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. (the listing) (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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The Float House: The Future of New Orleans Housing


Thom Mayne of architecture firm Morphosis is regarded as one of the country’s elite “starchitects”, having won the Pritzker Prize in 2005 (the “Oscars” of architecture) and designed numerous award-winning buildings, including our own, infamous San Francisco Federal Building (I say infamous because of well-publicized mixed reviews on the utility of the space and the building’s inability to become LEED certified despite it’s well-known efforts to be recognized.  To be fair, the building is definitely a “green” structure).

SF Federal Building

SF Federal Building

Mayne, who is also a professor at UCLA’s architecture and design school, recently became involved in designing something much less sexy than highly-visible and expensive public spaces: flood-safe, affordable, sustainable housing.  Mayne, whose firm is based in LA, was tapped by fellow star Brad Pitt’s Make it Right Foundation to help rebuild the Lower Ninth Ward in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.  Morphosis developed the project’s original concept and Mayne’s students helped flesh it out and build it.


The result of their efforts is what looks to be a hybrid of a modern ranch house and a mobile home.  While mobile home doesn’t sound so flattering, the Float House’s primary innovation is what gives it the mobile home aesthetic of sitting on stilts – because the house is, kind of.  Underneath the entire house is a four foot tall polystyrene foam coated in glass-fiber-reinforced concrete “chassis” that is designed to support and float the house up to 12 feet high on fixed guide posts if water levels ever reach that in the event of a major flood.  Though the chassis can support the house and its contents so that catastrophic damage is minimized and the house can be preserved after a disaster, occupants must be evacuated.  Mayne and his team did not invent this technology, rather they brought it over from the Netherlands, a country that has 27% of its land mass below sea level and is a pioneer of water-based housing.  Nevertheless, the Float House is the first one of this type permitted in the U.S.

From a design perspective, what Mayne’s team has created given their design requirements is remarkable.  The exterior is an interesting mix of textures, colors, elevations and window placement, giving the house an eclectic, high-end look that is very Morphosis for its undulating, asymmetric planes.  Most notable is the dynamic, butterfly-shaped roof, which features an integrated hurricane shutter along one side of the house and transforms into a polycarbonate, clerestory overhang that allows light into the long gallery beneath it.  The roof even has integrated photovoltaic panels and channels rainwater into collection tanks.  So it shouldn’t be a surprise that this house should become LEED Platinum rated (the highest you can get), based on the mix of high-performance systems and prefabrication methods.


Inside, the spaces are tight, which is to be expected considering its diminutive 1000 square foot size.  But since all rooms open onto the well-lit gallery that runs the length of the house, it appears to have an open feel.  The public space is a smart kitchen, dining and living room combination.  Barn-style doors and numerous built-ins make efficient use of the space.  The design team even found a way to even incorporate a New Orleans architectural and cultural detail: a front porch.

I love the overall design of this house, appreciating the thought and detail that went into it, considering the challenging design requirements.  While this project may not be considered a huge commission for Mayne, I think this project may have been as rewarding or more for him than his other, more glamorous projects.  This project’s design, inspiration and innovation all contribute to a well- deserved, feel-good story for New Orleans.  I wouldn’t be surprised if this project becomes award-winning in the near future…

To read the original article:

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It’s About Time: Solar Roof Shingles


Alright, as a home owner I’ve lusted for solar panels for some time.  While the ROI on solar panels is 10+ years, the idea of not paying for electricity, and better yet, potentially making a few dollars off generating your own electricity is a home owners’ dream come true.

But aside from the huge capital investment, there’s also the practical concern of where to place them, whether the roof or the backyard.  Solar panels don’t look bad necessarily but they definitely look a bit like an afterthought, albeit a high-tech one.  But even my non-engineering mind could foresee the day when thin, photovoltaic sheets could be integrated into things like roof shingles.  Hey, if calculators have been solar-powered for 30 years, it was just a matter of time right?

Well today, Dow Chemical introduced a just that: a thin-film, photovoltaic roof shingle.  The beauty of this product is not just its pretty “like any other shingle” face, but also how it saves on the cost of installing a solar system because these asphalt-based tiles can be installed by your average roofer who is already installing a new, or retrofitting an old roof.  The shingles are simply connected to one another to create one large, super-sized “panel.”  These solar shingles are as durable as standard asphalt shingles and can be “palletized”, walked-on and installed using regular nails.  While an electrician is not needed for hanging them, one is still needed to hook up the solar system to your house’s electrical system.

The only catch with this thin-film technology is that it’s not as efficient as the solar panels that you see around today – these are only 10% efficient.  So these systems require more surface area to create a larger “panel.”  But given that these tiles can be integrated into your entire roof, that doesn’t seem to be a big problem to me.  The bottom line is that this type of solar system should offset 40-80% of your total electricity consumption, though it costs 10-15% less than the typical “racked-based” solar system today.  When compared to other innovative, “building integrated” solar products, this system is 40% less.

As with all bleeding edge technologies, over time we can expect performance to increase while costs decrease.  At the point, when these solar shingles become as efficient as rack-based systems and 25%+ cheaper, then I think these systems will be de rigeur in neighborhoods everywhere.  Until then, early adopters will just have to accept a great looking, less expensive and integrated alternative solar system.

To read the original article:

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My Evening with Designer Piero Lissoni


Tonight I had the chance to listen to Piero Lissoni speak as part of the month-long Architecture and the City Festival put on by the San Francisco chapter of the AIA.  Speaking at the gorgeous CCA campus, Lissoni proved to be as charismatic, affable, honest and genuine as he is talented.  While I knew him well for his work with Italian furniture lines Boffi, Living Divani, Porro, and Cassina, only until he casually mentioned his other clients did I realize the true reach of his work, which includes projects for just about every blue-chip Italian furniture company like Kartell, Alessi, Flos, Cappellini, Poltrona Frau, Glas Italia, Fritz Hansen, Knoll, and Swarowski.  OMG.  In my mind he was already a legend based on the body of work that I knew about, but when I learned about everything else that he did, I was truly blown away.  In sports speak, he’s a first-ballot Hall of Famer on par with a Starck or Newson, if not above.

As Lissoni’s lecture began, I wasn’t sure what to expect.  Outwardly, he looked the part of designer: navy sportcoat with elbow patches, slim taupe jeans, brown driving mocs, and cream scarf.  On the stage, he had a continuous, looping portfolio of his work on the big projection screen while he was seated and speaking at a folding 6 foot table filled with various objects including an analog clock radio, Mac Powerbook, printed books, Japanese rice bowl, wind-up robot, Alessi coffee press, foam model of a recent building he designed in Istambul, and even a red foam clown’s nose (more on that later).  These would be the props that he used throughout his lecture, which was going to be about his “humanistic” approach to designing, apparently a last minute departure from his pre-planned retrospective of his work (which probably would not nearly have been as enlightening as his new topic, to our luck).

I have to admit that it took more than a few minutes before I could make enough sense of his Italian accent, broken English, and sense humor to concentrate on the content and intent of his speech.  As his lecture wore on (for more than 2.5 hours) and his anecdotes and examples began to amass, his genius began to come through in spades.  What was muddy for me about his humanistic approach became crystal clear – and then enlightening.  While it would be hard to replicate Lissoni’s career path and success, there are plenty of nuggets to take away from his lecture that you or I can learn from.

Unfortunately, the lecture was not recorded nor could I record it or take notes real-time.  So the following quotes, excerpts, points, and facts are purely based on my recollection (and my mad dash to takes notes right his lecture).  If anyone in attendance tonight has anything to add or clarify, please join in on the conversation!  In no particular order, here were the highlights:

  • His working relationship with Alessi began with an hours-long conversation with Alberto Alessi about wine before Alberto finally brought up the idea of designing a watch, which Lissoni agreed to on the spot and without additional conversation.  He called his wine conversation his design “brief.”
  • His Alessi coffee press project was aimed to take on Bialetti’s venerable, classic coffee press, which he said was like challenging Pele to a soccer match – “It was a good game.”
  • On the ergonomics of his furniture: “Of course it’s uncomfortable, I’m Italian!”
  • On his favorite materials to use: he has none and all are specific to each project.  He said “Materials are the language of every project” and that he never chooses to use a material just to use it.
  • He is currently designing a bridge using carbon fiber
  • He once worked with Kartell for more than two years to develop a new manufacturing technology for a chair, which ended up saving more than a kilogram of raw materials per chair.
  • His desk at his office is a 3 meters by 3 meters and covered with books and objects.  He only works on a small 2 foot by 2 foot area on his desk, and only cleans his desk when the other things on his desk begin to intrude on this space (about every 2 months).
  • He cannot work unless he has espresso, bottled water and fresh flowers everyday.
  • He disallows computers in his meetings.
  • His office has 3 libraries, one each for design, architecture/furniture and classics (poetry, novels, etc.).  He said if his employees are not using all three then they are not right for his firm.
  • His puts on a red foam clown nose when he feels his meetings are getting too serious.
  • He says we are all “prostitutes” – “People pay and we do.”
  • He calls his clients his “victims.”
  • On what makes Italian designers the best in the world: their great clients.  He said he is always late to meetings, often shows up empty-handed, often is late with deliverables, and that clients either love him or hate him.  His Italian clients clearly love him – and he quips “Could you imagine if I worked with Japanese or German clients?”
  • He says working with engineers is his biggest nightmare.
  • He thinks “It is impossible to live without technology” but that technology should only be used as a “tool.”  If it’s is used as the sole way to design, then it is wrong and “dangerous.”  He believes that working with your hands is still an essential part of the design process.  He says people often show him beautiful images on a screen but they often have no life.
  • He started designing as a child, first using Legos.  He still thinks like a child but “only on a different scale.”
  • He called his design school “hell” compared to the ones today (like CCA).  He said they had limited tools but were challenged to stay “curious” – his advice to design students today.
  • His approach to designing architecture is different from his approach with products – “There is so much noise out there, I design my buildings to be quiet.”  He also uses a “European approach” to architecture projects where he designs the exterior plus everything in the interior down to the cabinet pulls.
  • Asked if he’s designed a perfect thing: no, and he doesn’t strive for perfection because it’s “boring.”  But he does strive for greater precision in design and greater control over the process.  His example for the need for greater precision – a private home renovation where his budget of 1 became a 10 in reality.
  • His examples of perfection: the work on Antonio Citterio, the work of Carlo Scarpa, a dinner by Alain Ducasse, Church of San Giorgio Maggiore in Venice by architect Andrea Palladio, the Barcelona Pavilion by architect Mies van der Rohe.
  • The one thing he has not designed that he dreams about: a daughter.  He said with designing materials things “anything is possible” but it is things like life, a family, a daughter that are a real challenge to design.
  • On what makes him happy: “Of course, I like the girls.”

There not much more to say or translate as I think his humanistic approach is pretty clear, at least to me.  While we can’t all be Lissoni or work the same way that he does (wouldn’t it be nice to go over budget 10 times and still have a job or demand fresh flowers at your desk everyday), I know that there are things I am taking away from his lecture that will make me a better designer.

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Design Review: Kara’s Cupcakes


So I found myself in Ghirardelli Square this afternoon after a several year hiatus.  Sure, I’d been there recently but in the evenings for ice cream so I haven’t wandered the shops in long while.  As I had heard, there’s been quite a bit of development over the years, namely the conversion of the commercial space to hotel/fractional ownership condos by Fairmont Hotels (Fairmont Heritage Place) plus a few new retail shops.  Though there were a couple of design driven stores (including the noteworthy Crown & Crumpet Tea Salon), one particular store caught my eye, Kara’s Cupcakes.  Kara’s Cupcakes is a five store cupcakery based in the city with stores in SF (two) as well as stores in Napa, Sonoma and Palo Alto.


While Kara is primarily an expert at cupcakes, clearly she has a keen eye for design as well as her store is gorgeous.  From the moment you walk in, you get a feeling of warmth and comfort from both the sights and smells.  The strongest design element of the space is the pink translucent glass panels that serve multiple functions: colored backdrop for the store, menu board, and space divider between retail and back office (where I assume storage, office, bathroom and kitchen are).  The glass is a great metaphor for the whole space and concept – it’s simultaneously cute, modern, and efficient.  While I am sure some would like the store to be more “precious,” I think this store works because its attractive to both traditional and modern cupcake enthusiasts, meaning women and children as well as men, foodies, tourists, etc.


The next most visible material in the store is the great millwork, which appears to be a teak or pearwood (I think).  The veneer covers both the walls that flank the primary glass wall as well as the cupcake display cases.  This choice of wood works very successfully as the medium tones blend perfectly with the pink.  The wood is also less common than the ubiquitous maple or wenge and bridges the light/airy and dark/sophisticated looks well.


What I like about the millwork are the details.  For example, the cupcake display case is actually a cantilevered unit that is set off from an integral concrete base.  Even cooler though is window cupcake display, which is also a cantilevered unit that doubles as the base for the counter seating along the store front.  The result is a dramatic, landscape-shaped aperture within the casework, lined in Corian, to showcase cupcakes while also serving as a modesty panel for customers seated at the counter.  To turn a typically wasted space into a multi-functional design highlight is great design.


Topping is the counters and work areas is Corian, which is a nice change from the quartz counters that are everywhere these days.  I’ve always liked Corian for its warmer, softer, and translucent properties so I am happy to see this here as it adds to the sense of warmth while addressing the functional needs of a commercial space.


Also noteworthy in its design is the storage and display of cupcake boxes given to customers.  A narrow band between the lower storage cabinets and the pink glass is lined in Corian and completely filled with pink boxes of various sizes and shapes.  By stacking the boxes end to end, top to bottom across the this long and wide opening, the boxes take on an almost artistic element like a neat composition of photographs on a wall.  From afar, the uniformity and careful editing of materials on that wall, and really the entire store, is modern and fresh as all you see are expanses of glass, wood, and pink boxes.


From a design perspective I really liked this store a lot.  Aside from what I mentioned, I also liked the branding/mark, the typesetting and layout of their menu, the DWR Onda barstools (which don’t hold up well to commercial traffic by the way) and especially the map of local businesses / vendors / brands that Kara uses and supports with her business, which reads like a foodie’s shopping list on Thanksgiving eve.  As a foodie and design guy, I am so happy and inspired when I see local merchants doing well, bringing together two things I love.

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Bay Line: The Bay Area’s Own Version of NYC’s High Line?


So in previous posts, I’ve alluded to my fascination and love for the High Line, Manhattan’s recently opened, suspended park built on the old High Line railroad line in lower Manhattan.  This mile and a half “greenway” is innovative in so many ways, whether from an urban planning, redevelopment, landscape architecture, or design perspective.  To me, the success of taking something that was about to be torn down and turning it into a design-driven, green oasis in the middle of a sprawling metropolis is almost amazing.

New York's High Line Park

New York's High Line Park

So much to my amazement and excitement did I come across an article last week about Ronal Rael’s idea of taking the old, to-be-torn-down section of the Bay Bridge and turning it into a park and mixed-use development a la the High Line.  Fascinating idea.  Rael, principal at Principal at Rael San Fratello Architects and Professor of Architecture at UC Berkeley’s graduate program, developed his ideas as part of a UCLA-sponsored design competition.  While I am very intrigued by the idea, the reader’s comments beneath the article were mostly about why it cannot or should not be done, but I imagine that when the idea of the High Line was first floated around New York, it received similar feedback from naysayers.  While I am not saying this is a good or feasible idea, I think that successes like the High Line, or the Promenade Plantee in Paris, which the High Line was inspired by, should have us pause and engage in a real dialogue about such an innovative idea.  The article pointed out that if you look at history, the concept of re-purposing a bridge has been around for awhile; look no further than the storied Ponte Vecchio bridge in Florence, with all its retail shops, for a rather famous and successful example.  I never thought of it that way when I was there last summer:


While I am no urban planner, re-developer or engineer by any stretch, I have my own reactions and thoughts about this idea.  The three most common obstacles that people pointed out were cost, safety and access.  Here are my thoughts on those three:


The article mentioned that estimated price to retrofit this old portion of the bridge was $200 million (I am not sure if that includes converting the bridge into a park, probably not).  Yes, that is serious money any way you slice it.  But just as financial “backers” of the High Line emerged in New York, I am sure there would be backers of this project as well in the Bay Area, whether individuals, corporations or foundations (in addition to government money).  I’d even be open to corporate sponsorships if need be, based on what the project would be bring to the community.  I can imagine it now – the Apple Amphitheater, the Gap Gardens or the Clorox Climbing Wall.  I know I am probably in the minority, but I would also be open to park entrance fees or bridge toll increases to make this happen.

Another thought would be to not retrofit the bridge at all and save $200 million, reducing costs to just the conversion process.  Of course, this issue leads to safety so let’s talk about that…

Bay Line Rendering

Bay Line Rendering


So here’s the thought about not retrofitting the bridge and going with the current structure.  We’ve all gone to public parks and monuments and not all of them, or not many of them for that matter, are safe.  Take Half Dome in Yosemite, that is a public park that is NOT safe, particularly the uppermost portion.  Why aren’t we retrofitting it with ADA-compliant, seismic controlled, lighted, concrete stairs and ramps?  The answer lies with money and not disturbing the natural habitat.  If that’s true, why can’t with think the bridge in that way?  It is what it is, and what it is is enough to be preserved and shared for the future generations.  Yes, there would be some minimal risk to entering this park (in the event there was a catastrophic natural disaster while you were there – even so in the last big quake “only” one section collapsed, and that was under the weight of numerous cars).  But how is the risk of entering this park any different than going to any other “public” park and being exposed to those risks like hiking Half Dome or hiking Land’s End in San Francisco and risk falling down the cliff or being swept by waves into the ocean?

My only compromise would be to not have the Bay Line be mixed use – I think it should be for recreation and entertainment only.  In my mind this would be help reduce the risk of many people getting hurt since no one would live and work there 24/7.  Furthermore, if the bridge was for recreation only and outfitted with only minimal additional new infrastructure, my guess is that the load and strain on the bridge would be much less that it is today, whereby reducing the impact of a seismic event.

Bay Line Rendering

Bay Line Rendering


This to me might be the most challenging issue since the park is not near any current public transportation aside from car traffic.  I know that the new portion of the Bay Bridge bridge has bike and pedestrian access so I am imagine traversing from the new to the old bridge would be doable.  Still that would only account for very limited access.  I think the easiest solution would be having Treasure Island serve as the park access point (accessible by cars and ferries) and parking area.  A more extreme idea is having an aerial tram system (like the Palm Springs Aeriel Tramway or New York’s Roosevelt Island Aerial Tram) from the Oakland side where parking would be located.  While this is probably pretty expensive, this would become an instant Bay Area landmark and tourist attraction like the London Eye and probably pay for itself over time.  Again, access is a sticky issue…


So this blog post is not supposed to be a deep, insightful analysis or public debate about this project.  Instead it’s merely another point of discussion to explore this novel idea.  As a Bay Area resident and native, proponent of redevelopment, and admirer of innovative urban planning, I just think that this idea has legs, particularly in the face of similar successes in other places.  Why tear down a huge, existing, expensive structure on prime real estate when it can be re-adapted for a productive and inspiring second life?  Sure, it’ll be complex, controversial and expensive but the thought of a two mile long park, 200 foot above the water, looking toward one of the most beautiful panoramas in the world is just too good to not at least consider.

To read the original post and download Rael’s proposal, visit:

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OLEDs: The Future of Lighting


A few days ago, the New York Times ran a great article about OLEDs – what are they you ask?  Organic Light Emitting Diodes, a cousin of the LED lights that we are starting to see everywhere from flashlights to cars’ headlights.  The key difference between LEDs and OLEDs is that OLEDs are made into super-thin, flexible sheets that offer uniform, diffuse light while still retaining the energy efficiency and longevity of LEDs. (think 20 year lifespan).  LEDs offer “points” of light like any normal bulb.

How cool and untapped is this technology?  Well, let’s just say that there is so much opportunity here that GE is spending more than HALF its research and development budget this year on this one initiative. That is a lot of money folks.  What GE is really trying to do is to find new applications for OLEDs and, more importantly, lower costs so that it is not such a huge premium over traditional lighting options.  For example, Sony has an OLED-based 11″ television retailing for $2,500!  Sure the picture quality and viewing angles are better than a standard flat panel, but it’s more than 10 times the cost of current technology.

Still the vision of the future with OLEDs is pretty amazing.  Because the ultra-thin profile, people are experimenting with and talking about using OLEDs in ceiling tiles, wall dividers, windows and even Venetian blinds (to mimic natural lighting at night – how cool is that?).  Famed lighting designer Ingo Maurer (designer of famous lights such as the Zettle’z) is already playing with this material, launching a palm tree-inspired light with OLED “fronds” for a cool $10,000.  I don’t think this is his best design work, but it’s easy to see the possibilities with this technology.


As a designer, particularly one who is infatuated with lighting as well as green design, this medium is super exciting.  So many times I’ve wanted expansive, diffuse light options for projects, whether to light up a piece of art/print/photograph from behind, or to use as an ambient back splash behind a soaking tub or a cooktop, etc.  On a more ractical level, how about just having televisions so thin and so flexible (so that they can be rolled up) that you don’t ever have to design around them anymore.   We all know how “easy” it is to place the ubiquitous flat panel over the fireplace!  Similarly, when OLED sheets become widely available, lighting closets, beneath cabinets, etc. will be a snap and make everyone’s lives better and easier including designers’.

Until then, we can only hope and wait.  In the meanwhile, start with outfitting/retrofitting your homes/projects with LED recessed lights – that’s a great place to start.  More on that to come in another entry…


To read the original New York Times article go to:

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