One of my favorite stories in designlore is that of famed Swiss architect LeCorbusier (Corbu to you insiders) and his design of La Villa Savoye, outside of Paris.
Corbu took it upon himself to design a “machine for living,” a rigorously stark (more charitable people say “pure”) version of a modernist home. (Corbu was so convinced that it was the perfect machine for living that he protested–vigorously–when the client had the temerity to inquire as to whether she might be able to introduce a couple of sofas.)
But aesthetics were the least of the issue, according to Alain de Botton in the Architecture of Happiness. While La Villa might have looked like the perfect machine, it wasn’t. The beautifully flat roof sprung a leak that could not be fixed. It dumped so much rain in the son’s bedroom that he contracted a chest infection, which then became pneumonia. LeCorbusier promised that all would be fixed, but also took the opportunity to remind the owners that the house (and in particular, the roof) had been lauded by architecture critics the world over. “Only the outbreak of the Second World War,” writes deBotton, “saved LeCorbusier from having to answer in a courtroom for the design of his largely uninhabitable, extraordinarily beautiful machine for living.”
OK, so even today’s “starchitects” can’t pull that kind of thing any more (and clients are a wee bit more clued in), but there are still plenty of skirmishes (battles, wars?) when perfect “design” meets the imperfect “real” world. And, like as not, those skirmishes come in the translation from perfect plan to construction–not to mention real life.
Into that breach have stepped a small coterie of designcraft architecture firms who embrace the designing and the making. Some firms, like Zack | DeVito, have embraced both the design and the construction, offering design-build services. (Zack | DeVito has their own construction team, in-house estimating and project management. We love the fact that in addition to architects, their website lists construction team members. Nice, that.) Either way, the approach is what keeps things real–the insight into what will work…both in terms of construction, but also in terms of feeling: the ability to nourish the soul and fire the imagination. And that’s what it’s about, isn’t it?
Another thing that keeps it real: husband and wife team Jim Zack and Lise DeVito is that they’ve lived in five of their own creations. They know what happens when design meets life. But we’re guessing that there weren’t any roof leaks.
Forget design. Let’s start the question everyone wants to start with. What’s it like to be married and collaborate as design and business partners? (Jim) Really, on a day to day basis we do not design “collaboratively”. We tend to have our own projects, we may critique each others work, but we do our own thing. (Ah, a little risk mitigation. Excellent. And smart.) (Lise) We also have a difference in approaches. Jim hates drawing: he comes at things from a 3D vantage point. I love drawing. That’s why this whole computer age has stunted my process. For me, the art of sketching…the hand moving to the brain is essential. (Strikes us as an optimal balance.)
We’re assuming your aesthetics are pretty similar. (Jim) Generally we are pretty aesthetically compatible. We like more or less the same thing, we are both modern and minimal. That said, Lise tends to more minimal, I have a slightly more expressive sensibility, a bit more material expression, a curve or angle, a splash of color. ( Lise) I am more of the minimalist for sure! I like less than more materials, less than more obvious detailing. I prefer a strong “graphic” quality to the work.
Not to sound like a marriage counselor, but how do you resolve conflicts? (Jim) Ignore them until they explode, then dive in and deal with it. I do not recommend this approach!
Talk about design-build. How did that evolve as a focus for your firm? (Jim) I started as a builder, helping my dad in construction. I loved getting my hands dirty. I was always the shop guy in school and loved making models. In architecture school at Berkeley, I got a chance to make things in addition to designing, and that appealed. Really, I opened an office so I could have a shop and just play. I got my first client, and I just moved on from there. (We’re sitting at a gorgeous table he designed and made, one of his first projects.)
Somehow, Lise, we don’t think you come from a construction background. No! I come from a pretty arty background. Both parents were designers and artists: my father was an industrial and packaging designer, while my mother started out in apparel design but became a fine artist. I knew I’d do something visual. There’s this driving force to create things, I can’t turn it off, even if I tried. Why’d you go into architecture? (Lise did a BFA at RISD.) It just seemed to be the culminating practice of all the things, fine art, graphics, color, materials, craft, even the construction of it…..layering of the building, the process of conception, drawing, building. It felt like it made sense.
So how does being a design-build firm change the way you design? (Jim) The direct experience of building informs design, always, from the first to last day of the project. The design-build approach allows us to fine tune the design each day. And we’re very detail oriented and specify a great deal more than other architects. We have an appreciation of detail, the little thing–like bolts. In other projects, the contractor just fills in the blank and buys off the shelf bolts. We specify because we know how they work and how they’ll be used. (Check out the Zack | DeVito site for great images of the build process.)
(Lise) It’s the balance and the synchronicity. Because we’re involved in the construction, we have a close connection to the materials. And the materials are so important to the ultimate feel of the building and space….there’s a temperature, a weight. You may not recognize it, but you feel it. And it’s a big part of my design process….I have to surround myself with actual materials to really understand. I need to feel them, have them speak to me. Materials can move you, that’s why they’re so important. If you step away from that…you’re disconnected from the experience. I think plans often remove you from the reality of something.
It’s about a more holistic approach. (Lise) Exactly. Putting things together, seeing how they sing…that’s really key to what and how we design. Going to a site and feeling the views, the light….standing on a raw site and seeing how it changes during construction…that’s key. Giving yourself the ability to alter the design based on new information–that’s how it works on the design-build side. I find it so hard to separate the doing and the designing.
And what’s in it for the client? Obviously, there are some potential efficiencies, and some flexibility which allows you to make some changes during the actual construction phase, but what else? (Lise) There are so many ways….but our emphasis on materials is a big one…our designs look expensive, but it is more that we know the tricks of where to spend the money mixing with less expensive products or finishes and doing some cool detailing of some other component. Also I think that in our process, our clients are surprised by how early we bring in materials. Early on, we spend a lot of time describing why we’re recommending a certain material, and how they’ll feel if that material is used. It gives the client a heightened understanding of the final product.
You design both restaurants (Orson, Globe, Starbelly, Tres Agaves, Bacar) and homes. What’s the difference? What’s your preference? (Jim) Restaurants are really interesting, a real opportunity to do something different. But there are lots of similarities between restaurants and homes because with both, you have to start with function. It’s not just about how something looks. (Lise) Residential has a certain soul to it that other work does not. I think you can be moved by lots of different types of spaces but there’s something so personal in residential work. It’s a story or a tale of lives, hobbies, interests, taste, background: it’s incredibly telling.
Obviously, being your own clients informs your work. (Lise) I think it really helps that we’ve been our own clients. We know how houses work. We know how families work. (Jim and Lise have two young kids). We know how life works. We know, for example, how to make modernism work with having kids in the house. We once published some work of one of our houses and there was a big thread in our comments. They couldn’t figure out how to make it work, but we have because we’ve lived it.
OK. What are you reading? (Lise) I read a lot of poetry. Reading Billy Collins now. (Jim) Ted Kennedy’s bio “True Compass”; “Home Game” a humorous book on being a dad by Michael Lewis, and a book called “The Craftsmen”, a bit of an existential discourse on craft and making.
Who plays you in the movies of your lives? (Lise) We always heard that Jim reminded people of Harrison Ford. And you? Hmmm. Someone sentimental, introverted in a certain way….and spiritual. Perhaps some obscure French actress. (Lise was born in Montreal, and is an unrepentant francophile–and it shows in her fabulous style.) Maybe Claire Danes? (Perfect!)
And what objects define you? (Lise) I’d say my art and my little collections. I collect Bride and Groom dolls….Different designs over the eras….whimsical but very serious too. And I collect figurines of the presidents of the US. In terms of artwork and sculpture….I have a fascination with packing materials…I’ve objectified these very mundane things…I often treat them with wax. For example, I ordered a pizza stone, and when it came, I noticed the box came with these projections and cut outs. I’ve waxed it as a straight piece. You’d never know it was a container for a pizza stone! I also like tribal pieces….
(Jim) I guess the question makes me realize I am not too object oriented, but:
- My iphone
- I realize it’s not an object, but I have really, really enjoyed living in houses that I or we have designed and built. I have been fortunate to have done this four or five times now, and at the moment we are not living in one of “our houses”, and I really, really miss it.
- My messy desk
What’s the best thing a client’s ever said to you? (Jim) Not sure it was the nicest thing but maybe the most memorable was a client who told us that “we sucked the least” of everyone who worked on the project. (Love that!) (Lise) Seriously, though, clients have said lots of things that we thought were both great and interesting. Like how much they learn about themselves in the process. And how many details there are to sweat. And how blown away they are when they see the final thing–the unexpected touches, the little surprises (good ones) are what people always rave about.
Ah those little moments of magic. Thanks, Jim and Lise for making reality beautiful, and making beauty real.