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January 30, 2013 / Robert Ross

the color of possibility

white on white on white kitchen

white on white on white kitchen

Color has always trended. From year to year the palette of clothing and interior design lurches this way and that in a seemingly random way. You can clock the shifts with the seasons at your neighborhood Target or Pier 1. The last year or so I’ve noticed the overbearing emergence of a new trend…..white. It is everywhere. In the glossy magazines, the rooms are filled with white furniture. Clients have arrived wanting white marble counter tops on white cabinets with white back splashes to create white kitchens.

Even one of my favorite Blog reads, Jody Brown has picked up on the trend with a recent post on his page featuring the many whites available to architects! To be fair, he also decrees that all architects wear black. It’s about the angst!


I have to wonder why white? Why now? Color always conveys meaning and emotion. The calming influence of blues, the use of greens to symbolize ecological values or the dual nature of yellow representing both caution and happiness. White though? White typically represents purity, cleanliness and sterility. In some cultures, it is the color of perfection, in others death!

Depending on your point of view , white is either the complete absence of color or the visual blending of them all. White light can be broken into a rainbow when shot through a prism. White can represent purity or cleanliness. It also represents the opportunity of a blank paper or canvas. It can even represent a reboot as in fresh beginnings.

In architecture, white is frequently used for its capacity to reveal form. The contrast between black and white is manipulated in architecture to reveal form through shadows. Contemporary Architects are stereotypically said to only recognize white, black and grey as colors. Some of this has been the popular response to the work of iconic designers like Richard Meier. The truth is that most of use appreciate and rely on the rich and varied natural textures and colors inherent in the materials we select to create our works.

Though I can appreciate the crispness of white, the over abundant and inappropriate use of it is driving me nuts. Let’s talk about the current rage for white marble counters in kitchens. This is one of the most inappropriate uses for a material I can think of! White marble stains….easily!  Red wine, spaghetti sauce and it is a goner. Yes, you can seal it, but I have never had a client follow up on the recommended resealing. The polished surface will be permanently etched with vinegar or lemon juice. Vinegar is frequently used by the trade to cut the polish and create a honed sample. Another issue with marble, white or otherwise, is that it is a soft stone. It is guaranteed to scratch and show wear and tear. Not something you want to encounter in a surface that requires durability! This is why granite and the man made quartz products have become such popular counter choices.

All white living room

All white living room. This was an interior designers infliction on the living room of a home I designed.

Taken shortly after move in. White balanced by color!
Taken shortly after original move in. White balanced by color! Trim and other details enhanced by subtle shift of wall tones.

White furniture looks great……….as long as it is rarely never used.  Normal use will add a patina to the fabric that will rapidly make it look dingy. Think of a crisp blanket of snow…… after a week. I’m guessing that most of my clients would find this reality undesirable.

This accretion of this patina will be accelerated in an environment that hosts anyone under the age of 30, a dog, or most destructive of all – a toddler with a chocolate bar or sharpie!  In an age of everyone using i-pads and tablets, I guess it is possible that people forget the effects that newsprint can have on fabric.

One other little thing, white yellows over time.

Don’t get me wrong, I love and appreciate the look of those images too! That is what they are after all images. Images that come with a promise of a lifestyle attached. The reality is vastly different. Perhaps that is why there is such a resurgence in the use of white at this particular point in time. We all need the optimism and opportunity inherent in  a blank canvas!

My prediction for next year….COLOR!

August 30, 2012 / Robert Ross

the next wave……….

It seems every time you turn around there is another social media platform that becomes an indispensable marketing tool (AKA time sink) for business. The newest rage is pinterest. Pinterest is a virtual scrapbooking system. This easy system allows the user to create and maintain individual “boards” on topics of their choice. by letting users easily save or “pin” images and items from across the web into a single place, the “board”.

Originally, used by hobbyists to maintain project ideas, it has exploded in popularity to become the 3rd largest social medium platform in use today. As such it has caught the eye of a those in the creative fields. They are after all used to working with collections of images and items to create something new.

As part of my new marketing plan I have opted in and am now a huge fan. Unlike facebook, it is simple to keep a collection of projects and ideas easily accessible for yourself and others.  You can search for ideas and products and create a board tailored to your whims. For myself, I am creating boards for projects that I want to share and give my clients and friends a glimpse into what makes me tick! Here is a screenshot of my current page.  To see the full page click here .

Each board contains images of individual projects that I can reorder as the library grows. I’ve created other boards for ideas and are they are inspirational in nature. After the images were loaded and everything was in place, it amazed me that the projects and images, though spanning almost a decade in time, maintained a consistency that I was not aware of.

Currently I don’t think it will replace facebook for constant contact, but it will certainly augment and enhance my marketing efforts. My website, facebook and now pinterest form a terrific trio for internet marketing. Catch the wave!

March 15, 2012 / Robert Ross


Last fall purchased an electronic reader. A nook color from Barnes and Noble. I had resisted for a while, after all, you can’t turn the pages. One of the reasons (justifications/rationalizations) was it might be a novel way to engage the kids with reading. In reality, I decided I just wanted it! Isn’t that enough?

For some reason, this process got me ruminating about what it was about reading that I really enjoyed. The storyline that transports you to another world or takes you on an adventure was first level thinking. The chance to learn about things outside my usual path, or along it for that matter, was another.  When you have a 9 year old who seems to resist reading, you have these thoughts. This started me thinking about why? And for that matter, why didn’t I read as much as I used to. Even in college with a full load I somehow managed to find some time to unwind with a book.

Then reality hit. The TV, the computer, smartphones, Facebook, blogs, and a myriad of other intrusions into our daily lives that didn’t exist when I was learning to read.  The 24 hour cartoon/news channels, computer games, wii, x-box, nintendo DS. On demand programming! All of these distract and somehow give us permission to buy into the myth of multitasking. And it is a myth.

When I was young I read ….a lot. I remember being able to sit in a room full of family with the TV going and intensely reading a book. I had the capacity to tune everything out and focus specifically on the storyline held in hand,  oblivious to everything around me. My mind was fully engaged with the task of visualizing what I was reading. Reading is perhaps the best training tool for the brain. It allows you to develop your capacity to focus. Video game marketers will claim that for their products as well, but I would argue that the creative effort of taking an author’s words and mentally “seeing” the story a much greater exercise.

Today I have friends and colleagues who consider multiple screens at their workstation a necessity. Personally I can’t direct my eyes …or my brain….at more than one at a time! On the other hand, they seem to become unglued if the connection to any one of 6  tasks is lost! Perhaps the greatest luxury in this age of over connectedness is intentionally choosing to turn it off!  No one wants to spend time with someone who is constantly checking their email, or interrupting a real life conversation by texting, tweeting or taking a phone call. All of the instant connection has thrown civility out the window. People are becoming incapable of communicating in other than soundbites or thought blasts of 140 characters or less. A recent phone service ad from Sprint has capitalized on this phenomenon by having a woman breaking up with her date by texting, emailing and then calling him-  they are sitting at the same table. The phone service is advertising free text messaging!

I don’t often seem to be able to reach that level of self engagement anymore. Too many life distractions! There are still moments at work where I become so immersed in a design challenge or in making a detail work that I manage to hit that intensely focused state. It is simultaneously draining and reinvigorating. Time stops. Perhaps the most disquieting thing about a video world is that the act of imagination is removed. We are no longer required to actively engage those creative portions of our brains. It has been done for us. I wonder what it means for the future that the visual has replaced the intellectual.

Back to the nook. I finally finished up some reading I was doing in traditional books and able to actually start using it. So far, I like it. It allows you to “carry” hundreds of books in the space of one. Because it is a lit screen, I’m not dependent on the light level in the room to use it. This is great for when the kids are watching a show with dim lighting and I want to be with them, but not necessarily watch the umpteenth viewing of the current favorite.  I also downloaded a couple of games to make trips to the doctor easier. The downsides are the battery runs down and unlike a “real book”, you can’t just leave it lying on the seat of your car. After all, I don’t think many thieves want to steal a book! I also wouldn’t read it in a bath, but who has time for a bath! And I still find traditional books satisfying. While I don’t think it will replace my library altogether, it will prevent  reduce the piling up of paperbacks

Has it helped the 9 year old? The jury is still out, but there is still time.

Photo from ihtatho’s photostream from Flickr and is used under the creative commons license

February 14, 2012 / Robert Ross

Mind Expansion

Contemporary Design Titles

Right before Christmas a friend of mine working for the local office of a national design magazine called to tell me the office was closing. The staff had been given leave to take the books from the library if they desired and she wanted to know if I was interested. Was I ever! Libraries of design magazines are filled with books. Some purchased for research, some sent in straight from the publisher or author in hopes of a positive mention or review that will boost sales.

In some ways, a lot of Architects never seem to progress past the age of 4. Our love of picture books is a common manifestation of this. While our friends busily scrutinized National Geographic Magazines for “pornographic” glimpses of aboriginal natives (the original “Where’s Waldo”), Architects make up the tribe more captivated by the articles featuring ruined Aztec temples or the excavations of North African Roman cities. I remember an entire summer of visiting my Grandmother and studying the images of Ramses when the Egyptians were moving the temples at Abu Simbel to make way for the Aswan Dam. I must have read that issue of the magazine a hundred times because I can still bring the images to mind. And that is the true beauty of photo books for those of us with visual memory!

Renovation Titles

Architectural books tend to be over-sized and filled with gloriously photographed buildings. We can pore over them repeatedly and still find something new. Sometimes we look at the photos for inspiration, but then there are those special instances when you find something out of place, something that may have slipped past the editor. One of my favorite finds was the green garden hose snaking out from under a hedge framing a house in a major Richard Meier monograph! It caught my eye simply be being so obviously out of place against the simple and elegant backdrop of the architecture.

The hose is under the hedge!

Still, it is in the simple act of deliberately looking at the photographs and trying to glimpse the thought process behind the design that provides me with the most pleasure. It also provides an amazing amount of information. Frequently, I ask clients to pull photographs of what they like or don’t like to help start a project. It is a very useful tool to get a sense of the client and what they like. What colors, styles, and moods do they consistently respond to. If the clients are a couple, this exercise often points out the tensions that exist in any relationship! is the new online tool for this.  While it still doesn’t have the impact of spreading photos out on a table and discerning what it is that the client responds to, it does have the benefit of allowing each half of a household the opportunity to create their own visual wish list. Many times the pictures run counter to what they verbally profess. With pictures there is little room for argument or semantic misinterpretation!

Green Titles

Little did she know at the time, but my friend unwittingly assisted me in continuing last years resolution to do more with less! In trying to find shelf space for the 4 boxes of volumes she dropped off, I was forced to confront the reality that my shelves were filled. The books sat in several piles for a month until I finally realized that I had no reason to keep the multi-volume 2004 set of Sweet’s Catalog files. For those who don’t know, Sweet’s is the architectural equivalent of Encyclopedia Britannica for manufacturer’s product information. An anachronism in the age of the  internet and outdated before it was bound and mailed! The Sweets was relegated to the recycle bin. Instant shelf space and a perfect swap!

I go back to books again and again and have a broad library that has been building since  high school. The new volumes complemented my collection perfectly and actually filled a few gaps! The titles included individual retrospectives, reference type style manuals, renovation ideas and sources, stylistic anthologies and energy conservation! She even managed to include a volume on everyone’s favorite- Fallingwater.  That is something special to reconsider now that the house is celebrating it’s 75th year. I found this computerized “reconstruction” that allows us to recognize the genius of Wright’s work in a way you can’t envision in person. Definitely worth the 4 minutes of time.

I would like to personally and publicly thank my dear friend Linda for a magnificent gift and one I will treasure forever! If anyone is ever stumped for the perfect gift for an architect or designer, consider a book! They truly are the gifts that keep giving.

November 6, 2011 / Robert Ross

The Artist’s Eye

Karen in her Studio

I first met Karen Schwartz at a job site on a cold January afternoon.  She and her husband were contemplating a renovation to their home in Atlanta and something about the progress of a project of mine that she drove past everyday had intrigued her. Very happily, I won the commission and a successful collaboration was begun.

From the beginning she said she wanted her home to be filled with light. Only after her home was well into construction did I discover the true reason behind this passionate desire for natural light. The woman I knew as a successful psychologist, was an extremely talented yet “closeted” painter! I was exposed to this quite accidentally as she delivered a double portrait she had done of the interior designer and her husband during a meeting. As soon as I saw it I was actively engaged and wanted to see more.

Barack Obama "Obama II" Mixed media on paper 11 x 15 inches

Karen is a natural artist.  This means that without a lot of formal training, she has an incredible innate capacity to see and convey the essence of an individual without being literal. Even more remarkably she accomplishes this while avoiding a slip into caricature. It also means she is not bound by the conventions of teaching but has found her expression through a natural exploration of light and color in space. As you view her work, you step into and become part of an ongoing conversation. Her subject matter ranges from friends and family to public figures from the world of art and politics. Working primarily from photographs, she is somehow able to reveal the person behind the public mask.

Man in Menerbes Mixed media on canvas 22 x 52 inches

As an artist Karen believes a painting begins well before the first media is selected. The earliest memory she attributes  to “painting” is daydreaming in seventh grade. It was the late 1960’s and she would spend her class time mentally altering the patterns and colors of the brilliantly colored shirts she saw on the students around her.  She discovered that she could draw in 9th grade from an art teacher who simply told her to draw and turned her loose. There was not a lot of “how to” in that class.

"Cafe Gossip" Mixed media on canvas 36 x 52 inches

She went on to take some photography and art classes in college.  At the time she considered a double major in art and psychology. In the end psychology won out. Her life trajectory continued on through marriage, practice and children. During that time she maintained her eye through photography. It wasn’t until she and her daughters were spending the weekend with an artist friend that she began to draw again. That is where the two passions of her life began to converge.

True to her 9th grade art teacher’s instruction Karen started to paint. She didn’t start with apples, she started with portraits- one of the most difficult things to do successfully. It is one thing to document a moment in time, it is quite another to capture the pause for thought between sentences. This is where everything comes together for her. Karen’s gift is her ability to observe. It is the reason she is a successful psychologist. It is what makes her paintings so wonderfully accessible.

"Women and Sawhorses" Mixed Media on Canvas 128x85 inches 2011

She recently joined Fine Arts Workshop, a studio led by artist Michael David. This studio was founded specifically for artists who have taken a round about journey to their art. The studio setting encourages them to push their limits while remaining true to their vision with stunning results. For Karen it pushed her into life sized figurative painting. What I find fascinating is that in the larger scale she has unleashed the power and vitality of her smaller scaled portraiture. The new work, executed in a sparer manner, results in an even more immediate and intimate portrayal of her subjects.

It has been a joy to watch her growth over the last decade as she has begun to actively show her work.  From her initial leap into the art scene at the 2003 Biennale Internazionale Dell’ Arte Contemporanea, Florence, Italy to her ongoing collaboration with the Swan Gallery in Serenbe, Karen has used her shows to display her particular viewpoint. Her newest work will be on display at the Bill Lowe Gallery in Atlanta, beginning this Friday, November 11. Opening Reception 6-9.

To discover more of Karen’s work visit her website at

"Dirty Dara" Mixed Media on Canvas 187x85 inches 2011


all photos courtesy of the artist and used with permission.

October 13, 2011 / Robert Ross

urban authenticity

Former Street transformed into pedestrian plaza!

I was having lunch with a interior designer friend of mine the other day. While we were discussing what was going on in our lives and businesses, she brought up her upcoming trip to Serenbe.  For readers not familiar, Serenbe is a planned development south of Atlanta based on new urbanist concepts combined with sustainability. We both commented that while it seemed to be a nice place to visit, it was just that. The reality is that it is merely a superbly marketed suburban enclave that has a definite entry price point. As my friend said “you don’t see the gardeners or cleaning people living there”. Let alone the artists who’s mecca the website would like you to believe it is. Its just not an “authentic” experience.

This chance conversation echoed an ongoing conversation I’ve been having with another friend, a self described “urban traveller” and kitchen designer. We have been meeting biweekly for coffee in a shop in Glenwood Park, another new urbanist development in Atlanta. Like Serenbe,  Glenwood Park is a new development combining residential, live/work spaces with a retail district based on an earlier lifestyle pattern. It is an excellent concept, and well executed, but somehow misses the boat. Now entering it’s fifth year, the retail district is still fairly inactive and lacks activity. It has a few restaurants, but no distinctive retail identity. The few spaces that have been leased have been service oriented. Any retail that has attempted to open, quickly fades away. Many of the spaces have never been leased.  It has an over designed, stage set quality to the public spaces that is frequently characteristic of a development planned at once. This quality is also a predictable outcome given the developmental controls that are in place.

Public Bocce Ball court at center of Glenwood Park retail area

In both of these examples, what is missing is the authenticity of a place that has developed naturally over time. Part of this is the result of their both being created as a piece to meet a developer’s vision of what should be.  Contrast this with a center that evolves naturally to meet an actual need. Places that develop over time have their own character. Part of this is due to the fact that there is no single entity in charge of design. Each parcel is an individual reaction to a perceived need. To a large extent this character is created by the individual needs of the owner or user of the space.  On a more subtle level, it is defined by what is created in the “leftover” spaces. Those unique corners where two adjacent and distinct visions don’t quite mesh. The offset stagger of two facades that become a place for a cafe table or pocket garden. Maybe a place for a piece of public art or a simple bench to sit and observe. These are the happy accidents that really define a place. They are where human ingenuity and creativity merge and create something special. In planned developments happy accidents can’t exist, there isn’t any room for them.

Saturday afternoon Glenwood Park Retail District

Juxtaposed against these examples are two others, also in Atlanta. Little 5 Points and Virginia-Highland. Both are historic neighborhood retail centers that once housed everything the surrounding neighborhoods needed. Groceries, movie theaters, drug stores, etc. With the rise of the suburbs and strip center shopping in the 1960’s these neighborhood centers severely declined. An intown renaissance of the surrounding residential neighborhoods combined with a major effort by local business owners enabled both these districts to reemerge as the vibrant areas they are today.

Little 5 Points has become a destination for those seeking out an urban bohemian experience. It is an artsy, edgy enclave of restaurants, shops and live theater. It’s storefronts are vibrant, exuberant and exhilaratingly discordant. It is home to one of Atlanta’s oldest and best Natural Food Groceries. It has actively developed and embraced an alternative and expressive culture, celebrating it to success.  As a result it is busy day and night- without any large scale daytime office or hotel component nearby. It has become a destination in itself.

Another equally popular Atlanta destination, Virginia-Highland, developed as a slightly more upscale but equally vibrant district of restaurants, shops and music venues. It’s street scape is perhaps less exuberant and more “tasteful” than Little 5 Points, but each shop retains it’s individual character expressed through signage and displays. With an increase taste level comes the requisite increase in price point. The striking thing is that these neighborhood centers are within 2 miles of each other and revived almost simultaneously as their surrounding neighborhoods were rediscovered as desirable places to live. They were an organic outgrowth of the surrounding communities.

Liitle 5 Points Shops

Color - storefront material of choice.

Another commonality is that they each developed a clear identity. It was that readily identifiable personality that attracted other like businesses and consumers to explore a previously abandoned infrastructure. They each celebrate individuality and from that celebration emerged a distinctive “place”. Through their renaissance they have introduced several generations of Atlantans to a more traditional and unique retail experience, an authentic experience not replicated in the typical Mall or “planned” development. In a Mall or “planned” development, there are design guidelines or controls in place that reinforce the Mall or Development identity over the individual shop owner.  In most instances the overriding identity is bland and indistinct. The resulting  space is one that has literally been designed to death!

Does this mean I think new urbanism is a failed concept? No, I think it has a great deal of validity. Now that there are several communities that have been designed to those guidelines, perhaps it is time to critically examine what has been built to determine what actually works and what doesn’t. What is necessary is perhaps a fresh look at how those visionary principles can be applied to create a more authentic experience. To my mind that means more emphasis on creating a total human experience and perhaps a little less time on facade design. After all that can and should take care of itself.

All parked up, nowehere to shop- Glenwood Park Saturday

September 11, 2011 / Robert Ross

A lost view

Souvenir brochure and ticket stub

I tend to tuck things a way. I was reorganizing some books and came across a photo album from long ago and far away. Glancing through the pages, I found my self reliving events that had fallen far away from my active memory. One of these memories centered around the Fourth of July weekend of 1989. That weekend found me as a tourist in New York City. It was the trip that forever convinced me that a 3 day  holiday weekend in the summer is the perfect time to visit the city.  It is hot, but much less crowded.

Street view approaching the towers

One of the major goals of that trip was a trip to the top of the World Trade Towers. Say what you might about their design, no one can deny their iconic power. The twin towers soared twice as high as anything else in the city and gave me an appreciation for the effectiveness of simplicity.  They were there.  From the street, they gently shimmered against the sky. From a distance their beveled corners elegantly reflected the sunlight, naturally highlighting their spare forms.

a much younger me and the view!

After an express elevator ride to the top (58 seconds according to the brochure), you entered an exhibit space on the 107th floor before taking your final trip by escalator to the viewing platform above the 110th floor, weather permitting. The day I was there the weather was glorious and the view from the top incredible. You could see for 55 miles. That is what I remember most about the trip. The view from the top of the World.

This country changed the day the towers were lost. Our national optimism that celebrated itself by building such towers vanished. Everything became clouded by a filter of fear. Our view of the world and our position in it was undeniably altered. Ten years later, I think that is what I miss most. The lost view.

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