Partners in Life and Design: Part I

As we approach—or pass—a month working from home, the effects of the Covid-19 crisis are now inextricable from our professional and personal lives. As part of our continuing coverage of the design community in this time of pandemic, Interior Design spoke with couples who were partners in work and in life long before the virus arrived. Here, they share thoughts on sharing space, finding time for solitude, and how their relationships have weathered the storm.

Editor's note: This story is the ninth installment in a series of conversations with designers, industry leaders, and architects around the globe, examining how our community is staying connected, inspired, and proactive about solutions during the current pandemic.

Mishi Hosono and Adam Weintraub, Koko Architecture + Design, New York City, U.S.

Adam Weintraub: We went remote the same day our kids’ schools went remote. So at the time it was novel, and we had the Zoom thing going and projects were shifting online. Everyone thought, Oh, we’ll go home for a few weeks. And then things got progressively worse. First the question was, will they let us continue construction projects for the city? One by one they shut down. Then we got hit by the construction ban, which ground everything to halt, including planning. Even oversees projects have just kind of frozen. We don’t know what’s going to happen, and we’re not alone in that.

Mishi Hosono: The construction ban has been difficult because we don’t know whether to order materials that have a long lead time generally. When everything is settled, the materials are not going to be there for several months—and that’s trouble. For instance, we got a call for a furniture delivery from Denmark, for which we’ve waited a long time doing a high school library design. They said, OK, we’re ready to ship! But the high school is closed down. So we had to tell the shipper, no. And we have two teenage daughters who are home too. They’re doing school online and I love to cook but we have an open loft and I don’t want to disturb them while they’re in class.

AW: One uses their bedroom for class, so we’ve been in there with her figuring out how to transform a platform bunkbed into a platform office. We’re making do but definitely thinking about open plan [spaces] and privacy. But since we’re so used to our work and home lives blurring together, we already have the skills to say, OK, it’s dinnertime, we’re not going to talk about work.

MH: I blow out my stress through exercise, so I go up to the roof where it’s sunny. But I miss the office with its physical material library, that’s somewhere I like to hide. And we’ve been recording and photographing our kids’ art, taking pictures of each image. That’s been inspiring, because when they made things they were little, and so free to do anything. Those pieces were so beautiful and pure. Usually we don’t have time to do these kinds of things, but we’ve been forced to have the time.

AW: Mishi and I went to school together, and so because our relationship extends before our practice, we tend to do everything together. Our office desk is set up like a dining table where we sit across from each other and go back and forth. And now we have the chance to have meals with the whole family at the actual dining table. This crisis will definitely make people pay more attention to their domestic spaces. Even just in thinking about how we have to clean them. Mishi reminded me of this story about Le Corbusier’s [French-Swiss architect Charles-Édouard Jeanneret] dining table, which was apparently an old autopsy table. He wouldn’t use dining dishes; they’d put the food on the table and at the end of the meal just hose down the slab of marble. It’s a design solution for…something! My brother is a surgeon at Columbia, and he says there’s a rush of people offering to do work for the hospital. They have no money, they’re just trying to keep people alive. So how do we re-invent what we do so that it’s not a luxury, so that it isn’t non-essential?

MH: My hope is that what we do gives not just physical but mental joy to people. I hope people are happier in a beautifully designed space. But I fear that maybe people are getting used to not going out. Maybe you don’t need public or commercial space anymore. I don’t want the world to become that way. The sense of touch is getting lost.

AW: Maybe this break is a chance to catch our breath. In New York everything goes faster and faster. But now we have the chance to have meals with our family where everyone sits at the table and watches movies together, so that time has been special. Maybe we’ll miss that when this is all over. 

Steven Harris and Lucien Rees Roberts, Steven Harris Architects/Rees Roberts + Partners, New York City, U.S.

Steven Harris: We have managed to adjust. We’re fortunate in that while we have a few projects under construction, most of our work happens before construction starts. 

Lucien Rees Roberts: Though it’s very hard to get samples. It’s not possible to order anything. For some projects that are meant to be installing right now, everything is at the warehouse. Even checking things that were meant to be finished before installation isn’t really possible.

SH: So our days are pretty much spent in Zoom client meetings or reviewing drawings or photographs, or in conversation with our vendors and contractors. One of our contractors who was working on a big project in New York has a very high fever, so we’re worried about him. As it happened, we were at our place in California for spring break from my teaching in New Haven, and obviously we could not come back, so we’re here. As for the other people in our office, there’s a young man who has a relatively small apartment in the village and has no dining table to work on. He went to Alabama where he has family and he’s now working at his mother’s dining room table. A woman from Turkey who lives in New York with roommates has gone to a family friend’s house in Greenwich. We have a little house in the country outside of New York City and an employee of ours and his wife and baby are staying there—up in Columbia County on 50 acres where they are perfectly OK. Most other people are working from their apartments, so there can be a little hiccup with time zones. We do have a pair of incredibly charming clients who don’t have cell phones or computers because they don’t believe in them. So we have to Fed Ex documents to them.

LRR: We’re using the dining room table to put our laptops on.

SH: We can’t both be on Zoom at the same time in close proximity to each other. But our biggest concerns are primarily with those people on whom we rely, all the contractors and vendors who are obviously at very great risk. To the degree possible, we’re trying to generate work that people can accomplish from wherever they are. And because we design things, don’t actually make anything, our responsibility is to find a way to continue to have decisions made, to have good faith in good work. Now is the time, because they need the work and they need the money. We do have a bit of practice at this: Because our office on Chambers Street was in the red zone during 9/11, we were not allowed back in for about six weeks. What was amazing then was that a lot of our architect friends lent us desks in their offices, so we positioned people all over town in other people’s spaces.

LRR: What is interesting now is that it’s easier to do presentations and communicate, so you don’t need to always be together. You can do things remotely. Meanwhile, it’s probably more difficult for people in cities who couldn’t get out. It’s creating quite a strain on their relationships, I imagine.

SH: We’re lucky that we happened to land at our house here. If we’re both on Zoom one us can be in the kitchen and the other in the dining room. We have high-power fancy Wi-Fi and we’re lucky to have it.

LRR: Plus, we’ve been working in the same space for about 30 years.

SH: When we’re not working, Lucien paints. And I’ve decided the best way to socially isolate is to go driving. I happen to have a few old cars here, so around dawn I go driving through the mountains. But virtually all of our work is residential, and as a part of that there are a lot of conversations and questions coming up about how we actually live. Who gets up first in the morning? Who sleeps on which side of the bed? What do you use this room and that room for? I suspect that, after this, there will be much more openness to telecommuting and working from home. As an example, there used to be this conversation about do you have dinner parties, do you want a dining room. And that morphed into, I know you don’t eat in the dining room often but it’s a good place to have bookcases—if you want to read something or look up something, it’s a clean table to put one down on. And now, exactly where you want to work from home is at that dining room table.

LRR: It’s true that there is a certain amount we can do from a distance. But ultimately, for us, seeing fabrics and seeing carpets and seeing the real color and textures of things are so important. That has to be done together, both as a team developing an idea and with clients presenting them. Everyone is missing working together and working through ideas in more casual way. And I worry about the future of the range of fabric mills. I’m worried about some of the showrooms. I think there is going to be a massive transition.

Cynthia Penner and H. Jay Brooks, BOX Interior Design, Vancouver, Canada

Cynthia Penner: Our team is working remotely, but Jay and I are still working from the office, because there are still occasional deliveries. Plus, we have an extra few thousand square feet if we come here, so we’re less likely to kill each other! We met at university in the ’80s and then we both started our careers in Toronto. We worked for different firms at the pinnacle of our recession, in the early '90s, so that was…interesting. We never thought we’d work together. But in 2002, we left Toronto and moved to Vancouver. We really just couldn’t find the kind of firm doing the kind of work we wanted, and we were arrogant and silly enough to say, why don’t we do our own thing? So now it’s been 18 years of working together. It’s funny, we’ve been thinking a lot about our early days starting out as young people in a recession. For example, in my graduating class only two of us were employed after graduation as designers. Jay was at a firm that went from being a huge firm to being like three designers and a partner. How influential that time was in our lives! Clients had no money, everything was doom and gloom, and all the senior designers were working part time or not employed anymore. So it was this world of junior designers and partners, trying to do great things with paint! It taught us about scale, proportion, light, contrast, repetition, the building blocks of design. If you strip away all the money and its down to light bulbs and paint you can create amazing things. But it was a scary learning curve.

H. Jay Brooks: So, I’m still in my little office like I always am, doing everything with pencil and tracing paper, doing sketches to pass on to the team either as scans or photographs. We have a strong connection with each other. I think one of our strengths is that we’re very hands on, and because we are husband and wife, we never stop talking about the projects. We are working owners, we love to design and so projects are with us 24/7. We don’t turn it off when we leave the office.

CP: Clients sense that deeper level of intimacy. And because we work mainly with hospitality people, who are kind of touchy-feely anyway, it builds trust.

JB: When we’re at home and one of us wants to talk about work, we have to ask the other’s permission. But generally, we don’t talk about the running of the business; we only talk about creative ideas or new products, the fun stuff.

CB: We try not to talk about business conflicts at home. It’s about the new babies, the creative stuff. Our whole relationship was built on conversations about design. Our first interaction was Jay coming around to my desk at university and asking what are you designing. I know it’s been challenging with our team when they’re working from home: seeing your partner at work is another part of their character. But for Jay and me it’s just, 'Oh, you again! Business as usual.' We are being even more delicate and thoughtful and caring about what we talk about when we’re at home and it’s after 7 p.m. It’s important to be gentle with each other, our clients and teams and suppliers, and ourselves. Everyone is on a high level of anxiety. Luckily, the office is about a 40-minute walk from where we live. Taking the time to walk there or walk home allows us to be alone in our thoughts, but together on the journey. That’s been really helpful.

> See our full coverage of COVID-19 and its impact on the A&D industry

ThinkLab, the research division of SANDOW, is gathering information about our industry’s response to COVID-19. Click here if you’d like to participate.

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