No pace like home

  • Article by: KIM PALMER , Star Tribune
  • Updated: May 6, 2008 - 1:28 PM

Want to create a home you'll love for years? Take it slow. That's the message of a fledgling design movement that advocates handmade quality over mass-produced quantity.

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“Everything here has a story,” said artist Harriet Bart of her condo. The sculptural door hardware, left, was created by local furniture designer Thomas Oliphant; the “floating” bed was designed by his wife, interior designer Lynn Barnhouse; and the painting and sculpture are the work of local artist Vesna Kittelson.

Photo: Joel Koyama, Star Tribune

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When artist Harriet Bart moved into her downtown condo about 10 years ago, she took her time finding unusual things that fit her lifestyle and minimalist aesthetic.

She and her husband were downsizing, after raising their three children, and they wanted to make the most of their 1,500 square feet. "When you live in a small space, everything matters more," Bart said. "You notice the details."

She gravitated to green materials, including bamboo cabinets with knobs made from broken seashells. When she couldn't find exactly what she wanted, she hired artisans to make pieces for her, such as her honed-granite-and-steel dining table, created by local furniture designer Thomas Oliphant (Tomoco).

"I wanted something that was functional but also artwork, interesting in and of itself," Bart said. "I wanted something that would last forever."

Bart was ahead of her time. Her approach to creating a home now has a name: slow design. It's an outgrowth of the slow-food movement, which emphasizes local ingredients, quality over quantity and socially responsible choices.

"The tag 'slow' is shorthand for better, balanced, more sustainable," said Carl Honoré, the London-based author of "In Praise of Slowness." "It's about using resources in a way that respects the environment -- smaller-scale, local touch, artisan-made -- the opposite of mass production. It's finding the right speed, doing something as well as possible, not as fast as possible."

Slow design is so new that most people have yet to hear of it. Even slow proponents say its definition is still evolving. It may be easier to define what slow design is not: "It's not toxic, and it doesn't exploit people," said Geir Berthelsen, founder of the World Institute of Slowness, based in Norway. "There's transparency around the process."

In Bart's home, for example, nearly every object was made by someone she knows. "Everything here has a story," she said. "I can't imagine not being surrounded by things that are meaningful." Together, they create an environment that makes her feel "peaceful, comfortable, at home."

'Tough sell'

Slow design recently got its own page on the www.slowplanet.com global website, but here in the heartland it's keeping a low profile. You won't find "slow design" practitioners in the local Yellow Pages.

"In our culture, anything slow is a tough sell," said Wynne Yelland, principal with Locus Architecture, Minneapolis.

Most clients want the opposite, agreed interior designer Lynn Barnhouse of Barnhouse Office, who designed Bart's condo and some of its furnishings, including a unique hanging bed. "People keep referring to HGTV programs and 'Extreme Makeover' and thinking that design happens overnight."

But even if the slow label hasn't arrived here yet, its underlying ideology has a strong local presence, according to Tom Fisher, who heads the University of Minnesota's College of Design. "Architects and designers are under such pressure that it's more like super-fast design," he said. "But if you call it sustainable design, green design, participatory design, that is going on locally."

At Locus, for example, "a lot of our work is custom-tailored to the client, and the process tends to take a long time," Yelland said. "Our minimum design time is three months. One month to do the design, and two months to think about it. It's a big investment, and you're going to live in the space for a long time. Decisions shouldn't be made over a glass of wine on a weekend."

Locus also encourages clients to incorporate unique, handcrafted elements -- budget permitting. "It's easier to do at the upper end," Yelland said. "But most of our clients don't have unlimited funds and can't afford to have everything handmade."

If you can't afford a houseful of artisan-made treasures, "follow the Sarah Susanka model: Do it smaller, but do it well," Yelland said. "I encourage people to include a few signature pieces that speak to them."

That's what Heidi Hardner did when she and her husband remodeled their 1917 Craftsman-style house last year. Hardner, who has a passion for art glass, wanted to incorporate wall sconces by local artist Malcolm Potek. "He did them specially for us, with our colors," she said.

Fad or evolution

Although their remodeled interior is contemporary in style, Hardner thinks it's true to the spirit of the Arts and Crafts movement, which celebrated handmade craftsmanship at a time when the Industrial Age and mass production were elbowing that tradition aside.

"I feel we are very much in keeping with that philosophy -- maybe more than if we went to Home Depot and bought a mass-produced light in the Arts and Crafts style," she said.

Her sconces weren't inexpensive, "but it's not beyond what they show you at the light-fixture place," she said. And she enjoys them much more. "We like looking at them and knowing they're Malcolm's."

Will slow design be a fleeting fad or an evolution with staying power? It's too soon to tell. Several local design professionals said they think it will remain a small market niche, limited to relatively affluent customers. And it does require an involved and informed client, Oliphant noted. "You have to enjoy making where you live a project. Some enjoy the process. Others find it completely nerve-wracking."

But Honoré is convinced that slow-design values are already starting to seep into public consciousness and that we're at the beginning of a "culture quake."

"The mainstream trend is still toward speed and disposability," he said. But young people, "the iPod generation," are picking up on it. "They love fast stuff, but they're starting to say it's insane: 'I'm racing through my life instead of living it.'"

Fisher agreed that the design tide is turning in a slower direction. "We're in the middle of a huge transformation in attitude," he said. "We're so materialistic, yet we dispose of the things we have. We can't continue to consume and waste resources on things we're going to throw away."

  • related content

  • How to go slow at home

    Tuesday May 6, 2008

    Want to incorporate some slow design principles into your home? Here are a few suggestions:

  • Architect Wynne Yelland of Locus Architecture created his own Minneapolis home, dubbed “Nowhaus 01,” as a model of sustainable urban design. The home incorporates low-maintenance materials and recycled items, including salvaged billboards. “Your house is one of the few things that can be customized,” Yelland said. “You don’t have to pick what your neighbor picked.” His son Morgan reads a book on the living-room couch.

  • Bill Humphries and Heide Hardner of Minneapolis used an artist friend to create wall sconces in the stairway.

  • Bill Humphrey and Heidi Hardner incorporated custom art-glass sconces by Minneapolis artist Malcolm Potek when they remodeled their home last year.

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