This article is part of our latest design special on new creative avenues shaped by the pandemic.
The corona pandemic has turned many lives upside down. But for some people, the disruption has been positive and an opportunity to take their skills in a new direction.
For New York-based architect and designer Marc Thorpe, this shift began in 2019 when he and his partner Claire Pijoulat, one of the founders of New York-based design platform WantedDesign, built a 500-square-foot cabin in western New York State, inspired by Cat Skills. Best known for his products for international companies such as Moroso and Venini, Mr Thorpe had a difficult time finding a contractor willing to carry out his non-traditional design. He and Ms. Pijoulat started thinking about how to design houses that are less expensive to build and just as important, that are sustainable and less energy dependent.
This was followed by what he called “a pandemic moment” in which people tried to get out of town and live simpler lives. But some of those fleeing New York were willing to pay $1 million or more for houses, which Mr. Thorpe found troubling. As Ms Pijoulat recalled, they saw an opportunity to give local residents access to “modern homes that were out of their reach” and to demonstrate that “modern architecture doesn’t have to be cold, austere and expensive”.
Spending so much time in the Catskills during the pandemic has allowed Mr Thorpe to develop a local network of contractors and solar energy engineers. In 2021, he founded a new company, Edifice Upstate, which, according to its website, develops “affordable, environmentally sustainable” homes. But “sustainable” does not mean that solar panels are connected to the local grid. Instead, the company’s all-wood homes are built using off-grid solar technology.
Three models, all using well water, are offered: a 500-square-foot, one-bedroom, one-bathroom, and kitchenette cabin for $250,000; a 1,000-square-foot house with two bedrooms, one bathroom, full kitchen, laundry room, and living room for $350,000; and a 2,000-square-foot, three-bedroom, two-bathroom home that includes a study for $450,000. The first 1,000-square-foot home is expected to be completed by the end of the summer.
Mr. Thorpe and Ms. Pijoulat’s one-bedroom cottage was considered too austere by most buyers, but it changed their minds about what makes a comfortable home. “I believe we are on the cusp of a new movement,” Mr Thorpe said. “We focus on something small and doable, not a grand gesture — the micro that leads to the macro.”
For Danish curator and gallery owner Elisabeth Johs – who has lived in New York since 2017 while taking courses at Sotheby’s and co-founding a gallery called Trotter & Sholer – the pandemic has come as an unpleasant surprise. Her visa expired in March 2020 when the city went into lockdown, so she went to Switzerland, where her parents lived.
During this time, Ms. Johs and a California-based painter with whom she was in a relationship hatched a plan to move to Mexico City and find a place where they could live and work together. Ms. Johs moved there in September 2021 but the artist had not turned up. Nonetheless, Ms. Johs decided to go ahead with her plan. “When your heart is broken,” she recalled, “you have a lot of energy.”
She bought a house in the San Miguel Chapultepec neighborhood that was completed in 1981 by the well-known modernist architect Carlos Herrera. The 6,000-square-foot concrete structure, with its large windows and skylights, was not in the best condition. Ms. Johs, who worked with design firm Cadana, renovated the building and bought furniture from Mexican firms ATRA, La Metropolitana and Decada. “My first goal was to make it livable,” she says. Dubbed JO-HS, the space opened to the public in November 2021 and its bimonthly exhibitions focus primarily on Mexican and Latin American artists.
The building is entered through a reception area that leads to a shop and art-filled rooms and courtyards. There is a lounge with a vaulted brick ceiling and stone tile floors, adjoining a dining room and kitchen. The main gallery space, with its installation of plants from an early exhibition and a large window, is on the larger of the two patios, and the studio spaces are in the garage. Mrs. Johs’ bedroom, a small living room and other offices are on the upper floor. She noted that “hosting art exhibitions in domestic spaces is unconventional,” but she likes that she “blurs the lines between studio and gallery.”
A recent exhibition, LUZ, focused on the theme of light, with vintage and contemporary pieces by designers, photographers and artists, including a large fluorescent starburst made in 2003 by Thomas Glassford, an American in Mexico City became. “Domesticada” is currently concentrating on works by female painters who deal with the subject of “domesticated women”.
Ms Johs said she was glad she went through with her plan, even if she had to do it alone. “You jump or you don’t jump,” she said.
For others, the pandemic presented an opportunity to do something completely different. Andreas Kokkino was a fashion and design editor (we worked together on T Magazine) and a fashion stylist. In 2018 he moved to Athens, and by 2020 he was locked down and weary of the fashion world with his partner Stathis Mitropoulos, a graphic designer.
The couple were watching a Netflix documentary, Circus of Books, about a legendary gay porn bookstore in Los Angeles when they were struck by the idea of opening their own business. Athens is full of bookshops and book lovers, but none specialize in photography, design, fashion and cooking. “People asked about magazines like PIN-UP, Toilet Paper and Cabana,” said Mr. Kokkino. “There’s a great creative community here – they’ve traveled a lot and are looking for cool stuff.”
The Hyper Hypo store opened in Athens in December last year. Its name refers to its founders’ desire to sell goods that are “high” and “low,” as well as expensive and affordable. Formerly a warehouse, the bookshop has been stripped and painted a deep blue, with glossy white for the new shelves. Tassos Govatsos, a local architect, developed the design, including the shelves and central table. Mr. Mitropoulos created the pair of neon eyes in the window, signaling the idea of visual culture.
“We wanted to see a clean space, bright and colorful – not cozy – that makes people think of contemporary shops in other cities,” said Mr. Kokkino. Posters made by Hyper Hypo using local artists’ work adorn the walls and sell for just $22. The design objects include elegant lamps with marble bases, hand-blown glass spheres and woven straw shades. There are also mugs from the design company Greece is for Lovers that say “Athens Sucks”. The lower level is a gallery used for cultural events.
The shop now has many customers who drop by weekly and Wanda, Mr Kokkino and Mr Mitropoulos’ standard black poodle, has proved equally popular. “She’s our mascot,” Mr. Kokkino said. “People are obsessed with her.”
Mr. Kokkino and Mr. Mitropoulos are already thinking about doing pop-ups and chain stores and creating merchandise; a line of wildly patterned shopping bags made by Mr. Mitropoulos’ mother was a huge hit.
“I have found the calling of my life,” said Mr. Kokkino.