When they bought their Fort Point Channel loft seven years ago, soon-to-be-married Beth Whittaker and Heb Ryan moved into a young urbanites' dream: raw open space, high ceilings, huge windows, exposed brick. Beth had recently graduated from Harvard's Graduate School of Design and taken a job around the corner at the prestigious firm Brian Healy Architects; Heb was working as a venture capitalist. "It was a really exciting time," says Heb, who at 6 foot 8 was only too happy to leave behind their cramped Cambridge apartment. "We'd been looking for a place for a while, and Beth was so optimistic. Every place we saw, she wanted to buy and work with. I really wanted this space for the view, the openness." Plus, he says, the condo was an irresistible opportunity to invest in a neighborhood poised for a real estate boom.
Right away Beth, who at 39 is now considered one of Boston's most promising young designers, began to shape the loft to her elegantly minimalist specifications—moving the kitchen slightly, reworking the bathroom, and cutting in skylights to wash the walls with light. Each change was calibrated to maintain a sense of unrestricted space while preserving the industrial feel of the loft, and to stick to their tight budget.
Within months, both Beth and Heb left their respective jobs to launch firms of their own. For the next two years, the couple worked from home. It wasn't quite the dream setup they'd imagined. "The first year was great, because I felt like I had control over everything," says Beth. "By the second year, it was horrible. I started at 5:30 in the morning, worked until 8 to break for dinner, then went back to my desk until 11 p.m., every day. Saturdays were just like Tuesdays."
Over time, Heb began attracting high-profile clients, and Beth started to make a name for her firm, Merge Architects. She also took on employees, and eventually four people were sharing desks, working with things on their laps, in the small office space in the couple's home. "She had her people jammed in here like a Habitrail," says Heb. Then finally, in late 2004, Beth got a separate office three blocks away. Everything was running smoothly. Then came Georgia—and everything changed.
As soon as she found out she was pregnant, Beth began to reimagine their space for the needs of a burgeoning family, and was absolutely resolved to find a unique solution to the baby-room-in-a-loft problem. Rather than build a conventional room with floor-to-ceiling walls, which would have sacrificed the openness of the space, Beth called on the arsenal of design tricks she'd developed for her clients. It took a month to draw up the plans, and six months for Milton-based contractor Mick Sammon to finish the job.
The overall project called for a new full master bathroom, a new walk-in closet, and a remodeled guest bathroom—all concealed behind babyproof sliding glass and aluminum doors purchased at Ikea—but at the heart of it was what Beth termed a "baby island," a 10-by-11-foot area that can be closed off from the rest of the loft with 10-foot-high swinging panels and pocket doors. (During the day, the panels are tucked away to keep the condo bright and airy.) Above the island is an operable skylight with a blackout shade.
Beth concedes the nursery is on the small side. But she says it was built that way on purpose. "This room isn't the kind of room that Georgia stays in...I don't throw her in with a bunch of toys. Instead, we integrated her into the whole space. It was great when Georgia was learning to crawl—she had a big loop around the entire apartment. Before that, I'd throw her in the stroller and we'd do laps."
Beth used back-to-back Ikea cabinets—essentially, a storage wall—to separate her and Heb's bedroom from the baby's. She cut out the center of the middle cabinet to construct a changing table, framed it with apple-core plywood, and put a mirror in the back so Georgia could see herself while being changed. When Georgia gets older, Beth will take out the cushion and turn the niche into a desk.
The centerpiece of the nursery is a majestic 7-foot-high custom-built crib, with its own ceiling, a large drawer, and heavy-duty casters. Beth originally designed the crib for a client as part of a modular system that included cabinets and a changing table on wheels. "The system started with the idea of the baby in a box, because that's really how you have to think when you live without walls," she says. It works better than she'd ever hoped: When Heb and Beth have overnight guests, they simply move the crib into their own bedroom and turn the nursery into a guest room. "Wherever we put the crib, it's Georgia's own little world," says Beth, "which lends itself well to the flexibility that loft living demands."
When it came to choosing a color for the interior of the crib, Beth was determined to avoid pink. "When I was growing up, everything was orange, so though it's gone away with the trends of the times, orange has always been my favorite color," she explains. As with everything she designs, Beth is already thinking about how it can be used next: When Georgia grows too big for the crib, perhaps it'll be transformed into a toddler bed, or maybe a headboard for a twin-size mattress.
Inspired by the success of the crib, Beth has begun to work on a line of baby furniture for loft living that she hopes to put into production sometime next year. The line includes a variation on the crib designed for Georgia, three components that stack to become a bureau cum changing table, and a glider that "isn't a box on wheels—it's a relief to the orthogonal design," Beth says (meaning its curvier lines provide contrast to the building-block feel). Her pieces, set on casters, are scaled to act like walls; if you turn them around, they create a baby nook. "For a baby, you need an insulated room with a door, but you don't necessarily have that luxury in a loft," she says. "These pieces move around to define space when you need that, then come apart to do different things."
For Beth, the transition into designing furniture was natural: Architectural types have always done it, she says, in part because "they like to control the design of everything." She calls creating furniture "lighthearted and uncomplicated." And then there's the financial benefit: Merge Architects is similar to other young Boston firms in that its profit margin is slim; many independent ventures like hers don't pay themselves for the first five years. Instead, the principals support themselves by teaching, and some see mass production as a way to sustain their firms. "Many more architects are getting into different things," she says. "They're like lawyers in a way—there are so many who aren't practicing. Instead they're doing bookmaking, furnituremaking, Web design. It's a very tough gig, and they need to find an avenue that can support their habit."
Needless to say, having a baby hasn't slowed Beth's progress in building a practice. Eight days after Georgia was born, she was back on the job. "I wasn't surprised," says Heb. "I wanted her to be able to relax and enjoy being a mother, but she's a driven person. Even if we had more money, she'd be the same way. That's how she's hard-wired." Beth's commitment has begun to pay off: In the summer of 2005, Merge Architects was honored with a citation in a national competition for a visitors center on Boston's Greenway. Its designs for Middlesex Lounge in Cambridge and for the Belmont bakery Vicki Lee's, among others, earned the firm a total of four Boston Society of Architects awards; its work for MiniLuxe, a high-end Newton Centre nail salon, brought recognition from the New England chapter of the American Institute of Architects.
Now that Georgia is 20 months old, her parents are beginning to savor their success. "I am very optimistic about the future, but you have to put in your time," says Heb, whose father, Frank Ryan, earned a Ph.D. in mathematics while playing quarterback in the NFL. "We knew what we were signing up for. We walked away from comfortable jobs because we wanted to be in control of our own fate."
As for living in an ever developing space, Heb enjoys all its possibilities and looks fondly on opportunities to help shape it. "Basically, I knew that I loved Beth's hand and was excited that someone with such talent could take the ball and run with it," says Heb. "It's a lot of fun to imagine changing the space. I get caught up in the excitement."