Is there any other country that loves labels more than the United States? Cole Haan, Doc Marten, Ralph Lauren, Banana Republic, BMW, Subaru. They're a shorthand for a variety of lifestyles and tastes. Like it or not, we are what we wear, what we drive, where we live--at least, in others' eyes. This is how Americans make sense of our democratic land of plenty.

New-home buyers shop by label, too. If they're purchasing a production house, they're choosing a Pulte, Toll Brothers, or Taylor Woodrow. If they're building a custom home, they'll hire an architect by reputation as well. Maybe they're interested in collecting a house by you as they would a painting by Kandinsky. More likely, they've heard you work in an architectural style they admire. Most likely, they saw a house you designed and want something along those same lines. And voila, you're labeled. You're stereotyped by the last beautiful house you did. You're a Modernist, traditionalist, deconstructivist, or some other "ist" of your own invention.

For architects, typecasting is an especially thorny problem. You do want some sort of professional identity—you don't want to languish in anonymity, with no one coming to you asking for anything. But which identity do you strive for? Do you aim to satisfy the prevailing public taste? Do you go for what the shelter magazines think is chic? Or do you cleave to what was cool in architecture school and in professional journals? Each has advantages. But it's all very limiting. Why can't you and your client just start with a piece of paper and discover together what that house will look like?

As long as clients and residential architects believe a custom home is a product and not a process, nobody's going to drop the labels. A number of things have to be in place before you and your client can go where no one has gone before. The most important is trust. The best way to gain that trust is to listen to your clients. Says our cover architect, Dennis Wedlick, "It's about words. There are some that make them defensive and others that show you're listening. You don't want to communicate that you're pursuing some personal agenda. Be careful not to use the 'I' word. Don't even use 'I think.' Say, 'Do you think?' Then offer the suggestion. Avoid anything that implies you're going to lead rather than serve. It's the best opportunity to be creative because it leaves the most doors open."

Wedlick used this approach with some custom clients in upstate New York. The design responded to what the family of five asked for out loud (a screened porch, crown molding, and other classical touches) and what they communicated tacitly (a need for lots of private space and room to unite). Together they designed a true, one-of-a-kind custom home—a shingle-clad house in the shape of a six-pointed star.

Although I call his style "easygoing Modern" on the cover, Wedlick really defies classification. And that's largely because his work is so specific to client and site. But, as a magazine editor charged with showing, explaining, and defining—sometimes in very tight spaces—I went ahead and stuck on a somewhat ill-fitting label. If you take the time to read the story on Wedlick, you'll see I let him describe his architectural identity. Such is the danger of rejecting labels: It makes us all work harder.

Comments? E-mail: cconroy@hanley-wood.com.