Looking Forward to Monday Morning
A series of essays on business, architecture, and the business of architecture.
Some People Hate Walnut
by Daniel Frisch
Posted June 26th, 2019

When we describe our work, we often use words like “timeless” and “universal,” setting forth that design preferences are more similar than different.  During the early design phases, we frequently but erroneously believe we have presented something unique and special, only to run across a strikingly similar picture in person or in a magazine.  We both set trends and succumb to trend-following.  We are arbiters of style and most of the time, our team shares a common sensibility.  Our clients, on the other hand, have tastes and preferences that are comparatively diverse.  Navigating between the current themes and aesthetics preferred by our team and each client’s sensibilities and associations is a dynamic and fluid process.  Successful projects stem from this collaboration and integration, and the more carefully we listen to and incorporate a client’s wants and needs, the better the result.

Listening should be easier than it is.  Since we are retained to lead and to express our opinion, careful listening is not explicitly expected – yet it is without question our first priority.  I rarely make it through a week without reminding clients that we are designing their home, not our own.  If anyone wishes to see how I choose to live, visit danielfrisch.com and pull up the pictures of “Kent Hollow.” I am confident that many of our clients would like to live in such a wonderful house, but I am equally certain that none should.  Thousands of decisions go into the design of a home, and while certain projects may share design DNA, every home is unique.  This individualization intimidates some, and that which should be fun and exciting can instead become overwhelming – for reference, please see the chapter “The Tyranny of Too Much” about having too many decisions to make.  As we lead clients through the design process, we try to meld our expertise and passion with theirs, while simultaneously streamlining the decisions.  Clients wouldn’t need us if they could design their own homes, and equally true, we would have few homes to design without patrons.

Early in the programming phase of a project, we work closely with our clients to understand the project drivers, everything from budget, to function, to aesthetics, going far below the surface.  The initial questions are many.  How many bedrooms?  A first floor master?  Is an open kitchen preferred?  How often will the owner entertain?  If we were to formulate a questionnaire, the most basic questions would number in the hundreds.  To make matters more challenging, spouses and children (when they are involved in project planning) often disagree about priorities and project specifics.  Once the functional program is outlined, we seek to understand the aesthetic program. Whether clearly communicated or not, anyone undertaking a project has strong pre-formed ideas about what their ideal home should look like.  While we find geographic, socio-economic, and generational similarities to be shared by many, we know enough not to assume we fully understand a client’s aesthetic program based on superficial assessments.  Working with a combination of saved Houzz images and Pinterest boards, clients have come to abandon the “I know it when I see it” method of communication, and to come to initial meetings armed with collections of images.  Once we begin to understand the functional and aesthetic program, we can compare these collected thoughts to the project budget, the third leg of a nuanced and developed project tripod.

Reaching an understanding of the major program items usually comes easily, and preliminary plans take shape with clarity and enthusiasm.  As designs are refined and as final decisions are made, and even more significantly, as construction commences, it is natural for clients to second-guess decisions about which they had been previously resolute.  When going through this inevitable process of reconsideration, we’ve found our clients fall into two camps – the ninety percent that comfortably reaffirm their choices, and the ten percent who, with great embarrassment and even unhappiness, ask for a change.  Studying these metrics always reminds me of a specific psychology 101 lecture class in college, when our professor introduced us to the concept of cognitive dissonance.  The segment of the course was based on the work of Leon Festinger (A Theory of Cognitive Dissonance, 1957). Dr. Festinger straightforwardly lays out the dispute between head and heart at the very basis of design decision-making.  Dissonance, according to Dr. Festinger comes when your intellect or heart wants one thing, but your heart or intellect argues for the opposite.  Working with and reconciling this dissonance is a daily process for those of us who lead design teams and interact with clients.

We are aided in our navigation by the ninety-ten rule, as I’ve termed it.  Ninety percent of the time a reconsideration is resolved in favor of the original decision.  This is a happy occurrence as reconsiderations invariably arrive at awkward times – often after construction has commenced or when installations are complete.  Reconsiderations that occur mid-construction are particularly vexing as incomplete construction only affords a partial image of a completed composition.  Our job is to help complete the picture and aid our clients in understanding whether the design will weather the crisis in confidence, and whether we should move forward without significant re-design.  As Dr. Festinger observed, most dissonance is resolved in the favor of the original selection.  Provided enough work and diligence went into the original decision, the mind settles on the first preference as not being subjective (or dissonant), but rather as resolute and objective.  This process of careful consideration leading to selections helps explain why opinions are held with such consistency in all manner of subjective categories – from music (who is your favorite band?) to sports teams (ask a Wolverine fan how he or she feels about Ohio State), or politics (no parentheticals needed).  Very few people waver or display any real dissonance or willingness to reconsider when it comes to such dug-in subjects.

When commissioning a home, most clients lack this level of certainty, and hesitation and disagreements appear with great predictability.  While most design conflicts are readily resolved, the occasional reconsideration presages an actual change rather than an affirmation.  No matter how carefully criteria are considered on paper, and no matter the certainty of conviction, dissonance creeps in and people change their minds.  On most occasions, communication, or lack thereof, is blamed as the culprit.  While communication can always be better, most changes are, rather, the result of unknown dissonance, based on conditions or circumstances lurking below the surface and not discernable during earlier conversations.  Confusing twenty-twenty hindsight with a lack of initial vision is a danger leading directly to blame and recrimination.  When inevitable changes in turn arise, we find it better to embrace the new direction, especially as our ninety-ten rule suggests that the out-of-the blue reconsideration is a relatively unusual circumstance.

Extensive and intimate programming conversations seek to reduce the likelihood of dissonance, and our awareness of the concept helps us to anticipate concerns that may arise.  Notwithstanding, we are periodically surprised by a client reaction to a particular installation. On one such occasion, we saw an opportunity to utilize a small area of leftover space within a wall in a client’s entry hall.  Thinking we would deliver a pleasant surprise to our client we designed a walnut art niche that elegantly capitalized upon the found space.  The happy event was undercut by the client’s immediate statement when she saw the installation, that she hated walnut.  It is quite possible that this was shared during early conversations, but I’ll never know for sure.  Tastes and preferences vary, sometimes greatly, and beauty as they say is in the eye of the beholder. Today, the beautiful walnut niche is painted a lovely shade of white and all is right with the world.