Wanderlust Revisited

Over a year ago, I posted that I was having extreme wanderlust. Then last year, while I was writing out my goals for the next 10 years, I added “travel internationally as a family.” I think there’s something to writing down what we want for ourselves. I was able to tick this goal of of my list a little earlier than I would have thought. We took the kids to Lisbon, Barcelona, Marseilles and London on a 3.5 week trip. I came home feeling inspired and grateful and so close to the little world travelers I brought back with me.

Staying Within Budget When Remodeling

Remodeling one’s home is generally a stressful undertaking. Bring it up in any crowd and you will undoubtedly hear horror stories of inscrutable contractors, blown budgets and horrible surprises. For most people, their house is not only their largest purchase, it’s where they live and build their lives. To invite strangers into one’s home with all of the destruction, dust and noise that comes with construction is unnerving, but it’s even worse when the project becomes way more than you can afford and you feel like you’re battling with contractor. As an architectural designer, the one piece of advice that I give to anyone and everyone considering remodeling is: PREPARE. (It’s not what anyone wants to hear and it’s almost always ignored.)

Not very many people enjoy paying for design fees. Trying to budget for the finishes you want or more square footage is tricky enough and so most people don’t pay any more than they have to, which is usually enough to get a drawing set for permits. Then, they proceed on to get bids from contractors based on very basic drawings and a few conversations. This is where the disaster begins. The bid from the contractor becomes the basis for your contract. The more complete information you give your contractor, the more accurate the bid will be. The way to give the contractor what he needs is to spend more time BEFORE asking your contractors to bid on your project, completing as many design decisions as possible. Let me give you two scenarios:

Scenario 1: You are super excited to get your construction process going. You talk to a few different contractors about what you want to do to your house, share a few cut-outs from shelter magazines and collect bids. You choose your contractor based on a combination of your gut feelings and who came in the cheapest. Your new contractor puts you in touch with a drafter who puts together the drawings to get the permit from the city.

Construction begins. Now, in addition to your day job, you need to begin making all of the design decisions on the time frame your contractor sets or else you will delay the schedule (which means more money). But the bid your contractor wrote  is based on allowances, which is how much your contractor thinks you will spend on finishes or fixtures (unless your contractor low-balled all of the allowances so his bid would be the most competitive). So you are spending all of your free time rushing to make choices that are all way over what your contractor had allowed for, but you need to get things ordered immediately. Then, something comes up that no one had thought through and you decide you want to change the plans. Now, you are signing a contract for a change order (which means more money). If your contractor is honest and good at his job, the change orders will be minimal and will be a fair price. If your contractor underbid the job (either to be the most competitive in pricing or because he’s not good at bidding), then he knows he can recoup some of his losses through change orders – they will be expensive and numerous.

At this point you will probably be behind schedule (things you chose had to be special ordered; you took a couple of extra days to choose the counter and now you lost the window the installer could come and every subsequent tradesperson who relied on the installation; you changed your mind so things had to be redone) and over budget. Hopefully, no one has threatened to sue and everyone is still problem-solving together but, odds are, your stress is high and you’re having to making compromises towards the end of your project that you really aren’t happy with because you are out of money.

Scenario 2: You begin your project with an architect or architectural designer whom you have vetted and trust, aesthetically. Before you begin talking with contractors, you have detailed plans that you have created with your architect/designer who is designing with your budget is mind. In addition to these plans, you have spreadsheets listing every finish and fixture that you can think to specify. This includes flooring, light fixtures, appliances, windows/doors, hardware, cabinets, etc. You can price these things out on the internet and work on your budget now, at your own pace and with little at stake. You can decide now what you want to compromise on and where you want to spend your money over the entire course of the project.

Now, when you go to get bids from contractors, they will have a much more complete picture of what it is you want. Their bid will be much more exact and their schedule will be that much more accurate. They will be able to order everything in advance and they will be responsible for delays (assuming fate doesn’t toss a wrench in your plans). Change orders will be minimal because you have thought things through beforehand instead of as they come up. The dust will still be present and there will be noise and strangers in your house but everyone will be on the same page. And if you end up with a contractor who tries to extort money out of you, you have a better legal document (your bid/contract) to support your side.

You can assume that an architect or designer will charge $75 and up per hour which adds up quickly, but the more you can plan, document and determine before your house is open to the elements and you are essentially held hostage by your contractor, the more money you will save in the long run.

Wanderlust: Tunisia

To most Americans, Tunisia is associated with the Arab Spring. To me, I think of beautiful mosaics, blue doors, beaches and a location that has existed at the intersection of Africa, the Middle East and the Western World. Recently, I’ve come down with a serious travel bug. Before having a family, I took a big international trip every couple years, if not more often. These trips have always re-energized me both personally and creatively and since becoming a mom, I’ve had to replace them by smaller, more manageable get-aways. So until the next big adventure, I have gigabytes of photos from past excursions.


The Bardo Museum in Tunis which is housed in an old palace and contains one of the largest collections of mosaics in the world. And a good reminder of Rome’s influence in Tunisia:


Beautiful Portal:


A modern school

My son just started Kindergarten last week and his school looks very much like the urban setting it is. With all the talk of slashed funding for public education, I think it’s hard to expect much of the campuses when we are all struggling just to provide basic things like enough teachers, PE, art and music. My son’s school is a series of mostly portables that are made welcoming by the love and work of the school’s community but I have been thinking about my experience, growing up in private schools, and wish all of our kids could be in built environments that support them as much as their best teachers.

When I studied in Italy as a university student, we got to go into Terragni’s Sant’Elia nursery school. Terragni was a leader in the Italian modernist and rationalist movements and most of his important work was built in Como, which is where Sant’Elia is located. So many of the aspects that make the school’s building great seem so obvious and yet they are still hard to find incorporated in today’s schools.

There is a strict geometry to the architecture that creates a framework for all of the children’s art and stuff. The design of the space means that the kid’s marks can be organic and free-flowing, but there is always a sense of organization and tidiness.

everything in its place

Families enter into a sort of vestibule that is filled with cubbies. This lets everyone get organized at the beginning of the day and provides a place for parents to say good-bye to their babies before they head into their school. Parting before entering the classrooms, creates a sense of independence and really lets the kids know that this special place is theirs.

Every room has natural light. Each classroom has an entire wall of operable windows, some that slide open as doors into the shared courtyard.

The rooms’ radiators work as a fence when some of the doors are open so that the rooms’ can get plenty of ventilation and even become part of the gardens, while the kids stay corralled inside. The shades are operable and their post’s create a buffer zone of sorts- the space that exists between the posts, the school’s walls and below the shades becomes extensions of the classrooms.

eating room

All of the kids eat together in a large room that has a stripe of windows on one side and another wall of glazing that opens to the courtyard. Behind the wall in the photo above are the bathrooms.

Do you think the kids that go there know how lucky they are?


I’d stay here

I recently finished work for design competition for Tablet, the high-design-minded hotel booking site. I’m not really one for competitions and I don’t think this one changed my mind too much as it used crowd-sourcing rather than a jury and seemed like a popularity contest, but I love hotels so I thought I’d submit just to get my juices flowing. The premise was that there haven’t really been any new and interesting concepts in hotels for a long time. Everyone has been focusing on “cool” but that can be achieved by throwing a lot of money at the project. Tablet wanted us, the submitters, to think about how to make a hotel that attracted a genuinely interesting cross-section of people and actually have them mingle and socialize. The setting was Downtown New York (south of 23rd St). It would have to serve business travelers but also appeal to locals.

This was my take:


Because it is May and the sun is out and I want to be outside, I thought I would share a little sunshine. This is completely gratuitous design porn. This is: Palm Springs. These photos are from a trip I took over a year ago, but when I look at them I feel the dry warmth. I love the mailboxes, the landscaping, the swimming pools, the rat-pack kitsch. The town is such a lifestyle. I loved it.

Filoli Estate

The Filoli Estate and gardens are down on the Pennisula about 30 minutes south of San Francisco, north of San Jose. The house on the estate was designed by William Polk, a well known San Francisco architect, who had also designed two other homes for the original owners, the Bourns. The eclectic style home is massive and formal, with an kitchen that most restaurants would kill for and an entire servants’ wing. But the extensive sprawling gardens upstage the building and are the reason many come to visit the estate that was donated in 1975 to the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

portico ceiling

The house isn’t really my taste but there were a few elements that I think could be applied to any style of home to help elevate the design and use of it.

Consistent hardware:

door knob

Door knobs, window latches, locks… These are like architectural jewelry-either they elevate the whole look, or they clash and detract from it. Good hardware is also like jewelry in how expensive it is, but I think investing in hardware is worth it. You touch the handles and knobs of your home all the time, you want them to feel good. There are beautiful options for all periods of style and some killer contemporary options as well. I prefer consistent hardware throughout the entire house as it looks more put together.

Good Switch Locations:

light switch location

I love how discreet the location of these old light switches are. Whomever added electricity to our house was not as sensitive to the placement of the switches and outlets. Obviously, not many of us have columns flanking the entrances to our rooms, but I think this design element is often overlooked. Also, it is expensive placing electrical components precisely-it takes a very skilled electrician. But I think it can be worth it.

A Place for Everything, and for Everything a Place:

The kitchens at Filoli are incredible. There is a huge butler’s pantry, a dish cleaning room and a silver safe all off the main kitchen. Clearly, we don’t all have the luxury (or the need!) of this much space. But it is very nice to have enough storage for everything you need in your kitchen. I also love having highly customized cabinetry that provides dedicated space for everything you cook with/use to cook with.

Design with whimsy and love:

The study was immediately my favorite. I had just told my mom that I didn’t really like the house-the proportions of the rooms felt off to me, a bit uncomfortable, and then I went it the study. Its a bit cosy. Its more square- not a long rectangle with many entrances and exits. And, immediately, my instincts were validated when a tour group came in and the docent explained that this was the Roth family’s favorite room. It is where they had Christmas and spent time together. My favorite part, however, was the hidden wet-bar. It even has a small refrigerator tucked into the side and a pony-printed wallpaper. Many family rooms now seem to have wet bars or something similar, but few that were built in the last thirty years were designed with as much care as this one (I have, however, seen some lovely mid-century modern ones).

Good design principals really do breach style. When someone really thinks about how people live and work and go about their daily life and then creates a space that demonstrates an understanding of that, its a beautiful thing. Its not about demonstrative wealth or flashy decoration, but an attention to detail and a certain sort of thoughtfulness.

Trend Watch: Overheard at the Alameda Flea Market

“These maps are too bright and colorful. Do you have any that look…older?”

The map trend has been around for a while, but seems to be ramping up. I completely understand the fascination with maps. I study them a lot myself, but the question is: If a hipster is asking an antiques’ dealer for maps that are less colorful and look more old, is the trend about to peak? Or will it just keep going like owls?

Apartment Therapy claims “Either Vintage or New Will Do!”

Design*Sponge has a wrap-up titled best of: maps

And sfgirlbybay also agrees that “maps seem to be everywhere in decor these days.

With trends, its always a tough call. I still love the Ork typography maps that were everywhere a couple years ago. Foxes are super trendy right now, but they’re on the curtains in my kids’ room. Chalk board paint is on the wall in their playroom, another big trend. But, if we all recycle the same things we see over and over, than our spaces seem more referential to others’ tastes and styles than they do to us. I still think the best spaces have big personality and completely suit the inhabitants. I love West Elm, etc, but if we all have the same home accessories, it looks like we’re living in a realtor’s photo shoot, not our own homes. When I walk into someone’s space, I want to see a bit of themselves. I want to see what they read (although the kindle and colored coded book collections makes that harder) and where they’ve been. This personalized-design philosophy may seem at odds with the concept of an interior designer- paying someone else to help you design your space. But a good designer, I think, will take time to understand and get to know their client enough so it is reflective of the client. Good design is based on good collaboration. (Even if that collaboration results in owls and foxes and maps and succulents.)


The Reveal Part 6: The Living Room

The living room is still, very much, a work in progress. We haven’t unpacked the books on the shelves…or picked out a coffee table…or added a rug. I really want to love everything in this room, so I’m just taking my time. Waiting for the right things to appear. But, of course, I painted it (Leaf 07). And added a couple of sconces. It still needs more lighting, but I always forget because it is so bright during the day. And, also, I want to find the right lamps, which takes time.

When I finished painting this room, I immediately thought it was too bright. My mom still doesn’t like the color up on the walls in this room, but it grew on me very quickly. This room is not sophisticated, it is not subtle or grown up. It is vibrant and young. It reflects the life in our house and the life that grows green leaves right outside the windows.

I love the look of pewter/tin/tarnished silver against the acid green. These necklaces, my mom picked up in Thaliand in the ’80′s and I woke up thinking about them as we were moving and called her up and asked her for them. I now understand they were meant to go here.

And, of course, this is what our couch usually looks like. Which is why I had to get a slipcovered sofa. I would have preferred something more tailored, a little cleaner, a little sexier… but this is our life. Cat hair and all-and it doesn’t make any sense to design for a reality that doesn’t really exist.