What designers have been doing at home during the pandemic


If the average person hollowed out a tree branch, turned it into a light fixture, and hung it over a dining room table, it would look like the work of a Cub Scout. But at Constantin Boym’s weekend home in the Hudson Valley, the branch is perfect. Not too crispy, not too gnarly, so naive it’s almost invisible.

Mr. Boym, chairman of the industrial design department at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, and co-director with his wife, Laurene Leon Boym, of design firm Boym Partners, is very good at making things and has recently had many opportunities .

Sequestered with his family for 18 months in their 1955 cabin in Esopus, NY, he embarked on a long vacation as a busman. Inside, he designed a second bedroom for the couple’s 24-year-old son, Rob, and a mudroom where the refrigerator and laundry appliances could live.

Outside, he introduced to the property’s eight acres a fire pit, a “village” of birdhouses acquired in various architectural styles, a tomato garden, a pavilion with a fake deer trophy he assembled from of found wood (part of a series Mr. Boym calls “Upstate Safari”) and a metal sculpture at the site of a recently excavated glass and metal scrap heap, made from detritus found there (“I’m thinking something of a pram,” he said).

Ms Boym, who recently took to ironic drawings of controversial consumer products like Land O Lakes butter and Sun-Maid raisins, has been given a new studio extending from a woodshed.

The couple renamed their augmented property Boym Park.

For those lucky enough to own a country home during a pandemic, the relief of having a shelter is often tempered by the stress of making it work. Filling a weekend house with a full complement of family members strains more than just the septic system. And with the shortage of available contractors and the scarcity and cost of building materials, it was not easy to solve his problems.

Which gives designers like the Boyms an edge: Under the same pandemic conditions as the rest of us, they’re equipped to make home improvements that help maintain their sanity. They can act as their own general contractors, pushing builders, electricians and plumbers towards the results they want, or they can do the work themselves, without making them look do-it-yourselfers.

It pays to be convenient and ready to go (or out of the forest). Mr. Boym estimated the cost of the art studio, built with hired help, at $20,000. Still, choosing humble materials like $27 pressure-treated lumber for an outdoor bench that will last half a century isn’t just about economy, he said, but a comment about consumption. He cited Russian Constructivist artist Vladimir Tatlin’s support for “not the old, not the new, but the necessary”.

Mr. Boym found it necessary for the bench to drag long enough to blend in with a tree trunk, fitting into a notch cut into the seat. It was also necessary that another bench be constructed from logs encrusted with oyster mushroom spores which will burst over much of the room. A third bench, at the top of the slope, includes a cocktail or beer bar.

Had he been successful, Mr Boym, who was born in Russia, would also have included Soviet-style statues – a laborer or “a girl with an oar” – but these are not so easy to find, he said. he declares.

Twenty-five miles northeast of Esopus, in the Columbia County hamlet of Elizaville, NY, Peter Matthiessen Wheelwright found it necessary to finish his second novel. A professor emeritus of architecture at Parsons School of Design in New York, he had been working on the book for six years and had experienced a dry spell when the pandemic hit. Mr Wheelwright fled with his wife, Eliza, to their small, mansard-roofed house on 200 acres. They had purchased the property, a former marijuana farm, in 1986 after authorities seized it.

“I wanted a place to really hang out and howl at the moon,” he said. But with children and grandchildren teeming in less than 2,000 square feet, there was no quiet place to write.

“As an architect, I’ve never really had the opportunity to do a little standalone thing for myself,” he said, which makes designing a small studio with a mezzanine. Construction began with the first ripples of Covid-19, so he was able to secure most materials and labor before they were overwhelmed by demand. The building is heated by a Danish wood-burning stove and has hot and cold water provided by a sink-mounted office water cooler that runs down a downspout. There is also a compost toilet and a raised terrace pierced by a fire cherry tree.

The work was completed in six months, a labor of love but no economy. “It’s the famous triad that good architects will explain to their clients,” he says. “You want it fast, you want it cheap, you want it done right. Pick two.”

Mr. Wheelwright wanted it fast and with high quality windows and doors, a sloped ceiling and slatted board panels instead of Sheetrock. He estimated the cost at between $150,000 and $160,000.

Eight months later, his book was finished. “The Door-Man,” a multi-generational saga centered on the fossil discoveries of real-life 20th-century paleontologist Winifred Goldring, is due out Feb. 1 from Fomite Press.

A little further south, in the town of Rhinebeck in Dutchess County, New York, Calvin Tsao and Zack McKown were also galloping to complete a small outhouse on a large rural plot. The New York-based architects, along with their domestic partner and chief financial officer, David Poma, occupied a renovated gatehouse on 82 acres of gated land as a weekend home, but its 800 square feet left no room for recreation, even less work. . Limited by convention to 600 square feet for the new structure, they set up three small studios side by side, connected by a pair of bathrooms, one with a toilet, the other with a shower.

“We wanted to use every bit of space,” Mr. Tsao said. “I always thought hallways were unnecessary.” The trio of bedrooms can also be reached from a shared screened porch at the end.

The building overlooks an apple orchard and is painted a color based on tree bark samples collected by the architects and blended by Benjamin Moore. “Six hundred square feet for a studio apartment is not meant to be a razzmatazz design statement,” Mr. Tsao said. It is meant to blend in with the flora.

The building was nevertheless exorbitantly priced – $350,000 – despite the use of engineered flooring, supplies from the local lumber yard and hardware store, and only a slight indulgence in Heath tiles for the bathrooms. baths. “The cost of construction is skyrocketing,” Mr. Tsao said.

Part of the budget was reduced when they needed a column for the breezeway. “We just bought a tree trunk for about $12,” he said.

Started before the pandemic, the house was completed in May 2020, becoming a remote office, where partners work on projects like the reconstruction of the National Palace Museum in Taipei, Taiwan.

The rural environment has had a profound effect on them; they are taking over the oversight of the apple orchard, which had been outsourced to a local farmer, and turning it organic. “We want to spend more time here to really understand what agrarian life and culture is like,” Tsao said.

Architecture is one of the busiest professions, with its distant client meetings and site visits. For an architect, being cooped up in a well-appointed studio may not seem natural. Being locked up at home could easily turn into torture.

“I was working in about 15 square feet in my bedroom and trying to coordinate showers, changing clothes and making the bed,” Ryan Mullenix, a partner at Seattle architecture firm NBBJ, recalled of the period during which he was under one roof. with his wife and three distance-schooled children. What emerged out of desperation (more of an architect’s build-your-own urge) was a 70-square-foot freestanding office in his backyard in suburban Bellevue, Washington.

Co-head of NBBJ’s corporate design practice, Mr. Mullenix was like a scientist dosing himself with his own serum. His advice to clients trying to adapt workplaces for the future, he said, is to “test it – don’t try to make it perfect the first time”. Her small desk is a model of minimalism just waiting to be polished up.

Started in June 2020, the project took a year, with materials costing around $10,000. Mr. Mullenix did the work himself in his spare time, sometimes helped by friends and a professional electrician. He’s made dozens of trips to Home Depot and only sanctioned two custom moments in the form of a pair of sliding glass doors for views and cross-ventilation. And, okay, the floor has radiant heat.

Two hours west of Seattle, at the tip of the Toandos Peninsula, Kristen Becker spent her pandemic weekends learning to use a chainsaw, drive a tractor and demolish a carport. This acquaintance has been in the service of renovating an old house that she and her husband, Saul Becker, bought three years ago after learning that it had belonged to Mr. Becker’s grandfather, who l played in a drunk poker game. The couple, partners at Seattle-based architecture and design firm Mutuus Studio, paid $139,000 for the dilapidated three-story building, which had been abandoned for a decade. Gradually, they turned it into a weekend retreat and design lab.

Aiming for a cabin vibe, the couple created a loft for their two children that was “open to cooking, to voices and evening conversations, to the sound of the crackling fire,” Ms Becker said. On the lower level, they set up a game room with a free pool table that was given to them out of the blue one night, and dismantled and transported home. (Mrs. Becker was in heels.)

As for the experimental part, “I hung metal lampshades in the channel and grew barnacles in them as part of making home accessories,” Becker said. , who trained as an artist and designs lighting for the company. His laminated linen and canvas panels, reminiscent of art paintings and proletarian dropcloths (he has experience with both), have been used on lamps and kitchen cabinet fronts. Crushed oyster shells extracted from the nearby bay have become countertop material.

Ms. Becker calls the vintage finds she enjoys collecting and restoring “puppies.” She described the house as “a really big puppy”.

“It will be endless, a lifelong project,” she said. “Come back next year.”

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