Wallace Cunningham believes in making opportunities

Successful San Diego home designer Wallace Cunningham, noted for his organic, modern, custom homes, knows what hard times are like.

“When I was a boy, my father was at Bethlehem Steel Corp., on strike,” he said. “Was it scary when a little boy’s father didn’t have a job to go to? Supporting nine children on a steelworker’s salary was not very easy to begin with. Now, when I hear people make the comment that we should let GM go under, my comment is that it isn’t GM – those are families. GM should not go under. They need to restructure and get some work.”

That’s the tone he plans to share with attendees at the Pacific Design Center Westweek conference in Los Angeles on Thursday, when he joins a panel chaired by Architectural Digest editor Paige Rense. The topic: “The Business of Design.”

With home construction at historic lows and a real estate bottom not expected until the end of the year at the earliest, Cunningham offers a long-view perspective.

“I’m a firm believer that all times are difficult,” he said. “Even in the best of times, it’s not like this profession is easy.”

His advice to fellow designers: work hard, stress quality and continue pounding the pavement and pressing the flesh of potential clients and customers, even on an airplane.

“If you’re sitting in an airplane and don’t say good morning to the person next to you, you’re missing out,” he said. “It could be an interesting person.”

And while the Internet and multimedia are flashy, Cunningham prefers books and magazines in which to showcase his work.

“You can’t leave a Web site on someone’s coffee table,” he said.

And, by the way, when you’re in someone’s house, peruse the bookshelves to get a sense of that person’s interests.

“A bookcase is an incredible insight into someone’s mind,” he said. “You’re a detective, listen to the stories, look at the books and photos.”

The goal for designers, he said, is to design a space a client can grow into, not to stay static with things as they are.

And today’s custom-home commissions often involve major remodels, he said.

“I think people are doing a lot more remodeling because they simply can’t change houses,” he said. “Making themselves comfortable where they are with smaller things is definitely the way to go.”

When work slows, Cunningham said he putters in the garden and ruminates about a book of memoirs, focused on the people he’s designed for. He’s got three profiles outlined in his head but nothing written down in final form.

“Although there is definitely less work out there, there is still room to do good work,” he said. “William Randolph Hearst couldn’t finish San Simeon. Louis XIV couldn’t finish Versailles. And I can’t finish my own remodel.”

Or his life’s story.

San Diego Union Tribune. Showley. March 22, 2009.