Form versus function: which should take precedence in building design? The answer to this age-old question is clear to architect and interior designer Michele D'Amico. It's always a fine balance between exterior and interior, between aesthetics and practicality. But, ultimately, D'Amico believes that functionality is key.
"When designing a building, I always try to 'see inside,'" she says. "The building must work for actual living or working. The first lesson in architecture really is 'form follows function.' I often see wasted space." D'Amico is very particular about placement-of the building, rooms, windows and furniture-in space. "The energy of a design is important, and so I use feng shui to create good energy," she says. As an example, D'Amico says that a building's front entrance should form a strong, straight "line of energy." Instead, many Island entryways lead immediately to expansive picture windows or sliding glassdoors, which only dissipates the energy.
D'Amico's fascination with buildings began when she was just a toddler growing up in Bristol, Rhode Island. "I remember when I was three years old," she says, "going to the house that my father was building for our family and watching the floor being laid. It stayed with me”.
She graduated from The Catholic University of America in Washington, DC, with an architecturedegree in 1985. Initially she worked in the Washington, DC, area for two companies specializing in US Embassies and Consulates. Designing rooms within rooms and Marine Guard booths might not appeal to all architects, but D'Amico enjoyed the challenge of working on numerous (over 100 annually) different projects around the world.
She moved to Honolulu with her Hawai'i-born fiancé in 1988. She was happy with the move, but admits that "it took some getting used to." Twenty years ago, she says, "Honolulu was still more of a small town versus a small metropolitan city," which it has become today.
That said, the small-town vibe was familiar to her. "Where I grew up, everyone knew one another," she says. "Later, in DC, a small transient city, most of the people you know are people with whom you work. In Honolulu, it was more like my hometown, where you know people through school and family.
Today, Honolulu is a mixture of both, with mainland and multinational companies coming and attracting transplants at the executive and management levels."
When D'Amico arrived, times were good for architects. "Hawai'i's construction industry was booming while the east coast mainland construction and real estate markets were going into recession.
The Japanese market kept Hawai'i growing for at least 10 more years." In Honolulu, she worked for two large firms, AM Partners, where she specialized in retail design, and Wimberly Allison Tong and Goo, in their Interior Department. D'Amico established her company, d'Amico Design Group, LLC, in 1995.
D'Amico is not one to force her personal preferences on her clients. "I design to my clients' tastes," she says. "A design must reflect their style and vision. It is up to the designer to glean that from a client.
At the first meeting," she says, "I ask them how they envision the project and which colors they prefer. I tell them to tear pictures out of magazines or to flag pictures in books to convey what they like. Likewise, I do the same thing before our next meeting. Then we compare what we've both pulled from books and magazines. Architecture and interior design are visual endeavors. Thus, pictures best express what they're seeking."
In recent years, D'Amico finds an overuse of stucco and tile roofs on O'ahu. "It seems that everyone wants a Hawaiian theme," she says. "But many don't know what that means. Stucco is Mediterranean style. Or they like the Tommy Bahama look, but that was based on the Caribbean Islands. It's not real Hawaiian style, which has distinct characteristics down to the architecture."
D'Amico herself prefers genuine Hawaiian designs, such as the work of C.W. Dickey and simple plantation-style structures. One of her favorite buildings in Honolulu is the classic Honolulu Academy of Arts. As for new structures, she's impressed with the Loft at Waikiki, as its scale (six stories rather than highrise) matches its surroundings.
Her home addition projects require coordinating new and existing elements, which can be tricky. In one current design-build project, D'Amico's clients are renovating their recently acquired Hawai'i Kai fixer-upper home. "Two prior owners added onto the home with no overall vision," she says. "The house has tacked-on rooms and level changes, all haphazardly done. It reminds me of the Winchester Mystery House in California. I sat down with them and we took the whole home into consideration. Now, with an overall plan, we can proceed in phases."
In October, D'Amico will become president of ASID's Hawai'i Chapter. (Michele was president of ASID Hawaii in 2009.) "Unless you get involved at the leadership level," she says, "you cannot really understand what's involved to keep the chapter going-and to make it one of distinction. It's one thing to sit on the sideline or to be a Monday-morning quarterback. It's another to step up and get involved. It's not as easy as it looks.
After almost 25 years in the industry, D'Amico finds it deeply redeeming at the basic human level: helping people live in their ideal homes. "When I first came to Hawai'i," she says, "I joined Junior League of Honolulu. The year I joined, eight of us started an affiliate of the national nonprofit group Christmas in April (now known as Rebuilding Together). That year, we renovated seven homes in one day. The homeowners left their homes while the work was being done. Then, at the end of the day, they returned to see the transformation. To see their faces light up gives you a wonderful feeling. I experience the same type of feeling when a client sees a completed project."