Defining our terms.

Art is not design.

Design is not art.

These concepts overlap, but they are not synonymous. Were we to create a Venn Diagram, it would illustrate this relationship perfectly.

Oh. Wait. I already did that.:

Before we go any further than this, we need to really define “art”. In this case there’s two definitions we need to be concerned with.

1. To say something beautiful, created by a person or people, is art.

A painting, a sculpture, a piece of music, a photograph, a ballet.  All of these are examples of which we are familiar.  There are many others, of course, but you get the idea.  To say that art is a beautiful thing is common and we know what that means when people say it.

2. To say a physical object, created by a person or people is challenging, describing, informing or otherwise making a social or cultural commentary.

These things may not necessarily be beautiful.  They *CAN* be and often are, but that’s not their primary purpose.  Their purpose is to get people to think about culture, relationships between people,  and society.  I tend to think of these things as “Art” and they are the stuff of which “Art pretension” thrives on.  They’re the sort of things that people stroke their chins over and say “hmm, yes” a lot about.

So having defined that for purposes of this post, I want to talk a little about design.

Design is purpose driven.  When you design a building, the building has a function. When you design a restaurant, that restaurant has a function.  The same thing can be said of anything one *designs*, from a catapult to a coffee machine.  You can design a knitting pattern and make a scarf. You can even use design in the process of making art- I map out a design for each egg that I create, but the finished product is not a design project. It’s a piece of art.  However, if I design someone’s kitchen, that’s a design project, no matter how pretty it is.

All of that brings me to a post that appeared yesterday on Dezeen.  Go have a good look. I’ll wait.

When I first saw this, the post had just gone up, and there were no comments to it yet. When I went back this morning, apparently I’m not the only one who wasn’t pleased. But what really bothers me is that the *supporters* of this work don’t seem to get that fundamentally, THIS IS NOT A DESIGN PROJECT. It’s an ART INSTALLATION.

Frankly, I think it’s a pretty good art installation.  I really mean that. I think that as *ART* (definition #2, though it’s not a bad looking object either) it works quite well. It conveys a clear message and provokes thought about the concepts it addresses.  In that sense, it’s very successful.

As a design project, this FAILS, completely.  It’s not *REALLY* a bookshelf.  It’s not. It’s designed to hold very specific books, intended to make a societal and/or cultural statement.  If you put other books on it, it ruins the intent of the artist (yes, I said it cause it’s not a design project and I’m not going to call it one.) So really, its only purpose is to make that statement, and no other. It does not serve *an actual function* beyond making the cultural statement.  The books, even though they’re being held by the shelf are only there *AS PART* of the overall statement.

It’s NOT DESIGN. It’s ART. I don’t think it’s BAD art, either. But It. Is. Not. Design.

Considering the fact that there are innumerable *DESIGNERS* creating oh, I don’t know, actual design projects that could be featured on what is supposed to be a design blog, the fact that Dezeen doesn’t seem to be too clear on what design is/is not and what art is/is not is… well pretty disappointing (yes, I do have a gift for understatement, why do you ask?)

Come on.  Show some damned design work.


Furniture project part 7: The pursuit of perfection.

So here’s the thing.

I finished the top of the case a couple weeks ago. The only thing I have to do now is the finishing part and putting it all back together. I haven’t yet because I need a tack rag (which I know yes, I can make myself..) and I need a couple of foam brushes (no brushmarks, yo.). But I’ll get to that. What I wanted to talk about really, is this point. This point in any project where all that’s left is the finishing. and once the finish goes on, you’re kinda stuck with what’s underneath it. So you’re looking over your project and NOW, this moment, is the one where you’re looking at it with a super critical eye to see if there’s anything you should do over again. You’re looking for something that needs fixing. You’re looking for flaws.

Don’t get me wrong. There are times when things really should be flawless. Those times certainly exist. If you’re making a new piece of furniture, custom, from scratch, for sale. Flawless is good. But recycled furniture is not about flawless(neither, btw is restoration.) It’s just as much an art project as a design project, if not more so. You need to be able to see those flaws, own them, and for the most part, unless they’re minor touchups, be able to let them go.

This is really, really hard for some people- self included, though it’s even harder for people who are very detail oriented. They get lost in the bark of the tree, when the forest is all around them waiting for them to get on with and over themselves.

“Oh SURE, it’s easy to say that- it’s not your project with all these errors and mistakes in it… You’re a professional!”

But it is. And I am. And I’m going to prove it.

So we have this project, right? You’ve watched as it’s slowly come together over the summer. Okay, great. And now we’re at this moment. The one before the finish, where if you’re going to fix something, now is the time. Other than minor touchups? I’m not fixing the following things:


I’m not fixing the fact that this mosaic circle is cup shaped, when it should be flat. This is the result of the chisel not being sharp enough.


I’m not fixing the fact that this “circle” is supposed to be round, and isn’t. (see: chisel.)


I’m not fixing the evenness of the grout on the right top quadrant of this circle.


I’m not fixing the fact that this circle isn’t flat.


There’s nothing wrong with this one. Actually, it’s near perfect, which illustrates how imperfect those others are.


I’m not fixing the fact that the purple circles are splotchy, and the black is darker and less painterly than I’d like.


I’m not fixing the fact that that drawer up there? Looks different than the door front below:


Or that this side:


Is not like that side:


Because perfection simply isn’t necessary here. Flawless isn’t really important (though I would love to get a flawless *FINISH* on these, I know better. I have cats.)

So I’m going to get some brushes and a tack rag and forgive this piece (and its maker) their flaws. No one else was ever going to care about them anyway.

Interior vs. exterior.

Over the weekend, I’d gotten an IM from Jay (Maynard, not Reeder) linking me to a letter published in a Minneapolis paper following the announcement of this year’s Pritzker Prize award.

Although I’ve been to Minneapolis (at length, even. 9 weeks isn’t exactly an overnight stay), I’d never seen the original theater, designed by Ralph Rapson, who died just a week ago at the age of 93. The new one, if you haven’t connected the dots already was designed by this year’s PP recipient, Jean Nouvel.

I have no particular dog in this fight, as I find both designs, at least on the exterior, to be quite pleasant. They’re just very different.



And whichever one you like is whichever one you like. Believe it or not, that’s actually not the question I want to ask with this post.  What I personally found to be more interesting in the letter to the paper was this excerpt:

“the proscenium theatre is uninspired with rows so close together that there is hardly room for your feet and entire rows must stand to allow anyone to enter. Even the parking is a disappointment, forcing patrons to cross the street in winter when Nouvel had the opportunity to include a skyway. Apparently Nouvel had not visited Minneapolis in winter or noticed all the tall northern European stock here.”

I began to wonder if there was a connection between that and the strange disconnect in all the job ads that say they’re looking for designers, but then go on to say they want architects.  Last I checked, these words were not synonymous(also this particular thing pisses me off because it feels like a bait and switch.)  Over the weekend I had a talk with Jack (practicing architect, who teaches interior design at two different schools) about this and have come up with some questions that I want to throw out there to perhaps inspire dialogue.

1. Are interiors really within the scope of training and expertise of architects?  (From all accounts, the answer to this is no, but I’m more than happy to hear about other experiences.)

2. Why is this bait and switch thing going on when writing up job postings, especially if the answer to #1 is no?

3. Why aren’t the architectural and design communities coming together to make that clear?

4. Or (and this is my most cynical response, born of another thing that happened last week) are architects under the pervasive delusion that interior designers are decorators?

Don’t get me wrong. Some of my very favorite people on the whole planet are practicing architects.  I still have plans to go back under the academic rock and get my M*Arch myself, but I am not under the delusion that interior design and architecture have the same focus or do the same jobs equally.

I do know that any decent designer *I* know would have made sure the spacing between the rows in the theater were the appropriate distance apart, because we do that sort of research as part of a programmatic process.  I don’t fault (at all) any architect for not doing the same, because I just don’t think that’s their job.  I just want to know why they’re essentially being asked to do *my* job, and what can we do to change that.

Back from Brooklyn.

Things I realized yesterday:

-Without the other supporting materials (.pdf book, in particular, the boards are mostly irrelevant) I should probably rework the .ppt of my thesis or write myself some damned notes.  Option 2 is more likely.

-Folks either get it or they don’t. (Which I knew before, actually.)

– I speak much less out loud on an average day than I thought.  By the time I got home last night, my voice was hoarse.

– Though public speaking doesn’t bother me mentally, it beats the hell out of my body.  All the tension is held there and not in my head. (not that I’m complaining) But by the time I got home I was in a lot of pain once the adrenaline died down.

– I will probably be asked to do this same presentation again at CUNY.

Anyway, yesterday went well.  The other project which was presented was excellent. I hadn’t seen it before, and was very impressed with the level of conceptual thinking that went into it.  I actually enjoyed it more the second time I saw it, because I  knew what was coming and was able to concentrate more on some of the deeper elements of what was going on.  Very innovative stuff, and the designer and I got along very well from the get-go.  Though our projects were on the opposite end of the spectrum from one another, our approaches and personalities are similar.   I might talk more about it when I get home today, as it really is worth a better explanation than that.
Poor Jack. He’s probably still recovering from having both of us around at lunch, talking about cyanide in apple seeds. 🙂

I have another busy day ahead, and really only barely have time to type this up quickly.  But I wanted to mention a concept that speaks to designing any kind of “community” gathering place-

If you don’t create a way for people outside the community to also come and learn things and feel welcome, then ultimately you have failed the community you were trying to reach in the first place.  I don’t mean in the sense of “trying to get other people to join”.  I mean in the sense of educating others and ultimately reducing the level of fear-based discrimination and anger in the world.  If all you’re doing is rigidly caring about those that are your primary users, you’re failing in your mission, because that lack will come back and bite you in the ass later.

It’s a sound concept. Keep it in mind.

That sound you’re not hearing is the sound of “busy”.

We are entering into the stage of the project in Miami where the real challenges are making themselves known. I am used to this. To me, this is not stressful. No one’s money is being wasted, nothing has been ordered. No irrevocable changes have been made. Right now, it’s just pictures on paper (both actual and virtual) But again, I’m used to this.

This stage, which is really the stage two of the design process for me(in my own personal numbering system), is when you start designing the space and seeing potential issues. Most of them, I catch before the clients know they exist. Sometimes they catch them. That’s why we are a team, and if you don’t look at it like that, you run the risk of a continually bruised ego when your client asks a good question, highlighting something you haven’t yet considered. But if you’re a team, then it’s great- everyone is helping everyone else. It’s all in how you look at it. It’s better for your gastrointestinal system to look at it in the most stress-free way. When no one is losing any money, there’s no reason to freak out. I am the very picture of zen on this at the moment.

Every project is a learning experience. You always come away with more information than you had going in. For me, the first bit of learning experience has to do with how buildings in south Florida are constructed, vs. those in other places, since I’ve never worked in FL before. For those of you who think there can’t possibly be that much of a difference, I will mention that there are no basements in New Orleans, because the water table is so high. You have to consider seismic activity when you’re working in California. NYC has more regulations than most countries.

And in Florida? They’re allowed to build on grade. We’ll see how much of a nightmare this turns out to be. Jury is still out. I need to see the original plans for the house. Either way, the challenges are not impossible. It’s just a matter of how much money it takes to fix them, and whether or not that’s realistic.

ETA: I’ve been told by Jay Maynard (yes, *that* one) that I need to define my terms. He’s probably right, and this is an example of how buildings vary from place to place.  In this case we’re talking about houses, just so we’re clear.

In places where you have real winters, it is important that the foundation of the house go below the frost line. That is to say the depth at which the ground freezes.   How far below varies from place to place, but the point is that where you have frost, you have a frost line, and your foundation needs to go below that so it doesn’t crack like a cracking thing with the freeze/thaw cycle in the earth surrounding your house.

In some places, there are other problems. They don’t have frost, but they have other issues. In California, those issues are usually either related to earthquakes or mudslides.   In places like New Orleans, the water table is so high (since so much of the city is below sea level) that there is no such thing as “underground”.  Even in cemeteries, people are interred in mausoleums rather than being buried below ground because they just won’t stay buried. They’ll come floating by, and no one wants that.

In many locations, none of these issues is really a problem and builders are permitted to build “on grade”, that is to say, right on the ground.  No basement, no crawl space, no frost line, no nothing.  The ground is compacted and then a concrete slab is poured right on top of that in order to form the foundation of the house.   In recent years, with increased hurricane activity in the Gulf of Mexico, some locations have taken to going down 12 inches in order to anchor the house to the Earth just a bit more, but that’s not necessarily mandated by law.

The reason why a house on grade is kind of a pain in the ass, is if you have to reroute the plumbing, because there’s no way to access it without digging it out of the concrete slab, digging yet another trench where you want it to go, and burying the whole thing again after you’re done.  When you have a basement, you don’t have to care about this stuff- your plumbing is accessible.

In other news, I am presenting my thesis (yet again) **TWICE** tomorrow at Pratt in Brooklyn. There’s two sessions- one at 11am and one at 2pm. According to Jack, it’s open to the public, and I’ll put the information on a “When” page as soon as I’m done with this post. There is also another designer presenting her thesis project as well. My understanding is it’s some kind of anti-war museum. That’s all I know, honestly. I’ve never met the girl and am not familiar with her work.

I still need to get things straightened out with the ICFF, and I still need to work on some scale models of the Boingy chair.

Back to work.

ETA: Since the news has broken and I am sure I’ll see the news 100 times today, Jean Nouvel has just been awarded the 2008 Pritzker Prize.

This one:


Not this one(especially since he’s dead anyway.):

Pritzker Prize

Realistic expectations. Get some.

The service triangle is just one grouping of three clients need to be realistic about. The other one is how their budget breaks down.  That falls into three parts also:




With a limited amount of money (as opposed to unlimited- not necessarily low-budget), you have to understand the relationship between these things and know where you’re going to have to make adjustments.  People have asked me how to get the most for their money on their residential (though the principles are sound no matter what kind it is) project.  Here’s my advice on that, taken backwards:


You can competitively bid for contractors and of course that’s what commercial projects do.  You can do it on residential projects also, but I find that people are much more interested in finding someone they can trust with their house than they are about getting the lowest possible bid.

How to minimize that cost:

Aside from going with the lowest bidder(which is not necessarily the best value), the biggest advice I have is to make sure that all your ducks are lined up on your project before the contractors ever get near your site.  Finalize everything you possibly can.  Have all your model numbers, construction documents, and materials either already there or on a timeline that will not waste any time for your contractors.

For a contracting crew time is literally money.  Don’t waste their time(or their gasoline), and they won’t waste your money. Corrections, changes and afterthoughts will cost you.  The smoother you can make things go for your contractors, the happier they are.  If you are the kind of person who tends to wibble, make sure all your wibbling is done before they come near your project.  You only have so much money. You don’t have room to dick around.


Not only do some materials cost less than others(obvious) but be aware that some materials come with hidden costs that others don’t.  For example- Some refrigerators cost more than others. But once it arrives, a refrigerator is a refrigerator.   The worst thing that happens is you have to hook up an ice maker.  However,  getting a lot of elaborate ceiling lights means someone has to install them all. There’s *nothing* wrong with wanting a dynamic lighting plan.  But understand that overall, that’s going to cost you more than a pricy fridge.  Understand that a curved surface on a countertop is going to cost more than a plain rectangle.   You have to balance dramatic design with realistic expectations. Also, not *every* element has to be the most dramatic thing ever. If you try to do that, the space becomes too busy, as elements compete with one another for visual room.  Understand what is most important to you, and be willing to let the other stuff go.

Design/Architectural fees/permits.

Permits are permits. They cost what they cost.

Fees are something else.  This can be really confusing to people because every design professional has their own way of figuring this out.  There is no One True Way to figure this one out and you have to find a design professional who uses a system that works well for you.  Some residential projects are priced by the job. Some are priced as a percentage of total budget. Some people charge an hourly rate.  Still others use a system like 30% over net.  And to make it more confusing, some do a combination of all of these things.  I used to do residential stuff with a combination of a flat rate + hourly.  I don’t do that anymore, and instead do a percentage of total budget.  30% over net is *VERY*  common, but I don’t use it because I think it sets up an adversarial relationship with the client.

How to minimize the cost:

Ask how the design pro figures out the cost. A flat fee or a straight percentage is going to be more predictable on the front end than an hourly or a 30% over net arrangement.  It’s a gamble. You have to know how to play your odds.  The former two may sound like the cost more initially, but if the project is complex and subject to a lot of changes, it might be cheaper in the long run.  If what you really need is just a couple hours of consultation, an hourly rate might be your best bet.   Honestly, I’d give an example where I thought 30% over net was better but I just don’t have any. I know it’s a standard residential practice. I just think it’s dumb.

Unlike the service triangle, this is not a simple “pick two” situation.  This is a little more complex.  But if you play your cards right and balance the three elements, it will cost you less in the long run.

There’s always a food analogy to be made.

I took the weekend off from writing, largely figuring with the holidays and all, no one was really online anyway except me. But I didn’t take the weekend off from working. In fact I got a lot done on the Miami house project, which is starting to congeal.

Yes, I said congeal. I find that design is a lot like making either chocolate pudding or hollandaise sauce. Take your pick. The point is that there’s a while at the beginning where you’re stirring and nothing seems like it’s really happening though you’re certainly stirring a whole lot. And then, all of a sudden the whole thing comes together and becomes food in one shot. Boom. Pudding(or sauce. Your call.) .

Aside from the fact that I now want chocolate pudding (or maybe hollandaise sauce.), that’s the best analogy of how work went this weekend. Miami has started to congeal. How’s that for a visual?

This is looking like a super busy week as well since I have a lot of projects on my plate, all of which are demanding attention.

But aside from doing a lot of work on my own stuff over the weekend, I did get a boost of inspiration from this, which I saw over at momeld(they got it from Nat. Geo.) I have been fighting the urge to pull out my flexible shaft tool (I actually own three of these, and they’re far less obscene than their name would imply) and my box of micro drill bits to try to do this myself(I’m also thrilled I actually have everything I need to do this already in my house.) I do think that at some point I’m going to have to try this, though. It’s just so COOL. This work was done by Franc Grom, an artist from Slovenia.





And now, back to stirring my congealing projects.