Collaboration & Craftsmen

Conceiving and making an architectural piece grows out of iterative conversations between drawing and maker. Architects Wendy Dunnam Tita, AIA, of Page and Vicki Yuan, AIA, of Lake|Flato Architects celebrate the results of their professional interactions with longtime craftsman collaborators Mark Macek of Austin and Max Patino of San Antonio. Dunnam Tita and Yuan both have worked with these artisans on many projects over many years, and they agree that having a professional relationship with a craftsman allows them to innovate with confidence. “Knowing the capabilities of who is executing the design and leveraging those skill sets are crucial to a successful outcome,” says Dunnam Tita.

Macek and Patino each got his start in Central Texas, and both are part of a strong and growing crafts community in the region. Macek founded Macek Furniture Company in 1995 in Austin and has taught wood shop classes at The University of Texas at Austin School of Architecture since 2006. Patino founded Cactus Max Fine Metal Artwork in the 1990s in San Antonio, after his metalwork caught the attention of the local restaurant community. Macek’s shop is located in East Austin in the heart of a large concentration of artisans’ workshops. “The more people doing it, the more craft there is,” said Macek. “I don’t think artisans compete with each other. Every artisan has his or her own specialties and personality.”

As part of their process of working with architects, Macek and Patino submit bids for custom work, alongside other subcontractors. They have capabilities for writing specs for the details of custom work that they fabricate, and once specific client needs are established for the project, the craftsmen can create detail models and full-scale mock-ups. Numerous meetings in the workshops and extensive discussions over email facilitate the creative process. After the initial drawing is presented, the subsequent communication volley is as important to the process as the drawing and the material capabilities; the words themselves are generative. 

Collaboration through the process produces a new design sensitive to the specificity of a place. While mass-produced furniture and high-quality architectural details are easy to find and in abun-dant supply, these pieces already exist. The innovative work of these architect/craftsman pairs is entirely original each time and can pioneer new directions in the design world.

There is no industrial design program in Texas, now, and yet an artisan climate thrives. As people become more educated about the origins of their purchases, clients come to expect more from their architectural environments. Crafting locally allows the architect to meet in person with the craftsman in a collaboration that brings about fresh design pieces again and again. Over time, a new regional style can emerge from an aggregation of custom pieces conceived and built in a particular location. 

Vicki Yuan, AIA, discusses working with metalworker and designer Max Patino.

When did you start working with Max Patino?

I first met Max when I was working on our office renovation in 2008. He had worked on many Lake|Flato projects in the past and had a reputation for being a really fun guy to work with. For the office renovation, he helped us out with only a few miscellaneous steel fabrications, but over the years I’ve continued to work with him on a range of project types and scales. Most recently, we collaborated on SK Ranch, a single-family home in the Hill Country. Among the countless details Max did for the house are elegant steel scuppers that project from the masonry. I always look for-ward to calling him up to pick his brain about anything related to metal.  

Why do you think the collaboration has been successful?

I have tremendous respect for Max. He has a clear passion for craft and detail, always with an easygoing personality. He’s someone who has helped me realize as a young architect that the process of getting something built is as important as the final product. I appreciate that he’s always a teacher, taking the time to carefully explain how something will be made. Usually, when working out a problem, he just tells me to come over to his shop, and he’ll show me what’s going on. His ability to under-stand a design intent quickly, but also manage the complexity of the execution without ego or frustration, is admirable.

What contributions does he bring to a project that you might not otherwise achieve?

Max is an invaluable resource, and I’ll ask for his input, even when he may not be the actual person building. He brings a level of practical constructability to a project, but that doesn’t mean the original design intent is ever compromised. Oftentimes, the end result is far more 

refined and delicate than you expected it to be, and that’s because he fully understands your aesthetic goal, and he takes that in and makes it better. Max’s work is distinctly handcrafted. It never feels mass-produced. He uses a variety of tools, from hand-forging to laser-cutting, each method dependent on the desired outcome but always applied with the same rigor, and somehow you know it was made with the utmost attention to the smallest detail. Perhaps the best way it can be described is that he works with metal the way a traditional woodworker works with wood: Each custom fabrication masterfully demonstrates a care and respect for the material. It’s a subtle distinction, but I think the quality of the join-ery and finish of his pieces elevates a project to a higher level. It’s something best perceived in person and to the touch, a hallmark of great craftsmanship and true artistry.

What is the status of craftsmanship in Texas?

Blame a litigious climate, the rise of the project manager’s role, and resultant limits on the architect’s responsibilities or the decline of the “gentleman contractor.” The role of a craftsperson is difficult to perceive when [a contractor is] presented with a tight budget, and good crafts-manship seems to come at a premium. I do think a rise in our culture’s appreciation for craft is bringing back the sensibility of material richness and authenticity that may help revive these trades and [this] invaluable knowledge base. 

Wendy Dunnam Tita, AIA, talks about her collaboration with furniture designer Mark Macek.

When did you start working with Mark?

I first heard of Mark when I moved back [to Austin] from New York. I was actually thinking about starting my own furniture design and fabrication shop, and Lars Stanley, AIA, recommended that I talk to Mark. I later turned to Mark when I was exploring custom fabrication with wood, metal, and fabric. 

It was hard to find a craftsman who could combine more than one material or trade. But it wasn’t until 2007, when I was designing a Donor Dining Room for Fleck Hall at St. Edward’s University in Austin, that we were able to build some pieces together. We did several pieces including a bench, with beautifully composed joinery inspired by Jens Risom, and a buffet that incorporated reclaimed marble from the original building. It was an ode to Florence Knoll, who was designing her pieces around the same time the original structure 

Why do you think the collaboration has been successful?

There are so many reasons that I love working with Mark. I have a very strong trust in his skill and his eye. When we are working on something, I know that if he recommends a proportion or particular connection it comes from a depth of knowledge and wisdom. I have also taken wood-working classes and built a number of pieces myself, so I feel like there is a common language about material properties and potential that we can both tap into. There was a time when I thought that I would focus my career on custom furniture design and on fabrication. With time, I realized that I want just as much control over the space as the furniture, which has led me to my interior architecture focus for the last 15–20 years. With Mark, I feel like there is the ability to collaborate with someone who shares an affinity for the masters before us, the basics of a beautiful detail or connection, and a desire to create pieces that are of this time.

What contributions does he bring to a project that you might not otherwise achieve?

Mark just knows! I can come up with a concept and an idea for a piece and trust that Mark will add the one or two critical elements that just make it sing. At the Greater Texas Foundation, we did a “suite” of pieces in walnut and reclaimed, longleaf pine. He added a reveal between the walnut and the pine that allowed each material to stand on its own and feel con-nected at the same time. On a set of tables at the Torcasso Residence, I had this notion of a folded piece of bronze with completely con-cealed fasteners that allowed both the bronze base and the wood top to feel light. Mark collaborated with metal craftsman Hawkeye Glenn on the bronze base and the addition of a layer of bronze along the pedestal to stiffen the base. The structural addition makes the overall vertical more sculptural.

Does Texas have enough schools and programs to give opportunities for teaching and learning fine crafts?

Rather than a single comprehensive program, we seem to have craftsmen teaching each other and thankfully more architects and designers excited about incorporating their skills. We are definitely in an era that is more appreciative of the authenticity they bring to a project.

Originally published in the November/December 2014 issue of Texas Architect.