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!