Sunday, October 24, 2010

What would you pay an Architect?

When I decided to pursue Architecture as a career, I really didn't know much about it. I did not grow up hearing about Le Corbusier nor did I spend summers travelling to Architectural monuments across the country. In fact, the only thing I truly knew about Architects was that Mike Brady was an Architect and he had a cool house in California with an amazing home office. Truth be told, that was enough for me. I always liked the idea of living in a great space and being my own boss. I also liked the reaction I received when I told people my intentions. As George Costanza will tell you, people always seem to be impressed when you say you are an Architect. As far as the general public is concerned, they hold Architects in similar regard as doctors or lawyers (for better or worse). And like doctors or lawyers, most people can only imagine having to consult an Architect as a matter of necessity.

Now those of you who have read my blog know that the reality of the Architecture profession is much different than the perception. Most graduates spend years working at or around minimum wages and the only way to move up the pay ladder at a regular pace is to change jobs frequently. Each day working as an Architect is spent trying to justify your fees to clients and also trying to collect monies owed. When additional costs arise (usually due to field conditions or client changes) many clients are quick to try and assess penalties to our fees as though everything were our fault. And those of you who read my blog also know that we Architects have allowed this to happen as our society has moved to a value driven business model of convenience. We now find ourselves competing against big box home improvement stores and companies who leverage global workforces. To put it mildly, things are getting harder.

Three years ago, I made a decision to ditch the profession of Architecture for development. I sold my practice, started a development company and started building modern houses. The development business gives me the best of both worlds. I get to Design whatever I want to build and I get to sell a product that is tangible instead of a service that is intangible. I don't have to compete with other Architects on a dollar per hour basis and I can pretty much make my own schedule. Of course, I knew it was bound to happen that eventually people would start calling me about Design work. Originally, my thought was just to turn down Design work as I never found it to be as rewarding as development. But recently, the projects being offered my way have started to get more interesting and offer a greater sense of creative control. So the question now becomes what is Architecture in this post-recession economy? Are there firms out there just taking work at rock bottom prices just to keep the lights on? Do people still see Architects as valuable when facing a real estate market that won't likely recover for at least a decade? How important is green design in any new project? Would you hire an Architect to help you figure this stuff out and if so, what would you pay an Architect?

All of these questions reflect conversations that I have been having with other Architects. Some say that the recession has forced the weak companies out of business. Others say that the real estate collapse has created new opportunities for Architects to work with builders to re-engineer their product lines to meet 21st Century demands. For my part, I can only say that the Global Economy has added new challenges and opportunities to everyone's business. Clients of mine want to buy furniture from China (because it's cheaper) have renderings done in Southeast Asia (because it's cheaper) and want to use the internet for video conferencing instead of meeting in person (because it's cheaper). Surviving in business today means cutting costs and being efficient in order to make money on slimmer profit margins. It's only a matter of time before the entire profession of Architecture gets absorbed into the Construction industry similar to how big box stores chain stores are now putting supermarkets in all their stores. One stop shopping for convenience and because the big box stores will make it more attractive from a price perspective. They can afford to lose a little money on groceries and make it up on clothing or sporting goods. Architecture will be like Whole Foods: a niche resource for a very small part of the population who can afford it.

It is likely that I will start doing Design work again and that I will get some great opportunities. But I will tell you that that my approach to the work will be radically different. I will negotiate for more control and better terms while delivering greater value. If I can show a client how I can save them money, I will be able to better justify my own fees. I think this is what it will take to survive in Architecture, if we can survive at all.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

The Top 5 American Architects working right now (according to me)

Ever since Frank Lloyd Wright designed the Guggenheim and then up and died, people have been waiting for the next great American Architect. As I have written in the past, the average person is really not familiar with Architecture, let alone any one Architect in particular. Some people may be familiar with names like Gehry or Meier, but this is only because newspapers and magazines have publicized their work (albeit to mixed fanfare).

Recently, someone asked me who I thought were the best American Architects practicing today and I thought that this might be a good topic for a discussion. So before people start getting angry that their favorite Architect is not on my list, let me qualify the criteria that I think makes a great Architect in today's world. I don't know if all these would apply a hundred years ago, but here goes:

1. Great Architects satisfy their clients. They do this by solving complex problems involving functional needs, budget, schedule, available materials and environmental challenges. It doesn't matter if a building looks great if it doesn't serve its intended use, comes in over budget and leaks. Great looking buildings are nice as sculpture, but most people wouldn't want to pay millions of dollars for a sculpture.

2. Great Architects know how to build their designs. I believe that great Architects should carry on the tradition of the Master Builder or someone who knows how to get the work done. Most contractors I have met do not hold Architects in high regard, largely because most Architects are lost on a job site. A great Architect must not only know construction but be able to develop new means and methods when required. Architects like Frank Gehry and Richard Meier have built some impressive structures, but the details for their buildings are more often figured out by computers and design Architects than themselves.

3. Great Architects are both current and timeless. A building may look good when it's finished, but only time will tell if it will be around in 50 years. How many buildings from the 80's still look relevant? A great Architect can draw on the timeless tools of proportion, rhythm, scale, and physics to produces works that will be useful and desirable for years to come.

4. Great Architects must get their hands dirty. Some notable Architects are successful because of their pedigree and connections. They get the work, but they don't do the work. This is evident when you attend a lecture by that Architect. They can talk about the overall concepts and ideas, but they are lost when asked to discuss specific details. Great Architects stay involved with their projects and care more about the quality of the work than the size of their firm.

That being said, here's my top 5 contenders for great American Architects practicing today. These are in no particular order.

1- James Cutler - Cutler is one of the most successful architects working in the Pacific Northwest because he is an impeccable detailer and creates many beautiful structures from humble materials. Although he did alot of design for Bill Gates' compound in Washington, he is most known for elegant residences that elevate everyday living to a real art form.

2. Tom Kundig - A self proclaimed 'gizmologist' this Architect could easily work in the engineering department of any Hollywood studio. From giant doors designed to be opened by an eight year old, to moving facades that close up your house, this Architect approaches function from a very technical level and blurs the boundries between Architecture and Engineering. If you want to see something really special, check out a project he did for

3. Stephen Kieran - One half of Kieran Timberlake, and the only East Coast member of my list. His work in the area of prefabrication as well as his portfolio of Social and Educational design is breathtaking. If you are ever in New Haven, Connecticutt you have to check out his work at Yale, specifically the sculpture gallery (above) and the dormitory that was erected in under a week through an advanced prefabrication process.

4. Jonathan Segal - Some days, I wish I had never heard of or met Jonathan Segal. If this were true, I may never have quit my corporate job to pursue development as an Architect. His work in San Diego is changing the profession of Architecture by empowering Architects to build on their own without clients. He lives by the Golden Rule (He who has the gold makes the rules) and has transformed the fabric of downtown San Diego with thoughtful and efficient buildings that have become highly coveted living spaces. With his own team of Architect/Contractors, he builds every project himself to ensure a high attention to detail and proper execution. He has also started a separate company (and a Master's program) whose sole mission is to educate Architects and all those interested on how to positively affect your surroundings through Design based development. We need more of that.

5. Ron Radziner - To say that Marmol Radziner is the most diversified Architectural Practice in the United States is probably an understatement. They are a Design Build firm that does both new work and Historic Restoration. They have more Construction Employees than Design staff. They have Architects running their own Millwork shop. They design everything from furniture to jewelry and they have their own prefab company. Pretty sweet. The design half of all that sugar is Ron Radziner. No disrespect to Leo Marmol, but these two guys do different things. Ron Radziner is the Design Architect. A master detailer and craftsman, his own home is the stuff that Architect's dreams are made of. When you can own a firm that spends five years faithfully restoring Richard Neutra's Kaufman House and then design schools for inner city kids, I think that's worth noting.
In conclusion, please do not be offended if you did not make the list. I didn't even put myself on my own list. All I can say is that there's always next year, right?

Monday, August 16, 2010

If not money, then how about respect? A Designer's Tale

In the past few years, many Architects and Designers have seen their paychecks shrink. When asked, most people would say that this is probably due to the general economy and the recession. Three years ago, I might have said the same thing. Now I don't think that this is true. I believe the real culprit, the thing that we must overcome as a society is something far more devastating: Ignorance. Recently, I had a couple of exchanges with Clients that led me to believe this is more true than ever. Read on.

About three years ago, I was introduced to this guy who wanted to open a high end restaurant. Let's call him James. James was a seasoned Operator, which means he knew how to run the place. But he needed the money. James was looking for an investor and he was trying to assemble a team that would help sell the investor. I was placed on that team based on my experience as a Hospitality Designer and Architect. In addition to myself, James also had a notable chef, a marketing team, and a graphics and branding team. For two and a half years, James made his pitch to a variety of investors. No one wanted to commit. Finally after almost three years, James found a guy who was excited about the project. By now, the rest of the team had evaporated for one reason or another. I got a call from James and he said that he wanted me to meet with his investor to see if this bird would fly. At the meeting, I showed the investor my portfolio, I spoke about my credentials and I told him the process that we would implement in order to make the restaurant a reality. After he heard me describe everything soup to nuts, he looked at me and said that everything sounded great. He asked me to submit a proposal and we would go from there. Two days later, I submitted a very aggressive proposal, with a very competitive fee. Because I had been tracking the project so long, I wanted to make sure that I could get it, so I cut my usual fee by 20% to ensure my appointment to the team. About a week later, I got a call from James and he told me that the investor was overwhelmed by my fee. He then asked if I could cut my fee by an additional 50%. I said that I couldn't. I was then informed that the investor knew an Architect who could do it for the low fee. I told James that they should go with that guy, no hard feelings.

Story number two begins with a pair of Clients who want to renovate the interior of their house. They purchased a builder's home and after three years have found out that the layout does not work at all. When I met this Client I told them that a house was a machine for living in. That Client told me that his machine was broken. I made two visits to this Client and spent over 10 hours talking to them and writing proposals. When they got my detailed proposal (which described what we would need to do, room by room) I could see that they were 'overwhelmed' by the Design fee. I then proceeded to explain to them that their house was not designed by an Architect but was instead built by a builder. It is common knowledge that most homes are built by Builders who are unassisted by Architects. Most people would rather spend their money on builder upgrades than Design sensibility. That's just how it is. Now I am standing in front of a client who has a budget upwards of $50,000 to repair his broken machine but will not give me the go ahead to spend a few thousand in Design fees.

These are both very true stories. What is also true is that I have a five year Architectural Degree, 15 years of practical experience, have passed 10 different professional examinations, and am legally liable for every project that I touch. Unfortunately, most people do not place a value on these things. The value that they assign to your services is only comparable to their lowest price option. If you are printing letterpress business cards for $400 and someone can get overnight laser printed cards for $15, most people will want to pay $15. Our retail economy has taught people this very well. Don't look at the quality, look at the price. Practically every big store speaks to price in their slogans. "Save Money, Live Better". "Get More, Spend Less." "More Saving, More Doing".

And whether your competition is a Builder or a peer who wants to low ball you, I am asking you please not to compromise your quality as a Design Professional. These kinds of compromises are why we find ourselves in the mess we are today. Eventually you will find those clients who appreciate the value of your services and you can just say no to those clients that want you to cut corners. That's what I ended up doing with the restaurant. I told James, "Thanks, but no thanks." If I'm not going to be compensated fairly, then I demand to be respected, if only by myself.

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Can Design Really be Altruistic?

I once read an interview with Ayn Rand where she described "The Fountainhead" as a tale of the altruist vs. the egoist. Altruistic behavior is defined as being unselfishly devoted to the welfare of others. Egoist behavior is exhibited by those who only care about themselves. I don't know what the percentages are, but I would guess that if you divide the general population into the two categories, most people would fall into the latter of the two. At first, I thought this was just a social commentary. People are selfish, end of story. However, the more I looked at the idea of altruism, I discovered that it's very difficult for Altruism to triumph over Capitalism. This became clear to me after reading a book by Karrie Jacobs describing her search for the perfect $100,000 house.

In the book the author travels over 14,000 miles across the United States to see if it is possible to buy the perfect little modern dream house anywhere in the United States for the total cost of $100,000. She seeks out the most interesting and innovative of the practicing architects available to her (Ms. Jacobs was the founding Editor-in-Chief of Dwell Magazine, so I'm sure she knows a few) and grills them all about the possibility of such a house. In most cases, the Architects are reluctant to guarantee that such a house could be built.

This whole thing got me thinking: Let's say you could build a 1,000 SF modern house for $100,000. And let's say it even looks cool and holds up pretty well to the usual wear and tear. And let's say you got it published in a magazine because you did such a good job that you wanted everyone to see your inexpensive house. What would happen?

If I had to guess, I'd say that the price would skyrocket as soon as your phone could stop ringing. While the initial idea of designing an affordable modern house has real altruistic merit, the reality is that demand would drive the price up. Does anyone remember the arrival of the Mini Cooper? When they started selling Mini Coopers in the US, they were advertising the car around $17,000. As soon as the waiting list got to be more than two months, they jacked up the price in order to quell demand a little. Today, a new Mini Cooper will set you back almost double the initial offering price.

Often in history, Design tries to solve a problem affordably, and succeeds. Look at the Eames Bent Plywood chair. Designed as a modern affordable furniture solution, the Eames Bent Plywood Chair was made in the USA and well within the reach of the average American when it was introduced. Today, a chair like that can run as much as $1,000 per chair. The same is true of the Emeco Navy Chair. Designed of aluminum (steel was hard to come by) these chairs were supposed to be indestructible and affordable so that the military could deploy them all over the world. Today, a simple aluminum chair like that will set you back quite a few Benjamins.

I guess what I'm trying to say is that as a Designer, you may have the best of intentions. You may want to design something affordable and cool. But if you succeed in making something cool, people will covet it and then Capitalism kicks in. Because of Capitalism, I believe it is very hard for anyone to really produce Altruistic design. Even if you do it because you have a ton of money, the work will still not get to the intended recipient.

Let me give you a final example. Let's say a hot musical act wants to put on a show, but they want the tickets to be affordable and they don't want them to be scalped. Let's say the only way to get these tickets is to wait in line the day of the show. The band feels good about this plan because they want the real fans to be the beneficiaries of their generous gift. Unfortunately, what would end up happening is that people would be renting themselves out to stand in line for the wealthier people who want to go but don't want to wait in line. I've seen it happen. That's Capitalism for you.

In conclusion, I don't want to stop you from Designing the world's next needed thing. I would just like to suggest that if you truly have altruistic intentions for a design project, then perhaps you might be better off charging what the market will bear and then giving the proceeds to charity. At least then you know that the beneficiaries of your efforts will be of your own choosing.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Are you a Designer in search of inspiration? Look behind you.

We've all been there. Faced with a new assignment, you sit there staring at a blank page (or screen) wondering where to begin. You want to create something really great but don't know where to start. Too many times you've had a great idea shot down due to how expensive it seems or how unconventional it is, so you think it might make sense to play it safe and not waste your time. You want to give your client options, but you also want to make money on the project. What do you do? For me, the thing that has always worked is precedents. Studying older works from previous decades, and in some cases centuries. Let me use Architecture as an example.

For me, Modern Design in this country peaked in the 1950's. From toasters to houses, everyone was buzzing with the promise of tomorrow in the television age. Pick up any magazine from Ladies Home Journal to LIFE and you will find that most of what was produced in those years is now the stuff that legends are made of. Globalization had not yet happened and the United States was a hotbed of industrial activity. The world's greatest Architects all aspired to come to the United States and work. Mies. Gropius. Neutra. In fact, so much Modern Design was produced during those years that we have yet to discover it. A recent book entitled "Julius Shulman: Chicago" featured mid-century works from many architects that I had never heard of. One such architect named Edward Dart, designed one of the best houses that I have ever seen and could be featured in the page of Dwell magazine right now. So it goes without saying that there is alot of good stuff out there from the past that is only now coming to light thanks to the Internet.

The other great thing about looking at older work is that you see it in the context of 21st century life. Usually this means that you can improve it based on the technology currently available. A good example of this is radiant floor heating. Most people think that radiant floor heating was developed in the 20th century but the concept goes back over 2000 years to ancient Korea and Rome where various underfloor heating techniques were applied. Koreans used warm stones and heaters placed under the floor to keep their feet warm once they removed their shoes upon entry to a home. The Romans had a similar concept. And although the technology of distributing hot water through copper (or plastic) tubing did not come until thousands of years later, the idea had been in place for centuries.

The more you study history, the more you realize that people have not really changed. As Billy Joel said so eloquently, "We Didn't Start the Fire - It was always burning since the world's been turning". That being the case, finding an existing torch is usually more productive than trying to make your own flame. That's not to say that there aren't the right times and opportunities to make your own flame. I'm just saying that often you can get inspiration or the seed of an idea from studying relevant ideas from yesteryear.

If you are still not convinced, check out . Another pioneer of Design, Lustig's work is still fresh and relevant despite how long ago it was done. Who knows, maybe there's a germ of inspiration in there for your next project.

I do realize that it's the future that everyone is concerned about. I do realize that innovation is what everyone is looking for. However, I also have found that there is alot of great work out there, most of it unknown. In many ways, technology has made us less competent and less focused. We are more reliant on computers to do our work for us. Going back to earlier times allows us to see the application of a human mind on a problem without distraction. If you like Calatrava, check out Pier Luigi Nervi. If you like Pentagram, check out Herbert Matter. The results will shock you.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Can anyone REALLY be a Designer?

If I had a nickel for every person who woke up and decided to become a "Designer" I would probably be rich. It wasn't enough that all of these musicians and actresses decided to start clothing lines and call themselves 'fashion designers'. Now we have dozens and dozens of TV shows featuring mock creatives with no relative experience doing anything from cutting hair to flipping houses. Reality TV has empowered networks and individuals to realize their dreams in new professions for which they have zero training. Last night, while watching one such program, I wondered if it were really true: "Can anyone really call themselves a designer?"

Now before someone gets all offended, I am not discounting the fact that there have been MANY great design professionals who stumbled into it without any premeditation. Many of my friends ended up in a design profession because of something that started as a hobby. I'm not saying that all of these people are not talented. They are. But while many design professionals are struggling, there are others scooping up commissions because they are cheap and their qualifications are never checked. Let me give you an example.

A friend of mine lost their job doing graphic design at a boring corporate company because the company's marketing budget had been cut due to the economy. That company cut three staff positions, but still had a modest amount of layout and design work to do. A senior person at that company suggested that they use a freelance designer to get them by. Unfortunately, they did not offer the freelance position to any of the designers that they had just laid off, despite their familiarity with the material and the company. They thought it would be simpler to place an add on Craigslist where they could dictate the pay and the terms of the position. They ended up hiring a person who was not a graphic designer, but successfully marketed themselves as such. This person was just someone who needed some extra money and was looking for a part time gig to supplement their income as an accountant. Apparently, they knew the software very well and had a great portfolio of personal work that they marketed as 'freelance'. The accountant designer was hired and everything was moving along. One day the freelancer was asked to design a logo for a new project that the company was starting. The freelancer tried to step up to the occasion but unfortunately spent the entire schedule producing some of the worst logos ever made. The company was under a deadline and needed more. They called my friend up and said they were in a tough spot and asked for help. Apparently my friend was not talented enough to retain as an employee, but talented enough to bail this company out of a jam. My friend politely declined and then proceeded to call me up and vent about it.

I'm sure you have all heard similar stories. I recently had a friend who wanted to redesign their apartment and hired a total stranger that had been referred to them. When I asked what their credentials were, I was told that this person had 'a good eye' for style. I asked my friend if they had seen any of their work, and was told that they really hadn't done much. When I probed a little further it turned out this person was unemployed and was doing 'interior design'
for fees that were well below market rates. My friend had not even considered engaging my help because he felt that I would have been too expensive. At the end of the day, this person painted a few walls and went shopping at a big box store for my friend's apartment. The result was average at best.

Now, I'm not saying all this to discourage people from doing any profession they choose. I'm sure that there are many people out there with real talent and potential. What I'm asking for is this: If you really do feel that you have a real passion for a creative profession, then respect the profession and the professionals who rely on quality work to make a living at it. Sure, it makes for good TV to watch people fall on their face during a home renovation. But in real life, a bad project hurts the entire profession and one's ability to get new work. Those who have been burned or ripped off go around telling people what a waste of money it was to spend it on design fees. For every company selling a $99 logo, there are really talented designers scraping by because no one will pay them what their time is really worth.

Finally, let me say this about 'self-taught' Designers. Many of you have genuine talent. There is no arguing that. But talent alone is not enough. You have to apply that talent in education, apprenticeship, and respect of the profession. You also have to be honest with your clients about your abilities and your experiences. Many design professions (particularly those related to Building and Construction) have serious legal ramifications for mis-representing yourself. So before you go around calling yourself a "Designer" make sure that you are ready to put in the work and respect your peers. Get yourself an internship and invest in learning anything anyone will teach you, even if it's what not to do. Once you make this investment, you will likely not give away your time so cheaply (unless it's for volunteer work) and your work will improve. In the end, your work will speak for itself no matter what title you put on a business card.

Sunday, April 4, 2010

The Destruction of Sylvia Packard Middle School (and so much more)

In many cases, your life is the result of a million coincidences that you are mostly unaware of. You can't pick who your parents are. You can't control the weather in your part of the world. You probably don't even have a choice as to who your friends are going to be in high school. They end up being the people who are most like you in terms of social standing, appearance, and financial status. With so many people in today's world searching for purpose and understanding, it's important to realize that the path you choose to walk in life is often not your choice at all.

I grew up and went to school in a middle class neighborhood in Long Island. The schools were all sturdy masonry buildings with flat roofs. I loved school. I recently realized that I could remember every detail of each school I attended in my town. From the terrazzo floors of my high school to the golden bricks of my elementary school to the metal railings of my middle school. The floors were always waxed and shiny; the dull black science countertops always felt warm to the touch. All in all, these were sturdy buildings designed by competent architects with an eye for detail. Built in the 60's, all of these buildings are still standing today. At least for now.

What I also recently realized was that these schools subconsciously provided me with a love for architecture; more specifically a love of place. With their large aluminum frame windows, generous natural light, and perfectly executed floor plans, these buildings made my young educational experience a pleasure. I remember the brick lined corridors of my elementary school and running my fingers along the grout lines as our class walked the corridors each day. The grout was tooled to be smooth and curved and perfectly fit young fingers without getting scratched. While I can't remember every teacher I ever had, I can remember every class room I ever sat in. I remember the pull down maps that opened as closed as needed, I remember the Eames-esque bent plywood chairs that we sat in, and I remember how the breezes filled the room when all of the windows were opened. We didn't have air conditioning or even a fan. There was nothing made of plastic.

Now while it sounds like I am romanticizing the experience (and maybe I am) this genuinely relates to the state of things in our society. Everyday I hear people say how our world is degrading around us. Values, Customs, Quality. Everyday we lose a little ground to the future. In the town that I grew up in, there was a vote last June to tear down the middle school that I attended. Of course, this came as no surprise to residents, as the school had been closed for more than a decade as a middle school. In recent years it had been rented out as a day care and for office space, but really the sad and inevitible conclusion was that one day Sylvia Packard Middle School would be torn down. And now this day has arrived.

It would not be so sad if not for the fact that the Board of Education had made a choice some years ago that it would be better to build a new middle school than to 'modernize' the current one. The funny thing about that is that the old school (built in 1964) is far more modern than the new one. With its vaulted concrete bus canopy, it's custom aluminum window facade, curved masonry stair towers, and endless examples of craftsmanship, the comparison is not even close. You could not afford to build a building like this in today's market. The craftsman don't exist and the Architects don't spend this much time on Design. The following pictures are just a sample of the Building's elegance (double click to enlarge):

Now take a look at the school that replaced it (designed by Wiedersun Associates):

While we cannot save every building from the wrecking ball, we can do our best to appreciate the beauty of another's effort in the pursuit of passion. The Sylvia Packard Middle School was designed and constructed with an attention to detail that rivals the work of any great modern Architect. The scale of the building is both human and monumental. The concrete design is economical and poetic. The use of unit masonry as both a giver of structure and a delicate screen creates something bordering on magic when the light dances through it. Schools should not only be places where children get inspired, they should be inspiring. It is both sad and disappointing that the educators of the 1960's were more forward thinking about education than those who are making the decisions more than five decades later.
Looking back, it is easy to see that my passion for Building and Design was greatly inspired by my surroundings. What I can't understand is how we could build schools like this in the 1960's, but we can't build these kinds of buildings today? We have used our technology to engineer the quality out of construction instead of improving it. Instead of masonry, we have foam. Instead of drywall, we have acoustical tile. Instead of terrazzo, we have vinyl flooring. I can only hope that the next Renaissance is around the corner and that future generations will realize that beauty is essential to human happiness. For me, the Sylvia Packard Middle School represents a beauty in constructed form that can serve as an example, even if that example relates to that which should not be destroyed.

Monday, March 29, 2010

Our latest project finally nears the end and here's what it looks like!

For those of you who have been kind enough to read my posts, I have to apologize for the lengthy time in between each one. Lately, it seems as though I only get to write about once a month. Rather than go into the trials and tribulations of the Design/Development business and what keeps me away from my computer, I figured that I would just show you. For the last seven months, we have been feverishly working on a new prototype called 'the Rayburn' and in the past seven days we have come alarmingly close to completion. Other than a few open items such as paint touch ups and landscaping, we are mostly done. Those who have been keeping up with my Design philosophies will be able to see how those manifest themselves into three dimensional form. And for the rest of you who just like to see other people's houses, here's a look inside of our latest project. Thanks to all of you for your patience while we put this together and of course, we would love to hear any comments about the work. I will return to my regularly scheduled Design commentaries next session, but for now, enjoy "the Rayburn". Better images can be found on our Facebook group or our web site at

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Has Design just been through a 'Lost Decade'?

If you have been following media coverage of the current recession you probably have heard the term 'the Lost Decade'. This refers to the notion that the current recession has erased any gains in employment and economic growth that the past decade had created. And, as a bonus, the past ten years marks the first time when investment income (using standard averages) has actually contracted over a ten year period. The reasons for all of this are beyond the subject of this blog, but in summary, the dollar just ain't what it used to be. For anyone in a creative profession, we have certainly seen rising unemployment, Client focus on cost instead of quality, and the globalization of many industries. Has Design been through a "Lost Decade" and if so, how can we rebuild and re-brand?

Our economy constantly cycles through a series of 'boom' and 'bust' periods. Those of you may remember the 'dot com' boom of the 90's where companies were setting up shop overnight with furniture made of plastic and bright colors on every wall. Industrial buildings that had been occupied by printing companies where converting into 'loft office suites' practically overnight. While all this seemed good for the economy, that printing shop was probably forced out of business and the work went elsewhere. I recently looked at a bunch of books at my local Barnes and Noble to discovered that they were all printed in China. Madison Avenue may still be where advertising dollars are spent, but the work of those graphic artists often gets produced in other places for less money.

I experienced a similar phenomenon when I owned a Design firm that did a lot of Hospitality Design work. We would spend weeks designing a set of guestroom furniture only to have to wait months for prototypes of the designs to come back from the Chinese factory. I remember our pieces also being held up in Customs once for almost two weeks alone. Now don't get me wrong. I'm not dissing on China here. There are many good quality products that are made by hard working people there. The trend that I'm interested in is whether or not we have made progress as Designers due to the economic trends that have affected our business. Globalization is obviously one such trend.

Another trend that we have to consider is the value of our dollar. Our clients love to spend fewer and fewer of these things, even though they are worth less and less each year. When my Graphic Designer told me that our new stationary and business cards would cost over $7,000 to produce, I will admit that I flinched a little. But then I remembered that a business card may be the only piece of my company that a prospective client ever gets to touch. I knew I had made the right decision the day I took a bunch of letters down to the Post Office and the clerk said that I had the coolest envelopes that she had ever seen. (for more on our stationary design see Ty Mattson's blog at ) That being said, I don't think Client's think about Design in this way. Most companies market themselves as though Design were a service that needs to be rendered, not a mark of success like Fashion. In Fashion, there is a huge difference between Old Navy and Gucci. Unfortunately, most people do not see design this way. They will go for the Old Navy prices all day long. As Designers, we need to give our clients a good value for the money that they spend and also help them create return on that investment. Then perhaps our Clients will see Design as a vehicle that can generate business for them.

Lastly, I would like to briefly talk about the Internet. Ten years ago, the Internet was slower, uglier, and used primarily for e-mail. Today, the Internet is unavoidable. I wish I could say that it has made it easier to get work. It hasn't. Instead, we are now overwhelmed by information. A Google search for 'graphic designer nyc' will yield about 25.5 Million results. Seriously. In the old days, there was a book or a professional society you could turn to find a qualified professional. Today, anyone with the ability to point and click can set up a website with images that may or may not reflect their work. People have businesses selling stock images just to help other businesses make their collateral look legitimate. If you don't the time or money to hire a real photographer, you can buy a stock image for $1. Is this helping photographers? Maybe. But just like everything else, it's one step forward, two steps back.

So, given the current realities, how can we move design forward? I have come up with three easy steps, and if all Designers adopt them, I guarantee the respective professions will be better off. Here they are, in no particular order:

1- Volunteer your services to create great Design opportunities. Whether you are in Interior Designer or a Graphics wizard, there are many people and/or organizations that could use the help of a qualified professional. They don't always have the budget so this is your opportunity to get a foot in the door by volunteering your services. Charities are also a great place to help. And here's the best part: you get to pick the Client. Not only will you be excited by choosing something or someone that you like, but you will also feel good about the work. And while it may not pay money, it will create a great piece for your portfolio and potentially lead to other paying gigs.

2- Don't compromise quality - If you have a Client that wants to work with you (for one reason or another) don't jeopardize that relationship by allowing them to demand cheap work. The only thing worse than giving in to a Client's cheapness is getting blamed for how crappy something looks after they see the result. If you're going to be associated with it, make sure you want to be associated with it. Even if it means sticking to your guns in a tough spot. Remember that one compromise leads to another and eventually you're shopping at Walmart.

3- Help your peers - One of the problems I have with Architects is that (professionally) they all see each other as competitors. They compete for work, they compete to get the best consultants, and they compete for fees. What they don't realize is that they're killing the profession. I took another approach. I decided to befriend a bunch of really good architects and I sometime throw work their way. I do this because it helps me out. Not every client is a great fit. Not every project is one that I am interested in. If I can't make the Client happy (because I don't like them or their project) then I'm not going to be doing anyone any good. In turn, I create a relationship with a colleague that can have other benefits. Maybe they will refer work to me. Maybe they will let me plot at their office when my plotter dies at 5:00 on a Friday. Either way, we're all in this together. It is better to be a small office that does great work, than a big office that just churns out the same crap all the time.

Has the last decade been lost? In many ways, it has. Salaries and positions have been shed. The Internet has given everyone a voice and they're all screaming at the same time. Fortunately, we now have the tools and the experience to avoid a collapse similar to the one we just experienced. Working together, we can lead our profession into a new Renaissance and spur unexpected growth for all creatives. Dare to dream.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

The Power of the Plan - some tips on getting things done..

Today I want to talk about THE PLAN, not just as a component of a set of architectural documents, but as a metaphor for universal organization. You may be familiar with LeCorbusier's quote, 'The Plan is the Generator'. When I first heard this quote in college, I didn't really get it. Almost two decades later, these five little words impact almost everything I do. Today, I hope to describe how you can be more effective by analyzing the steps in making a great plan. As you will see, these steps hold true for both the architectural document and the notion about getting things done.

Step 1 - What do you want?

When I first think about designing anything, I ask myself what I am trying to accomplish. I say, "Self - what's the big idea here?" After I do this, I then make a written list of all of my goals in as much detail as possible. For example, if I were designing a house, I might develop a program that lists all of the spaces that I want to be in the house and I might assign them a value. It might say something like "Master Bedroom - 200 SF, Master Bathroom - 80 SF, Laundry Room - 40 SF" and so on. If I were thinking of developing a print ad for Pocono Modern, I would make a list of all the sentiments and feelings that I want the ad to get across. I might even write a list of words or adjectives that would help me brainstorm later on. Make no mistake, this step is crucial to carrying out a plan. You have to know what you are trying to do before you can figure out how to do it. And while this sounds very simple, you would be surprised how many times I have seen colleagues staring at a blank screen or a blank piece of paper claiming that they don't know where to start.

Step 2 - Know your limits

In my experience, the two big limits in this country are time and money. It seems that every task somehow involves at least one of these two things. Your partner may want you install a new closet system in your guest bedroom (which seems simple enough), but he or she may want it done by next weekend when their parents are coming to stay. Often things that seem simple are complicated by the availability of these resources. There are of course other limitations, but for the purpose of this piece, we will just call these limitations the 'X Factor'. Fill in the blank for whatever your 'X' is. Once you know what you want to do, you have to consider what the potential limits or road blocks are so that you can factor them into your plan. I have seen many graphic designers come up with incredible ideas for things like invitations and stationary only to find out that the designer was thinking Letterpress and the Client was thinking Kinko's. In short, know your limits before wasting your time on a plan.

Step 3- Small steps.

When you are starting any new endeavor, it's very easy to get overwhelmed. When I start to put together a plan, I go back to the small parts of my program and work on each piece by piece. For example, I never just sit down and draw a floor plan of a house and say, "This is how it should be." What I do is start by designing each room how I would want it to be and then make smaller tweaks later on when the spaces get connected. In short, I break down the larger tasks into smaller ones so that there is an underlying rationale to the bigger plan. More often than not, examining the smaller details forces you to think about things that you would have not considered if you were focusing only on the big picture. I once worked with an Interior Designer who wanted pocket doors everywhere. I still remember the puzzled look on his face when I told him that all the walls would need to be twice as thick to do this. When he didn't understand why, I asked him where the wiring for all the switches would go. He said, "In the walls!". I then asked him where the pocket doors would go. He said "In the walls!". To make a long story short, the Client didn't want to spend more money and lose double the space. I think the Designer ended up in the walls of that project, but it just illustrates how you should work small and consider the details.

Step 4 - Connect the dots

Once you have put in the time of figuring out all the details, now it's time to piece your plan together. Of course, no plan ever comes together perfectly, but I find it's much easier to tweak some smaller items than sit there trying to solve everything at once. If you've heard the saying 'the whole is worth more than the sum of the parts', then it should be said that a good plan is based on the sum of the research. Once you go to implement your plan, you will certainly appreciate having done the bulk of the work beforehand.

Whether you are designing a house or figuring out how to buy a new car, a good plan is essential. If you are starting out in the world of Design, I hope that you will consider this post when trying to make a strong impression at a new job or on a new project. There will always be plenty of people to sit around a table and criticize an idea or an approach, but a man (or woman) with a plan is a valuable asset to any team. As for me, I will try to plan more blog writing time into my future days.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

What you can learn from Frank Lloyd Wright...

If you ask most people in this country to name a famous Architect, I have found that nine out of ten people will say 'Frank Lloyd Wright'. If you probe further and ask them to name a building by this famous Architect, you might get 'Guggenheim' but more often you will get a blank stare followed by 'I'm really not sure'. I was always curious how Frank Lloyd Wright became so famous without anyone really knowing much of his work. Practically every book store has a book about him on their 'SALE' shelves, yet beyond a few notable buildings, most people are generally clueless about his work. As Designers and Architects, we aspire to be acknowledged and compensated for our work. I believe that Frank can offer us a little insight into how to do a better job of it.

-'Well now that he's finished one building, he'll go write four books about it' - Frank Lloyd Wright talking about Le Corbusier

This quote illustrates several of Wright's successful attributes. First, he detested any Architect who was gaining fame during his reign. He referred to himself as 'the World's Greatest Architect' and lashed out at anyone who suggested otherwise. Secretly, he was happy that 'the International Style' was making it's way to America and often copied the ideas of his contemporaries to make them better. Publicly, he said that he hated Architects such as Mies Van der Rohe, Le Corbusier, and Walter Gropius, but privately, he studied their work and learned from them. In this way, he was constantly able to re-create himself professionally without anyone thinking he was a plagiarist. You could say that Apple uses this same technique. They don't always invent the technology that they use, but they find a way to improve it and make it their own. This is a very FLW trait.

Secondly, this quote talks about self promotion. Wright could very well be guilty of the same thing that he is accusing Corb of. During the depression, when there was no work, he decided to write an Autobiography and embellish many of the details to make it read more like a novel. Wright was a tireless self promoter, often doing TV and radio spots in addition to maintaining two studios and dozens of projects at a time. When he had no projects,he conjured up a program for apprentices to come study with 'The World's Greatest Architect' and rich kids paid handsomely to live and work on FLW's farm. While the curriculum was focused on Architecture, he also had them working the fields and building his house. Genius.

'Take care of the luxuries and the necessities will take care of themselves.'

This is truly counter-cultural. During times of crises, most people would probably make sure that they have the necessities. But not Frank. When his family couldn't pay their food bills, he went out and bought a grand piano on credit. He believed that the small stuff would take care of itself. He always maintained the appearance (through his cars, clothes, and residences) that he was doing quite well, and therefore attracted the types of Clients who would pay his bills and indulge his eccentricities. As Designers, we rely on attracting the kinds of Clients who will allow us to do our best work. To a great extent, appearances are important. So if you think you can't afford that great web site, or that extravagant ride, think again. Frank wouldn't hesitate.

'The next one'

When asked what was his favorite building or his greatest project, Frank would always say 'The next one'. This almost always ensured that he would stay on the radar because everyone would always be waiting to see what was next. As George Costanza would agree, you have to always leave them wanting more. As Designers, we often focus on what we've done as a barometer of how well we're doing. Maybe it's time to re-direct that focus on what is to come as way of getting people interested in our work. Frank would often dream of 'larger than life' projects that of course, would never get built, but they did get him attention. His designs for a mile high building or the ideal city are the stuff that museum exhibitions are still made of.

'Maybe we can show Government how to operate better as a result of better Architecture.'

Being the ego maniac that he was, Frank never believed that anything was beyond his grasp. I have written about this before, but it was never more true than in the life of Frank Lloyd Wright. He was the true Renaissance man. He enjoyed writing, music, art, architecture, cuisine, travel, culture, and he had an opinion about it all. He painted his own car Cherokee Red because at that time cars only came in black. He felt that he could do or improve upon anyone's work and he never took no for an answer. When building the Guggenheim, he stayed at the Plaza hotel and re-designed the suite to meet his needs. Can you imagine?

'Mr. Hotel Owner, I'm going to be staying here for a bit, so I'm going to bring in some construction crews to re-do my room while I'm here. That's OK, right?"

As a Designer, you have an opinion. A perspective. Use it. Madonna once wrote that most people don't get what they want because they don't say what they want. I'm not a Madonna fan, but I couldn't agree more. I think Frank would have agreed too.

So if you are into fame and success, perhaps you should take some cues from Frank Lloyd Wright. More than 50 years after his death, people are still talking about him and celebrating his work. Remember that every day is an opportunity to slam your competition, promote yourself, and address your adoring public. Just remember to exit on a high note and keep them wanting more.