All posts by Roger Grody

Austin Architects embrace eccentricity and dynamism

The Lone Star State’s forward-thinking, artsy capital has its own distinct personality, one that fuels imaginative residential architecture.

By Roger Grody

Photo courtesy of Patrick Wong/Atelierwong.com

Austin is unlike any other city in Texas, and its residents proudly embrace an eccentric, defiant attitude. A vibrant music scene, progressive politics, trendsetting cuisine, and a technology-driven economy make this metro area of two million one of America’s most dynamic. It comes as no surprise, therefore, that Austin has developed its own exciting architectural traditions.

Kevin Alter, founding partner of Alterstudio Architecture and the Sid W. Richardson Centennial Professor at the School of Architecture at the University of Texas (UT) in Austin, suggests the city is developing a strong tradition of modernism. He reports that 20 years ago there was little interest in the movement, but modern architecture’s ability to connect to the outdoors — it suits the region’s scenic Hill Country nearly year round — has endeared it to Austinites. He also cites attitudes of new residents from other regions of the country (Alter himself is a transplanted New Yorker), the draw of UT and a growing technology industry presence as fueling modern design.

“There are a lot of very good architects in the city, given its relatively small size,” says Alter, asserting there is more interesting residential architecture in Austin than in the giant metropolises of Houston and Dallas. “There’s also a youthful optimism in Austin, so people aren’t looking back in history for inspiration.” Contrasting Austin to more traditional, less architecturally tolerant cities, Alter suggests, “Because of that optimism, there’s not a ‘looking-over-your-shoulder’ mentality here for property owners interested in building modern residences.”   

Photo courtesy of Paul Finkel

Real estate broker Brian Linder is a licensed architect and founder of The Value of Architecture, a multi-city network of real estate professionals specializing in architecturally significant homes.

After establishing that niche in Los Angeles, Linder expanded his practice to Austin, appreciating both its family-friendly lifestyle and wealth of exceptional architecture. “Buyers here are willing to pay a significant premium for homes designed by signature architects,” says Linder.

The specialty broker reports one the most desirable neighborhoods in Austin is the trendy South Congress (SoCo) district, where the original housing stock is being replaced with exciting modern architecture. “The area is popular with urban expats from cities like New York, San Francisco and L.A., and buyers are taking their accrued appreciation from those places and investing in good design,” says Linder.

Representative of the top architectural firms in town are Bercy Chen Studio, Jay Hargrave Architecture, Chioco Design, and Minguell-McQuary Architecture.

Austin architects, according to Linder, soften the sometimes austere modernism found in L.A., noting their work emphasizes texture through incorporation of native materials. “Elements like site-gathered stone and reclaimed lumber or brick add a more human scale defined by those materials,” he says. While modernism is becoming the city’s preferred style, there is also ample demand for contemporary farmhouses, a theme promoted by local developers.

One of the priciest current listings in Austin is a striking modern home encompassing 5,400 square feet of living space, offered at $8.5 million. The design, from prominent local firm Dick Clark + Associates, features panoramic views of the city skyline through 60 feet of retractable floor-to-ceiling glass in a living area that opens onto an infinity-edge pool.

Offering a distinctly different lifestyle is a 558-square-foot penthouse-level condominium at the Seaholm Residences in downtown Austin, listed at $399,000. Built on the site of a former power plant, this project helped energize demand for high-rise living in Austin and The Independent, designed locally by Rhode: Partners, will be the tallest residential tower west of the Mississippi when completed. Professor Alter reports that as recently as 2005, investment in downtown condominiums was anemic, but young professionals now arriving in town relish the city center.

“We want to make sure we create spaces that fit our clients, beyond aesthetic or stylistic preferences, beyond basic function,” says Sean Guess, founding principal of the Austin firm Faye and Walker. While he does not view his work as reflecting a particular signature, Guess is among those talented young architects contributing to Austin’s evolution as a city increasingly identified with modern design.

“I tend to focus on the essence of a form, stripping away extraneous information, and carve out spaces from those fundamental forms,” says Guess. Raised in nearby Temple, Texas, Guess suggests that despite Austin’s reputation as the Lone Star State’s least-Texas place, the city’s spirit of risk-taking and independence — certainly reflected in its architecture — is very much the product of the Texas ethos.

“This is a very eclectic community that attracts a great variety of people and backgrounds, which results in creativity and diversity in its architecture,” says Guess of Austin. Among the architect’s acclaimed projects is the home he designed for his own family, dubbed the “Elephant House” because its wrinkled grey corrugated fiber-cement facade is evocative of elephant hide. Some interior walls are clad in clear-coated plywood, making Guess’ novel use of everyday materials reminiscent of Frank Gehry’s early work.

Photo courtesy of Patrick Wong/Atelierwong.com

“I appreciate modern architecture that reflects tasteful, principled design,” says Linder, who is less inspired by facsimiles of Tuscan villas. He is kept increasingly busy in the Texas capital, as Austin’s exceptional architects work overtime to meet demand from buyers with a passion for innovative residential environments.

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Niemeyer & Co.: Bringing Mid-Century Modern to Brazil

Demand for Mid-Century Modern furniture continues to be strong, but while Scandinavia steals the spotlight, savvy collectors are heading south — to Brazil.

By Roger Grody

With its sexy, timeless aesthetic, Mid-Century Modern design, whether architecture or home furnishings, has been hot for decades. Pieces from Europe and the U.S. dominate the market, but some incredible work from Brazilian designers has gone relatively unnoticed. The world is discovering that Oscar Niemeyer, Brazil’s most famous modernist, had plenty of company.

“I believe the mix of cultures that make Brazil — we are, after all, a country built by immigrants — give us a particular charm, a natural flair,” says Carlos Junqueira, founder and president of Espasso. A preeminent source for Mid-Century Modern Brazilian art, furniture and accessories, the New York-based gallery has branches in Miami and London. “With globalization, Brazilian designers have begun developing a strong design identity,” says Junqueira, explaining that the appeal of the genre transcends borders and cultures.

The Dinamarquesa armchair was designed by Polish-born Jorge Zalszupin, one of the Brazilians that comprised a robust creative community in the South American nation after World War II. When Niemeyer was designing Brazil’s new national capital of Brasilia, he recruited Zalszupin to create furniture for the futuristic governmental complex.

Featuring leather cushions supported by a sleek, delicate frame of imbuia (a Brazilian wood resembling walnut), the 1959 chair reflects the Mid-Century Modern aesthetic that was sweeping the globe and, in fact, Dinamarquesa means “Danish” in Portuguese. When viewing these timeless pieces of Brazilian furniture, it is easy to forget that some of them were designed more than 60 years ago.

The Asturias rocking chair is personally handcrafted from sustainable materials by São Paulo designer Carlos Motta. It is a study in simplicity but a dramatic and formidable piece of furniture, with bold red-and-olive cushions embedded in a solid, planked frame. Through its use of reclaimed itauba-preta wood and minimal machine cuts to reduce its environmental impact, this indoor-outdoor chair has been lauded for both design and sustainability.

From contemporary São Paulo-based architect Arthur Casas is the Ondas sideboard, which features a unique rippled edge. Crafted from American walnut, this piece is a departure from the clean, angular features that characterized the structures Casas designed earlier in his career.

On a quiet stretch of Pacific Avenue in Los Angeles’ once-bohemian, now-trendy neighborhood of Venice is Le Magazyn, where founder Ana Kozak celebrates design of all kinds from her native Brazil. In addition to shoes, jewelry and art is a collection of Mid-Century furniture designed by some of her country’s great modernists.

Kozak, who moved with her family from São Paulo to L.A. seven years ago, has transformed a 1,000-square-foot storefront into a combination furniture showroom, fashion boutique and exhibition space. Pendant lamps from São Paulo’s Estudio Manus hang from exposed beams while merchandise is displayed on a walnut table designed by Brazilian modernist Claudia Moreira.

Because Le Magazyn is Espasso’s representative on the West Coast, Kozak is able to fill her intimate showroom with a selection of pieces that intrigue the professional designers, local homeowners and tourists who drop by her store. “For many years the reference point for this era of furniture was Denmark, but now people searching for something new and different are discovering Brazilian Mid-Century,” says Kozak.

Le Magazyn’s walls are lined with photos from the widely published Brazilian photographer Claudio Edinger, whose aerials of a smoggy São Paulo skyline are hauntingly alluring. The work of architect/photographer Leonardo Finotti, another Brazilian fascinated by urban aerial shots, is offered through Espasso.

Atlanta interior designer Perry Walter discovered Brazilian Mid-Century Modern furniture when he was searching for a compelling coffee table for a client. While that commission involved a modern townhouse, Walter believes these Brazilian pieces can also be effective in more traditional settings.

“I think each piece is unique and can be displayed like a work of art,” says the designer, who appreciates how the style’s minimalism is warmed through the use of exotic woods and organic forms.

“The value of Brazilian furniture has been growing considerably as its recognition and desirability increases,” reports Espasso’s Junqueira, who notes that as prices rise knockoffs naturally emerge. “I’m extra-careful and attentive to every single detail related to the work I represent and the vintage selection I offer,” says the gallery founder, pleased to see Brazilian design internationally relevant and appreciated.

Photos courtesy of le magazyn

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Fast-Growing Start-Up Strengthens Community Connections

Through its Random Acts of Kindness campaign, real estate marketing leader Parkbench.com encourages good deeds in every neighborhood.

By Roger Grody

One of the fastest-growing start-ups in the real estate industry is Parkbench.com, an innovative, neighborhood-based collaborative through which real estate professionals enhance their presence in the community. The platform also hosts businesses, residents and nonprofit organizations, connecting people on multiple levels and strengthening communities throughout the U.S. and Canada.

The Toronto-based company was founded by entrepreneur Grant Findlay-Shirras and his wife Amanda Newman, a local Realtor. The concept, which establishes an exclusive website for a Realtor in every neighborhood, provides a vehicle through which that real estate professional can build his or her business while creating a more cohesive, tightknit community. After launching his wife’s website in 2013, Findlay-Shirras founded Parkbench.com to accommodate demand from Realtors in every state and province.

Parkbench.com CEO
Grant Findlay-Shirras

“Everybody who lives, works or plays in a neighborhood has something to say, and this platform provides immense value to the community while building a Realtor’s brand,” says the CEO. Findlay-Shirras explains Parkbench.com allows Realtors to elevate their roles to what they once were: pillars of the community who generate referrals by collaborating with local businesses, residents and organizations. It is a technology-driven approach to old-fashioned relationships.

“All Realtors want to provide value to their communities and expand their spheres of influence, but most don’t know how to go about it,” says Findlay-Shirras, who adds, “We believe in the Law of Reciprocity. Those who provide value to their communities will prosper.” Parkbench.com has also become the largest single provider of local news, aggregating local content from around the Internet and updating it daily on its Realtors’ respective websites.

Because Parkbench.com’s mission is to make neighborhoods stronger, both socially and economically, a corporate culture of giving comes naturally. After Hurricane Harvey hit Texas last August, Parkbench.com donated 10 percent of its revenue the following month to the nonprofit Feeding Texas. This past February, the firm implemented a Random Acts of Kindness campaign in honor of National Random Acts of Kindness Week, February 11-17, 2018.

“The entire company is built on this motto: Give value first, and have faith that you will receive something in return,” says Findlay-Shirras, who adds, “And why not give it randomly to see people’s awesome reactions?” The Parkbench.com CEO, who created the Local Leader® Marketing System used by his network of 1,000-plus Realtors, reports that members in cities throughout the U.S. and Canada — including New York, Vancouver, Phoenix, Los Angeles, Austin, Philadelphia, Seattle, Toronto, and Miami — participated in the February campaign.

Among the random acts of kindness extended by Parkbench.com, Realtors were buying coffee for the neighborhood, handing out flowers on Valentine’s Day, reprising the lost art of dispensing compliments to strangers, and cleaning up litter in the community. Local Realtors videotaped and posted their random acts for a companywide competition, with the winning Realtor receiving $1,000 to donate to his or her favorite charity.

Parkbench.com also supports nonprofits beyond the neighborhood level, and selected causes have included fostering entrepreneurship in Kenya, assisting the homeless and funding disaster relief. “The spirit of the company is giving to the community,” reminds Findlay-Shirras of Parkbench.com’s core value. “That’s who we are.”

Photo courtesy of Parkbench.com

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Sun-Kissed Renaissance

Florida is repeatedly challenged, but by embracing its diverse cultures and lifestyles the state has arrived on the threshold of a promising new era.

By Roger Grody

Virtually the entire Florida peninsula was ravaged by Hurricane Irma last September, but the resilient Sunshine State — even Key West, which suffered the devastating storm’s direct assault — has rebounded. Builders may employ new technologies to brace oceanfront properties from future storms, but coastal Florida is far too magical to dampen enthusiasm for new development. Undeterred by Irma is a Floridian renaissance that still has the wind at its back.

Delicious Diversity

Unlike many states that are defined by a uniform lifestyle, Florida is so multidimensional that vastly different lifestyles coexist. The fourth-generation fisherman dropping nets off the Florida Panhandle seems far removed from the hipster fashion designer in South Beach, yet both are proud Floridians united by their passion for the sun and surf.

Some of Florida’s 67 counties are more spiritually akin to rural Alabama, while others feel more like Havana, Managua or Brooklyn. In one town, shrimp-and-grits is the signature dish, in another it may be ropa vieja or pastrami-on-rye. That diversity is one of the elements that makes the Sunshine State so exciting, and so welcoming to newcomers.

The U.S. Census reported that 128 different languages are spoken in South Florida alone. While some old-timers may bemoan that reality, it is the influx of immigrants — not only from the Americas but also Europe and Asia — that has fueled the transformation of Miami from sleepy snowbird retreat to world-class metropolis. Other regions of the state have also drawn newcomers from across the country and around the world.

Golf as Religion

With the Gators, Seminoles and Canes all intently followed, football is huge in Florida, but the sport that seems most worshipped in the Sunshine State is golf. Florida has more courses (approximately 1,250) than any other state, the Professional Golfers’ Association (PGA) is headquartered in Palm Beach Gardens, and dozens of touring professionals reside in the state, attracted by its climate, championship courses and lack of state income tax.

Photo courtesy of Vizcaya Museum & Gardens Archives, Robin Hill and Edison Food + Drink Lab

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Bidding on Kindness — How Supreme Auctions Gives Back

Real estate professional Jennie Heal puts her skills as an auctioneer to work for good causes.

By Roger Grody

Supreme Auctions provides an alternative marketing strategy for sellers of luxury real estate. The Scottsdale, Arizona-based firm’s President, Jennie Heal, explains, “We saw an opportunity to provide owners the ability to sell their property in a more expedited manner and many times for far more money than traditional real estate can bring.” She reports the process has been embraced by sellers, listing agents and buyers.

Since its founding 15 years ago, Supreme Auctions has achieved a 94-percent success rate while selling in 70 different countries. “We’re very selective about the properties we auction, accepting only about 10 percent that come to us,” says Heal, a veteran broker with extensive experience in international marketing. She joined the company more than 12 years ago as director of marketing before ascending to the position of president. The auction process is familiar to Heal, as this is a prevailing means of selling luxury manors and estates in her native England.

Growing up in rural Somerset, Heal frequently attended auctions with her father, a farmer who enjoyed bidding on cattle and antiques. “I was bitten by the bug at an early age, but remember him saying, ‘Keep your hands in your pocket,’” says Heal of those childhood experiences. Even after joining a real estate auction company, the seasoned professional’s development as an actual auctioneer occurred very much by accident.

Supreme Auctions President Jennie Heal

“I was attending an event to raise money for my son’s school, and the auctioneer never showed up,” recounts Heal. “One of the parents said, ‘You work for an auction company … why don’t you do it?’ and I found myself on stage.” After her reluctant debut, another parent commented, “You’re really good at this!” When she decided to get serious about auctioneering, Heal attended the Texas Auction Academy and additionally the Professional Ringmen’s Institute.

Heal now serves as a charity benefit auctioneer at approximately 50 events per year, but spends a considerable amount of time before each auction with representatives of the nonprofit organization. “I want to thoroughly understand their missions so I can be as effective as possible in raising money for them,” says Heal, who views herself equal parts salesperson and auctioneer. “I see myself as a conduit from the nonprofit to the audience and frequently conduct additional pledge donations at the conclusion of the live auction,” she explains.

“I was attending an event to raise money for my son’s school, and the auctioneer never showed up,” recounts Heal. “One of the parents said, ‘You work for an auction company … why don’t you do it?’ and I found myself on stage.”

Bringing the spirit of Sotheby’s or Christie’s to those nonprofit galas, Heal’s work has benefitted a diverse array of charities, including Ronald McDonald House Charities, YWCA, Phoenix Zoo, Arizona Foundation for Women, and St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital. Legendary for covering all costs of a child’s care, as well as the family’s travel, housing and food expenses, St. Jude is a particularly personal passion of Heal’s, whose brother is a brain tumor survivor. The non-profit has selected her to conduct auctions across the country and Heal never declines an opportunity to raise money for its world-class treatment and research.
Back at her day job with Supreme Auctions, Heal is creating a culture in which giving back to the community is strongly encouraged.

Last year, she and her staff participated as a team, cleaning facilities for Family Promise, an organization that rescues homeless families from the streets. This year, they are planning to work together on a Habitat for Humanity house.

Heal, who lives in Scottsdale with her husband and two children, loves the outdoors. “Any day I am not sat behind a desk is a great day,” she quips.

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High-End Products to Transform Your Cup Of Joe

This article originally appeared in the Fall 2017 edition of The High End magazine. For more information about The High End, click here.

Suddenly obsessed with coffee, Americans are becoming as selective about the quality of their beans, equipment and tableware as their counterparts in Italy. 

By Roger Grody

Tom Dixon Brew Cafetiere

Kees van der Westen Speedster

Lux/Eros espresso cup and saucer

Photo courtesy Consort-Design.com

As luxury homeowners increasingly desire to master their own barista skills, demand for high-end products for home kitchens is skyrocketing. Coffee aficionados now enjoy many ways of transforming an ordinary cup of Joe into a work of art. 

Handcrafted in Florence, Italy, La Marzocco espresso machines are coveted by professional baristas worldwide, and the company’s Linea Mini ($4,500) is specifically designed for the home. “With the introduction of Linea Mini, we now have a professional-quality machine for anyone interested in creating a café experience in their kitchen,” says Kent Bakke, CEO of La Marzocco International. With a design based on the iconic La Marzocco machines used by the pros, this version is compact (i.e. counter-friendly) and turns out a perfect latte. 

Slayer Espresso has earned a cult-like following that appreciates both the performance and aesthetics of its espresso machines. The Slayer Single Group, the company’s model for the home, features dual boilers and a touchscreen that assists in temperature control and flavor profiling, resulting in espresso with great body and a rich crema. Peruvian walnut accents and custom colors or finishes give this machine the sexy looks of an Italian sports car, yet is built by artisans in Seattle. The hefty price tag of $8,500 is no deterrent to those who have a passion for espresso. “Let’s face it, espresso equipment options have been around for a long time and everyone has some form of so-called espresso maker in their gadget collection,” says Slayer Espresso founder and CEO Jason Prefontaine. “Trust me, our espresso machine with flavor profiling, needle valve technology will forever change your coffee ritual…. Don’t be surprised if you end up loving coffee like we do,” he adds.

An exclusive Dutch brand renowned for its edgy industrial designs, Kees van der Westen offers the Speedster for home use, loaded with bespoke options. Inspired by automotive and motorcycle construction, this pricy toy (approximately $13,000) delivers professional-quality espresso drinks and will definitely be noticed by your guests. 

Coffee is not simply about roasted beans and steamed milk, so luxurious accoutrements are essential. The MOOD collection by Christofle, the venerable French manufacturer of elegant tableware and accessories, presents a set of six espresso spoons — clad in silver ($360) or gilded in 18-carat rose gold ($650) — in a gleaming egg-shaped chest. These spoons are just the kind of accessories to elevate any perfectly crafted cup of espresso. 

Among other fashionable coffee-related accessories, British designer Tom Dixon has created this cafetière, more commonly referred to as a French press. With a modern unfussy aesthetic, the gleaming copper-finished stainless steel body is classic Dixon, and its heat-resistant handle is artfully functional. Many connoisseurs believe the best way to enjoy coffee at home — short of purchasing one of the espresso machines featured on these pages — is by small-batch brewing in one of these low-tech devices. Besides, setting a French press on a dinner party table quietly announces a host’s sense of sophistication and elegance. This product ($210) is available at British online retailer Amara, where founder/creative director Sam Hood has assembled an international collection of designer accessories for the home.

Unique espresso cups and saucers ($50) by Lux/Eros, the ceramics brand from designer Desanka Fasiska, feature an elegant rusticity. They are hand-carved and hand-glazed to order in California, with no two pieces being identical. Distinguished by their high-gloss 90-degree angle handles, these products are available at Consort stores in New York and L.A., or online. 

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