Thursday, December 27, 2012

The Secrets of Selling Design - a quick primer

One of the great benefits of living in a world of mobile technology is the ease with which you can get new and interesting things served up in a moment's notice.  Not a day goes by that I don't find out about some new project or Designer who was previously unknown to me.  Websites, blogs, e-zines, and trade feeds serve up an ever changing buffet of media on which to dine.  We have seen first hand how our little shop at Pocono Modern has gone on to grow each month as new buyers find us in different ways.  

As technologies evolve and new platforms emerge it is hard to know where the best place to spend your time and money will be.  Some designers have created products and projects that go 'viral' when fans use sites like Pinterest or Twitter to spread the word in a rapid fire pace that can turn a product into a legend overnight.

Take the story of the 'Field Notes' journal.  Graphic Designer Aaron Draplin co-founded this little company that makes cool little notepads and books in different colors, themes, and variations.  What is even more amazing is that most offerings are 'sold out' despite the fact that I have never seen any of them in a brick and mortar store.  Raving fans scoop up these little books almost as fast as Aaron can crank them out.  Presumably, these little journals get shipped out from some unknown location in the mid-west although I can tell you that they are absolutely everywhere.   This kind of market penetration is what Designers dream of and would not have been possible twenty years ago without spending a  small fortune on marketing.  

As a Designer, it's hard to know how you should be marketing yourself in order to find new clients and buyers.  I think it's important to remember that the Internet is just a tool in the same way that Adobe Illustrator is just a tool.  Illustrator is not going to make you a better graphic designer since you need the ideas first in order to execute them.  The Internet is not going to make you more successful unless you have the talents and the foundations in order to be able to have something to promote.  The first step in any marketing campaign should be to decide who you are targeting and what you want to tell them.  Once you have that decision made, it becomes easier to make follow up decisions.

Once you have identified who your target is, now you have to sell.  I am always amazed how many Architects and Designers have no idea how to sell themselves.  It goes way beyond an elevator pitch or a demonstration of competence.  In fact, it's not about you at all.  It's about your client.  What is your client going to gain by hiring you?  Are you going to make them more money?  Will they gain prestige or popularity by working with you?  Does your product make their life better or easier?  There's an old saying, "You can lead a horse to water, but you can't make them drink."  That is absolutely true.  It's not your job to get them to drink.  The salesman's job is to make them so thirsty that they WANT to drink.  Fortunately, the Internet makes people really thirsty for Design.  There are an unlimited amount of apps, sites, and 'likes' that make people want things.  The trick is to be visible.  

Below is a very short cheat sheet of how we have gone about marketing in the 'digital' economy.  It may not be exactly the same for you, but it has had some success for us:

1- Invest (time and money) in a simple, concise and professional web site.  It doesn't have to have a ton of content, but it has to look great and function seamlessly.  After all, you are selling Design.
2- Identify a core group of 'raving fans' (basically people who support you and want to see you succeed) and ask them to help you.  Have them endorse you on Linked In, 'Like' your Facebook page, 'Tweet' about your blog posts and 'Pin' your work.  You have to have some buzz on the Internet if you want to get more.
3- Blog about what you know.  Be as specific about a topic as possible.  The most popular blog post I ever wrote was about Ikea Cabinets.  It has been read tens of thousands of times and I have received e-mails from around the world in thanks.  Although the subject has nothing to do with me, the fact that I wrote it gives a certain amount of visibility to me and my company.  Become an expert in something.
4- Monitor and adjust.  Get Google Analytics and follow where your site traffic is coming from.  Try to get re-tweeted often.  Do a Pinterest search on you and your work to see if others are pinning it.  If you don't see much happening, change your strategies.  When we wanted to promote our Vintage Pyrex Poster, we started 'favoring' shops on ETSY that sold vintage Pyrex.   The shop owners took notice and started buying our poster.

                                        Vintage Pyrex Poster in Blue (available on ETSY)

5- Start a conversation.  No one is going to just wake up and decide to work with you.  You have to start a dialogue.  This is the part where you 'make them thirsty'.  Connect with people who have similar interests as you.  Join a Chamber of Commerce.  Write letters to those you admire.  Ask your Linked In contacts for a referral to someone who might need your help.  Everyone you know has the capacity to give you ONE referral.  Each of those referrals might lead you to other referrals.  Marketing is not a one time act, it's a continuous conversation.  Also be generous to refer other people you know.  If you help others, they are more likely to help you.

Hopefully, you can employ some of the above strategies in your own business.  Drop a comment if you need some advice or assistance.  

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

The 5 Best Questions to Ask when hiring an Architect

In our office, we get alot of phone calls from people who are in the midst of a project gone wrong and ask us to step in and help them out.   Often these kind of situations can be avoided by asking the right questions of your prospective team prior to hiring them.  Asking the right questions will ensure that you will be prepared for the realities of the project. I have put together a short list for those of you who haven't been through a construction project.   

1- - Who will I specifically be working with on a day to day basis?  

It is often the case that a Principal will be responsible for winning projects and making the pitch while subordinate staff will be responsible for actually doing the work.  If you want the Principal to be the one working on the project, make sure that is clear from the start so the job can be priced appropriately.  Architects and Designers are so conditioned to be competitively priced that the Principal's time is not factored largely into each project.

2- Have you completed any recent projects on a budget similar to mine? 

I was once asked if I ever had a project where there was no budget and the Client gave me total freedom to design.  I assumed it was a joke. Every client has a budget and if you have a tight budget, you want someone who is used to working with tight budgets.  

3- How much of my involvement will be necessary or allowed?

I have never had a client without an opinion.  Clients like to be involved, and you are probably no different.  Some Architects are great collaborators, and some liked to be left alone to work their magic.  If you are hiring an Architect or Designer with a specific 'style' they may not take kindly to collaborating so make sure you know where you stand up front.

4- If the project goes over budget, what responsibility do you have?

This is the single biggest problem I have seen in the Design industry.  Designers and Architects don't have control over the construction pricing but have designed something that is far from the reality of the Client's budget.  Often it is late in the project when this is realized and then the Client has to pay for additional services to 're-design' to the budget.  I might be in the minority here, but if your Client is relying on you to Design to a budget then you have to take responsibility for the pricing.  As a Design professional you should be familiar enough with relative costs to present options that the Client can afford. If your Architect doesn't want any part of this, it may be a red flag when the change orders start rolling in.

5- Can I call your previous clients?

No matter what any of us say about our own work, the words of our Clients form our reputation.  Speaking candidly with previous clients will give you a sense of what to expect on your project.   If possible, try to contact clients that you may be aware of rather than the ones that are given to you.  

Any large project brings its own stresses with it, but by asking the right questions up front, you can be prepared to deal with what lies ahead.  Good Luck!

Friday, November 30, 2012

The Importance of Failure in Great Design

It has been said that Thomas Edison made 1,000 prototypes before he had success with the light bulb.  It is also true that Charles and Ray Eames experimented with all sorts of applications for plywood long before the first DCW chair was made.  In today's world, trial and error is not often something that is celebrated.  We try to teach our kids to come up with the right answer as opposed to testing out all the wrong ones first.  

When I was in junior high, I had a math teacher who told me that the answer is not as important as understanding how to get it.  Years later, I had a professor at college tell me that an expert is someone who has made every possible mistake in a very small area of study.  To this day, I don't think I could argue against either statement.  I have read dozens of books on leadership, business, and success and each of them say the same thing in one way or another.

With this in mind, how can designers be expected to deliver a perfect masterpiece every time without incident for each client?  The answer is that we can't.  Every project is different and has different challenges.  Many firms take a 'cut and paste' approach to their work in order to avoid mistakes.  While this approach is common, it does not promote an environment of creativity.  

In order to be creative, you have to make mistakes.  If you have ever watched your kids, you will see that they have a certain way of learning that adults have long forgotten.  It starts with the phrase 'what happens if I do this?'.  Adults don't often ask those questions. We are trained to learn how to anticipate what will happen without having to do the test.   Educational expert Ken Robinson has said 'If you're not prepared to be wrong, you will never come up with anything original'.  As a designer this is as important a statement as 'Form Follows Function'.  

Louis Kahn was notorious for making big changes on projects well into the construction phase of his projects. If the process revealed something that he had not seen on paper, he would alter it in the field.   Although his clients did not welcome this exploration (and the resulting change orders I'm sure) there wasn't one who didn't rave about the end product.  Great design evolves.  It is not a static process. 

In summary, if you want to be a great Designer, you have to get your hands dirty.  You have to do the work.  You have to adjust and not be afraid of being wrong.  These are all traits that are counter cultural and will force you to unlearn what you have been taught.   It's not that great Designers don't follow the rules - it's that they understand them so well that they know how to break them.  Just be prepared for the fact that it might take 1,000 attempts to do something ground breaking.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Design off the shelf - the Top 5 Retail companies providing furniture and finishes you can afford (mostly)

If you haven't figured this out by now, I specify and purchase alot of furniture, fixtures, and finishes.  Often we have little time and modest budgets to completely transform a space.  Finding unique furniture and accessories is often a challenge when you are working with tight constraints.  To help out those in similar situations, I have put together a quick guide to the companies that I go to when I need to create a 'wow' factor using off the shelf items that have a bespoke look.  Before I reveal my top five picks, let me qualify the criteria I used to select the best companies.  In my mind, they have to have a diverse product line, offer great quality and value, have a mix of styles, and develop their own pieces.  Some of the more popular names did not meet most of these criteria.  For example, companies like Design Within Reach or Crate and Barrel have some great items but don't often make their own goods or limit their product lines.  They were considered, but in a pinch, I prefer the following five companies:

1- Restoration Hardware - What can I say about Restoration?  They are doing things right with true attention to detail and pieces of amazing character.  Their bath fixtures are works of art at half the price of Waterworks and their reclaimed wood furniture has all the charm of custom pieces.  If you find their running lines pricey, just wait for the sales as they often move out inventory regularly throughout the year.
2- Room and Board - Although they don't have many stores, Room and Board pays great attention to quality and timeless design.  They sell everything from Nelson lamps to Eames furniture and have the best values in sofas that I have seen.  They can custom upholster to your specifications and the prices are very reasonable.   I have personally owned several of their pieces and have never been disappointed.

3- FLOR - Need to change a room in a hurry?  Use paint and FLOR tiles and the transformation is complete.  FLOR has the most incredible range of carpet tiles that are easy to install and can be customized in an endless amount of combinations.  They have tiles ranging from graphic prints (such as Union Jacks and cowhides) to subtle textures to Cable Knit Sweaters.  They also have area rug kits pre-configured in tonal ranges.  Overall, they are a great value and the installation is a breeze. 

4- Mitchell Gold Bob Williams - If you have ever seen 'The Good Wife' on TV, you know that Alicia Flourick has some pretty good taste in decor.  What you might not know is that most of her apartment comes from MGBW.  The company has a wide range of styles and price points most of which are focused on gracious entertaining and family living.  I particularly like their upholstered items including beds and side chairs.  Definitely worth a look.

5- West Elm - Although West Elm is the least expensive company on our list, it certainly is not the least interesting.  With a product line that is constantly evolving and an emphasis on stylish modern decor, this company is definitely one of my favorite.  Not only do they tend to incorporate current trends and eco friendly sourcing into their play book but they always have an inspiring way to look at items that often get taken for granted such as mirrors or shelving.

Although I would never advise that you furnish your home all from a single source, I certainly encourage you to mix and match from reputable companies such as these.  We constantly are referring to these outlets as part of our Room Service package which creates custom designs for clients using off the shelf products ( 

Let me know what you think of these stores as well as any others that might be on your favorites list!

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

A Good Contractor is Hard to Find - here's how to look

Let's face it - If you are a meticulous designer, then you want your work to be as close to perfect as possible.  And for that to happen, you need to put your trust and intellectual property in the hands of other people to execute it.  Of course, there are a select few who do their own work, but often clients want to keep these parties separate to avoid conflicts of interest.  So whether you are an Architect putting your faith in a GC or a Graphic Designer sending a new campaign off to the printer, your credibility often lies in the hands of others. 

A few years ago, the economy forced a lot of good companies out of business.  Rising operating costs combined with less clients made it hard to stay in business.  As credit defaults increased, small business owners found it hard to get credit and buy new equipment.  Expansion was at a stand still.  Business Owners who had managed their companies for years now found themselves applying for jobs at Home Depot just to get benefits for their families.  

Now that the economy seems to have turned a corner, there appears to be huge shortage of skilled labor, particularly for smaller projects.  As an architect, I find it almost impossible to find a small contractor who wants to do a budget kitchen renovation or a dormer installation.  Anyone still in business is focused on the larger projects where the economies of scale make it more appealing.  I recently completed a 450 SF master suite addition where we had to bid the job to more than a dozen contractors just to find one that was qualified with reasonable pricing.  So what do you do when you need to find a great contractor who can work on a budget and has decent ethics and values?  Well, I have a few suggestions:

1- Form alliances - Just like on Survivor, you need to partner with other companies to make your work more appealing.  A contractor might not be interested in your one small job, but he might be interested in the ten jobs you can give him in a year.  If they perform well for you, make it clear you will give them all of your work.  
2- Trade time for quality - I know that every client wants to be done with a project yesterday, but good work truly can't be rushed.  There are a few solo practitioners out there who are 'old school' and do good work but they are generally slower and keep costs down by avoiding too much overhead.  These guys also tend not to have web sites but are listed in the phone book.
3- Ask people you trust - It may sound obvious and silly but every community group takes care of their own. Whether it's a church or a school, referrals need not always come from your work colleagues.  If you get a referral from the Pastor, it will likely be a solid one.
4- Hang out where the workers are - I have met alot of contractors at the building department while applying for permits.  These guys are the ones DOING work so they are always good people to talk to when you need a referral.  You can also observe how the people behind the counter talk to them and whether they get a 'Hi, can I help you' or a 'Hey Steve, how's it going?'.   I would not however, go to the Home Depot parking lot and look for workers there unless you don't care about how it comes out.  It needs to be a legitimate spot.

Of course, alot of people search online for people to work with at sites like Angie's List or through Linked In.  I have personally found that people who are trolling for work online or spending alot of time with online promotion are generally not out doing work.  Or if they have a larger staff, the cost of the work is usually more.  Someone has got to pay for all that marketing, right?  Of course, there are always exceptions, but I find the best contractors are often busy through word of mouth marketing.

So the next time you need to find someone to build your masterpiece, consider the above and don't give up if it takes a few tries to find the right partner.  It will definitely be worth the wait.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Designing Custom Closets using the IKEA Pax System

Let's face it, closets are a big deal.  While many people buy houses based on kitchens and bathrooms, a beautiful closet can really seal the deal for a buyer.     In today's market, most builders deal with closets by allocating a small room off the master bedroom and outfitting it with some wire shelving and carpet.  In older homes, spacious closets are simply non-existent.  The question then becomes how one can get more closet space without re-doing their entire floor plan.  One system that has yielded alot of success for us is the PAX system from IKEA.

Now for those of you who know my work, you have seen what is possible from IKEA in the kitchen (see  You may not be as familiar with IKEA in the bedroom.  I have always liked IKEA for their modern sensibilities and environmental consciousness.  I also like the idea that I am in control of the product from selection to assembly.  That being said, I have found ways to use simple PAX wardrobe units and make them look custom.  These solutions can be applied in both 'new build' applications as well as existing homes.  If executed properly, I think you will find that the PAX system can look every bit as custom as some of the pricier options.

1- The Product

The PAX closet is just a box with doors.  You choose the size of the box.  You choose the types of doors.  It's really that simple.  At the showroom, they have practically every configuration of sizes, colors, door styles, hardware, and interior fittings to show you the endless combinations possible.  The frames come in several colors including white, black-brown, and beech laminates.  The doors are available in either swinging or sliding configurations, depending on how much you want to spend.  The sliding doors are more expensive and have a sleeker look.  Once you have your configuration selected, it's time to customize it.

2- Customization

IKEA sells a range of accessories for the pax system including internal drawers  (I happen to love these) shoe organizers, shelves, trays, and garment hangers for practically every application.  You have to be careful about these additions because some of them look a little cheap.  The shoe organizer for example has plastic shoe trees that look very inexpensive.  Perhaps they will come out with some slide out wood shoe shelves in the future, but for now you have to really consider which accessories you need and which you can live without.   I tend to keep it simple using shelves and drawers as needed.  I try to maximize rod space by double stacking them where possible.  The bedroom below features a shelf, a rod, and two drawers on each side.

3- What the pros know

When people spend alot of money on custom closets, the closet planner usually takes the existing space and fills it with a variety of parts and pieces to make it all seem custom.  Since IKEA only offers a few different widths and heights, most people have to install the closets against a wall where the sides of the closets are exposed.  This makes the unit look like an afterthought.  In our work, we always try to build small nib walls that enclose the closet to create this 'built-in' look.  In some cases, we will even put headers over the nib walls to completely wrap the units.  This is the key to elevating the unit to something that looks custom. Below is an image of a project where we built the units into niches that were sized exactly on all sides:

4- Installing PAX in existing homes

If you want a custom look in an existing home, it's really not that difficult. The key is to pick a corner where there are no windows and then build one nib wall to match the width of the units you need.  If you want to put one into an existing closet, simply take the door and casing off and then either enlarge or reduce the rough opening of the door space to allow your new PAX to slide in. Most closets are 24" deep plus the depth of the wall (typically 5").  This will give you plenty of room to recess your PAX into the existing closet opening.

5- Negative Aspects

There are a couple of drawbacks to the PAX units.  The first is the sheer size of the cases.  Putting them together yourself can be a daunting task if you are  inexperienced with the units.  If you are not handy, you definitely need two people to turn the units upright without breaking it.  

The other negative is the changing door styles.  Similar to the kitchen cabinets, they often discontinue lines.  You used to be able to get full size glass sliders but they stopped selling them due to high breakage factors and increased packing and shipping costs.  Now they have lesser glass doors that you have to piece together.   Below is a door style that is no longer offered:

Summary - 

IKEA definitely has the tools to allow you to create something great.  Just remember to have help and buy all your parts at once.  With a little planning you can create a very high end installation at a do it yourself price.  

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Designing a better candidate

There is a widely accepted history of Abraham Lincoln that goes something like this:

In 1831, Abraham Lincoln failed in business.
In 1832, Abraham Lincoln was defeated for state legislator.
In 1833, Abraham Lincoln tried a new business, and failed.
In 1835, Abraham Lincoln’s fiance died.
In 1836, Abraham Lincoln had a nervous breakdown.
In 1843, Abraham Lincoln ran for congress and was defeated.
In 1848, Lincoln ran again, and was defeated. Again.
In 1855, Lincoln ran for the Senate, and lost.
In 1856, Lincoln ran for Vice President, and lost.
In 1859, Lincoln ran again for the Senate. He was defeated.
Then, in 1860, Abraham Lincoln ran for President and became the 16th President of the United States.  
Can you imagine if Lincoln was running today?  I can just see the ads - Lincoln in rehab after a nervous breakdown.  Lincoln's economic policies being ripped apart because he couldn't even run a business.  His opponents would paint him as a loser who has no business running for anything.   So with that in mind, how was he able to become one of the greatest leaders in history?  As you may have suspected from the title of this post, the answer is rooted in Design.
In nature, every thing is designed for a purpose.  It is our job as Designers and Architects to employ those things for the best possible purpose.  We do this with intent.  Most designers have a unique perspective that makes them interpret the world in a certain way.  This is the essence of our individuality and determines our path in life.  Our perspective.  
In politics today, it is hard to know who stands for what.  It seems the main purpose of being a politician is to raise money and spend it on marketing and PR.  The better the PR, the more likely you are to win.  That's where Lincoln went wrong.  For most of his life, he didn't have alot of money and he didn't have alot of power.  But he did have a unique perspective.  And in that sense, he was a true designer. 
Lincoln imagined the world that he wanted to live in much like Designers do.  He imagined a world where all Americans were united regardless of color or social standing.  He spoke out strongly against a government that permitted slavery and segregation. He made this position the foundation of his platform and he won the election of 1860 despite losing in practically every southern state in the Union.  After he was elected, the South was so outraged they started a war of secession.   And in those days, it probably would have been easy enough to let them go.  But as everyone knows, that just wasn't part of the design.  In his 'House Divided' speech of 1858 Lincoln stated that the plan was for all of us to be united, one way or the other.  Although Lincoln lost the Senate race that year, he did not change his plan.   Lincoln's mission was not really to be President.  His mission was to live his life in fulfillment of the way that he was designed.  He couldn't help being a leader.  If he wasn't a leader, he wouldn't have kept trying after every failure.  He wouldn't have stuck to his post when everyone else was telling him he was crazy.  Does this sound like anyone else you know?  Steve Jobs?  Frank Lloyd Wright?
It is certain that the current Presidential election will be the most expensive in history.  Hundreds of millions of dollars will be spent on TV ads, billboards, robocalls and bumper stickers.  This excessive spending comes at a time when most politicians are trying to get elected by saying we need to cut excessive spending.  The irony is amazing.  What I'd like to see is a return to the days where you have two people running on the strengths of their convictions without fear of having every mistake they ever made thrown at them on a screen.  Let there be a candidate who has a vision of the world that they want to live in with the acknowledgement that there will be consequences.  Let there be a candidate who wins a vote on the strength of their character and not the flaws in their opponent.  Let's see someone with a plan- or even a Design for the America of the future.  I think that a candidate like that would win - eventually.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

5 Things that Architects can learn from Doctors and Lawyers

It's no secret that Architecture is generally thought of as a noble profession.  Along with the idea that you get to create buildings out of thin air is also the responsibility of maintaining a professional license.  Many people consider being an Architect as being on par with Doctors and Lawyers when it comes to stature and salary.  Unfortunately, nothing could be further from the truth.  For years Architects have been engaging in deplorable behavior and the profession has suffered.  During the most recent recession, Architecture had one of the highest unemployment rates among all service professions.  In 2011, the New York Times said that Architecture graduates had the highest unemployment rate above any other field.  Doctors and Lawyers weren't even in the top 50.  So what can we learn from these other professions?  Here's a few of my own observations:

1- Architects need to specialize - If you were drafting a contract to buy a company, you would hire a corporate attorney.  If you were getting a divorce, you would hire a divorce attorney.  It's pretty simple.  Each of these areas of practice have specific skill sets that require attention to details.  Architecture is no different.  Designing a hospital is completely different than designing a fast food restaurant.  Unfortunately, most Architects will take any job that comes their way regardless of their skill set.  This results in more competition (which lowers overall wages) and lower quality buildings.   If Architects focused on a smaller group of practice areas then they could afford to focus on quality and details.  The best Architects of our time are the ones who are really good at a select group of building types. 

2- Architects should focus on regional practice - You won't see many doctors travelling from state to state to do surgeries.  It's not to say that they couldn't (they would have to get licensed by the board of each state).  It's mostly because they don't have to.  They charge enough money for their skills to stay within a fixed region.  Many doctors have affiliations with one or two hospitals that allow them to conduct business on their turf.  They don't have affiliations with 40 hospitals or try to make money on volume.  Architects who become known in a certain region or area tend to become a known entity and therefore have a large referral base.  Trying to practice in too many states or regions often results in producing generic buildings that have no sense of place and therefore devalue local real estate.

3- Architects should refer projects to other Architects - At one point or another everyone has gotten a referral from a doctor to go to a specialist.  Imagine if you specialized in designing pool houses and every time another Architect had a pool house in their project, they called you up?  It would never happen in the Architecture profession.  But it happens every day in the legal and medical professions.   Many of the best firms often partner with other firms that specialize or are local to a project instead of trying to do everything themselves.  Instead of cutting our fees to win every job, we could be sharing the work and raising the wages for everyone.  Which leads me to my next issue.

4- Architects should not be lowering their fees to get work - Recently my dentist told me that I needed a crown and it would be $1200.  I called another dentist and they told me it was also $1200.  Having a pricing standard ensures both a quality of care and guarantee of wage.  My dentist drives a new Mercedes while I have a 6 year old pick up truck.  I think they have the right idea.

5- Architects should be stand their ground with clients - I don't think there is a doctor around that would let a patient operate on themselves.  Most court cases I've seen have the lawyers doing the talking while the client sits by and watches.  Unfortunately in Architecture, many of our clients want to drive.  And of course we let them in the spirit of collaboration.  And while that can be productive in some situations, the bottom line is that you are the licensed professional and it's your name on the line.  At some point Architects need to stand up for themselves and take the reigns back on a project.   If we never do this as a profession, we will continue to end up with developer driven buildings that devalue our communities.  

The unfortunate part about all this is that it will take a uniform effort to make the profession better.  It's all or nothing when it comes to reform that works.  This kind of thing would be perfect for the AIA to work on.  After all, if Architects are specializing in certain areas (and referring work they aren't good at) it means they are doing better work.  And if they are doing better work, then the values in communities start to rise.  If the values in communities start to rise it means that people have more assets.  If people have more assets, they can spend more.  If they can spend more then we can charge more for our services.  And if we can charge more for our services then we can take on fewer projects and do better work.  It's a circle that Doctors and Lawyers know well.  So why don't Architects do it?

Monday, May 21, 2012

My love of Vintage Pyrex

One of the first things I ever bought as an independent apartment dweller was a big yellow Pyrex mixing bowl.  I got it at one of those NYC flea markets that they hold on the weekends in a parking lot. It didn't have any chips, but was pretty scratched up and I used it mostly to mix bread dough.  I have always loved making my own bread and this little number was a score at $10. 

Growing up, my mother had alot of older and more interesting sets, most of them blue and white or turquoise and white.  There was the occasional sunflower pattern or stray dish with circles on it, but for the most part she had the more traditional varieties. My summers were filled with bowls full of jello, macaroni salad, and marshmallow abrosia.  Strange to say, but I feel like most kids today don't get to experience alot of those kinds of memories.

I have always found extreme beauty in things that were made to be used.  I never viewed these bowls as anything less than useful.  As I became aware of more patterns and sizes, and types (the butter dish is a unique example) somehow the whole collection became more amazing.  William Morris once said "Have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful."  Amen to that brother.

When contemplating new products for our shop at Pocono Modern, I had the idea to pay homage to the ridiculously hip Pyrex of the 50's and 60's by creating a kind of visual documentary.  The result is our new poster which can be seen below (click to enlarge):

Although most of us will never own all of these collections, I am proud to say that my big yellow bowl is perched on the top as a crown sits on the head of a king.  Now everyone can have some retro Pyrex in their own kitchen.

This poster is 11 x 17 and available through the Pocono Modern shop at ($16)

Monday, May 14, 2012

The Most Creative People

I had to chuckle slightly after reading Fast Company's list of the 100 Most Creative People in Business.  Let me start by saying that I enjoy Fast Company as a publication and I am especially fond of their website.  If Facebook had a blog, I imagine it would look like their website.  In any case, I went through the list of creatives expecting to find some unknown talent or some up and comer that they had combed through mountains of mediocrity to find.  Unfortunately this was not the case.  The list was populated with celebrities, corporate executives, and accomplished creatives all building on their existing accomplishments.  

No disrespect to the celebrities, but if you make $20M a year, it's not that difficult to start a new project that allows you to be creative.  I have a hard time believing that Shaquille O'Neal is going to win the Pritzker.  I also don't imagine that companies like Starbucks and have a hard time attracting good talent, although some of their top people are on this list.

And while I am glad that Fast Company is celebrating creativity in some way, I would like to offer some alternate judging criteria for next year's list.  I would propose to celebrate the following:

1- People who are doing groundbreaking work in some field without any funding, assistance, or leverage other than their own passion and determination.
2- People who use their talents to help other people rather than prioritize fiscal gain.
3- Companies who are pursuing an impossible goal that one day may be possible.
4- People who have triumphed over ridicule and criticism to prove their critics wrong.  

I don't know about you, but these are the kinds of figures that inspire me, particularly when it comes to being creative.  Cee Lo Green 1995 is way more inspiring to me than Cee Lo Green 2012.  Food for thought.  

If you'll excuse me, I have to go look at Justin Timberlake's new home line. He's apparently partnered with a designer to start a curated web site offering daily deals.  It's a good thing as it must be difficult for him to get all that press on his own...

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Has Dwell Magazine become irrelevant?

As someone who has built a life around being a proponent of Modern Design, I find myself supporting and gravitating towards companies that have similar philosophies.  In October of 2000 I remember walking by a news stand in NYC and seeing the Premiere Issue of a new magazine called Dwell.  The cover was bold.  A big steel box of a house with a woman and her dog sitting in front of it.  The heading under the title said 'AT HOME IN THE MODERN WORLD' in all caps with a lovely sans serif font.  The features listed on the cover had tag lines like 'Design for Real People' and 'The Most Beautiful Vacuum Cleaners on Earth'.  I was drawn from the start and picked up a copy.  

When I got it home I read the first issue from cover to cover and salivated at both the publisher's mission and the editor's opening remarks.  They were brilliant.  Lara Hedberg (publisher) led with the tag line : From the Robie House to Our House and talked eloquently about we should aspire to create homes that fulfill our deep longing for meaning and beauty.  Editor Karrie Jacobs went a step further.  She wanted to stage a minor revolution.  Her beautifully written introduction talked about how the design community has a desire to try and show architecture as this perfect and unattainable being.  Dwell was aiming to give it back to regular ordinary people and this inspired me.  From then on, I waited on every issue and saw the magazine grow and develop to reach thousands of new readers every month.

By 2006 each issue was the size of a local phone book filled with page after page of enviable goods and projects.  Despite the change in editors (I believe they are currently on their fourth in 12 years) there seemed to be a continuity of thought that made me believe I could be part of this revolution.  Year after year went on and slowly the mission changed. It seemed that the book was getting thinner and thinner as advertising revenue across the industry tanked.  The magazine started to lend their name to conferences and consumer partnerships (such as a tile line with Heath ceramics) and the revolution started to fizzle.  It seemed that all of the energy of the original mission was now going into generating revenue to keep the ship afloat.  Today the magazine arrives about as thick as the original issue, which is pretty thin.  I used to devote a solid two hours to reading each volume and now it takes me all of eight minutes.  All of the original tenacity and gumption have been replaced with project after project of designs that seem as impractical and unattainable as the designs they once condemned.   

Now I suppose you could argue that shelter magazines as a whole are tanking.  Domino closed and even Martha Stewart couldn't sustain the popular Blueprint brand.  But I would disagree when you see books like Elle Decor, House and Home, Elle Decor UK, Living ETC, and Inside Out growing by the month. Even Atomic Ranch and Modernism haven't lost their luster through the recession and I even found myself picking up recent issues of Architectural Digest, which is amazing in and of itself.  These books have survived by focusing on their core audience and not concerning themselves with trying to grow beyond their brand.  I think this is a lesson Dwell could definitely learn from.

Of course there will always be people discovering Dwell for the first time and falling head over heels. But for my part I will not be renewing my subscription and I am very sad to say that.  I wish the magazine went back to it's original desire to show the average person about meaning and beauty in the home as opposed to finding the craziest places around the world which most people will never even come close to living in.  

Karrie Jacobs once wrote that Dwell wanted to demonstrate that a modern house could be a comfortable one.  If only it were so.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Caine's Arcade - The beauty of a child's imagination

Many of you who read my blog know that Architecture and Design is very personal to me.  My core belief is that the world would be a much better place if we simply considered our surroundings and our actions in those surroundings a little more.

Today I saw a story about a boy who embodies those hopes more than any I have seen in recent years.  His name is Caine and he has created an amazing world solely for himself.  His work is exceptional.  His optimism is inspiring.  He sees a beautiful world that no one else sees.  Most people today see a world blighted by all sorts of problems.  Kids don't see these things.  They see opportunity and wonder.  

You hear alot about the conditions we are 'leaving to our grandchildren'.  If we empowered more kids to be like Caine, the world would be an amazing place indeed.  Please take a few minutes to watch his story (click on the link below) and show your support by sharing this in some way.

Friday, April 6, 2012

The new rules of Retail Design

It's no secret that internet retailers have been taking market share from brick and mortar stores over the last few years.  Recent numbers suggest that half of all merchandise is purchased online now as compared to about 10% a few years ago.  With that being said, large and small stores seem to be at a crossroads:  either they rebrand themselves every few years to stay relevant or they close up.  You may be familiar with JC Penney's recent re-launch including a new logo, new store design, and a new marketing campaign flaunting incredible customer consideration.  The commercials seem well timed around the election year antics where normal people go into 'angry mob' mode and start rebelling against the establishment.  All things considered, I applaud what JC Penney is trying to do.  Unfortunately, I feel they are ignoring some very basic principles of retail design.  If you plan on opening your own shop or mega store anytime soon I suggest you review the following guidelines for retail design:

1- Set the mood - There's a reason that stores like Anthropologie and Ralph Lauren spend alot of money on window dressing.  It creates an impression before you even walk in the door. If you don't have alot of window space you need to create a dramatic entry.  Most department stores ignore this completely.  You come in the store and you're knee deep in some department.  This is one of those bad habits that companies keep repeating.  User experience is everything in retail.  There's a reason that Abercrombie pumps that obnoxious cologne into the air right by the door.  You've got to grab people right at the gate or they're gone.

2- Big stores are out - Sorry department stores, but your days are numbered.  You can't stock 150,000 products and expect to make money on each one.  It's not because it can't be done, it's because web sites can do it better for less money.  The most profitable brick and mortar stores are the ones that drive the most revenue in the least footprint.  You could fit 50 Apple stores in the average Macy's.  Which one do you think makes more money?  I was surprised to see that the new JC Penney store was the same size as the old one. I would have thought they would have focused on highlighting their best selling products in a fresh new (and more efficient) environment.  Instead they've just jumbled up their departments and created a bunch of new fixtures and displays.  The problem is that it's hard to make 200,000 SF look good in a store trying to compete in the budget friendly arena. 

3- It's better to have good product than discounts - I have never gotten a coupon for 50% any drink at Starbucks.  So why are they so crowded when nothing is ever on sale?  The answer is because they spend their money on creating a good product and not giving it back in the form of a sale.  Even Wal-mart can't give you an Ipod any cheaper than the Apple store.  People will line up for something that makes them feel special but it has to be something special.  If you read the labels of the clothes at most stores, it's amazing how few of them have natural materials.  I think the Wal-mart effect has run its course and people are tired of having to replace everything they own every 6 months.  There is a movement towards quality and it's hard to do that unless you focus on a core group of products. 

4- Invest in Design - Great retail brands have iconic images. I know it sounds like common sense but companies that invest in creating more interesting environments reap the benefits of more loyal customers who spend more per purchase.  It's no coincidence that when McDonald's created a new store design prototype featuring classic mid century inspired interiors that they launched a line of new burgers and salads that are comparably priced to a real restaurant.  Better user experience equals more money.  Time and time again, Good Design is Good Business. 

These four guidelines are just the beginning of what it takes to build a retail empire.  Whether your business is a day spa or a cupcake bakery, keep in mind that creating a great user experience has to be in the DNA of the design from the early stages.  Without it, you will find yourself struggling to maintain a competitive edge against your competition.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

The Truth about Ikea Kitchen Cabinets

It's no surprise that the kitchen is probably the most common home renovation that people choose to do.  It's the place where everyone ends up as well as the part of the house where the food and drinks are.  I have probably designed and built over 20 kitchens in the last 8 years and I have used various cabinet companies ranging from totally custom to off the shelf.  As is the case with many projects, budget is usually a concern and for that reason, we use alot of IKEA cabinets.  If you are considering using them on a project, I suggest you read on.

Every project I have done for Pocono Modern has used IKEA cabinets and I would say that I am fairly proficient in making IKEA products look custom.  However, the question most often asked about IKEA cabinets is about the quality.  I have broken out my analysis into five major categories:

- Construction
- Door / Drawer Styles
- Hardware
- Variety of Components / Accessories
- Appearance

1- Construction

The construction of an IKEA cabinet frame (AKURUM) is particle board with a white or beech colored plastic laminate.  Overall, this is pretty low quality but to be honest, not that far off from a more expensive Kraft Maid cabinet.  Most production line cabinets today have particle board substrates covered by either melamine, laminate, or wood veneer.  Only custom cabinet makers will use solid plywood for the frames and that will cost you big dollars.  I actually prefer the particle board cabinets because they are more stable (plywood can sometimes warp over time)  and they make them from wood chips, which is more eco friendly.  But that being said, you hardly ever see the cabinet frame, especially if you have drawer units, so it's not much of a priority to me personally.  The other variable is that you assemble the frames yourself using locking cams.  For this reason, I can verify the soundness of the connections and even add glue in the joints if I like.  I would say though that the final quality of the unit depends alot on the assembler so if you are careful then you will end up with a good quality cabinet.  If you are the kind of person who doesn't use up all the nails when you install the back then IKEA may not be for you.  

2- Door / Drawer Styles

The door (or drawer) style is the part of the cabinet that you actually see and in that area, I believe IKEA brings the good stuff.  Unlike the frames, many of the doors and drawers are solid with good quality wood veneer.  The painted finishes tend to vary slightly, (particularly in the Ramsjo line) but overall they have a good variety and hit many different price points from dirt cheap laminates to better priced Oak.  They even have glass doors and lacquered style colors.  Overall the variety and quality are impressive at this price point but you need to be very careful about discontinued lines.  If you think you may want to add a cabinet in the future, be prepared for the possibility that they may stop making that line and you won't be able to get it.  This has happened to me twice.  First with the Oak Tidaholm line (below) and then with the medium brown Nexus style.

Tidaholm Line (discontinued)

3- Hardware

IKEA has made great strides with their hardware.  And by hardware, I do not mean the knobs and pulls but the interior drawer glides, hinges, dampers, and legs.  The drawer and door dampers prevent slamming of parts and provide a nice easy glide upon shutting.  The hinges are of the same or better quality than you would find in a comparable special order cabinet.  They are all pretty easy to install, except for the door dampers, which I always have trouble snapping in.  Note to IKEA: work on easier to install door dampers.  They have also added decorative legs so your cabinets can sit off the ground, which I like very much.  They come in three different heights so you can even use shorter cabinets to get different effects.  If you choose to go with the standard black plastic legs, they offer matching toe kicks that snap right on.  Overall, IKEA gets high marks on the internal hardware, especially when you compare it to the junk they were using a few years back.  As for knobs and pulls, I find that their own line is far better priced than anything you can buy at the big box stores, especially the modern bar pulls.  

4- Variety of Components / Accessories

This is probably the single biggest flaw with the IKEA line.  Looking for a flip down sponge drawer?  They don't have it.  Want a narrow spice cabinet?  They don't have it.  Looking for options on a corner unit.  Sorry, they just have  a couple.  Although their line is fairly diverse in terms of door and drawer fronts, they keep the amount of components fairly limited to certain sizes and options.  I suppose this is because they make so many parts and pieces that they have to stick with what sells.  I have often hoped that they would add pull out drawer units for garbage and recycling bins, but alas, none have come along.  If you want unique parts and pieces then I'm afraid you're stuck with what they have.  If you can get over the limits of their running line, then I would say that is the biggest hurdle.

Two toned Ramsjo Kitchen 

5 - Appearance

This last category is entirely up to you.  I have found that when assembled correctly with the right amount of additional details (lighting, hardware, windows, etc..) an IKEA kitchen can look every bit as custom as one 3x the price.  Of course it will never compare to a custom cabinet with inset doors (as opposed to overlay doors which is all IKEA makes) but for the money I don't think you can find a better deal.  Just be sure to get a second opinion on the planning as the standard work triangle is not the only consideration for a functional kitchen.  You need to make sure you have the proper clearances for walking by, the proper support for countertops, and enough room to open doors and drawers.

Below are a few more samples of other IKEA kitchens that we've done.  Please also leave your feedback on anything you feel is good or bad with the systems.  Maybe IKEA will catch on to our suggestions in the next generation.

Nexus Black Brown
Nexus Medium Brown (discontinued)

In summary, IKEA cabinets can really pull off a quality look if you plan it properly and take time with the assembly.  They are limited in cabinet types and accessories, but the money you save will allow you to spend more on countertops and lighting which really add to a kitchen.  However, if you truly desire a custom kitchen with solid wood construction and specific finishes, there is no substitute for a quality cabinet shop.  Just be prepared to spend considerably more.

01 May 2013 - To date, over 50,000 people have read this blog post. We appreciate all the comments and support!  If you found this post helpful, please support our sponsors by clicking on ad!  Even one little click helps tremendously!  Thanks to everyone for your help.  Check out our other IKEA related posts below - 

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Monday, January 23, 2012

The Future of Hospitality Design

Sometime in the 90's I remember reading about the home that Bill Gates was having built in Washington.  The article was several pages long but the only thing I remember was how it described the guest experience.  The article said that a visitor to the home would be given a pin that tracked them as they moved throughout the house.  As they would enter a room, the house would sense their arrival and change all of the art on the walls to their favorite art and all of the music in the air to their favorite music.  Their preferences would have been provided weeks in advance on a questionnaire that they would have filled out.  They would be served their favorite foods and anything pertaining to their hobbies or interests would also be available.  I remember thinking at the time that this was sort of creepy in an Orwellian way.  Little did I realize that Gates had figured out the very essence of Hospitality, even if he was going about it in a strange kind of way.

Hospitality is defined as the relationship between guest and host; the art of being hospitable.  It is about welcoming your guests and ensuring that they are well provided for.  In recent weeks I had asked a group of close friends and colleagues "What was the best hospitality experience you ever had?"  I said that it didn't necessarily have to be a 'hotel' and that it could be a B and B, a friend's house, a relative's place, or whatever.  Surprisingly most people chose an experience that they had over the place itself.  For example, one friend said that the most enjoyable vacation they'd had was renting a little shore bungalow with some friends.  Another cited an Inn that was part of a special trip but they couldn't even remember the name of the place.  And my own wife picked a bed and breakfast that served afternoon tea with fresh baked scones. 

What this experiment confirmed to me is that people remember how they feel at a place more than they remember the place itself.  You always remember an experience that is out of the ordinary or when someone goes out of their way to make your stay more pleasurable.  Having worked in the Hospitality Design industry for a number of years you get accustomed to hearing phrases like 'brand standards' or 'signature elements.'  Some hotels even have proprietary 'scents' that are pumped in through the duct work.  Unfortunately, this uniformity tends to counteract the idea of being hospitable.  It takes the personal element out of the equation, which is essential to a good Hospitality experience.

Fortunately, a new group of young companies are out to change all that.  These companies are out to create geographically specific and lifestyle oriented destinations that don't try to please everyone.  I remember staying at the ACE hotel in Portland, Oregon and finding a record player with a crate of vinyl in my room.  I will never forget how cool that felt.  The desk looked like it came from an old army barrack and the bedspread and pillows looked like something from a camping trip.  When I went down to the restaurant, there were more locals there than hotel guests.  This was truly a unique kind of place and the food was fresh and delicious.  Definitely not hotel food.  Companies like ACE along with others such as King and Grove have tapped into a timeless element that has long been forgotten in the Hospitality industry.  They are making destinations that are all about experiencing the place and sharing it with their guests instead of drugging them with rewards points or an all you can eat breakfast buffet.  And while the new face of hospitality may be smaller more niche oriented properties, this kind of development will create more variety in the market and more choice for the consumer. 

So the next time you are looking for a cool place to stay, get off and check out the feedback on trip advisor.  You just might find something unique that makes you feel like a human again.