His website, like the similarly-named song, says, "Don't fence me in." It screams "maverick" and "irreverent," while making its point with humor but laser-like clarity: Here's my job as architect; here's your job as client. A blog, to boot, addresses the more cerebral side of kitchens. With all of that, and a lot more, Jake Bittner of Bittner Design Office is redefining the process of design.
"It's really hard in design to be critical of what you’re doing," Bittner says. "A lot of times when people design, they sort of convince themselves that it's OK. They say, 'I know I need a pantry, but this 12-inch one, it's OK. Even though this doesn’t quite look right, I guess it’s good enough.'" Bittner says the process is hard and takes practice and experience, and a lot of knowledge of construction and millwork – “…what you can and can’t do and how you want to manipulate space or the materials to make them do exactly what you want. Since the client doesn’t know how hard it is, and doesn’t necessarily have the background to judge what they’re getting, people can get away with doing a really bad design. It’s important to be hypercritical of what you’re doing,” he concludes, analogizing the process to food. “You wouldn’t put foie gras on a plate with French fries, just because you like them both. It’s not just about putting things you like together in one space. It all has to work toward a definite goal.”
Bittner talks about Grand Central Station as a frame of reference. “You walk into that space and it’s just powerful,” he says. “The volume is perfect, and the windows and the light. Maybe not so much now, but 20 years ago, all the signage and handrails – all the other accessories that went with it – were perfect. Most people aren’t going to notice the muttons on the glazing or that the handrail is 2 ¼ vs. 2 ¾, but you just get it. It works when it works.”
The Building Life
Reflecting on the time as a 7-year-old he’d sworn an oath to architecture, the New England born and bred Bittner revealed that in 1998, following graduation from architecture school at Arizona State University (ASU), he eschewed a life of mitered glass offices and power lunches. Instead, the newly-minted architect went to work as a carpenter for a Nantucket custom builder.
“I didn’t know construction,” he recalls, deciding that architecture school, as much as he’d embraced it, “just didn’t get me there.” With construction intrinsic to what he wanted to know about his profession, Bittner worked as part of a four-member team in the framing, sheathing, insulating, siding, tiling and millwork aspects of home building. “I would have been there for years,” he says, noting he left in 1999 “only because Nantucket housing is really hard to come by on a carpenter’s salary.”
A call to design a house from a Connecticut builder brought him back home, followed by digital rendering work (computer rendering was “really primitive” in those days, he recalls) and designing spec houses. At the encouragement of new bride Maggie, who’d asked him to “get a real job,” Bittner went to work for Southport, Conn. architect David Scott Parker, where he became involved in very high end residential work. Interiors were a large part of the practice where Bittner was exposed to antique and custom furniture, wall finishes, carpeting and draperies. “I learned all the real detailed stuff that goes into making a good space,” he says. An eventual move to Washington, where his wife, an event planner, had attended college, resulted in several years with AAI Poggenpohl’s mid-Atlantic distributor in Chevy Chase, Md., where Bittner says he got to do everything from sales to design to construction management, further broadening his architectural horizons.
The Writing Life
Because the road to architecture for Bittner never was, and rarely is, straight (he credits ASU with exposing him to the theoretical side of architecture, importing professors from Cranbrook and Columbia), instead of drawing his way into a project as most in his profession do, the process for him begins with a great deal of writing.
“My wife thinks I’m crazy,” he says of his own design process, explaining that at the outset of a project, he “writes pages and pages and pages,” admittedly “using words to dig,” which he ultimately edits (drawings and computer work eventually ensue). This helps him “get outside of the project’s core” - to really focus on the message. In architecture and design, he says, the message, or point of view, is essential. With kitchens and baths among the most challenging for architects and designers, according to Bittner, they are his favorite projects. Toilet, tub and shower have to be there, for example, but whether the room is a retreat: a place to collect oneself, or something else, will inform the design. “When you wake up in the morning, is it bright and light? At night, is it going to be tranquil and peaceful as you get ready for bed?" How this space is going to make you feel, Bittner indicates, establishes the room’s direction.
The Price of Dreams
Citing his unfettered New England roots and experience in all facets of the profession, Bittner maintains his “brutal honesty” in not underselling design work. “So often, a client will come to an architect,” professing all these great ideas with a $100,000 budget, he says. Bittner adds the architect makes promises, including completion within a year, but in the end the dream costs $300,000 and is nowhere near finished within the time frame.
“These really are people’s dreams,” Bittner says resolutely. “When they set out to hire a designer and build custom things, you’re dealing with very valuable things that I think are not respected by a lot of people. Those dreams go deep and the trust a client puts in you means you have to take good care of them.”