And the garden

When modern architecture goes outside

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When is it stealing?

I have a rule: if the artist or creator is still alive, I won’t buy the knockoff.  I will either save up for the original or buy something else that I can afford (hence the amount of IKEA in my home).  Or – and this is actually much better – I will find a local artist or maker and commission something bespoke.

If the creator of the iconic piece I yearn for is dead, however, the needle on my moral compass goes into a tailspin.

Knock offs of Le Corbusier and Eileen Gray

There are two knockoffs in the photo above: the Eileen Gray side table (we have a pair) and the ubiquitous Le Corbusier chaise (in pony skin). I got all three over a decade ago, before I formulated my views on design copyright and unlicensed reproductions.

It’s not that licensed E1027 side tables just weren’t available to me: why, a couple of clicks on ARAM’s website and I could have had a pair, in 4-6 weeks, for a shade under £1000, plus some £150 delivery.  Or I could take my pick from the dozens of knockoffs a simple Google search brings up, ranging from £50-£250 per table, within 7 days and for £12 delivery.

Ditto the LC4 Chaise Longue: £3,300 vs. knockoffs starting for £170.

As it happens, design karma may well have been involved in that last purchase, since after a few years the pony skin (horse lovers relax, it’s cow hide) started shedding like a labrador and now anyone wearing dark clothing who rashly sits on it subsequently has their back covered in fine white hairs that cling, annoyingly.  Although, the same is also true for an inordinately expensive and unimpeachably authentic impala hide handbag* I bought while on safari, so shedding might just be a property of hide in general.

In planning our house, I really wanted these glorious hanging lights designed by Vancouver designer Omer Arbel for Bocci over our dining table (and I discovered them way before they were so successful, from the now defunct but still useful archive SlowHomeStudio.  Go me.).

I couldn’t afford as many of the originals as I needed for the space, and I didn’t live close enough to go to their annual sale. So I started searching for knockoffs online, and I did find them. And that’s when I discovered that personally, my moral compass is not OK with ripping off a young designer, towards the start of his/her career, who has created something beautiful and functional, for which he should get the reward, and which will give him and his company the financial security to invent more amazing stuff to add to the great design treasury that lifts our hearts.  I probably won’t feel the same duty to his heirs, but I am OK with that.

As a result of my principled stance, the space above our dining table remains bare, and we eat in candlelit obscurity while I try to squirrel away enough money to commission a local ceramicist to design something for us.  I sense this is the way to go, and I will let you know how I get on.

I acknowledge that the excellent and very human architectural musings from Bob Borson at Life of an Architect have shaped my views – especially this post and thought-provoking comments –  as have the brilliant posts on design in general from Seattle-based Build LLC architects & builders.

But I wasn’t expecting to find the same issues cropping up in the garden.

This below is the eastern facade of the multi-storey car park beside the Olympia public swimming pool, in Dundee.  I think the external treatment is one of the most beautiful I have ever seen, and I frequently stop in front of it to adore it.  I knew right away that I had to find a way to incorporate something like it into my garden.


The inside of the carpark reveals the very straightforward construction: rectangular metal grids with horizontal bars running across them. Short lengths of plastic tubing are threaded onto the bars, and a small steel plate has its top edge molded over the plastic tube, securing the plate to the grid while allowing the bottom edge to swing freely back and forth.  Shouldn’t be that hard, I thought, but it might be even easier to buy it directly from whoever supplied the car park builder.



A bit of digging revealed the builder, and their supplier, and then the information that “the concept was pioneered by American environmental artist Ned Kahn. He constructed a “wind veil” 13 years ago on a parking garage in Charlotte, North Carolina, and it has now been used on a number of major buildings in the United States.”

(This video collection catalogues Ned Kahn’s mesmerizing, enchanting, transporting kinetic sculptures involving wind, water, light, fog and even electricity.)

Now there’s a line beyond which homage to and influenced or inspired by becomes outright copying – stealing – and I’m not totally sure where that line is. Did the supplier copy Ned Kahn’s work? The concept, sure, but can or should anyone copyright such a concept? The technique? From what I can make out, the technique they used is different to any used in Kahn’s work.  I would be interested to know what Ned Kahn thinks.

And what about me? I am going to copy this concept, somehow, in some form, at some domestic scale, by hook or by crook, for my  garden. Where do I stand?

Thoughts, anyone? Where’s your line?



* Our South African friends later told me, rocking with mirth, that it was the equivalent of wearing a musical ‘See you Jimmy’ hat down the Royal Mile in Edinburgh.


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The Tale of the Bathroom Window

Listed on our very first brief, when the design of the house was still just a twinkle in the architect’s eye (and, crucially, before we had settled on a predominantly single storey design) was the item ‘bath window at eye-level’.  Building one’s own house gives one the opportunity to incorporate quirky and bespoke elements, and these rarely fail to deliver lasting delight.  Remind me to tell you about our storm door one of these days, and how our cold larder off the back kitchen is actually outside the envelope of house insulation.  I digress.

I must have been inspired by something like this (Karen Cilento’s photo of Paul Raff Studio’s Cascade House in Toronto as featured in Arch Daily:

Cascade House / Paul Raff Studio

I imagined soaking in the bath after a long and productive day spent working in the garden, letting my gaze roam out over the swaying grasses and structural planting, and yes, maybe even sipping a glass of something chilled while I basked.  How indulgent, how civilized to be able to enjoy the fruits of my labour from my bath.  And so it came to be.

The horizontal bath window can be seen at the far left of the drawing in the blog banner, above, and, in the photo below, seen from the back garden (the large glass window & door to the left of it is the bedroom).

House seen from back garden

All through the build I cherished the thought of this little idiosyncrasy, not pausing to identify that a key feature of the bathrooms of my inspiration was that they were not on the ground floor.  I remained blithely unconscious of the implications of this fact and then one happy day we moved in.

View from bath - day

And it was great.  During the day, that is.  And also providing no one was outside in the garden while I was in the bathroom.  At night, as I daresay even the meanest intelligence will have by now deduced, it was a different story.

View from bath - night

Now I don’t care how sensible or how rational you are, how little you are troubled by silly thoughts: I defy you or anyone else not to lower themselves naked into a bath in these circumstances without wondering whether there is a prowler somewhere in the garden, getting an eyeful. Frankly, it cast a bit of a pall over the whole bath-time ritual, and I only really relaxed once the glass had steamed up.  A frosted film applied to the glass was clearly the answer, but that would then defeat the purpose of me being able to look out at the garden, and we might as well have done without the blasted window (and the extra cost of the wretched thing) in the first place.

So I mulled things over (uneasily, from the bath, firmly telling myself to buck up and that it was highly unlikely for there to be a Susannah and the Elders situation occurring, but…), and then last week I stumbled across a firm that supplies frosted glass film with a transparent pattern on it.  And not just any old pattern, but a transparent pattern of plants.  There was even a choice of designs.  And while the purist in me was rather holding out for Pennisetum or Briza seed heads, I settled happily for wheat.

Applying frosted film to bath window  Frosted film seen from exterior

It was straightforward to apply, looks great from the outside, and because my head is level with the base of the window I can see through the transparent ‘blades of grass’ bit of the pattern, right out into the garden.  When the low winter sunlight streams through the window, it casts delightful clear shadows.

Frosted film - application complete

Thwarted, the prowlers will have to move on to pastures new, and I can enter the bathroom while my son is playing football outside with his friends without worrying that I might inadvertently scar them for life.

I am thoroughly pleased with myself and have hardly left the bath since.