Home & Design

The New Guard (Dwell)

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I wrote three short pieces on up-and-coming designers for the Now 99 issue of Dwell, published in May 2012. Click here for digital version; pdf of pages available here.

Born to love barns (The Philadelphia Inquirer)

It likely happened when you left the front door wide open or your jacket in a heap on the floor. But most kids - even adults - have heard this refrain:

Where do you think you live? A barn?

Well, some people do.

Whether the appeal is the slanting, dusty sunshine that peeps through the cracks, the lingering smell of hay, or that old, nostalgic charm, a growing number of people are choosing to transform old barns from bovine dwelling to rustic entertaining space.

Yet the process is not for the laid back. Renovating barns requires an often endless web of decisions involving deconstruction, reconstruction, and preservation. Three local homeowners tell us the tales that led to their barn euphoria.

Peggy and Bruce Earle
Devon

Peggy Earle spent much of her childhood in an old Chester County bank barn - a two-story barn on a hillside with ground-level access to both floors - where she cared for her horses and spent time with her father. But in Devon, where she and her husband, Bruce, have lived for 25 years, available bank barns are few and far between. So after Googling "moving a barn," and discovering Mike Hart - a local guy and history buff who would happily move a structure to the location of your choosing - Earle was hooked.

"We've lived in Devon our whole lives and wanted to stay there, so we needed to bring a barn to us."

Their customized art space (The Philadelphia Inquirer)

You have to navigate a winding dirt road and a steep set of moss-covered stairs if you want to enter the house perched on the top of a hill in rural Bucks County. And if you're not equipped with four-wheel-drive, a fast-flowing creek will mean you'll be parking your car at the neighbors' and taking a hike through the woods.

That commute draws no complaints from Paula Chamlee and Michael A. Smith, large-format professional photographers based in Tinicum Township. After exhibiting, teaching, and making photographs all over the world (Chamlee, 66, also paints and works in mixed-media and video), they always return to the treehouselike stucco dwelling situated at the top of the steep ravine, which houses studio, gallery, and living space in one.

Their shared vocation influences design here, from the gently curved entryway to the tree perfectly framed in the spare bedroom's window. Smith, 69, who bought 18 acres and began work on the house in 1977, envisioned "a cross between a loft and a cabin in the woods.

"I wanted it to be open and have the expansiveness of a loft, but also wanted it to have the intimacy and coziness of a cabin."

It was a 14-year construction process; the first four years, Smith lived in his truck.

"My kitchen drain was a garden hose with duct tape, and I had a two-burner hot plate and a toaster oven. Yet somehow I had a sit-down dinner for 14," he said.

Delicious Design (The Philadelphia Inquirer)

Dining out can be a little bit like going to the prom.

Sure, your date and your dress are important - but it's the experience that reigns.

Enter the age of the restaurant designer.

Bolstering the fish and chips at Stephen Starr's Dandelion, the spinach gnocchi at Marc Vetri's Vetri, or the house lamb merguez at Michael Solomonov's Zahav is the power of atmosphere - and it can be the difference between feeling like you took a typical trip to the corner bistro or nabbed a plane ticket to a comfortably worn British pub.

So who are the aesthetic czars behind the scenes of these Philadelphia hot spots? And even more tantalizing: When you are a person who curates backdrops that thousands flock to, what do you come home to at night?

Michael Gruber, designer for Marc Vetrirestaurants Vetri, Osteria, Amis, and Birreria 600, scheduled to open in late 2011

The Havertown house Michael Gruber shares with his wife, Roberta, is elegant and comfortable in a midcentury style - and not at all what you'd expect from the mastermind behind the industrial-chic Vetri restaurants.

Artist Orna Willis a captive of color in her Northern Liberties loft (The Philadelphia Inquirer)

When Orna Willis looks at the skeins of embroidery floss hanging from the wall in her home studio, it's not just a visual treat.

"Color has such a strong effect on me," Willis said, "that it gets mixed up in my senses until I don't know if I'm seeing it or hearing it or tasting it."

For Willis, an artist who creates intricate designs for her online fiber, fabric, and metal gallery and store, the pegboard is like grapes to a winemaker. "All I need to do is turn around and look at it, and it gets my creative juices flowing," she says.

So when Willis and her husband, Reid, both 53, moved with their 9-year-old daughter, Nina, from a McMansion in Ann Arbor, Mich., to a loft in Northern Liberties six years ago, color became her muse for the 2,950-square-foot blank canvas.

Today, the house is awash in artwork, much of it by Willis' 30-year-old daughter, Shiri Wolf, mixed with a few highlights by other artists including Andy Warhol and Piero Fornasetti. The main living room evokes warmth as well as space, with vignettes throughout: groupings of Scandinavian glassware, or large, prolifically growing terrariums. Willis' favorite design elements are those created of objects that she and her husband have accumulated in their travels to South Africa, Italy, Spain, Cambodia, and Israel, where Willis grew up. But nothing dictates the character of the rooms so much as the color.

Women building home-repair skills

Nothing elicits squeals of delight like a power tool, says do-it-yourselfer Shelly Halloran.

As program director for the Philadelphia branch of Habitat for Humanity, Halloran frequently witnesses the excitement that accompanies someone's first attempt at correctly pounding home a nail or using a screw gun - doubled in intensity when the builder is female.

Women Build, an international program offered through Habitat for Humanity, encourages women to get involved in construction work by providing basic hands-on training and organizing women-specific job sites.

In Philadelphia, an active female volunteer force prompted the initiation of a twice-yearly, hands-on construction course in 2007, designed to introduce women to power tools, drywall, flooring and roofing techniques, and basic home-repair skills. Lauren Mariani, a carpenter with Mariani Carpentry L.L.C. and a former AmeriCorps volunteer with Habitat, developed the course, which next will be offered Feb. 20 to March 13 at the Habitat warehouse near 19th and West Berks Streets.