Pen vs. Pencil, a Sketching Cage Match (Without the Cage)

With some credit also due his mother, the Renaissance hill town of Urbino, Italy gave birth to the renowned, Raphael (the painter, not the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle).

In homage to both Raphael’s, here are two of my sketches, one of pencil using a light hand ala Raphael the painter, the other of ink with the heavier hand of a Ninja Turtle. Let the match begin and may the best man, or cartoon reptile, win (betcha thought turtles were amphibians)!

Tim Bjella Sketches - Urbino Italy
Contender #1 – ala Raphael the Painter, using a Prismacolor Black Pencil
The subject – Urbino, a classic hill town in Italy
Tim Bjella Sketches - Urbino Italy
Contender #2 – ala Raphael the Ninja Turtle using a Sharpie Ultra-Fine Pen


And the winner is …………………….. ?    Raphael!

(didn’t see that coming, did you?)


Robyn Bjella doing her best Raphael, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle impression. Her heart just wasn't in it.
Robyn Bjella, doing her best Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle impression. Her heart just wasn’t in it.
That’s more like it!

From Concept to Final – The Evolution of a Modern House in Paradise – Kauai, Hawaii Home by Arteriors Architects

How long is the journey to paradise? All I know, young grasshopper, is it begins with a single step. Or, in this case, a single drawing. Then more drawings. Ultimately, lots of drawings. And then a few more for good measure. Here is a sampling to give you a glimpse into my house design process.

Modern Hawaii House by Arteriors Architects Concept Sketch
Concept Sketch

Here is the result:

Contemporary Hawaii Glass House by Arteriors Architects

Contemporary Hawaii Glass House by Arteriors Architects

Contemporary Hawaii Glass House by Arteriors Architects


My Imaginary Conversation with a Dead Architect

Eames Quote

O wise and honorable, dead architect, what do you mean the details aren’t the details? If they aren’t the details, then what are the details?

There are no details.

Huh? There are no details? How can…?

Of course there are details, they make the design. They create the big picture. Aren’t you paying attention?

Wait a minute. Didn’t you just say [finger quotes] there are no details? Yet somehow, these nonexistent details create the big picture?

[slight, enigmatic smile] There is no big picture, either.

O.k., Yoda, now you’re just messing with me.

Calm down, apprentice. Perhaps you are familiar with Schrodinger’s cat, a thought experiment in quantum mechanics that posits we cannot know the state of a cat’s existence until it is observed? A similar concept applies here. If you observe (focus on) the big picture, then there are no details. Observe the details, voila, no big picture. We are incapable of focusing on both simultaneously. You know, can’t see the forest through the trees and all that.

So, there are details and there is a big picture, but never at the same time?

Think of it this way, the whole is the sum of its parts, right?



Oh, c’mon!

The whole and the parts are one and inseparable. While the whole may be considered as merely the sum of the parts, the whole is also the raison d’être for the parts. The parts cannot be conceived without the whole. So, the parts are as much of the whole as the whole is of the parts.

Uh…[hesitantly] yeah.

Let me give you an example. Most houses designed today are functional, but uninspired. And, frankly, uninspiring. Why? Because, when most people create a house, they focus on the big picture and work linearly to create the parts. They inevitably start by designing the floor plan, erroneously assuming that it is the most important aspect of a home. When the floor plan is complete, they extrude the walls up about 10 feet, throw in some windows and cover it with a roof.

But, dead Master, that is not great design. That is not even good design.

Of course not, but it is easy, and most people have neither the time, talent, training or patience to create good design. The focus is typically on expediency, speed and cost.  That is why we so value good design when we see it. It is rare.

Hey, this is starting to make some sense.

To craft an exceptional home, one must start by designing the whole and all the parts at the same time, the roof, the walls, the plan, the landscape, the kitchen, the exterior, and especially the three dimensional spaces. Each part affects the design of the whole, and in turn the whole affects each Part. Parts also affect other parts. It’s as though you are a ping pong ball bouncing back and forth between parts, as they all slowly coalesce into a whole. The plan is but one piece of the whole.

Remember Schroedinger’s cat? Well, there are lots of ways to skin it, just like there are countless alternatives for a good floor plan. Why lock in on one plan at the expense of everything else? We must let all the parts of the home shape the plan, in addition to the plan shaping the parts. Keep in mind, we don’t live in plan. We live in three dimensions, and that is how we should design.

Now, I understand! This explains why I am always flustered when a potential client asks me to just “do a quick design” of a home to see if they like it before we get too far along in the process. I cannot do it because the process of good design does not allow it. How can I know what the exterior will look like when I haven’t designed the interior spaces? How can I design the interior spaces before I know how the landscape will affect the views from those spaces? It’s all a giant tapestry, or puzzle, where everything affects, and is affected by, everything else.

Very good. You have made much progress. I shall leave you with one last thought. All along you have assumed I was discussing architecture and design. You were so focused on the details of your own profession, instead of [finger quotes] the big picture, that you didn’t realize I was, in fact, actually talking about… life. 

If Batman had a Range Hood, This Would be It

Does the Batcave have a kitchen? If you are reading this, Bruce, call me. I designed a badass custom range hood. For you, I’ll even paint it black.

Of course, I didn’t design it with the Batman in mind (well not consciously, anyway). That’s the funny thing about design, you give it some top and bottom constraints, and then it just sort of meanders around as it wants.

Modern Vent Hood for Kitchen by Arteriors Architects

Another Perfect Pen

Tronnovate - Takumi Pure

What makes this pen so cool? Choices. And options. Options with choices. Options with options.

Tronnovate - Takumi Pure

  • The minimalist  Takumi Pure, from Tronnovate, a recent and astutely managed Kickstarter project, accepts every worthwhile ink refill on the planet (slight bias, here). Most importantly, it accepts the venerable Hi-Tec-C ink cartridge, the staple of my stable (write that three times, fast – without the ink skipping. My Hi-Tec-C can.).
  • Because it is constructed from light-weight aluminum (not a bit of cheap plastic anywhere), it is the obvious choice of weight conscious astronauts and long distance runners. And, tight-rope walkers.

Tronnovate - Customizable Pen Tip Length

  • The tip is adjustable (the length it protrudes from the barrel), so you can set the angle-of-attack to fit your writing preference.

Tronnovate - Removable Clip

  • It comes with two cap options (dome or flat).
  • The pocket clip is removable! I can’t emphasize how much I appreciate this option. Plus, the clip works fabulously on thick materials, like a leather briefcase or the pocket of your jeans. And, it doesn’t snag.

Tronnovate - Mix and Match

  • You can mix and match components between pens with different finishes. The black body with silver tip doubles, in a pinch, as a magic wand for your kid’s school play. How cool is that?

Tronnovate - Minimalist with Options

  • The branding is subtle and doesn’t detract from the aesthetic.

What’s most impressive? All these features come in a beautiful, minimalist design. Minimalism, by definition, strips an item down to its minimum function and aesthetic, leaving no room for customization and options. But, these people managed to break that rule without breaking it. Congratulations, Tronnovate!

A Great Place to Go, to Get to Someplace Else

Like pirates, boats and booty? Try Saint Malo – a medieval port town in northern France. Once the smarmy haunt of pirates (but not Johnny Depp, smarmy), there are still masts everywhere (but newer masts, and no sign of Johnny).

Tim Bjella Sketches - Fishing Boat at Saint Malo

Saint Malo - Tim Bjella
Tim Bjella, typical tourist

Robyn and I passed through Saint Malo back in 1990, a stepping stone on our way to the picturesque, but oh-so-touristy, Mont Saint Michel. We stopped here mainly to pick up some cheese and a loaf of French bread. After searching everywhere without success, a helpful Frenchman suggested, “We just call it bread here.”

Robyn Bjella - Saint Malo
Robyn Bjella, taking a break from taking a break

Saint Malo has great beaches, but cold water. It is a nice place to spend a few hours walking the ramparts and sketching the boats before moving on to somewhere else, possibly somewhere with more Johnny, and booty.

Tim Bjella Sketches - St. Malo, France

A loooooooooooooooong jetty protects the harbor

Amazingly, this town was reduced to rubble during World War II by an Allied mortar attack intended to oust thousands of reported Nazis who were barricaded within. Turns out the reports were incorrect. There were fewer than a hundred. Oops.

A Nice Walk Along the Breaker

A stroll along the ramparts (or jetty, or wall, or… well, you can walk on top of just about everything here)

Think glass is weak? Think again.

Willis Tower Glass Observation Pod

Despite years of practice, Robyn, Beck and I are not levitating 103 storeys above Chicago (20 feet is about our limit). And, no, our magic carpet didn’t suddenly vanish, either – if I had a magic carpet, I certainly wouldn’t be bragging about it on a blog. Obviously, I’d be planning world domination, so I could make all of you my minions. Let’s just take a moment to revel in that thought…

Willis Tower Above the CloudsAnyway. If you wake up in the middle of the night with an irrepressible urge to walk on glass that is higher than the clouds, Chicago’s Willis (formerly Sears) Tower is the place to be. You might want to wait until they open in the morning, though. I’d hate to read about your bullet ridden corpse in the paper. Not to mention, I’d have one less minion.

Seriously, though. I don’t have a magic carpet.

Once the tallest building in the world, the Willis skyscraper was recently retrofitted with glass boxes that project beyond its facade. While I understand the engineering behind this, it still makes me nervous. Maybe that’s why it makes me nervous.

The glass floor is not resting on a steel frame (i.e. strong and unbreakable) like you would expect. It is suspended by little bolts drilled through it and attached to the side panes of glass by a few moreWillis Tower Observation Pods bolts. So, the glass floor is actually supported by the glass walls. The glass walls are themselves supported by a steel frame at the top (finally, some steel!) via more holes and bolts. That’s a lot of holes between you and the pavement below. The glass floor relies on the integrity of the swiss-cheesy glass walls to support the entire weight of you, hordes of well fed tourists and the glass box. Hope you didn’t eat a big lunch, too!

Also, did I mention you are walking on glass? Yes, it’s thick and laminated, and a magnificent work of engineering, but it’s still glass.

Willis Tower Observation Pods from Above

Willis Tower