Paws and Reflect

November 4, 2010

Text by Louis Postel

In the old days you know what pitted one neighbor against another? Pigs. Here in post-Colonial New England there were pigs born free as the new nation, happily foraging around the neighbors’ hard-worked gardens. The ensuing culture clash uprooted the community spirit as understaffed swineherds skirmished with overworked agriculturalists. Exasperated town fathers enacted countless regulations pertaining to reimbursement for crop and livestock loss and standards for fence maintenance—mainly in vain.

Now it’s dogs causing all the trouble. You probably know some of the offenders personally: the lab that prefers your hydrangeas to the hydrant, the ugly pug that yaps incessantly while you try to write something pithy about design from the supposed privacy of your home office. But let us not get carried away. The difference between the dogs of today and the swine of yesteryear is that the dogs have a flip side, a hugely positive and beneficial aspect extending far beyond the occasional rasher of bacon proffered by pigs. Dogs and dog culture are instrumental in introducing neighbors to neighbors, replacing Friday night Bingo and PTA as the number-one icebreakers. Feeling like a chat? Just take the leash of its hook and step out to the sidewalk. What makes a home more enjoyable than a dog-friendly neighborhood?

Right up there with dog culture in creating domestic peace is design culture: a huge influence. And, naturally, whatever influences designers, influences the citizenry at large. Architect Faith Baum of post-Colonial Lexington, Massachusetts, cites industrial designers Niels Diffrient and Henry Dreyfuss as two of her key influences. Theirs, she says, was “a crystalline design philosophy that accommodates human physical dimension and incorporates adaptability.” From influence came action. Baum recently introduced her first custom furniture product: the uPdown table, an electric, adjustable, fine furniture piece that seems to fit under the category of “why hasn’t anyone thought of this before?” The uPdown saves a huge amount of space. In the up position it’s a prep island; down it’s a kitchen table. Up in the dining room it’s a cocktail bar, down it’s a space to carve the roast pig.

Architect John Meyer of Meyer & Meyer in Boston recalls the lasting influences restoring the English Rose estate had on his staff. “They just couldn’t believe that you could take these rigid materials, these period pieces and make something plastic and creative.” Meyer’s massive restoration of the estate in tony Chestnut Hill was first featured in this magazine’s May/June 2007 issue, and has just won Dream Home’s 2010 Classical Home of the Year Award. However, when Meyer first encountered it, his less experienced staffers were skeptical: “They just didn’t see how, through vaulted ceilings, faux painting and optical illusions, a too-small entry, for example, could be made large. The only way to convince them was to lay my drawing over a photograph and fit it exactly. ‘OMG,’ they said, ‘it’s the same place!’ ”

Jack Parquette, president of Gerrity Stone in Woburn, Massachusetts, is also using visuals to achieve a degree of influence that defies the skeptics. Now kitchen designers can see their counter slabs on a screen before they’re cut. They can match veins, turn one clockwise, change the template entirely, use seven or eight different slabs for one counter, and then insert an odd-sized antique sink. “It’s a lot of fun,” says Parquette. “The software is called Slabsmith Perfect Match and I think we’re the only ones in New England right now using it. It allows for a seamless operation from the computer screen right through to the saws. Before you just had a tape measure and hoped for the best.”

Design Culture has its share of negative influences as well, the modern day equivalent of unfenced pigs. Phil Bates of The Classic Group: Architects and Builders in Burlington, Massachusetts, has seen these troublesome critters riding roughshod over many a neighborhood. “Design-Build,” says Bates, “has really come to mean No Design. It gets a bad name because most Design-Build practices have simply been a cheesy way of getting around using architects.” The Classic Group has architects on staff, and they often work with outside architects. “And about them we have a sacrosanct rule: if an outside architect happens to get dismissed from a job, we will never move into the breach. Architects hiring us have to have absolute trust that they’re not hiring the competition.”

A story aptly entitled “Urban Sophisticate” in this magazine’s January/February 2008 issue featured a master’s influence raised to the fifteenth power. Layered, but unfussy, designer Dennis Duffy’s fifteenth-floor condo at the InterContinental is a low-key homage to one of the twentieth-century masters, Juan Montoya. “Montoya really brought home to me how lighting makes or breaks a space,” says Duffy. “It can bring space to life or kill it.” The advent of LED technology has allowed designers to cross a new threshold, he says. “We can do so many things we could never attempt before without worrying about heat issues, complex wiring issues.” Duffy cites a Puerto Rico penthouse he’s working on that has all-glass exterior walls and an extensive art collection. “With cove and baseboard lighting to complement the light directed at the art, it’s possible to set almost any mood. A color wheel in the ceiling turns the walls lavender, coral—any color—at the press of a button. LEDs in the drapery pockets wash the sheers with their own light.”

Then again there’s lavender and there’s lavender. Color consultant Barbara Jacobs of Medfield, Massachusetts, has developed a paint collection in collaboration with Ellen Kennon Full Spectrum Paints that promises to influence the way designers use color. Why? Because most paint uses only a few colorants as well as gobs of black to tone them down. Black, however, reflects no light. Color, to be seen as color, needs to “resonate” with reflected light, according to Jacobs. Her paint collection uses least seven colorants and no black for each mixture. “Even colors we typically call ‘neutral’ or ‘gray’ impart a luminous, atmospheric quality to a space,” Jacobs says.

Boston architect Paul Rovinelli offers what is arguably the last word on influences: think about them first. “You don’t have to make a decision on site,” says Rovinelli, “no matter how good it would make people feel that a decision has been reached; no matter how attractive is the notion that you would just be able to look and know the right thing. Give yourself a little space in which to reflect on the original spirit of the project, instead of doing things on the spot.”

Dog owners find this “pause principle” a difficult one for their pets to grasp. The neighbor’s hydrangeas may suffer accordingly, but what a small price to pay for a friendlier neighborhood. And what a small price to pay for well-designed homes, that return us so faithfully to the original spirit of things.