Trade Secrets by Louis Postel, first published in New England Home, July 2016
Transparency. Transparency. Transparency. Now, more than ever, we want to know what’s going on. Not the appearance of what’s going on, but what’s really going on. Transparency, after all, is the stock in trade of the design profession: the play of light and shadow, windows and walls.
Is that handsome, silver-haired politician merely the tool of lobbyists? Is that proud, global-thinking auto executive cheating at every opportunity? Is America’s favorite, pinochle-playing Dad also a rapist?
“Clients today are demanding a higher level of transparency when we specify and procure,” says designer Donna Elle of Nantucket. “And I find this a real change from just a few years ago. They value my time and are willing to pay for it on an hourly basis, while getting charged the designers net prices. The cost plus environment just seems to be working so much better. Especially now, when the internet leaves so many clients confused about what’s retail and what’s wholesale — leading them into all kinds of errors regarding scale, quality, color and other aggravations.”
Counter stools seem to trip up many clients these days, including Elle’s. Despite the fact that the stools will end up in a six million dollar home, Elle says her clients are often aghast at the prices from the Swaims, the Thibauts and others at the top of the line. One client found stools on Crate & Barrel’s site for three hundred a piece — the ones Elle spec’d cost four times as much. So the client went for the Crate & Barrel. They didn’t last, the workmanship was shoddy, and her client ended up getting rid of them and purchasing hers.
But it was the illusion of transparency that seduced the homeowner. She innocently Googles “counter stools”, drilling down through billions of bits in nanoseconds. She sorts and sifts and there it reveals itself in all its algorithmic truth, or so it seems, until the thing collapses while you’re bringing a frozen margarita to your lips. “On the ‘net no one knows you’re a dog,” goes the famous New Yorker cartoon. No one knows — until they get it home.
John Buster is the entrepreneur, designer, and chief bottle washer behind Bedworks in Cambridge. Back in the 70’s, Buster went to DC as a civil rights attorney after law school, and then to the US embassy in Buenos Aires and that’s where he fell in love with the custom made. Namely, Bolivian handicrafts Buster found in remote villages, and then sold on the beach in Rio.
Settling ultimately in Cambridge, Buster decided to make beds for what he saw as thoughtful Harvard/MIT types who would have the curiosity to appreciate what went into a quality piece. His firm joined a select group of small, high-quality manufacturers: Thomas Moser and The Door Store are luckily still with us, but Charles Webb, Shilling, Eastern Butcher Block in Providence among others are gone (One of Bedworks’ subspecialties is repairing the webbing on Charles Webb’s beautiful beds and sofas.)
As Donna Elle decries the increasing number of out of scale furnishings coming off the internet, Buster sees a plague of “no-fits” affecting the entire design world, stuff that has only the appearance of looking good. But when the delivery guys get to the landing, they just stop. There’s no way it will get up the stairs built by New England carpenters a century ago.
“That’s why everything we make we make modular, using the latest technology: flat-nosed bolts and hex keys so that owners’ can easily disassemble their beds and move them. Thirty-five years ago, I recall making one of the first of our modular beds for a customer who lived in what was called The Skinny House in the North End. It was only eight feet wide, tucked into an alley off Cobb’s Hill graveyard. All the guy wanted was a good night’s sleep.”
Designer Jennifer Bardsley of Hingham is also seeing clients who get lured into the “no-fit” jam. The appearance of transparency – usually via the ‘net – the thrill of hunting something down without a designer’s help souring quickly.
“One of my clients just made a lateral move to Marblehead from the Hingham Shipyard,” said Bardsley. “She had purchased on her an open stock chair at the BDC, something that can be found almost anywhere. My role was to steer her gently away from doing this kind of e-commerce shopping. One of our most significant finds, as it turned out, was a beautiful, embroidered Kravet fabric called Quince which I had made into sofa pillows. Though pricey, those pillows tied the whole room together, a mix of teal, gold, browns and rustic brick.”
Parenthetically, teal may well be rated the color of the year, though we’re only halfway through in July. “It’s the hot color, says Toni Galeno of Ailanthus in the Boston Design Center. “Teal, wide trims on sofas, Ikat, paisley, and over-scaled flower patterns — that’s what we’re seeing.”
Teal or tomato, fabric or a bar stool, a purchase by single client homeowner making that choice on their own is certainly understandable. How could she not fall with all the clickable consumer “options” coming her way? The appearance of transparency, the chimera of trust and quality works in marketing as efficiently as in politics. And usually, the inevitable let-downs and no-fits can be fixed.
In January, architect Mark Connor whose office is in Lexington Center happened to attend a presentation on an upcoming, eight million dollar “Centerscape” plan that looked like an exercise in transparency, but in his view and his wife and partner Lee’s view was just the opposite. “Town planners had somehow ignored, or were unaware of the fact that Hideo Sasaki (1919-2000), a former Lexington resident, and widely considered the preeminent landscape architect of Midcentury America, had already designed it in the mid-Sixties, and done so beautifully,” said Connor.
“One thing that stood out right away was the plan to replace the brick sidewalks with cement.” Connor pointed out in one of his many counter-presentations to the citizenry. “True, bricks that are fifty years old are difficult for wheelchairs – as are cement slabs. But the new wire cut, tightly-packed bricks have been proven in a recent Veterans’ Administration-sponsored study to be as or more vibration free and ADA compliant as concrete.”
On the other hand, Midcentury Modern has been getting a lot of respect from the clients of architect Gary Wolf of Boston. “While we can’t pretend that it’s still 1939 — any more than we can pretend it’s 1775 for when updating a colonial — we need to show great deference to the original design, and not get carried away with our own egos,” said Wolf, who awarded coveted Fellowship status by the AIA. Gary Wolf, FAIA.
One textbook International style house belonging to a Wolf client in Weston was, as is often the case with modern, too modest in size. No mudroom, no play/living room, separate bedrooms for the kids, no upstairs laundry room. Originally designed by Edwin Goodell, a former president of the BAC, who welcomed WW2 vets, returning on the GI bill, an addition was called for.
“The massing of the house was a sort of wedding cake style, with the ground floor closest to the road, then a step back to the first floor and yet another step back for the third. Windows came together at the corners, effectively dematerializing the rooms from the inside,” said Wolf. But to simply extend the original siding for an addition would be disrespectful of Goodell’s 1939 design. The 1 ½ scale would be off.
“While I decided to match all three of the original roof lines as well as the fenestration for the addition,” continued Wolf “But I used siding that was very different from the flush, horizontal siding of the original which was wood — though wood so finely detailed it looked more like metal. In contrast, we clad the addition in a rough reclaimed lumber of varying thicknesses and widths, treated with a clear finish. The effect was to make the older part of the house look even crisper and more modern.”
And in the spirit of transparency, no one would be lead to believe that the new footprint was anything but that — new. How such transparency, deference and creativity will seep into our embattled society is anyone’s guess.