The Well-Designed Life

Louis Postel
Louis Postel

Louis Postel for Trade Secrets in New England Home | July-August 2015

If you, as a design professional, were designing your own life, what might it look like as you approach your fifties, sixties, or seventies? Even if you’re just out of design school, and you’ve found a week off this summer, a few moments may be dedicated to scenarios for the future.

Home in Harmony's Christa O'Leary
Home in Harmony’s Christa O’Leary

Might ddo you picture yourself strolling on some New England shore  years from now, amused by the hither-thither of the sandpipers and your own reflections on a wonderful career?

Or would do you choose to keep working in your field, while maybe cutting back? Or will it be time to try something completely new? One could walk all the beaches of Cape Cod, the coast of Maine, and even take a turn around Lake Winnipesaukee without arriving at the answer to what comprises the well-designed life. Quitting altogether in favor of grandchildren may be attractive, but giving up on the connections and creativity of the design world could be a deal-breaker.

As Bob Grossman of Wolfers confessed at a recent IFDA/New England Home cocktail party at Wolfers showroom in Brighton, Massachusetts, contemplating retirement is tough for him—especially now, as design, lighting technology, and the economy have combined to create the perfect wave.

What’s more, if you’re a designer, architect, builder, vendor, artist, or craftsperson who has dedicated your life to instilling timelessness in everything you touch, is there any real cut-off point that doesn’t seem totally arbitrary? Timelessness, after all, is a virtue that can follow generation after generation, quite literally. William Hodgins once remarked, as he approached the conventional retirement age, “When you’ve done the houses of the parents and their children, and now the children of those children want help, I can’t see turning them away.”

Perhaps the well-designed life is one in which there’s space and time to contemplate what it all means—space as tranquil as New England’s shores along cape, coast, and lake.

Eric Haydel
Eric Haydel

Public art might be seen as a metaphorical shore that offers the chance to contemplate the trajectory of one’s life. In that spirit, we rose to the seventh floor of Mass Art for a discussion entitled “Public by Design” sponsored by the Fenway Alliance and IFDA in conjunction with last spring’s Design Week. Panelist Murray Dewart of the Boston Sculpture Group remarked on how Augustus St. Gaudens’s bronze bas-relief of Civil War Colonel Robert Gould Shaw leading the 54th Regiment of African-Americans spoke to him at an early age, awakening a passion to do public art. He also mentioned Robert Lowell’s 1960 poem For the Union Dead, about the unstoppable march of progress and its impact on Boston’s noble past.


…A girdle of orange, Puritan-pumpkin-colored girders
braces the tingling Statehouse, shaking

over the excavations, as it faces Colonel Shaw
and his bell-cheeked Negro infantry
on St. Gaudens’ shaking Civil War relief,
propped by a plank splint against the garage’s earthquake…


Timelessness, then, can be captured in bronze, or in a few lines of a poem, or—more recently—in the series of temporary installations by Boston designers in last year’s Fenway Alliance Public By Design initiative. Some of the projects were reviewed at the Design Week panel discussion, including Sparkle and Chime by architect Jean Kim of Shepley Bullfinch, an installation that did much to help define the Fenway Cultural District last year. Fellow panelist, architect, and director of the public design initiative SHIFT/Boston Kim Poliquin described Jean Kim’s piece as a “Milky Way of tiny dancing stars.”


At every stage in one’s career, a trusted person to delegate tasks to can make a critical difference.  Part of Justin Zeller’s success at Red House Custom Building in Barrington, Rhode Island, rests on his ability to delegate tasks to employees such as Eric Marchand, who just became a CLC, or Certified Lead Carpenter. “I have found that Project Managers aren’t in a position to take ownership, while a Lead Carpenter assigned permanently to a single project is invaluable,” Zeller says. “He goes home thinking about my client’s project and that’s it. A CLC like Eric can do everything I used to do. This includes scheduling, collecting payment, fielding questions, managing subs. There are just so many moving parts, which explains why so many contractors have earned the reputation for not returning calls. They just don’t have the time.”


As we walk the beach contemplating our next chapter, we do know we want the design field to flourish, no matter our role in it. Designer Eric Haydel, the incoming president of ASID/NE, considers mentorship as key goal in ensuring that design in New England not only survives but thrives. “We can’t just sit back and say to emerging professionals ‘well, you just have to earn your stripes,” Haydel says. “While celebrating the accomplishments of established professionals is a good thing, we need to focus on developing a platform for people coming along.”


Designer Christa O’Leary, based in Hingham, Massachusetts, finds herself mentoring clients as well. Trained in psychology, O’Leary—who recently published is called Home in Harmony: Designing an Inspired Life—brings that background to bear in her work. A home should be, in her words,  “a recharging station — a space that nurtures as well as supports.” The good news is that not only women, but men too, are becoming open to this notion of supportive space. “They are no longer happy being relegated to the man cave,” says O’Leary. “They want a voice. This can express itself in a more industrial look, heavy canvas, nailheads and so on.”

Charlie Allen
Charlie Allen

Men’s increasing involvement in design decisions is one shift in the field. So are issues such as aging in place, healthy design, and sustainable design. With so many emerging challenges to address, it’s hard to imagine a design professional feeling anything but energized. One can imagine how tempting it would be to keep working till the sands of time run out for real. On the other hand, if there is one thing that can get people to retire early, it’s working in a state of constant contentiousness. “The build community and the design community don’t always play nice together,” says Charlie Allen of the design-build firm Charlie Allen Renovations in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Allen avoids stress by involving professionals from all disciplines from the very beginning of each project.


If constant contention wears us down, a static state in which nothing ever happens can send us running to retirement equally fast. Architect Michael T. Gray of Carpenter & MacNeille, based in Essex, Massachusetts, reminds us not to worry, because there is a new and welcome culture of clients offering their own ideas and feedback. “There’s definitely some push-back for smaller, more efficient design in the 2,500 square foot range, as opposed to the 4 to 6,000 square feet of not long ago” Gray says. “Whatever the size, they’re insisting that what we do is people friendly and personal.” One of Gray’s clients just bought a 1740 Colonial in Newbury. There was considerable back and forth in the renovation process, a dance between historical accuracy and modern building codes. But the dialogue also proved fruitful in unexpected ways that makes design dynamic and worth staying in as long as possible.  The client had bought two leaded glass, decorative windows in the UK that she loved but had no idea how to use. Gray took a second look at a windowless water closet, and had an “aha” moment. “We were able to use her windows to dramatic effect,” he reports.


Now as we gather stones along the beach, we can skip them to represent every option. How much will we miss engaging with clients, if contemplating a second, post-retirement chapter? How much will we miss our hard-won skills, unless we take on some mentoring or volunteer work? Will we miss them only for one skip or an infinite number?

And, if we are just starting out in our careers with our mutual noses to the grindstone, how important is making a Lasting Imprint to well-designed life, a Unique Statement via the creation of public art, or the authoring of a book, or helping to redefine the idea of home itself, exploring issues like sustainability, technology, and ageing-in-place?

Or is a well-designed life more about a series of kindnesses large and small —  links and relationships configured of small, but significant gestures, constellations of design inspirations and implementations, and a profound connecting to all things built and all things human? Either way, success is imminent.