Partners in Life and Design: Part II

Even in the best of times, sharing your life and your work with the same person can be challenging. These, of course, are not the best of times. But as we’ve seen, designers can build personal and professional relationships as adeptly as they can conceive built environments. Here, we check in with three more pairs to see how they're making it work.

Paul Lewis, LTL Architects, and Kim Yao, ARO, New York, U.S. 

Kim Yao: We’re in lower Manhattan, in our apartment, and our two children are here in our apartment with us. They go to public school, so they’re doing their virtual classroom activities at their desks in their room. Unfortunately, in our apartment, our desks are—

Paul Lewis: —right next to each other—

KY:—and because we’re on the phone most of the day, it means we take turns. Paul mostly stays at his desk, and I have setup my own mini-mobile desk at our dining table, so we’re not right next to each other, which can be distracting. But we’re both orientated the same way with our books and library so we have a similar background in our Zoom calls. It’s close quarters, but we’re managing. It’s a routine.

PL: Let’s say our commute is a lot better! I have a large-scale touchscreen which allows me to give my students critiques, but it’s not a very mobile device.

KY: Which is why I moved! But there are times of day that are harder than others. Mealtimes are hard, managing the kids if we’re trying to work or in meetings. There’s an overlap between a domestic routine and your more public work/professional routine. There’s some points of friction that require creative use of the mute button.

PL: One of the tricky things is to find a routine that’s not just reacting to the constant shifts. In some ways, creative endeavors require a bit of not-dealing with the crisis of the moment, but taking time to reflect and have a sense of space. Both of us are probably in more meetings, on more calls, and staring at the screen longer than we otherwise might do—so I’m looking forward to when there’s more of a cadence and space to draw and read and think and not have to engage with these evolving challenges. My sense is, one thing that will emerge and is starting to emerge is the capacity to—in our case—work and sketch collectively on a single screen. And do it similarly to how we would do it on a piece of trace paper. But the difference here is that one person is not upside down. At a table inevitably someone would be on the wrong side of the orientation, but here nobody has that problem.

KY: There is a learning curve, and still some glitches: realizing whether everyone else can see your pen or your line or not, for instance. There will be longer-lasting effects on the tools we use because this has just forced our hand as designers. We must conform not to a radically different but evolved toolset.

PL: In physical meetings with colleagues and clients, you read of the communication through unspoken things: body language, facial reactions, etc. In some ways, the Zoom meeting necessitate an intensification of the media you’re working with. For us, it’s been drawing. So you have to use the drawing as the point of conversation, and because everyone’s looking at the same thing and you can, with a touchscreen, circle things and highlight things and sketch over things—

KY:—draw their eyes to different things—

PL:—it then becomes a more robust model which can step in for a lot of the communication that would take place in other nonverbal ways. We’re still trying to develop proficiency in that. I’ve found conversations of three people, where you can line them all horizontally on the screen, are the best because it simulates horizon lines and eyelines. Otherwise we’re all in difference on configurations, trying to figure out who’s above and who’s below.

KY: There’s a whole new kind of etiquette. It’s been interesting watching Paul communicate and draw simultaneously, because normally we’re at work separately and not in this context together. It’s kind of a window into our worlds that we have. I don’t know if we’re learning things about each other yet, but it’s a nice opportunity, a silver lining.

PL: We do both go running—

KY:—but not together (laughs). We work together, we don’t run together. We do eat together, but I’m an early bird and Paul is a night owl so I run when the sun is coming up and the city is quiet. It’s good for my mental outlook and energy levels. Paul tends to run at night. Our context right now is figuring out that balance of routines that work for individuals. I think it’s important to set some boundaries and not work all weekend, because it’s easy now that we’re home to never shut down.

PL: In some ways, the office is a separation of your professional life and your personal life. And so those spacial separations maintain a clarity and focus of the differences between them. Part of the problem we have now is we don’t have a spacial differentiation between where, say, we might surf the web and where academic communications take place and where personal communications take place. It’s all collapsed. We don’t have another computer for drawing or model-making, so one of the tricky things is trying to find a literal space that isn’t consumed by the role of email and Zoom. And then there’s how to look at the immediate questions in two or three months: What happens when cities try to move away from a lockdown? When we return to a public sphere, what does that sphere look like? Avoiding a return of the automobile and isolation, and instead supporting public transportation despite the negative association with density—that’s a super critical question that inherently involves questions of design.

KY: There’s a space and opportunity for designers and architects to be thinking of how to advocate for density in a post-pandemic context, but also of questions of vibrancy. There’s going to be an interim period where we will need to have ways to come together as communities, and we may not have the spaces to do that.

PL: We’re going to have to think about interior space and public space. How are we going to rethink and advocate for density in a climate that sees density as being fundamentally negative? We need to grapple with that.

Christopher Coleman and Angel Sanchez, Sanchez + Coleman Studio, Florida, U.S. 

Photography by Dora Franco. 

Angel Sanchez:  I’m a fashion designer and an architect, and started collaborating with Chris for interior design work in Brooklyn. We moved down here to Florida and opened a company to merge our practices. We bought a house in Delray Beach, and it was sort of our baby in terms of having an opportunity to have the mid-century house Chris and I always wanted to have. We took a year to renovate it, little by little, which was longer than expected, but now we’re enjoying it. It was a beautiful place for weekends—but now, of course, we’re full-time here. It’s nice that we now have the time to enjoy a peaceful state of mind in the middle of all this nature, Chris and I doing this together by ourselves.

Christopher Coleman: We were just supposed to have finished the Hotel Indigo Miami Brickell, which now we’re just having a lot of video meetings about and waiting to do photo shoots for their promotional materials. It was supposed to open this spring but now will open later this year. For residential work, we have two projects in New York I was almost ready to install. One of the clients has five residencies, so the delay is okay—they’re not desperate for a place to go. The other is a new, young client I’m very excited about; as soon as everything started they left the city, so it’s on hold, but it will continue. They’ve never worked with a designer before, so it will be magical. We’re really fortunate in that respect. And also because, even though we work together and live together and it does sometimes get a bit much to spend twenty-four hours a day with the same person, we are in a new house with a designated home-office area that also has a bar! One one side is the office and other is the bar. So Angel has a special rattan chair in which, at 6 p.m. or 7 p.m., he has his whiskey. I do my work from the kitchen island. We used to live in a one-bedroom apartment in Williamsburg [Brooklyn]; in Miami it was a slightly larger two-bedroom that we made into an open-plan duplex with the bedroom upstairs. And I always lived in studios in New York before that. So it’s nice to have the space!

AS: It’s a much more relaxed environment. We’re working much better than in the office where we are so pressured.

CC: At first, in the office, I said we should all start wearing gloves and masks. And then four days later I got out the measuring tape and none of us were ever six feet apart, so we kind of moved some desks around. But after a few days we decided to work from home. Six feet is farther than you think. There’s really going to be a seismic shift in residential design. The open loft floorplan may tighten; everybody who lives in apartments with one or two kids that have the old post-WWII format with a basic 5x7’ bathroom is going to look at what the Japanese do, with the sink in one area and the WC in another. Just looking at the new interiors we did for our house, now we know that things are living on our surfaces for a couple days. Which materials we use are going to become important ideas in our design schemes. And then so many clients are so neurotic and this is going to bring that to another level. The first thing some clients want to know is: How do I clean that? Now that really has a meaning. It’s waking us up.

AS: All this time everyone is spending at home is making people appreciate your home as place that has to be you. And you have to take care of that space 

CC: Designers may be even more important now. I hope when this ends we are left with a better industry.

Erla Dögg Ingjaldsdóttir and Tryggvi Thorsteinsson, Minarc Group, California, U.S. 

Tryggvi Thorsteinsson: We’re kind of on hold, like the rest of the world. Projects that are close to permitting are moving, but very slowly. We are in the office with one other person coming in at a time, but we try to be here most of the time. It’s so we don’t get completely crazy being home.

Erla Dögg Ingjaldsdóttir: What’s hard is managing people when they’re not here. In creative fields we bounce off each other and feed off each other’s energy and I’ve been trying to set up structures—update me in the morning, have some meetings, update in the afternoon. It’s not the staff’s fault, it’s mine: when you’re motivated to manage then you’re thinking about what’s next with all these things. Time goes by and everybody’s in the same situation, feeling like their feet are not really on the ground.

TT: Inspiration is social. And being motivated is a personal thing. But being locked into a house cannot be inspiring in the long term for creative people. Of course, we will just have to wait, but during this time it’s complicated and challenging.

EDI: I’ve been dealing with MS for a long time, with episodes once or twice a year. I feel like it’s given me a tool. First you go through this process of grief, you’re sad and vulnerable. And then you’re angry. And then you figure out how you’re going to deal with this. The quicker we can get to the sense of how to deal with the day-to-day, the better off we’ll be. If you’re stuck in sadness and anger, then you can’t get to the point of how to deal with it. Luckily, Tryggvi and I really like each other. I feel bad for people who don’t work together or live together and so don’t spend much time together. Now all of a sudden they’re stuck with each other! (Laughs.) I’m worried about those people. I feel so lucky that I really like my family. I’d like to have them always like this.

TT: This is a situation in which you have to find people who inspire you and ways to be creative with what’s around you at the time. It’s only been a month or so, but it can feel like it’s been at least half a year. But architects and designs have to tackle every aspect of what happens in society, so we have to find out what our answer is to this problem. We bought these chairs from China late last year, a basis for a prototype we’re designing. After China got control of the situation, the makers emailed us and asked if they could send us a hundred masks. It was so beautiful. You feel that it’s so sweet.

EDI: Design can help you live. And you can see that the world is getting more human.

> 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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