Looking Forward to Monday Morning
A series of essays on business, architecture, and the business of architecture.
Ode to Butter-Board
by Daniel Frisch
Posted December 14th, 2020

During the unprecedented pandemic, we have fared better than most.  We design private homes in the city and the country for clients who have come to realize that ‘home’ is now more important than ever.  We are nimble and small, and looking forward.  Even so, our personal and professional lives have been affected in many ways, and probably permanently.  Our office was dark from March through September, 2020, with our team collaborating with clients, contractors, and consultants over FaceTime and Zoom.  As we re-opened the office during the fall, any day would find a population of two, three, or four of us in residence, re-engaging, but lacking the energy we’ve always enjoyed.  Once it was prudent and safe for us to come back together as a full group, we made a few changes.  We have embraced schedule flexibility, including the adoption of Remote Fridays, perhaps the most popular decision of the firm’s history.

Technology has both enabled remote collaboration and altered our space needs.  Forgotten are the outsized drafting tables, mechanical pencils, electric erasers, mylar sheets, and stacks of large format blueprints.  Although architects may be the last to go fully paperless, we now require less space and we muse about our office of the future.  How much space do we really need?  Should we sublet a floor (half our space) to a strategic partner?  Should we relocate entirely?  One fantasy has us leasing a “Mad Men” space on a high floor of a midtown skyscraper, jettisoning stuff as if Marie Kondo were our in-house office coach. Wouldn’t it feel cathartic to discard the accumulated clutter, everything from the legacy job files to the outdated catalogues which fill our every nook and cranny?   And, if we were to downsize or relocate, what do we value most and what would we bring along?

Thinking about our office needs and answering the question of what we value most has been an unexpected gift.  Without question, our greatest assets are our people and our culture; but as we have proven during the pandemic, we can keep the team together by adapting and utilizing technology.  While most of our collected “stuff” could be stored off site or discarded altogether, there are things we would miss.  The furniture in my office is very special to me; the steel surfboard-shaped conference table was designed by an artist for our original narrow conference room back in 1993, and the chairs are vintage mid-century swivelers in a shade of brick red that I never thought I would like, much less come to love.  My oversize ‘firesafe’ faux-woodgrain steel desk came from a dealer in Texas and cost more to ship than to purchase.  In one of the rooms is an impressive 1950’s Italian bar cabinet with exquisite chevron marquetry designed by Vittorio Dassi.  As we assess both value and nostalgic importance, the few pieces of furniture rate highly, but can’t compare to our books and art.  Our design library has curated volumes that I have collected since I first fell in love with architecture during high school. I am sure we could replace the books, but I doubt I would have the heart to do so.  We reference these volumes on a near-daily basis, and while everything is available today on the worldwide web, nothing compares to pulling down an old favorite and sharing it with a colleague.

Next, we move to the art hanging throughout the office.  Almost every piece has been created by a friend, many for whom we’ve hung shows and celebrated at our annual holiday parties.  Each work has a story, and each is irreplaceable, no less to us than if they had been painted by the modern masters.  One of 2020’s great disappointments is that we had to cancel our holiday party, and that we could not hang a planned show for a dear friend and artist from Puerto Rico whose work we favor.  One more reason to look forward.

Collectively, the furniture, books, and art are extremely valuable to us and meaningfully contribute to our identity.  As special as these items may be, they do not compare to the items we create ourselves.  The objects I cherish most are the in-house scale models we make of each home we design.  Architects have always made physical models, out of chip board, plastic and bass wood, and more recently utilizing CNC machines, laser-cutters, and 3-D printers.  We also now rely on realistic computer renderings to help our clients and contractors visualize and for our team to refine design propositions.  Notwithstanding, I have a well-earned reputation as a dinosaur, and I insist that we make our own in-house physical models.  We use X-acto knives, straight edges and a particular paper board with a high rag content called ‘butter-board.’

We’ve made models since the day we opened, and the butter board house models started in 1997, when we were awarded our first commission to design a ground-up home. Our firm was young, as was I, and while we were convinced we had a viable composition, we did not know for sure until we got out the butter-board, straight edges, and knives and made our model.  Twenty-plus years later, this early model sits prominently on a bar cart across from my desk as a daily reminder that simple tools can be very effective in solving complex challenges.

Almost anywhere you look in the office you’ll see butter-board models, from small massing models to cut-away studies of brownstones and intricate stair assemblies.  One weekend in the early aughts, I received a near-panicky call from clients who were seeing their stair in person for the first time.  The stair connecting two apartments in a landmarked Gramercy co-operative was designed as a graceful and delicate curving stair floating in front of two stories of windows.  Upon installation, the clients were certain that the stair had been installed backwards, as if the architect or fabricator suffered from dyslexia. Concerned, I took a Sunday evening cab to the office, picked up the butter-board model and took another cab down to the clients’ apartment.  Sure enough, the model perfectly matched the installed staircase, and we were able to communicate why the stair could only work as configured.   Today, the model is a little worse for the wear, but every time I come across it in the office, I chuckle.

After re-opening, we began a model for a most recent house design, and when we checked stock, we realized we were running a bit low on butter-board, and sadly, Midtown sources no longer exist.  With computer aided design (CAD) replacing hand drawing and model making, there is less and less of a call for these supplies.  Charrette, Sam Flax and Lee’s Art Shop have all closed.  In December of 2020, our blueprinter on Madison Avenue succumbed and turned off their plotters and printers for the last time.  Blick Art Supplies, just north of NYU, had a box of forty sheets of butter-board which we snapped up, even though the color was inconsistent.  An internet search informed us that the manufacturer, Alvin Drafting, LLC (founded 1950) discontinued the product and is going through a re-structuring, promising to re-open with a smaller, more carefully curated offering of drafting tools and materials.  This begs the question, how many forty-sheet boxes of discontinued 30” x 40” butter board should we buy for future use?  I have a hunch we are about to corner the market.

Not counting all the study and detail models, we have on display in the office a dozen individual models of our ground-up homes. The houses have been built in Michigan, Virginia, New Hampshire, New York, Vermont, and Connecticut, and while the location, program, style and scale are all unique, the one element that has been consistent has been the butter-board.  All things being equal, our clients get the satisfaction and profound enjoyment of living in their dream homes, and we get to keep the models.  And, in that “Mad Men” office of our dreams, I picture a spot-lit gallery with nothing but stark white pedestals and lucite-boxed butter-board models.