From: Telling a Story
Everyone has had the experience of telling a story, whether to a child at bedtime or to a bunch of friends over a glass of wine, or in some other context. But what might it mean to “tell a story” with architecture?
Here’s an example: A few years ago, I was asked by a Venezuelan couple to design their pied-à-terre in Manhattan. The apartment they had chosen posed a range of challenges, and I was at a loss as to how best to resolve them. While I was wrestling with the project, I went on a meditation retreat to Asia, and in the middle of it—remembering that my clients lived most of the year in the tropics—I had a vision of the pied-à-terre as a South American courtyard house: a place with an open-air entry garden, from which all of the home’s rooms and circulation paths would unfold. Typically, I develop concepts through a give-and-take with the architects and designers in my office, after devising a program with a client. This time, captivated by my theme, I sat down with a sketchbook and drew the entire apartment—from the broad organizational strokes to the rooms and the ways they communicated to the architectural details
and furnishings—in a matter of days.
The tale, as you will see in the coming pages, might also be about the lair of an old sea captain or inspired by a bunch of upper-crust Brits in colonial Africa. But whatever the case, my experience drove home one of the most valuable things I’ve learned: every successful project grows out of a story—and I can’t begin until I have found the story I want to tell.
This lesson, I should add, is not only of use to design professionals. Finding a story becomes especially important when you consider that 80 percent of home furnishings are purchased not by designers, but by people shopping for their own dwellings. I can’t count the number of times I’ve been asked to help out clients who had bought very beautiful, very costly vintage pieces by world-famous names—and wondered why nothing seemed to go together. The reason was that no unifying idea guided the design approach to their purchases.
Whether you’re a homeowner or a professional, finding a compelling story—or, if you prefer, a theme or concept—enables you to consider every decision with what amounts to a dependable true/false meter. At the largest scale, defining your inspiration helps to establish architectural principles that will organize the design—a courtyard house, for example, has certain signature elements upon which to draw. But having a story also helps with the details. Is this chair, wall covering, or rug contributing to the tale I want to tell? Or does it somehow strike a wrong note even though it’s beautiful or “important”? If you have developed a strong concept, you will make fewer mistakes, create interiors that are more original, imaginative, and authentically your own—and you will be practicing the craft of interior design rather than simply decorating.
Of course, the prospect of coming up with something that will drive all of a project’s design decisions can be daunting. The flip side of the equation is that every space has a story to tell—and so finding a story, at least in part, involves discovering what your home wants to be. If you’re at a loss, try jumpstarting the process by taking your cues from the architecture. Once you’ve got a dialogue going, everything that flows from it will be functional, beautiful, and welcoming.
Having said all this, let me add a caveat: if your theme just does not seem to be working after a few tries, don’t be afraid to move on. There’s a Buddhist saying: “The only way out is in.” Immerse yourself in the process—and you will come out with the right story to tell.
Excerpted from Made to Order by Campion Platt; Foreword by Jay McInerney. Copyright © 2010 by Campion Platt; Foreword by Jay McInerney. Excerpted by permission of The Monacelli Press, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.