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2012 Design Masters

Fifi Laughlin


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This year, Design Masters celebrates its fifth anniversary by adding six new honorees to a list of past recipients that includes more than 30 people. As always, these are people who are actively using their talents to make New Orleans a beautiful, livable, sustainable and economically vibrant place. This year’s group is also noteworthy for the connection they make between the great design of the past and the great design of the present. Marcel Wisznia is helping to ensure the future of New Orleans’ landmark buildings by infusing them with modern-day relevance; The Make It Right Foundation is creating new 21st-century homes that have become landmarks in their own right; Kathy Slater and Fifi Laughlin, whom you will find at the same Magazine Street gallery, create furniture and lighting (respectively) that add a light-handed sophistication to old and new; landscaper Robin Tanner’s studies in the age-old art of Japanese garden-making bring a freshness to contemporary landscaping; and interior decorator Melissa Rufty’s finesse with blending a variety of periods and influences has garnered coverage in magazines and books. Congratulations, Design Masters! Thanks to you, our architecture, our green space, our homes and even our shopping make this city like no other.

Make It Right Foundation

Green Design
Answers by Tim Duggan, landscape architect, and Taylor Royle, communications director

Tell us about your background. In 2008, Make It Right began building homes in New Orleans’ Lower 9th Ward. We started the organization to build safe, sustainable, well-designed homes for families who lost everything in Hurricane Katrina.

Who are the principals of your firm/business? Brad Pitt founded Make It Right, with guidance from Cradle to Cradle pioneer Bill McDonough and architecture firm Graft. He brought architects from New Orleans and around the world to New Orleans to design our homes. Twenty-one firms designed single-family and duplex homes for Make It Right. The single-family home designers are: Adjaye Associates, Billes Architecture, BNIM, Concordia, Constructs LLC, Eskew+Dumez+Ripple, Graft, Kieran Timberlake Architects, Morphosis, MVRDV, Pugh+Scarpa Architects, Trahan Architects, Shigeru Ban Architects. The duplex home designers are: Atelier Hitoshi Abe, Bild Design, Buildingstudio, Elemental, Gehry Partners, Waggoner and Ball Architects, William McDonough and Partners.

How does New Orleans affect your profession? What are the benefits and challenges? Though Make It Right is now working in other parts of the country, New Orleans is the reason we exist. We set out to join the rebuilding effort in the Lower 9th Ward; today we’re using what we’ve learned building sustainable, affordable houses in New Orleans to help disabled veterans in Newark, NJ and a blighted neighborhood in Kansas City, MO. New Orleans, like other cities, did not have many contractors trained in the green building methods we use, like pervious concrete, solar installation and advanced framing. We’ve trained local laborers in green building practices – so they can work on our homes and share their expertise on other projects around New Orleans.

Tell us about your current projects. Make It Right is building 150 homes in the Lower 9th Ward. We’ve built 86 homes so far and are breaking ground on new homes every month. This year we completed our first home by world-renowned architect Frank Gehry. This home is the only Gehry design in Louisiana and one of only 33 Gehry homes in the world.

What else would you be doing if you weren’t doing this? We can’t think of anything we’d rather do that help make sustainable, well-designed homes affordable for everyone! We would like to change the way all buildings are designed and built so that everyone lives in a home that is healthy for the homeowners and the environment.

Fifi Laughlin


Tell us about your background. I graduated from Tulane with a BA in English.  I was fortunate to have spent my junior year in Paris where I spent much of the time studying Art History at the museums and living amongst such beautiful architecture, sculpture and surroundings.  I think this helped form my appreciation for beauty of all kinds and most especially decoration and proportion.  My family and I had a gallery with Mario Villa in Chicago before I moved back to New Orleans and started my own line so I had been selling other artists’ work for many years and fine tuning my own eye during that time.  My Mom was a big influence as well as she has been pointing out beautiful handmade furniture and objects since I was a little girl.  I wasn't particularly interested at the time but I think the information sunk in nonetheless. As the mother of two boys, I try to do the same thing We will see if they are paying any attention! My younger son likes to come to the studio and mess around with the materials and actually made his own lamp this summer.

Who are the principles of your firm/business? I am the owner and designer by rely on an array of talented artists and craftsmen.

How does New Orleans affect your profession? What are the benefits and challenges? I do not think I could have done this anywhere but New Orleans.  First of all, if you have an idea there is no doubt that you can find someone to help you to create it…in any medium.  I am fortunate to have one of the best glass blowers in the country as well as one of the most prominent glass-casting artists to make my bases.  I also have several talented metal sculptors who build my metal frames and hand-build all of the brass rings and feet that I incorporate.  I think it is an incredible gift that the city has such an array of talented artists and artisans living here.  Also, the people of New Orleans totally support their local talent.  We are all very proud of our city and our people and most especially our local creativity whether it be in music, food, fashion, art or design.   One of the challenges is getting things done in an efficient and timely way.  We have A LOT of distractions…Mardi Gras, Jazz Fest, countless neighborhood festivals all over town, there is always someone in town to entertain and this year, the Super Bowl. These make our quality of life so wonderful but they do tend to slow us down.

Tell us about your current projects. I am currently finishing up a custom chandelier and a lantern for local designer Grace Kaynor.  I am also working on a new group of lamps for Gallery 3954 on Magazine Street. I recently shipped some work to a new Design Studio, which has just opened in Louisville.  I have been experimenting with some new colors, which I am excited to introduce, and I have recently made a lamp that incorporates a base cast in sand from a broken lamp base that belonged to my mother. The original lamp had been in my parent's Mississippi home before Katrina.  After the storm, my mother found it stuck in the mud on it's way out to the Mississippi Sound.  She hasn't seen the sand cast lamp yet, but I like it and I really love that her lamp has been reincarnated and is still with us.

What would you be doing if you weren’t doing this? I would like to get back to fine art – ceramic sculpture and painting.  I have taken a lot of classes and dabbled over the years but find myself really craving more of this type of hands on expression.  I think it is just a matter of time before I dive back in.  

Kathy Slater

Furniture Design

Tell us about your background. Since graduating from the University of Georgia in Interior Design, I have always worked in areas related to it. I have worked for and with other interior designers and have shared an antiques business with other partners. Although I feel that there is nothing better than a fine antique in a room, I have always loved the idea of creating a new piece of furniture and manipulating its look with a variety of finishes and materials.   

Who are the principals of your firm/business? I am the principal of the company and responsible for all aspects of the business from the design and fabrication to the delivery of the furniture to the client. Having spent many years as an interior designer I understand the importance of each detail and the needs of the client’s space. I am fortunate to have a wonderful, experienced team of fabricators and a talented decorative painter who will work with me until we get each piece just right.

How does New Orleans affect your profession? What are the benefits and challenges? There is so much history and so many talented artisans in this city that you can’t help but feel the creative spirit that surrounds us.  It is such an asset to be surrounded by the interesting shops and galleries on Magazine Street and the French Quarter that attract tourists and locals as well. Incorporated in the unique architecture of New Orleans is some of the most beautiful and intricate ironwork in the country.  As a result I have skilled iron craftsmen available to help develop and execute the designs. Also, thanks to the iconic street names of the city, each piece of furniture is named to reflect where it was made. In contrast, although we have a couple of nice showrooms here, New Orleans does not have the abundance of large designer showrooms that other cities have making choices for samples and materials limited without traveling.

Tell us about your current projects. The latest addition to the line is the “Orleans Bar Cart.” There is a renewed interest in the drinks cart and what a great functional piece it is.  We have made this one elegant and transitional as well. It can go from the dining room to the living to the family room.

What else would you be doing if you weren’t doing this? Before I decided to go the design route in school, I had planned to major in French or psychology. Aside from frequently traveling to France where I would be forced to speak French all day, while perusing the markets and fairs (as well as eating and drinking the local fare), I would spend more time at home and with my family.

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