Louis' Writing Samples

Today’s Design Tack

LouisPostelby Louis Postel | Trade Secrets | first published in New England Home, November 2016

Are you calling about the Olympics?” asked designer Lynne Shore of Rhode Island Kitchen and Bath in Newport, RI.

“So many reporters have been calling. It turns out the state of Rhode Island wants to give all its Olympic medalists special license plates, and there’s some excitement about that, following Rio.”

There’s a pause, a confused moment on the line. “Well, actually, my sailing partner Allison Jolly and I won a gold medal at the 1988 Summer Olympics in Seoul.”

The only sailors to win that year after an unimpressive start and capsizing twice, both moved on to seemingly unrelated careers, Jolly to computer programming and Shore to design. But when you think about Shore’s on-shore kitchen and bath career involves many of the attributes of champion sailors and athletes in general. You have to respond quickly to every shift in the wind and currents from concept to construction, and you have to do it with precision in a fairly unforgiving environment.

Olympian Designer Lynne Shore
Olympian Designer Lynne Shore

As Shore sees it, her entire baby-boomer generation is tacking hard in an unforgiving environment. “Baby-boomers want to take a step back now, but can’t afford to because of the cost of living. So they figure ‘if I can’t stop working, at least I can do something to soften the blow.’” They’re the ones driving this trend for aging in place, especially aging in place with a big shower, soaking tub and comfort height toilets for getting up and down easily.”

“To make space for the shower and soaking tub, I’ve ripped out more whirlpools than I can count on my fingers and toes,” adds Shore. There’s the noise factor, they’re hard to get in and out of, and many people would rather have a hot tub outside.”

Just as baby-boomers drive bath design, millennials are driving kitchen design. “They want kitchens where their kids can participate in cooking. They’d like them to eat healthily and see mom eating healthy, too. It’s all about the earth,” says Shore. Meanwhile, all baby-boomers and all millennials, don’t hesitate to wave our Olympian hello if you see a BMW with a number 2 Rhode Island license plate in your neighborhood!

Architect Duo Dickinson
Architect Duo Dickinson

Architects, like designers, may combine wonderful qualities — creativity, precision, know-how — and yet says architect Duo Dickinson of Madison, CT, latest generation of architects may have nowhere to go.

“The architecture schools are simply pumping out too many graduates, with 24,000 kids currently taught by 6,000 faculty at over one hundred schools,” says Dickinson. “Meanwhile, there are over 200,000 people in the US with architecture degrees and only 60,000 in the profession, with more than half of those listed as sole practitioners, some whom may be only sketching a project on a laptop once a month. Even more discouraging, the number of architects who say they have a base in residential work has fallen from 18% before the recession to 11% now.

“As I see it, architecture is in danger of becoming a lifestyle choice, rather than a profession, more about

‘liking architecture’ than about making real buildings for real people, more about black clothes and expensive eyeglasses, more about architecture as sculpture and aesthetics rather than the nitty work of getting projects past the zoning board, etc.”

Dickinson whose parents called him Duo rather than George No. 2, combines a busy practice (500 projects completed in ten states) with writing columns on architecture for the Hartford Current, New Haven Independent, a blog and a podcast. The author of many books including The House You Build: Making Real-World Choices to Get the Home You Want (American Institute Architects), Dickinson is tentatively titling his next opus “A Home Called New England” (Pequod Press). The idea is to trace New England’s real people, real buildings trajectory from Cape survival mode to split-level suburbia and beyond.

Designer Carolina Tress Balsbaugh of Manuel de Santaren Inc
Designer Carolina Tress Balsbaugh of Manuel de Santaren Inc

Carolina Tress Balsbaugh celebrated another Gold Medalist last August, tennis ace Monica Puig from Puerto Rico, where Balsbaugh was born and raised. “Monica’s win meant so much to all of us,” said Balsbaugh.

Twenty-one years ago Carolina Tress Balsbaugh (pronounced Bals-baa) was clothes shopping at Serenella when someone whose name she recalls as Inez introduced her to designer Manuel de Santaren. Born and raised in Puerto Rico and fresh out of Mt. Ida, Balsbaugh soon became de Santaren’s assistant and later his sole partner. The secret to such a long-standing relationship? “We know what buttons not to push,” she said.

Until recently, they shared an office in the Boston Design Center with de Santaren’s friend, the widely-known restaurant designer Peter Niemitz. They have since moved to Newbury Street above Simon Pearce, and, incidentally, a far easier jog to Serenella.

Like Lynne Shore and all good sailors, Balbaugh sensed a change in the design wind over the past few years. “Clients have become more casual, less concerned with silks and satins, and more interested in indoor/outdoor fabrics. They can be extraordinarily soft and velvety and yet you don’t have to worry about them a lot. They’re solution-dyed, so the threads themselves are the color you’re seeing. They don’t run and you can clean most with a little bleach. Now you can dare to use lighter colors, mainly textured white and gray solids and use the whole house with no parts ‘off-limits.’”

“I love silk velvet, but if you sit on it or get water on it like wet hair on the back of the chair, there’s no way to get that watermark out or fingerprints out. Some people don’t mind the marks. For them, the marks are a kind of patina they’re ok with, but others don’t feel that way, and I don’t want anyone calling me two years later them. That’s why so many clients are opting the indoor/outdoor once I explain the advantages to them. We have been sourcing a lot of these indoor/outdoor fabrics from Holly Hunt and Great Plains while adding some old world embroidered pillows in linen and cotton, patterned beautifully by Fortuny.”

Designer Marianne Donahue
Designer Marianne Donahue

If Rio games showed metaphorically the world’s potential, it also showed in living color the scary possibility of gangster-ridden, class-war dystopias spreading from the favelas to everywhere else. “Clients used to say ‘We don’t want our house to look like grandma’s’” says designer Marianne Donahue of West Hartford. “But now they do. They want traditional. They want a comfort a certain comfort level compared to the harshness and instability they see in the world. This development has been going on for the past year or so. They want to be surrounded by history, good history: tufted, carved back sofas are back! A client couple that just inherited a very large house from a grandmother wants to keep not some but all the furniture.”

“Also I’m seeing a change in walls from white and gray to warmer and more dramatic colors: soft corals and gold, peacock blue, burgundy red, and especially now purples such as eggplant, which I haven’t seen in a long time. Paintings just explode against purple. The Morgan Great Hall at the Wadsworth Athenaeum here in Hartford has just gone from red to a deep blue with floor to ceiling paintings and it looks marvelous.”

What about the conventional wisdom that white and light make small rooms feel larger, and darker smaller? Not necessarily, according to Donahue.  There are other considerations: “the number of windows, the direction of the sun, the drapery treatments, carpets, the size and visual weight of the furniture and art on the walls all have a visual effect.”

Furniture Designer Emre Bagdatoglu
Furniture Designer Emre Bagdatoglu

Somewhere among the 25,000 architectural students, 6,000 adjunct professors and an untold number of designers-to-be, there’s someone with attributes necessary to survive and thrive no matter how many times we capsize. And that’s a readiness to laugh at the great comedy of life. Providence-based furniture designer and recent RISD grad Emre Bagdatoglu (pronounced Bat-dat-olu), exemplifies this persona which delights in what he calls “engineering humor.”  While he picked up the engineering skills mainly at ITU (Istanbul Technical University which was very serious and “very Bauhausian”, his wit’s surely his own. “A successful object, for me, is one that will make you laugh, even though you can’t place what, exactly, is funny about it,” he says. To make his Wall to Wall Chair ($2,800) Bagdatoglu painstakingly knotted rolls of carpet in a send-up of box-spring tied-downs.  “It’s extremely resilient, held together by friction and forty hours of elbow grease.”

Whenever the Design Olympics happens next, Bagdatoglu will indubitably be carrying the torch.

Correction: We stated that architect Lisa Reindorf had a hand in designing the set for Cortex of Perception of 2016. Rather she worked on Cortex starring Josh Lucas which is now in post-production.