Inventing Possibilities

Architecture // Ernesto Santalla // Influences // Opinion

Everything designed and made by man starts as an arbitrary decision by inventing possibilities. Lots of inventions came as a result of observation mixed with association. At some point we observed how repetition created similar results predictably and conventions were adopted. When faced with conventions that contradicted each other, we chose one over the other. At some point we placed God at the center of the Universe and then we placed Man at the center of the Universe. Some things, like the wheel, proved to work in many situations, so why not? As a species, we are resourceful and for each challenge we’ve invented possibilities that get us what we need or desire. Necessity is the mother of creation, don’t we say? How about, inventing possibilities is the solution to all our challenges?

Creative, no?

Moved, Touched and Inspired

Architecture // Ernesto Santalla // History // Influences // Travel

I’m often asked what inspired me to be an architect? I think I finally remembered when it happened.

I must have been twelve years old when I visited a friend’s house in Puerto Rico and their home was being remodeled. It was fascinating. Things were gone, others had appeared and a transformation had begun. I was moved and inspired in that moment when a new possibility opened up to me: to effect change in the physical world through design. Years later, I decided to become an architect and many years after that I am still in love with the art of construction.

A drawing by Escher-a master in the art of possibilities


Authentic Design?

Architecture // Ernesto Santalla // History // Influences // Travel

Authentic design? Is there such a thing? Is copying the highest form of flattery? Can you improve upon the original?

As a budding architecture student, I was exposed to the best examples in the history of architecture, which became my paradigms of authentic design. During this time, I gave visiting relatives a tour of Old San Juan. Colonized cities follow a plan established by royal edict, therefore many cities established by Spaniards bear a striking resemblance. Both Havana and San Juan have a fortification known as El Morro, which guarded them from attacks by the sea. It so happens the walls of the interior courtyard of El Morro in San Juan are stuccoed and painted, a fact my uncle found offensive. To paraphrase, he declared this masterpiece of colonial naval architecture inauthentic. Had I been visiting Havana, I might have objected to bare stone wall and thus declare San Juan as the authentic design.

Authentic design Inside El Morro

Another Chair?

Architecture // Custom Furniture // Interior Design

I just googled “chair” and received “about 128,000,000 results in 0.45 seconds.” Phew! If I looked at each result for an average of 30 seconds, it would take me approximately 64 years to look at all of them, so right now, there are enough chairs on the market to last a lifetime of searching. So who needs another chair? That said, I fully intend on completing the design and execution of not only a chair, but a full line of furnishings, carpets and lighting and bring them to market.

I’ve come to realize, however, the need for a paradigm shift from furniture as it exists today and furniture better suited for 21st century lifestyles. As I mentioned in a previous post, as a society, we are object oriented: we relate to tangible items; things. From that standpoint, we move to a new house and fill the spaces with objects, mainly furniture. Stuff and more stuff to meet our everyday needs.



Let’s take the bedroom, for instance. Here’s a list of some items we likely need for it to function:

The Houzz of Cleopatra


Recently, one of our projects, Rasteau, was featured on Houzz. Also recently, I saw Elizabeth Taylor’s Cleopatra for the first time. Hollywood created a fantasy and circumvented accuracy despite all that is know about Ancient Egypt, while at Rasteau we peeled back the layers of inaccuracy in the restoration and renovation of the in-town home in the wine country of France.



A view from the pool terrace to a neighboring home and landscape. It is much more than just “charming.”



Elizabeth Taylor, arrestingly beautiful as Cleopatra in all-out Hollywood glamour, if not so much historically accurate attire.

Matching Expectations




The year was 1984 and fresh out of Cornell, I started my first job as an architect-in-training in Washington, DC. I was expected to be at work from 9:00 am to 6:00 pm, Monday through Friday, with a one hour lunch break from 12:30 pm to 1:30 pm. Coffee was provided by the firm, but we were expected to be at our desks working at 9:00 am, which meant arriving earlier to get settled at our desks to start on time. One day I walked in the door at 9:06 am and the receptionist, who sat on a mezzanine above the entry, conveyed a message from Mrs. M to remind me I was to arrive by 9:00 am. To my protest, she shrugged. Mrs. M was right, however, as the expectation was set and I had agreed to it.


Just about everything we do has an expectation attached to it. I expect the alarm clock to go off at the time I set it. I expect the coffee machine to brew. I expect the key will turn in the lock and another one will start the car and take me where I need to go. And so on and so forth throughout the day until for instance the ATM machine unexpectedly usurps my card and wreaks havoc on my lunch break and the delay makes me arrive 6 minutes late at the office.

The world of design is filled with many unknowns, starting with the fact that very rarely the final product is known at the time the parties agree to work together. Contracts are set in place to establish each of the parties’ rights and obligations, but even so, they are full of vagaries like “reasonable,” “industry standard,” and “acceptable practices,” which are terms subject to interpretation because design is a practice, not a science. Therefore client and design professional are cast in a situation where they must trust one another at the onset of the project and keep that trust alive through the duration of the project. By then, expectations are usually met, at times exceeded and much to everyone’s chagrin, occasionally shattered.

A Contractor once asked me what I thought was the most important thing to a client, to which I replied, “budget.” “No, it’s the schedule,” he replied. “Clients want to know the project will be completed on time.” True, once a commitment to spend the money has been made, the next question is “when will it be done?,” which is usually much longer than she/he/I want to hear, because I personally think construction of one’s own is a royal pain.

Of course there is the budget, which is what the client is comfortable spending. Everyone has a comfort zone and once reached, that’s it. In the case where all of the bases were covered under the budget, all is well. It’s when the cost to produce the design exceeds the funds available to produce it that everyone’s stress level skyrockets. The trick becomes how to keep the design concept of the project intact and reduce the cost to build it? In almost thirty years in the design industry, I cannot remember a single project without a substitution or a change to the design on the basis of cost. In fact, I counsel clients to do so when cost and effect are disproportionate.

Then there is the issue of professional fees. Good design is expensive no matter how much we’d like to sugarcoat the reality. The issue comes down to value. As a consumer, the question should be, where am I getting the best value for my investment? Not all design is made the same and it will reasonably cost the same amount to build a good design as it will to build mediocre. The difference lies in the value-added. Besides, spread out across the life of the project, the difference is usually negligible. I do, however, believe the fee should be commensurate to the project and at times a potential client should be informed they may not need a design professional for what they need.

I firmly believe you get what you pay for, and understanding the implications of this statement is at the essence of managing expectations; everyone’s.


Thanks for reading. Comments appreciated. Inquiries welcome.

Ernesto Santalla

September 11th, 2013

Before & After Episode 3: This open kitchen is much more than the some of its parts


Take a look at this kitchen. What’s wrong with it?



Nothing is wrong with it. We can reasonably assume there is a refrigerator to the right of the stove to complete the “cooking triangle,” so it appears it contains everything required to make it functional and even produce a great meal. Now look at it again.




There’s the refrigerator; and we can safely assume the doors are storage next to it. It looks dark in the ceiling, but the track lighting should take care of that. So my next question is, does this kitchen fit what the seller’s label of luxury apartment? Is there enough counter space? Hint: closets cost less to build than kitchen cabinets and granite countertops. Next clue; not all woods are made alike and this mahogany was not top of the heap. If you ask me, however much or little of it was used to make these cabinets was a waste of material. It’s an open kitchen; there is a large loft space with lots of natural light a few paces from the stove. There were no lights on when the photo was taken, but the space was unnecessarily dark. “Lots of storage,” said the real estate listing. Yes, so much so that there is not enough space to prep a meal.

Here’s what we did in this space.

Studio Santalla

Not all storage is made equal; remember this. Here we removed the closets, which were too deep to function well as pantry space and carefully planned the storage according to the client’s needs. We also moved the dining area to this location.

Studio Santalla


The wall on the right contains the refrigerator, ovens and storage; including a full-height, pull-out pantry.

Studio Santalla


So what was wrong with this kitchen? It wasn’t part of the open flow of the space. It was detached, dark and looked like an afterthought. The lesson we’ve learned is the whole is much more than the sum of the parts.

Stay tuned for more. Comments encouraged.


Ernesto Santalla

August 13th, 2013

A Man Of Means (of public transportation)


By a twist of fate, I’ve found myself without a car, which has been my primary means of transportation for the past twenty-two years. I’m actually not surprised I don’t miss it. In fact, the freedom I’ve experienced this past month has been a welcome change. What I’ve “given up” pales in comparison to what I’ve gained; connecting to Washington, DC through the transportation systems designed for the city and thereby connecting to the city in a way driving does not permit. I am now a man of means of public transportation.

TRAFFIC; Blog Post on Means of Public Transportation by Ernesto Santalla, Studio Santalla

Before and After Episode 2: A Hole In The Ground Does Not A Pool Make


Things happen when least expected, which was the case when a client called about a second home she and her spouse purchased in Rasteau, France. The most recent renovation had been completed four decades prior to their purchase, so their new ancient home needed 21st century attention. The request—would I come to see the property and work out some ideas on site for a quickie renovation?

A few weeks later they picked me up in Avignon and then on to Rasteau. The in-town home still habitable, we settled in for the next four days to figure this one out. Suffice it to say, what was originally envisioned as a simple renovation became a significant restoration project.

The purchase included what had appeared to be an abandoned lot, the proposed site of a new pool.

Before and After: Pool transformation for a french vacation home by Washington DC architect and interior designer Ernesto Santalla, of Studio Santalla
Before: “The Pit” separates the home from this unused, empty space

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