The two talk indoor-outdoor living in light of their latest book

“For us, architecture is fundamentally about transformation,” begin M. Brian Tichenor and Raun Thorp in the introduction to their latest book, Outside In (Vendome, $60). As the book’s title suggests, for Tichenor & Thorp, such transformation usually involves a holistic incorporation of interior and exterior architecture with a building’s surroundings. Long before the term indoor-outdoor was a buzzword and the industry saw a recent boom in outdoor fabrics and furnishings, the duo was quietly racking up a devoted following for their deft ability to incorporate the best of nature into their projects. In Outside In, this style is on full display in glossy photographs of the couple’s homes beside conceptual sketches by Tichenor and thoughtful essays on the design elements at the core of their practice (these include pattern, color, light, views, narrative, and history). AD caught up with Tichenor & Thorp to talk about nature, design, and the intersection of the two.AD: Why do you think harmony between outdoors and in is so important?

M. Brian Tichenor: When outside and inside are designed together and as a whole, there is a cohesiveness that is extraordinary: Interiors feel expansive and light, and the garden feels connected and accessible—an integral part of the living environment.
A space by Tichenor & Thorp featured in their new book.
A space by Tichenor & Thorp featured in their new book.

AD: What can be gleaned from the way this harmony exists in other countries?

Raun Thorp: A lot. Most other countries have very active and vital street cultures that exist outside of the dwellings people live in. Outdoor life is a vital part of life and culture elsewhere in the world in a way that hasn’t evolved as much in America: It’s just a part of life, as opposed to something that must be consciously designed. In our work, we try to make that connection just as seamless.

BT: In most temperate parts of the world, there is a seamless connection with the outdoors from an age-old tradition of utilizing the grounds around the place you live. There is also usually a veneration of older elements in the landscape, natural and man-made, which give a dimension of deeper time to those environments.

AD: How did each of your backgrounds shape the way you design?

RT: My background is, as they say, all over the map—literally and figuratively. I have lived in various places in the U.S. (both East and West Coast) and have spent time working and as a student abroad as well. Travel, living in other places, moving, and a wide range of interests and pursuits, (including playing a lot of chess when I was younger), have shaped the way I design in a number of ways, including an appreciation and relish for analytical problem-solving. But, most importantly, having been exposed by my parents to a lot of arts, culture, as well as science and mathematics, it all comes together in designing. Everything I have ever learned is relevant in what we do, which is what makes it so exciting.

BT: I come from a family of builders and artists; this pursuit of creating beautiful gardens and houses has been a perfect way to gather all that I am interested in and think about it all the time.

AD: What is the most misunderstood aspect of designing with the outdoors in mind?

BT: Going for the big view all the time can be a mistake—framing a view, however modest, that entices you to picture yourself inhabiting the garden is much more important. A distant bench or an inviting path in a garden may not be used that often, but if you can see it every day and imagine yourself there, you have greatly enhanced the room you’re in.

AD: How can these learnings translate to urban living?

RT: This is an excellent question. Aside from the obvious—such as to take advantage of one’s balcony, roof terrace, or fire escape by populating these spaces (legally, of course) with container plantings so one has a view through to something green and living—use of materials and textures that evoke life outside the windows, such as bark wallcovering, wood, and textures that one might think of as exterior all help evoke a sense of the outside. There’s also the “they did it with mirrors” approach: Employ the centuries-old trick of installing a mirror opposite a window to bring in the outside and the light. This is such an easy way of adding a window to a wall that doesn’t have one—and it’s much cheaper than doing construction, (especially useful in an urban environment.) Framing views to the outside and bringing in the palette of the landscape or view outside the window is also key in connecting the outside with the inside.

AD: How did you go about selecting projects for the book?

RT: We wanted to make sure that there was a variety of projects that ranged from smaller, urban scale projects to expansive properties that incorporated large landscapes. It was important for us to show, in every project, how the outside and inside work together but to also show how the design process worked for each project, which meant that the projects we included in the book were good examples of this integration and explored the range of the work we’ve created. We also wanted to explore specific aspects of the way we approach design, so each of the projects is accompanied by a topical essay that discusses and illustrates (literally) these tenets of design.

AD: Can you each share one project that stands out in your past as a learning experience or a favorite? Is it featured in the book?

RT: That’s like asking a parent to choose a favorite child! So, let’s go with the learning experience. Choosing one project as the case study for a “learning experience”, I would have to say it’s our own house. (Doesn’t every designer say that?). When we bought the house in which we now live, a 1940 modernist house by architect Harwell Hamilton Harris, it was considered by most to be a “tear down” but with “good bones.” That said, this house has maintained its original integrity, with a little help, and has also been able to absorb the additions, alterations and landscape design we’ve added to it over the years. Working on this house to restore, remodel, and add to it, we’ve learned a lot, about not only the modernism we all studied on paper in school but also the design process by being our own client. I call this project our “client sympathy class.” Our house is featured in the book, in the chapter aptly titled “Design Laboratory.”

BT: A house we did in Rancho Santa Fe, which is the last project in the book, has been a deeply influential project for me. It is based on Provencal Bastide and was built around a collection of French antiquities and building materials that our clients, a couple, had spent 30 years assembling. The dimensions and logic of the boiserie rooms that we integrated into the fabric of the house taught us volumes about the way these elements can organize space—and the windows and doors, which were commissioned from a traditional mill in France, just in the way they worked, brought the outside in. We also were fortunate enough to be invited back to redo the house some 15 years after it was originally finished. The opportunity to revisit and recalibrate a house at a different stage of life for our clients and for us, as its architects, was a fascinating exercise; and to have mature, happy trees in just the spots we wanted them was a gardener’s dream.