In 1997, Meryl Streep made a pilgrimage to the dreary Harlem classroom where Roberta Guaspari, 52, turns high-risk grade schoolers into capable violinists. Set to play the teacher in the new film Music of the Heart, Streep wanted to see just how Guaspari works her magic.
What Streep found was a fearless, flamboyant Italian-American with a passion for music … and the ability to instill that passion in her young charges. In Guaspari’s class nobody squirms or giggles; violins tucked under their little chins, her students stand in pin-straight rows and await her commands: “Fix your feet!” “Eyes on me!”
Streep was surprised by her intensity. “I noticed immediately how tough she was,” says the actress, “and I used a lot of her sharpness in my portrayal.” But Streep saw the devotion too. Behind the bluster, she says, “is Roberta’s great love for her students, and their love and respect for her.”
A divorced mother of three, Guaspari was raised in blue-collar Rome, NY, and became enchanted with the violin in a fourth-grade music class. Years before educators began touting the “Mozart effect,” she decided that learning an instrument “does amazing things” for young brains. “Kids learn to focus–it’s like exercise for your mind,” she says now.
As a military wife stationed in Greece in the 1970′s, she offered violin lessons to local schoolchildren. Then, in 1980, she and her husband separated, and Guaspari decided to put her musical theories to the test. Armed with 50 violins and accompanied by her two small sons, she headed for one of the roughest neighborhoods in America, where she proceeded to talk her way past skeptical principals and set up violin classes in three bare-bones schools.
There were many obstacles in Harlem, but Guaspari barreled right past them. When the school board made funding cuts that eliminated music classes–and her job–in 1991, she created a nonprofit group to fund her program. Virtuosos including Isaac Stern offered to help, and, two years later, she led 14 world-class violinists in a benefit concert with her students at Carnegie Hall. That event provides the stirring, three-hankie climax to Music of the Heart.
With her two sons in college, Guaspari lives with daughter Sophia, 9, whom she adopted in 1991, in a Harlem town house. “I feel committed to my neighborhood and to these children–it’s wonderful to develop their talent,” she says. Now Guaspari wants to train new teachers so she can expand her program. And maybe grab a little private time for long-neglected pleasures–like playing her own violin.
Just north of Manhattan, Peter Pennoyer and Katie Ridder put their singular design talents to work–this time, on a house for themselves.
The couple themselves.
It began, as so many domestic adjustments do, with a baby. “More room, we needed more room,” Katie Ridder says, laughing, as she tries to coax her daughter, Jane Pennoyer, from behind her slim, trousered legs. Ridder is an accomplished interior decorator with a gamine bob and Katharine Hepburn cheekbones, whose second child, Tony, is sleeping upstairs in his crib. A cherub who strongly resembles his father, the architect Peter Pennoyer, Tony is oblivious to his big sister’s charming pout–and to his importance in his parents’ decision to abandon the cocktail-shaker life of Manhattan’s Upper West Side for the serenity of Bronxville, a turn-of-the-century village just fifteen miles north of New York City.
“The apartment in the city was big enough for us and Jane, but with Tony on the way, we imagined that space would start to get tight,” Ridder says. The solution, of course, was more square footage.
Today, the dashing young Pennoyer family–including Tam-Tam and Charlie, two longhair dachshunds–live in a four-bedroom house that is easily the quirkiest in Bronxville. A little paradise of rambling houses and curvy treelined streets, the village was incorporated in 1898 as one of America’s first planned communities, with all the Dutch Colonials, Jazz Age Tudors and storybook Victorians that pastoral description implies. The Pennoyer place, however, has a distinct swashbuckling charm. Perched on a small, elevated lot and reached from the street by a broad double staircase, the L-shaped Mediterranean-style villa dominates its conservative neighbors like a flamenco dancer at a board meeting. Clusters of purple wisteria drip from the wooden pergola in front. Arched stained-glass windows give the dining room wing the look of a mislaid chapel. And stucco walls, studded with pictorial tiles, are painted a lip-puckering shade of lemon yellow.
“If you think it’s bright now, you should have seen it before we brushed on the Benjamin Moore,” says Peter Pennoyer, a conspiratorial grin splitting his boyish, bespectacled face. “When we saw it for the first time, the house was turquoise with white trim.” He pauses for a moment to let that chromatic scenario sink in. Then, doling out his words slowly, and with a wicked waggle of his eyebrows, he adds, “And the interiors were pink and powder blue.”
In short, every room looked to be straight out of a John Waters double feature, from the pastel carpeting to the textured plaster walls seemingly swirled with someone’s agitated fingertips. Then there was the problem of the swimming pool, which, inexplicably, was installed beside the front door in full view of passersby.”So private,” Ridder notes wryly, her blue eyes rolling. The pool has since been filled in. There also was (and still is) a slimy masonry grotto, which may meet the same fate–the family has yet to decide. As for the previous owner, “She wore a different colored fur stole every time we met her,” Pennoyer says.”The combined effect of all this was that Katie always left the house giggling.”
Luckily, the pair’s combined talents overcame the obstacles.
Though Pennoyer modestly calls himself “just an old fogy,” the 40-year-old great-great-grandson of the Victorian financier J. Pierpont Morgan is one of America’s leading young neoclassicist architects, noted for his sensitive interpretations of historic structures. A current project is one of ancestor Morgan’s old haunts: the luncheon room of the New York Stock Exchange, which Pennoyer is revamping in conjunction with the young New York decorator Thomas Jayne.
Not that Pennoyer was born kneeling at the altar of the Doric order. “The first building I ever drew as a kid was Lever House,” he admits, referring to the landmark glassbox office building that Skidmore, Owings & Merrill erected on Park Avenue in 1952. “I was in seventh grade then, but I got all that modernism nonsense out of my system by high school.” Today Pennoyer prefers to dwell on the sculptural promises of neoclassicism–its stylish vocabulary, rationalism, generosity of spirit, timelessness. “Have you ever seen a neoclassical building that didn’t look fantastic the older it got, the more worn and loved?” he asks. “Modern buildings can’t do that. They demand high maintenance to keep up their good looks.” One of Pennoyer’s recently completed projects is a shingled folly of a house on Shelter Island, New York, part lighthouse, part temple. One hundred years from now–200–it will probably look as soulful as Monticello.
Ridder, Michigan-born and California-bred, designs interiors in a zesty bohemian style that is the casual yin to her husband’s more formal yang. Though publishing is in her blood (her father is CEO of Knight-Ridder, the newspaper chain founded by her great-grandfather), she began her own print career”toting boxes and packing up props” for the decorating editor of House & Garden. After graduating to an editor’s slot at House Beautiful, Ridder eventually left magazines to run an eponymous decorating shop on the Upper East Side. Opened in 1989, a year after she and Pennoyer were married, Katie Ridder Home Furnishings was a popular Lexington Avenue souk, bristling with Levantine trinkets, Turkish tiles, funky star-shaped chandeliers and glimmering jewel-toned fabrics fit for a doge. “We went to Venice on our honeymoon–” Ridder begins, and her husband breaks in:”–and she never got over it.”
The wares that Ridder brought back from buying trips to exotic locales–Istanbul, Madrid, Hong Kong and, yes, Venice–were so intriguing they found their way from the shop into all the top magazines. Though her business proved a huge success, motherhood eventually took precedence.”I couldn’t do both,” Ridder says unapologetically. “I wanted children, and I wanted to raise them myself.” So she closed the store in 1994, a couple of years after Jane’s birth. Tony’s arrival six months later put Ridder’s return to the working world on long-term hold.
“I don’t really miss the shop,” Ridder says,”because I don’t have the time to think about it.” Her mornings are now spent with the children; while they’re napping, she works on a collection of occasional tables and lighting that will get her full attention “after the kids are both in school.” To keep her aesthetic sense limber, she spends three afternoons a week at her husband’s office, joining him on selected projects as a decorator–to his immense relief.
“I lack, at some level, Katie’s sense of interior design,” Pennoyer says. “A year ago I did the architecture for an apartment on Fifth Avenue. I paneled the walls in exotic checkerboards, I put gold leaf on the ceiling, and everything was really exciting–and then I couldn’t figure out how to deal with the furniture. Katie came in and knew that the formal French dining chairs needed a modern table, all that sort of stuff. She definitely pulled me out of that one.” His wife demurs: “I can’t do chintz, I can’t do neoclassical, I can’t do modern. Decorators are supposed to be versatile–but all I can do is me.”
As decorative styles go, Ridder’s modest “me” is pretty entrancing. It’s a loose-limbed, aristocratically adventuresome aesthetic, and at the family’s Bronxville house it takes a stance that might be described as two parts Kasbah, one part Crayola. In the entrance hall, 1920s sconces dripping with crystal beads illuminate a pair of bamboo armchairs against tart, citrus-colored walls. There’s not a brocade or damask in sight, only silky Turkish fabrics, some that Ridder had hand-blocked with silver patterns. At the windows, boldly striped curtains drape magisterially onto bare tile floors. Perversely, the couple’s best antiques, an American Queen Anne highboy and a Chippendale slant-front desk, are stashed up in their daughter’s bedroom.”God only knows what will happen to them when Jane gets old enough to understand what decals are,” Pennoyer says.
The expansive first-floor dining room was once a solarium with a splashing, Alhambresque fountain.”We got rid of that, pronto,” says Ridder, who wanted a more practical space. It now features a set of regal 1930s dining chairs upholstered in grape-colored velvet and piped in lemon yellow. In the adjacent living room, a dainty French-style cane armchair shares the space with a wooden coffee table the size of a buckboard and a French Directoire fainting couch given to the couple as a wedding gift. The library’s formal dark paneling has been punctuated with dozens of lively gold-leaf stars from Ridder’s former shop. And instead of serried ranks of precious bibelots, a vitrine holds a jumble of personal flotsam: a hexagonal glass tumbler the couple bought on their honeymoon in Venice, pink seashells from a Florida vacation and a stamp-size box whose promisingly exotic Arabic inscription translates, disappointingly, as nothing more than “Have a nice day.”
The Doorhandle is the handshake of the building,” writes Finnish architect Juhani Pallasmaa in The Eyes of the Skin: Architecture and the Senses. “The tactile sense connects us with time and tradition; through impressions of touch we shake the hands of countless generations.”
A gorgeous example of Finnish Archtecture.
As I read this short, provocative plea for an architecture that has more than visual allure, I was drawn back to Finland and Japan – countries in which buildings and objects take their cues from nature. Centuries of isolation, poverty, and climatic extremes have shaped their respective cultures, in which respect for materials and nature has survived the shift to urbanism and high technology. In country cottage or city apartment, the rough boards of a sauna or soaking tub and the fragrance of steam and heated wood link the ritual of bathing to forests and hot springs. Western-style houses in Japan often have a tatami room, where one walks on stockinged feet across the soft straw mats and listens to the musical trickle of water from a courtyard fountain. The traditional teahouse and tea bowl, admired for their refined rusticity, have influenced many a modern Japanese interior where rough and smooth surfaces play off each other, and soft lighting is combined with the subtlest tones.
In Finland, where nobody is more than a generation or two away from country living and everyone spends the summer communing with nature, sensory design is the norm. When Pallasmaa speaks of doorhandles as handshakes he refers not just to the ones on historic landmarks, but to those he himself designed for the art museum in Rovaniemi or for his own attic studio in Helsinki. The Finnish designer Antti Nurmesniemi has conceived pylons, subway cars, and coffee pots, but his most enduring achievement is a sauna stool of laminated birch that’s as artless in its horseshoe seat, splayed legs, and unfinished surface as the peasant furniture that inspired it.
Alot of Nurmesniemi’s real inspiration has come from the fact that he has long had difficulty sleeping. In fact, he did not realize until much later in his career that he had a severe case of sleep apnea. So, as a result of a long journey to discover how to stop snoring, a design work began to take a beautiful edge, as it neared his inability to get a restful sleep.
Then there’s Alvar Aalto, whose glass vases undulate and ripple like the Finnish lakes, and whose bent plywood chairs demand a caress. One of Aalto’s most acclaimed buildings is the tiny red-brick civic center near Saynatsalo, in which the buildings are wrapped around a grassy courtyard where light streaks in through a few narrow slits. For a visitor from California, the center initially feels claustrophobic, even oppressive, but Pallasmaa has a different perspective: “The dark womb of the council chamber recreates a mystical and mythological sense of community; darkness strengthens the power of the spoken word.” Other Finns have likened the Saynatsalo civic center to a sauna – where much of the country’s business is indeed transacted. By contrast, the Lutheran churches of Aalto and his spiritual heir, Juha Leiviska, are soaring, white volumes, flooded with heavenly light. The contrast between the gravitas of the council chamber and the cheerful accessibility of religion is deliberate and expressive of the culture.
“Sight is the sense of the solitary observer,” writes Pallasmaa, “whereas hearing creates a sense of connection and solidarity…Sound reverberating from surrounding walls puts us in direct interaction with space [and] we stroke the boundaries of space with our ears.” Who hasn’t had this experience in a great cathedral or concert hall, or suffered acoustic overload in a hard-surfaced restaurant where the din of other diners makes conversation impossible? Increasingly, we are denied the choice between sound and silence; recorded music is piped into every public space. “Our ears have been blinded,” laments Pallasmaa, who considers architecture to be “the art of petrified silence.”
“Modernist design has housed the intellect and the eye, but it has left the body and the other senses, as well as our memories and dreams, homeless.” Pallasmaa’s words leap beyond Finnish architecture to illuminate the difference between the soon-to-open new national libraries of Britain and France. Dominique Perrault’s Tres Grand Bibliotheque attempts to create a defining landmark for the desolate eastern edge of Paris, and like so many other monuments, from Versailles to the Grande Arche de la Defense, it strives to awe. Four 300-foot glass towers, designed to resemble open books, frame a stepped podium and sunken plaza, within which are buried reading rooms and silolike circulation areas. Cerebral and overpowering, outside and in, it seems out of scale with city and with its users.
But Colin St. John Wilson’s new British Library is warm and welcoming; it deserves to become one of London’s best-loved buildings. Its plain red-brick facades, a sympathetic foil to the Victorian exuberance of St. Pancras Station hotel, draw you inside to a succession of superbly crafted exhibit and study spaces. Like Pallasmaa’s door handles, the massive oak doors with their leather-wrapped handrails reach out to be touched, and the architecture offers the same sensory pleasure as a finely bound book.
Most designers agree with Kimberly Overton, a senior designer at Leo A. Daly in Omaha, that “to increase profit and dollars, it is necessary to pay attention to employees,” but, says Frank, “Very few clients are interested for the right reasons. The right reasons are productivity, work flow, happiness factors, but the bottom line is still real estate. That’s the sad part of it. As an immediate solution for facilities groups charged with saving money, alternative offices can save as much as 20 percent on real estate.” With real estate accounting for around five percent of a corporation’s office expenses, compared to 60 percent for personnel, Scott Wyatt, CEO at NBBJ in Seattle, calls such strategies “foolish economic sense.” He concedes, “It’s hard for CEOs to think long-term with shareholder pressure for next-quarter earnings, for what looks good on Wall Street. The late ’90s bull market, however, brought some relief from shareholder capitalism; they’re fat and happy with money now, and allowing CEOs to do their jobs, which is to create good long-term value.”
A soon-to-be-built jobs center in LA designed by Leo A Daly.
The projects that excite many designers are those that combine a thorough analysis of how work gets accomplished with a plan to make that process run with optimal smoothness. For instance, offices for computer companies are among the most intriguing being done today. Shay reports, “The creation of hardware and software right now is the most exciting and vicious business in the world. A new product takes 18 months from concept to obsolescence, and you need a new product to kill your old product before the competition does it.” A creative team can include mechanical, electrical, chemical and software engineers. “These people are like mad inventors. They have little shops in their cubicles, like Home Improvement’s Tim Allen, with soldering irons and hammers to build mockups.”
And they all need to brainstorm closely with programmers, who, as it happens, need almost total silence. Teams can mushroom overnight from two to up to sixty members and collapse suddenly at manufacturing time, with almost everyone assigned immediately to other products. At one client facility, the most brilliant and creative complained during an annual survey that they just wanted to be able to move on without spending three days — maybe four times a year — packing and unpacking so that systems partitions could be demounted and reinstalled elsewhere. The new design rolls power-equipped furniture into eight-by-ten-ft. “parking spaces” enclosed by permanent partitions, where the engineer’s simply plug in and get to work. The space plan involves pie-shaped wedges, noisier in the narrow segments, quieter at perimeters, and beyond, some silent rooms where programmers can temporarily retreat; these are designed so that no one will be tempted to camp out permanently. Shay’s ideal is a square footprint that can be laid out like an Italian town, with the noisy segment of each wedge pointed towards the piazza, but she has managed to use curved circulation in long narrow spaces to achieve much the same effect. Overton reports that in one 25,000-sq.-ft. Daly project, “168 people make a dull murmur” because the existing mechanical system supplies white noise. “It’s very common in a lot of office buildings,” she says.
What works in one industry company — or company, or even department — might well backfire in another. The ability to watch and hear one another go berserk seems to help stocks and bonds traders maintain an adrenaline high, and, according to Geoffrey Brown, a partner at Dyer/Brown & Associates in Boston, billing and payroll people constantly need to check with each other. Teamwork design can be a marketing strategy, as in the insurance industry, where Frank sees a trend towards cross-departmental teams as a means of assuring large accounts that their data are under control in one definable space. Cook, who claims he has procedures to identify the appropriate work environments for each job function but is “not giving it away to the competition,” says eavesdropping over low partitions may be ideal in real estate offices “so the baby brokers can learn from the experienced ones,” but as Wyatt points out, “Lawyers need both privacy and perceived privacy.”
Over the last 10 years, Frank notes, “Private offices in law firms have gotten smaller, from the biggest rainmakers down to the associate level. The profession has been attacked on fees, has become more bottom-line realistic, and has recognized the need to be low key. Partners are down from 350 sq. ft. to 250 sq. ft., first- and second-year associates are doubling up, tight space is becoming the culture. But I don’t see the door going away. Competing for the best out of school, the office with door is a recruiting tool. With young lawyers now online and networked, the library is no longer the recruiting showcase.”
The door is also an issue in publishing, where writers and editors seem willing to sacrifice almost anything for a modicum of silence. Because computer technology hasn’t changed the basic concentration needed to obtain and organize material for publication, Frank has a feeling that the private office is going to prevail on Mancini-Duffy’s current publishing jobs. A private office can shrink down to 7 1/2 by 10 ft., according to Kathy Rogers, principal of interior design services at Sverdrup in St. Louis, “but it can’t just be a cell with a plastic counter. We go to great lengths to make little offices wonderful, with direct/indirect pendants and glass sidelights with etched patterns to give a tactile and aesthetic quality.”
Telecommuting, Frank believes, is cost-efficient only when free-lancers work exclusively off-site; staff people who occasionally or regularly telecommute from home still need to maintain their own spaces with their own materials in the office. Overton adds that some employees as web as employers continue to believe that “if you are out of the office you are not doing anything.” It can’t help that in two recent television ads promoting telecommuting equipment, a man working on a ski slope is courting a case of condensation equal to pouring a cup of liquid into his computer, and a woman breaks a face-to-face appointment with a client in order to go to the beach where she conducts business while one child is yelling a foot away from the cell phone and the other is dancing around the edge of the water unsupervised.
Still, Margo Jones, director of interiors at Heery International in Atlanta, a firm where designing home offices for on-staff telecommuters is on the rise, believes this alternative concept can apply to any job function whose results can be clearly defined, including accounting, customer service and research and analysis. Telecommuting may not be appropriate for marketing or for members of teams who need instant feedback before moving on to the next step, although it could work for the latter if all members were networked into virtual chatrooms. One of the key ingredients for a telecommuter’s home office, she says, is a work environment that reinforces the employee’s connection to the corporation, whether that involves an exact duplication of a headquarters work station or a streamlined, more residential version, complete with appropriate ergonomic and lighting elements. Jones says the installation should carry the corporate message, “You are our employee. We care about you and are investing in you by putting all this in your home.”
A recent award winner by Heery.
Frank reports that proposals for collaborative or informal gathering spaces receive an incredulous look from publishing clients, but in most industries, management enthusiastically embraces coffee bars, war rooms and other spaces where people can accidentally or purposely rub shoulders and trade ideas. Actually getting people to use those spaces is another matter. “They look pretty in magazines,” says Shay, “and they are empty.” Their best chances of being used may be in companies where two people share an office at the same time, and, as in what Shay calls the old college-roommate syndrome, the one with the visitors has to go to a cafeteria or lounge to talk. In companies where everyone has a laptop computer, the more teleports a group space has, the higher the chance it will be used, if only initially by people looking for privacy. Wyatt believes that conference rooms should be designed to be “the most fun places to be” and that as many group activities as possible should be in plain view so that when even the most introverted loner goes from his lair to the lavatory, he’ll “see things happening.”
Most designers agree that hoteling works only when people like auditors and management consultants 95 percent of their time on their clients’ premises, but Overton points out that sales people have never sat in their offices all day. “They check messages on Monday morning, write up some materials, send them out — what do you do with their real estate the rest of the week? When you fly around the country, the planes are full. That’s how many offices are empty.” According to Rogers, “Any office has people who are out a lot, selling and servicing. You literally kick them out and don’t want them to come back.”
When New York City’s three-year-old flagship Warner Bros. Studio Store was transformed from a three-story, 30,000-square-foot specialty shop to a nine-story, 75,000-square-foot “retail entertainment experience,” a key challenge for the designers – Kenneth E. Nisch, chairman of Southfield, Michigan-based Jon Greenberg & Associates, and the Warner Bros. creative team – was to find a balance between fun and glamour. “The issue was how to be big, but not institutional; how to maintain continuity without sameness. By focusing on creating a tasteful, witty, and entertaining environment for both children and adults, we meet customers’ expectations,” Nisch explains. “Our motto became ‘look like Armani, act like Bugs Bunny.’”
The store says it all.
The ground floor is now a staging area for ever-changing theatrical and product launches, which keep it constantly fresh for repeat customers. This lobbylike area is dominated by a floor-to-ceiling, 24-screen video wall, and five media columns fitted with video monitors. One of the most impressive additions is a wall sculpture that rises vertically through five stories in the otherwise wasted space between the escalators and a perimeter wall. Called Looney Tunes and Friends Meet New York, the sculpture reproduces famous city landmarks inhabited by cartoon characters, with the buildings canting out from the wall as much as seven feet toward the escalators.
The other major change to the original facility is on the third floor, where the ceiling at the front has been cut away so that the upper level forms the bridge of a tour boat, with Bugs Bunny at the helm. Looming over the space is an enormous bust of Bugs as the Statue of Liberty. In the housewares department, also on three, is a domed ceiling ten feet in diameter, with a mural of Superman flying through the clouds and a mosaic of the Warner Bros. logo on the floor beneath. The fourth floor is devoted to customer services: coat check, personal shoppers’ offices, telephones, a self-service post office, and ATMs.
The most sophisticated of the new spaces is the fifth floor, where a palette of elegant neutrals and blacks combined with stainless steel and light woods sets a refined tone for the Gallery and the Moving Picture Cafe. Animation art is presented in a series of alcoves, and illuminated white-glass display cases six feet in diameter hold fine jewelry, gifts, and collectibles. The cafe has large black-and-white photos of Warner Bros. movie stars, and a four-foot-diameter zoetrope showing Looney Tunes animations.
The sixth floor, home of the Wacky Acme Labs, is the most theatrical space – and wacky it is, filled with a variety of hands-on, interactive games based on “science” experiments such as making twisters from water, steam, and snow. At the center, a funnel-shaped “plasma machine” rises two stories through the cut-away ceiling, with rows of screens around the base that crackle with electricity when touched.
The seventh floor houses additional interactive games and the ticket booth for the Toshiba 3-D Experience, a 74-seat movie theater on the eighth floor, where the lobby curves along 3-D displays of futuristic technology being developed by Toshiba. The theater, showing the first computer-animated 3-D Looney Tunes cartoon, has a plush, midnight-blue interior, with a star-patterned carpet mirroring some of the lobby detailing. The ninth floor is used for private functions. It is sleekly finished with a black granite floor and leather furniture, and offers a spectacular view of Fifth Avenue.