Matt and Libby Elliott seem to have a knack for making things go their way. The Blue Hill, Maine-based husband-and-wife team managed to turn a significant setback—unexpected unemployment during the 1993 recession—into a golden opportunity to start their own architectural firm. "I got laid off, and we thought, 'It's now or never,'" says Matt. They parlayed their first major commission, which fell into their laps in 1994, into a much-celebrated, award-winning house. And when an old building they'd always admired went on sale in 1999, they snapped it up and transformed it into sparkling new offices for their 10-person firm.
Coincidence? Hardly. The Elliotts live and work by guiding principles that have propelled them smack into success. They base their hiring decisions on their gut instincts, seeking out individuals who share their philosophies and design ideals. "David's resume was hand typed on an old typewriter," recalls Libby of staff designer David Leonard. "We said, 'We have to meet this guy.'" And they choose projects that promise to be challenging and interesting, rather than going for the most lucrative commissions. So far, that's translated into mostly residential work—both vacation homes and full-time residences—in this upscale, summer-resort area of Maine. "We're experimenting with new project types, like the town library Libby did over in Brooksville," Matt says. "But even those have been similar in scale to residential work."
the new old thing
First and foremost among those guiding principles is a belief in the value of both the old and the new. It's hard to pinpoint Elliott & Elliott's style—one observer might call their work Modern, while another might think of it as traditional. That's just the way the architects like it. "You can balance the older, vernacular styles with new elements," Libby says. "You don't have to compromise and do one or the other."
The firm's office is a perfect example. Located in a white clapboard 1830s building on Main Street in Blue Hill, it features plain white walls and utilitarian desks. Over the conference table hang quirky free-form light fixtures by local lighting designer Peter Knupple. Several old wooden credenzas rescued from Maine's Department of Transportation now serve as storage space for plans and job documents. It all looks so effortless, but in reality a great deal of thought went into mixing the contemporary with the historic.
That same idea of hopping from old to new and back again distinguishes the firm's kitchen and bath designs. A kitchen by Elliott & Elliott might contain a farmhouse-style trough sink, rendered in sleek, locally obtained granite. The traditional form makes the sink utterly appropriate in this land of barns and blueberry fields, but the austere material keeps it from being sentimental while providing another layer of context. A bath's industrial light fixtures might offset its cozy bead-board paneling. And a modern, open floor plan might usher an old-fashioned kitchen with glass-front cabinets and vintage hardware into the 21st century.
The Elliotts have a palette of materials they consistently draw from—granite, wood, and stainless steel, to name a few—but in their hands a raw material becomes something different in every project. "The question for me is, how do you update vernacular forms without cliche or without stripping them of their quality?" Libby says. "We're finding that it's really about maintaining the original materials, but putting them together in a new way." It's easy enough to see how Elliott & Elliott fuel their admiration for New England vernacular buildings—a quick walk or drive around Blue Hill and its environs reveals a trove of 19th century Colonial, Greek Revival, and Shaker-style treasures.
But while they obviously appreciate the richness of their surroundings, they're aware of the dangers that come with living in as remote a location as coastal Maine. "I don't want to get stagnant up here," says Matt. "I like having young people at the firm." Architect Bruce Norelius, who befriended both Elliotts during architecture school at the University of Pennsylvania and joined their firm in 1995, agrees. "The Penn connection is very apparent in Matt and Libby and me," he says. "We all like things to be very orderly. The younger ones here aren't like that at all—they're into the more experimental stuff."
The firm's employee makeup is a blend of more experienced architects like Norelius and Greg Johnson, who had his own firm for almost 20 years before joining Elliott & Elliott, and recent architecture school graduates. Design magazines, lectures in Boston and Portland, Maine, and frequent travel supply employees with additional links to the architecture community at large. The variety of backgrounds, educations, and experiences among them makes for a lively, ongoing debate over how to best reconcile traditional and Modern design, and the Elliotts say this tug-of-war makes for stronger, better projects.
objects of affection
Another concept that gets a fair amount of consideration at Elliott & Elliott is the notion of using everyday objects as sculpture. "Objects are beautiful," says Libby. "The more mundane something is, the more we like it. We love the traditional utilitarian use of things like porcelain sockets or plain white tiles. It's that idea of elegance as opposed to luxury." This reverence for functional objects is especially apparent in the firm's kitchens and baths; ovens, sinks, refrigerators, and showers tend to stand alone, rather than be surrounded by cabinetry or decoration.
The storage space in an Elliott & Elliott kitchen or bath can often be found outside of the room's main work area, in a nearby closet, cabinet, or pantry. Eliminating the need for a lot of storage further simplifies the room visually, letting whichever object or objects the architects have chosen to highlight—a pedestal sink, a handcrafted shelf, an antique appliance stand out even more.
The strategy of singling out objects goes against the conventional wisdom put forth by manufacturers and shelter magazines, which dictates the current trend of assimilating appliances into the rest of the room through furniture-like enclosures and coverings. But then, Maine isn't a trendy, follow-the-leader kind of place. This part of the state in particular, an assembly of rocky islands and windswept beaches, houses many artists, writers, and other creative types. Artistically inclined clients, naturally, are likely to appreciate the sculptural approach, and indeed Elliott & Elliott counts several artists and collectors as customers.
Elliott & Elliott's respect for individuality doesn't stop at object worship. The firm also views each of its clients as a unique entity. That's why the Elliotts never tire of designing housing: They approach every project with a fresh eye. And that's why they don't have a set style—among the work in their portfolio you'll find a Japanese-influenced bungalow, a Shingle-style cottage, and a Modern art studio.
And that's why clients feel their homes are expressions of themselves, not of their architects. "It's not about us," Libby says of the firm's design process. "It's about translating a person or a couple or a family into a home." Because the Elliotts are so committed to their clients, they usually get involved in each project to a degree some might call fanatical. To them, it's just good business. "I like to know what's going on with every project that comes through this office," says Matt, who takes charge of day-to-day operations at the firm. "When a client calls wanting to know a detail about their kitchen cabinets and the project architect isn't here, I can get on the phone and answer them. That's the reason I don't want to get much bigger than we are now. We have 30 projects under way, and it's the maximum number I can handle."
Everyone in the office performs duties that aren't in his or her job description at one time or another--the client's needs are always the top priority. "I don't think anyone there has an enormous ego," says Fred Green, a longtime friend and client of the Elliotts. "I work principally with Matt, but the other day I needed something and another architect there, Isaac Robbins, handled it for me. They've created a great culture at that office."
All communication between clients and architects is customized to the clients' preferences. Technophobes receive hand drawings and painstakingly built models of wood, Plexiglas, and metal, while computer-friendly clients comment by e-mail on CAD drawings and virtual-reality walk-throughs. At the end of every project, Elliott & Elliott buy the clients a personalized housewarming gift; recent examples include a concrete urn for an artist and an outdoor bench for a family of nature lovers. A painting by another artist client hangs in the architects' office, and Green, for whom they have designed a guest house, playground, and billiards cabin, is the godfather to one of the couple's three children. Clearly, client relationships occupy a central position at the firm.
So do relationships with builders. The Elliotts don't think of contractors as a nuisance, and they certainly don't view them as interchangeable. "It's very important to match the right contractor with the right project," Libby says. "A few of the builders we work with used to be boat builders, and we might ask them to do a job that required lots of detailing."
The architects don't hesitate to ask builders for their ideas on how to solve design problems, and the builders have noticed. "Architects can be difficult at times, and we can be difficult too," says Nelson Goodwin, a Seal Cove, Maine, contractor who's teamed with the firm on several projects. "But everybody over at Elliott & Elliott is easy to work with, and they really listen to us." Local contractor John Altman even connected them with their first big commission, the Rosenzweig residence in Brooklin, Maine. The house eventually picked up multiple AIA design awards.
The firm's esteem for the building profession also extends to other, related trades. They've hired craftspeople like blacksmiths and welders to execute tricky details. And they encourage their clients to use specialists if the program requires a skill that's out of their scope. "We can design a well-laid-out kitchen for most people's cooking needs," says Matt. "But if a client is into gourmet French cooking and has very specific desires, then I recommend that we work with a kitchen designer. We want to be part of the discussion, but we're not experts in everything."
The Elliotts routinely commission Brooklin, Maine, landscape architect Dorothy Wurman to perform a predesign site analysis that plots vegetation, underlying rock veins, and sunlight patterns. "Most of what the site analysis shows us is obvious," says Norelius. "But we usually end up learning something that will help us decide how to site the house." Even if they wanted to, Matt and Libby Elliott wouldn't have time to become experts in all the subsets of residential design. Though they don't advertise, word-of-mouth recommendations have netted them a year-and-a half-long waiting list. They have three elementary-school-age kids to raise, and a new house—a former granite company built in the 1820s—to renovate.
But they do find the time to design and send out a thoughtful holiday gift to their clients and colleagues at the end of every calendar year. It's a luminaire—a candleholder carved from unfinished maple and surrounded by a white lantern of handmade paper. "The luminaire is about making something beautiful out of humble materials," says Libby. "We could go to Williams-Sonoma and get something similar, but that just wouldn't be us."