One-on-One with Architect Paul Mankins
March 1st, 2004

By Cathy Szmurlo Mar-Apr 2004

Award-winning Des Moines architect Paul D. Mankins has turned his early fascination with architecture into an enviable list of contributions to the profession itself. Mankins will share his expertise about designing with tile when he participates in a panel discussion at Coverings, the tile and stone industry’s annual trade show to be held March 23-26 in Orlando, Florida.

Mankins brings an impressive list of credentials to the conference. He is an associate principal at Herbert Lewis Kruse Blunck Architecture, serves as the American Institute of Architect’s (AIA) Iowa president, is the editor of Iowa Architect Magazine and teaches at Iowa State University’s Department of Architecture. His firm was presented with the 2001 AIA Firm Award. Since 1994, he has garnered more than 19 AIA-affiliated awards as well as the Design Achievement Award from the Iowa State University’s College of Design.

TileDealer interviewed Mankins recently to learn how he incorporates his personal design ideas into a variety of projects and to hear his views on the evolving use of ceramic tile in professional design.

TileDealer: What drew you to become an architect and how has the profession changed over the years?

Mankins: I have known that I wanted to be an architect since I was about six years old. I grew up in a house that was designed and formerly owned by an architect. Des Moines also has two institutions that exposed me to world class architecture at an early age. One was Drake University. Their campus, which is comprised of buildings by Mies, Saarinen, Weese, Barnes, and others, is one of the best collections of mid-century modernism in the nation – it was a half mile from my home. The other institution was the Des Moines Art Center, which includes wings designed by Saarinen, Pei, and Meier. I think both of these institutions had a significant impact on my view of the discipline.

They revealed that architecture, when practiced at the highest level, is a compelling, powerful art form. Seeing these examples, how could I have chosen to do anything else? The profession has increasingly become more specialized. The mid-sized firm (between 20 and 50 people) is disappearing. Small, boutique design firms and large, corporate firms are dominating the field. Technology in both design and manufacturing has exponentially increased our productivity. In addition, the number of choices available to designers has increased due to “mass produced customization.” Technology has caused both conditions.

TileDealer: You have received numerous design awards over the years for large and small projects. Which award has given you the most satisfaction and why?

Mankins: I was fortunate to be part of the leadership of this firm, Herbert Lewis Kruse Blunck Architecture, when we were selected to be the 2001 Firm Award recipient from the American Institute of Architects. It was very rewarding for a practice located in Iowa to be selected from amongst the nation’s 25,000 architectural firms. We feel as if this award allowed us to represent the “forgotten middle” of the nation and show that good work is produced in surprising places.

TileDealer: What personal design philosophy do you incorporate into your projects?

Mankins: Our philosophy is best summarized as a pursuit of elegance. Elegance is defined as “grace and refinement” (art) and “precision” (science). It encapsulates the difficult balance between art and science that is, in my view, at the root of architecture. We look for elegance in our work. Often this is manifest in a restrained material palate culled down to the essential components necessary to solve a client’s problem while, at the same time, elevating these materials to produce a meaningful spatial experience. We would call this an elegant solution – one that is simultaneously functional and meaningful.

TileDealer: How does the use of ceramic tile come into play during the design planning stages?

Mankins: Typically material choices are initially made for functional, perfunctory reasons (i.e. heavy traffic, wet location, etc.). As the design develops, the material qualities become more important such as translucency, texture, color, scale, etc.

TileDealer: Can you give an example of a project you’ve been involved with that included an innovative use of ceramic tile?

Mankins: We are working on a loft project right now that is making extensive use of glass mosaic tile on both the floor and walls of a bath. This richly colored material is being contrasted against a stainless steel shower enclosure.

We recently finished a Student Union in which we used ceramic mosaic tile to introduce a strong, regulating pattern and saturated color into an otherwise neutral space.

TileDealer: How do you think the use of ceramic tile has changed in commercial and residential applications?

Mankins: There are many more choices – color, material composition, size, patterns – and these choices are being used in places they may not have previously been used.

TileDealer: How do you anticipate that use will change in the future in both new construction and renovations?

Mankins: I expect more and more choices. Glass tile has become increasingly popular. I think “mass produced customization” will continue to allow designers to, in effect, design custom tile from mass producers. We will go on working with small, artisan producers as well, and I think there will continue to be a place for the small producer.

TileDealer: In your opinion, is ceramic tile usage or type different for a Midwest-based project versus something in, say, California or Florida?

Mankins: I think the climate in the Midwest does change tile use here. Freeze thaw cycles would nearly exclude exterior installations. However, most of the limitations are in the imaginations of the designers, and I think in that area we can compete very successfully.

TileDealer: How do you go about evaluating tile products for possible selection?

Mankins: We have two parallel tracks for evaluating tile and stone products. One is obviously aesthetic – what the product looks like, what is the finish, color, texture, size, module, etc. This is very important and rates high in the evaluation. We are typically looking for some unconventional, novel aspect to the product that will provide a fresh look. The other track is performance – durability, absorbency, slipperiness (if a floor product), workability, cost, etc. These are critical issues as well due to long term maintenance, liability, and cost concerns. Ideally, we are looking for a durable, workable, inexpensive, cheap, and beautiful new product. Do you have any recommendations?

TileDealer: What are your goals for attending and speaking at Coverings this year?

Mankins: I have been asked to join a roundtable to discuss what architects look for in evaluating tile products. It will be a great opportunity for me to learn what is new in the industry and what interesting products I might use on a future project. In short, I will probably learn more from the attendees than they ever learn from me.

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