Looking Forward to Monday Morning
A series of essays on business, architecture, and the business of architecture.
Crawl – Walk – Run
by Daniel Frisch
Posted December 1st, 2023

When potential clients seek to retain an architect for a project, four questions usually come up in the first few sentences.  What is your style?  How much will the project cost? How long will it take? And, how much do you charge?  We try to reply directly and succinctly to these very reasonable questions, but often, we answer in paragraphs.  Rarely does a potential client know exactly what they want other than the budget is to be ‘as little as possible’ and the timing, ‘as soon as possible.’  Nonetheless, by combining our experience with an understanding of a project’s programmatic goals including scope, aesthetics, economics, and timing, we can usually set reasonable expectations that can be met (or exceeded) as the project develops.  It is our job as architects to make a client’s uncharted waters navigable, and whenever possible, enjoyable.  The key to good budgeting, both fiscally and schedule-wise, is having executed similar projects before – and the more times, the better.

Sometime prior to the onset of the COVID-19 Pandemic, we found ourselves undertaking projects that were startingly unfamiliar.  I started writing and thinking I might want to teach.  I first put pen to paper seven years ago, and there is still time to go before my essays are available at your local bookseller.  We designed a few products, which after five years are now being produced and will soon be marketed. We also began developing a modular house concept which we have redesigned innumerable times and are hoping to break ground on our first protype model this coming spring.  Having come a long way on each of these initiatives, I can freely admit that we had neither timetables nor budgets for the endeavors – no more so than there was a business plan in place when we established our company in 1991.

While we had neither timetables nor budgets for our adventuress, we did have a definable methodology, which in hindsight, I have termed, “Crawl – Walk – Run.”  To be fair, this is stolen pretty much wholesale from the expressions, “you must learn to crawl before you can walk,” and “you have to put the horse before the cart.”  These sounds simple enough as do most utterances that tumble from the mouths of sharks on Shark Tank.  I believe all creative ventures have an origin myth, and sharing these stories provides valuable insight into the creative process. A single moment of inspiration often sets the course of years of development and refinement, and while the path may twist and turn, I contend that the process is fundamentally linear, and is something we have trained and practiced throughout our careers as architects.

This essay is part of a book project I started in 2016 after a friend casually remarked on a walk in Central Park that I should write my stories.  I’d often contemplated writing (and teaching), but for some reason this one remark stuck, and I went the next day to the Apple Store and bought my first laptop computer. The computer’s absurdly precise record-keeping tells me the first document, an introduction to the unwritten book Looking Forward to Monday Morning, was created at 10:33pm on November 5, 2016, and was saved sometime the next day on November 16.  This first introduction, which I have attached at the end of this essay, did not make it in the final edit of either of the books, but nonetheless provides a snapshot of my thinking at the onset of the project.  Perhaps if I had used “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times,” rather than “ ‘Twas the night before Christmas…,” the introduction would have better foretold the road I was setting down, for I had little more than a personal history and a title.  It would take seven years of effort to write and re-write, to edit and to have edited for me, and to prepare the manuscript(s) for editorial review at our favorite publishing houses.  I have walked miles in my shoes, and tried to walk miles in others’, and I am very much looking forward to the printing presses running.  I can only hope that I get the word on a Monday morning.

We have also begun exploring product design, a whole new category of endeavor for us.  Being a new area, and without expertise, we found ourselves in definite crawl mode.  The gestation period of the faucets goes back the furthest and deepest into my subconscious.  I was an intrepid doodler as early as elementary school.  I mortifyingly recall my parents returning home from an early parent teacher conference with the instruction to empty my pockets before sending me to school in the morning.  Desks that were inclined were a natural drag racing track for cars made of erasers and thumbtacks.  Pens could be deconstructed and turned into spitball rifles, when not serving as single use launchers of the ink refills sent aloft by the springs that were meant to advance and retract the ball point.  Doodling was probably the most harmless and fortunately, no one ever took away my pencils. Among my favorite thigs to doodle were interlocking rings.  My childhood favorites followed along the lines of MC Escher and his optical illusions.  Much later, were Venn diagrams and spaces of intersection inspired by Carlo Scarpa and the Olympics.  Doodles cover my desk blotter, and at some point, I decided three dimensional versions would make interesting faucets – neither overtly traditional nor modern.  During the early months of the COVID pandemic I added context to the doodles with a hand-drawn set of faucet collections, and had the office team draw them in CAD. They were put aside until the pandemic broke, and until I was introduced by a mutual friend and marketing maven to Bennett Friedman, the owner of AF New York, one of the largest plumbing fixture distributors in the country.  We had worked with AF New York on and off over the years, but I had never met Bennett, and no reason to think a single lunch would change our faucet collection from crawl to walk mode. I now carry polished chrome prototype handles in my briefcase, and very, very soon, we will move from walking to running.  Production is slated for spring of 2024 as are launch parties and then, sales. I am hoping many of our homes will soon have running water flowing from fixtures of our own design.

Our DFA Fire Chair has enjoyed something of a similar timeline and process to our Line Drawing Faucets.  A few years before the pandemic, we were having dinner with friends and after, we sat before a roaring fire in their living room.  The modifier “roaring” is often used to describe a post-meal fire in a cozy home, but in this case, “roaring” underserves. It seemed as if there was a wall of fire in their fieldstone fireplace, and that the logs were stacked higher than basic fire building skills would allow.  This was my first time seeing a vertical log holder, a grillage of iron that allowed wood to be stacked at the rear of the fire box and be contained vertically, as opposed to stacked conventionally on a horizontal basket.  Inquiries were made and we learned that the log holder was manufactured near our Connecticut home by a Torrington company appropriately named “Grate Wall of Fire.” For a number of seasons, I put a vertical fire grate on my birthday and Christmas lists, but to no avail; it’s not the type of item you can buy on Amazon or at Bergdorf Goodman.  I didn’t think too much about it until the pandemic hit and we were spending more time in the country and more frequently lighting fires.  The Friday before Thanksgiving, I talked my daughter into taking a forty-five-minute drive deep into the country to visit the Grate Wall of Fire store.  We arrived at a large steel building in the middle of farmland and strode to the door only to be confronted by a hand lettered cardboard sign that read “masks NOT required.” We dutifully donned our masks, as per the law and our sensibilities, and entered the small store at the front of the building.  Only weeks before, Trump had lost the election, but this was not at all clear to the man behind the desk or the radio talk-show disputing the fact at high volume.  I turned to my daughter and told her we could leave, but that I, for one, did not think we should let politics influence our shopping decisions, and that I really wanted to bring home a vertical fire grate and try it out.  Even though we were wearing masks and had arrived in a Subaru, not an F-150, they were happy to sell us a grate.  I was most surprised when they gave us a 10% discount, even though the gentleman behind the counter had not heard of a trade discount.  I think the civics talk made for a long ride home for my eleven-year-old daughter.

Over the Thanksgiving break, we had many opportunities to show off our new fire-making acumen, and the grate performed exactly as we had expected.  As innovative as the vertical grate is, I began to ponder how it might be even better, and I began sketching, which would lead to wholly new patentable design for a hybrid horizontal and vertical log holder with a wholly new aesthetic and performance criteria.  Crawling along, we converted the sketches into a model and then began working with a fabricator – who happens to be my college roommate – to build a prototype.  We built two, one for each of us.  What had started as a internal competition, surely I could design a better product than the folks in Torrington, took a very positive turn in that our log holder, now called the DFA Fire Chair, performed much better in our fireplace than the Grate Wall of Fire version.  I felt like Philip Johnson famously bragging about his Glass House in New Canaan Glass that he just wanted to prove he could design a better house than Mies had for Farnsworth.

Inspiration aside, our fire chair neither looks nor performs anything like its predecessor.  While ours similarly allows the fire to be built at the rear of the firebox to encourage smoke to draw up the chimney and not billow out into the room.  But significantly, our chair has a horizontal grate that holds the logs off the floor by a little more than inch and provides several benefits.  Raising the logs off the floor creates better convection, essential when starting a fire. This horizontal tier at the rear of the fireplace provides an eight inch or greater space for logs at the rear of the fireplace rather than a compressed space where the logs are squeezed against the back wall of the fireplace.  And finally, the horizontal tines and space below gradually become a significant ember bed, burning hotter and cleaner than any log holder we have tried.  The shallow second tier or step allows for building fires in a teepee form, bringing the fire towards the center of the firebox and allowing for a ghigher fire than can be accomplished by merely stacking wood.  The vertical times facing the room restraint logs from falling into the room. Once the fire is roaring along, logs can be tossed into the fireplace similarly to a wood stove.  The described performance benefits could only have been guessed when making the initial design sketches. What never wavered was our commitment to an aesthetic departure from the seemingly Victorian forged iron to a sleek modern object in the abstracted form of a seated human figure.

As we moved from crawl to walk mode, we were able to test and re-test, and to make small tweaks to the design, improving on the engineering, fabrication methods, aesthetics, and durability, and to apply for a design patent with the US patent office.  We also produced our first run of twenty fire chairs and sold them to friends and family for their enjoyment and as further proof of concept.  This first edition sold out almost immediately, and twenty new models, including eight of a smaller size, are being produced as I write this.  And like the faucet we are looking forward to hitting our stride in the first quarter of 2024, including an appearance at the International Contemporary Furniture Fair (ICFF) at the Javits Center in May.

Reflecting on this burst of creative activity over the past seven years, we have realized that this crawl-walk-run process is very similar to our design process we undertake with every home we design.  We start with programming, and then move on to schematic design, design development, construction documents, bidding, and finally to construction.  We have also learned that this linear path we describe has many twists and turns, and even backtracking, the definition of urgency, not haste.