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Personalizing a Design for the Masses // Evelyne Chokkattu


The idea of mass producing houses evokes images of cookie cutter houses efficiently rumbling along a conveyor belt. The end results are neat rows of houses, white picket fences and prim, fresh-cut lawns, similar to the image portrayed in The Ticky-Tacky Houses of Daly City shown above, photographed by Robert A. Isaacs. And even though the kit house at Volland stands alone, it still harbors an un-rooted feeling that the houses in these images do.

Abstract: Working with the bones of the kit house, we have the challenge of taking this mass produced design and making it into a home that exudes the qualities we have found in Volland and our client so that it is anchored to the town and the program. Part of that includes careful selection of off-the-shelf items as well as creating unique, custom pieces.


Audience: Personalizing a space takes time and layers of understanding what is needed to make it tailored to the user, place and program. We’re attempting to fast forward this process in our redesign, so that we can achieve a rich personality for the house - at least as a base to work off of. This is a task that everyone can relate to: making a house feel like a home.

"Personalizing a Design for the Masses"


After multiple iterations, it’s interesting that our redesign of the general layout has landed on almost exactly that of the kit house. Unintentionally, by preserving the external walls we have also been led to preserve the original use of space within the kit house. This emphasizes the amount of care and thought that went into this mass-produced house, as well as its placement in the landscape.


It’s a layout that fits well. Even after stripping away the interior walls - the shell and context of the house have an almost haunting ability to determine the use of space within the open volume.

Fig. 1.  (Left) Stripping down the kit house: Although the floor plan has been opened up, the house is still very limiting in terms of space, but design thrives from restrictions. Slowly but surely we are embracing the humble 24x24 footprint to create a sleek, efficient home for artists and guests, that has the robustness as well as the warmth and comfort that the program calls for. 

Fig. 2. (Right) This annotated plan indicates how the new massing and spaces are situated in relationship to shell/context. The old floor plan is greyed out and the pink square is the “cube” which will house the kitchen, bathroom, storage and mechanical spaces. The open space around it is then utilised for dining, working, sleeping and lounging and are organised in response to the entry points and views.

We are creating a home as a focus for arts and life, and so the everyday must be something to be celebrated. Now that we have an understanding of the scale and general layout, selecting and designing pieces of furniture, fixtures and finishes for the Volland House is the next step. It is a task that can completely alter the atmosphere and functionality of the house. There are multiple factors that play into selecting and designing items for the house; during this process of research and design, attention and consideration especially needs to be given to the context, existing/new architecture, the program, and the client’s preferences.

In March, we had the chance to meet with Derek Porter, a designer whose work focuses on architectural lighting and product design. He was able to join our review with the client, and our discussion maintained that, with the exception of the cube, the design moves are to be subtle; blending into the house and emphasizing the minimalism, efficiency and quietness of the project. The cube, in contrast, stands in the house, separate, and alienated from the original architecture. Its walls extrude up to meet the ceiling at jagged angles, and pull in along the top to reveal a shadowy outline, so that the ceiling appears to hover above.

Fig. 3. (Left) The cube as a focal point in the design. 
Fig. 4. (Right) An interior rendering starts to demonstrate how we are drawing the focus to the cube and personalising a house that was originally designed for the masses.

Based on this idea that the cube is the focal point of the design, we can start to design/select the pieces that surround it to be “bare” or minimal to complement the sleek efficiency of the cube. This directed us to our initial FFE (Furniture, Fixtures and Equipment) and material/finish options, and getting to review them with our client and Derek gave us a stronger insight into how to continue our research in the following weeks.


Through this meeting, and earlier ones, it is clear that one of the core principles of the Design+Make studio, and with the people who have become involved in the project, is moving away from opulent luxury, to a notion that luxury is attention. It’s care. It’s making the ordinary extraordinary, the normal special. Now with that being said; I’ve also found that, after sifting through endless catalogs online, it is so easy to lose sight of the overall design and be drawn to and become absorbed by the beauty of an individual product or finish.


I realize now that many of my initial selections came out of my urge to have each and every aspect of the design be a highlight, with no strong consideration of how the products/materials/finishes will sit in relation with each other in the overall design -- and that can do more damage to the project than good; it muddies the design narrative and introduces expenses into the budget that are unnecessary for our architectural vision to be achieved. Each decision needs to be deliberate; needs to add value to the design.

The materials, and more importantly their relationship to materials around them, will create a feeling of balance, a refreshing atmosphere that the residents expect to experience from Volland. Opposing qualities will add a richness to each material. An example of this is our palette of primarily neutral tones for the interiors; essentially a blank canvas of crisp white walls and ceilings, which is then juxtaposed with dark, earthy wood floors and wood furnishings to help add warmth to the space as well as ground the interiors.


To then heighten our perception of the hardness of these materials, it was Derek’s suggestion to create contrast; by pairing it with the soft and delicate appearance of translucent curtains hung at each window. With the windows pulled open, their silhouettes are free to flutter across the sheer fabric as it sweeps in and out.

Fig. 5. Precedent images of metal/wood detail connections

With the front porch -- the idea of a wooden shell wrapped in a steel facade is echoed in the interior design within. The furniture choices decidedly tell a similar story; of wood encased or delicately paired with sleek metal forms. There are a million different directions to go with this though, and, unavoidably, my own personal preferences, memories and perceptions of materials, color tones, styles, etc. are influencing the way that I am selecting the pieces for Patty to review.


For example, the neutral colors beg for metallic accents in order to add warmth, texture, and color. In my mind, a predominantly bronze finish, paired with the natural texture of wood, is an opportunity to add more warmth and a cozy feel to the space, more so than a chrome or stainless steel finish. Then a combination of matte, polished, and hammered finishes would create a rich, yummy atmosphere. During our meeting however, Patty indicated that she did not like bronze/gold finishes, and at the time I felt unable to make a convincing argument for it because it was more of a subjective choice on my part; based on my own personal preferences and perceptions.


Along with the carefully chosen off-the-shelf products, there are custom pieces that will give us a bigger opportunity to echo the materiality and detailing that are in the architecture as well as meet the very specific needs of our design.

Fig. 6. One of the main custom furniture pieces -- the dining/work table.

The customised table will reuse the original floorboards of the house. Placed adjacent to the kitchen, its built in drawers will contain silverware, napkins and other kitchenware, as well as provide space for the residents personal items and tools/stationery. The same hardware and details that are used for the kitchen cabinetry will be used for the table and will also be translated into the design of the kitchen shelving, bed and nightstands so that they are cohesive. Mock ups are starting to be produced in the Regnier fabrication shop, and with these the design will evolve.


With this being the first house renovation in the town, we are setting a new model for the Volland Institute to follow. The decisions we make for this house will set the tone for the other two houses and any new structures that will be built here in the future. More research and discussions will help to narrow down our choices to the pieces that will help anchor the kit house to Volland.

Written by Evelyne Chokkattu

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