January 20, 2023

Proposed office-to-residential conversion, Beverly Hills, California, by Poon Design

Some have called it renovation or maybe remodel. Everyday lexicon might use recycle. Architects strive for adaptive reuse. And the most current language enjoys re-purpose. Whatever is your R-word of choice, the world of design has become less fascinated with the new and more committed to the re-new or renewal.

The New York Times recently wrote, “First, on a planet with limited resources and a rapidly warming climate, it’s crazy to throw stuff away; second, products should be designed with reuse in mind.” Calling out architects, “Buildings are responsible for nearly 40 percent of the world’s carbon emissions.”

Proposed office-to-residential conversion, Beverly Hills, California, by Poon Design

Poon Design has been rethinking an existing 104,000-square-foot office building in Beverly Hills. Due to the pandemic, remote work, and changes in corporate culture, office buildings all over town are only partially occupied or worse, entirely vacant—empty carcasses of once thriving corporate activity. Accompanying this downturn is the demand for housing—apartments, condos, affordable/attainable housing, and/or workforce inventory. The Los Angeles Times summed it up, “Since the pandemic, the significant drop in employees showing up to work at an office has signaled building owners to consider converting office space into residential units.”

Proposed office-to-residential conversion, Beverly Hills, California, by Poon Design

Our vision for repurposing this four-story office building into apartments involves renovating the existing structure and infrastructure, inserting more elevators and stairs, creating balconies and garden areas, adding a rooftop village of residences, and offering community functions, e.g. gym, café, meeting rooms, and social areas. And the building already comes with hundreds of underground parking. And repurposing doesn’t have to apply to entire buildings. Here are examples from architecture to furniture, toys to art.

left: Discarded rubber toy duck (photo by toriastalesoftravel.com); right: Detail of chandelier at Chaya Downtown, Los Angeles, California, by Poon Design (photo by Poon Design)
Chandelier at Chaya Downtown, Los Angeles, California, by Poon Design (photo by Gregg Segal)

At our design for Chaya Downtown, we collaborated with London-based artist Stuart Haygarth to repurpose 1,500 toys and collectibles into this feature chandelier. Countless toys are discarded by families each year. Thousands are lost at the beach or park. Many end up in the trash. Why not resurrect all these lost colorful playthings?

left: Hand woven African baskets (photo from weaverstreetmarket.coop); right: Custom garden lights at Chaya Downtown, Los Angeles, California by Poon Design (photo by Poon Design)
Detail of garden lights at Chaya Downtown, Los Angeles, California by Poon Design (photo by Poon Design)

For this same project, we obtained handwoven baskets from Ten Thousand Villages, a global, maker-to-market, fair-trade retailer of artisanal crafts. We transformed these African baskets into garden lights. One might wonder how such a basket of fibrous tree and plant material can withstand the heat of an exterior light fixture. Our solution was clever: The light source is in the planting below the basket, not inside. Light shines up, the red and yellow colors of the basket transform the light into a warm glow, and reflect the beam downward.

left: Unhappy discarded stuffed animal (photo from slate.com); right: Stack of stuffed animals (photo from stuffedparty.com)
67 repurposed stuffed animals from my daughters (photo by Anthony Poon)

Back to toys, I found myself looking at six dozen discarded stuff animals from my grown two daughters and a niece. Using an Ikea lounge chair as a frame, I hand stitched each animal to create this very comfortable and nostalgic piece of furniture. Sitting in it recalls one’s youth as she laid in bed surrounded by her favorite stuffed animals.

left: Wooden wine crates (photo from turbosquid.com); right: Community table made of repurposed wooden wine crates at Deluca’s, The Americana at Brand, Glendale, California, by Poon Design (photo by Poon Design)
Detail of community table at Deluca’s, The Americana at Brand, Glendale, California, by Poon Design (photo by Poon Design)

At Deluca’s Italian Deli, our millworker repurposed old wine crates and gave a curated personality to the community table, where Poon Design also custom designed all the furniture.

left: Sunflower seeds (photo from jerky.com); right: Seeds at the Tate Modern, London, England (photo from luxuo.vn)
Seeds at the Marciano Art Foundation, Los Angeles, California, by Ai Weiwei, 2018 (photo by Olive Stays)

Ai Weiwei, the Chinese contemporary artist and activist, has explored several avenues of renewal and transformation in his large art installations. In London and more recently in Los Angeles, the artist led the production of 100 million “sunflower seeds” (hand-crafted in porcelain by 1,600 workers over two and a half years), and meticulously laid them out over the museum floor. The work asserts that the people of China can stand up together to counter communism.

left: Wood stools (photo from gist.github.com); right: Bang at the Venice Biennale, Venice, Italy, by Ai Weiwei, 2013 (photo by Elly Waterman/via Wikimedia Commons)
Stools at Jeffrey Deitch, Los Angeles, California, by Ai Weiwei, 2018 (photo by Olive Stays)

Weiwei’s gathering of a thousand ancient stools highlights the handcrafted nature of the three-legged seat passed down through generations, while simultaneously demanding attention from a world where such artisanal work has been discarded and replaced by the government’s latest identity, one of mass produced plastic and metal.

left: Bicycle (photo from womenshealthmag.com); right: Forever Bicycles at the Taipei Fine Arts Museum, Taipei, Taiwan, 2011 (photo by Ai Weiwei Studio)
Forever Bicycles at the Waller Creek Delta, Austin, Texas, by Ai Weiwei, 2014 (photo from reddit.com)

Similarly, this artist yearns for the authenticity of Chinese peasantry and their bicycles, the method of transportation most used by that class. Once expressing movement, the bikes now are combined together as sculpture, representing the current lack of freedom and the fixed society of contemporary China.

Through my mixed-media art, I too have explored the telling and re-telling of narratives, where I repurpose discarded old paintings, having a conversation with an artist I have never met.

Resurrection has its many Christian connotations. The Latin root, surgere, references a resurgence or revival–literally “to rise.” Whether a building or basket, stool or stuffed animal—whether repurpose or adaptive reuse—Merriam-Webster states that resurrection is “an instance of coming back into use or importance.” Again, why do we “throw stuff away”—from household items to entire buildings?


July 12, 2019

Old days of architectural drafting (photo from Archinect)

For most architects, the design starts inside the brain. We are then challenged to extract that creative spark out of our head and on to paper, or these days, on to a computer screen. Urgently, we grasps at the tools of our trade to convert the abstract ideas into some visual form of communication, i.e., the sketch on the back of an envelope, the first computer drawing, or the crude paper model.

Often, our ideas are grander, more ambitious, than any tool can capture. Tools have limits, whereas our artistic spirits do not.

T-square and triangle (drawing from etc.usf.edu)

The old days of architecture embraced simple non-mechanical tools, such as the T-square and the triangle. This allowed us to merely draw parallel lines and only four angles—30, 45, 60 and 90 degrees. If our brain generated an architectural idea with a curved shape or at an 18.5 degree angle, our tools were challenged to capture the idea.

A new tool came along: the adjustable triangle. No longer a static piece of wood or plastic—this tool was mechanical, moving upon its little hinge. The adjustable triangle freed the architect to now make any angle of choice. During school, we used to joke by pointing out when students purchased his/her first adjustable triangle, because  their drawings all of a sudden had a new complexity of diagonal lines.

The adjustable triangle (photo by Anthony Poon)
Lost tools of the trade (photo by Anthony Poon)

Alongside other instruments such as the compass, French curves, elliptical templates, etc., new ideas could be expressed. Architecture started to have move diagonals, more curves, more complexity. Again, we poked fun, “With these new house designs and the angles, Frank Lloyd Wright must have purchased fancier drawings tools for his staff!”

Floor plan of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Taliesin West, Scottsdale, Arizona

A quantum leap in communicating design ideas arrived with digital technology. These days, almost anything architects can dream up can be captured using today’s devices. With algorithms, computers are not just communicating ideas that are in our heads, but are generating ideas without our heads.

Using a parametric algorithm with the software, Grasshopper, to design a trellis structure in South Pasadena, California, by Poon Design. The material is polyethylene panels, the same plastic as kitchen cutting boards—used to express the home owner’s passion for cooking (photo by Sharon Yang)

Here is the question: just because we can think it, just because we can draw it, just because we can build it—should we? Just because software can describe a heroic complex form (like CATIA for Frank Gehry), just because a computer can document a complex pattern for water jet cutting a sheet of steel, just because 3ds Max and Maxwell Render can produce a near photographically realistic image, should we have technology replace the use of our brains and our hands?

Taiyan Museum of Art, China (photo from imagenesmy.com)
Heydar Aliyev Center, Baku, Azerbaijan (photo from igsmag.com)

One example: If you tour an architecture school or many architecture design studios, you will see the excessive use of the 3d printer. With limited time on the computer and a few clicks of the mouse, dozens of physical models of a particular design theme are produced in plastic. I argue that most of these variations-on-a-theme are insignificant. Just because an architect can generate 20 similar ideas, doesn’t mean that all these ideas have merit. Wouldn’t it be better to develop one idea carefully, strategically and thoughtfully?

My personal preference is to design ideas that are more hand crafted, then machine produced—relying more on heart than tools.

Garden lights using handwoven baskets from Ten Thousand Villages, a nonprofit fair trade organization sourcing from Africa. The light source is in the ground shining up into the basket, providing a soft downward glow, by Poon Design (photo by Poon Design)


August 4, 2017

Patina’d signage of Vosges Haut-Chocolat, Beverly Hills, California, by Poon Design (photo by Poon Design)

Wabi-sabi: This Japanese aesthetic concept has been around for centuries. Today, in our worrisome world, Wabi-sabi has returned with a vengeance and popularity. This philosophy describes a type of beauty that is imperfect, ever changing, and even, wonderfully flawed.

Intensely and vividly sculpted, Auguste Rodin’s sculptures displayed a desire to express an incomplete craft. Rather than the predictably perfect, classical marble sculpture, this 19th century French artist’s works are imperfect sculptures from the human hand. And he is eager to display his flawed humanity.

In Rodin’s finished pieces, one can see the imprints of his tools and fingers—and even his fingernails.

left: An example of sculpting clay in preparation for final bronze, though not Rodin (photo from philippefaraut.com); right: Honore de Balzac by Rodin (photo from nevalee.wordpress.com)

At Poon Design Inc., certain projects request that we celebrate what might be wrongly judged as flaws and inconsistencies in our architecture. We prefer hand-crafted architecture, not things machine-made or mass-produced. Like jazz, like weathering, like life with patina, our architecture expresses the perfection of imperfection. Or even the imperfection of perfection.

left: Design inspiration of a bird’s nest (photo from community.qvc.com); right: Meditation retreat house, guardrail made from industrial piping and hemp twine, Blue Ridge Mountains, Virginia, by Poon Design (photo by Poon Design)

If technology in design and fabrication produces items that are  too perfect, then technology can be a crutch. Although technology has made our production efforts efficient, technology has also made our activities too textbook-finished. Today, we can design any kind of wall pattern on a laptop, and then have water jet or laser cutting machinery create that exact pattern on several large slabs of marble or steel panels. With a push of a button, the quality is flawless, the exercise is easy, and the pattern is perfect. But perhaps too perfect.

left: Design inspiration of motion within silk cloth; right: Parking structure, fabric pattern represented in water-jet cut perforated metal panels, Irvine Spectrum Center, California, by Poon Design

If too perfect, is such a work impressive? Where is the human hand?

left: The graphic density of a classical music score; right: The graphic lightness of a jazz music score
Me performing Khachaturian’s Toccata in E Flat minor, at the 2012 Architects in Concert, “Unfrozen Music”

The graphic weight of a classical music score suggests a complete work, while the jazz score wants more notes. A jazz score is beautifully incomplete and imperfect. No matter how many musicians fill in the missing notes, the music may never be perfect. And folks, this is okay.

When I practice my classical repertory, it is at times painful and laborious—as I try so hard to hit each of the 500,000 notes perfectly. I strive for perfection, truth and the absolute.

In jazz, I am given only a basic outline. A jazz player fixates little on classical perfection. Jazz is intuitive and improvisational. As I stated that life with patina is good, jazz music encourages patina, imperfections and powerful individuality.

Detail of Buenos Aires-inspired ironwork at Vosges Haut-Chocolat, Beverly Hills, California, by Poon Design (photo by Poon Design)

In classical music, when a wrong note is played, it is quickly buried under a flurry of other notes. When a mistake is made in a jazz performance, that ‘mistake’ is exploited as a wonderful and positive thing. The jazz musician will bang on that wrong note a few more times to make sure the audience hears it. The performer makes something new and special out of the wrong note. Wabi-sabi.

left: inspiration of African basket making (photo by Holt Renfrew); right: Exterior light fixtures made from actual handmade baskets shipped from the African commune called Ten Thousand Villages, installed at the outdoor dining of Chaya Downtown, fabricated and designed by Poon Design (photo by Poon Design)
© Poon Design Inc.