A silk blouse by Hermes, Lego blocks, the lace on Queen Elizabeth’s collar in a 16th-century portrait, and the writings of physicist Richard Feynman are not standard issue in an architect’s tool kit. But those are just a few of the ideas that have inspired the recent works of architects Thomas Shine and Jin Choi.
The Brookline-based husband and wife, principals in Choi + Shine Architects, imbue a simple room with maverick eccentricity. A current project, The Ultimate Woman’s Apparel, a dress shop in a boxy building in Peabody, has a ceiling lined with upturned, white nylon tent-like light covers; each billows like a gown. Motorists driving past on Route 1 can see their dramatic shadow play.
There’s also Gloss, a nail salon in Melrose that looks like a Scandinavian art gallery, with its stark minimalism, backlit shelves, and custom-printed wallpaper with Escher-esque patterns. The office they designed for a biotech firm in Copley Square is a blend of circus tent exuberance and sleek lab-chic. And then there are the 100-foot high-voltage electrical towers shaped like human figures that will soon loom over the Icelandic landscape.
It’s not often that architects accustomed to creating intimate spaces like kitchens and dressing rooms find themselves in meetings with government officials and executives from an Icelandic electric company, but those have been on the couple’s schedule lately. The electric tower project, called “The Land of Giants,” was the winning submission in a design competition held by Landsnet, Iceland’s national power company. And “Giants” embodies the same whimsical practicality of their designs for daily living spaces.
“Usually there’s no design involved in infrastructure,” Choi said over coffee and chocolate mousse that Shine had made. The couple was sitting in their stark, high-ceilinged dining room, a study in minimalism. Their dishes are white and angular. Slender, elegant vases that Shine made line wall-mounted shelves. “So let’s disguise the infrastructure, let’s try to make it art instead of burying it, and make it stand out, like a monument.”
To hear them talk about their approach to design is like listening to Ornette Coleman talk about creating jazz — it’s dreamlike and surreal, yet grounded in mathematics and rationality. Their work is the sum total of their very different sensibilities. Growing up in Seoul, Choi drew what she later realized were drafts and elevations for dollhouses she built as a child. She’d sharpen her pencils with a razor blade. She studied sociology at Yonsei University, and has a Master of Fine Arts in architectural history and theory. But she always wanted to create something more visual.
Shine, who’s British and grew up in Kentucky, has a CV that reads like the title page of an engineering school catalog. He’s worked in software, mechanics, electronics, and biotech. And he’s dabbled in ceramics.
“I worked on programming embedded controllers, which are tiny, and they’re inside things. It takes so much time and energy to make them, and nobody could see the work. Architecture seemed the right mix for me,” said Shine.
They met in 1997 at Yale University’s School of Architecture, where they learned as much from each other’s way of working as they did from professors. Shine, coming from the rigid engineering field, barely flinched under the pressure of presentations. Choi, meanwhile, kept fastidious records and schedules. Even today, she maintains a small leather book, its grid-lined pages filled with detailed sketches and notes in meticulous, minuscule print. But what drew them together – in work and in life — is what drives their work today.
“There’s no mention of beauty in architectural books,” said Shine. “There’s form, et cetera, but beauty is not a worthwhile topic of conversation. There’s simplicity, functionality, but nobody’s allowed to say ‘beauty.’ Something can be intellectually consistent or clever. It’s all mechanical games and theory. Logic wins over beauty.”
But since logic and beauty ultimately need to coexist, their process of checks and balances comes into play to great effect.
“He’s engineering, I’m everything else — aesthetics, beauty, theory,” says Choi matter-of-factly.
“Me too,” Shine retorts, with jokey indignation.
“Sometimes he complements me,” Choi shoots back with offhandedness. “I’ll initiate the design, a sketch.”
“Not always,” he insists.
“He’ll check it.”
“I’ll improve it greatly.”
“He adds a touch of reality,” she concedes with a smile.
Consider The Ultimate Woman’s Apparel. The family-owned dress shop, is relocating to a sprawling 10,000 square foot space on the second floor of a boxy building a short distance from its original spot on Route 1 in Peabody. Taking cues from the vaults of Gothic cathedrals, they designed the upturned tents draped from the ceiling to create an elegant, romantic effect. It also has a practical purpose: concentrating and softening the light, diminishing reflection.
“Retail on Route 1 is pretty cookie cutter,” said owner Heather Siegel. “I had reservations about a second floor space, but we have big, high windows. I realized there’s spectacular north and southbound exposure, and people driving by can see the ceiling. And they came up with an idea for how to bring in the light it in a way that doesn’t alter the color of the dresses.”
That moment that a motorist, or any passerby, pauses to take note of what otherwise goes unnoticed is part of what inspired “Giants.”
“We’re oblivious — immune, even — to mundane infrastructure. It’s time to tidy the remnants of industrialization,” said Choi. “The result of no design is just mass production of industry.”
People are taking notice.
“I have so much respect for people out there doing that kind of design work in all facets of life. When you start building that kind of stuff, it makes everyone start thinking in design-driven ways. Steve Jobs taught us that with Apple computers,” said Aaron Howell, president of Northwest Lineman College, a vocational university in Idaho, who featured “Giants” in the school’s publication. “What’s so powerful about really good design is that it enriches life.”
The long customary “not in my backyard” reaction to power construction suddenly turns into an interest and engagement in the structures, he said.
Engaging with commonplace objects and concepts is how new ideas take hold. That’s where Shine looks to Feynman, the physicist, whose revolutionary theory on quantum physics was inspired by little more than a spinning coin.
“You need to have an appreciation for the essence of things, an interest in patterns,” Shine says. “You need relaxed enjoyment of things, time to wonder and make design.”