The other side of a confinement
This article is part of our latest special Design file, on the new creative paths shaped by the pandemic.
The coronavirus pandemic has upended many lives. But for some people, the disruption has been positive, providing an opportunity to take their skills in a new direction.
For New York architect and designer Marc Thorpe, this shift began in 2019, when he and his partner, Claire Pijoulat, one of the founders of New York design platform WantedDesign, built a 500-foot cabin squares in Western New York State. Catskills. Mr. Thorpe, who is best known for his products for international companies like Moroso and Venini, struggled to find a builder who was willing to execute his non-traditional design. He and Ms. Pijoulat started thinking about how to design houses that cost less to build and, just as importantly, were sustainable and less dependent on energy.
This was followed by what he called “a pandemic moment, where people were trying to get out of town and have a simpler life.” But some of those fleeing New York were willing to pay $1million and more for homes, which Mr Thorpe found disturbing. As Ms. Pijoulat recalled, they saw an opportunity to give local residents access to “modern homes that were inaccessible to them”, as well as to demonstrate that “modern architecture doesn’t have to be cold, austere and expensive”.
After spending so much time in the Catskills during the pandemic, Mr. Thorpe was able to establish a local network of builders and solar engineers. In 2021, he started a new company, Edifice Upstate, which, according to its website, develops “affordable and environmentally sustainable” homes. But “sustainable” does not mean solar panels connected to the local electricity grid. Instead, the company’s all-wood homes will be built with off-grid solar technology.
Three models, all of which use water from a well, will be offered: a 500-square-foot, one-bedroom, one-bath cabin with a kitchenette, for $250,000; a 1,000-square-foot, two-bedroom, one-bath home with a full kitchen, laundry room, and living room, for $350,000; and a 2,000-square-foot, three-bedroom, two-bathroom home that includes an office, for $450,000. The first 1,000 square foot home is expected to be completed by the end of the summer.
Mr. Thorpe and Mrs. Pijoulat’s one-room cabin was deemed too austere for most buyers, but it changed their thinking about what constitutes a comfortable home. “I think we’re on the cusp of a new movement,” Mr Thorpe said. “We focus on something small and doable, not a grand gesture – the micro that leads to the macro.”
For Danish curator and gallerist Elisabeth Johs — who has lived in New York since 2017 while taking classes at Sotheby’s and co-founding a gallery called Trotter & Sholer — the pandemic has been a bad surprise. Her visa expired in March 2020, when the city was closed, so she went to Switzerland, where her parents lived.
Meanwhile, Ms. Johs and a Californian painter she was in a relationship with hatched a plan to move to Mexico City and find a place where they could live and work together. Ms Johs moved there in September 2021, but the artist was away. Still, Mrs. Johs decided to go ahead with her plan. “When you’re heartbroken,” she recalls, “you have a lot of energy.”
She rented a house, in the San Miguel Chapultepec neighborhood of the city, which had been completed in 1981 by famed modernist architect Carlos Herrera. The 6,000 square foot concrete structure, with its large windows and skylights, was not in very good condition. Ms. Johs, in conjunction with design firm Cadana, renovated the building and purchased furniture from Mexican firms ATRA, La Metropolitana and Decada. “My first goal was to make it livable,” she said. The space, called JO-HS, opened to the public in November 2021, and its bi-monthly exhibitions focus primarily on Mexican and Latin American artists.
One enters the building through a reception area, which leads to a boutique, and art-filled spaces and patios. There is a living room, with a vaulted brick ceiling and stone tiled floors, adjacent to a dining room and kitchen. The main gallery space, with its installation of plants from an old exhibit and a large window, is on the larger of the two patios, and the studio spaces are in the garage. Mrs. Johs’ bedroom, a small living room and other office space are upstairs. She noted that it is “unconventional to have art exhibitions in domestic spaces”, but she likes that it “blurs the lines between studio and gallery”.
A recent exhibition, “LUZ”, focused on the theme of light, with vintage and contemporary pieces by designers, photographers and artists, including a large fluorescent tube starburst, made in 2003 by Thomas Glassford, an American in Mexico City. Currently, “Domesticada” focuses on works by female painters responding to the theme of “domesticated women”.
Ms Johs said she was glad she went ahead with her plan, even if she had to do it alone. “You either jump or you don’t,” she says.
For others, the pandemic has offered the opportunity to do something completely different. Andreas Kokkino has been a fashion and design editor (we worked together at T Magazine), as well as a fashion stylist. In 2018 he moved to Athens, and in 2020 he was in confinement with his partner, Stathis Mitropoulos, a graphic designer, and tired of the fashion world.
The couple were watching a Netflix documentary ‘Circus of Books’ about a legendary gay porn bookstore in Los Angeles when they were struck with the idea of opening their own business. Athens is full of bookstores and book lovers, but none specializing in photography, design, fashion and cooking. “People were asking for magazines like PIN-UP, Toilet Paper and Cabana,” Mr. Kokkino said. “There’s a big creative community here – they travel a lot and they’re looking for cool stuff.”
The store, Hyper Hypo, opened in Athens in December last year. Its name refers to the desire of its founders to sell “high” and “low”, expensive and affordable goods. Formerly a warehouse, the bookshop has been stripped down and repainted a deep blue, with white lacquer for the new shelves. Tassos Govatsos, a local architect, came up with the design, including the shelves and center table. Mr. Mitropoulos created the pair of neon eyes in the window that signals the idea of visual culture.
“We wanted to see a light, bright and colorful – not cozy – space that was reminiscent of contemporary stores in other cities,” Mr. Kokkino said. Posters made by Hyper Hypo from works by local artists decorate the walls and sell for as little as $22. Designer items include sleek light fixtures with marble bases, hand-blown glass globes, and woven straw shades. There are also mugs, by design firm Greece is for Lovers, that say “Athens Sucks”. The lower level is a gallery used for cultural events.
The store now has many customers stopping in every week, and Wanda, Mr. Kokkino and Mr. Mitropoulos’ black poodle, has proven to be just as popular. “She is our mascot,” Mr. Kokkino said. “People are obsessed with her.”
Mr. Kokkino and Mr. Mitropoulos are already thinking about doing pop-ups and branches and creating merchandise; a series of extravagantly patterned tote bags, made by Mr. Mitropoulos’ mother, were a big hit.
“I have found my life’s calling,” Mr. Kokkino said.