David Howell and Steffani Aarons of DHD Architecture & Design

Apartment Therapy Design Evenings - 09.12.12

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What: Apartment Therapy Design Evenings Who: David Howell & Steffani Aarons of DHD Architecture & Design Attendees: 259 When: Wednesday, September 12, 6:00-8:30pm Where: ABC Carpet & Home | 888 Broadway NYC

We had a fantastic kickoff to the fall Design Evening series with our featured guests, David Howell and Steffani Aarons of DHD Architecture & Design! See the full evening's transcript and video below, and come join us for our next Design Evening in October!We continued our Kitchen Renovation presentations this month from two readers. Take a look at Audra's rental kitchen and its sunny updates, as well as Victoria's updates to her own Brooklyn Victorian's kitchen.

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Maxwell Gillingham-Ryan
Welcome everyone. This is our 60th design evening, and before we get started, I wanted to share a few bits of Apartment Therapy news with you.

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First, we just passed 10,000,000 monthly readers (AT and the kitchn). For those of you who have been watching the internet grow, it's been a crazy wave, and we're so glad to be riding it.

We just launched our Design Showcase last week - it's our 4th year and is an open invite to designers around the world. We showcase them and we have 3 great judges, plus a reader's popularity award. The focus in the home - beautiful, practical, organized homes. If you know of anyone who may be a good candidate, please let them know about it. It's an amazing opportunity, and we want them to be featured. It's for creators and designers. It's open until Friday, and you'll see them through the end of the month.
Next month - Room for Color contest. There will be voting and prizing. This is for folks who feature beautiful color in one room of their home. As with most of the things we do, this is meant to be inspiring for our readers.

Since we launched our Classifieds system, we just passed 1,000 items posted in NYC. If you're looking, or want to de-clutter, this is the place. We think we are more useful than Craigslist, so check it out. You can put your zip code in and search like that, it's great.

Main Presentation

MG-R::
Tonight, I want to introduce David Howell & Steffani Aarons. We haven't had designers like this in a while, more product people and event people, but we're back to designers this evening. And these two create stunningly beautiful interiors.

David Howell has a 25-year background as an architect and designer. He established his first solo architecture practice in Auckland in 1990. He relocated to New York City in 1992 after receiving a Queen Elizabeth II Arts Council of New Zealand grant. He served with Clodagh Design International before founding DHD Architecture and Design in 1995. Howell's work is distinguished by his pairing of distinct philosophies from two hemispheres, where the towering history of New York and America's manifold architectural traditions merge with the indoor-outdoor living, modern idioms, and relaxed environmental design common to New Zealand and Australia. Howell has been recognized with numerous awards and his work appears in many national and international publications. He has been exhibited widely in both New York and New Zealand.

David's wife, Steffani Aarons, is a Principal Designer and Partner at DHD Architecture and Design, where she has developed the interior design practice since 2001. Prior to joining DHD, she served as Partner at Clodagh Design in New York. Steffani received her BA in Interior Design from Mount Vernon College in Washington, DC, and began her career in the Washington office of Studios Architecture. In her work for both residential and commercial projects, Aarons utilizes textures, materials, color and furniture to create a story which completes an overall design experience. She also specializes in the selection of art and accessories, special passions that she loves to bring her assignments. Her approach mirrors the philosophy of DHD, where collected art and carefully curated objects add the layers needed in a home or public spaces to make it truly cultivated and whole.

Please give a warm welcome to David and Steffani.

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MG-R: So this is a complex and long story that I'm going to pull out of you tonight. You both came to NY separately and met one another one the job. You came from New Zealand to work at Clodagh, and you said that was the only place you wanted to work. Why is that?

David:
I travelled on a QE2 (national endowment program). I felt bad about leaving my job and working in competition with these folks. I literally arrived, loved it here, and decided to stay here. I didn't have any connections, so I just knocked on doors. I knocked on Clodagh's door (cold call) and that's where I started.

Steffani:
I had been keeping my eye on Clodagh's projects while at school. I kept see her coming up and realized I really like her work. After Studios I knew I wanted to work there.

MG-R:
People always say how hard it is to work here, but it's amazing how many opportunities open up.

So you're plan, David, was to work here for two years, right?

David:
That was the plan, and then I met Steffani during that time. I came back from a trip to Italy and she was sitting in my chair. She didn't know my name, and I asked her to move, and that was the start.

MG-R:
So you had a romance in the office?

Steffani:
Yes!

MG-R:
It can be tough, how did that work?

Steffani:
It was a sticky thing. And then David left and it all worked out.

MG-R:
Even there you had different jobs, though. How did it work?

Steffani:
I was a junior designer and he was senior. Much more senior. I did a lot of his work.

MG-R:
So there was a role for architect and designer. Was it in tandem, or one than the other?

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David: At Clodagh, the projects were very overlapping for sure.

MG-R:
Then you left and started your own firm. How was that, just after 2 years?

David:
I remember walking down University Place and thinking, "I'm going to start my own business, I wonder what my first job will be?"

MG-R:
And you had some connections with New Zealand still, right? So you had a backup?

Steffani:
I had a job and was working a lot. We were just getting engaged, or making it more formal. So I had something more steady.

MG-R:
So, how long did it take you before you had a true business going? There are phases in NY when people flee, and some stick it out. How long did it take for DHD to truly take hold?

David:
I think it's still growing and growing. Every project we look for continuity, and something leading to the next project.

MG-R:
Working for Clodagh, did that give you some community and foundation to build the business?

Steffani:
We did meet contractors and trades people. So, we had some people identified to do the work. But we still needed more.

MG-R:
Often people ask how to get started. It sounds like working for someone was really a benefit.

David:
Clodagh was great to work for. We learned a lot, and gained confidence to go on our own.

MG-R:
So you have totally different paths. You stayed at Clodagh, Steffani, and did other things besides interior design. Tell us about that.

Steffani:
I was really invested in working with her. I was only 24 when I started there - she was very generous and gave people a lot of responsibility early. I was on jobs, meeting with clients, making decisions, etc. I couldn't believe it, it was wonderful. I gained confidence really early. She really is a mentor to me.

MG-R:
Do you think she's unique in that way?

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Steffani: I do. She really values the team and empowering people, which makes the whole company stronger.

MG-R:
And you also learned a lot about the business side of things, including licensing.

Steffani:
Yes, Clodagh grew a lot at that time. We started looking into licensing at the time, and she was really one of the first designers to get a fabric contract, and a lighting contract. We started going to trade shows and letting people know we were good at designing product. It really opened doors.

MG-R:
For those of you who don't know, you lend your name to a product. Tell us a bit more about the whole process.

Steffani:
You have a contract and you get your name on the product. You get an upfront design fee to design it, and then the company markets it, with your name on it. You get a percentage even after you've finished with it, it's great. You keep going and you have license after license and get fees from that.

I worked a lot - really hard, and I flew all over, on both the product and interiors business. When we had our twins, things changed a bit.

MG-R:
So you had your twins (now 11), what happened then?

Steffani:
Well, I had to be very organized. I was going to stay at Clodagh, get a babysitter. I negotiated a six-month leave, and during that time, I realized I didn't want to leave the twins. So I started to figure out another way to get back into the business more part-time. I was running divisions and a partner, it was too much. So I started figuring out a way to make it work with less time in the office.

I realized it wasn't really going to work for her, so we started figuring out what else to do.

MG-R:
And that's when you started thinking about your own business (2001).

Steffani:
Yes. I consulted for Clodagh for many years. I did a lot of shopping for clients, a lot at ABC.

MG-R:
Then 9/11, and then the recession.

David:
Our kids were young, and it was a hard time to get through - 2008 was tough, as was 9/11.

MG-R:
After 9/11, people really started to become their real self, in a way. But with 2008, it was a different reaction.

Steffani:
Yes, a financial catastrophe is a whole other thing. People don't have money to renovate, and they start rethinking things, putting renovations off, etc.

MG-R:
I have a friend who, as an architect, found it very hard to step down and take small projects during that time. But you did exactly that - can you tell that story? It's a good lesson for everyone.

David:
We decided to expand internationally. I went to the middle east and found 3 projects in Dubai. We found 2,000,000 square feet of residential work. They're trying to build the biggest of everything, so it was a good place to be.

I remember in January 2009 I got a call from them and was told to stop working on two huge projects. It was a shock, I didn't think they'd be affected by this. I wasn't sure what we'd do. You build up trust and then this type of thing happens, it's tough. So, instead of huge work, we asked them about doing small projects - "cosmetic surgery" for one's home.

We said we'd do projects for a fixed fee, on a fixed budget. We went around looking for work, and these small projects.

Steffani:
A lot of firms fell apart, so we did what we had to.

MG-R:
Did you feel like you'd make it at the time? Often if you make it through these times things get so much better.

David:
It's true. You know that every day, someone is embarking on an interiors project. So, you find what work you can to keep going until things pick up again.

MG-R:
What do you think of NY going forward? Do you think it will keep re-inventing itself?

David:
In my opinion, money will always be flowing through here. There are lots of ways to make money, and that diversity helps.

SLIDES
MG-R:
You draw from a lot of furniture influences, so point them out as we go along.

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We're trained as architects and designers, but you realize there's no business training. You have all the moving parts of a business with little training. It was really difficult to transform from an architect to a businessman.

This is a variety of our logos. I started the business in 1995.

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Bug Editorial is a ommercial space. The client came to me and said he wanted an interesting space for tv's and movies. I really poured myself into this and designed everything in the space. Everything.
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Coach. We worked with them for 3 or 4 years. We designed 112 stores. It was a fantastic experience because we worked all over the world, and in every store, they really looked at each one individually. It was also great because we had steady income for those years, which helped us gain confidence.
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Corcoran. In 1997, she started this idea of real estate being a retail concept - street-front, having billboards and tv. She's a daring and lovely woman. When I first met her she said we'd be sick of each other in 3-4 years, as she was very focused, but also went away when appropriate and let us do our thing. In 3-4 years she sold her business and we moved on.

In every store she really pushed fun, etc. as you can see here.

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Framestore. They're English, with a big facility in London. This was a fun project - they wanted to bring in the NY feel to their store here so we brought in transportation as a theme.
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Casa San Miguel de Allende. This is the first project Steffani and I really collaborated on. This area is arid and dry - we got to design quite a large home and looked to other homes in that climate (air flow, etc) to see what elements made sense to incorporate. All of the interior fixtures were sourced locally, in the town of San Miguel or close by. We found tile makers nearby, a local artisan made the stools nearby. We really worked with local people closely - why bring things in when it's a house in Mexico with great artisans nearby? It's a calm, subtle environment with just a few bright colors, unlike most Mexican residences. We kept it toned down.

This is the master bathroom (about 1,000 square feet). Concrete is a natural resource there so we looked to that. It was a very minimal space in that way, with the minimal use of different materials. We even designed the waterfall outside.

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Living room. There's a natural plaster finish on the wall - this is before they paint it the typical bright Mexican colors. You can really see the beauty in the natural material here. Most of the objects are not expensive, and the labor is not expensive, but everything was chosen very deliberately.
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Dubai. In the "donut" (which we weren't supposed to call it!) there's the Mandarin hotel on one side and the other is residential. Every floor plan is different, which was challenging, especially for the elevators. For the elevator in the middle, that is the only one that reaches the top - it's 50 stories tall, all in titanium.

It didn't come to fruition in the end due to the financial limitations (about $2,000 / square feet) but it was an exciting project to devise. Even with all the money in Dubai it was too much. Arriving in Dubai is such a treat, though - there's construction going all hours of the day, it's exciting for an architect.

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Nip / Tuck video. A good friend of ours made it for us. She helped us set up our website as well. It was part of our survival in early 2009 (after Dubai collapsed).
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NZ Multi-Use Building. Once I got married, I deliberately tried to wind down my work in New Zealand. Yet one of my repeat clients in Auckland, a gallery owner, had always wanted a Donald Judd-type structure of a concrete box on a glass base. He bought this site, which happened to be the exact size of our NY building lot (25' x 100'). So, we fell into working together again, this was the 3rd project we'd done with him.

It's a house, and he lives on the top 2 floors. The bottom floor is his design studio - so it's living and working. He's also a musician - and as you can see, the interior is much different than the interior - outside is more austere, inside is a lot more accessible. This building works in New Zealand, it's very site- and cultural-specific. I don't think this structure would work in New York.

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Hamptons house. We did this two years ago - it was a renovation. It's a 9,000 square foot house - we took off the roof, reshingled the siding, replaced all windows, doors, flooring. We did it all in 5 months. It was an "in stock" project - we didn't wait for anything, and we got some great pieces (Jens Risom, Vladimir Kagan). We brought in Matt from ABC to help us with every room, which was key in getting this done. There was a lot of drapery, stonework. It was challenging, but the client is great (Australian) and really uses every square inch of this house. They only have two children but they really use the full space.

I really relied on my vendor relationships that I'd been building since 1993 to make this happen. The contractors worked in shifts, six days a week. The funny thing is that the client originally said all she wanted to do was her kitchen, and paint, for $100,000. Obviously it grew quite a bit!

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This house is all about the view - the client loves orange, turquoise, fluffy things. When I work with a client I really try to listen to what their vision is. Some are more informed, some aren't, so it's a process.

Behind that wall in the bathroom are the showers, which look out to the water. It's pretty low maintenance as she's only there in the summer.

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SoHo Loft. This is a 4,500 square foot space for a client who travels quite a bit. There's a smoking cigar room, all glass-paneled. It's completely ventilated and looks out to Broadway.
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Steffani:
It's a man cave.

David:
Yes, a bit. He had a lot of items from his travels that he wanted in the space. We'd get emails from all over the world with people wanting the items in the space.

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Tribeca loft, not a man cave! This is a family home, and very vibrant. They told us that they didn't want anything that matches. We did a lot of wallpaper, ocher lighting. We painted existing brick walls. It's a classic, double-height Tribeca loft. An eclectic mix of things, quite vibrant and colorful. They really love it.
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Mercer Street Loft. Every once in a while you get a project that you really love. I really loved this project because a lot of the stuff I love they loved. I (David) actually did the interior design on this project. I shopped, looked for furniture, I bought them artwork, books, objects - we were very connected, and it was a lot of fun. Nothing was supposed to match.
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David: The whole project took about 3 years, but the process of it was what they really loved so they didn't mind the time. We got them a 15 foot table from BDDW and we actually had to take out a window and close Mercer Street to get it in the space.

This client asked for a mural, which we were concerned about, but they have a friend who's a painter and you can see the finished product behind the table there. We found antique bowling balls from which we made a coffee table - it was just loads of fun.
There's no door on their bedroom, very open.

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Alta, Utah House. After we finished the loft, they said, okay, let's build a house. They are avid skiers and they go to Alta, and at the top of the valley, above Snowbird, there's one section that was left in a development and we were able to design this organic-shaped house. It's a pure reinforced structure - construction starts tomorrow. Once construction got in their blood they wanted to find another project. It's a 4,000 square foot ski in-ski out house, and this area gets 800" of snow a year. It's a complex area, but very fun to work on.

MG-R:
Wait, your house didn't make it in here! It's amazing. It's in gramercy - you built the building, built out your own apartment, and sold the rest of the spaces.

Steffani:
Yes, it's our dream, and we were able to build it.

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Congratulations to the winners of David and Steffani's book!

Steffani: We also want to thank our entire team. We currently have 15 on staff, so thank you to all of them for making all of this possible.




• Special thanks to Kayne Elisabeth Rourke for transcribing our Meetup!
• Special thanks to our volunteers, Georgie Hambright &Amy Patrick!
• Images: Apartment Therapy

Thanks to our host and sponsor, ABC Carpet & Home!
The evening's wines were graciously donated by Bodega Cuarto Dominio!


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