Beauty vs Bean counting… Prioritizing design over a spreadsheet.

I just finished reading Bob Lutz’s fascinating book on his years at General Motors from early 2000 to 2012. Its titled Car Guys vs. Bean counters; The battle for the Soul of American Business. His basic premise is that GM cars had lost their magic by 2000, they were ugly and their design had been hijacked by the ”Bean counters”  who had demoted design to a small and insignificant role.

Instead of good design, the metrics for whether a car was successful were business and manufacturing ideals like; production efficiency, manufacturing completion days, and other MBA boardroom goals. Bob’s view was that these metrics were useless because GM’s cars were ugly and dull and no one wanted to buy them. His solution was to return GM’s design department to an autonomous and important role so that the buyers could get excited about their design and look.  Bob understood that people needed to fall in love with their cars before they would buy them. I believe the same is true for our homes and just like the car business, large builders are more focused on production efficiency rather than beauty.

Too many builders have demoted design to a second-tier low-status position that is often over-ruled by production manager who are seeking to control costs. Builders pay rock-bottom prices for the cheapest set of plans they can find, and then are fooled into believing that because their houses sell, it means they are well-designed.

pontiac-Aztek_2004In Bob Lutz’s book the Pontiac Aztek (voted one of the worst designs ever) is the poster child for all that was bad at GM in early 2000. The Aztek was widely touted as a failure, critic’s  comments included; “looks like 6-week old cottage cheese.” or “atrocious proportions wrapped in plastic body cladding”.  If the Aztek is one of the worst cars of all time, I would invite those critics over to see some of the houses being built today.

If the car industry has the Aztek, the home building industry has the “Snout-Nose” home. So named because of the large 2-car garage jutting out from the house towards the street like a pig’s snout. The garage on pre-1940 homes was tucked behind the house similar to an historic carriage house. By the 1950′s and 60′s builders discovered that by moving the garage to the front of the street they could cut the concrete costs down by over 50%. A significant savings true, the problem is it makes the street like a wide back alley.










snout house design

It’s hard to dress up the garage (even with the grass and sidewalks) and make it look inviting and beautiful. Windows, porches are much more inviting than a blank wall.



snout house colonialThis one has windows and porches but it still doesn’t make for a very inviting home. The more I look at this home the more it looks as if the house has a swollen right eye.




Consider as an alternative Seaside Florida. This New Urban community built in the 1980′s where the focus of the car was purposefully de-emphasized and the community is designed around walking and bike riding. It is a much friendlier and hospitable from the street and it encourages walking and talking with neighbors. Having spent numerous family vacations here, I have seen these ideas work.


The success of seaside is not questioned. In fact, its influence, since it was built, is seen across the country in a new type of community called a TND or Traditional Neighborhood Development. TND’s  requires garages at the back or out of sight, porches close to the street and even sidewalks.

seaside houseI would argue that Seaside has also encouraged cottage living. A dressed down, anti-McMansion simplicity. This casual, barefoot living is popular and behind some of the small house ideas that are gaining traction today.


The point is that when beauty and design are made a priority, we all win. We are inspired, and uplifted by beauty. As Bob Lutz was able to turn around the designs at GM, so a focus on design will improve our lives as well. We are attracted to wonderful places and find joy living in them. Beauty and design are worthy of pursuits.








The lost of art molding. . . 3 things to avoid.

Brian Campbell had a nice comment on my last post about clamshell moldings. He pointed out that there are applications where a clamshell molding makes perfect sense. I agree, because in a minimalistic-modern house the clamshell casing contributes to the narrative and story of the home.

He also pointed out that there are many examples of “traditional” moldings that are equally bad. His comments reminded me of a talk I gave a few years ago on classical interiors. I used that talk to highlight some current bad habits in millwork and I think it is appropriate to share those now. Here are 3 things to avoid when putting up moldings.

1. Don’t put your wainscot too high: This is the most often abused and yet easiest mistake to fix when molding a house; DON’T install the chair rail at or above 36″. This is a great misconception shared by some designers and carpenters and if you want to read about this rule, I wrote an article for THISisCarpentry, and you can read it here. I believe the chair rail/wainscot is THE most important molding in a room. This molding does a better job of providing pleasing scale and it is a great room-unifier.

horner-millwork-0051In this example, the wainscot is around 38″ tall and nearly divides the wall in half, ugh! I would lower it 8″-10″, and I typically tell clients and craftsmen to start at 28-32″ in rooms with 8-10′ ceilings.

Unfortunately, this room is not improved by the crown or casing as they are a little over-the-top. ( see rule #2 below). Also, I think the door is ugly. (go ahead, ask me how I really feel)




1By contrast, I think this wainscot shows  the power of the wainscot to unify the interior and improve the scale. The wainscot (painted black on top) unifies the rooms as it intersects and runs through column-pedestals and tops the chair rail or wainscot. The scale is improved because the cap is 28″ tall feels great with 9′ ceilings.


#2 Be careful of using too many moldings and too much decoration. As I work to fix McMansions for various clients around the country, I find the easiest general fix is simply to strip away the excess. Often there are too many materials, competing focal points, and general built-up-molding abuse. The solution? Strip away the excess and simplify.

horner-millwork-0047This is an example of seeking to impress with more. At first glance this room, filled with paneling and moldings, is striking. However, a closer look reveals many flaws. Besides an obvious violation of rule #1, (wainscot too tall) the moldings don’t unify the interior.  Note how the pedestal cap and column size on the left are so different from the column and pedestal by the door. They are only 6 feet apart, they should work together instead of competing.





I recently visited with a client whose kitchen has the moldings on the left. Many crown moldings off the shelf today have way too many bumps and bubbles that make the molding very hard to read. There are a lot of lines in this cornice and it is thus very hard to tell what the moldings actually look like. By contrast, look at this historic moldings at Winterthur on the right. This cornice is simple, bold and direct. It is easy to see what is happening and to read the size and scale. With less moldings and more prominent shapes the moldings actually work better.


Molding fixMy fix for this excessive built up crown is to SIMPLIFY. The sketch at the left shows how these different approaches play out. Frankly,  it was hard for me to even copy the original molding onto paper because I couldn’t read what was happening, even close-up.  The fix is fewer moldings that are bolder in their profile. These strong bold shapes are easier to read. They in turn make the kitchen-space more relatable; less confusion, more harmony, a better space.


3. Stop rehashing cheap Victorian moldings:

We need to stop trying to emulate the Victorian era.  These moldings in my opinion are just as bad as clam shell moldings. They are cheap copies of an historic style, the don’t help establish scale and are used abused by builders who want to show off their millwork but don’t know how.

horner-millwork-0056This picture highlights a violation of all three rules; wainscot is too high, too many moldings and the Victorian rosette is used unabashedly.

The solution is a lower wainscot, and simpler crown. It’s hard to tell from this picture, but I’m guessing this is a 8′ ceiling with 6’8 doors. It is very hard to put so many moldings in a room with such short ceilings. Less is more; at least it would be in this room.



I don’t want to come across as the molding tyrant but there are rules for building. There are guidelines and building traditions that have been forgotten. We have lost the art of building. Our ignorance shows itself most clearly in how we apply moldings. We can build more beautiful homes, we just need to break some bad habits.

Let me know if you have comments. Thanks,
















The Personality of moldings- why clamshell moldings suck.

Hello, my name is Brent Hull, and I’m a molding geek… I admit it and confess that I think moldings are beautiful. I believe they speak to us and demonstrate characteristics that communicate personality, charm, sophistication and grace. Moldings, like other key ingredients in a Timeless House communicate a story.  Aligning moldings with the story of your home is a key to success.

molding languageThe moldings to the left tell are an example. They communicate not only their stylings but also their age and origin. They are all door casings (or architraves for you classicist) and thus are strong supporting moldings.

The top molding is Georgian, it is from a house built in 1776. The middle moldings is Federal, and dates from 1806. The bottom molding is French and dates from the middle of the 18th century.

These are all distinctive. They reflect light differently and thus influence the personality of the room in unique ways.


before and afterThe importance of moldings is demonstrated in this picture above. The same room, the same cased-opening, at the same height, yet this space is transformed by the presence and power of moldings. The only that that has changed are the moldings yet the space is more impactful and beautiful than before.

A comparison of moldingsThe reason moldings have the power to change a space can be seen in this  comparison of 2 classical moldings to a modern molding.

Moldings work and communicate by the way they reflect light. The bolder shapes and projections cast heavier and darker lines. Small shapes and thin beads like on the Federal molding casts softer lines and are more subtle shadows.  What shadows does the clam shell molding, (popular in the 50′s and 60′s), cast? No shadows. The soft plan line is designed to go away, to disappear. It is the reason the moldings in the before and after picture above is transformed so dramatically when good moldings are introduced.

Moldings are important and communicate a strong narrative. Don’t gloss over this decision. It is character defining and crucial to the story of your home.