Computer screens are more common than tracing paper in today's architecture firms. But for Robert Cox, a senior designer at Studios, a Washington practice specializing in corporate interiors, pencil sketches are still important tools in the creative process. At night and on weekends, Cox retreats to a corner of his yellow bungalow in the Rosemont neighborhood of Alexandria, to doodle, draw and paint.
Cox chose a sunny nook facing the street as his studio. In it he has moonlighted on such projects as a 3,000-square-foot house addition in Wesley Heights and a line of walnut chairs for a Baltimore manufacturer. "It's like a laboratory for looking at things that I don't have time to consider at the office," he says. "It allows me to get away from the computer and into hands-on design."
The small space is elegantly furnished with the kind of Italian furniture and lighting that the architect often selects for his corporate clients. On one wall, a row of industrial steel panels bought at an antiques store reflects the daylight that streams into the small room from windows on two sides.
Separated from the living room by an archway, the study offers a direct view of Cox's inspiration: his collections of contemporary art and clean-lined furnishings from the 1940s and '50s. Artfully arranged in the airy living and dining rooms are modern classics by furniture designers such as Pierre Jeanneret (a cousin of the French architect Le Corbusier), T.H. Robsjohn-Gibbings, Charles Eames, George Nelson and Alvar Aalto.
"A lot of the furniture influences my own designs," says the architect, unfurling a drawing of the chairs he designed for furniture company David Edward. Sure enough, his angular seating recalls the tapered wooden legs of the living room's Jeanneret and Robsjohn-Gibbings chairs.
For some homeowners, such spare furnishings might seem out
of place in a cozy 1920s cottage like this one, with its rustic stone fireplace, wooden floors and sash windows. But Cox sees the mid-century pieces -- many finished in exotic woods -- as expressing the same sensitivity to materials and textures as the turn-of-the-century Arts and Crafts movement that spawned bungalows such as his.
After moving into the house five years ago, Cox simply repaired the plaster walls and painted them white. The house has no rugs, curtains or air conditioning (he says the attic fan works fine).
Cox collects color-drenched works by young Washington and New York artists, and has taken two years of painting lessons himself. "Painting helps me to understand color, and groupings of hues that aren't always obvious," he says. In the living room, a steel-blue wall behind a built-in bookcase complements the yellow and orange upholstery of the chairs. On one shelf, the sinuous red line of a Venetian glass bowl plays off the scarlet curves of a painting by New York artist David Row. Atop a cabinet, a fan-shaped work by Washington sculptor Nancy Sansom Reynolds echoes the curves of an oval 1960s lamp and a 1992 nude by photographer Sally Mann.
Cox sees his house as a work in progress, and is content to spend a Saturday or Sunday rearranging his furniture and artworks as a way of sparking new ideas for his designs. "I live and breathe what I do as an architect," he says. "It's part of my everyday life."