We recently received a note from a Remodeling Design Awards entrant who commented that the “judges are slanted toward contemporary design. Stainless steel, flat door panels, glass, and cold surfaces are prevalent in almost every category.”

While we stand by our judges’ decisions and have faith in our awards’ process, the writer, a veteran home builder and remodeler makes a good point. We took his letter to our judges – recent and past. The ensuing discussion is presented below (lightly edited and in the order in which the e-mails arrived).

Ali Honarkar, Division One Architects, Washington, D.C.:
We never go in judging "style." It is the quality of the design. The majority is not always correct.

Hans Kuhn, Studio27 Architecture, Washington, D.C.:
Last time I checked there was no entitlement to be awarded based on the numbers of one’s submissions. In my view, most Americans (if that blunt statement is true at all) do not appreciate a contemporary approach when it comes to kitchen remodeling. This panel consisted of builders, architects, and designers, not American homeowners.

Awarding a project of this kind, we are meant to look beyond the usual. I think we are just not on the same page here [with the letter writer] .… [N]o car company would go back to manufacturing and selling its 1970s models successfully; nor would there be any good argument to do so. Why is it that there is so much resistance in America for [a] logical evolution in architecture? I find that stunning!

Anthony Wilder, Anthony Wilder Design Build, Cabin John, Md.:
It seems that contemporary usually wins because it’s new and full of fresh ideas. People in the industry tend to like contemporary. I am not sure this is something that has an easy answer; contests are always subjective in one way or another.

Michael Anschel, Otogawa-Anschel, Minneapolis:
OK, so there is a bias in the RDA toward contemporary architecture. So what? Historical is a category. But design is evolution and old, tired design work that shows no innovation, understanding of scale, line, texture, color, etc., will not win in a competition.

Competitions are also not about who had the best project. They are about who made the best presentation and created the impression of the best project. If I recall, we awarded some projects that were heavy French country and Italian Renaissance style because they were done so well. Personally, the name of the competition says it all: "Design award." Combine that with East Coast bias and what do you expect?

Alan Kanner, Added Dimensions Custom Construction, Takoma Park, Md.:
I have read the comments to date and have to say that I largely agree with everything that has been said. Nevertheless, I am sympathetic to the [original letter writer’s] pain. While we build almost exclusively contemporary architecture, I found myself troubled during the judging process that there was little or no traditional work being recognized for an award.

It is undeniably true that most of the projects built in the States are traditional architecture and likely true that most of the people paying for those projects would not be open to contemporary architecture. So we are effectively denying a large swath of the building community the ability to be competitive for our awards.

I am not suggesting that we reward [substandard] architecture or even that we engage in affirmative action for traditional projects. Rather, I think we do need to recognize that there is an inherent conflict in pitting something zippy and different against tried and true (if elegant).

Judy Mozen, Handcrafted Homes, Roswell, Ga.:
We had a definite contemporary bias. In fact, I believe that one of the reasons I was asked to be a judge was that it was thought that I might add a traditional balance to the group because of the work my company does. Unfortunately, my love is also contemporary.

I agree with Alan [Kanner's] comments and I might even go further to say that I believe we passed on several very well designed homes because they were traditional. I was a little surprised when I was there. I think that we (REMODELING magazine) need to decide the "mission," so to speak, of the contest. If it is purely cutting-edge new design and new ideas then we are doing just what our mission dictates. If "design awards" means great new designs, then we're right on target.

If, instead, we are really looking at unique design solutions to remodeling requests from clients, then I don't feel that we are open-minded enough. This was my first time [as a Remodeling Design Awards judge], and I am not an architect. Therefore, after listening to the discussions, I decided that we must be looking for state-of-the-art new work since it was a design contest.

Rob Morris, Morris-Day, McLean, Va.:
I would like to add one potentially "glossed over" observation. I do prefer traditional design. When executed thoughtfully and appropriately, it can be innovative and thoroughly fresh. While some architects and designers feel a modern vernacular is more edgy and magazine worthy, the "icons" of home (for most homeowners) will always transcend Le Corbusier's unrealistic "machine for living" expectations for a post-industrialized world. I mean, have you ever seen a tree fully decorated for Christmas, dishes piled in a sink, or a stack of newspapers featured in the Villa Savoye in Poissy? Just saying.

Some of you will recall that I fought for a few of the traditional entries. Unfortunately, most of the traditional entries represented a glib pastiche of worn-out pretenses or 10-year-old trends popular at Home Depot today. And if traditional design cannot stand the test of time, it is little more than "conventional" design suited for short-term marketing needs. Let's discuss!

Peggy Fisher, Fisher Group, Annandale, Va.:
Let me say at the outset, that I admire contemporary architecture — sometimes — and am happy to work with the contemporary preferences of my clients when that is who they are. I am not declaring war, or a shouting match, as life is much too short. I’m not on the same page with a number of these [other judges]. There’s design, and then, there’s design. There is solving the design problem of space, function, budget to meet the needs of the clients, and then there is the style of the space.

I have worked many hours to meet the needs of my clients and come up with many creative solutions which had to be dressed in a style that suited the client. Often that was not a contemporary style. I have a number of quite sophisticated clients who look at contemporary design and declare that it is boring.

Frankly, much of contemporary design is pretty stark, but a lot of people are afraid to say that the emperor has no clothes, so they continue to stride in lock step reusing the same hackneyed ideas. “Contemporary design” was really only contemporary when it was new. It is now some 60 or 70 years old — or over 100 years old, depending on when you start counting — and much of it looks the same now as it did then. I’ve been to the Wiener Werkstatte (1903 – 1932) in Vienna and seen the same ideas there that are now — still — being touted as “contemporary.”

I believe that good design is good design, since the principles and elements of design are pretty universal, whether pre-Columbian, Ming Dynasty, Brunelleschi, or Bauhaus. All of those show very strong “design,” and all of them are still harkened back to for reference as well as for inspiration. So are they bad because they are in the past?

And how far in the past, really, is Frank Lloyd Wright, or Le Corbusier? 100 years or so? Are they really "contemporary" with today's world? Is the music or fashion from that period considered contemporary today? I realize architecture moves at a different pace than music and fashion, but it does still move — on.

[A] good designer should be able to design in many modes, and be ambidextrous. When Ford hired Bill Blass to design the inside of their Lincoln Continental in 1978, he was greatly challenged. I recall reading an interview with him on the process, in which he said, [something along the lines of] “If you can design a dress, you can design a refrigerator, so why not a car?" Again, good design is good design.

I have been inspired by that same mindset and eagerly take on the challenge of learning to think in terms of problem-solving for space planning, function, and budget — in the vernacular that works for the person who is paying me to do the thinking. The arts need patrons, and my clients' patronage allows me to work for them to explore design solutions and my own ideas in a context that will, hopefully, be rewarding to both of us.

In the end, it won't really matter how many reams of drawings I leave behind in the "Unbuilt Works" department if I satisfy my own ego but do not listen to my clients to try to achieve what works for them. You could ask Frank Lloyd Wright.

Debra Moore, Custom Design Build, Ann Arbor, Mich.:
Of course there was a contemporary bias. I think most “design heads” lean that way because it is different than what we get to do on a day-to-day. So it’s exciting, fresh, and new! Or “beyond the usual,” as the missions states.

I agree with Judy [Mozen], it’s all about clarification of the mission of the contest for judges and participants plus illuminating the fact that there is no such thing as a “perfect” design contest. There is always some bias, some clarification of the mission to be done each year, and differently tailored responses to the actual submissions in a given year ... . Additionally, these issues are not easy; they represent philosophical issues hashed out on an ongoing basis for the design and architectural community at large.

Perhaps the mission could be clarified and crystallized in the article announcing the winners as well as in the up-front docs? Not a panacea but restating the parameters and the difficulty with which judging occurs might be instructive for readers/participants.

[E]veryone learns differently and this seems to me like a wonderful opportunity to educate about what comprises good design and what a good design submission/project might look like, as well. I really liked Michael [Anschel’s] point about the fact that it is not always the best project that wins but the “impression” of the best project as told through the presentation. Telling the story about why someone does something a certain way is as important as the actual solution they provide.

Here are a couple of ideas for the future that [REMODELING] may want to consider:

—Show [judges] examples of award-winning submissions (the binder) so they can see what excellent quality “impressions” and submissions actually look like.

—Clarify the mission of the Design Awards, with the caveat that each year is fluid and that the judges do the best they can with what they’ve got.

—Perhaps include some “style” awards, e.g., best traditional, best contemporary, best transitional, best midcentury modern, etc. It will serve to educate -- as well as to provide an award opportunity for those who might be great at styling what is tried-and-true. I notice, for example, that interior design is not represented as a category and that the emphasis is heavy on architectural design, with interiors as an afterthought. Again, a teaching moment not only for readers but for architects and builders alike.

Folks tend to dismiss interiors as window dressing (fluff) when we all know that this fine-tuning and minutiae can balance out competing objectives in a floor plan, for example. (Furniture selection, placement, etc.)

—Perhaps we include design fees stated overtly as well as the construction costs. Right now, the amount of professional design a project has is random and hidden. We are pitting builder-designed projects against fully architecturally designed projects without any distinctions. In actuality, construction cost has nothing to do with good design except insofar as it suggest that perhaps a professional designer might get involved in a greater-level investment project. Discussing design costs overtly might offer another talking point for criticism and will also serve to refocus the discussion back onto good design and the value of it. Again, another teaching opportunity. So many people do not understand what designers/architects do -- particularly in this country -- and why it is good or important to do it.