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Design Takes a Back Seat

By Brent Hull

When was the last time you tried to buy good moldings or well-designed building materials at a lumber yard? Why is it so hard to get products with thick and rich details that convey a sense of permanence and strength? A major problem in the building-materials market today is the lack of design expertise of manufacturers. Few manufacturers seek to be the experts and sources of information that manufacturers were in the first half of last century.

In 1915, the Weyerhaeuser Lumber Company produced an informational pamphlet for architects entitled An Architectural Monograph on Colonial Cottages. It was the first of many that continued in a series for more than 15 years. These quarterly monographs documented historic homes from the 1700s and early 1800s, and were a combination of pictures, drawings and brief text. By sharing details from these great homes, they helped promote quality building and authentic and accurate designs.

Though Weyerhaeuser was the main supporter of these monographs, the organizing group was the White Pine Bureau, basically an industry group seeking to promote the use of white pine in new construction. The strategy was simple: capture the magic of white pine by showing its historical value and the ways it had been used for hundreds of years.

The monographs are thought to be the brainchild of Russell Whiteheads, an editor for a respected architectural magazine. Whitehead thought highlighting important historical properties and their unique details would strike and inspire the imagination of architects and designers. He was right. Today, these pamphlets or monographs are affectionately referred to as the "White Pine Series" and are sought after because of their amazing depth of information.

The White Pine Bureau wasn't the only group seeking to educate architects and designers. Ludowici Roof Tile of New Lexington, OH, produced a similar brochure, called The Tuileries. Beginning in the late 1920s, each issue highlighted a region of Europe focusing on wonderful architectural details, especially roofs. Each was written by a regional expert who would highlight the important elements. Though not as well known, The Tuileries are equally as sought after and collected because of their wonderful and unique information.

With these writings, the manufacturers taught and enlightened themselves as well as their readers. By seeking out and then sharing this information, these manufacturers became experts, and, as such, they became trusted partners with architects and designers in building America. Not surprisingly, both companies are still around. It strikes me that many manufacturers today would love to produce a marketing piece that is not only saved, but also collected by architects, designers and architectural enthusiasts.

There is another aspect of this campaign that must be understood – these manufacturers were period appropriate. The designs and lessons were highly applicable to current building tastes. The 1920s and '30s were characterized by the revival of many period styles – the English, French, Mediterranean and Colonial styles. The architectural and design community was emphasizing and building in these styles in both the residential and commercial sectors. By focusing their education efforts on the inspiration for the styles of the day, manufacturers were leading architects toward architecturally correct design.

Unfortunately, many manufacturers today focus education efforts on demonstrating the best installation methods and not how designs are derived. They are much more comfortable teaching the "how-to" instead of the "why." But this isn't entirely the manufacturers' fault; sadly, there is no universal design or prevalent style like there was a hundred years ago. Architects come from many different schools of thought, and work in different styles. Homebuilders are in their own world, and it is often hard to classify what they build as a style. Commercial and residential building techniques are very different and manufacturers, with no clear design ideal, are encouraged to lead with new technology, not design.

I fear the focus on technology corrupts manufacturers. Just because it can be built does not mean that it should be built. Foam moldings are a good example of overemphasis on technology at the cost of good design. A small minority of houses in America can successfully carry and support (from a design perspective) the ideals of egg-and-dart moldings with dentils. Yet I know there are builder model homes with 8-ft. ceilings proudly showing off this inappropriate detail. The manufacturer's ability to produce these rich details does not equate with his understanding of how they should be used.

Because style is hard to define and technology enables us by making manufacturing so easy that we end up with sloppy, undefined products, it is even more important for manufacturers to educate us in their areas of expertise. Manufacturers must pick up the flag of design – good design – and teach us what they know. Hardware manufacturers should educate us on appropriate details for specific styles. Lighting manufacturers need to tell us what is historically accurate. Cabinetmakers should have a clear view of history so that they can help us decide what style to use. The opportunity is huge and the need for experts is large. The smart manufacturer, by picking up the education charge, will not only become an expert in his or her own field, but will become a partner with architects and designers in building America.

Thankfully, there are still manufacturers who impart knowledge and skill. Portland, OR-based Rejuvenation is one company that does a good job educating its customers about style and details and putting items in packages so that they make sense. Rejuvenation does a great job of sharing its passion through education.

Better still, you don't have to be a huge manufacturer to educate. We have all had the joy of working with a passionate crafts-person who is also an expert. Usually, besides the gregarious personality, we are attracted by someone who shares his or her enthusiasm with all who will listen. When we find someone excited about moldings or plaster or paint we normally become buyers of what he or she is selling.

The reason it is hard to pick out good products at lumber yards is because manufacturers use technology to cut the price. Design is ignored in search of the cheapest cost per foot. Running a well-designed molding costs no more than running a cheap molding. However, running a well-designed molding does require expertise. This is what is lacking.  

 


Brent Hull, a nationally recognized expert in historic millwork and moldings, is the owner of Hull Historical, which designs and manufactures custom architectural interiors for homes across the country. Hull's Historic Millwork (reviewed in Traditional Building, July/August 2003, page 234) was published in 2003; he is currently working on a book for the Winterthur Museum documenting its architectural interiors from 1725 to 1820. For more information, go to www.brenthull.com.

 

 
 

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