Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Paige Rien, Obama White House Re-Design Chief: How will you re-design the Obama White House for Barack and Michelle?

I'm so glad you asked - I've been waiting a lifetime for a commission like this.

Ok blur back to reality...I've been hitting the echinacea-Nyquil gimlet a little too hard these one has asked me to in any way be a part of re-designing the Obama White House, or the de-Bushing Design. But a girl can dream, can't she? Yes I can.

My vision for the Obama White House. Two words: deeply personal. I see Barack and Michelle taking a long respectful lunge away from the traditional, nameless, faceless, Georgian classicist formality. After all, they are going to express change and hope in their space, not ancient Greece or the West Wing. Pomp and circumstance is so yesterday. This is a place that has to represent family, openness and the future, and yet also host the world’s elite in every profession – it must also express confidence and be grounded. Surely we know we can do that without tassels, brocade and columns. I do think rich colors with stark contrasts. Not so much white or cream trim everywhere. I see as weird as it looks as I write it, black trim, navy blue trim, textured wall papers and abstract murals.

A progressive color palette immediately speaks to change. Red, white and blue are great - just visit my living room! But a deep black-red, a pale, watery-blue, a clean white and black to balance the space and maximize contrast. (Black is a great equalizer for red.) I also see the Obamas inviting craftspeople an artists to take part in the design - to have their home, which also the nation's home, represented by a diverse, progressive body of art work, alongside all those presidential portraits. (Or are they somewhere else in Washington??) I would suggest a rotating collection of artwork form around the world – a mix of bold and subdued colors – why can't the White House be the most interesting art gallery in the world?

And naturally, the Obamas will be frugal fannies - they'll have to be. And this goes hand in hand with living green. The most important part of designing with the earth’s future in mind is to KEEP WHAT YOU LIKE AND REPLACE THE REST. If it works, keep it! That is certainly No-Drama-Obama's attitude towards filling his cabinet posts. Some people stay, most of the people go. Perhaps furniture pieces from the Bush collection can be renewed or refurbished – perhaps President Obama can create a design task force to maximize the *change* in the space, while re-using as much possible – this can employ artists and crafts people and express rule number one of green design: can it be recycled? (Note to the White House Design Section Committee - my late winter 2009 is open and, yes, I can help you.)

Now, the Obama girls rooms are also a revolutionary step for the White House - when have cute little girls with big personalities lived there? Never. I think spaces for the girls should not just be confined to their rooms. I think they should have spaces to entertain the girls of the world and spread American friendship, by doing what girls do – creative play, sharing, talking, using their imaginations. For their rooms – I can see spaces that are inspired by the way girls live all over the world. No I didn't just veer into some American-Girl marketing brochure - I really think this. If the first lady entertains, why not the first kids?

At the end of the day, the economy, the dour note that we're ended the year on will make it hard for the Obama's to go all out in redesigning the home for their needs. However, as I said earlier, the key here is personal. If the Obamas are true to themselves, they will end up with a comfortably elegant, understated and progressive space. The White House is more than just a house – it’s a place of work, a secure location and a host to the world. And all those rooms provide an even larger platform for our first family to express hope, peace, togetherness and creative change. Kumbayah!

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Eating Eco-Crow

Recently I filmed an episode of Hidden Potential in Dayton, Ohio. I was asked by a local organization to share on my was wonderful - and I ate some crow...and this was a specifically eco-friendly-themed show....
Maybe it was east-coast snobbery, but I was surprised when the television show I design for, Hidden Potential, on HGTV, matched me with two Midwestern-located, environmentally-conscious families this summer. Not in Chicago, but in Dayton, OH and Racine, WI. Of particular interest were the Dayton folks - a kind, lively couple who were very serious, even die-hard, in there environmental commitment.

To prepare for their designs, I reached out to contacts on the west coast – a photovoltaic panel distributor in the Bay Area and the Green Depot, an east-coast Home Depot alternative, to price no-VOC, non-toxic finishing products. Then I remembered my cardinal rule for “green” anything-- local. All the eco-friendly stuff in California and New York creates a Big Foot-sized carbon footprint once it’s transported by air to Ohio.

So I googled the words “green + energy + Ohio”. Let’s see what resources are local. I thought. Perhaps there is a university there driving some environmental awareness. Clearly still thinking all the green was happening on the coasts, I was pleasantly surprised to find a progressive and comprehensive resource in Green Energy Ohio, a green energy information portal for the many progressive green energy-focused businesses, in Ohio. In a New York-minute, I found options for any Ohioan considering a passive solar home or replacing their roof with high efficiency photo-voltaic panels. I also learned about government incentives and tools to compute the long-term financial ramifications of a green energy project.

During the filming of the show in Dayton, the couple wanted to know how they’d find a solar panel installer in Ohio, to implement the plans for the 2 kilowatt PV panel system I had proposed to them. I nearly jumped out of my seat, “You have so many options! You wouldn’t believe it!” It was humbling and heartwarming to discover something I had assumed wasn’t there in Green Energy Ohio, but also that the green movement is becoming ubiquitous – away from the likes of Soho and San Francisco – helped along by organizations like Green Energy Ohio.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

ECO-FUSSY...Remarks from DWELL's Modern on the Inside Event

I spoke at the A&D building in NY on the top of family-friendly design. The first part was more about an overarching modernist strategy to designing for a family with chilren. I called it my story as an unlikely modernist. As many of you know, I love old, traditional, historicist design, but I have had a change of heart in many ways....I'll publish this first part in a few days. In the meantime, here is the second part, where I talk about sourcing furniture + finishing products for families, a.k.a, the ECO-FUSSY...

I want to talk about furniture and finishing decisions based on family needs. Although we live in a land of cheerios and baba’s and what to do with diapers as our central problem – the family consumer is actually quite complicated and sophisticated.

Let’s start with our first modern consideration - mother earth. If you weren’t already, having a baby for many of us increases our sensitivity to the earth’s needs and problems. It also makes us more sensitive to the interior nature/environment in our homes. The air, the water, the surfaces – all become important to me as a mother. When I’m talking about eco-friendly, I’m thinking in a rather complicated way about the lifecycle of a product – how was it made and where, is it renewable, is it local, how will it be disposed of, will it biodegrade, can I recycle it? There are, of course compromises, even at this level. So I’m doing my best to choose products where the energy intake and toxin output through their lifecycle – manufacturing – transportation and disposal is minimal.

OK, so earth, check. Not a small check, but moving on. This brings me to the sucking quotient. Not only am I worried about whether that bamboo can be renewed in China, but also when my son suck’s on it, what happens to him. Seriously, I get all kinds of free samples and freebies that people invite me to try in my own home from paint to wallpaper, tiles, trim work, even lighting and draperies. So I always say to them, my son’s gonna suck on it – is that a problem? And typically they tell me that my son couldn’t possibly hurt it because it has XYZ seal or whatever but I want to know, my son’s gonna suck on it, is he gonna be ok? Often it’s a moment of silence with the manufacturer. But that’s changing. I should also say that while children’s toys and children’s furniture is littered with regulation on paint and toxic additives, nothing else is – and when you have a child that goes beyond lying on their back in their personal development – everything else is game for sucking and chewing.

So now, daily life. When you have children, it has to last. It has to last and look good if it’s dirty or sucked on. I call this the daily life quotient. I can’t be constantly scrubbing or replacing it. I can’t be afraid to live on it, around it and through it, and it must be easy to keep it looking good. You know what works beautifully with those parameters. Vinyl and plastic. Oh, but that ruins our earth check. Well, unless its recycled, but then there are the inevitable off-gasses. What’s it gonna cost me to make it baby-bullet-proof?

So that leads us to the money question. Here we are in New York. And I am sure there are even people in this room who have money to burn. But most of the people who come to me – wealthy or not – choose not to burn their own money in their own house. It’s ruins the experience, just a tad when you’ve spent more than you wanted to on a particular room and then your toddler makes a rorchac-esque imprint on the chaise within days of it’s delivery. Generally exorbitant costs and drool in the same breath don’t often make my clients feel good. And I’m not just talking about upfront costs here. I am talking about the long view. Having to remodel and renovate is costly in many ways. What we want is long term value out of any particular design choice. There is raw cost, and lost time, and annoyance, not to mention the fact that if its not done properly, you’re either paying, every time you’re in the space, by kicking yourself, or your paying twice to have it redone. So this is not just about being frugal. Don’t get me wrong, I am the consummate bargain shopper -- they know me by name at IKEA, which is probably a banned word in the A&D building, however this is also about making sound choices so we are only doing it once or at least infrequently. I’m the last person to advocate IKEA for everything, or most things, but I’m also about making choices that will last – for those things that are costly to replace – financially, emotionally and time-wise. So, ok, we need to find something that respects the earth, takes care of our bodies and cleans up well and easily, and if affordable. That’s hard. But that’s it right?

Ah no, it has to look good too! Hello?? That’s why were here. That’s why I have a job. Otherwise we’d also just wear hemp sacks and have hemp slip covers and we’d throwing everything into a boiling hot water caldron at the end of the night. That’s a little too Clan of the Cave Bear for me.

So this is our picture – we have lots that we need to satisfy. Cue the ven diagram.

I’ve been on a heat seeking mission to find home products and really a system for clients to find things for their home which are all of the above. It’s not easy, but the good news there are some creative people with all these sensibilities – green, family, economy, beauty – who are making products and finishes and furniture.

And before I get to specific finishing products – cue the soap box –I have a bee in my bonnet about sustainable design. And in this context I mean design that can stand the test of time. Anytime we’re buying something that will surely only have a limited use, it’s not really sustainable, is it. Anything that has to be soon replaced means that we’re buying and disposing of more. Some of this is inevitable, but I think we are often making choices with respect to children’s furniture, that is about the moment, and not the longer life of the child. Cribs, I totally get. But I believe that when we buy for children, we’re buying for scale and we’re buying for playfulness even more than simply youthfulness. There are lots of choices now that are youthful and playful without being overtly juvenile – which offers a cohesion with the rest of your home and a longer life with your child. There are companies like Offi and P’kolino which are doing a great job at that. So, look for lower pieces, smaller in scale, with a playful, youthful feel to them that work in your child’s room and another room when your child grows up. The promise of most modern design is a sense of simplicity and timeliness, not a timestamp for utility and style.

There are two reasons you would traditionally choose children’s or juvenile furniture. One is that all juvenile furniture has stricter paint/finish regulations because, altogether now, my son will suck on it. But there are many more options today where we can choose furniture that is treated without formaldehyde, in paints without VOCs, etc. You can’t get it at a big chain, most likely, but realize that when you buy children’s furniture, you are buying something for a few years. Modern furniture, to me, as I said before has a streamline and a simplicity that not only keeps its age a secret but sometime it’s intention. Is it a children’s dresser? It’s so low! It’s so simple, it’s white. No, it’s a furniture piece that you can use in a child’s room for a long time, and then use somewhere else in your house when your child goes to college or needs something else. My experience is that buying – phase-based furniture doesn’t work. Once again, if you are going to buy an adult piece rather than a child’s piece – you are buying for the long haul – so finish the job and buy a well made piece that will last through time and also climbing and dive bombs and other general roughhousing.

Let’s wrap up here and talk about a few products which answer to our ven diagram a bit. The first layer I want to talk about is the skin of the room – your walls. Like a dermatologist on a mission to get everyone to wear their sunscreen, I am a huge advocate of the right paint. Unless you live in a glass house, and I’m aware that many people in Manhattan may actually live in a glass penthouse, most of the rest of us are surrounded by painted walls – this is a huge amount of square footage – so the paint you choose – the color you choose – these are all really key to the space feeling good but also being good for you. So if we go back to our ven diagram for paint – it’s go to be the right color. Here is a hint on that – choose a color. Back in the day, pigmentation meant added VOCs (volatile organic compounds) -- not so with newer green paints. Second, it’s got to be non-toxic. No-VOC. Totally doable. Has anyone here been to Green Depot? It’s a wonderful store – they have locations in Brooklyn and Newark, I do not work for them by any means – but they have cool, high-quality stuff that actually meets the criteria we’ve been talking about. Safecoat is the brand at Green Depot which seems to peform as well as traditional VOC-laden paint. Paint is one off those things like life insurance – you can’t really look at how much it costs –you have to look at how much it won’t cost you if you don’t do it. So, I am a big believer in choosing paint that is the highest quality you can afford, and simply painting less frequently. Apartment dweller – make the building use paint of your choosing and pay the difference if need be. All buildlings will have commercial accounts at Janovic or some other paint store – tell them you’ll pay the extra $5/gallon for low/no-VOC or supply the paint yourself.

There are other wall finishing options – as well – for clients who are looking for more of a textured wall – think about earth plaster. There are a bunch of manufacturers of earth plaster which is essentially a surface treatment much like traditional plaster, made of post-industrial aggregate – basically pulverized concrete and other recycled building materials, essentially, dirt and sand. It’s completely natural + green, anti-microbial, and wonderfully kid-friendly. First of all, earth plaster, like other textured wall treatments, creates an imperfect wall surface – meaning that wear and tear will add the textural patina. But also, if you take a crayon to earth plaster, it can usually be rubbed or scrubbed out. And if it can’t, it can be refinished in a small are – you’ll have a very hard time doing that well with paint.

There is also the option of wall paper. I like wall paper more and more for my clients with children. First, there is the option of tilized wall paper. I like this option because, very simply, your wallpaper is a patchwork of wallpaper rectangles or tiles – if one becomes stained or ruined, simply replace tat one tile – rather than replace a stripe that goes floor to ceiling. There are wall papers and corresponding paints that are very earth friendly these days – I love the very earth Cannon and Bullock option. Made of organic products – breathable – and you can go to Green Depot for earth-friendly wall paper adhesive made organic materials.

But this is looking very clan of the cave bear to some of us I know – it’s earthy which is nice and it can be replaced by piece – practical – but what about something more playful? Enter Ollie & Lime. And this segues me to the conversation on sustainable style. The simple prints that are somehow simultaneously quirky and elegant come in a palette of non-traditional children’s hues. There isn’t a pink or blue in the bunch – but instead a very mid-century modern color palette – they are simple, playful and a great option for nurseries and children’s bedrooms, playrooms and even “public” spaces. The product is made from wood from FSC forests in the UK. It comes without adhesive giving you the flexibility to choose, as with the option I listed above, an eco-friendly wallpaper glue.

So let’s talk for the moment about compromise – because there may be people in the audience who think I only need three out of those four. I don’t care how much it costs or how often it needs to be replaced – we need to use the place upstate more anyway. OK. And there may be people who say, “Screw the earth, we can only take care of so much.” And there may be people who say, “I don’t care what it looks like.” Now the people in the last camp, honestly, I don’t know who you are and you scare me. But the people who are willing to give up economic efficiency or earth friendliness – here is good news. There are more products than ever, answering this new slew of needs of ours. Keep asking the questions. And I don’t accept this idea that when children come – functional and safety trump all aesthetics. Part of my self-care as a whole being is to be surrounded by things I love. People, yes, but also the things that I need for daily life which bring me joy because they work well and have appeal colors and textures. Think modern – which means to think about new solutions and new options for age-old problems of storage, safety, cleanliness and beauty with a new family. Good luck!

Saturday, October 11, 2008

DWELL event on October 22, 2008

I have been asked to speak at Dwell magazine's event, Modern on the Inside at the A&D building in New York on October 22, 2008. I am very flattered and hope to do the topic - modern design for the modern family - the justice it deserves.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Yeah baby! Post partum design

Most of the things on my desk have baby spew on them and I dress for the show in breast-pump-friendly outfits these days, but my views on good home design haven’t changed all that much since becoming a mom in January. My process has changed of course -- I’ve learned that my first instincts really are best; I don’t have the time or luxury of self-doubt; gone are the weeks spent picking out a single paint color. I must trust myself as a mother – and in turn my instincts as a designer have never been stronger. My goals have changed too – I have always wanted my spaces to be inspiring, coloful, relaxing, stimulating, quirky and personal - now I've added safe as well as easy to clean, maintain and navigate to the list of must-be's for my rooms. And I believe it absolutely can be done. There are compromises – but this is nothing new. It’s what you make of those compromises that determines whether the space is well designed or not. Which is why, I think, homes with an abundance of space – gargantuan great rooms and no limits on space, per se, are often poorly designed spaces – horrible to navigate and style, difficult to clean and maintain and costly to keep warm/cool as appropriate – don’t get me started on energy inefficiencies of some new construction –that’s another whole essay. At the end of the day limitless space, money, time, light, etc., does not a great space make. I still think creativity, especially in spaces for families, rules.

I think design becomes an even greater feature in space when we’re talking about family living. Before kids come, we can style a room that looks great – but the room rarely gets picked apart, no one is walking around under three feet tall; most people using the room aren’t spitting up or streaking grape jelly on the nearest substance as they walk by. These are all design challenges which can’t be styled through – they must be designed through. Furniture and fixtures which can both host and conceal a play area. Pieces on casters that lock have become incredibly fashionable in my house. Finishes and textures which can accommodate spit up and less than frequent washings. (It’s lovely that it’s washable but I need something that is lovely when washable and seldom washed.) This means darker, textured fabrics that are most susceptible to baby-trespassing. Not to mention furniture and shapes in a room that respect people of all heights – it is not necessary to buy the terrible foam core edging for your favorite coffee table or fireplace. I was a terrible snob about this before I had my son and I am sorry – but although nearly everything else has changed – this has not – I’d like to think we can come up with parent-friendly, or at least style-friendly baby and child areas that don’t involve affixing cushions to the sharp points of the furniture. I have learned to have great respect for silent, understated baby proofing. How about a simply lower coffee table, or ottomans as coffee tables - elegance or softness - improving, not covering up, the sharp-edge minefield. This definitely leads me down a more understated, minimalist path – away from my love of old, fragile, shiny things – for the moment. I don’t feel as if I’ve turned my back on my personal style – just adjusted it so it doesn’t break or cause anyone any bleeding.

I have also learned to question nearly everything I have in my space. Do I love it? Does it work? It is only good for style’s sake? Or does it add to the design goal of the room? Do I have the will to express my style without so many shiny, breakable things?

And then there comes the actual space plan -- no matter what I'm doing, I want to see my son clearly – for now. And 21st century multi-tasker that I am, there are times I want to be doing something else while watching him. Maybe two other things. I can’t, for today sequester him to another quadrant of the home where I can close the door and let the space be entirely dedicated to Fisher-Price. And yet, down the road, I have no doubt that this will be a necessity. For today, spaces must be defined well. (And truth be told, the entirely-dedicated room for toys doesn’t exist in my world.) This time it’s not just because “defining the space,” is every designer’s favorite phrase – it’s because I cannot have my son crawl everywhere in my space simply because I like being “wall-free” - an open plan causes all sorts of baby-proofing issues – or challenges as I like to think. But it routes me back to space definition – making sure spaces are not closed – but that they do have boundaries or barriers as it were and this can be accomplished with furniture – ideally easily movable, light and nimble furniture.

When it comes down to it – a child in your life means constant change – constant movement – stages, phases, clothes and toys rotated in and out sometimes on a daily basis. And fortunately or unfortunately, depending on your relationship with your home – this calls for a dynamic and flexible design plan for your home – at least with respect to the d├ęcor – and for the more fortunate and affluent among us – larger scale changes that reflect the needs and wants of babies, who become toddlers, who become little kids, who become big kids, who become teenagers, who ultimately leave (forever) and the parents who adore them to death. For most of my clients of all financial stripes, I coach for the long view – once children have come into the picture. They will not be little forever – so love them to death – but think about how your home will need to evolve with them, as their needs mature and soft blocks go the way of the dodo to make room for computers, etc. Space and pieces that are convertible, flexible and classic rein in this philosophy, as well as a rotating collection of accents and accessories that make the space feel fresh.

At the end of the day, baby spew and all – my son is the best possible design challenge I could hope for – and motherhood – sleep and time deprivation and all – is more rewarding that I could have dreamed. Motherhood has meant letting a lot of things go – but my personal style in my home isn’t one of those things. The landscape has changed, and no doubt will continue to change, as I sense I am on the eve of my son’s first steps and I sense his developing fascination for electrical outlets. Thank goodness for my clients with children of all ages – to tell me how it really is, how it really must be, and what they need to live and mother effectively and peacefully with children older than mine. So I have a sense of what’s coming – not only in motherhood – but in designing in motherhood. For me, there is a meditative quality to feeling surrounded by both the people and the things I love – and not necessarily putting it all away until my son develops my same appreciation for the flea market finds from my pre-child days. So the milky glass goes in the cupboard, and I surround my son, my dog, my husband and myself with pretty things that work for today, but may be shelved tomorrow.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Finding a designer in my neck of the woods...part 1

I get this question so often - how do I find a designer where I live? How do I know I'm choosing the right person or firm? Do I need an interior designer or an architect? Do I use my cousin the contractor/plumber/tile guy?? This is no easy question to answer by any means - it takes careful consideration and discernment to find the right professionals for your home. However, there are some steps you can take to learn more about who is available in your area and what's possible in your own home.

First and foremost - learn about your own home. Its very easy to get discouraged when any design/build professional comes to your home and says something like, "you can only build out, not up because of your crumbling foundation." Or, "a kitchen enlargement would cost a minimum of $60,000 because of the location of your drain line." Or better yet, "you really can't do anything here." This is so disheartening to hear and yet I think many designers would agree - you could have five design/build professionals at any one property and come up with four or five different assessments of what's possible. Often designers and builders have limits as to what they want to do or are able to do - and sometimes they assume that certain projects would be cost prohibitive. Not to mention the fact that they are often colored by their previous experience of what's worked and hasn't worked. Typically, that first blush assessment is made based on past experience and professional opinion, not a thorough evaluation of your home's structure and current condition. To be fair - this happens after you hire a designer or builder, because the real story in any house often is uncovered during demolition or evaluations made by a structural engineer. Its my belief that the real creativity in home building and renovations is not only seeing the possibility in space, but seeing what's possible with give budgets, market conditions, available materials, etc.

So, back to learning about your home - if you haven't had your home inspected in a long time - do so, whether you're planning on selling or not. Use a reputable home inspector with a long tenure in the profession, and learn about the quirks of your home and property. Do your homework on what's possible and allowable in your community - set back laws or permits required etc. This will help you understand what legal issues that two-story large gold dome you wanted to build will bring up...If you live in an older home, study up on the period and style of architecture. Craftsman-style homes in the early 20th century were often built with a specific philosophy and building style - get to know your home and your home's pedigree. If you had the home inspected when you purchased the home - get your hands on the documentation and ready up on what the inspector found. Chances are if the sale went through there wasn't anything major - but you can still learn quite a bit from inspection reports.

The more you know about your home -what the previous owner did, (has the electical system been updated?) how the house was originally built, (is it insulated?) etc., the more informed you'll be about the potential, the possible pitfalls, limitations or underlying costs associated with any home renovation project. I believe this is the first step in getting ready for a big project.

Greetings from motherhood!

Hey everyone,
I am finally getting back to my (new) normal life with my son. We're wrapping up the end of the current season of Hidden Potential in New Jersey and Brooklyn next week and I'm thrilled to get all of the emails and questions I've received over the past few months. Lots of great topics related to real estate, smart design for the current market, and evaluationg design professionals in your neck of the woods. I'll be posting responses starting this week! Thanks for watching Hidden Potential and visiting my blog.

Friday, February 15, 2008

Maternity Leave!

Hi everyone!

I am currently on maternity leave - my son was born on January 6th and my blog posts came to a standstill shortly before he was born....who am I kidding -several months before he was born much of my work off the show came to a screeching halt...but I have lots of viewer questions that I have answered over email and I"ll be posting them here to share in the coming weeks!