Creative Use of Space

Seven artists and innovators open the doors to the private havens where they let their ideas run free.

Tom Perrotta,
Novelist and screenwriter

Perrotta’s no-frills office overlooks a small slice of Belmont, inspiration for Bellington, the drama-filled suburban setting of his bestselling novel turned Oscar-worthy film, Little Children. These days the view of the outside world is mostly obscured, thanks to pleated blinds Perrotta installed a while back. The neighbors’ kids on skateboards “would make all this racket,” he says. “And I’d be torn between ‘Damn it, I’m trying to work up here’ and ‘I wish I was down there with them.’” Still, the distraction proved useful: In the book, the protagonist, a would-be lawyer, spends hours watching skateboarders when he should be in the library studying for the bar.

Near Perrotta’s desk sit three guitars, which also tempt him away from his work, as does e-mail. (“I don’t sniff panties,” Perrotta says, a reference to a porn-addicted character in Little Children who has surrendered to his obsession. “But I do check e-mail. It’s a waste of energy to fight your desires.”) Behind the desk, French doors provide a clear view into his house, where he is no stranger to the stay-at-home-dad life he limns so well. “Bernard Malamud’s daughter wrote about how the whole family had to tiptoe around when Dad was working,” he says. “That’s not how it works in my house.” The office is neat now, thanks to a purge after he turned in his latest project, The Abstinence Teacher, due out this fall. But Perrotta, who composes in longhand before typing his prose into the computer, doesn’t need neat to be productive. “I like when I’m in the thick of something and the papers are all over the floor and my hands are full of ink,” he says. His only writerly fetish is to buy a new fountain pen before each book. “They’re sloppy things, but I love them.”

Doris Kearns Goodwin

Goodwin and her husband, Richard, may be the only people in the commonwealth to have enthusiastically given up a three-car garage. Five years ago they converted theirs into a dark, utterly serene study at the far end of their Concord house, where Goodwin does much of her writing. “It’s cozy, quiet, cut off from the rest of the world,” she says. “I come here after breakfast, read on this couch, and don’t emerge until lunch. When you write at home, you have to pretend you’re going to work. For me, it’s like heading to the library, but I don’t have to travel.” Wooden bookcases line the room (one whole wall is devoted to some 700 titles on Abraham Lincoln, the subject of her latest work, Team of Rivals—and she’s read them all), the floor lamps cast a warm glow, and the air is redolent of books and Richard’s cigar smoke. He chose the walnut floor and mahogany shelving; she the Oriental carpets and leather seating. The heavy shades are drawn at all times, and the entire effect is that of being in a library at Harvard (where she used to teach) or a London gentlemen’s club. “Maybe if I were to start writing about a woman, I’d have to repaint in pink,” Goodwin says, laughing. The redecorating will have to wait: Her next book will be about Teddy Roosevelt.

Sara Campbell
Clothing designer

As the mom of two preteen girls and wife of a software entrepreneur, Campbell oversees a busy household. Refuge comes in a space above the sewing rooms and showroom of her eponymous clothing company on Plympton Street in the South End. High ceilinged, flooded with north light, and the farthest possible spot from the front door, it is for her a “pure, happy, positive place” where she can lay out fabric samples and design and contemplate concepts. “You collect little pieces all day long—a button you see on someone walking down the street, a tie at a party—and then you come in and make your own story,” she says. That takes both solitude and the tumult of teamwork. Creating clothing is a highly collaborative process, she says, involving continual feedback among designers, patternmakers, and seamstresses. All day, people come in and out of Campbell’s hideaway, which she shares with her business partner, Peter Wheeler. “But after-hours, when there’s no one here,” she says, “it’s really mine.”

Joseph Finder

Finder’s thrillers (Killer Instinct, High Crimes) are heavy on espionage, politics, and corporate skullduggery, but in setting up the place where he writes them, the author drew some inspiration from the world of comic books. He jokingly calls his workspace the Fortress of Solitude, and whereas Superman’s was dug into the side of a mountain, Finder’s is tucked away in the back of a fifth-floor office in a converted Back Bay townhouse several blocks from his Commonwealth Avenue home. “When the writing is going well, you disappear into an alternative universe,” he says. “To do that, you need a launch pad, a place that’s comfortable and free of strife.” The office looks south, with a view of sky and trees “like a screensaver,” and late afternoon light that gives him a second wind during workdays that often run to 11 hours.
Part of the room’s good feeling, says Finder, comes from “objects that evoke a sense of security and familiarity,” which include secondhand oil portraits of his “Brimfield ancestors” and a 9-foot-long oak table that reminds him of his Yale years. The familiarity extends to the pencils he uses to edit his manuscripts, a stash of discontinued Faber-Castell Blackwing 602s bearing the motto “Half the pressure, twice the speed.” Says Finder, “That’s all a writer wants!”

Jeremiah Eck

Eck clearly remembers the day he told his partners at Boston firm Eck MacNeely he was hereby taking Fridays off. “It was about 10 years ago, when e-mail and computers were really setting in,” he says. “I was worn out and losing my intuition.” Now his Fridays begin nearly an hour from his South End home, on the remote sands of Gurnet Point in Duxbury, where he sets up his easel to paint plein air landscapes in oil—up to two or three in a day. The work has been a tonic. “It didn’t take long for me to find I was getting quicker in making the intuitive decisions that are so necessary in architecture,” he says. From his painting, Eck has learned a lot about the effect that adjacent colors or textures can have on one another, which has informed his use of materials. (A pair of student social houses he designed at Middlebury College, for example, stand out in alternating wide and narrow clapboards, painted in various hues; finely textured brick panels will line a new performing arts center set to break ground this spring at Thayer Academy in Braintree.) From careful observance of landscape, how light and space play, he’s gotten sharper at architectural siting. Eck knows he’s created a good painting when it possesses what he calls “a moment.” “You look at it and it makes you say, ‘I want to be there.’” He hopes for the same from his buildings.

Bill Janovitz

Buffalo Tom frontman Janovitz isn’t particularly sentimental about the room in which he composes his songs. “Simply having a spot is what’s important,” he says. “It removes the excuse of not having a spot.” Over the years, those spots have included a hotel room, the back seat of a tour van, various bathrooms—one of Buffalo Tom’s biggest hits, “Taillights Fade,” was composed “while sitting on the pink and black tiled floor at the end of my railroad apartment in Somerville.” His current haven is a corner room in the basement of his Lexington home. Once knotty pine, it’s now painted white (“acoustically dead,” he says of the soft wood and its carpeted surroundings), and holds a collection of guitars, some microphones, and a couple of computers containing hundreds of pieces of music. The room is a quiet place for him to record and develop melodies and lyrics in moments he steals between his day job, as a real estate agent, and his life as a husband and father of two young children. He recalls sitting in his backyard a few years ago, watching his little daughter Lucy chase a chipmunk. “You’ll never catch him,” he told her. “Oh, that’s what everyone says to me,” she responded. “I remember loving that pair of lines,” Janovitz says now. Playing around in his basement room not long ago, he came upon a snippet he’d recorded that day. “You’ll Never Catch Him”—its first two lines the very exchange he and Lucy shared there in the yard—appears on the next Buffalo Tom album, slated for release this spring.

Michael Shannon
Emergency medicine specialist

The emergency department he heads up at Children’s Hospital serves more than 1,000 sick and injured children each week. He oversees a staff of 93 doctors, works 60-hour weeks, teaches at Harvard Medical School, and is the parent of two teenagers. And when he gets a free moment, all Shannon wants to do is dance. “For me, thoughts come when I’m moving through space,” he says. “Running, walking, driving are all great, but there’s nothing like the centered feeling I get when I’m dancing.” He was a sedentary kid, he recalls, but the moment he sat in on a college girlfriend’s modern dance class, he was hooked. “I couldn’t believe people could move like that.” Shannon has danced as Drosselmeyer in Urban Nutcracker for the past six years, kicks up his heels with the MIT Tango Club and other groups two or three hours a week, and even quit medicine in the early ’80s to become a professional dancer for a while. “When I’m stretching, my mind gets wiped clean,” he says. “And then, after I’ve been dancing with someone, ideas will pop into my head.” One such idea concerned patients who wind up back in the emergency room after receiving initial treatment there. “Currently, no one really knows what factors will predict a return,” says Shannon, who is leading a team that is analyzing cases for clues in keeping kids from repeat trips to the hospital.