Trade Secrets
The New Leadership by Design
Who’s doing what, when where and how in the New England design business.

It’s 2010. The party’s over and we’re sprawled on the sofa with a world-class hangover. A wall of problems looms overhead: war, poverty, disease, global warming, nuclear proliferation—each one a brick set by some devilish mason. How do we design our way over or around or through this wall? Where are the leaders going to come from? A growing number of academics, such as David Kelley at Stanford University, are proposing a new leadership model that advocates training CEOs, statesmen and other leaders in the right-brained art of “Design Thinking.” If most leadership in the world today is based on “command and control,” the new model is far more creative and collaborative. This new generation of leaders will understand that all kinds of people need to be brought to the table. They will understand that multiple viewpoints are essential to any solution and they will insist on getting them. Of course, New England designers and architects already work within this model. They know the homeowner is just one stakeholder in any project, and that many others—the historical and conservation commissions, the neighborhood association, the alternative energy engineering consultants, the rug importer, the antiques dealer, the all-important mason—need to have a sense of pride and ownership too. The world is ready for Design Leadership. With this new approach, that big wall of problems may not be so insurmountable after all.

Michael Ferzoco of Eleven Interiors in Boston is a design thinker who finds himself baffled by design stupidity. “When my clients buy into large multi-unit high rises they’re enchanted by the views, the location, the newness and the appliances. They think they don’t have to do a thing except to pick out a sofa. And then I have to tell them, ‘Let’s do the dirty work first.’ The construction is often completely thoughtless, and the details that should be there aren’t. For example, in the dining room there’s no wiring for a chandelier. The door swings the wrong way, hitting the lights switches behind it. But those are minor. The main challenge is to figure out how one space will relate to another. And why is it that on entering the kitchen my client has to circumvent an enormous island before she can put down her groceries?”

Satisfying the client may mean getting her to delay gratification—no sofa picking until the dirty work’s done. Or it may mean surprising her with some custom pillows at the end of the job. Designer and 2009 New England Design Hall of Fame inductee Gary McBournie of Boston is teased by other designers for his obsessive frugality; he warehouses and labels every workroom scrap for later use. “I often take scraps of fabric and mix them together for pillows. Occasionally I give them to my clients as a thank you.” McBournie’s clients don’t need the scraps to make their budgets, he explains, but they do appreciate the evidence that he’s being extra careful with their money. Client Mother Earth is delighted when anything is reused rather than tossed. And McBournie enjoys some satisfaction as well. That’s three “clients” made happy, despite the good-natured teasing.

Designers often say their work is about “giving the client what they want.” Well, okay, but real design thinkers can drill much farther down. Sharon McCormick of Durham, Connecticut, found some foyer tile called River Rock that reminded her of the rocky beach at the end of her clients’ street. “For me it was love at first sight, but they were a little leery at first. Now, whenever someone enters the home, the first comment is, ‘I love this floor.’ It wasn’t a material my clients would have chosen on their own, but working with a designer gave them the confidence to be true to their own style.” Indeed, a Designer Leader will help make the entire citizenry true to its own style.

Citizenry by design means respect for the neighbors. “Beacon Hill, where I live, is a wonderful community, but its close quarters can be a challenging environment in which to renovate,” says designer Gregory Van Boven. “On a recent project, my client met early on with her neighbors, describing her plans, the timeframe for the work and what they might expect as our work progressed. I tried to make sure the neighbors had advance notice when I knew the work might be disruptive. That degree of respect gained my client a lot of new friends along with a very smooth renovation.”

Sure you give the client what she wants, but Design Thinking seems to always add a little spin. Architect Irene Facciolo, of Thunder Mill Design in Montpelier, Vermont, just finished a new house with a sunroom adjoining a great room. “I felt there should be a connection between these two rooms and I drew an internal window to bring in light,” she says. “I found a large old three-sash leaded glass window with small pale-green seeded glass panes. The two outer windows were on casement hinges and there was one small pane missing. A local stained-glass craftsman was able to match it. The clients expected some kind of window, but not this marvelous antique which added so much texture, color and history into their new home.”

In Design Thinking, all the complexities are meant to result in a story that touches the emotions and causes a sense of shared pride. John Kelsey, of Salem, Massachusetts, was redoing a galley kitchen. He brought his client to the lumberyard to help select the perfect wood for the cabinet doors, mahogany with a grain that would carry the eye along the bow-front counters. The client was thrilled to be invited along into the process. At the stone yard they found the perfect piece of granite: “ebony, gray and pink in a sandstone-like pattern that boils up into black and crystalline shapes. We both gasped: ‘Look, there’s a tiger springing from that stone!’ Then we got the other piece of the slab and book-ended them—one as the counter and the other as the backsplash—like two tigers facing each other. We both took ownership in that one.”

Kelsey’s wife and partner, Sally Wilson, notes that clients often fall in love with patterns and want them all. Wilson finds it necessary to assert some control. Complexity she’s all in favor of, but not chaos. Anchoring one particular Wilson Kelsey dining room are Spanish Rococo chairs that illustrate her point. Wilson had the high-backed, elaborately carved chairs repainted in black crackle with gold highlights, then added a completely original mix of upholstery. “When you are sitting at the table you see Scalamandré plaid in olive green, cream and gold on the host and hostess chairs. On the guest chairs there’s Old World Weavers chenille in lichen green. And if you step away from the table you can admire the carved shells of the chair backs and the Jim Thompson striped silk in a green-tinged gold with cream.” The result is a narrative of color, pattern and texture far richer than beige on beige.
The world itself is rich in this layering of colors, patterns and textures. Design Thinking recognizes this fact. The new Design Leaders of the world will make the most of this notion.

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