rose Ann Humphries of Milton, MA recalls interviewing with a kindred spirit of that maestro of an Italian cobbler: New England’s archetypal interior designer Ben Cooke of Tradewinds who passed away in 1980. “He draped his windows so that you could only see a magnificent antique and some flowers in the windows. It was probably intimidating on purpose,” said Humphries.

“I was young and impressionable and awestruck — walking up the stairs, seeing there wasn’t a cliché anywhere. He was a tall man with a great smile and old-fashioned, studious-looking glasses. I remember Billie Brenner encouraging me the day before. ‘Rose Ann, he will like you!’ she said.

“In the interview, he asked me how many fabric samples I would bring to a client. I forget my answer, but I remember his. ‘No more than three,’ he said. ‘Don’t give them too many choices!’ Whereupon he hired me. Three days later Ben was taken to the hospital where he died.”

Similarly, one can’t imagine the maestro cobbler displaying hundreds of shoe choices!

In any case, —If you happen to be entertaining beach volley baller queens Misty May and Kerri Walsh at the 2024 Olympics, think chenille upholstery for those active types. “Microfibers like ultra-suede drive me crazy,” says designer Julie Fergus of Wolfeboro Falls, NH. “You see all these hand swirls and butt prints in the cushions. I’m using double rub, heavy duty chenille now for a lot of vacation homes. I just placed an order today — 100% polyester, 50,000 double rubs, fun colors like teal, olive, and caramel and with a very soft feeling. I happen to like Kravet and Fabricut fabrics on Century furniture which holds up particularly well.”

One other tip in case Misty May and Kerri stay overnight — “make sure there are easily accessible plugs and charging stations, preferable not under a table or behind a bed,” says Fergus.

Super-tight structures that were supposed to create an tight, energy-saving envelope did not hold particularly well, however, according to architect Jeremy Coleman of Brattleboro, VT. “There were all kinds of problems with rot and mildew. The old loosely-built homes turned out to be inefficient as well, but at least self-ventilating.”

Coleman says that there’s now a third and better option in a wall sheathing overlay called the Zip System. “It protects against water intrusion while providing optimal vapor permeability level which in turn allows panels to properly dry out. The can breathe, stay dry and conserve energy. With this new insulation technology we are freer to design double-height spaces, cathedral ceilings and north-facing windows.”

That Coleman is also an Olympic-level bird photographer may seem incongruous but think about this: what other form of insulation keeps out moisture, retains warmth, and breathes?

Helen Sides, Architect and Transformer
Helen Sides, Architect and Transformer

Architect Helen Sides of Salem, MA focuses on the transformation of those old New England homes Coleman referred to as “self-ventilating” into the 21st century. We have to ask in light of the coming Olympics – is newer simply more comfortable and old though quaint, over-valued?

Not necessarily, according to Sides. Comfort comes more from getting proportions within  right, their hierarchies right, and the relationships of one space to another right — than any amount of thread counts on a duvet cover.

“When architects design from the outside in, it often results in awkward, residual spaces. I design from the inside, based on how people use the space, moving from one sunny spot to the next throughout the day.”

“Old houses are for that reason are often more beautifully proportioned than new ones today. Window sizes relate to the interior space and the exterior elevation. The standard 6/6 double hung window 5’ tall and 2’-6” wide is a wonderfully proportioned window when set at a head height of 6’ 10”.”

For more about mantles, moldings, stair railings, roof pitches and foundation heights, Sides refers to no less an authority than The American Builder’s Companion by New England architect Asher Benjamin (1773-1845). Just as Olympic records invariably shatter, so do myths about men and interior design. To get us up to date, The IFDA sponsored  “Modern Interiors for Men” also last March Woodmeister Master Builders’ Boston showroom, as part of Boston’s Design Week. Exploring ways for men to bring more of themselves in their homes New York-based designers Antonio Buzzetta and Eddie Lee joined Boston-based designers Dennis Duffy, the four time Best of Boston winner, Christine Tuttle, the designer for the “This Old House” show on PBS, and Taniya Nayak the India-born star of HGTV and 2011 winner of the ASID/New England’s Excellence in Design Award.

“I’ve certainly noticed men being more active in the design process over the past five years,” remarked Wood Meister’s Ted Goodnow. “Take closets. It was an inside joke that the guy would always get the three foot closet and she’d get the twenty by twenty with an island. Now he’s getting one, too. Perhaps because of an awakened interest in men’s fashion.”

Are we talking Ferragamo or custom? We wonder. In any case, at least the closet is custom.

ted goodnow“Meanwhile,” says Goodnow, a master customizer, “Interest in man caves with bars and cigar mentholators, home theatre, etc continues unchanged.  But with children leaving home, there’s often an extra room for that good sized closet in addition to the other spaces. Surprisingly, we’re using relatively dark woods inside these closets both for men and women – FSC-regulated mahogany and walnut — along with really good lighting.”

A custom Olympics here in New England will take up many acres of closet-sized spaces, but each one of those must undergo the same rigors of creation. Recall that maestro cobbler shoe designer in the hills of Florence, all five fittings. It was hard work, but the only way to obtain a unique pair of shoes that fit to a T. The Official Olympic Design Committee can sprinkle some starchitect solutions here and there, but it will risk taking the off-the-rack approach and losing a great opportunity to achieve something great and lasting.