In the early 1980s, V’Soske, the noted manufacturer of fine rugs, asked Shelton and Mindel to contribute a design to a series of exhibition pieces by contemporary architects. V’Soske’s clients have included many of the 20th century’s great architects. All work is done by hand, and V’Soske works only with design professionals. Shelton and Mindel have developed a close working relationship with the firm over the years; several of their rugs hang in its showroom. One, for example, was created for a penthouse apartment surrounded by a garden terrace; it features a stylized depiction of a hedgerow, remarkable for its subtle combination of texture and color.

“How easy it appears when they do something—but they don’t do anything without thinking it through,” observes Roger McDonald, a creative director at V’Soske. “They have such incredible minds,” he adds, gesturing towards the rug. “It comes from the intellect.”

“Not all architects understand how to fully realize the interiors of their spaces—and this is something that Lee and Peter do extraordinarily well,” says Ellen Herzmark, V’Soske’s other creative director. “The architecture and the interior are a perfect union, and that’s quite miraculous.”

The average Shelton Mindel project takes about two years to complete, and they divide the creative process into three phases. “The procedure is the same in everything, whether you’re designing a fountain pen or a skyscraper,” Shelton explains. “We always start with what’s given: Is it an existing place? What are the pros and cons? Then you gather information from the client. When the client is a couple, it’s even more confusing because they say different things—he says, ‘Don’t listen to her’; she says, ‘Don’t listen to him’—and then, eventually, you have a feeling for what sort of a cake this is going to be.”

At this point in the process, Shelton and Mindel formulate a partie, a succinct mission statement expressing their goals for a space, against which they weigh all subsequent design ideas. If an idea undermines the partie, they discard it. “You sort of winnow through as you keep elevating all the layers,” Shelton continues, “and you keep going back to it all the time, so details stay consistent.”

The minutiae of technical specifications follow the creative work.

“Today, construction documents have become monumental,” says Shelton, a little wearily. “With an average apartment renovation, there are over 40 pages, specifying every detail—what screws, where, what paint, painting methods; and the contractor asks you every single question, so it takes a huge amount of time. We also mock up everything—for instance, an island in a kitchen. Is it too far? Is it too close? In some places, one-eighth of an inch is a big deal. Dimensions are very important for circulation and the feeling of spaciousness.”

The firm’s dimensions are likewise significant; it has remained tiny by design. “We’re still trying to make ends meet all the time,” says Mindel, “but we never wanted to get so corporate that we lost touch with our kookiness and our passion—so consumed by our business that we felt disconnected from it. I used to feel really inferior about being so by-the-seat-of-your-pants and small, and then I realized that you don’t have to be big to be great; you don’t have to be small to be great—you just have to be committed to what feels right for you. I’m always proudest of the next project, because you’re always afraid there’s not going to be one.”

“It’s a tough business,” Shelton muses. “If you’re a lawyer, you can say to somebody, ‘Listen to me, or you’re gonna go to jail.’ If you’re a doctor, it’s, ‘Listen to me, or you’re gonna die.’ And then an architect says, ‘Listen to me, or your friends won’t like your place’—it’s just not the same threat.”

In the end, the satisfaction of a job well done is the best reward. “The biggest compliment to us is for clients to just enjoy their place,” says Shelton. “We run into them, and they say it’s been great, they love living there. That’s one of the nicest things we can hear.”

David Perrelli C’01, a contributor to the Gazette since his work-study days, is currently studying at the New York School of Interior Design.

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2004 The Pennsylvania Gazette
Last modified 04/27/04

Creating Space
By David Perelli

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