Allison Arieff is the design correspondent for, and writes a column in, the New York Times. After helping found and run Dwell Magazine, she moved up the proverb ladder to General-Back-Patter at the Times. In a September 15th 2008 article about R. Buckminster Fuller’s eccentric housing ideas (and ideals), and their correlation to modern ‘pre-fab’ housing design (the current exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art), she donates a paragraph to the plugging of one Michelle Kaufman – of Michelle Kaufman Designs, an architecture firm – citing the seemingly outrageous exclusion of her work from the museums collection.

Of three examples chosen, Arieff utilizes Michelle Kaufman Designs (MKD) as the requisite / token ‘green’ firm curiously excluded by the shows curators (the other two of similar design language, but not self-branded ‘green’), citing a “greater public awareness and desire for greener homes” as the culprit behind this architectural firms recent triple in business, and thus preemptive validation for inclusion in this article.

So i had to check it out.

Initially the designs look quite interesting, with atypical roofing arrangements (indeed oriented towards maximizing natural lighting and view), a plethora of a sites both geographically and climatically varied, and of course a sparse sprinkling of (*yawn*) classic modern minimal bar stools, toilet fixtures and whatever else the package comes with.

Ok, ok, modern design is as predictable as what colors designers or heavy-metalers wear to functions (black), and so much so that its become a child’s guessing game of content; Noguchi table? Check. Eames chairs of some sort? Check. Character-less house furnishings? Check. But at least that’s – impart – relatively nothing to do with the houses them selves because, after all, this is an architecture firm, not interior design by the book, and one might be able to brush aside these trinkets as simply bait for the kind of consumer they are aiming to attract.

But what of the house – Can pre-fabricated houses (usually transported as panels, to be assembled on site) be cheaper to make? Less wasteful? Can one glove really fit all?

Viktor Papanek – the godfather of sustainable design – would argue that the very act of attempting to make something universal (uh-oh, sounds like universal design… scary!) is to make it over compensate making the end result complicated and simultaneously inappropriate. MKD’s site shows pictures of the same exact house implanted into snow country, dry southern california chapparel and heavily wooded regions, with no change in design.

Can a cabin, built in the mountains and designed against a context with high precipitation and often below-freezing temperatures, possibly be a good or apt design for a relatively dry and warm climate? Or vice versa?

Here’s one of my favorite pictures so far:


Oh look, honey, the business men are migrating again!

In the middle of a city square? Really? I’m sure commuting must be a cinch, but, seriously, i think id rather have the rolling hills, or snow country option.

So we’ve covered the bite (although i strongly encourage readers to investigate the site first hand, its quite entertaining), but hows the bark? Sadly, its even worse. The website is riddled with empty but hot-word ladden texts like:

“We believe that sustainable, well-designed buildings should be accessible to more people. To achieve this we have simplified our process and chosen off-site modular technology as our only means to create beautiful, eco-friendly homes. Our hope is that, through our practice, we will make it easy for people to build green and live a more sustainable life. We are making a difference one home at a time one family at a time.”

and

“Whether working on one of our pre-designed homes, a custom home, or a development project, we apply a clean and green approach. We let the green in to every project through the use of eco-friendly materials, low-energy lighting design, energy efficient building systems, and a sustainable layout, allowing clients to live cleanly and lightly.”

Anyone with any amount of analytic-oriented brain cells might notice that there are no concrete ideas, concepts or promises – just vague statements using and reusing buzzwords to lend validity. (What the hell is sustainable layout, anyway?) Compare to the very first statement on Rocio Romero’s website, Areiff’s third why-arent-they-included example:

“Rocio Romero LLC is committed to simplicity in design. We rigorously employ the principles of minimalism to produce comfortable spaces with balanced proportions, clean lines, and spaces that promote natural air and light. Through our commitment to simplicity in design we produce homes whose construction is straightforward and affordable.

No buzz words, no “making life better” slogans, just statements about design and architecture. Arieff’s other example is of a firm called Resolution 4: Architecture that, albeit a somewhat lousy name, seems to be entirely sure that their product speaks louder than words, keeping their print to bare minimum, while focusing primarily on photos – even less self-praise and blather.

Why do firms like MKD get coverage via New York Times? Because people simply do not know – ignorance. This is not to say that people are incapable of knowing, or that they are predisposed towards not knowing, its simply a statement about the educational systems in place, and a comment about information dissemination. It is, however, shameful that Arieff – a person put in a position of great power – chooses to promote sub-standards (given her opportunities to do much more) and in turn promoting a system of ignorance now backed by “people of knowledge” and somehow, therefor, valid.

In a move of sheer genius Michelle Kaufman Designs has decided that putting an MK in front of their products would make for a great marketing scheme; Move over McMansions, there’s a new pandemic in town; the MkLoft.

Check out:
Michelle Kaufman Designs
Roceo Romero
Resolution 4: Architecture