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.

2012 Design Masters

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.

2012 Design Masters

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.  

2012 Design Masters

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.


2012 Design Masters

Marcel Wisznia


Tell us about your background. I am an architect and real estate developer.  The formal name of my company is Wisznia Company Incorporated, and we use Wisznia | Architecture + Development as our “trade name”.  I am the second generation of a family practice that was founded in Corpus Christi, Texas in 1947.  After graduating from Tulane University’s School of Architecture in 1973, I opened my own practice here in New Orleans.  In the early 1980s I merged my firm with my father’s in Texas and we practiced together as two profit centers of the same company until my father’s death in 2004. My father was quite unique in that he was not afraid to combine the creative side of his brain with the logical side.  And in my case, the acorn did not fall far from the tree, as I have those same skills.  This has allowed us to pursue real estate development, not only from a business perspective, but from a creative design approach also.  We have coined the phrase “design driven development” to describe our firm.

Our architectural division almost exclusively serves our real estate development department.  In other words, Wisznia Architecture’s sole “client” is Wisznia Development. Since Hurricane Katrina, we have developed three mixed-use projects in downtown New Orleans, totaling almost $100 million: the Union Lofts, the Maritime and the Saratoga. 

Who are the principals of your firm/business? I am the principal and president of Wisznia Company Incorporated.  I am also the General Partner of numerous Limited Partnerships and the Managing Member of additional LLCs that also own and manage real estate.  Wisznia | Architecture + Development was involved in each of these projects.

How does New Orleans affect your profession? What are the benefits and challenges? As a modern architect, it has always been a challenge to find clients that understand that modern solutions fit well into the urban or neighborhood “fabric”.  Most clients feel that the only design solution is to mimic the past.  It is funny how European architects and their clients are not afraid to design contemporary buildings in historic areas……or design modern interiors in historic buildings.  And European cities are far older than most in the US.

We firmly believe that when one understands the rhythm, scale and proportions of historic structures, modern infill structures can fit in well.

Tell us about your current projects. I have touched on the three recently completed downtown developments, but want to elaborate on several sub-components of The Maritime.  In 2011 we opened a new café on the ground floor called Merchant.  It is owned and operated by me and several other individuals.  Our “tag line” is coffee – crepes – grapes. We serve ILLY coffee, and consistently hear that Merchant is the finest coffee house in New Orleans.  Certainly, the design of the café is different than what most expect to see in this City. It does prove that excellent design contributes to the success of a venture. 

This was the first time that our firm went “out of house” and selected another architect to design for us.  Merchant was designed by Ammar Eloueini, a Tulane professor and world-renowned designer. Although it is only 800 square feet in size, it has a profound impact on the branding of the entire development.

In the late spring of 2012 we designed and opened BETA, a shared workspace on the second floor of the same building. It is designed for start-ups and young entrepreneurs, what we call “the creative class”.  The open floor plan maximizes natural light, and the space is furnished with Knoll workstations and classic modern furniture from both Herman Miller and Knoll.  

Early in 2013 we will begin construction on the renovation of the Stephens Garage, or what we call “The Garage”.  It is the conversion of a historic parking garage and car dealership into a mixed-use development consisting of 65 apartments, 15,000 square feet of ground floor retail, and parking for both of the uses.  The existing ramps, spanning from floor to floor, will be removed and replaced with two automobile elevators.  If a tenant arrives home by car, he//she will drive into an elevator that will take them up to the floor they live on.  The second door will then open and they can drive out and park virtually right in front of their apartment.  It is the convenience of suburban garden apartment living in the heart of downtown New Orleans. 

Solar energy will provide power for over 60% of a resident’s utility needs.  And if that is not enough, each parking space will have access to a charging station for plug-in hybrids and electric vehicles; also fed through the solar system.

Additionally, we are taking our skills and experience and pursuing several large projects in other southern states.  They will follow the same formula that has made our New Orleans developments successful, starting with adaptively reusing downtown historic buildings.

What else would you be doing if you weren’t doing this? Nothing! This is who I am.  I live, eat and sleep architecture and real estate development.  I was born to do this, and nothing else.

2012 Design Masters

Melissa Rufty


Tell us about your background. I spent fifteen years in advertising working on branding and strategic marketing for all sorts of businesses.   I have always loved being

surrounded by creative people. I think the combination of image and problem solving in advertising  has served me well in design. At the end of the day, it doesn't matter how good I make a house look if it doesn't function for the people who live there.

Who are the principals of your firm/business? Me and a staff of four talented designers and administrators. I jokingly call them my "sister wives."

How does New Orleans affect your profession?  What are the benefits and challenges? The essence of New Orleans is at the heart of what I do no matter what city I'm working in.  New Orleans is such a unique dichotomy of grandeur and decay so I want my projects to have that same balance of style and soul. My office is located on Magazine Street amidst all the antique stores, art galleries and a myriad of local specialty shops…frankly, it's hard to miss.

Tell us about your current projects. I have a great balance of local jobs right now that are keeping me rooted as well as some out of town projects that are keeping my eye fresh to new architecture/design styles.  I've also just partnered in a new vintage home furnishings and accessories store, Malachite, on Magazine Street.  It's been great to buy with my current jobs in mind and complement all of the great antique stores around us.  

What else would you be doing if you weren't doing this? Hoarding.

2012 Design Masters

Robin Tanner


Tell us about your background. After high school and a disastrous first go-round at college, I took a job at a nursery and fell in love with working outside in the landscape of trees and flowers. A few years later, I returned to school where I earned a degree in landscape architecture. While in school, I spent two successive summers in Japan, studying and working in the gardens of Kyoto. The great appeal to me of Japanese gardens is that they have evolved through the centuries as an art form in their own right and not merely as ornamentation to architecture. During the past few decades, I have designed and installed many gardens in the region and have worked to be mindful of the possibility of the garden as an artwork. In a way. it is the inverse of sculpture. Whereas sculpture is the fashioning of an object inserted in space, a garden is an environment that shapes space itself.

Who are the principles of your firm/business? I am the sole principal of the firm Robin Tanner Landscape Architect.

How does New Orleans affect your business? What are the benefits and challenges? There are ways in which the city of New Orleans affects the profession of landscape architecture.  The climate of the city, being much like that of a greenhouse, allows a lush diversity of vegetation.  This provides a rich palette of material for landscape design efforts. The mild weather coaxes people outdoors to enjoy their outside space. Moreover, the gregarious nature of New Orleans people encourages the use of the landscape for social activities.

Tell about your current projects. Currently, I am working on the ongoing improvement of the Japanese garden in City Park as well as several private residential projects in the city as well as one in Boulder, Colorado.  

What else would you be doing if you weren’t doing this? If I was not working at my first love of landscape design and installation, I would be riding a bicycle across the United States and Europe.