Contemporary Stone & Tile Design Magazine

Interview: Dick Clark

June 16, 2008
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For this private residence in Austin, TX, almost 100 tons of black slate was used for the exterior. The slate panels were installed using thinset mortar and reinforced with bolts, which were then covered with stainless steel "buttons." "The client has two young kids, and we knew they wanted something different and fun," said architect Dick Clark. Stone Supplier: Moe Freid Marble & Granite, Manchca, TX; Stone Installer: Wetsu, Austin, TX; Installation Products: Laticrete International, Inc., Bethany, CT


In speaking with Dick Clark, principal of Dick Clark Architecture in Austin, TX, it is clear that the architect has developed an interest in finding new and innovative applications in stone, while still being inspired by historical uses of the material. Clark's work has included multi-family housing and developments, interior design and more than 150 private residences, and he is perhaps best known for his award-winning restaurants and entertainment venues in Austin's downtown Warehouse District and throughout Texas.

Educated at the University of Texas at Austin School of Architecture and Harvard University's Graduate School of Design, Clark has practiced architecture in Denmark and Nicaragua in addition to various locales in the U.S., including Boston, MA, Knoxville, TN, Aspen, CO, and multiple locations in Texas.

Clark's work has been characterized by "contemporary design sensibilities with particular attention to combining modest and rich materials," and he has received several awards in the Austin area and beyond, including the first Downtown Austin Alliance Impact Award for contributing to the standard of design excellence in Austin. Other honors for the architect have been bestowed by the Austin Chapter of the American Institute of Architects, the Texas/Oklahoma Chapter of the International Interior Design Association, the Custom Home Design Awards, the American Society of Interior Designers and other organizations.

A broad range of consumer publications have published the architect's work, including Southern Living, Fine Homebuilding, Austin American-Statesman and Residential Architect, among many others.

Recently, Contemporary Stone & Tile Design sat down with Clark at his office in downtown Austin to discuss his experiences using natural stone in his work.

CSTD: When did you first develop an interest in architecture?

Clark: My mother tells me it was when I was two or three years old. I would be pounding nails into wood. I had an interest all the way through high school; I would work for architects during the summer as a runner or helping around the office. When I went to college, I wanted to go to a good architecture school, and I always had that in mind.

Once I was in college, my interest kept going. When I graduated, I went to work, but later went back to graduate school because I had an interest in teaching. After going to graduate school, I taught for about five years at a couple of different universities. At the same time, I was practicing architecture on the side in a one-man office with a couple of students working with me.

After teaching for awhile, I wanted to get back to just practicing architecture. I was living in Nicaragua and then Denmark, which was where my last teaching assignment was, and I finally came back to the States. I came to Austin because I had a project that I could do here with some friends. I planned to be here for a year or two, and 28 years later, I'm still here. I quit moving around.

CSTD: Do you think that your travels influenced the way that you work?

Clark: Absolutely. The things I saw in different places [had an influence], especially travels in Scandinavia and Northern Europe. I lived in Nicaragua for two years, so there has also been a Latin American influence.

If I had to name three influences, one would be Scandinavian and the modernism that started in the '40s and '50s and is still strong. Another is Latin American, with strong colors and forms. And the last one is Asian, or Japanese contemporary architecture.

CSTD: What were some of your first uses of stone?

Clark: I went to undergraduate school here in Texas, and my first job was in Dallas for Bud Oglesby. At that time, there were hardly any modernists in Texas, and he was one of the foremost. He had a beautiful way of using stone; it wasn't the chopped, funky blocks. I really learned to appreciate cut stone, with a sawn face and sawn edges and maybe some rough stone as an accent. He did beautiful, timeless buildings, and they were built to last, too. He had a clientele that appreciated that. I learned that stucco is one thing; wood is one thing; brick is one thing. But stone is something all to itself. It just has a different feel, and you can do more with it -- with size and texture and shadow.

CSTD: That leads to my next question. Since a lot of your stone designs use light and shadow, and this isn't very common, how are you able to find stone installers that can achieve what you are looking for?

Clark: Good question. In our residential work, it is fairly easy because of the type of work we do. It is contemporary for the most part; it is clean and crisp. We tend to work with the same general contractors, and they are generally the ones who find the masons. So when they do one of our projects, they know who to use. On another [architect's] project, they find many stonemasons who specialize in another type of stonework -- more traditional, detailed stone. Usually what we do is simpler and more refined, and there are some masons who can do it, and others who can't.

CSTD: Do you spend a lot of time on the jobsite supervising the installation?

Clark: At the beginning, we absolutely do. When we're first doing something -- whether it is a stone house or a stone fireplace -- we always require mock-up walls to be built. That's not only for us; it's for the client. We're trying to sell something to the client that is usually different from what they might be used to. Sometimes we can catch it in one, two or three tries, but sometimes it takes six, seven or eight shots. We'll do a 6- x 6-foot wall, and you can see the color, the texture, how the grout is applied, colors of grout, everything.

We're doing an 8,000-square-foot-house now, and it is sandstone with three sides cut and deeply raked, almost zero grout joints. This is not an easy thing to do. The face has a split to it, so there's a little bit of texture. And there's about four or five colors in the mix, so we also had to get the color mix right. The only way to do that right is to put up sample walls, and that wall stays up during the whole process, and you come out and check it now and then. And maybe you will get to an area that is just not as good, and you have to say, "Take it down, and re-do it."

CSTD: You've used a variety of stone in your work -- granite, slate, limestone, ceramic tile, sandstone. How do you go about finding different materials?

Clark: We've been doing this for awhile, so [stone suppliers] come to us. They are all over this part of the country. We have a guy who comes here with a pick-up truck every two months and shows us 10 or 15 new stones. And there are plenty of other people who come as well. We're fortunate to be in a position to have not only seen many stones over the years, but there are sources that come to us.

We also get information from builders who work on other projects. We did a commercial project here, and the builder introduced us to a stone that he had used before.

We also read magazines, and keep an eye out for something cool. We try our best to use regional stone. It may not be appropriate to use granite from New Hampshire or flint from Michigan. It might be okay as a fireplace accent, but we try to use regional materials. That means Texas as well as Oklahoma, Arkansas and New Mexico. When you're thinking about the carbon footprint, maybe you don't need to ship stone from Canada to Texas. Half of the price of stone is shipping, so if we can get stone from 50 or 60 miles from here, it's better for everybody. Stone isn't cheap the way we use it; it's not an inexpensive material.

CSTD: You've worked on range of project types -- restaurants, commercial buildings, private residences. How often do you find yourself educating clients on how to use stone and what can or can't be done?

Clark: I would say over half. Anybody who's never used stone before [needs to be educated]. There are some people who come and say, "We saw such-and-such stone at this particular house or country club," and we find out about it. But this is not something that the average person picks up walking down the street. They may know more about new cars or something like that; but they're making decisions about stone maybe once or twice in their lives. We're doing it every day.

CSTD: So they don't always know what they want?

Clark: No, sometimes they just want "stone." Sometimes they just want "solidity." Sometimes they just want "warmth." Sometimes they don't even know that.

Commercial [clients] seem to know more about what they want than residential [clients] because they are more budget conscious and deadline conscious. They're really looking for something that will make them money somehow; or will keep them from spending money, since stone requires low maintenance. If somebody's putting up an office building, and they think they'll be there for 40 years versus five years, they will look at it differently.

When people are building a home, most of the time they feel they will be there for 40 years. So if they can afford it, they want something that will last that whole 40 years, and they won't have to paint; they won't have replace it. Those people get more involved in the stone choices.

CSTD: But for a lot of your clients, the discussion would go beyond the stone. I'm thinking of two projects in particular -- a condominium lobby where you used Texas limestone, and all of the pieces were recessed with a lot of shadow; and there was a residence where you combined slate with stainless steel "buttons." How do you explain that type of work to your clients in advance?

Clark: For the lobby project, the client simply wanted something that was cool, and there was a budget. If you look at that lobby, there's the wood cabinetry where the doorman sits; there's the stone wall; there's some nice furniture; and there's an aquarium. That's all there is. There are only a couple of places to get the bang for the buck -- once when you first come in, and once at the elevators. We did a little [sketch] of the wall, and talked with an interior designer here, and they thought it looked cool. So we tried it with the mason, and we watched him put it up. We didn't know what it would look like for sure. You can draw it, and you can do a computer model, but you don't really know. It took him a day or two, and we would put a little up and maybe take part down, but once it got going, I knew it was going to look good.

The slate project was more evolutionary in how to secure the slate in place. There is a bolt there to hold the slate on, and the "button" went over that. It ended up being part of a technical solution. It got to be fun. The client has two young kids, and we knew they wanted something different and fun. We're doing an addition to the house now, and it's a lot of fun. With nine out of 10 clients, we couldn't have talked them into doing that, but they wanted something where people would say, "What are those buttons there?" That's a question they love. They may give the practical explanation, or they may just say that they look cool. When they came to us, the first thing they said to us was: "We don't want our house to look like anyone's house you've ever done," and it doesn't.

CSTD: What are some of the practical lessons that you've learned about stone over the years? Has it ever surprised you in a positive or negative way?

Clark: For such an inanimate object, stone has incredible flexibility. You can do things with stone that you really can't do with any other material. You can use color, texture, shadows, composition, size.

It's hard to work with in some ways. You can't paint it on; you can't nail it up like metal or wood. It's heavy, and it takes a lot of work. It's gravitationally challenged, but that's good. That's what gives it a sense of mass and scale. It's one of the things you know about the history of building and architecture. I'm talking about centuries ago. We don't learn much about putting up these materials by looking at something from five years ago. Some of the fascination is going back and looking at how the Greeks or the Romans worked with stone. It is really an inspiration.

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