Spotlight: Desai/Chia Architecture
Desai/Chia Architecture sheds some light on their ideas, experimentation, and projects—past and present—in this Q&A.
Sheila Kim-Jamet -- Interior Design, 7/7/2006 11:24:00 AM
Founded in 1995 by Arjun Desai and Katherine Chia, Desai/Chia Architecture takes a multidisciplinary approach toward the built environment that often results in clean designs and an experimental use of materials and forms. In January, we shared a project demonstrative of this—a New York loft in Cooper Square that featured innovative wood slat-and-post bathroom walls. The partners, who both received their Masters of Architecture from Massachusetts Institute of Technology (incidentally, where the two met), never cease to amaze their residential clients with one inventive use of materials and light after another: In their Flower District Loft, etched glass and tinted laser-cut acrylic panels in aluminum doors sport a pill-shape pattern that allows light to flow between private and public areas; the Light box Loft features a system of plywood, anodized aluminum, and acid-etched plastic panels that diffuse lighting, as well as provide acoustical isolation between spaces; and in their Porthole Loft, they created a core box for the kitchen, bathrooms, and mechanical room, using ash wood panels that were perforated with portholes.
The two-person team, with the occasional help of an intern or two, has also designed retail spaces, a day spa, music and photography studios, and a children’s recreation center. Current non-residential work includes headquarters for a non-profit and a restaurant. While the bulk of these and residential projects are in the New York, tri-state area, the firm’s work can also be spotted on the West Coast, as well as internationally, where they are working on a project in Taiwan, and pursuing prospective clients in India. In addition to the architecture practice, Chia teaches a housing studio at New York’s Parsons The New School for Design. “It’s important to nurture the next generation of architects, and allow the students to explore both the theoretical and practical issues in residential architecture,” she explains. We ask the partners more about their personal exploration in the field of architecture and design.
Would you say you have a style?
KC: We’ve never categorized our work based on a particular style. Our designs are the result of a rigorous process that explores the crafting of an environment through constructed relationships between light, materials, and space. Our design process is one of constant refinement and for that we might be seen as taking a minimalist approach.
AD: We work with principles which are derived from the philosophy of Modernism. Specifically, we stress open, continuous, and flexible spaces, maximizing the flow of light, simplicity of form, and the honest use of materials. Decorative and superficial elements tend not to find their way into our designs. We believe that simple and rational design is not particular to Modernism, but is common to traditional and vernacular structures and objects from which we draw inspiration.
The majority of your projects are residential. What do you find most rewarding about working with residential clients?
KC: Our clients are open to new ways of living and experiencing architecture and space. They support the design process and bring unique backgrounds and experiences to the table, which we try to draw from and use as inspiration. When you design someone’s home, you are really shaping their lifestyle as well as their physical environment.
AD: We also enjoy the scale and the attention to detail, where practically every fraction of an inch has to be thought out.
What do you find most challenging about the residential work?
AD: Keeping the design true to clear and simple ideas, as well as to the guiding concepts. Also, working within budgets and giving the clients the most for their money.
KC: Residential work is highly personal for the client. We get involved in every detail of a client’s life and that requires stamina, patience, and an intense level of design from the vision of the overall spatial relationships down to the selection of a door knob. Our intensity about details carries over into other types of projects as well.
How do you find your clients, or how do they find you?
KC: Our clients have come through word of mouth and many find us through books and magazines that publish our work, or through design awards that we have won. One of our residential projects won an American Architecture Award, and the project was exhibited in New York and Los Angeles, so that’s helped as well.
Where do you draw inspiration from?
KC: Art, sculpture, landscape, observations about how light works with various materials and spatial conditions, cultural influences (Arjun is Indian and I’m Chinese-American), and the nature of the client’s program and background.
AD: From simple things: materials and means of fabrication and production, vernacular architecture and design, the way light affects our natural and built environment. Having studied at M.I.T., we are also interested in new technology, especially for our architecture work.
There seems to be a lot of experimentation with glass in your loft projects. What is it that fascinates you about this material?
KC: We like to manipulate glass and its ability to transmit, reflect, and refract light. We are also experimenting with resins and acrylics in the same way. We strive to create luminous environments.
AD: One of the main concerns with our work is maximizing, as well as controlling, the flow of light through a space. The use of glass allows us to explore the delicate balance between openness and the varying degrees of privacy required by a functional program. We try to achieve interesting solutions through the layering of transparent, translucent, and screen-like elements.
What other materials do you enjoy working with?
KC: In general, we are open to working with any material and we try to redefine how it can be used to create a new relationship to the architecture. Currently we are experimenting with resins and epoxies for some of our product design work. We have also been investigating sustainable materials for a new house that we are designing.
AD: As Adolf Loos said, a space must have an emotive quality, and the materials play a large part in defining the look and feel of a space. I prefer materials with which one can have a certain amount of empathy, which have a certain depth of surface and variability in finish.
So you view design and architecture as a laboratory?
AD: Yes, we try to experiment with new ways of using and assembling materials. The experimentation is an important driver for our work and practice—we couldn’t use the same design details again and again.
What are some of your residential project experiments?
AD: In the Flower District Loft, the use of some elements from traditional Indian architecture was important to the client, as well as some reference to the hi-tech industry he works with. The other concern was that the space should be comfortable for a true live-work lifestyle, which includes a lot of entertaining.
KC: We therefore used glass doors with a pill-shape pattern here. Originally, the inspiration came from the traditional Indian Jali screen, which is a stone or wood slab that’s been carved with a pattern. Our client was Indian, and the Jali captured the essence of how the spaces and light would flow through the loft. So we redefined the Jali and introduced a pill-shaped form that references the client’s background in high-tech venture capital—the pattern is similar to the microscopic pattern of information on a CD-ROM. Similarly, for our Porthole Loft, we wanted to create a perforated structure around the windowless bathrooms so that light would filter into the spaces. The portholes are actually large scale perforations in the wood panel system.
Any residential projects that you’re currently working on?
KC: A 5,000-square-foot Hudson River weekend house that is currently being designed for a woman who frequently entertains.
How’s the project progressing?
KC: The design discussion has evolved from a study of the site’s topography, specific river and garden views, seasonal micro-climate conditions, and particular lifestyle needs. The program includes multiple activity areas where the client and her friends can entertain, read, exercise, relax, and cook. The informal nature of these relationships led us to a design that links indoor and outdoor zones in a dynamic yet intimate way.
AD: We buried the house into the cliff to reduce its profile and integrate it into the landscape. Each indoor and outdoor space is closely mapped to the client’s daily rituals and habitual use of space.
What specific design elements are you incorporating then?
KC: A column-and-concrete construction that intersects and overlaps to allow for a combination of open panoramic vistas and tightly-framed apertures. The stone is also woven into the topography in the form of retaining walls, steps, and paving that articulates a courtyard and two terraces. There are deep window boxes embedded in the stone structure. A corner of the living room is cut away to expose one of the most compelling views of the Hudson at its widest point. To moderate sun exposure, operable wood shutters are set within the articulated sleeves of these apertures. Linear skylights wash the walls of the stairwell and bathrooms and rake light along textured surfaces of wood and concrete.
When will this design be finalized?
KC: We are in the process of finalizing the construction documents; the client lives abroad and wants to be around when construction starts, so perhaps next summer.
Have you entered any competitions?
KC: Yes. One was in 2003, sponsored by the University of California at Berkeley’s Environmental Design Program, and it asked for an off-the-grid design for an overnight retreat for 70 hikers.
What did you implement into this design?
KC: In a wilderness setting, architecture should be resonant with the environment to ensure that the inhabitant is engaged with nature. So we used a series of translucent roof canopies to extend the interiors toward the sky. We also designed this to be a pre-fabricated kit of building elements that can be easily and quickly assembled on-site with a small crew of builders.
How did you fare in the competition?
KC: We didn’t win, but it was a great opportunity for us to design a completely sustainable building. We used the project as an opportunity to research the latest technology and best practices in Europe, and we intend to apply this knowledge in future projects.
Do you also design furniture?
KC: Yes. We designed the Torus stool, Torsion table, String Accessories, and 222 Shelves. We were commissioned to design the Torus stool, which is made of thin, curved stainless-steel rods, and Torsion table, which features an undulating stainless-steel tube with glass top, for a residential loft in Cooper Square. The String Accessories were also commissioned for this project. We designed the 222 Shelves for our own home in New York as a prototype that can be mass-produced. Each product uses a minimum amount of material to achieve the functional requirements and express a spatial form that is fluid and timeless. The forms are inspired by function as well as volumetric movement.
AD: These three designs are closely related and result from an exploration of using a one-dimensional element—in this case a steel rod or tube—and the simple metal fabrication process of bending. There was a simplicity, straightforwardness, and beauty in both the process and the result, that we’re pursuing this exploration further.
Are any of your designs being considered by manufacturers for possible mass production?
KC: We’ve been commissioned by a plumbing fixture company to design a series of residential sinks and faucets for a new line they will introduce in 2007. This company has also been interested in mass-producing the String Accessories. We sell our Torus stool directly to clients, but we would be interested in partnering with a manufacturer to mass-produce the piece, as well as for the Torsion table and 222 shelves.
How is the process different between architecture and furniture design?
AD: We approach our architecture and furniture design with the same basic principles and design philosophy. In both, we tend to stress simplicity, functionality, and the correct and inventive use of materials. However, there is one big difference: in our architecture and interior design, form takes a back seat and, in fact, is almost denied to emphasize qualities of space and light, whereas, in our product and furniture design, form and form-making takes on a more prominent role.
Do you enjoy one over the other?
AD: We enjoy both. We’ve done a lot more architecture and now furniture and product design is allowing us to spread our horizons and work in a completely different way—one where there is no specific client or location, no building codes, and no specific functional program. Designing furniture is a much more reductive process than designing architecture, and in some ways, one has to be surer and more disciplined about one’s design decisions because you have fewer decisions to play with, and each has a greater determining role on the final result.
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