Wealthy people from abroad, high-tech entrepreneurs, thousands of moneyed folk are discovering New England: its frothy mix of culture and clam chowder.
Not only are they discovering, they are settling in – buying up houses, condos and pied a terres, recharging that culture as they go.
Designers and architects are adapting. The design vocabulary of new money’s characteristically baroque, artistic-leaning international style seems to have a built-in affinity with New England’s famously unpretentious, Shaker-inflected minimalism.
Early results show great promise.
There’s a penthouse in Boston’s Back Bay that is typical of this development, and at the same time unique and beautiful. When you enter, for example, you see what looks like an ordinary knee wall. It appears to be exactly what one would expect, a white-painted exercise in minimalist, drywall geometry.
Why gild the lily, after all?
Because said designer Steve Favreau his clients from abroad were interested in living in a space infused with subtle artistry. Artistic statement mean more than even comfort. This drywall knee wall in Favreau’s imagination called for a metal cap, embedded flush in a groove Favreau had carved into the top.
By every measure, this was a useless, budget-increasing move, but it relates perfectly with the elaborate stair railings. Favreau’s statement was clear, but whispered.
“Clients like these are just more willing to take chances and go outside their comfort zones,” says Favreau. “They are more courageous. The idea was to make the whole place feel like an artist created it.”
In 2016, we are hearing this from designers and architects all over New England. There’s been a shift from worrying about market values to promoting creative values. Is it functional? Not necessarily. But Is it artistic? That question feels new – at least as a priority.
Besides the configuration of living room, dining room, kitchen, clients are calling for specially-designated creative spaces as well. We are starting to recognize the need for creative spaces, ”All humans are creative in one way or another. It’s their link to the universe,” says designer Navneet Magon Anand, president of the Central Mass. Chapter of the AIA. Homes need special spaces for learning, for hobbies, for reconnecting with oneself, “a place to break negative cycles.”
A painter as well as a designer, Anand’s bold brushstrokes make her point in living colors.
Occasionally, the new adventurousness goes too far, and it’s the designer who has to step in to mediate.
While there are many artistic options opened up by the web, some only appear that way and it takes a designer to sort them out. The web may be cutting edge, but that cutting-edginess can be seductive, say some designers. What’s advertised on the net may be less than new.
“Some clients have been led to believe that they are helping the design process by searching online,” says Boston-based designer Gary McBournie. “What they don’t realize is that they can be choosing unwittingly from a group of objects that have already been distilled down. Something may seem like a find, but they can be at risk of actually losing the individuality they are seeking rather than enhancing it.”
“Take, for example, deco mirrors. They still ooze glamor and luxury, but the knock offs clients find can look fine on the net, but in real life just look cheap. The Saarinen table is a classic and the original model is still available, so why buy a copy that has lost its proportions and subtle beauty? Or for those with ski houses in Aspen, this chandelier should be crafted from real shed antlers, a better environmental choice, naturally, than plastic. The Belgian-style track arm chairs upholstered in linen marketed these days as real finds. However, I remember them as the staples of French flea markets fifteen years ago.”
Designer Holly Hickey Moore in Colchester, VT also has clients who send her ideas pulled from the internet with great enthusiasm. “But what they are looking for is originality and a far more sophisticated look than the net usually offers. This drive for greater sophistication is recent, a few years old.,” says Moore. “And that’s why it’s rare that they’ll send me something that’s just right for the forever home they have in mind. Usually, I just say ‘that’s cool’ and then I will bring my own stuff.”
“I start the process shopping locally, in many cases. I like to find ugly ducklings that can become beautiful. For a recent job for a well-travelled couple with about ten grandkids, I found a 70’s U-shaped sectional in a consignment store and had it redone with new legs and upholstered in highly durable, gray velvet. There was a dirty green shag rug already in the house. I sent a sample to a vendor who recreated it. On the First Dibs site, I found a French chandelier with one hundred crystal attachments, which arrived all in pieces. The electrician and I took hours to put it together. Even my client pitched in. She had a great time.”
“I just can’t pull a picture off the internet. I need to get to know my clients, and become part of their family, see how they interact, have drinks and dinner. Do they watch those grandkids, or let them run loose?”
Anand spoke of the need for spaces that foster creativity, but it’s hard to reach one’s full potential when ill.
Architect Edward Williams of Newport ran with his wife and hundreds of runners from all over the world in this September’s Medoc Marathon, taking in the fresh air and fine wines of Chateau Country. If that exercise was partly to restore a sense of creative well-being, back home he continues to run himself lonely marathon to make his client’s homes healthier
“Most builders are still using toxic materials. You have to pay attention, or they’ll slip in whatever. Kids crawl around on this stuff, which off-gasses for years: polyurethane, formaldehyde, vinyl, VOC-leaden paints, stain-protectors. A non-toxic house just feels better, breathes better.
“I’m using a new non-toxic insulation now called Bonded Logic, made of recycled blue jeans. It tucks in nicely, and it’s great sound-proofing. The whole house just feels more solid. And, yes, it’s actually blue, dries faster than wet fiberglass if there’s ever a puncture.”
“What about that new house smell, kind of like the new car smell, won’t we miss it? It’s bad stuff, actually, poisons that last and last. I had a 1991 BMW, with metal and wood finishes. You could smell a little bit of the engine and that was it. I just traded it in for a new one. Vinyl and plastic have replaced the metal and wood. It’s hardly a refreshing smell.”
Songwriter and lead guitarist Pete Townshend of the Who would famously smash his guitar on stage. His yacht, however, has escaped such merciless treatment, according to interior designer Cheryl DeGennaro, who specializes in luxury craft. “We did everything for Mr. Townshend: new furnishings, bedding, cockpit cushions, settees, all kinds of reupholstery.”
“There’s a new focus generally on durability. How long will materials last? And clients are willing to spend the money on high-performance, high-abrasion fabrics, marble and Corian over Formica counters and so on. They’re not saying ‘let’s just keep in simple’ anymore. A few years ago, no one would consider, for example, a down and feather wrapped cushions over cores foams of various densities. But now that do, there’s none of that ‘bottoming out’ — feeling the substructure when you sink into them. We’re also bringing many of the outdoor fabrics, indoors. The newly-engineered chenilles and velvets are not only durable and not stiff, they feel like cotton.”
DeGennaro, who like Williams is based in Newport, has established her own showroom, Newport Yacht Interiors, where much of this durability and comfort is available, for land and sea.
Like Holly Hickey Moore in Vermont, designer Duncan Hughes has noticed a drift towards lately towards greater sophistication. “People are feeling more confident, more willing to take risks, more interested in creating a home they want to live in, as opposed to a home they’re designing in a bland style with an eye to ultimately reselling it,” says Hughes.
“Clients can look at your portfolio all they want, but there’s another point where they really get where we are coming from, just as we have gotten them. That’s when the risk-taking becomes possible, based on this trust. I just did this traditional house with traditional furniture and I felt a strong emerald green in the dining room would really work. My clients had on these ‘I’m not sure about this’ faces, the husband with his arms crossed over his chest, taking in these big swatches of color. Finally he said, ‘I don’t like this, but I think we should do it.’ And now he loves it.
“Powder rooms are great places for risk taking because no one is in there for very long. I just did a funky powder room with moss green tile, black grass cloth walls, a black sink with steel legs and an industrial-style Edison lightbulb hanging from the ceiling. It made you feel like you were tripping outside to the bathroom late at night, kind of an adventure. Stylistically, it had nothing to do with the rest of the house, but it was fun seeing guests coming out of it so dizzily. That powder room is and was quite a hit.”
Guests come back transformed: humored, happier, theatrical. If that’s what an influx of new money is doing for design and architecture in New England, so much the better.
© Louis Postel 2017, first published in New England Home 2016