The New Interiors

“Smart” homes of the ’90s give way to more intelligent design fittings.

When it comes to interior design, oftentimes the devil is in the details. However, Dian Cleve, interior designer and president of Honolulu’s Cleve and Levin design firm, takes a more positive view. She recalls seeing photographs of Mies van der Rohe’s German Pavilion, also known as the Barcelona Pavilion, constructed for the 1929 World’s Fair and being struck by its modernistic simplicity and repose. Cleve reminisces, “It was the most beautiful (built) thing I had ever seen. It made me want to understand what made it so beautiful. I wanted to know people who thought like that, and I wanted to learn how to do that myself.”


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Innovations in low voltage lighting and LED technology have brought, to interior design, a tiny recessed fixture requiring only 3" in ceiling depth. Although there was a loss of 3" of ceiling height in this apartment, the living space actually looks much more spacious and bright (photo by Augie Salbosa)

Essentially Cleve believes that, whatever one does, it should be done with diligence, dedication and care. In the words of Mies van der Rohe himself, “God is in the details.” What these words mean to Cleve is that “transcendence can only come when you pay attention to the smallest detail.

It’s as simple as carefully understanding how two materials meet, how the light will fall across an object, and how the scale of objects in a room relate to one another.”

Cleve speaks purposely about how, when one has an interior piece—say a chandelier in a foyer—that is spectacular, it deserves to stand alone. Repetition of element or color sometimes diminishes the value of each piece. Instead, they must exist as complements. She also speaks to the fact that sometimes she must create an interior design from the inside out but oftentimes, especially because island homes are opened to or at least echo of the natural world, she shifts her focus to the outside in and creates interiors that are alive and fluid.

Cleve believes two of the biggest trends in interior design today have to do with energy efficiency and lighting. She explains, “Lighting can transform any interior, and the breakthroughs in LEDs are allowing us to illuminate places we previously only dreamed of.” Since LED light sources are cool to the touch, they can be used in enclosed areas. Imagine your kitchen backsplash created with tiles of honey onyx glowing in the evening because they have been lit from behind with LED lamps. The levels of hue and intensity can be managed to simulate anything from candlelight to daylight with every tinge of color one can envision. Plus, the bulbs themselves, energy efficient in design, last so long that they can be placed in hard-to-reach areas thus increasing client ease and confidence that their room will be lit when it needs to be lit.

In addition, many of today’s light fixtures have become so small that they can be retrofitted in older condominiums to produce a truly contemporary look. Cleve relates how, for years, condos throughout Honolulu were designed with only one ceiling fixture, “usually for a chandelier over a dining table.” Now pocket-sized LED fixtures can be set into ceilings at a depth of less than three inches to produce a truly modern aesthetic impact. Most home lighting these days can sync with a computer system to mimic owners’ routines throughout a given day even when they are away, which is ideal for many of Honolulu’s condo owners who vacation in the islands while their primary homes are on the mainland. The difference in programming LED lighting versus other kinds of light is that other lighting only deals with light level and time duration. In contrast, LED lighting can also be programmed to consider color—a “scene” with a bright light or one with a warmer hue—depending on the specific qualities of the LED chosen.

The “smart house” of 10 years ago brought technology straight down the hall and into the living room for many of the world’s wealthiest people. But the 21st-century trend proved to primarily play out for relatively few individuals who had a glee for gadgets. One of Cleve’s design-based mantras is “Just because you can do it doesn’t mean you should.” Home automation stormed the scene in the high-tech ’90s but, in the end, all people wanted to know how to do was play a CD and open a garage door. Essentially, many people got outsmarted by their own smart homes. What was supposed to make their lives simpler actually complicated everything from doorbells to doorknobs. Cleve explains how, today, folks are looking for a smoother and more seamless connection to their living spaces—one that speaks to their sense of self versus one that actually speaks to them.

That’s not to say that high-tech gadgetry isn’t still offering extraordinary benefits to homeowners. Cleve details how one can monitor one’s home security on a cell phone or iPad when off island. A smart refrigerator can literally contact its owner on a cell phone or through a security service if there is a problem with a power outage or leaking. This simple shout-out not only saves one the hassle of dealing with spoiled food, but it can also save thousands of dollars in damage to flooring. A $100 product called Korner is on the horizon, consisting of simply three door tags, one fob and a downloadable program. Cleve explains, “Systems that were once in the tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars are now easily affordable.” These high-tech inventions are particularly impactful for Hawai‘i’s homeowners where many live in their island residences only part time.

Having been designing interiors since 1984, Cleve has seen features of design, motif and style come and go. One thing that has remained constant has been her commitment to clients, continuity and community. In the words of the illustrious Frank Lloyd Wright, and echoing Cleve’s personal design inspiration Mies van der Rohe, “Simplicity and repose are the qualities that measure the true value of any work of art.”

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