Monday, September 18, 2017

ARCHITECT FURNITURE: Ouch!

Chair designed by Frank Lloyd Wright for the dining room
of the Frderick C. Robie house, Chicago (1909):
Sit up straight, or else.
In a rare moment of humility, Frank Lloyd Wright once conceded:  “I’d hate to admit how many black-and-blue marks I’ve gotten from sitting in my own furniture.”  Wright’s horrific chair designs, with their bolt-upright backs and sharp edges, seem more suited to a medieval torture chamber than to his brilliant and airy interiors.

Wright isn’t alone, however. Modern architects in general are notorious for their dreadful furniture designs. If you’ve ever sat in one of Marcel Breuers’s famed Wassily armchairs—designed in 1926 and still considered a paragon of Modernist style—you’ll know what I’m talking about. Stark and striking to look at, all black leather straps and chrome tubing, it’s nonetheless a trial to sit down in.

Wassily chair: Like it or not,
you're going downhill.
Unlike an ordinary chair, which allows the sitter to change positions as comfort or etiquette dictates, there’s only one way to sit in a Wassily chair: the way the architect intended. It’s impossible to sit attentively at the front edge of the seat, for example—the slippery leather is so steeply raked that one inevitably slides back down into the chair. Once there, the razor-strop-like back and seat soon begin to dig uncomfortably into the skin. A few minutes of sitting quickly make it clear that appearance, not comfort, was Breuer’s primary concern.

An even more renowned piece of architect-designed furniture is Ludwig Mies van der Rohe’s Barcelona chair of 1929. To this day, it’s an expensive fixture in every snooty furniture outlet. But as lovely as it is to look at, it’s a sad excuse for a seat. The huge, gridded cushions don’t conform to one’s back or gluteus maximus; in fact, the slumping curve of the backrest opposes that of a normal spine. It’s just the seat to offer to guests whom you don’t want sticking around.

Chair created by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe
for the German Pavilion at the
International Exposition in Barcelona, 1929.
Comfortable—if you're built like Gumby.
The architect Philip Johnson nevertheless adored Barcelona chairs, and made them a centerpiece in the living room of his famous glass-box house of 1950. In their defense, he opined: “I think that comfort is a function of whether a chair is good-looking or not.” In other words, anyone with taste would like them just fine.  

It’s ironic that the Modernists, who were always trumpeting functionalism, were the worst transgressors in the dreadful-furniture department. Modernist chairs might have been stunning works of art, but as objects intended for comfortable seating, they were often less functional than the most ormolu-encrusted chair of Louis XIV.

The standard metal folding chair: More comfortable
than any of the above—and not designed by an architect.
If you're interested, look up "Nathaniel Alexander".
What makes contemporary architects so hopeless at designing furniture? I think it’s the same thing that makes many of them bad at designing people-friendly buildings: an overriding concern with radical style at the expense of function and comfort. Too many architects are terrified to do something that might be construed as traditional or evolutionary, and so are willing to abandon what centuries of history has taught them about humankind for the sake of newness and novelty.

No amount of well-meaning theory or rationalization will change people’s natural habits, however.  If you like to sit on a chair sideways, or slumped down, or with your legs crossed, for example, you’re more likely to choose a chair that accommodates you than you are to adjust your behavior. Still, architects seem ever-hopeful that the power of their ideas can change the way people behave. And hey—sit up straight when you’re reading this.





Monday, September 11, 2017

DESIGNING ROOFS: Don't Get Carried Away

Can you count how many different roof types
are visible on this house?
(1890s-era Queen Anne Victorian
on Military Street in Port Huron, Michigan).
Victorians could get away with this,
but you may not be able to.
Every day I see more new traditional-style homes topped by tortured, often incomprehensible roofscapes. Variety is good.  Surprise is good.  Bedlam isn’t.

You can’t design an interesting roof simply by melding a bunch of disparate roof shapes together. Even if you’re after a picturesque effect, the elements have to be deliberately composed, and with a touch of restraint at that. Even the most flamboyant Victorian houses will, on close inspection, reveal basically simple roof shapes enlivened by carefully-controlled accents such as turrets and dormers.

If you’re into the Grand Teton school of roof design, it’s especially critical to think through your roof scheme very carefully—it’ll probably be the most visible part of the building. With that in mind, here’s a quick rundown of common roof shapes, followed by some suggestions and caveats for combining them:

Classic gambrel-roofed Dutch Colonial home
featuring the English-style "dustpan" dormer.
•  A gable roof is the most familiar type, having two sloping planes with a triangular gable wall at each end. By contrast, a hip roof slopes on all four sides, yielding corner “hips” that climb toward the center. A flat roof has little or no pitch. A shed roof is sort of like a tilted flat roof—it slopes in one plane only.  A gambrel (commonly seen on barns) has two different pitches: steep on the sides, and shallow on top. A mansard has a very steep pitch on all four sides and a flat roof on top, often concealing an attic story inside.

Once upon a time, bargeboards
were a favorite location for ornament.
Not so much today.
A few technical terms may be useful here: Roof slope (properly called pitch) is described in inches of vertical rise over horizontal run—a “4-in-12” roof, for example, has rafters that rise 4 inches in every 12 inches of horizontal distance. The peak of a roof is called the ridge. The lower edge is called the eave. The sloping side edge on shed, gable and gambrel roofs is variously known as the rake, the verge, or the barge—pick your favorite. And now some game rules:

Mansard-roofed Victorian, circa the 1880s.
•  Limit yourself to just one or two roof shapes. For picturesque roofs, the two most compatible shapes are gables and hips; roof shapes.  For picturesque they were a favorite on late Victorian houses such as Queen Annes.  Flat roofs, too, will combine with almost every other type, though they won’t always produce an intelligible style.

Other roof shapes are much more difficult to combine successfully. Sheds, hips, gambrels and mansards will usually get into a stylistic brawl when any two are combined. If you pine for one of these shapes, it’s safest to use it exclusively. If you’re adding onto an existing building, the rules are even simpler—copy the pitch, massing and details of the roof that's already there.

Frank Lloyd Wright's Robie House, Chicago, c. 1909:
Now that's a real roof overhang.
•  Use powerful proportions.  If you want overhangs, make them generous—at least two feet or so.   Use heavy barge rafters to prevent the sloping roof edge from looking papery. If you're planning  to have a fascia (a trim board behind the gutter), make it substantial as well.  Avoid fussy elements such as narrow sub-roofs and tiny dormers; they usually end up looking like Snoopy’s doghouse.  When in doubt, make elements bigger than they need to be.

•  Unless you’re absolutely sure of the effect you’re after, avoid combining different roof pitches. More often than not, varied pitches look disorganized or, worse, like a construction error. Stick to a uniform pitch, and rely on the size and arrangement of roof masses for effect.
















Tuesday, September 5, 2017

THE CULT OF MINIMALISM

Minimalist kitchen: Hey, where do you keep your Crock-Pot?
It’s no wonder architects have such a dreadful reputation among practical-minded people.
Some of us really ask for it. For example, I recently saw a so-called “kitchen” designed by a trendy British architect. Though I generally bend over backward to remain impartial, I’ve just got to come right out and say it: As a kitchen, the design was utterly ludicrous. It consisted of a few huge slabs of Carrara marble serving as counters in an otherwise flawlessly barren space finished with fanatical attention to detail. More telling, however, is what was absent. There wasn’t a single unscripted item—like a cooking utensil, maybe?—that was allowed to disfigure the absolute purity of the architect’s conception.

Minimalist "living" room:
Come on in and make yourself at home.
I was enormously pleased to learn that this kitchen was in the architect’s own home. I couldn’t think of anyone more deserving.

The cult of minimalist architecture essentially consists of spending the maximum money possible on the least visual results. It has its roots in the International Style of the 1930s, when many architects blindly accepted Le Corbusier’s motto of  “less is more” with little independent thought and even less humor. Architects loved the pseudo-science and precision of the International Style, which for a change made them feel like intellectuals instead of artistically gifted louts.

The public, however, hated the International Style. And although it took fifty years, popular opinion finally managed to stamp it out, no thanks to us architects.

A bathroom, or a near-death experience?
(Architect: Wannemacher+Moeller GmbH.
Photography: Jose Campos)
Still, despite the International Style’s thorough trouncing in popular opinion, its ever-chic minimalist branch has refused to die. Instead, like a spoiled child, it survives on vast-budgeted commissions from the ultra-rich who, incidentally, are the only people who can afford houses no one can really live in.

While the two terms “minimalist” and “vast-budgeted” would seem to be in opposition, they aren't: As the Modernists quickly learned, the more pristine and perfect a design must be, the more it costs to build. So, given the extravagant materials and pointlessly fanatical standards of finish demanded by minimalist architects, big money is a precondition of this style.

In fact, were it not continually subsidized by the over-rich and slavishly showcased by snob magazines, minimalist architecture would quickly die of its own disconnection from reality. The reason is simple: Minimalism runs counter to the laws of entropy. Rather than being in harmony with the inevitable effects of time—wear, aging, and kids spilling Cokes—these obsessively-finished environments are predicated on time standing still. They aspire to a sort of encapsulated perfection, like a gem under a bell jar.

By the way, if you don't like minimalism in white,
here it is in gray.
We’ve already seen how well that approach worked for the Modernists: It didn’t. But at least they made a pretense of doing some social good with their every-man-equal ideals. Minimalist architecture can’t even lay claim to that.  Beneath its pretense of asceticism, it’s just an inverse version of showboating.

In the years since the last gasps of Modernism, we’ve learned (or thought we had) that real people with real lives can’t be fit into theoretical constructs, no matter how elegant or rational.

Most can’t, anyway. So, Mr. Minimalist Architect—I hope you really love your new kitchen.

Monday, August 28, 2017

WILL THE SMART HOUSE PASS THE TEST?

High tech, Victorian style: Close up view of a
leading-edge shower faucet of the era.
For the past thousand years, housing technology has advanced with all the urgency of dripping molasses. Perhaps every half-century or so, some fairly important breakthrough has come along to change the way houses are built. It happened around 1840, when heavy-timber construction methods dating back to the Middle Ages finally gave way to the lighter, 2x4-stud “balloon framing” system still in use today.

There was another big technology blip in the late 1800s, when gas lighting, telephones, central heating, indoor plumbing, and finally electricity all made their appearance in Victorian homes within the span of a few decades.

Nutone intercom "master station" of the kind fitted to
many super-high-end houses of the 1940s-1960s:
"BzzzzzzzHebbo?Bzzzzz..."
In the hundred twenty years since, there have been very few substantial changes in the way houses are built. Today, however, the incredibly swift advances in computing, combined with the second generation of internet technology—the vaunted "internet of things"—promise another revolution in housing. Systems such as communication, lighting, climate control, security and entertainment will all be linked via the web. In the resulting smart house, we’re told, the position of the drapes, the fire in the fireplace, even the temperature of your bath water will be monitored by a central brain somewhere in the cloud, waiting to be controlled by little old you at the touch of your smartphone.

While exercising all these godlike powers over your furniture and appliances might be exhilarating to Silicon Valley propellerheads, they also engender some problems.

To begin with,  I'm not at all sure I want the faceless Cloud—much less some mighty Big Brother corporation—to know how warm I like my bath water or what time I draw the drapes at night. But such privacy issues aside, it’s worth remembering that time hasn’t been kind to a lot of domestic innovations once considered state-of-the-art.

The incredible Electro Sink Center, which not only
featured push-button controls for a whole slew of
faucet functions, but also had electric (!) motors
at either end for food preparation.
No doubt you’ve strained to make out the garbled speech from those hokey and unintelligible intercoms that ultra-high-end houses boasted in the Fifties. In the early Sixties, there was the Electro Sink Center, an elaborate kitchen tap with a Jetsons-worthy control panel that dispensed cold, hot, and soapy water at the press of a button. And, it also had a built-in blender! Wow!

Is this the omniscient thermostat of the future,
or the Electro Sink Center of the future?
Only time will tell.
The Eighties brought us one of my personal high-tech favorites: A shower faucet knob containing a digital readout of the water temperature. Just so you could tell exactly what temperature "uncomfortable" is.

For their time, these features were the at the leading edge of technology. Today, they’re just charming anachronisms that draw chuckles instead of awe.

Now imagine a whole galaxy of outdated hardware built into a formerly-smart house. That could be just as embarrassing. After all, no matter how advanced the software might be, drawing drapes and closing valves necessarily requires good old-fashioned electromechanical actuators—very old-school industrial items in themselves. Their slow but inevitable failure could provide enough hijinks for a Lucy Show episode.

The key to making a house smart lies, not simply in having every doorknob and coat hanger wired up to the internet, but doing it in a way that can grow and change with today’s rapid advances in technology, whether electronic or simply physical. If you’re in the market for smart house systems, make sure both the software and the hardware can be easily updated. Like a person, no house can claim to be smart unless it keeps on learning.

Monday, August 21, 2017

MY FASHION STATEMENT

The Romp-Him. If it's such a trend,
why isn't anyone wearing it?
If you've ever seen reporting on those purportedly trend-setting New York fashion shows, you'll be familiar with the sight of models strolling the runway exhibiting outfits made of aluminum foil, Handi-Wipes, or old inner tubes. The latest such trend—or so we're told—is the RompHim, a sort of baby suit for grownup men. Fashionistas tell us—with straight faces—that this is the men's look of the future. Maybe so, but I think I'll just wait and see.

While most people find fashion shows amusing at best, fashion-industry types take them very seriously indeed. There’s a good reason: At last report, clothing fashions alone represented a $1.7 trillion industry worldwide. Add to that the changing fashions of the furniture and appliance industries, not to mention those of interior decoration, and you’re talking some real money.

And a good morning to you, too, madam.
Which inevitably brings us to architecture. Too often, when fashion gets its fluffy paws into residential design, it leaves the homeowner with the aesthetic equivalent of a RompHim. Today’s hottest home fashions can turn ice cold in a few short years—anyone with a black refrigerator can tell you that.

For the most part, residential fashion trends are simply a means of stirring the home industry’s economic pot. Unlike genuine innovations—such as new materials or methods of installation—changes engendered by fashion alone have no functional basis. They’re formulated solely to startle the consumer’s jaded eye.
   
I'm not sure he's convinced either.
During the early 2000s, for example, chic design magazines relentlessly showcased barren, urban-hipster interiors in which you might find only a chair, a cactus, and an unfathomable piece of artwork to break the chill. This look, we were assured, was the cat’s meow.

Fortunately, most people had the common sense to see that such interiors were utterly unlivable, so this manufactured “trend” never progressed beyond what it really was—a rather forced fashion statement inflated to epic proportions.

If they're just kidding,
why isn't this lady laughing?
While it’s easy to ridicule certain architecture magazines for their permanent enslavement to evanescent fads, it’s architects and interior designers who provide the subject matter. They’re only human, and are themselves susceptible to the tidal pulls of fashion.

Consequently, while you should take the suggestions of design professionals seriously, you should never cede your judgment to them completely. Maintain your own voting rights. If your architect or designer suggests colors or materials that don’t appeal to you, or that you feel may be too trendy, don’t be afraid to exercise your veto power.

Lastly, don’t worry if your own preferences aren’t fashionable at the moment. There's no shame in being un-trendy. You'll probably look a lot less silly down the road.

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

TILE DESIGN: Don't Be Afraid of Color

Moorish revival staircase dating from the 1920s:
Now that's some real tile work.
Quick—what color is the tile in a tract-house bath? That’s right—a bland, off-white.  Developers choose off-white ceramic tiles for a simple reason:  They’d much rather bore prospective buyers than risk offending their tastes.

Boring tile colors haven't always been the rule, however. Ceramic tile work reached a peak expression of color and pattern during the Twenties, with the popularity of Moorish and Middle Eastern design. Inspired by the incredibly ornate mosaic work of Islamic architecture, such designs made full use of tile’s color and pattern possibilities. Entrance foyers were frequently inlaid with ornamental motifs or mottoes, and bathrooms became showcases for intricate mosaic tile decorations.

The Art Deco movement of the 1930s brought tile to a high point of another sort. Rather than the intricate tile ornament of the Twenties, Art Deco delighted in bold geometric designs featuring zigzags, stripes, and zigurrat shapes. Colors became more strident as well, with combinations such as pink-and-purple and yellow, gray, and black.

Art Deco tile work of the 1930s wasn't afraid of color either.
During the Modernist years, abstract tile designs based on modern art became popular. No doubt you remember those pastel-tiled showers sprinkled with constellations of multicolored squares.

Given this, er, colorful history, you needn’t feel obliged to use bland tile schemes just because developers do. The real fun of ceramic tile lies in its unlimited potential for adding color and pattern.

•  To explore the possibilities of designing in tile, try drawing on graph paper with colored pencils, using an appropriate number of squares to represent each tile. Better yet, if you have a computer with a drawing program, set up a grid of the correct proportions and experiment with color and pattern that way.

Classic 1x1 tile pattern of the
Mid Century era, with its
characteristic preference for
pastel colors.
Remember that, in addition to creating patterns with color alone, you can form designs by placing tiles diagonally or by cutting them into smaller shapes. One suggestion: the larger the tile size, the simpler the design should be. Fussy depictions of objects should generally be avoided altogether. Don’t aim for a rendition of the Last Supper behind your drainboard. Try to stick with straightforward geometric designs.

•  Many tile manufacturers offer decorative pieces designed to complement their regular tile lines.  They’re usually available in a range of colors; some also have embossed textures or hand-painted designs. By combining them with the basic field tiles, you can create some striking combinations. However, try to use such pieces sparingly, both to avoid diluting their design impact and to keep costs in line.

Glass tile: Pretty hip, but like all other fads, it will
date stamp your remodel "right around 2017".
•  Tile grout is also available in a range of colors. However, be aware that eye-popping grout colors may call more attention to minor defects in the installation, as well as distracting from the tile colors themselves. Colored grout may also be harder to match later on if it becomes necessary.



•  One obvious caveat applies to both tile and grout colors: Unlike paint colors, they’re permanent. Choose color combinations because you like them, not because they happen to be in vogue at the moment. The current fad for glass tile, for example, is sure to date-stamp your remodel with "Designed in 2017". Rather than going with the latest thing, choose a personal favorite you can live with for a long time.

Monday, July 31, 2017

BATHROOM DESIGN: There's Still Room For Improvement

Here's the origin of the term "water closet"—Victorians
were terrified of being asphyxiated by sewer gas.
This ad for the British fixture manufacturer
Thomas Crapper and Sons also demonstrates
the origin of the word "crap".
If you think Frank Lloyd Wright was a genius, take a look at one of his bathrooms. Wright, like most nineteenth century architects, couldn’t design a john to save his life—but back then, nobody cared. People were happy just to have indoor plumbing.  

The bathroom as we know it (that is, a lavatory, toilet, and tub contained in one space) is an American invention. Such rooms appeared in plan books as early as the 1850s, although they took a few decades to really catch on. Early bathrooms usually had a lavatory sink and a freestanding tub rather haphazardly placed in a good-sized room. However, the toilet was banished to a separate cubicle—hence the term “water closet”—due to a pervasive Victorian dread of sewer gas wafting out of the bowl and killing people. 

After reliable drainage traps finally alleviated these fears, the separate cubicle was eliminated, and the toilet was given an equally haphazard position inside the main bathroom space.
A fixture here, a fixture there...early bathrooms
were not too well organized.

Cleaning was a headache in these old bathrooms, with their high, wall-mounted toilet tanks and tangles of exposed plumbing. Things didn’t really improve until the introduction of close-coupled toilet/tank combinations and built-in tubs, which did away with a lot of inaccessible crevices.  The latter also gave rise to that mainstay of American tract houses—the five-by-eight-foot bath, with its tub placed crosswise against the far wall.

Bathroom planning finally left the dark ages during the 1960s, when architects began to think of aesthetics as well as function. The “do-your-own-thing” mindset of the time brought us the sunken tub, an early harbinger of the outrageous bathrooms we commonly see today.  While some of the design excesses since that time have verged on absurdity, at least the standards have been raised. 

One thing about bathrooms hasn’t changed, though: Everyone still hates cleaning them. Moreover, a lot of people make matters worse by choosing arrangements that are a real pain to live with. Whether your bathroom is big or small, here are some practical design considerations that shouldn’t be ignored:
A lavatory no-no—don't place the cabinet
right next to the tub wall, or you'll grow
all kinds of nasty stuff there.

•  If you have romantic notions about installing a clawfoot tub in a small bathroom, forget it.  There’s a good reason these tubs fell out of use: With their exposed piping and hard-to-reach surfaces, they’re a cleaning nightmare. Unless you have room to burn and you can get at all four sides of the tub, your bathroom will be Mildew Central in no time.

•  If you’re using a lavatory cabinet, don’t install it directly adjoining the tub. Not only does it look clumsy, but the resulting crevice traps water and crud, creating the same kind of nasty problems outlined above. The usual fixture sequence of lavatory/toilet/tub is common for a good reason—it works.    
As for as I'm concerned,
this faddish sink is not even in the running.

•  Unless you like to spend all day wiping things down, avoid top-mounted lavatory bowls, whose raised rims make it maddeningly difficult to keep countertops clean and dry. Integral bowls—the kind that are monolithic with the countertop—are the hands-down winners for ease of cleaning. Undermount bowls run a close second. That ridiculous fad known as the "vessel sink", which sits entirely on top of the counter, should not even be in the running.

•  Even if you’ll have an openable window in the bath, include an exhaust fan. The added air movement helps prevent a lot of weird things growing on the walls, so it’s a boon for people who take long steamy showers. Oh, and don’t get one of those anemic sixty-dollar fans either. Look for one with an airflow rating of at least 80 CFM and the lowest noise rating you can afford. Larger bathrooms will require proportionately higher CFM ratings.