“Hugh Hardy once said to me that the problem with architects is a fear of drapery! Interior design is more tactile than architectural design… I think that many architects are afraid of this tactility. They’re afraid of color.
“Before I saw Aalto’s houses in their natural setting, I was married to the grid… [but] Aalto’s floor plans, while rigorous, did not use a grid. Instead, they focused on grabbing light, on nature, and on circulation.”
(Photo: Stephen Barker)
The architectural profession is in crisis. Half the firms in San Francisco shuttered their doors this past year, or so it seems, and those that remain have pared down their staff. Even professionals who’ve been stably employed for years are showing up at job fairs with that stunned and hungry look that – well, let me put it this way. I had it, too.
Not only that, but architects aren’t always known for their marketing savvy. Residential architects in particular may have a hard time finding clients, because they don’t know how to use the new marketing channels that have emerged in the past 10 years. And who can blame them? Architects are supposed to spend their time designing, not working with their agent to get on Oprah.
Karin Payson has been running own firm since 1992, one of very few woman-owned firms in San Francisco. We asked her not only about the state of design, but the state of the profession. Are young designers any good these days? How does she stay in business? What’s up with interior designers and architects? Who are her favorite designers and why?
In the portions below, three voices are represented: Karin Payson (KP), Mark English (ME), and Rebecca Firestone (RF).
Interior Design vs. Architecture
Payson was a hands-on designer from the start. “My father was a textile engineer with JP Stevens and he used to bring home 100-yard samples from the textile mills in places like North Carolina. I learned to sew at age 10 and eventually worked my way through college as a seamstress.”
RF: Can you talk about the tension that seems to exist between architects and interior designers? One seemed to emphasize formality, volumes and minimal color palettes, while the other emphasizes color, flamboyance, and a textured experience.
KP: Interior design is confused with decoration – which in turn is seen as fun and mostly about curtains. Interior design is more tactile than architectural design. It’s a tactile world as well as a visual one. I think that many architects are afraid of this tactility. They’re afraid of color and of the tactile qualities of interior finishes.
KP: Most architects are afraid of color. They think it’s cutesy, poo-poo, fun – not real design. What they don’t realize is that fabric for example can have both emotional and acoustical value.
KP: Tactile has to do with both light and finishes, and how they work together. How the surfaces are finished changes the light in the room, and can give it a whole new dimension. Reflected light off of white walls, or wood, or gray concrete – totally different feeling. Hugh Hardy was my employer and one of my mentors after grad school. He said that architects suffer from a fear of drapery!
KP: Decorating is such a dirty word! But as one interior designer said to me, “I don’t mind being called a decorator, because so few people are any good at it.” To be able to select accessories, fabric, and furnishings on an art level is really the completion of the design, not a trival afterthought.
RF: A lot of interior work seems to be about furniture placement. Don’t you have to consider this when setting up your views and window positioning?
KP: We show furniture placement with several iterations. This project folio is actually an interiors package that we’re about to present to the client. These examples show how you might furnish the room. There are several lines of sight [shows out the window and a couple that go diagonally across the house].
RF: Who are your influences? Whom do you admire?
KP: I suppose we have to mention Frank Lloyd Wright and Bernard Maybeck. I studied their work a lot, because we ARE in California [meaning their work is designed for American climates]. I’ve also liked Alvar Aalto and the New York Five from a very young age.
Other names… Louis Kahn. Charles Voysey. Edwin Lutyens… his work was rooted in its time. But it’s not entirely traditional residential architecture. It’s humorous and rigorous, with great proportions. Hans Wegner and his chairs. Brulo Lisle. Going back further… Palladio, of course! For fine artists, Mark Rothko. Paolo Uccello. David Smith. George Rickey. Martin Puryear.
Alvar Aalto: Light and Flow
RF: Tell me more about Aalto. Why’d you pick him?
[Brings out a folio of Aalto’s work ]
KP: In the summer of 2001, I went to Finland and spent 8 days traveling and looking at Aalto’s work. Observing his houses in their natural environment. That trip changed my life!
I picked up a lot of ideas from Aalto, nuances like the positioning of windows in a room. In Aalto’s buildings the window positioning is extraordinary, especially given the latitude. I had never been so far north before, never north of London. The quality of light, and the angle of light, is completely different at that latitude. I was shooting film [not digital], and even on a bright sunny day, I couldn’t shoot ASA-100 film facing north because there was not enough light.
At that latitude, skylights are placed in the south or west rather than north as we would do here.
Small details can be huge. Like corner windows that wrap both sides. The light enters the room from a corner window in a completely different way than from a window smack in the middle of a wall. Here’s one of Aalto’s tricks that I borrowed for my house. In the master bedroom, which faces north and east, the ceiling is canted and washed by light from corner windows. The cant also washes the wall with more light. This creates a room with lots of privacy, but also lots of light.
In the library, you don’t need as much privacy as you do in a bedroom.
Aalto was sort of sidelined as a regionalist at the time by proponents of the International Style who felt he wasn’t pure – he used local materials, applied decoration and finishes, and colors other than pure white.
KP: Here’s another feature I like about Aalto’s work. Window frames richly surrounding the windows. It helps provide a visual anchor.
KP: And look at this wall, with its change of plane and material. To be inspired by someone else’s work without making yours look like a copy… that’s the challenge.
KP: In Aalto’s stairwell at Villa Mairea, the uneven patterning of poles is not structurally necessary. It’s there to echo the forest outside.
KP: On a project which we did in Carmel, the stairwells also mimic nature with straight lines. We originally wanted to create rails by wrapping bronze cord, but due to practical considerations we went with a series of wrapped bronze rods.
KP: The smooth and rich materials, natural materials used in this house defend the importance of the tactile.
KP: Before seeing Aalto, I was more married to the grid. I was obsessed with it. It’s my “post-Bauhaus” training. But Aalto’s floor plans, while rigorous, did not use this grid. Instead, they focused on grabbing light, on nature, and on circulation. It’s more about how people will experience the space.
Strict adherence to the grid isn’t enough to make a great room. [shows her Hill House project] Here I finished the entry wall with Douglas fir, very warm, and it’s washed by light from two vertical windows.
— to be continued in Part 2 —
About the author
Rebecca Firestone has been working in the Bay Area since 1998 as a technical writer, business content developer, architectural filing lady, marketing director, and sorcerer’s apprentice.