Dennis Wedlick lugs around a Bible-size day planner stuffed full of dog-eared scraps of paper. It's no Palm Pilot, but the low-tech device does everything he needs it to do. It juggles projects in Colorado, New York, Virginia; the class he teaches at U. Penn; a visit from a magazine writer; a trip to Italy for a former client's milestone birthday; events for his new book, The Good Home; and the thousands of details surrounding this month's opening of two demonstration houses inside Grand Central Station. It's a schedule that would daunt Stephen Covey, but Wedlick has it all under control.
In his early 40s, Wedlick has already accomplished so much. He put himself through architecture school, graduating from Syracuse University; he worked for Glass House guru Philip Johnson for 12 years; he's run his own practice for nearly 10 years; he's designed a Life Dream House; and, in June, he published (with writer Philip Langdon) his manifesto on residential design. Obviously, he's enormously talented. Yet, as most of us finally realize by age 40, talent alone doesn't guarantee success. Wedlick has come so far because he learned that lesson early on. "In grade school we had to write what we wanted to be when we grew up," he recalls. "I wrote about being on the cover of Life as an architect."
His ambitions clear to him, he worked diligently and strategically to make them happen. His job with Philip Johnson was pivotal. It began as a summer internship, lost in the crowd at Johnson/Burgee. He could have languished in fresh-faced anonymity, but he was determined to make the most of his foot in the door. "I had been there a couple of weeks, folding shop drawings," he says. "Philip Johnson had a party for the firm out at the Glass House. He asked who I was and what I was working on. I said I was folding shop drawings, but that's not what I should be doing. I told him his archives were a mess, that all his drawings were stuffed in tubes and being destroyed. So, I went to work archiving all of his drawings."
The assignment gave him close access to Johnson, who began to rely on him for other tasks. "I would just get everything done," Wedlick says. "I was fast. When you work your way through school, you have to do things quickly." He parlayed the summer internship into school-break stints at Christmas and Easter, and finally into a full-time job when he graduated in the spring.
He worked on skyscrapers with the rest of the crew, but continued doing odd jobs with Johnson, including a renovation of the bathrooms in the Glass House. "It was a great way to learn. Even when he did a bathroom, everything had to be perfect--lined up, thought out--how it would be installed, how it would hold up," he says.
He learned something even more important from Johnson. Despite his status as a star architect, Johnson never forgot he was there to please his customers. "He got into trouble when he said, 'I'm a whore,'" Wedlick says. "But what's true is that you're at your clients' service."
Wedlick has multimillion-dollar projects in his portfolio now, but he began his practice designing sweet, romantic cottages in Columbia County, N.Y., a mix of small-town dwellers and big-city weekenders just outside of Albany. It's where he built a 1,000-square-foot country house for himself and his partner, Curtis DeVito. With its precipitously pitched roof, punctuated by a quirky dormer window, the little house had an irresistible storybook charm. It melded all of the architect's loves--vernacular historicism, Postmodernism, Modernism, and the odd, highly personal flourishes that distinguish a house as one-of-a-kind.
He and DeVito maxed out their credit cards to build the house, convinced it was absolutely necessary to launch Wedlick's solo career. A shrewd decision. It lead to media coverage and a continuing stream of commissions in Columbia County. "It was a challenge to work with a palette of mundane materials and make something unique," he says. "Eventually, that became my whole career."
Making custom homes accessible is still a goal, and it's informed the idea houses he's done for Country Home and Life magazines. Even as his practice has grown and attracted better-heeled clients, he won't turn down a budget-driven project like his own. In some ways, a constrained budget is most simpatico with his taste for restrained detail. "We can do a lot with a little, with clean lines," he says. "But we're not shy to introduce things that have character.
"I'm definitely a romanticist," he explains. "I'm a modernist in the way I like to reduce things, but I'm very interested in drama--in things that are witty and playful. The buildings that age well are the ones that have something odd about them--a romantic twist."
It's a rare architect who can convince clients to indulge their romantic side, especially if it means the biggest investment of their lives will look a little "odd." But that's exactly what he manages to do, with the strongest case in point--or maybe I should say points--the star-shaped house he designed in upstate New York for the Shah family.
What makes people reach for the stars with him? He says it's because the houses he designs come directly from his clients' program needs; he doesn't impose an architectural statement on them. "Architectural statement. Ooh, you don't want to go there. No one lives in a statement," he says. His idea for the six-pointed Shah house originated with his sense of the family--a doctor, his artist wife, and their three grown children--as a group of very independent but close-knit people. They all get their own sanctum and room to come together.
This intuitive sense about people, coupled with a self-effacing but self-assured manner, is essential to Wedlick's success. It's natural and it's cultivated. He's very careful how he talks to his clients, taking great pains not to impose his opinions or ego. "I want clients to have faith that I'm after what they're after," he explains. "It's about words. There are some that make them defensive and others that show you're listening. Be careful not to use the 'I' word. Don't even use 'I think.' Say, 'Do you think?' Then offer the suggestion. It's the best opportunity to be creative because it leaves the most doors open."
It may also be easier for clients to take risks within a framework that's familiar to them. The materials Wedlick uses and the forms he plays with have precedents clients can recognize. He doesn't cow them with Bauhaus. And he doesn't overwhelm them with sheaves of drawings and detailed models during conceptualization. When he presented the Shahs with his design, he traveled light: "I just showed them the floor plans; I didn't mention that the house looks like a star. I said, 'Here's the screened porch you asked for.' It had the shingles, crown moldings--all the classical touches they wanted."
He says he learned that from Philip Johnson. "He taught me you shouldn't waste time on fancy presentations. If the idea is good, simple plans can explain it."
deus ex media
Wedlick is no less savvy in his dealings with the media. It's another skill he picked up in Johnson's office, where he fielded requests for press materials and project information. In fact, he claims if he weren't an architect, he'd choose a career in journalism--and he's made several forays into the profession. He's written a column for This Old House magazine and for the local paper in Columbia County, among others. "I like communicating," he says. "If writers weren't writing about my houses, I would be."
But we are writing about his houses--so much so that he believes nearly 75 percent of his commissions come from people who've read about his work in newspapers and magazines. No doubt this month's debut of two demonstration houses he designed for Country Home magazine will attract even more press coverage and client commissions. Opening September 10 in Grand Central Station's Vanderbilt Hall and on display until September 30, the houses explore the theme "Modern Country," with ideas for country and city living. "Half-a-million people go through Grand Central each day," he says. "That's a wide audience for residential architecture."
His recent book, The Good Home, published in June by HBI and climbing rapidly in Amazon's sales ranks, should help expand the audience even further. He designed all of the projects in it, but he doesn't tout the houses. Instead, he uses them to illustrate universal points about residential design. Very smart.
Talent, energy, people skills, and media savvy--Dennis Wedlick has it all and, better still, he's learned how to use it.