Friday, December 31, 2010

The Next Open Door

I waited until the last day of 2010 to write this post for a reason. This year I've done something that I've never done -- allow the year to wind itself down gracefully and slowly ... not a frantic push to the end. Really, the last day of the year is no different than any other day, a rising and setting of the sun as we fly through space. But we all enjoy new beginnings, we all love moving forward, we all look ahead to our next adventure.

It is easy now to look at 2010 as linear time and see how one moment led to the next, but as I lived it in real time I could see no further than the next door in front of me. A few events rise to the surface as I look back.

Early this year I was granted a seemingly out-of-the-blue opportunity to go to a Jenn-Air event in Atlanta: a little product explanation, a little hands-on cooking, a nice weekend in a nice city. It ended up being a great opportunity for me, both personally and professionally. What started small ended with an invitation for me to serve on Jenn-Air's Design Advisory Council with an incredible group of professionals from all over the country.

I took advantage of an unscheduled meeting with a stranger and was able to help her out; from this I gained not only a friend but insight into someone else's life and situation.

I was granted occasions to mentor people and in the process, encountered people with great knowledge and wisdom who, in return, mentored me.

I used my skills as a designer and project manager at an orphanage in Mexico and found new inspiration and an added sprinkling of excitement about what I do.

I spent most of the month of November moving my shop. It's amazing how much you can accumulate over five years and 7,000 square feet and to say that moving a shop that size was a monumental task is an understatement. Plus, it was a little dusty. The move allows me to work even closer with my cabinet maker, who is also a great and trusted friend.

In the beginning these things all seemed very random but with the advantage of time I see they have one thing in common: each little door led to a new adventure and tied my life to the lives of others.

Life is about the choices you make. Sometimes the most random opportunity is the one that takes you in a whole other direction and ends up being the clarifying act as you move forward professionally or personally. I borrowed the title of my final 2010 blog post from a video documentary featuring singer/songwriter and recording artist Lionel Cartwright. The video is not long - about 15 minutes. In these last few moments of 2010, turn off the noise around you, let the year end gracefully, watch the video and think about your own world creatively, personally, professionally. What is your next open door?

The filmmaker, Aaron Williams is my son. Happy New Year!!!!

Sunday, October 24, 2010

The Key to Salsa is Passion

I recently spent a very passionate four days in Chicago with 14 other people. I was at the inaugural meeting of the Jenn-Air Appliances Design Advisory Council, of which I am a member. This is an intense group of designers, architects and industry professionals that Jenn-Air has assembled to advise the company on a myriad of topics. Needless to say, when you get in a roomful of designers and architects, everyone's pretty sure that they're right. But I don't see this as ego; I see it as passion.

During the four-day event, we met with representatives of each of the departments at Jenn-Air--cooking, refrigeration, dishwashing, etc.--and were even allowed to see and give our feedback on prototype appliances that won't hit the market for a few years (insert confidentiality agreement here). The thing that stood out most about the Jenn-Air individuals who presented to us was their passion for their product. This wasn't a meeting to just get us to head-nod at their ideas; they wanted honest and real feedback from the group and honest and real feedback they got.

One night the group had dinner at a restaurant called "Moto." The restaurant was chosen because of its innovation, which had been an ongoing theme during our meetings. The restaurant and food are a science-based theme. Most of the food looked nothing like you thought it would taste, or tasted nothing like it looked. The chefs at Moto break their recipes down not just to the ingredient level but down to the molecular level, and then reassemble them in unique and innovative ways. Even beyond that, it was the wait staff that blew me away. Our waiters John Vegas, Chakra and Trevor, pictured below, were really REALLY passionate about their job. As a matter of fact I don't think they would call it a job. To them it was more of an adventure in food. These were young men, in their early 20s, and to have them be a) so knowledgeable, b) so passionate about their work and c) so fun, clever and creative was refreshing when, quite honestly, this age group is usually a little lost. I think the bug that had bitten them was passion--not just a job or a paycheck, but something they related to and could hold as their own. It was inspiring to see these young men so deeply immersed.

I want to do the things that I am passionate about; these are the things that we pour our hearts and souls into. And I'm lucky that it is my occupation, though it doesn't necessarily have to be -- your passion can be art, or music, or cooking, or wine, or helping people, or a million other things.

Have you encountered anyone lately who displayed passion or intensity, and did it inspire you?

Monday, September 27, 2010

Extreme Community

A few weeks ago I had the pleasure of working on "The Nashville Build." This was the Extreme Makeover Home Edition that was filmed right here in my fair city, Nashville. The project was a new daycare and preschool for Lighthouse Christian School, which lost a majority of its buildings during the recent Nashville flood. This is not my first foray into the world of extreme construction volunteering -- I have helped my church build homes for Habitat for Humanity and I am part of a special team that works with an orphanage in Mexico. Last year I and six other men built a 1,600-square-foot daycare building for the orphanage in two-and-a-half days.

What I love about this kind of work (if you could even call it work) is the sense of community it creates. The day I worked on the Nashville Build, I can honestly say I have never seen so many people in one place working around, under, next to, over and beside each other in all my life. Instead of the usual grumps and groans and even fights that break out when you have too many people trying to work in a small area, this was a wonderful symphony of smiles, helping hands, laughter, new friends and community. People are at their best when they are helping others. At this build, status in the "real world" did not matter; what mattered was the willingness to serve. I picked up trash with bankers and school teachers, unloaded trucks with a retiree and his children and their spouses, and painted alongside housewives, city council members and bus drivers. It was wonderful.

I am glad to live in a city that knows how to come together in a crisis, and for months afterward, to put the pieces back together. I am so proud of Nashville for its volunteer heart and spirit of community.

Where do you like to serve and what brings you a sense of community?

Monday, August 30, 2010

A Little Nip & Tuck (Working Within a Budget)

Not all kitchen makeovers have to be total remodels. Quite often a few well-thought upgrades here and there are all you really need to get your kitchen cooking again. I see a lot of '70s, '80s and even '90s kitchens that could be pulled from the world of drab into the world of fantastic with a simple face-lift.

This lovely 1970s kitchen actually had a lot going for it. The layout functioned just fine for the owners, a small but growing family. The cabinets themselves were dated by the door style, color and countertop materials but were well-built, giving us a good place to start. What the homeowner wanted was better lighting, a more modern look, and a more functional cabinet to replace a catch-all desk in the corner next to the refrigerator. And they wanted to be able to do it on a pretty modest budget.

Here were the solutions:
  • We had a local cabinet shop build new cabinet doors, and we painted and glazed the cabinets.
  • Horrible fluorescent soffit lighting and a single ceiling "salad bowl" fixture were replaced with ample recessed lighting -- remember it's always better to over-light and use dimmers rather than under-light a room and have to use a mining helmet to find your crock pot.
  • The old laminate countertops were replaced with a new textured stone-looking laminate, very attractive and, I might say, at a great price point.
  • Walls and trim were painted; appliances were replaced; we jazzed it all up with a tumbled limestone backsplash -- a beautiful product that also comes at a great price point.
  • We did spend a little extra money on a custom baking center hutch next to the refrigerator and enclosed the refrigerator to make it look more built-in.

I work on kitchen projects that range from a few thousand dollars to hundreds of thousands of dollars; in this case we transformed the heart of the home for a fraction of the cost of a total remodel.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

17 Hours in the Baked Apple

Is it hot in New York or is it just my career? Last week I was treated to a trip to New York City by my friends at Jenn-Air appliances to see the "House Beautiful" 2010 Kitchen of the Year, designed by Jeff Lewis. The only thing hotter than the new line of Jenn-Air appliances featured in the kitchen may be the midday temperature in Times Square. If you read my earlier post, "A Lot of Hot Jenn-Air," you know I was recently won over by their new appliance line and the forward thinking of their design team.

It was a bit of a whirlwind trip; I was in New York City, from touchdown to takeoff, for less than 17 hours, during which I attended a private viewing in Rockefeller Plaza. I would have to say my first impression of the kitchen was that it was a bit predictable, though there were features that did stand out. It was a California Contemporary but the designer had used some interesting elements to add texture, including a three-dimensional backsplash, reclaimed wood as a counter and seating top, and a "wine wall," which was a great use of space and very visually appealing. The dark, stark European flat-faced cabinetry and white Corian countertops were something I had already seen and I wish the designer would have been a little more aggressive in his palate choices. Then again, he did get Kitchen of the Year and I didn't... note to self: I need a hit TV show!

It was, for all intents and purposes, a beautiful room. I think my issues have less to do with the aesthetics and more to do with the fact that I hoped to see ideas and execution that are way beyond what I might currently design or even be aware of. I wanted to be inspired by the creative use of materials; I wanted to be intrigued by its originality, not just in awe of its scale. (Remember the 1950s and '60s "Kitchens of the Future"? Where were the robots, conveyer belts and and hovering skillets?!)

What would you expect to see in the Kitchen of the Year?

Tuesday, June 22, 2010


Sustainability, sustainability, sustainability -- if you're not using sustainable products, you are a hater of nature and no friend to the earth. Sounds a little harsh, doesn't it? Over the past few years the "green" movement has gained a lot of ground and I myself try to use "green" products whenever possible. Like many of you I want to enjoy my life, have nice things and leave the smallest possible fingerprint, but with all of the cry to be "green" why doesn't it seem to be happening?

I find it interesting that the NKBA (a national kitchen and bath designer group that I am a member of and from which I get my certification) released its list of kitchen and bath trends this year with such stunning conclusions as "traditional is the new contemporary," white is the most "in" color, and cherry still holds its place as the number one choice of wood for cabinetry. What seems to be missing from this list? Bamboo.

Have you looked at bamboo lately? It's sustainable, beautiful, and though the color choices are a bit limited (two), a great product to work with. I'll admit it's a little hard to find and a little more expensive because it hasn't grown into the market -- pun intended. It seems we tout "green" design but vote just the opposite with our wallets.

Personally I like bamboo - the floor in my master bedroom is bamboo; the furniture I designed and built for my master bedroom has bamboo elements. I recently had a client who used bamboo as a countertop material in a guest bathroom, to stunning effect. But it seems to be an incredibly hard sell, much like another sustainable product, cork.

My question to you: have you considered bamboo, cork or other sustainable products? Why or why not? Do you think using these products limits your design choices?

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Washed By The Water

Photo by Larry McCormack/The Tennessean

I have spent the week with my good friends -- picking up and throwing away large, soggy sections of their lives. Their life, like many in the Nashville area, was swept into the river physically, mentally and emotionally. The recent flood is the largest (costliest) non-hurricane natural disaster in U.S. history and for many will be a game changer...I know for me it is a game changer. I have spent countless days on job sites during the demolition phase. I usually find it fun to help tear out a cabinet or two and maybe pull down a piece of drywall here and there; this, however, felt much, much different. The strange thing is that for the first couple of days their neighborhood was full of homeowners and volunteers working to clean up the mess ... all doing so in almost total silence. Lots of activity and very little conversation. Just neighbor caring for neighbor, working, thinking and praying.

I have been witness this week to the best of my fair city, Nashville. We didn't cry foul, we didn't wait for the government to come to our rescue...we rescued ourselves the old fashioned way -- neighbor to neighbor, friend to friend and even total strangers, hand in hand. The national media gave us 15 minutes for what will most likely take years to clean up and will forever change the tempo in Music City. There wasn't any looting, there wasn't any violence, and the loss of life, though tragic, was small compared to other disasters. Maybe our story of waiting for the waters to go down and being a community that cares for its own and is willing to begin the healing from within just isn't sexy enough. I'm proud of my city, our churches, organizations and people for the determination to pick up the pieces and do it with neighborly kindness and dignity.

I don't want this post to sound sappy and sweet. It was hard work that took its toll on us in every way possible but we leaned in and realized that stuff is just that, stuff. This might sound funny coming from a man who makes his living helping people with their stuff; I even help people get more stuff. What I will take away from this is that I need to spend more time reaching for and enjoying people. People are what matter. Of course, as a musician this renewing thought brings to mind lyrics to a Needtobreathe song:

Even when the rain falls
Even when the flood starts rising
Even when the storm comes
I am washed by the water

Monday, April 19, 2010

Ahhhh... Excess...

I own an Advantium microwave oven, a slide-in glass-top range with built-in warming drawer, a french door refrigerator with purified ice and water in the door, a state-of-the-art stainless tub dishwasher, an instant hot water dispenser...the list goes on and on. All of these gadgets are here to make my life better and to make cooking the ultimate adrenaline rush -- still we eat most every meal out.

This week I attended K-BIS, the world's biggest kitchen and bath industry showcase. Here, vendors from all over the the world showcase their latest and greatest wares. I enjoy attending the conference so I can be armed with knowledge and inspiration for my clients. I do have to ask myself if these wonder gadgets actually improve my quality of life. It seems my early ancestors may have had it much easier ... a fire, a sharp stick and a piece of meat -- dinner is served. I, on the other hand, need a degree from MIT to pop popcorn.

To me the excess is not the gadgets, it is the attention to self. I think what we need to do in such a blessed nation is to enjoy the gadgets and at the same time leave our fingerprints on the world, not just on the stainless steel. Now before anyone reading this decides not to do a remodel, I say hold on. Your kitchen or bath remodel adds value and beauty to your house and feeds the economy, which produces jobs, which feed people; this is a good thing. The call to action I propose is to use your remodel to help others. How? Simple. Here are a few ways.

The last few years, I have used Habitat for Humanity for my demolitions (they may or may not have this service in your area). Habitat will remove your old cabinets and appliances and then sell them in its home store. The money is then used to build homes for deserving people. Here's another: why not take $50 of your remodel budget and send it to Soles4Souls? Fifty dollars can buy 50 pairs of shoes for people in a needy part of the world. Imagine being able to look up rather than down as you walk; for many this is life changing.

How will you leave your fingerprints?

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Reading, Writing and Retro

"I have often wondered what it is an old building can do to you when you happen to know a little about things that went on long ago in that building." -- Carl Sandburg

I recently visited the Carl Sandburg home as part of a trip to Asheville, NC, to see my son and daughter-in-law. One of the stipulations for making the house a historical site was that it stay exactly as it was the day Mrs. Sandburg walked out the door for the last time after the death of her husband. It is a wonderful time capsule of the year 1967. Everything is just as they left it, including unopened mail, copies of LIFE magazine, appointment books, even a trashcan that still has trash in it. Strangely enough, the lines of the furnishings look very modern and retro-chic, except they are not retro, they are the real McCoy...vintage '60s. Of course the room that interested me the most was the kitchen. With very little reworking, some smart appliances and a bit of cleaning, the "feel" of the room would rival the best IKEA kitchen out there -- only much, much cooler.

The kitchen cabinets were metal much like the cabinets I grew up with. I replaced those cabinets a few years ago while remodeling my mom's kitchen and looking back, I think I should have held on to them. Who knew they would come back? Trends always repeat themselves with slight alterations and deviations. I find it interesting that most of the furnishings in the Sandburg home could be lifted from his time and brought into our present design aesthetic and never miss a beat. And though I am not a fan of factory-made cabinets, the whole retro metal/clean line/'57 Chevy-inspired look is intriguing and fun. If I were going to use a factory cabinet in a design, it would definitely be metal.

What designs from a bygone era still inspire you?

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

A Lot of Hot Jenn-Air

I don't want this post to sound like a marketing piece for Jenn-Air appliances, but after this weekend I am a much bigger fan of their product. Jenn-Air has always occupied a strange spot in my appliance selection process. Their appliances are good quality, people who own them are rabidly loyal, they are historically hard to install, and the price point is usually too high for one demographic and not high enough for another, caught between G.E. and Sub Zero.

I was invited to Atlanta by Jenn-Air for an all-expenses-paid designer meeting. I pictured a room full of designers being led like cattle through a showroom where slick salesmen, like Vince from ShamWow, hawked the latest and greatest appliances... I was totally wrong. What I was treated to was a very intimate event; there were only eight designers there, ranging from one who counted Ronald Reagan as a client to a relatively new one-person design company, and everything in between. Our accommodations were first class, dinner at Au Pied de Cochon was merveilleusement délicieux, the conversation was lively and I began to wonder if Jenn-Air's new marketing strategy was to wine and dine me into specifying their products... Again, I was mistaken.

The Jenn-Air company, much like Domino's Pizza, has come to a realization that their products have a bit of a stigma. We have all seen the Domino's commercial where they solicit the honest opinion of the customer (or ex-customer) and use the info to better not only their product but their reputation. On day two of our meeting, they solicited our honest opinions, had a CMKBD take us through their new and very interactive website, provided great product catalogs, showed us each of the new appliances in great detail in their totally tricked-out Insperience Studio, answered a myriad of questions, and then let us cook our own lunch on the appliances. That was brilliant.

I can tell you this -- their new products are aesthetically pleasing, the technology incorporated into each appliance is well thought out and in step with the iPhone generation and, once again, they have brought us a new innovation: the ductless downdraft cooktop (Jenn-Air invented the downdraft in the 1960s). It is good to see a company like Jenn-Air step up to the plate, admit their faults and then do something big about it, starting with their most basic sales force, the kitchen designer.

What is your perception of Jenn-Air?

Saturday, February 6, 2010

Emphatically Speaking

Emphatic, Dominant, Subdominant, Subordinant - I remember learning these terms in my first Interior Design class. They refer to the items or elements in a room that vie for our attention; the red leather sofa or the monumental stone fireplace with flanking bookshelves. In my case, since I do kitchens and baths, it is usually an island or specialized piece that becomes the Emphatic.
This is the element that sets the mood and style for the rest of the room. The Emphatic may not be a single piece, it may be a collection of items that are viewed as a unit. For instance, if the island were to be the Emphatic of my design, it wouldn't be created by just the cabinetry, it would include placement in the room, color, countertops, lighting, appliances and accessories that define the area to visually catch and hold your attention.

One thing to avoid is the "Ooh, that's pretty syndrome." Things should be pretty, but too much of a good thing is still too much. Think of it this way: when someone walks into the room for the first time, where do you want their eyes to go first, second, third, fourth ... and so on? If everything is competing for their attention, the room will seem visually noisy and uncomfortable. If my island is the Emphatic, I shouldn't have a cabinet in its line of sight that would compete for its attention. I want your eyes to rest a moment on the island before moving on to the next strong feature of the room, or the Dominant -- this may be the hot wall where the range is located -- and then on down the line, with each thing having its own appeal without competition. This doesn't mean everything else has to be flat, white and boring.

Elements should be compelling but never fussy or cluttered. No matter what style I am creating, I want to be able to guide your eyes from point to point smoothly. I tend to prefer a cleaner, more relaxed environment. My designs usually have a circular visual flow so that your eye is always lead back to the Emphatic.

Have you ever been in a room where everything competes for your attention?

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

That's Not a Lot of Sugar For a Dime

Ahhh, the colloquialism.

I love clever sayings and word plays. I was engaged in a kitchen consultation the other day when the lovely southern lady I was meeting with said to me, "...Well, that's not a lot of sugar for a dime," after I explained a design and construction process to her. In the design business we refer to it as the point of diminishing return.

Part of my job is to help people spend their money wisely with regard to their project and the value of their home. I hate to see them waste resources on details that won't make an impact visually or financially. I admit I watch a design show on occasion and find myself screaming at the TV, "Don't do that!" Usually it is one of the "flip that house" genre of shows that gets me going the most. I see people making design decisions that will cost hundreds or even thousands of dollars and in the end, no one will notice the difference. In the case I mentioned above, the "simple" act of adding a cabinet side wall to a refrigerator would have cost a couple of thousand dollars. Which would have involved moving electrical, moving and replacing HVAC, framing out a soffit, repairing the floor, altering the bank of cabinets beside the refrigerator ... shall I go on? It was my advice that she not do the work. In all honesty I just couldn't bring myself to "sell" her on the idea; it would be robbery. She thanked me for being honest with her.

My points: first, hire a professional. What you pay for their expertise will easily be recouped in the money they save you by avoiding costly mistakes. Second, be willing to rethink your design if you encounter significant issues. I like to let my designs evolve as the job progresses. I have an overall plan and most details will be executed as drawn, but if I get to a difficult spot I am willing to adapt and adjust if I think the client will overspend on an insignificant detail.

Have you had any projects where you didn't get “a lot of sugar for a dime”?

Monday, January 18, 2010

Whose Line is it Anyway?

I had the strangest thing happen to me at Staples a while back. In the course of business I, like most professionals, have to make copies and what better place to do this than your convenient local office supply store? On this day, however, I would find all the machines at my local Staples either out of ink/toner or paper or both. Maybe this should have been my first clue. Being the only customer for miles I went to the copy and printing desk and waited for the young lady behind the counter to acknowledge my existence. After a few moments of being totally ignored, I acknowledged her existence and asked if she could help me. "What do you want?" she queried. "Can you make me five copies of each of these pages?" I asked. She seemed taken aback that I had actually asked for prints from the printing desk. Her next comment stunned me. "I can do it back here," she said, "but what do I do if a customer comes in?" As I looked behind me in line and realized I was the line, I thought to myself, "What the heck am I -- chopped liver???" I smiled, gathered my papers and went next door to the post office and made copies.

This scenario has happened to me more than once; maybe I have "NOT A CUSTOMER" inked on my forehead or maybe we've lost the ability to focus on the person who is standing directly in front of us. Do we give them the proper attention? Or do we become distracted by a phone call, a text message, email or the potential of a conversation when, in actuality, we are already engaged in conversation.

I have a personal rule: if I am speaking to someone face-to-face, I will not answer my cell phone if it rings -- sometimes to the annoyance of the person trying to call. (Two words: voice mail.) The person I am speaking to deserves the respect of my uninterrupted attention. They are the customer.

How do you handle distractions and the constant pull of ringers, texts and emails? Better yet, how do you feel when someone puts time with you "on hold" to answer their own distractions?

Friday, January 8, 2010

Welcome to the Jungle...Room

Elvis would be 75 years old today, hard to believe. I love Elvis, I love the music, the movies and "taking care of business in a flash" -- without the flash part.

A few years back, during my music days, I made the pilgrimage to Graceland. I didn't spend any time weeping at the gate or leave a guitar-shaped bouquet of roses at the curb side, I simply went to see how the King lived. You hear a lot of terms describing Graceland: tacky, god-awful; I remember one person on the tour asking if Oscar the Grouch's family was slain to create the carpet in the Jungle Room. I personally think the King was very forward-thinking in his designs and room purposing ... he should be credited with the first modern "man cave," the TV Room. Three TVs, count 'em, three built-in TVs! This in a time when most homes had one console unit in the living room and the more wealthy might have one in the master bedroom. Rumor is, Elvis got the idea for such an extravagance from the White House where LBJ kept three TVs going so he could watch ABC, NBC and CBS -- Elvis preferred the NFL. Then there is the aforementioned Jungle Room with its wall-to-wall and ceiling shag carpet, stacked stone water feature and plethora of Teak furnishings ... okay, tacky, but in a cool way. It may also have been one of the first "home recording studios." By 1976 Elvis didn't like going to the studio, so RCA brought the studio to him.

I appreciate the fact that the King enjoyed his home, made it his and even thumbed his nose at conventional design.

If you had unlimited funds like the King, what quirky rooms would you have? (I would have an indoor ball pit!)