Musing on the Design Muse

Photographer: 
Michael Fein
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What do architects and designers do with their design muses? Do they go Dutch at Dunkin’ Donuts or stroll lazily around Luxemburg Gardens? And what do they look like, these design muses? Are they all from Central Casting? You know, those beatific caryatids locked for millennia in their roles as support columns for tourist-swamped Greek Temples? Are they, in fact, a kind of invisible support staff or are they equals, or lovers and superiors, cruel and impetuous when thwarted?

What do architects and designers do with their design muses? Do they go Dutch at Dunkin' Donuts or stroll lazily around Luxemburg Gardens? And what do they look like, these design muses? Are they all from Central Casting? You know, those beatific caryatids locked for millennia in their roles as support columns for tourist-swamped Greek Temples? Are they, in fact, a kind of invisible support staff or are they equals, or lovers and superiors, cruel and impetuous when thwarted? Modern-day design muses were clearly hovering about at the Tenth Annual Women in Design Conference at Build Boston late last year, though they were hard to define, as one seminar was first to admit. Panelists for the seminar, which was entitled “The Design Muse: The Inspiration of Inspiring Women,” gave their hard-to-define (and very different) design muses every reason to feel they were in the right place. Making your design muse feel comfortable is not easy in these harried, recessionary times. It was clear from the talk that they don't take kindly to stressful environments, corner-cutting or nit-picking much less the threat of being laid-off altogether. But what they really can't stand is when creative types deny their existence in the name of “being practical” and “results-driven.” Not that there's anything wrong with practicality per se—what's wrong is to give short shrift to the muse, to look at it the way so many in the “normal” world do, seeing design talent as just having a “knack about where things should go.” We know, in fact, that a “knack” is just the start. It takes plenty of hard work, discipline, knowledge and training to help our design muses express themselves fully.

Panelist Maryann Thompson, an architect and New England Design Hall of Famer who works out of Cambridge, described her muse as a walk in the woods with dappling light blurring the edge of a field. “The thing about being in these woods is that you really can turn in any direction. You have that freedom. It's all open for you to discover,” she says. “We try to do the same thing in our buildings. It's not dictatorial, telling people where to go. They basically make their own route.” In other words, listen to the design muse in yourself and you release it in others. The muse meets Hansy Better, of Studio Luz in Boston, by way of her RISD students. Their thinking is fresh and full of hope. For them design has yet to become what Better calls “just another commodity.”

While the muse meets Thompson in the dappled woods and Better in the classroom, she or he (it's hard to tell) waits for Arlington, Massachusetts-based architect Clement Van Buren on the open water. Sailing solo from Westport harbor is not really as solo as it looks because there's often the design muse for company. It's here among the crazy currents and early spring whitecaps that Van Buren stays connected to the essential elements binding his land-based structures: water, light, sky, wind. How does this result in happier clients and a better practice? The short answer is that the design muse makes for deeper, more creative, more intuitive thinking that can end up saving the client a lot of grief and money. For example, when a Van Buren client says, “I think we need a lot of track lighting up there,” one response might be to ask whether they want incandescent or halogen. But the design muse might interpret the client on another, more basic level and suggest, “Hey, if it's light you want, what about a clerestory window over the door?” 

Designer Rebecca Wilson of Needham, Massachusetts, met her muse at the age of seven. This was back in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Her mother was a career-focused woman and indifferent to decor, but Wilson's older sister, Linda, definitely had the knack, taking it upon herself to restore an old attic-bound secretary Wilson had “seen a million times and thought nothing of it.” “Even now,” Wilson says, “when I visit Linda's house, I like to go to each room and just absorb it. Our styles aren't identical, but my sister's house feels perfect to me.”

While some GSD/Harvard grads trundle off to practice Starchitecture, Joseph Cincotta made a different choice. Cincotta followed his muse to the tiny, stoplight-free community of Wilmington, Vermont, where his firm, Linesync, thrives despite some controversy. Certain locals don't like his “Bank Park,” a brilliant sleight of hand that salvaged a crumbling embankment, along with its trees, while adding a lovely pergola at the town's crossroads. Why the complaints about this landmark despite its status as a 2009 AIA/VT Honor Award-winner? Because Cincotta's sculptural structure doesn't look like the Norman-Rockwell-Greek-Revival postcard Vermont. Denizens of the old farming families, however, are supportive; as one native son so aptly said in Cincotta's defense, “Trees are the most historic structures there are.” We don't have room here to speculate on what it takes for a personal design muse to engage an entire community—consider the impact of the dome of Filippo Brunelleschi on the citizens of fifteenth-century Florence and the entire civilized world. Now it's Wilmington's turn.

Muses routinely breath magic into the homeliest (read sustainable) materials. Take concrete, for example: a brew of cement, water and aggregates that, when crystallized, made possible Brunelleschi's dome and the Roman Pantheon that inspired it. For the past couple of decades concrete has been a popular alternative to stone for kitchen countertops, vanities and so on. Now, in the hands of artists such as Joseph Cincotta's Wilmington neighbor, Rich Holschuh of Concrete Detail, the surfaces are much more about unique colors and textures than the industrial chic of the '80s and '90s.

Lori Hedtler's muse came to her on a platter. It was, in fact, a pink-and-gold Tiffany plate her mother had just added to her collection. Because her dad collected silver, one can only imagine what a “simple” meal was like. Even microwave Stouffers had to be beautiful. Hedtler's Devonia Antiques has just moved to a bow-fronted space on Charles Street in Boston, and there you can mix and match Gilded Age porcelain ad infinitum. “Mixing and matching was the table service norm one hundred years ago,” says Hedtler. “Just be sure to keep things in the same family or style: white, cream and gold, for example.” Her design muse waves away undo fears of porcelain chipping in the dishwasher. “The dishwasher is not the enemy,” she says. “Clanging the dishes together loading and unloading is the enemy.” Washing dishes can't compete with an afternoon spent walking arm in arm with one's design muse through Luxemburg Gardens. Design muses are for real, but the talent required to “not clang”—well, that's a knack! 

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