The Case for Design Diversity

Australian poet, TV broadcaster, and critic (among other things) Clive James, in the introduction to his 2007 collection of biographical essays, Cultural Amnesia, refers to the “creative impulse,” which “[can] be distinguished from the destructive one by its propensity to increase the variety of the created world rather than reduce it.” Reading this recently gave me a wry chuckle, since I had also recently been involved in (separate) conversations with two architects who seemed to feel differently. One, while praising the unarguably worthy work of the Institute of Classical Architecture & Art, also maintained that no architecture without a basis in the classical Greco-Roman orders was of any value whatever. The other, an enthusiastic advocate for contemporary forms, felt that any modern-day domestic design showing pre-twentieth-century influences was a form of empty duplication, lacking authentic imagination. (It’s possible that I am exaggerating their views, but not by much.)

 

Human beings naturally have likes and dislikes when it comes to aesthetics, but I don’t understand why those preferences so often have to be expressed by excluding other possibilities. The working assumption here at New England Home is that valid design can be done in almost any style, provided that the ­creator engages with the required issues of craft, utility, and visual interest in an honest, innovative way. That word innovative is key, though: simply reproducing, or mixing and matching, someone else’s earlier designs by rote doesn’t really take us anyplace interesting. 

 

Unlike many national and international design publications, which must, because they all cover essentially the same territory, define themselves by espousing a particular approach or look, New England Home is defined by its geography: the upper right-hand corner of the U.S. Therefore, we are free to feature the full range of work being done by the top talents in our region, regardless of what tradition they do or don’t follow. And that, for me, is one of the delights of working here. The living spaces you see in these pages will not always be places where you personally would want to live. But, if we have done our jobs well, they will always be places that are imaginatively conceived and well constructed—and that, we think, contain design elements even our many readers in the trade will find intriguing and perhaps learn from.

 

So, in our small way, we hope to do our part to aid the “creative impulse” in increasing the variety of New England’s built world.

—From the September-October 2016 issue of New England Home

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A Selection of Editor’s Letters
from New England Home

 

Summer’s Dusky Delights

The first time I saw Ingmar Bergman’s Smiles of a Summer Night, I thought it was mostly fantasy. I was an undergraduate, it was a stifling July night in Cambridge, and even a walk along the Charles River hadn’t turned up a wisp of relieving breeze. So a few of us retired to the, shall we say, not overdecorated apartment of a film-buff friend, and sweated onto his futon as we watched a handful of crazy Scandinavians enjoy their own version of the season.

 

Since then, having spent a bit more time in northern Europe during midsummer, I’ve come to understand that Bergman was in fact a consummate realist. People do go a bit nuts in that part of the world when both the temperature and the sun stay high enough.

 

What’s more, the madness is catching. Even casual visitors at slightly lower latitudes—in Amsterdam, say—can be struck down without warning. Imagine: at more or less the expected time, it begins to look and feel like evening. One happens on an outdoor dining room in a quiet, beautifully landscaped courtyard and sits down to a leisurely rijsttafel. And then . . . time stops. Food, wine, and conversation all continue to flow, a mild breeze plays through the vines and grasses, but apparently the sun no longer moves. It’s enough to bewitch anybody, even if we don’t have to stay and suffer the Stygian December darkness that is its evil twin.

 

New England, being by nature not the most demonstrative of regions, doesn’t engage in such excess. Our evenings are shorter, the pace of the sun’s disappearance less straining to credibility. And yet I’ve spent many temperate twilights in our fair clime fully as magical as the foreign idyll described above. On a screened porch overlooking the coast of Maine, a deck in Provincetown, a cafe table along Tremont Street in Boston’s South End (you’ll notice that eating and talking—preferably combined—loom large in my pantheon of pleasures), a warm evening outdoors, endless or not, is the time for ease and conviviality. It’s remarkable how often these occasions will remain engraved in memory, to be contemplated fondly later, in a less blessed season.

 

Not much of a moral here, I’m afraid. Just that there are certain beauties and delights that need to be taken when they come, because their conditions are fleeting. In this respect, New England summer nights are, in a sense, the season itself in microcosm: nature at its most benign, time at its most leisurely, friends and soon-to-be-friends at their most open and accommodating. Pressures and cares drain away, if only for a few special hours. Who wouldn’t be enchanted by that?

—From the July-August 2009 issue of New England Home

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Surrounded by Decisions

Have you ever really looked at the legs on a sofa? Take a peek, if you’re anywhere near one at the moment, and notice them. They can be amazingly diverse. On a simple Billy Baldwin–style tuxedo sofa, they may be simple rectangular blocks of wood. On a different sofa, they might be more like small wooden cones, each tipped with an exquisite, hand-hammered bronze cap and caster. Maybe the cones have been turned on a lathe to impart a few sexy curves, and then drenched in a satiny black lacquer. Or you may be face-to-face with the flowing S of a carved cabriole leg ending in an oh-so-New-Englandy ball-and-claw foot.

 

Even those simple wood chunks I mentioned at the start almost certainly won’t be as simple as that. At least one edge will be slanted or beveled, more likely all four (the inner two more sharply than the outer two). Possibly the block will be rounded on all sides into something more like an oval pad. Perhaps the chunks won’t in fact be wood, but Lucite, on a more contemporary piece, or metal. Or metal in some other form—tubing, say, in who-knows-what diameter and finish.

 

On the sofa closest to me as I write this, no legs are visible at all. I’m sure they’re there, but they’re hidden by a carefully tailored skirt of oatmeal-colored linen. This particular skirt is quite plain, but it could easily have been ruffled or pleated. The fabric could have been turned sideways to span the entire length of the sofa, but in this case it was run vertically to match the cushions, resulting in two elegant, carefully placed seams.

 

Now how about adding an edging tape, let’s say in a subtle but distinguished Greek key pattern? Then there’s fringe; I won’t even begin to go there.

 

The thing I find astounding, in this potentially tiresome kind of catalogue, is that every single one of these options would be chosen intentionally. Each piece of furniture in your house, each carpet, each tile, each sink, faucet, or light fixture—not to mention all the parts of the house itself—has been designed by someone, and the hundreds or thousands of decisions involved have been considered and made. More daunting yet, each of those decisions could have been made wrongly, potentially resulting in a physical or aesthetic catastrophe. We’re constantly surrounded by the fruits of design decisions wherever we go, and we rarely think about it.

 

What better reason for a magazine like New England Home to exist and celebrate a few of the people who pull such rabbits out of the hat time and time again? Preparing for this year’s New England Design Hall of Fame (see page 91) has reminded me anew what a humbling diversity of talent we live among. Outside of New York City or perhaps Los Angeles, it’s hard to imagine another part of the U.S. with a similar concentration of professionals gifted with the ability to do it all right—or the still rarer ability to take a wrong, not to say seemingly disastrous decision (a Queen Anne settee in raspberry faux-ocelot, anyone?) and make it resoundingly perfect in the right context.

 

Please, astound us some more.

—From the November-December 2009 issue of New England Home

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I Collect, Therefore I Am

One of my Christmas presents this past year was a charming book called Eccentric Homes, by writer Thijs Demeulemeester and photographer Diane Hendrikx. As you might guess from the authors’ names, it’s a Belgian production, with all text (except, for some reason, the title and chapter headings) appearing equitably in English, Dutch, and French. The book documents sixteen homes in buildings old and new that buck the stereotypical Belgian look—so familiar to us all from RH catalogs gone by!—of monumental, neutral-toned rusticity.

 

One of the eccentricities of the book, however, is that these eccentric homes are all eccentric in pretty much the same way. There are various styles of architecture to be seen, but not a lot of engagement with that architecture. The rooms have instead been used, with only a few exceptions, simply as containers to be filled with eclectic stuff—mostly antique and vintage furniture, groupings of found objects (leaning heavily toward the quirky), and the occasional piece of contemporary art.

 

I don’t mean to sound snotty. Almost all of the spaces are pleasantly done and fun to see, quite fetching if a bit one-note. But they are essentially cabinets of curiosities, expressing their owners’ sense of individuality and style solely via accumulations of diverse objects.

 

This is a method of assembling residential interiors that is quite different from much of the work professional designers do. Rooms by gifted professionals are typically more tightly composed; the various items of furniture and lighting, the walls and ceilings and floors, create a web or network of interrelationships in terms of shape, scale, color, texture, or all of the above. However eclectic the assembly may appear at first glance, an underlying logic becomes apparent on further consideration.

 

But still, even in a professionally decorated home, it is the final layers of art and accessories that make the rooms sing. The things we choose to keep and live with over the years are undoubtedly the things that make our dwellings say something about who we are. Interiors with no personal component whatsoever look too much like a hotel or showroom: they lack that idiosyncratic spark that is required for a real sense of warmth and comfort.

 

Personal doesn’t necessarily mean cluttered. The effect might (as you will see later in this issue) come by way of something as simple as a Lucite sculpture in a hallway niche, a collection of signed baseballs, a pair of brass bunnies, or a bottle in the shape of a rhinestoned skull on the bedside table.

 

Have a look around: what are the things that define you in your own personal realm?

—From the March-April 2018 issue of New England Home

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Trash Talk

The somewhat chilly bluish glow from a wall of frosted glass glinted off the chrome and pristine white laminate of the subterranean conference room, sharply limning the unadorned plaster planes of the walls and belying the muggy heat of the day outside. In the company of several fellow design-magazine editors, I was spending part of a September morning with the noted architect Antonio Citterio in his Milan office. Celebrated for, among other things, his sleek kitchen designs for the Italian firm Arclinea, and elegant furniture created for manufacturers such as B&B Italia, Kartell, and Vitra, Citterio was holding forth on his design philosophy, which is built around an intensive study of the patterns of use and complete lifecycles of his spaces and products. At one moment he gestured proudly toward the chairs we were all sitting in, pointing out that each one would come apart neatly with the removal of just two screws at the backs of the arms, to expedite recycling.

 

Now, I would never dispute that widespread, efficient recycling is an admirable goal. But I have to confess that an ungrateful little voice in the back of my mind was also asking: “Why are we designing products on the assumption that they will soon be thrown away? Or, if it’s true that they will soon be thrown away, why do we just accept that state of affairs?”

 

Maybe I’ve now been in Massachusetts long enough to qualify as a crotchety old Yankee, because something about the usual discussions of carbon footprints and sustainable building or manufacturing offends my sense of thrift. I think it’s because so many of those discussions seem to focus entirely on brand-new products and processes, as if all projects must start from scratch. Now, unless we’re talking about the likes of a hopelessly outdated and inefficient boiler, it seems to me that continuing to use something old is automatically greener than tossing it out and starting over. How about conserving the energy and materials used to make it in the first place, as well as not using the energy and materials needed to tear it apart or haul it away and replace or rebuild it? Providence interior designer Nancy Taylor expressed the same thought in typically pithy form at the New England Design Hall of Fame gala this past November: “Buy it well once, and keep it forever.”

 

So by all means observe Ezra Pound’s dictum to “make it new,” but keep in mind that for Pound that “it” was often something old, to be rejuvenated in a new context. That’s one place where thoughtful and intelligent design can continue to help us all.

—From the January-February 2009 issue of New England Home

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The Importance of Small Differences

I don’t know why working on this issue in particular brought it to mind, but I’ve been musing a lot about variety. Not the blatant sort of variety that is most often hyped in our culture (“Get your 151 flavors of hand-churned ice cream here, mixed on our marble slab with any of 87 different toppings!”), or even the florid, eclectic kind of variety that I myself sometimes appreciate in certain collectors’ overstuffed houses. No, I’ve been thinking about a more subtle species of variety, yet one that has far-reaching consequences.

 

Have you ever noticed, if you travel a lot, that in places across the globe you’ll run into people who occupy, as it were, the same ecological niche? Darting across Kensington Road to reach the park, you wave a surprised hello to your bookish, salt-and-pepper-haired Boston friend—only to realize, when met by a blank stare, that this is not in fact your friend, but his London equivalent. Only then do you see that his pug is black rather than brown, and the slightly worn overcoat is a rough tweed rather than military twill. And, after making embarrassed apologies, you chat long enough to discover that this person is an art historian rather than a film scholar. So very similar to your friend, overall, but in the end an utterly different individual.

 

The same situation occurs in architecture and interior design. Consider a series of modern rooms, all starting as a simple, mostly unornamented, white-plaster box. One has a floor of sandblasted, herringbone-patterned ash, another is paved in cork tiles topped with a subtly figured taupe silk rug, and the third is grounded by an expanse of polished concrete. All so different, just because of that—and the same apples to the particulars of their mostly low-slung midcentury Italian furniture. One basic look, nearly infinite possibilities for uniqueness.

 

It’s a form, I suppose, of what the Romans referred to as multum in parvo, much from little—and it is one of the things that can make looking at home design magazines endlessly fascinating. Henry David Thoreau famously wrote that “our life is frittered away by detail.” Seen in this alternative context, though, I’d have to say that our lives—our individuality—are enriched, even defined, by detail.

—From the March-April 2012 issue of New England Home

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Firmitas, Utilitas, Venustas Plus

Not long ago I took a few days off to explore the city of Toronto, which I had never visited before. I spent some time planning the trip, as I usually do, and particularly in researching places to stay. The goal: to strike an increasingly tricky balance, finding a hotel that showed an interesting, fresh approach to design but wasn’t so hyper-trendy you could scrape yourself raw on the sheer attitude of the place—or be kept up all night because the actual lodgings had become a mere appendage to the hotel’s all-important nightclub.

 

I ended up at a small property in the city’s fashion district, whose website promised a cool minimalism that seemed like it would make the perfect foil to long days of walking, museum-going, and sampling the ethnic cuisines of an urban area famed for its global influences.

 

And indeed, my hotel room turned out to be quite beautiful to look at, serene and spare, appointed entirely in shades of gray and white atop a floor of red-brown wood, with a sort of Milan-meets-Kyoto aesthetic. 

 

So far, so good. Except that the room turned out to be enormously uncomfortable to live in. The bed’s headboard was a very long, patently expensive slab of gray-veined white marble, with a niche carved out for items like glasses and cell phone. But you couldn’t reach said items while lying in the bed. And the niche was on the opposite side of the bed from the room’s single lamp. Likewise, each interestingly sculptural item of seating came from a notable designer—and made no allowance for how human bodies work. It felt as if the hotel’s creators considered only visual impact and provenance, without much thought for the poor guests who would eventually hope to make the space a temporary home away from home.

 

The Roman architect Vitruvius famously described the most important qualities of good buildings as “solidity, usefulness, and beauty.” We spend a lot of time in this magazine discussing beauty; the solidity of the projects we feature is assumed as a given. When it comes to utilitas, however, there’s a criticism that can fairly be leveled at those of us who write about homes and interiors just as it frequently is against the fashion press: there are times when appearing à la mode can be, literally, a pain. 

 

So I resolve, going forward, to be on guard. Along with discussions of floor plans and furniture placement, proper lighting, appropriate fabrics, and suchlike aspects of usefulness, I’ll make sure we don’t skimp a consideration that looms just as large in the very best design but often gets left unsaid: comfort counts.

—From the November-December 2013 issue of New England Home

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Trends and Timelessness

It’s one of those funny things I’ve noticed about the creative world: designers and architects invariably aver, when asked, that their work is intended to be timeless, not trendy. But those same individuals, in conversation a few minutes later, will hold forth enthusiastically on the coolest new barrel chair just seen at High Point Market, or hotly debate the merits of this year’s preferred choice of stone for kitchen countertops.

 

Despite the protestations of those who swear, “I never pay attention to trends!” everyone, deep down, knows that business is reliant on the changing nature of fashions, and on clients’ very human craving for the newest thing. And a riffle through the pages of any older design books and magazines you may have lying about quickly confirms that it is the rare façade or interior indeed, that appears entirely au courant after a decade or two.

 

There are trends, though, and then there are trends. I agree that an overemphasis on superficial, fast-moving vogues can be unhelpful. The true comfort and utility of your family room doesn’t really depend much on whether its kitted out in May 2017’s official color. Nevertheless, a great number of the structures or design schemes from previous eras that are now regarded as classic were utterly in the mode of the moment, at the time they were built. (Or, in some cases, they were utterly in what would soon be the mode of the moment.) 

 

We conceptualize the history of art and building as falling naturally into a developing series of style periods: Palladian, Georgian, Queen Anne, Arts and Crafts, Bauhaus, and so on. It’s not just that everyone wants the current in thing, but that artists and designers intuitively want to play with the limits of received looks and current practice, and in so doing create the future. Clearly, then, whatever it is that engenders the impression of timelessness must reside in a more fundamental harmony or rightness that great designs share, rather than being a product of their style-specific details.

 

If I’m right, we editors can breathe a little easier in the conviction that content chosen tastefully and intelligently, with an eye toward those underlying qualities, does have more than a fleeting shelf life. Things new and things enduring both have their proper roles; the key, as in so many areas of existence, lies in finding the right balance between them.

—Adapted from the May-June 2017 issue of New England Home

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The Past in Present Tense

One of the continual delights of New England is the strength and vitality of our architectural traditions. Whether they arrived with our early English settlers, grew out of the daily practice of local craftsmen, bubbled up in sometimes obscure fashion from the imaginations of homegrown geniuses such as H.H. Richardson, or were naturalized later by way of refugees from Nazi Germany, a succession of robust and comely styles has enriched our built environment.

 

The past is all around us. You won’t have to travel far to find lovely reminders of almost any former era in residential fashion: first-period Colonial, Georgian, Federal, Greek Revival, Gothic Revival, Italianate, Stick Style, Colonial Revival . . . the list goes on.

 

Better yet, architects in New England have reengaged with earlier approaches again and again, as when Peabody and Stearns and McKim, Mead and White forged the Shingle style from a grounding in Queen Anne inflected by the study of early Colonial buildings. Even our region’s modernists have tended to let the local terrain, climate, and materials influence their productions, so that the Bauhaus acquired a bit of a Yankee accent.

 

These days, our suburbs and exurbs continue to be populated by more-or-less straightforward, if greatly expanded, versions of Georgian practice—what I suppose we could call Colonial-Revival Revival (except that the style never really disappeared following its first revival in the late-nineteenth century). In my own mind, at any rate, I tend to dub it “the Plutocratic style.” Such houses, if hardly groundbreaking, can be honorably executed and very pleasant indeed to look at or live in. 

 

But I am more intrigued by the homes some contemporary professionals are creating that look to an aspect of the past—the post-and-beam farmhouse, say—and meld it with a modern point of view. This may happen by way of a renovation; it might be a purely internal process, with anachronistic or eclectic furnishings occupying a historical envelope; it could be a brand-new hybrid of traditional vernacular forms embodied via present-day materials or vice versa.

 

When the synthesis is accomplished by a gifted designer, the effect is invigorating. Not just variations on preexisting models, these dwellings can require some time and thought to interpret. And the pleasure to be gained from working to understand their subtleties can be all the greater.

—From the May-June 2016 issue of New England Home

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Loving the Old Isn’t New

Over the years I’ve had many discussions with American dealers and interiors folk who are worried that the antiques trade is dying. “All my clients are getting older, and their children and grandchildren just aren’t interested,” is a representative comment. Last summer, during a conversation about the kind of serious eighteenth-century French furniture he “adores” and has lived with all his life, designer Robert Couturier told me, “Nobody cares about it anymore. Antiques are over.”

 

Maybe I’m being stubborn because I love antiques so much myself, but I find it hard to agree with the doomsayers. A fascination with beautiful things preserved from earlier times has been an element of human societies for—well, for millennia, really. Wealthy Romans, if I’m not mistaken, had agents on the prowl for special finds from Egypt, Greece, and the Near East. European Renaissance palazzi and Wunderkammern were stocked with the treasures of earlier periods, items imbued with the patina of age and use and history. Or think of China, where ancient ritual bronzes, jades, and painted scrolls have been greatly prized throughout most of the country’s history.

 

So why would this state of affairs change altogether just now? Why would objects that have, in some cases, been lovingly handed down for many generations suddenly become worthless? The idea feels implausible, to me.

 

We do seem to be using antiques differently in recent years. Gone, at least for a while, are most of the all-one-style rooms of yesterday. It’s rare, now, to come across a library kitted out solely in George III mahogany and gilt. But you will see one of that period’s fancifully ornate mirrors suspended above a severely modern Lucite console in someone’s entry hall. Antiques are still being used, but as independent agents within an eclectic mix of furnishings, or as the statement pieces that give depth and texture to a room.

 

My own travels to relevant destinations in Europe and the UK make it hard to imagine that an expiring trade is drawing its collective final breath. Visit one of the big London fairs, or TEFAF in Maastricht, and you’ll see aisles crowded with buyers plucking prize fruit from the serried booths.

 

Hence our story about antiques shopping abroad that begins on page 58. Many New Englanders are out there buying up old stuff, either for their clients or for their own delight. I would encourage you to join them.

—From the March-April 2016 issue of New England Home

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Make Time for Quality Time

Exactly a month ago, as I write this, I was sitting down to a Michelin-starred meal at a small restaurant tucked into a tiny vineyard on an out-of-the-way island in the Venetian lagoon. The vineyard itself is completely natural: no herbicides or other chemicals are used in it, pest control and proper biodiversity being handled by a careful mix of plantings between the rows of vines. The food, barring a few unavoidable imports such as cacao and sugar, was sourced from the property itself or the neighboring island and its adjoining waters.

 

The place is called Venissa, and it’s clearly a personal passion for owner Matteo Bisol, a younger member of a notable Italian wine family, who has been laboring there to conserve an endangered local grape variety and produce a fine organic wine from it­—in addition, that is, to running the restaurant, an osteria, and various associated guesthouses.

 

What does this have to do with architecture or design, you might ask. Well, I wasn’t simply on vacation, however much it might have felt that way. The trip was organized by Esteem Media, a sister company to ours, and quite a few of my fellow travelers were designers or affiliated with design-related businesses. But more to my present point, Matteo Bisol turned out to be only one of a whole class of young Italians—winemakers, restaurateurs, antiques dealers, furniture painters, apprentices learning the craft of weaving on eighteenth-century hand-powered looms—who are pursuing their visions of commercial ­success, but also seeking in some way to make their native culture better and not have to sacrifice their own quality of life in the process.

 

Now, for someone who spends so much professional time contemplating and evaluating aspects of “the good life,” my own life can be surprisingly barren when it comes to creature comforts—and I suspect that, in this, I am not unlike a lot of other busy Americans. So the example of this cadre of Italians, devoted to the idea of doing well and living well, really struck a chord.

 

Not exactly earthshaking, as revelations go, but still a lesson to keep in mind. And so I share it with you, at the start of a magazine issue devoted to the pleasures of summer (not to mention examples of particularly nice settings in which to enjoy those pleasures).

 

Take the time to enjoy family and friends, to eat and drink well, to relax and recharge. Whether the goals you normally pursue are financial, family-oriented, cultural, philanthropic, or what-have-you, investing in quality downtime will always yield worthwhile returns.

—From the July-August 2016 issue of New England Home

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