A Design Aficianado’s Guide to Modern Baby Cribs

When my daughter was born five years ago, the modern baby furniture movement was nascent. As much as I tried to do something modern for her room, the furniture choices were almost non-existent.  In the end, I ended up putting together a great room for her, but something more Phillipe Starck meets Rachel Ashwell than Ronan and Erwan Bouroullec.

Since then, I’ve seen the modern baby movement develop and flourish.  The options available to parents today are amazing.  In fact, I think one could easily be overwhelmed with the choices.  So, prompted by a Design Public email I received a few days ago that introduced me to Spot on Square’s Roh Crib, my personal favorite, I did some research and developed my own personal list of “best modern bassinets and cribs.”

To assist parents out there decide which is best for them, I’ve even tried to translate your personal style into the best baby crib for you.  See which crib is perfect for you based on what modern furniture and designers you “like”.  Regardless of which of these cribs you choose, your nursery will be well on its way to looking like the modern nest your baby deserves.

Model: BE Mini Cradle + Desk

Qualities: Futuristic aesthetic, multi-purpose design, bright colors

Like: Kartell

Model: e27 Re-Babe Rocking Cradle

Qualities: Minimal design, ultra- slim profile, wicker surfaces

Like: Poul Kjaerholm’s PK22 Wicker Easy Chair

Model: OFFI Nest Bassinet

Qualities: Modern angles, bent plywood construction, slim Eiffel tower-like feet

Likes: Eames

Model: Monte Design Ninna-Nanna Bassinet

Qualities: Simple lines, substantial profile, sturdy construction

Like: Armani Casa

Model: Babybox Crib

Qualities: Convertible design, monochromatic white color scheme, linear aesthetic

Like: George Nelson Platform Bench

Model: Baby Bloom Alma Crib

Qualities: Functional accordion design, minimal aesthetic, utilitarian quality

Like: Jasper Morrison Air Chair

Model: ducduc Alex Crib

Qualities: Edgy graphics, arresting colors, rock star quality

Like: Blu Dot or Magis

Model: ducduc Austin Crib

Qualities: Minimalist design, classic lines, refined details

Like: Mie van de Rohe’s Barcelona Chair

Model: ducduc Campaign Crib

Qualities: Signature trestle-style base, rustic-looking wood, contrasting details

Like: Ralph Lauren Home

Model: Kalon Studios Bamboo ioLine Crib

Qualities: Unique bamboo wood, craftsman aesthetic, intricate details

Like: Charles Mackintosh’s Willow Lounge Chair or Frank Lloyd Wright architecture

Model: Litto Kid Lunar Crib

Qualities: Chinoiserie-inspired details, contrasting colors, clean lines

Like: Kelly Wearstler

Model: Nurseryworks Spindle Crib

Qualities: Contrast of new and old styles, metal legs, French-inspired design

Like: Phillipe Stark’s Louis Ghost Chair

Model: Oeuf Sparrow Crib

Qualities: Mid-century details, vintage color, low profile

Like: George Nakashima

Model: OFFI Nest Crib

Qualities: Sophisticated design, slim metal legs, expansive veneer

Like: B&B Italia or Minotti

Model: Oeuf Classic Crib

Qualities: Danish-inspired design, light wood, simple lines

Like: Hans Wegner or Arne Jacobsen

Model: Spot on Square Roh Crib

Qualities: Substantial wood construction, sexy acrylic front panel, refined design

Like: John Houshmand or Hudson Furniture

Model: Nurseryworks Studio Crib

Qualities: Block-wood design, multi-purpose quality, asymmetrical details

Like: De La Espada

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Project Pictures – Mid-Century Makeover: Two Bathrooms, One Eichler (Part 1)

Amongst mid-century modern-philes like myself, a Joseph Eichler house is like a piece of Eames furniture: a fine example of accessible and timeless modern design.  Because Joseph Eichler was actually a prolific developer, not an architect like most surmise, Eichlers are fairly ubiquitous in the Bay Area, found in communities from all the way from Walnut Creek to San Rafael to San Mateo to San Jose, and a few areas in between.

Notably, Eichler was a visionary in many ways, particularly his idea of promoting inclusive and diverse communities for the middle-class.  So while owning an Eichler today has cachet among the yuppie crowd and design enthusiasts, back in 1950’s, when they were initially released as new planned communities, an Eichler was a home for the everyday family.  Hence, Eichlers themselves are not particularly luxurious in size nor amenities, especially compared to new construction today.  So it’s common for many Eichler owners of today to renovate their homes to bring some 21st century to the mid-century.

That was the case when I got a from my clients on this project, an All-American, on-the-move, family of four, including two three and five-year old boys, who decided to renovate both the bathrooms of their Palo Alto Eichler when a foundation issue in the master bathroom resulted in some substantial repairs.  Like my Marina bathroom, both these bathrooms were small and identically-sized at a little less than 5′ x 8′.  In a modern house, that’s a powder room, but here, these were full baths, even the master.

So the challenge for both bathrooms at a high-level was utilizing the space efficiently and maximizing storage.  The secondary challenge for the master bath was making it that sanctuary for a harried, stay-at-home mom of two and the busy working dad.  In the other bath, which I’ll call the hall bath, the secondary challenge was a bit more complex as it functioned as the kids’ bathroom as well as the powder room for guests.  For the hall bath, the $10,000 question was: how could we design something fun and functional enough for kids but still sleek and sophisticated enough to impress guests?  Well, let me tell you…


When you have a 5′ x 8′ envelope, 8′ ceilings, post and beam construction (meaning zero attic area to play with) , and both bathrooms back-to-back (making interior wall space a premium because of the labyrinth of plumbing and electrical to support both), you have to get creative with the design as interior architecture-wise there are not many places to go.

The first thing we specified for this bathroom was the two sets of medicine cabinets, which interestingly anchored the room functionally and aesthetically.  Aesthetically, we wanted to use visual tricks as much as possible to maximize the feel of the space so we used a two sets of mirrored, frame-less medicine cabinets side-by-side to stretch the room horizontally and make it look bigger.  The other effect that this had was to give the bathroom a sense sleekness with the near wall-to-wall expanse of mirror cantilevering from the wall.  Functionally, these medicine cabinets held so much stuff and had useful features like integrated electrical outlets (freeing the vanity of any clutter from electric gadgets and the wall from another electrical plate) and even an integrated LED nightlight!

OK, so when I first saw this feature I was drawn to how cool it was, but when I thought about it, for kids, this was an absolutely invaluable feature for those nighttime trips to the potty.  Of course it doesn’t hurt that the lights are seamlessly integrated into the cabinet housing (you cannot even find them if you tried), turn on automatically at dusk, and cast a very cool, high-tech glow – for kids AND guests…

With the storage issue settled, we had a some leeway to have some fun, within the confines of the small space, with the sink.  We found a wall-mounted unit that came with an integrated sink and cabinet, which we specified in a walnut finish and white porcelain top.  The sink and the “countertop” were formed from one seamless piece of porcelain for ease of cleaning, and the single drawer underneath was surprisingly deep and well laid-out.  Design-wise, this slim, wall-mounted unit was scaled perfectly for the bathroom and allowed us to keep the ground bare, freeing up the tile to run continuously across the floor – again making the room look and feel bigger.

Those two items settled, the question became how to clad the walls and floor.  Because the room was so small, we had no problem running the tile floor-to-ceiling where appropriate, knowing this wouldn’t break the bank.  So we began to discuss how many colors and types of materials we should use, and where specifically where each element should start and stop.  In a small space, too many colors and patterns can look busy and overwhelming so we decided on two colors and materials.  Of those two, we knew that one would cover the tub area and one would cover the primary wall with the medicine cabinets and the sink.  But then which material should the floor be?  We ultimately decided that the wall and floor would be the same material so that someone entering the bathroom would initially see a single color and material.  The idea was that the material would wash down the wall and flow into the floor.  The simplicity of using one color and material make the bathroom sleek.

Conceptually aligned, we then began to focus on finding the actual materials.  The client was initially drawn to a very sophisticated but cold palette of grays, blacks and white.  Though I love those colors, and would easily specify in them in say a bachelor’s bathroom, or a dedicated powder room, it didn’t seem to fit the purpose of this bathroom nor the ethos of the house – which was signature Eichler light, bright and airy.  So we eventually settled on a palette of pale blue and white, a nod to the boys but also something that I saw as soothing, clean and fresh.  The main wall and floor tile was a gorgeous transparent, crystal blue 1″ x 1″ recycled glass mosaic, which reminded me of that metaphorical water running down the walls.  I love using irregular-shaped wall surfaces (in this case the recycled glass mosaic, which is slightly uneven when tiled) because when properly lit, the textures that result are amazing.  The LED nightlights in the medicine cabinet are not meant for providing down-lighting but in in this case they kinda of did, which was a nice touch.

Around the tub, we used the same distinctive but simple matte white Italian porcelain tile that we used in my Marina bathroom.  This time however, we wanted to use the tile’s exaggerated shape to make the bathroom appear wider so we laid it out in an offset pattern horizontally.

Instead of the tiling the entire tub area in the white tile, we decided to add some levity and a pop of color to the room by tiling the back wall of the niche with the blue mosaic.  Since this was a kids bathroom, this little gesture seemed fun and appropriate.  Though it was a kids bathroom, we didn’t scrimp on the details – so they too got a frame-less shower panel, German drop-in tub and German fixtures.

As for the finishing touches, I want to highlight two: the lights and the towel shelf.  Configuring lighting in an Eichler is tough because of the aforementioned ceiling constraints (no crawl-space in the ceiling means electrical changes impact the roofing which is expensive).  So with the one existing electrical connection we had in the ceiling needed for the exhaust fan, lighting  had to be on the walls.  We ultimately found a small, simple cube-shaped sconce in frosted glass that aesthetically and thematically worked with the square glass mosaic wall tiles.  Because these were small in keeping with the room’s scale, we were able to fit four across the top of the medicine cabinets, which provided even, diffuse lighting.

Because the room was small and almost every wall area was used or inconvenient, there was  a challenge to even find a place to hang your towels.  The solution was a a design trick I have used since my first house that owned (which is where I first began working with small bathrooms) – a hotel towel bar.  As its name implies, the hotel towel bar is commonly seen at hotels to house extra towels for guests.  Being that I’ve always been drawn to hotel design, I’ve always liked the looks of these units as well as their functionality – as they are yet another storage opportunity.  On other projects, I’ve used them above a toilet, but when space becomes an issue, I use them inside the tub area.  They occupy that void at the foot of a tub and give showerees instant access to a towel when they are done.  And as I’ve had to explain many times, no the towels do not get wet – the water doesn’t shoot that far and usually there’s a body in the line fire preventing any soggy towels.

When I look back at this bathroom, I think we accomplished our goal of designing something practical enough for kids but appealing enough for guests.  Exhibit A: the nightlights that could illuminate the potty, or be the light at a party lol…



– Vanity & Tub: Duravit

– Medicine Cabinets: Robern

– Toilet: Toto

– Fixtures: Hansgrohe

– Tile: Ann Sacks, Hakatai

– Lights: Itre

MASTER BATH (Coming soon…)

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Project Pictures – Marina Chic: A Modern Bathroom for Modern Woman

Recently I completed one of my favorite client bathrooms to date.   My client was a busy, single, female, high-tech sales executive who lived in a cozy, stylish, penthouse condo in the Marina district in San Francisco.  When she first moved in a few years ago, she did a quick and dirty bathroom remodel just to make the space livable, but didn’t have the time nor budget then to make it how she really wanted it.  Fast forward to this past Fall, my client decided that she had lived with her inefficient, lifeless bathroom for long enough and gave me a call.  When I arrived, the bathroom was certainly not sufficient for my client who is typically replete in Marc Jacobs, Chloe and Rag & Bone, and drives to her clients in a big Mercedes.  No, she deserved something better – she deserved the luxurious, spa-like, hotel-inspired bathroom that she always dreamed of, so we made it happen.

The project bathroom was small – only about 5′ x 8′.  What it did have going for it were 9 foot ceilings and a large skylight which offered great natural light during the day.  Functionally, the client really had only one real request: more storage.  Her pedestal sink and tiny medicine cabinet had forced her to permanently use the sides of the vanity and top of the toilet for storage – something unbearable for a woman who maintains a spare and immaculate place.  Her challenge to me was to find a place for her to put away her curling iron every morning – challenge accepted.

Inspired by the Marina and my client’s feminine, sophisticated style, when it came to design, I decided to anchor her bathroom with a gorgeous tile that was chic, feminine, and sophisticated all at the same time.  We found a chocolate-colored, Italian porcelain tile that featured a graphic, over-sized damask pattern and silvery finishing glaze.  Against only the primary wall in the bathroom, the tile provided instant drama with it’s chameleon-like ability to change colors depending on the light and viewing angle.  The zero-radius corners allowed us to use minimal grout and join the tiles together seamlessly, which always tricks visitors to think that the wall is lined with wallpaper – it’s that cool.

With that wall playing the lead role, we wanted to diffuse the other walls so as to not be distracting and competing; nevertheless, we couldn’t use something too boring so I settled on a distinctive but simple Italian porcelain tile that came in exaggerated thin strips.  The matte white finish and tight corners made it the perfect complement.  In order to highlight the extra ceiling height, we laid the strips vertically in an offset pattern, which provided that extra bit of emphasis and drama.

Bridging the two walls, we chose a Calcutta marble tile, which is primarily white color with streaks of brown, gray and gold.  Besides being a favorite material of my client, it melded together my two tile wall colors and provided a nice, classical counterpoint to the modernity of the space.  We cut the large 18″ square tiles in half and laid them in an offset pattern perpendicular to the tub.  One nice modernist detail was the lack of baseboards along the floor where the tiles met.

For the fixtures, I did something that I had never done before on a client bathroom project – I reused the toilet the and aforementioned, problematic sink.  Why?  First, my client wanted to save money where she could so that she could splurge elsewhere.  So while the toilet and sink where old, they were still in great condition (my client’s meticulousness paid off here) and they actually fit the design concept – which was a modernist, feminine twist on classic design.  So the traditional, stately style of both pieces – with their cornices and bevels – actually worked as that contrasting element.  Second, despite its lack of storage, the pedestal sink was a good call in the small bathroom as the tiny footprint contributed to showing more of the flooring and making the bathroom look and feel larger.  Third, what better way to be eco-friendly than to reuse.

For the tub, we switched out her generic, cast-iron, apron model and replaced it with a German-made, drop-in model.  The primary benefit of this change was the ability to tile up the front of the tub, giving the bathroom a much more luxurious, custom and integrated look, versus the usual swath of tub that greets you when you walk in.  Completing the look here was a frameless, extra-tall shower panel that again had the taut, square corners.  The fixtures here, like in the rest of the bathroom, were clean-lined, chrome, German hardware that offered good performance at a good value.

To tackle the functionality problem, we had to leverage the walls once we decided to keep the pedestal sink.  The biggest single change was finding an over-sized, well-designed medicine cabinet.  Extra-tall and featuring built-in electrical outlets, this medicine cabinet swallowed everything my client had, including that pesky curling iron, which could stay plugged in and be put away every morning.  This unit was a splurge item – but well worth it for the functionality and build-quality (it is fully mirrored and finished in aluminum even on the inside).

Not done yet, I had a built-in storage niche created in the wall adjacent to the sink when the contractor opened it up to re-wire the electrical systems.  To finish the niche, we painted the interior white to contrast the taupe walls and ordered custom glass shelves and chrome shelf supports.  The area is now both supplemental storage for things like perfumes and towels, as well as a decorative niche for candles and curiosities.  While we were on that wall, we changed out the traditional, decorative door trim for a clean, straight-edged version, and then even changed out the door hinges and handle for modern, chrome examples.  It’s the details that count.

Last but not least, we substantially upgraded my client’s lighting – no small accomplishment when you consider her daily makeup and beauty regime.  We immediately replaced her two poorly-positioned, incandescent recessed lights with two well-placed, low-voltage recessed lights.  These lights provide warm, powerful light from above.  In addition, we found a gorgeous , new-but-vintage-inspired, Murano glass sconce that we positioned above the toilet at face-level.  Probably the second most prominent design element in the bathroom, this sconce also provided the very necessary diffuse light at face-level for her to tackle her beauty regime.  My client now claims she has no idea how she applied makeup before under her old bathroom conditions.  Of course, we would have been remiss not to install another recessed light above the shower, which didn’t exist before, while I could.  Dimmers on everything allow my client to control exactly how much drama she wants to impart on her bathroom at anytime – a lot for parties, none in the morning.

Lastly, can I mention one more thing I am proud of in this bathroom?  It was LITERALLY designed AND purchased in ONE WEEK.  Yup, you heard that right, one week.  When needed, I can design quick, especially when my vision becomes clear right away.  A lot of credit also goes to my client who was  extremely helpful, flexible and decisive.  I brought my vendor resources and she brought the contractor who was a family friend.  We also got very lucky that we chose things that were in-stock or distributed nearby – which was a criteria given the time frame.  Typically, I do not work this fast so why the rush you ask?  So my client could get her bathroom remodel started AND completed while she was away on a three-week European vacation – and she was leaving in exactly one week from the day she called me.  She knows how to live right?  Clearly, her old bathroom did not do her lifestyle justice lol.

Overall, I loved the modern, feminine, unique look of this project and how it came together, aesthetically and logistically.  My client’s stories of bathroom bliss – spending much more time in her bathroom, going to her bathroom unnecessarily, enjoying her whole house more – confirms to me that this was a success; we had designed the modern bathroom for the modern woman.



– Tile: Ann Sacks, Porcelanosa, Walker Zanger

– SInk/Toilet: Kohler

– Tub: Duravit

– Medicine Cabinet: Robern

– Fixtures: Hansgrohe

– Door Handle: Emtek

– Sconce: Eurofase

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House Porn: The Hottest House You’ll Ever See

It’s been too long since I last blogged.  Why you ask?  The holidays?  Nope.  New Years?  Nope.  Why then?  Where have you been?  What have you been doing?  Two words: House porn.  I am addicted.  Sites like  Corcoran, Hilton & Hyland, Crosby Doe, Christie’s Great Estates, Rose + Chang, Westside Estate Agency and Sotheby’s have me hooked.  All my waking hours are consumed, surfing.  I am addicted to looking at houses, estates, trophies really, things I will ever touch, let along attain.  These are houses I can see but can’t touch – ever.  The forbidden fruit.

And last night, I found my true lust: a $32 million house called the Razor on 9826 La Jolla Farms Way in La Jolla, California. It’s designed by Wallace Cunningham.  I’ve seen it before in a dirty magazine called Architectural Digest but it’s more raw, more sensuous on the screen.  If this house were a person, it would be Megan Fox or Angelina Jolie –  modern, mesmerizing, gorgeous, and sexy as hell.  This is sex on a hill.  This should have the been Robert Downey Jr.’s house in Iron Man, not his faux John Lautner that he called home.  Check out these links if you dare.  Your eyes will tear, your heart will ache, and your cravings will begin.  Soon you’ll be hooked like me – on house porn.

http://hurwitzjamesco.com/razor/ (the listing)

http://lxtv.com/openhousela/video/8901 (the video tour)

Anyways, I’m back from my hiatus.  Stay tuned for more posts soon, including three of my most recent new projects…

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DIFFA Dining by Design SF 2009: Part 2 – The Event

After toiling about six months to design and fabricate our space, from Cary and I’s first conversations to the last nail we hammered in at our studio (OK, my garage), DBD had arrived on November 18 and 19.  The first evening was what they called “Table Hop and Taste” where a $100 ticket gained you entry plus all the food and drink you could take in while admiring the approximately 35 designer tables.  The second evening was the gala dinner where tickets cost $500 a piece and got your a seat at one of the tables for an entire meal.  Many attendees on the second night did not actually pay for their tickets; large design firms and corporate / individual sponsors bought entire tables for $5,000 and invited their employees, clients and friends.

Lucky for Cary and I we got to participate both nights including getting seated for dinner at the gala.  Sadly, we didn’t sit at our own table – instead it was occupied by our gracious sponsor Dr. John Greenspan, his wife and friends.  But at the end of the first night, we did sit down at our table with our friends that remained til the end (thanks guys!) for about 10 minutes to take it all in.  I have to say, the ambiance was even nicer than I imagined.  The space had amazing lighting that was both cool around the edges but warm from above; it was comfortable and warm because of the warm-toned benches, flowers and green-colored accents; and it was cozy and modern at the same time with the small scale and intimate seating but clean lines and sleek walls.  Those 10 minutes were among my most memorable from the whole event and process.

When it came to assembling our booth, Cary and I were first confronted by the challenges of the logistics – how to get all our stuff from Berkeley to San Francisco.  In the end, it took about 5 pickup truck loads over 2 days to get all our materials to the site by Tuesday morning, including using Cary’s condo just blocks away from the San Francisco Design Center Galleria as a temporary storage and staging area.  Luckily, our modular design (of the platforms, frames, walls, etc.) made moving this stuff by ourselves even possible.  As we would see on Tuesday morning during setup, most designers had professional movers with big moving trucks.  This was quite the contrast to our mom and pop “two guys with a truck” style.  Fortunately, one of our friends, Louis, volunteered to help so our team had grown 50% for the day.

While simply getting all our materials loaded, offloaded and into the Galleria was quite the challenge in and of itself (imagine sharing one freight elevator with the all design, production, moving, fabricating, catering and building people moving across 5 floors!), the assembly of our space took much more time than we anticipated.  Though our entire space was essentially pre-fabbed at my house and disassembled and moved, reconstructing it took forever.  To be fair, we had never really put everything together all at once, only individual pieces and sections like the whole floor, the whole table, etc.  Moreover, when it came to showtime, we assembled everything with care and precision, not like a dry run at my house which was less meticulous.  Whether it was touching up the stain and paint on the floors and table, or cutting up the vegetables for the place settings, or tacking up our backside wall draping, or hiding our extension cords, everything took forever because we wanted it perfect.  Unbelievably, our homemade space came together like a precise Swiss watch – I personally was super amazed at the sharp corners and edges and the close tolerances.  Cary, the architect, was less impressed and claimed he knew it would come together just as we drew it up lol – that’s why he was my partner.

In the end, the whole assembly process took a remarkable 17 hours – it began at my house on Tuesday at 8am and ended when the Galleria closed for setup at 10pm, and then continued again at 3pm – 6pm on Wednesday, the day of the event!  Unbelievably, Cary and I still went to work during the day on Wednesday and Thursday!  We were running on fumes but the adrenaline from the event kept us going.

One nice touch that I insisted on for our space was having a nice handout.  Besides being a marketing pieces for ourselves, I wanted the piece to demystify and “unlock the secrets” to our space.  I wanted it to list and describe all the materials we used so that people who couldn’t tell or who weren’t sure knew that we were hanging a $40 planter from Home Depot upside down over my table and calling it a chandelier.  The handout was designed to spark the “a-ha” moment for visitors.

As a professional communicator / marketer by day, making something like this was what I did everyday so I knew just what to do.  But whereas I usually make things for clients, this one was for me.   So I tapped an ex-colleague, Heather Wihl, to design our handout.  The front side was our “design statement”, bios and contact info, and the back had the schematic of our space with all the materials called out.  Like any custom design piece, Heather and I did about three rounds of revisions on this to get it right, including the help of one of Cary’s colleagues to draw up the Revit-based schematic.  When the design was completed, I had the 6″ x 9″ card printed on recycled 100lb matter cover stock with an acqueous coating and using soy-based inks – sustainable all the way baby!  Over the course of both nights I think we gave out about 300 cards not including all our personal business cards.  Here was the handout:

Staffing our space for both nights was like making a 30-second elevator pitch over and over again for hours on end.  That’s why the handout was nice – it covered everything in case we forgot a detail or didn’t have time to give the whole speech.  I definitely printed a few extra handouts but now I have some extra marketing collateral for the future.

After the event was completed, Cary and I were back at work by 8am on Friday to take down the space!  Though it had only been hours since our space hosted a gala dinner, there we were – bleary-eyed from the two days before but at work again.  Fortunately as everyone predicted, take down went surprisingly quickly.  We were done in about four hours, not including the subsequent trips we would have to make to recycle all our materials.  While a lot of the raw materials that we used are now gone, I have a chair, a couple of benches, a chandelier, a centerpiece, and the two of the coolest sawhorses ever as souvenirs.  One DBD staff member wanted to buy a bench from us and he had been so nice to us throughout so we thought why not; now owns a Cantilever Design original piece of furniture.

In the end, I have to say that all the effort was worth it.  So yes, the event took a lot of time and a lot of money.  “A lot of money?” you ask, “I thought you bought inexpensive materials?”  Yes, but…. when you factor in all the inexpensive materials added together, the many soft costs in fees and services, my handout with design and printing, etc. it was a lot, at least for me.  On a percentage of revenue basis, I am sure I spent more than anyone else there – remember I didn’t borrow anything, I owned it all.  I digress… the buzz of working an event like that is a thrill, especially when people give you great feedback.  People seemed genuinely surprised, impressed and appreciative of what we did – on a budget, with a small team.  More than anything though, they seemed to really just enjoy the design, which is all we could ask.  Will I do it again?  I cannot commit just yet.  I am eager to see what nets out of this for us, though we are already slated for several press articles in early 2010.  But, given everything I have learned throughout this process and how much fun I’ve had – all in the name of charity – I just might…

Here’s a few more pics of the final product (and a preview of my updated website to come):

Photos by Victoria Chow

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DIFFA Dining by Design SF 2009: Part 1 – The Build


How I built this space from scratch in 6 months for DIFFA’s Dining by Design SF 2009.


Even before I began my design business, Dining by Design (DBD) has always been one of my favorite events in San Francisco all year. The combination of great design, food and drink, and charity has always been so inspirational and intoxicating to me.

Officially, the event is described as “the most anticipated high-design charitable event, showcasing top designers who create fantastic, one-of-a-kind tabletop installations that are unveiled for two nights only.” All post-production profits from the events go to Design Industries Foundation Fighting Aids (DIFFA), who directly distributes funding to San Francisco’s largest HIV/AIDS clinic, the Positive Health Program at San Francisco General Hospital, a core program of the AIDS Research Institute at UCSF.

Every year I go to DBD, I leave inspired to do more projects and become involved.  But alas, every year that I’ve wanted to participate, I’ve been thwarted by something whether timing, money, partners, bandwidth, etc.  Nevertheless, my interest never waned and I promised myself that someday soon I would get involved – and it turns out that someday became this year when all the stars aligned for me.  Though this process for me began this year around April, I never blogged about it because 1) I was so busy doing it and 2) I was fearful that it wouldn’t materialize for one reason or another.  But six months later, I am proud to say that I made it happen.

One of the keys to my involvement this year was finding a partner in my friend Cary Cheng.  Cary is a “designer” (really an architect who is waiting to complete his AIA certification) for McCall Design Group, where he works on high-end commercial and retail projects.  Cary has worked on several design related charities over the years including  Leap (Imagination in Learning) Sandcastle Classic and PAWS (Pets Are Wonderful Support) Petchitecture.  Importantly, Cary brought a robust engineering and construction perspective to our partnership, which is not my strongest suite.  Cary loves getting his hands dirty and has experience with making his own furniture; his experience in this realm would come in handy given what we ended up doing…

The design challenge of doing a space at DIFFA is deciding how to utilize your 14′ x 9′ space to seat 10 people for a sit down dinner.  Most designers, especially first-timers and small-timers like us, usually spend their time and energy on the dining table itself, forgoing structural elements like walls and floors.  This way, they can create their spaces by “simply borrowing” things from showrooms and stores to essentially “piece together” their space – a dining table from here, a rug from there, a chandelier from another store… While it’s a pain work the phones and relationships to borrow items and arrange for shipping  them (in addition to praying that they don’t get damaged in transit or at the event), assembling a space in this method is a snap – like staging a room in a house.  Designers who want to get more elaborate can do so by renting or making structures like walls, floors, etc. to create more encompassing “environments.”

The other extreme at DBD are the blue-chip design firms like Gensler and HOK who have the manpower and budget to design sophisticated and elaborate free-standing environments that have engineered walls, ceilings, platforms, integral lighting, etc.  Some of these spaces are funded by national sponsors and travel to DBD cities across the country; DIFFA is a national charity.  As you can imagine, given the resources these firms have, these spaces are awesome because they look and feel like gorgeous, detailed, self-contained rooms; you feel like you’re in a private dining room at a Jean George restaurant, not on the ground floor of a five-story atrium.  The size and importance of these firms allows them to tap their favorite vendors and fabricators to donate their services, meaning that for the most part, they design whatever they want on paper/computer and someone else builds and assembles it for them.  Some of these firms might assemble their own spaces at DBD, but not having to build it is huge as we would find out.

As we started designing our booth, we discussed the “borrow” method only because it seemed the easiest, especially as first timers.  But quickly, this method seemed not that interesting, especially to Cary who was used to “architecting” complete, cohesive environments.  Though I was the “interior designer” in our partnership, I agreed.  Even in my own work, I always considered myself an interior “architect” as much as a designer; I love working with integral architectural elements and finishes as much as the decorative items like furniture and accessories.  To “throw together” furniture for our DBD space was not going to do it for either of us.

So our early design sessions were really about creating the structure, though we really didn’t have the budget to get too extreme.  The overall budget for this event was not just the materials, but also the costs associated with any transport, assembly or production needs of our design (production fees could be huge if we had to hire the event production firm to hang a lot of lighting, rent drapery, etc.).  In this regard we really had to value engineer our solution.  We wanted to have walls, but didn’t want to pay for renting them, nor did we like the pipe and drape wall systems that the production company had anyways – the last thing we wanted was a space that looked like a trade show booth.  So that led us to the decision to design and build our own structure, a thought that was scary and empowering at the same time.


Most DBD spaces that have floors and walls are built up using traditional building materials and methods – 2 x 4 lumber, plywood, drywall, etc.  Though these materials and methods were also familiar to us, we quickly realized that building an entire structure like this would make transport unwieldy, especially for a small team like Cary and I.  So we began to explore materials that would give us the effect of a solid structure but without the weight.  Furthermore, where possible, we wanted our structure to be as sustainable as possible.  While that didn’t mean it would be 100% sustainable, we wanted to push the envelope where possible, which meant low impact-recyclable-reusable materials.

The first thing that we settled on was a platform made of salvaged shipping palettes. From a design perspective, the palettes would provide a perfect 6″ rise off the floor and help to define the footprint of the space.  Structurally, since palettes are meant to support heavy loads in transit, we knew that they would plenty strong enough for a mere dining table and 10 people.  Best of all, palettes are free (though it took some scouring to find ones that were the right size, height and type), modular (so we could break up our platform into several pieces to make transport easier) and reusable (all we did was take a few palettes out of circulation from the shipping library in the sky before we returned them back to their rightful place).  The palettes were arranged like a puzzle to mimic our footprint as closely as possible.  As needed, we filled in empty spots in between palettes by augmenting them with extra wood.  For the top, we used three sheets of 4′ x 8′ FSC-certified plywood – a perfect fit for our 12′ x 8′ footprint.  We also used the same plywood to cover the front face of the platform and the two “wing” panels that cover the construction of our walls.  We finished all these plywood finishes in a custom-tinted stain that was a very deep purple (Why purple?  Read on to find out…).

With the floor settled, we focused on the walls.  Instead of heavy drywall, we came up with the idea of rigid foam insulation, which met our key criteria: solid, lightweight and inexpensive.  Because these Insulfoam-brand panels also came in 4′ x 8′ sheets, 8 panels were enough to cover all the walls of our space.  To join the panels for solidity and maintain a seamless look, we used clear duct tape.  At one point we discussed painting the walls front and back, but in the end we changed our minds because we didn’t think the effort of painting (which is really a pain done meticulously) was worth it in the dim DBD environment.  The obvious benefit of foam walls was not requiring a heavy-duty framing system.  In the end, we devised a series of lightweight support posts – three on each side and four along the back.  Each support post system was made from 1″ x 2″ lumber that was screwed onto a plywood base with a 2″ x 4″ lip.  We abutted the lip against the base of the palette and bolted the two together for strength and stability.  We were able to engineer each support to be only a svelte 12″ deep, which was a critical requirement because we needed every other square inch to be the platform for the table.  As is, our 12′ x 8′ platform was a tight fit to accommodate a table for 10.  To cover the backside of our foam panels and support posts, we stretched inexpensive black polyester fabric and held it in place with matching black upholstery tacks.

While our platform and walls were now engineered, what was missing now was any type of design drama.  What we realized was that our raised platform allowed us the opportunity to recess something in between the walls and the platform – like lights.  The channel was just enough room to slide 4′ fluorescent shop lights – another inexpensive, eco-friendly material.  This element added instant impact and drama by ensuring cool, up-lit walls that used hardly any energy.  Still, without any texture, our walls felt clean but a bit austere.  Fortunately, during one of our inspirational shopping trips to Home Depot, we came across a material called rib lathe, a construction material used as a substrate for adhering stucco and plaster to exterior walls.  Curiously, we found this material, typically never seen by the people outside the construction process, remarkably beautiful.  The lathe was comprised of thousands of tiny apertures laid out in a herringbone-like pattern that looked almost laser-cut.  The galavanized finish shimmered in light like fine metal filigree, similar at a glance to expensive metal drapery like Cascade Coil products.  Cary and I initially talked about installing sheers to take advantage of the up-light a la Philippe Starck in the Mondrian Hotel in LA, but when we saw the lathe we knew we had found our “drapes” – the perfect material to add texture and translucency to our walls.


At a certain point in our design process, we began to embrace a do-it-yourself, ReadyMade attitude, which we brought over into our finishes.  Cary and I both had experience in designing and building our own furniture so creating a table and chair set for DBD was a natural decision.  For the chairs, we worked with the most basic building block of all construction materials – plywood.  Readily available, inexpensive and good enough for Charles and Ray Eames.  For visual interest and strength, we laminated thin strips of plywood together to form a large block that would serve as the seat and back rest.  Accordingly, the legs and seat post were also plywood strips of the same width.  We strategically notched out corners in the seat so that the legs and seat posts slotted in seamlessly.  Over several months, we made a few prototypes playing with the width of the strips and construction methods.  While simple in concept, we discovered laminating plywood was no easy feat especially since we were building with borrowed consumer-grade tools in my crowded garage and on my deck.  Thankfully, Cary and I are both meticulous types and got the details to work.  To finish up the piece, we went to a store called EcoHome Improvement in Berkeley to pick up a sustainable finish product.  The store recommended a product called Vermont Natural Coatings, which gave us the clear, protective sealer coat we wanted while being made of renewable whey proteins, a natural by-product of the cheese-making process.

The first piece of furniture that we actually decided on from our first Home Dept trip was our “chandelier”.  Literally, when we walked down our first aisle together we both stopped to touch and admire these planters made by a company called Southern Patio.  What caught our attention initially was the bright, cool Miami-inspired colors of this collection as well as the sleek lines, high-quality finish and range of sizes.  We were immediately drawn by the over-sized, “Devo-hat” model and knew that this planter, placed upside down, had the scale and sophistication be our light.  We never came close to finding a better option so this resin planter really became our light.  All we had to do was drill a small hole in the bottom and drop-in three super- inexpensive Ikea corded lights with energy-efficient CFL bulbs and we were done.  While we knew this could be the best faux-designer piece of our space, we got lucky that the planter had a rich translucency when lit by three measly CFL’s.  Sometimes it’s better to be lucky than good.  Since our booth with literally lit all by florescent lights, I know our electrical load was the lowest of all DBD spaces and probably a fraction of the big energy users.  This light is also the reason for the purple color throughout the space.  The purple planter was the best-looking option available and the first thing that we decided on so it became the cornerstone and inspiration for the whole space just like that.

Unlike  our chandelier, our table didn’t come together until the very end.  For months we toyed with more elaborate designs including something made with CMU block and something that was like glowing plinth.  In the end, these other designs proved too difficult to fabricate so we ended up with a saw horse-based design that we discussed early on.  Sawhorses are extremely strong, easy to use and – again – inexpensive (note the pattern yet?).  Because the sawhorses were too wide, we did have the trim them in the middle and rejoin them with a 2″ x 4″.  However, buying two Burro Brand sawhorses and slapping a MDF board on top seemed a bit elementary to us so we devised simple ways to “kick it up a notch.”  One thing we did was to use paint them a contrasting two-tone color scheme – the outside white and inside purple.  In fashion terms, this was like having a conservative-looking suit on the exterior but adding a wild interior lining, like an Ozwald Boateng or Paul Smith suit.  This seemed like a simple way to add some unexpected flair.  Next, we wanted to disguise the table’s profile a bit and make it look less like two saw horses so we added a “crossbeam” of sorts to bridge them while adding some lateral stability.  As an architectural detail, we left a reveal along the top edge to allow light to pass through.  Lastly, in going with our strong accent lighting theme, we mounted florescent kitchen under-cabinet lights under the saw sawhorses and along the crossbeams to create create that glowing-table effect and show off our whimsical paint job.  Not a lot of people ever saw this, but we even painted the center underside of our tabletop purple for greater effect.  In the end, our table was one of the few at DBD unburdened by a table cloth – adding to our modern, clean aesthetic and showing off our handiwork.

When it came to the actual tabletop, we wanted to keep it spare.  We knew we wanted some flowers to soften the hard edges and add an organic element so a centerpiece was an obvious decision.  Less obvious was what to make it with.  We scoured Home Depot, of course, to find a ReadyMade-type piece in order to keep our fabrication time down.  But after looking into galvanized venting, perforated pipes, paint containers, etc., nothing really spoke to us.  While wandering the aisles, this time in the landscape plumbing area, we came across some nicely finished Styrene piping.  What we liked was the matte white finish, the (relatively) refined appearance, and of course the flexibility pipe and pipe joints yielded.  Playing with 4″ pipe joints, we created a long and low centerpiece with 4″ pots across the top to hold flowers.  The bridge-like design also created an “underpass” that allowed interaction between both sides of the table as well as light to come through, now a core design theme.  The flowers were sourced from my favorite local florist, Bloomies Flowers, located in Market Hall in Rockridge, Oakland.  Again, simple was the theme so we stuck to only five types of plants and three colors (purple, green and white) for the whole arrangement, which was mostly dominated by calla lilies and purple-tinted kale.  In keeping with our concept, we hoped for our flowers to be casually sophisticated – dramatic but natural and accessible.

Despite our table’s concept, the place settings were an area where we had a hard time creating something ReadyMade.  We wanted to try something avant garde with building products, but those ideas lacked the refinement and pop of color that we were seeking.  Once we ruled out creating our settings, we visited affordable big box stores to find something that would work; just because we couldn’t make it, didn’t mean we had to break the bank to create a gorgeous tabletop.  CB2 in Berkeley provided us exactly what we wanted, which was wasn’t surprising because I’ve been a big fan since it’s inception.  When we walked in, the chartreuse green collection of products immediately jumped out at us for its dynamic, fresh-quality as well as its ability to family with and accent our ubiquitous purple flourishes.  The resulting final color scheme in our space – purple, chartreuse, white and silver – really typified what we were seeking: something cool, comfortable, fresh and modern.  With a green charger anchoring each setting, we completed each one with matching green chopsticks, a gorgeous dandelion salad plate, a deep soup bowl with scalloped sides, a smoked glass cup, and a smokey gray napkin.  Simple, modern, elegant.

We envisioned our setting as the perfect backdrop for an Asian-fusion meal of sushi and noodles.  So while we didn’t prepare a meal for the show, we used organic, Asian-inspired ingredients – baby green Thai eggplants, baby regular eggplants, and limes from Berkeley Bowl – to accessorize our place settings and play out our color scheme further.


All this then only leaves our art to be discussed…. Wow, where do I start?  So I could easily write several posts just about our art, but I won’t and it wouldn’t do it justice anyways.  When Cary and I realized that our space would be clean-lined and spare, with walls mostly covered by rib lathe, we knew that we needed great art to bring some much needed texture, organic shapes and, most importantly, soul, to our single but prominent art area along the back wall.  We initially toyed with the idea of commissioning a local artist to create some very urbane, graffiti art to provide that juxtaposition between raw and refined, but that idea lost out when we though it might be a bit too edgy for what we were doing.  So without an artist in our back pocket, we turned to… Craigslist, of course.  A quick gig post later, we began to receive replies from local artists who were interested in the event and our concept.  But after reviewing many portfolios, only one artist stood out, Jamie Spinello, a San Francisco Art Institute graduate based in Oakland.  What drew us to Jamie’s work was her layered, textured mixed media pieces that used a multitude of materials, including upcycled materials.  Her work had a refined quality and organic aesthetic that we knew would work against the linear, museum-like quality of our space.  Moreover, Jamie’s initial email to me sounded authentic in her desire to create a piece that complemented our sustainability theme and highlighted DIFFA’s overall focus, AIDS research.  At our initial meeting where we discussed a possible collaboration, we essentially already decided together what her art would represent: the cell-based AIDS virus itself.  Given the aesthetic of the things that Jamie had done, this was like a no-brainer.  And what better way to pay homage to AIDS research, to bring awareness to the disease, to bring some levity and beauty to an otherwise sad disease, than through an art piece that depicted the AIDS virus itself.  We knew that this could be brilliant.  In Jamie’s own words, here is her statement about her piece, titled “Leukos Kytos”, made from plastic bottles, acrylic paint, photo paper, screen, duct tape, magazine paper, hot glue, nylon thread:

This work explores parallels in biological forms both internal and external. Leukos Kytos is inspired by white blood cells in the human body and images of the AIDS virus.  The result is a collection of ephemeral objects that could be easily read as underlying sea life as well as internal cell forms. All materials can be found in the local hardware store or recycling bin. The plastic forms consist of upcycled discarded objects (plastic bottles, magazines pages, discarded plastic photo paper).

Though Jamie and I were in regular communication, and she showed me concept sketches and in-progress pictures, the final result, which Cary and I only saw the night before, was better than we could have imagined.  The colors, forms, textures, and materials were amazing.  Like our space, the piece as pure art was amazing in and of itself; but when people hear and realize the story behind it, it is that much more astonishing.  As luck would have it, guess who we discovered on the day of the event was the sponsor for our table?  None other than Dr. John Greenspan and his wife Dr. Deborah Greenspan, world-renowned doctors and bonafide rock stars in the field of AIDS research.  Mr. Greenspan is the Director of the AIDS Research Institute at UCSF – the primary beneficiary of the entire DIFFA SF event – and by the way, one of the original co-founders of HIV disease. He was essentially DBD SF’s main client if you will.  We got lucky.  Do you think he loved the art?

PART 2: The Event

This HUGE post, just about making our space, has taken more than a week to write on and off, so I need to get it up.  But soon, I will finish this up with Part 2 to talk about the actual event itself, along with my professionally shot pictures.  As a preview, let’s just say it was a ton of work, but all worth it in the end, thanks to amazing feedback and support from the public as well as family and friends.

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The Bachelor Pod


So I was reading an interesting story in yesterday’s New York Times about the “Decline and Fall of the Bachelor Pad.”  To summarize, the recession, particularly in New York where swank bachelor pads were de rigeur among the banker boys, has wiped out many of those said spaces as many guys are either still unemployed or being more prudent with what money they have left or are making now.  So instead of ultra-cool, these new spaces are ultra-small, and often house more than one bachelor.

The most interesting guy profiled in the story was an architect who’s managed to make lemonade out his lemons.  He shares a small 900 square foot open loft with a friend, which normally would pose problems for most roommates not only because of the diminutive size but also the lack of privacy.  I mean how can this be a bachelor pad if you don’t have the space and seclusion to practice your bachelor-ness?


So the guy used his architectural background to create 8′ x 6′ “pods” out of two by fours and plywood.  Each pod is essentially a a fully enclosed bed frame as the entire floor is covered by a mattress.  Amenities include a Plexiglas ceiling to allow in natural light, integral reading lamps, operable doors on every wall, and casters for mobility.  The total cost for each pod was a reasonable $500.

I have to say that I think this design is quite brilliant.  Here is an affordable, flexible and modern solution to the problems of living in a loft with a roommate.  Although the pod could be seen as a bit claustraphoic, I think it would be cozy personally.  The natural wood glows warmly when lit up at night, but if you want a more refined look a punchy paint job or wall covering could look amazing.  Placing the pods on casters is ingenious too, allowing for great portability; when you have company, you can just glide your pod across the concrete floor to the far side of the loft and remind your roommate to “don’t come a knock’n when the pod’s a rock’n.”


My mind is racing with all the other things you could do with your pod: accent lighting, mounted flat-panel TV, built-in surorund sound, flip-down table, wall and paint treatments for the inside and out, mirrors, pillows,…. I mean if this is truly a bachelor pod, you need the tools of the trade: “Hey, let’s watch a movie in my pod…”  Wow, this would be a lot of fun to design.

While I wouldn’t trade my space-bounty for space deprivation, I love what this guy has done and relish the chance  to work on one, if not for me, maybe a client.  Given the proliferation of lofts, hopefully someday I can pull this neat design out of my back pocket and build one.  I guess I just need to find a bachelor client and sell him on the idea.  But according to the architect the pods meet a key bachelor criterion: they’re “a tool for seduction.”  I guess my sales pitch won’t be to difficult then…


The link to the original article and the architect’s website:




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