Monday, June 27, 2011


In one of those introspective middle-aged moments, I recently asked myself, What’s the smartest thing I’ve ever done? The answer came quickly: The smartest thing I ever did was buy a self-inking address stamp. I’ve always hated scribbling my return address onto envelopes--a repetitive, boring, stupid waste of time--yet I was also too impatient to order address stickers or a stamp, since that would’ve meant waiting around a few days to get it. So instead, I continued writing my address by hand for almost twenty-five years.  

Recently, though, I happened onto a stationer’s shop, and ordered an address stamp on a whim. Finally getting that stamp has confirmed something I’ve been suspecting for a while: It’s that daily life actually consists of a whole bouquet of little joys on the one hand, and a whole briar patch of tiny irritations on the other, and that happiness quite simply pivots on converting as many thorns as you can into flowers. So, where I used to feel an acrid twinge every time I had to scribble down my address yet again, I now feel a warm glow of contentment as I neatly impress it in a single, swift motion.  And that, as Robert Frost would say, has made all the difference.  

This lesson applies to home design as well. Forget the 400-square-foot master suite  and the remote-controlled hot tub: Domestic comfort, and by extension domestic happiness, doesn’t reside in the sort of useless gimmicks so common in new houses today. Rather, it’s a host of tiny and very ordinary conveniences that help tip the balance toward a happy house. Here are a few of them worth insisting on: 

In the entry:  A floor finish that’ll take some punishment and look better for it; a convenient place to put not just your coat, but your shoes and a dripping umbrella; a comfortable place to sit; and a place to put things while you fumble for your keys.

In the kitchen: Base cabinets with shelves that pull out;  a really quiet dishwasher and disposer; a smooth-surfaced range that won’t catch crumbs and grease; a range hood that actually does something besides make noise; and a place to put the garbage and recycleables without having to fumble around under the sink.  

In the bathroom: A lavatory counter matched to your height, so you don’t have to stoop to use it; a sink that water can’t puddle behind; faucets you can grip even with soapy hands; a mirror with lighting fixtures on either side instead of overhead; a toilet-paper dispenser within normal human reach; a powerful exhaust fan that doesn’t drone or whine; towel bars you can reach from the shower; and a bathroom heater that warms your whole body and not just the top of your head. 

Inside the shower: A permanent place to keep soap and shampoo; a place to sit down; and enough room to wave your arms a little without banging into the walls.

In the bedroom: A good, glare-free bedside reading lamp and a handy place to keep a couple of books; a closet with room for the winter blankets;  and closet doors that let you get to the whole closet, not just one side or the other.  

In the living room: Anything that will entice people to actually hang out there instead of in the kitchen.

At the back door: A roof for shelter from the rain, and a “mud room” for gardening shoes, pet food bowls, and all the rest of the messy flotsam that gathers on the back porch. And, oh yeah--a back porch. 

In general: Rooms that are sunny at the times you use them; floors that are warm in winter and cool in summer; windows that look out on something other than the neighbor’s house.  

And no roof leaks. Architects have had two thousand years and more to come up with watertight roofs, but you still have to put them on wish lists like this one. 

Monday, June 13, 2011


A while back, I was amusing myself with a trendy architecture magazine chock full of frigid minimalist designs, accompanied by the often hilariously stilted pronouncements of their architects.  Suddenly, amid this predictable context, a photograph of a perfectly charming Spanish Revival home fairly jumped off the page at me. Unlike the edgy trendoid homes usually featured in such publications, the place looked warm, inviting, and completely livable.

I soon found out why. It wasn’t designed by an architect at all, but by a Hollywood set designer.  His architectural rationale was refreshingly simple: Create a timeless home that was comfortable for its owner. No trace of double-talk there.
For me, this pointed up a frequent trait of architect-designed homes. Too many are statements of doctrine—whether Modernist, Deconstructivist, Minimalist, or whatever--rather than stages for their owners’ lives.

I use the word “stage” deliberately, not in the sense of an artificial, make-believe construct, but rather as a setting that complements the lifestyle of its owner. And despite the scads of high-tech and minimalist designs that crop up unendingly in the trade magazines, I’ve never yet had a client request a house that was cold, hard, and clinical inside. On the contrary, my most tech-savvy clients long more than anyone for the sort of familiar home styles they recall--or perhaps just imagine--their grandmothers living in.

During the early twentieth century, a number of practitioners specialized in designing such “stages for living”. In Southern California, the early work of Cliff May  drew on the honest palette of Spanish Colonial architecture to produce rustically beautiful homes that were also eminently liveable (May, incidentally, was never licensed as an architect).  In the Bay Area, William R. Yelland evoked the rustic vernacular of France’s Auvergne region, whose charm he had admired during his service in the Great War, while Carr Jones--a man trained in mechanical engineering, of all things--wrought lyrically beautiful homes from salvaged brick, lumber, and iron.  

On the opposite coast, Florida’s Addison Mizner conjured up unforgettably exotic Spanish Revival/Mediterranean/Venetian Gothic confections for the center of Palm Beach--buildings which even today set the standard for Floridian architecture.  
All of these architects were dismissed by their more “serious” colleagues as mere set-dressers, concerned with atmospherics and little else. Meanwhile, the Modernists, in their ploddingly earnest way, made heroic efforts to showcase concrete, steel, and glass in residential work. Ironically, over seventy years later, it’s the work of the purported set dressers that remains cherished both for its livability and its timelessness. 
How could the pointed nonchalance of a May, Yelland, Jones, or Mizner have ultimately prevailed over the intellectual rigor of Modernist doctrine?  And why would a set designer’s creation of adobe, wood and wrought iron seem infinitely more appealing than the self-consciously showy work contrived by other architects on those same magazine pages? Is it possible that humans feel some kind of natural kinship to ancient materials and building styles?

Perhaps the answer is right in front of us, and has been for millenia:  While we design to please the mind, the heart remains the final judge.