Design, Culture, and Style

What’s the Right Digital Rendering Solution for You?

Just how important are digital renderings and virtual walk-throughs for clients? Even in today’s distanced world, the answer isn’t always straightforward.

Digital rendering software and virtual walk-throughs abound these socially distanced days, but sometimes old-school still gets the top grade. For Brooklyn-based designer Danielle Fennoy, providing super-lifelike imagery “hasn’t been a huge requirement. I do it on occasion, usually for something that’s pretty complicated.” But in many cases her clients are fine with hand sketches and mood boards. “Or, they just trust me,” she observes with a laugh.


Rina Okawa, who runs the interior design department at ZEN Associates near Boston, comes down in a different place. “Being adaptable and having clear communications by email, phone, or virtual conference has become even more important during this pandemic, and 3D modeling is definitely a helpful tool. Our responsibility is to produce models efficiently, economically, and realistically—all at the same time, which can be challenging,” she says. Peter White, the ZEN Associates principal who heads the company’s landscape practice, agrees: “I like to show that we provide it as a service, and most clients say ‘Yes, let’s go there.’”


One thing that is clear, however, is that the array of software options for creating renderings continues to grow, and the economics of providing such graphic aids are changing. Especially for smaller firms that aren’t always perched comfortably on well-upholstered budgets, success can be a matter of putting together the right jigsaw puzzle of what visuals to offer and how best to obtain them. And those puzzle pieces unquestionably come in multiple shapes and sizes.


The typical starting point for digital visualizations is a project’s basic layout, executed via 3D modeling software. Programs with this functionality can vary greatly in capabilities, complexity, and price: from the popular Trimble SketchUp (available in versions that range from free to $1,199 a year) up to big-ticket, all-inclusive building information modeling (BIM) packages such as Vectorworks Designer or Revit from Autodesk, with an annual levy in the thousands of dollars.


Your wireframe models can then have beautifully detailed surface textures, lighting, atmospheric effects, and animations applied through a rendering engine such as Lumion or Chaos Group’s V-Ray. Generally also incorporated are asset libraries of vegetation, people, furniture, accessories, vehicles, street props, and other items that can be popped into your project views. Again, there is a spectrum of pricing, with feature-rich combos like Autodesk 3ds Max occupying the high end. (Note that the more comprehensive BIM suites will have rendering tools built in, so you might not need to spring for a separate rendering program.)


Another important question: DIY digital rendering or call in an expert? As with so many aspects of life, higher quality means a bigger investment in terms of time as well as money. Is it more cost-effective to have an outside agency do the heavy lifting? Are 3D and virtual presentations so much a part of your workflow that it’s worth assigning a team member to specialize in fashioning them?


For Fennoy, outsourcing is the way to go. “Having someone else do it could be $500 to $1,000, while paying our hourly rate to do it could cost $2,000,” she says. “So I farm that out. It’s faster, less expensive, and it’s not taking away from other things I could be doing in the office.”


Boston’s Flavin Architects, on the other hand, has worked out an in-house system that fits the firm perfectly. According to project architect Bryan Apito, “Our visualization has moved toward showing 3D. We still orchestrate a few specific views of the project to have our talking points, but then our sequence is to show clients the 3D model and fly around a little bit. It really helps get them excited for the project, it keeps them engaged.” Firm principal Colin Flavin prefers not to go the full photorealism route too soon—“We want to focus starting with the big picture, and then move into materiality later”—so earlier iterations mostly employ SketchUp wireframes that have had semitransparent elements such as trees, rocks, and people layered in using Photoshop.


For a final, immaculate depiction, though, or the all-important image that will be seen on construction site signage, Flavin sends out to the professional visualization staff at Notion Workshop in Idaho.


The programs mentioned so far are time-intensive and most frequently used to prepare presentations in advance. One offering, Enscape, however, bills itself differently. The business’s website states that “with Enscape’s real-time technology, your project is visualized as a fully rendered 3D walk-through, which can be navigated and explored from every angle, in any time of day.” Changes made in linked CAD drawings are instantly visible in Enscape. The application’s price point, too, could prove a potent lure for the budget-conscious; licenses run less than $60 per month.


Amra Tareen and her team at the San Francisco start-up ALL3D have taken another path, devising a browser-based “self-serve” platform that allows users to generate 3D models, static images, and virtual tours. One example: Chicago’s Skyline Furniture has just partnered with ALL3D to make a set of “visitable” online apartments that serve as showrooms for the company’s new collections. They’re meant to replace in-person displays at the trade shows many buyers aren’t particularly eager to attend right now. “We were trying to reinvent how we would get to customers,” observes Skyline president Meganne Wecker. She took the opportunity to “open it up, remove the four walls we’re normally constrained by, and really start to live with how people are shopping right now.”


Tareen sees her highly affordable service as “the Shopify for a 3D solution,” with a simple web interface that gets users up and running quickly. For interior designers, might this mean an end to assembling room mockups in Photoshop?


You may feel you’re faced with a menacing thicket of choices, but researching and assembling the menu of 3D and virtual presentation options that best fits your situation is almost certainly worth it. Electronic meetings are on the increase, even without a global pandemic. In those settings, the key, as Danielle Fennoy puts it, is “how quickly you can show a client an idea without spending hours and hours of your time. Rendering works when you use it, for sure!”

—Published on, September 24, 2020


5 Solid Business Learnings to Emerge From COVID-19

Is it possible that you’ll remember 2020 as a good year for your business?

It’s safe to say we’re all feeling a bit off-centered by the barrage of pandemic-related upsets and bad news. Lockdowns, staff dislocation, client worries, and glitches in supply chains have disrupted designers’ routines both at the office and at home—assuming the two are even distinguishable anymore. 


Yet times of great challenge and uncertainty can, as the proverb runs, also be times of great opportunity. So the question arises: What beneficial effects—lessons learned or changes made, obvious or unanticipated—has COVID-19 brought about?


1. Getting nudged down a path you’ve considered taking before. 
Boston’s Vani Sayeed spent her early shelter-in-place days obsessed with accounting. She’d been wanting to shift to a different system for some time, but could never quite make the leap. “We were always so busy,” she says. “We were like, ‘I don’t have the time to learn new software, right?’” March shutdowns quickly shifted that equation. “If at all, this is the time,” she thought, and began polling a handful of friends in the trade. One suggested a bookkeeping, management, and purchasing service called Designer Advantage—which turned out to be located only 10 minutes away from Sayeed’s office. “I liked what they had to offer, and went with them,” she notes happily. “It’s so much stress off my back, and my team’s back.”

2. Fast-tracking communications and decision-making. 
“The main thing is that we have more business” since the virus arrived, says Rayman Boozer of Apartment 48. “When New York closed down, a lot of our clients started going to their summer or country houses to live until things blew over. And they would get there and think, ‘Okay, we need to change some stuff.’” Public health concerns meant virtual meetings, of course, and that has unexpectedly been a boon. “The experience is a lot more streamlined,” Boozer observes. He has begun to more thoroughly edit the options that homeowners see, and “things are happening faster because people feel like they need to make decisions.” Projects that would formerly have taken a year are now being turned around in three months.


3. Really plugging into your support network. 
Shared struggles have encouraged bonding for homebound professionals. Sayeed checks in regularly with two different small groups, one geographically dispersed and one local, for advice and moral support. Topics for conversation might range from how to deal with builders to mourning a dead pet. The enhanced intimacy matters, she says. In normal times, these are people “you’d just see at events and casually here and there. To actually have heart-to-heart conversations is nice; it’s nice to have the sense of community.” Boozer’s interactions with the Black Artists + Designers Guild have been much the same. “Once the COVID-19 shutdown happened, we started having weekly meetings,” he explains. The group “was like a directory before, but now it’s almost like a club.”


4. Optimizing your use of showroom resources and online ordering. 
Although travel and shipping restrictions have impeded availability for many items, some folk have adapted admirably. “Everybody has such good websites,” Sayeed says. “I never took advantage of that. The staff in Boston’s showrooms are so well versed in design that you can say ‘This is what I’m looking for,’ and they’ll shop the room for you and send it overnight.” The situation in Dallas is similar, according to Susan Bednar Long. “Everyone is in the same boat. Before, you would never get an email back after 5 p.m. Now they’ll respond at 10 o’clock at night. Because I’m always working, that is definitely a positive.” Long has also adjusted some of her sourcing. “During the pandemic I’ve been focusing on the secondhand/antique/vintage market. Because I know an item is in the city, I can go look at it and pick it up in my car.”


5. Rethinking how you really, truly want to do business. 
For Julia Buckingham in Chicago, the past seven months have impelled a total reconsideration of her role. Her practice has been multistranded, including a full-service interiors studio, a branded collection with Global Views, and a brick-and-mortar shop. At this point, however, it appears her future may lie elsewhere. “I’ve been speaking to two different international companies about going in with them and doing something on the corporate side,” she says. This doesn’t mean giving up all she has earned as a small-business owner; hard-won connections with other designers and elsewhere within the industry would remain in play. Nonetheless, “there’s a sense of peace and ease where I don’t necessarily have to do everything,” she says. “I can bring my expertise, but no longer be 100 percent responsible for my bottom line.”


Despite pronouncements of doom that tend to dominate the media these days, the picture for design firms isn’t entirely gloomy. Glinting within the turmoil are some little flashes of silver linings. If nothing else, current difficulties have encouraged members of the design community to devote the same degree of imagination to their own lives that they habitually give to their clients. Flexibility and openness to change will always enable the best outcomes.


Who knows? Maybe by December 31, rather than rushing to obliterate all memory of 2020 in a haze of celebratory cocktails, you’ll instead be toasting a moment that proved to be a turning point, or, perhaps, a new beginning.

—Published on, October 21, 2020


4 Art Sourcing Options You May Not Have Considered

Out-of-the-ordinary alternatives to explore in your next search for the perfect piece


The extra visual jolt of a perfectly placed work of art may easily spell the difference between so-so and stellar design. Yet most designers also know that the quest for precisely the right piece isn’t necessarily an easy—or quick—process.


There’s no shortage, of course, of online outlets for paintings, prints, drawings, posters, and similar favorites. Generally searchable by size, medium, dominant color, or subject matter, these sites can be helpful solutions for getting something up on the wall. When the hunt is on for a particularly special something, though—that’s when designers can never have too many resources from which to draw.


Calling in the art-sourcing experts is one strategy with a long pedigree: private dealers and art advisers have been giving personalized guidance to collectors for centuries. More recent on the scene are companies that combine the functions of gallery, consultant, framer, and installer into a single, unified package. One such is Boston Art, whose 22 staff members work with corporate, academic, health care, hospitality, and—increasingly—residential clients to plan custom art programs for an entire home or other environment.


The firm assisted interior designer Starr Daniels, for example, in kitting out a Massachusetts condominium with a panoply of prints, photography, and sculptural pieces that delighted the homeowners and dovetailed flawlessly with the design scheme. “They’re flexible, they aim to please,” Daniels says of her colleagues in the process, noting it “was easier for me as a designer than going to multitudes of different galleries.”


“Residential projects can be really fun from our end,” says Boston Art president John Kirby, “because we help people articulate their vision by showing dynamite options they wouldn’t have been expecting.”


Developments in technology, too, are opening up new vistas for incorporating high-impact art into a space. Germany’s WhiteWall is launching Masterprint, a service that can turn photographs or other digital image files into seamless, crisply detailed pigment prints at heroic scale—up to 196 by 94 inches. The prints are then sandwiched between a sturdy aluminum composite backing and gallery-quality acrylic glass, making them ready for wall-mounting as is, or they can be ordered with a number of suitably sleek framing styles.


Looking to customize? “We are very open when it comes to partnerships with architects and designers,” asserts WhiteWall founder and CEO Alexander Nieswandt. “We’ll try to implement everything we can within the framework of what’s possible.”


The first Masterprints were produced in collaboration with Cologne-based photographer Erik Chmil, who is now a fervent partisan. “For me this was the perfect match. The images work in my book Solitude in a small format, but when you have just one picture hanging in a room [as a large-scale print] you can lose yourself in all the details.”


Often overlooked is the world of fiber art, which is vastly more stylish and diverse than you might think. Rhonda Brown and Tom Grotta have championed the field since 1987 through their Connecticut gallery browngrotta arts. The pair have shown and sold pieces executed in materials such as flax, paper, tree bark, fish skin, glass beads, and copper wire, fashioned by a blue-chip roster of artists from all over the world.


Many of the works are sculptural and by no means confined solely to wall display, which can make them a good choice for stairways and other unusually shaped locations. And metal constructions or some natural, non-dyed textiles, for instance, can also hang in sunlight.


Brown and Grotta have cultivated designer ties since the beginning—Jack Lenor Larsen was an early supporter—and they thrive on consultation and dialogue. Grotta has even evolved a “virtual placement” service to help clients envision how an installation will look. Their enthusiasm for what they do remains infectious after 33 years. “It’s still a great field that people can collect at a good price point, ” Brown says.


Another area that perhaps hasn’t yet registered on your acquisitions radar: video, interactive, and other new-media art forms. Installations including electronic or screen-based elements have rapidly gained favor with museums and collectors, and can feel surprisingly fresh in a residential setting.


“There are so many exciting things that can be done beyond traditional work” says Steven Sacks, founder and director of Manhattan’s bitforms gallery, which has focused on creators in the digital sphere since 2001. A favorite, for him, is the concept of using a dedicated screen as a canvas for art. Multiple works can be displayed, as long as they fit the 16:9 screen ratio, and a company called Niio has even marketed a user-friendly app that lets owners manage their collection from their phone. There are “all types of interesting kinetic works,” Sacks adds, that, even when turned off, “have a physicality, a form that can still create a dialogue in the home. But when they’re on, they have this magical quality of movement that really brings a place to life in a very special way.”


Imagination is a designer’s stock-in-trade, and never more so than when sleuthing out distinctive finds. So why not investigate all the paths, especially the less-traveled ones, that could lead toward your goal? There’s a worthy prize waiting at journey’s end: that unique work of art to lift your clients’ hearts and truly make a room sing..

—Published on, November 4, 2020