There are times when you look at a design and think: Wow, that’s cool. Then there are the rare times when a klaxon sounds, your eyeballs leap from their sockets, and your jaw clangs as it hits the ground. You may be unable to speak, but you want to yell out “THIS IS AMAZING!” We’re not being too hyperbolic when we say this is how The Kuotes felt when we visited the Kips Bay Decorator Showhouse this past summer and saw the staircase designed by Philip Mitchell. I mean, just take a look:
One look at this, and we were determined to make friends. Luckily for us, we discovered Philip is a true kind Canadian and also has an awesome hand for sketching. A few weeks ago, we talked about how to present a board to a client, and while we think it’s important to learn how to create a stellar design board, it’s also important to be rooted in the basics. Last week, I (Cal here) sat down with Philip to discuss his design process and the benefits of a renaissance approach when hashing out your initial design. Read on for the exclusive interview.
the Kuotes: Tell us a little about you. How did you enter the world of design?
Philip: I grew up in a design-loving family. My mother was an unofficial decorator who decorated for a bunch of her friends, and because of that, through osmosis going from showroom to showroom and antiquing, I picked up an interest in it. I have always drawn from a young age, so it sort of was in the genes, so to speak.
the Kuotes: What do you love so much about hand sketching? What is it about this method that appeals to you?
Philip: For me, it’s the ability to be able to visualize something quickly, to be able to express that and allow another client or individual to experience that. A lot of the time you can kind of talk and be descriptive about things or show people pictures of things on a board, but here you can put it all together quickly and execute it in such a way that you can show someone what it’s actually going to look like. It’s a huge tool and a great asset in the industry. People respond to the fact that drawings happen quickly. Don’t get me wrong, we do computer generated renderings and working drawings too, but there’s something about being in an initial meeting with a client and spur of the moment being able to view what they want. And if they’re questioning something or concerned about something or want to change something, in just a couple of seconds you can turn around and start to sketch another version of what you’ve just done. Your client sees the changes right away and immediately trusts that you understand them and what they’re looking for. People really, really like that.
the Kuotes: So then, walk me through your design process.
Philip: Initially what happens is I meet with someone; I get a sense of what it is that they’re looking to do, the work involved, and the actual scale of what that project is. I put things together based on what we’ve been discussing. There’s a lot of different influences. There’s the influence of the client, how they’re going to use their space, etc. And then also there’s any outside parameters, for example if they like a certain style. There’s also particular vernaculars if you’re building something on the coast of Maine versus southern Californian mountains. Once we have an idea, then we start to get creative and put together those exciting perspective sketches and concepts. When you have that, you can tweak things and start on the process of filling in the blanks.
the Kuotes: What materials do you use to sketch?
Philip: Just a paper and pen. I use a pilot pen. And then the paper is usually 8.5×11 or 11×17.
the Kuotes: What is your sketching style?
Philip: They’re not scaled, generally speaking. It’s a quick gesture, or idea, or glimpse of what something could be, you know? I like to draw very loose. I know lots of designers that actually do a perspective drawing in a very different manner: they’ll use a scale and tools to make it very tight, and I’ve done that before as well. That’s how I learned to do a proper perspective, with a specific vanishing point. For me the loose and freehand method is much easier to do quickly, and it’s easier to give a quick concept to somebody and express that without having to spend hours measuring everything and making sure everything is all correct.
the Kuotes: What program do you use to translate your sketches to drawings ready for build?
Philip: For that, I use CAD.
the Kuotes: How much of sketching is learned and how much is just talent? What are you tips for those who enjoy sketching?
Philip: I think that you really do have to learn the basics. In school, there’s definitely a way to pay attention in the beginning with certain perspectives. I recommend that you take those basic drawing classes that help you tweak your skills and give you a base to build off of. It probably wasn’t a disadvantage that I already was sketching prior to going to school, so there’s a part of it that’s innate. But to develop my skills, the classes and school definitely helped, and as you get more comfortable and confident, I think that your drawings can improve and you can do them quicker. The perspectives get better and the proportions of things can be articulated better the more comfortable you are and the more often you do it.
the Kuotes: Do you have a favorite time to sketch?
Philip: There’s no favorite time to sketch. You just have to sketch. Whether it happens when the pressure of a project comes up… if something has to be done, obviously you have to do it. And then sometimes an idea comes to you wherever. You could be, I don’t even know, at a restaurant or wherever. I love restaurants that have paper on the table so I can sketch something quickly. Or I’ll draw on a plane. Sometimes I wake up in the middle of the night with an idea, and I’ll have to sketch it down then so I don’t forget what it is. If it comes to you, you just sort of draw.
the Kuotes: What major design challenges do you face as a designer?
Philip: The constraints and sensitivities a designer sometimes faces. You know a lot of people think it’s easy just to rip something out and put it all back. Well, no. It’s definitely not that easy. For example, we’re taking great pains to restore a house we’re working on right now. We’re working on a house specifically for ourselves, which is a really cool old restoration. It’s a house that was built in 1795, and we’re restoring it from scratch. We’re looking to create something that is historically inspired but, at the same time, fit for modern day living with heated floors and surround sound built in and things like that. But a lot of architectural details are being dictated by the original house. We’re taking a lot of the old floor boards and the subfloors, which are from 1795 and about 20 inches wide and 16-18 ft long, and we’re reusing them for the actual finished floors in the house. We want an authentic feel instead of trying to reproduce a new floor or use a pre-finished engineered floor. Another thing is we’re actually putting in hot water radiators that would have been put into a house like this were it renovated at the turn of the century. When it was actually renovated, in the 80s, they put in electric heat, which was terrible for the type of building it is, so we’re putting in radiators with exposed plumbing because they wouldn’t have been concealed in the walls back then. So there’s lots of challenges we constantly face in order to be sympathetic to a building or architecture but also build what we want with heated floors in the bath, surround sound, great lighting, docking stations and, well you know…everything we can’t live without today.
Just for fun, a few more sketches from Philip Mitchell Designs for your inspiration:
All photos are courtesy of Philip Mitchell Design. Share your comments with us below!