how to buy a present for an architect

It happens to even the kindest people in the nicest families: you find yourself related to (or, bless your heart, married to) an architect.  Don’t get me wrong: an architect can be a real asset to a family.  They have reasonable conversation skills (on a set number of topics) and they almost always have good personal hygiene and they tend to be well-educated (at least they have been to college for at least six years).  At the same time, those six years that they spent in architecture school (a different environment than being at a university—but that’s a subject for another day) can do some funny things to people.  A certain flintiness, an inability to keep from commenting on the settings of movies, sensitivity to bright lights and impatience with the ordinary are common side-effects of architecture education and practice.  These quirks can mean real headaches for those who, already under the pressure of finding good and appropriate gifts for normal people, are met with the challenge of finding a good gift for an architect, who has been trained at college to react to any new stimulation (a new building, a gallery exhibition, the dinner menu, political candidates, your new shoes, a marriage proposal) with either cool disdain or flagrant boredom.  At best, you may see an architect express reserved admiration.  But this positive reaction is especially rare in situations in which the architect receives a gift.

And we know you’ve tried hard: you’ve found those column-shaped plaster bookends, or the Historic Doors Of Our Town calendar, or perhaps the museum-store silk tie with picture of tiny temples silk-screened on it.  You may have even wrapped it up in navy paper with white ribbon to suggest the image of a blueprint!  And the result is invariably the same: your gift prompts your architect’s face to twist into a withering expression that captures exasperation, disappointment, bewilderment and pity all at once.  As a reformed architect, I am here to help you avoid such painful exchanges. In the spirit of Christmas gift-giving, and in the tradition of end-of-the-year Top Ten lists (but make no mistake, this is advice that is sound for year-round gift-giving for birthdays as well as for that perfect storm prompted by the marriage of two architects), behold this list of:

Ten Things To Give, Or Not To Give, An Architect

DO GIVE:  Garments

Selecting clothing with the proper lines (not “style”) takes some confidence; for safety’s sake you may wish to select from the realm of accessories, keeping in mind that female architects wear the neckties and male architects wear the scarves.  Getting the right color is easy: acceptable shades include black, white (the new black), gray (the new white), and charcoal (the new gray).  You might think these shifts  (that have just changed again in the time it took you to read that sentence) express changes infashion.  Keep firmly in mind that your architect eschews fashion itself for its sense of personality and flexibility, and its lack of truth and consistency.  However, she is sensitive to cultural transformations in hue ascendencies as a manifestation of the zeitgeist in wardrobic modalities. If you insist on “color,” you may choose orange—at least for the next five minutes.

DO NOT GIVE:  Electronics

Your architect already got the Wii, Kindle, Flip, iPhone and iPod, etc. etc., as soon as they came out.  However, he might not be able to afford their maintenance, so a gift certificate to iTunes, Verizon, Amazon or your local electric company might be in order.

DO GIVE:  Things for recording inspiration

Specifically, pens and notebooks.  Architects love pens, and although your architect probably already has a longstanding love affair established with a  very particular kind of felt tip or rollerball, some sort of fancy fountain pen is oftentimes a welcome addition to the stock of pens that litter her apartment, purse, car and office cube at that place where she’s temping.  Also, she likes to carry notebooks where she can doodle little pictures (she will call them parti diagrams) and random thoughts (she will call them critical analyses).  These thin volumes also look great sitting on the table at Starbucks while she scans the job listings online AIA career center on her Mac.  Brand: you can’t go wrong with Moleskine, although you should avoid the temptation to pick up one of the lively colors that Moleskine has brought out recently; your serious architect wants only classic black.

DO GIVE:  Building fragments

Although your architect may scoff at the idea of designing in a historical tradition (she will call it “quaint,” “nostalgic,” or perhaps “retardataire”), she likes to adorn (not “decorate;” architects do not “decorate”) her living space (probably in a nineteenth-century apartment building or an early twentieth-century bungalow) with the remnants of buildings that have been demolished or otherwise abused by later development.  Warning: this has to be real, true refuse from an old building site; do not give a new object d’art that has been rusticated. It is inauthentic and, cute as it might be, is to be scorned.

DO NOT GIVE:  Books on architects you have heard of

Architects love books, especially if they are heavy on pictures and light on text.  But before you purchase that collection of beautifully-photographed Prairie Houses, remember that your architect has received enough books on Frank Lloyd Wright to last a lifetime and, moreover, he worked hard to develop an aversion to popular architects early in his career.  Also, ignore any book that includes any of the following words without quotation marks: structure, efficiency, and beauty.  For safe maneuvering through the two whole shelves of architecture books at Border’s, read on.

DO GIVE:  Books on architects you have never heard of

The main thing: the less the buildings in the pictures look like actual buildings to you, the better.  Look for a book that includes at least five of the following words in the preface: hermetic, enigmatic signifier, spatial warping, transparency, antitransparency, interiority, exteriority, phenomenology, neoformation, anxiety, monadology, nihilism, biomorphism, hermeneutics, ennui, architectonic, and prozac. Examine the dust jacket author photo: if the architect/critic is neither bearing statement glasses nor a facial expression that would win the approval of the most blasé French model, put it down immediately.  Lastly, the titles can help guide your selection, too: choose a book whose title has the highest punctuation-to-letter ratio.  A title that is all punctuation would be ideal.

DO NOT GIVE: Coffee- or tea-making devices

You might think this is a good idea, since your architect is always complaining about late nights and early mornings, how little she sleeps, and how much she depends on caffeinated stimulation to make it through the day.  But, if she is a novice in the kitchen (see “interesting-looking cookware,” below), she will not know what to do with that French Press and will break it.  More likely, she is already a coffee snob and does not need any more gadgetry to make coffee at home, even though she only gets coffee at Starbucks (or, if she is very cool and picky, Intelligentsia).

DO GIVE: Interesting-looking cookware

Even though your architect is still eating the way he did in college (frozen pizza, Chinese carry-out), he has become aware that grownups cook.  Perhaps this discovery was made during a visit to the country house of his office’s principal—perhaps to deliver marked-up plans on a weekend—where he observed the principal’s wife preparing a range of tapas for the guests who were to arrive shortly after your architect was ushered out the kitchen door.  Although your architect has neither the time nor the inclination to learn to cook, he will appreciate a display of interesting cookware in the kitchen.  The Bialetti Moka Pot—all Machine Age aesthetics and Italian pedigree—is  a no-brainer; likewise, anything from the Alessi catalogue will do, and these come with the advantage of reintroducing a semblance humor into your architect’s life.  In addition, even if they are never used, a nutmeg grinder, a paella pan or a tagine would be a fine selections; they suggest a sophisticated palate and the exoticism of travel to fascinating foreign destinations that he cannot afford while paying off all those student loans.

DO NOT GIVE: Sports-related gifts

Architects do not have time for sports.  They learned in college that Sunday was for sleeping in and Monday nights were the first night of the week to stay up late.  Occasionally you will find an architect with a fondness for college sports, but this is only if they went to a Midwestern or Southern school, especially at a campus that positioned the architecture building next to the sports arenas, allowing the architecture students to absorb some school spirit by osmosis as the cheers of the Homecoming crowds echoed through the concrete walls of the studio.  If this describes your architect, you may consider tickets to a game, but by no means should you consider purchasing a team jersey or, quelle horreur, a baseball cap (see “Garments” above).

DO GIVE:  Toys

Architects tend to share a common denominator of having loved popup books and Legos as children.  Such gifts will be welcome, and will allow your architect to enjoy the nostalgic reference to their development, the reminder of play that was part of their first three-dimensional creations.  And you very well may catch them later, after everyone else has gone to sleep, weeping over their little, colorful, plastic building blocks and wondering where their joy in building went.

Magic Bunny Toothpick Holder (Stefano Giovannoni for Alessi, 2009)

first photo: cool black/white boxes available at Lille A Shop

(& available in colors, too)

101 thoughts on “how to buy a present for an architect

  1. I believe this carries over to art historians as well. My sister is an art historian and I’m always inclined to give her a book about some famous Italian Renaissance artist. But then I remember she spent her doctoral studies pouring over some obscure Italian sculptor no one anywhere has ever heard of. So instead I opt for a tchotchke from Crate and Barrel that looks like something she’d go for. So far, so good.

  2. You have outdone yourself again, dear. But nothing about bow ties? “the nose ring of the conservative”? Maybe next Christmas.
    See here, for a summary of the phenomenon among this tribe, if you will: . The link to the original Slate piece is busted, but surely it’s still out there somewhere.
    As to ball caps, it’s clearly next to impossible to buy one as a gift (your subject) but it is possible to wear one, under the right circumstances–the ultra-egghead theorist prof who rolls up his sleeves for (someone else’s) studio crit, eg., or who plays officer friendly for a couple of hours at a cocktail party to keep grumblings about his arrogance at bay. But it should not be an identifiable team cap, except *maybe* for a Japanese minor league squad. Something with an obscure graphic, seemingly of foreign origin, would be ideal. None of this applies, of course, if you don’t have tenure.

  3. Thank goodness, someone finally took the time to articulate the obvious… one more FLW book and one might be tempted to join the postal service.

  4. I noticed that if you put your cursor on the left, the snow flakes move to the right and if you put it on the right, they move to the left.

  5. My sister-in-law found this awesome shop on Etsy where the seller is an architect-turned-stationer, and she buys all my husbands gifts there.

    1. I’d love the name of that person on Etsy!! My sister (asst dean at arch school) is EXTREMELY difficult to buy for.

      1. I agree with everything except sports. I’ve been an architect for 7 years and watch games with architects all the time. At the end of the day regardless of your profession most men love sports.

  6. Well done!

    I just posted an article with a similar theme on our firm’s blog, and shortly after a colleague forwarded me the link to this piece which, I’m sure, is getting some hits this time of year. The common themes are uncanny!

    So, for further reading on gifts to satisfy the “Inner Architect” in all of us, enjoy:

    1. We like the notion of the “inner architect” and would only add that (1) no matter what restaurant is chosen, she/he will immediately rearrange the furniture (or wish she/he could); (2) We suspect the love of self-generated rituals comes from the discomfort of having others dictate customs that must be followed. Thanks for sharing!

      1. Two excellent points. It’s true that those with an “inner architect” not only enjoy the theater of the restaurant, but often enjoy making sly remarks to his companion about the design shortcomings of the dining room, paint choices, acoustics, lighting, floor finishes, chairs, etc. It’s just part of the experience of dining out.

  7. Hilarious post, and yet, so so true! No way one could better portray the inner side of an architect receiving a gift. Being an architect myself and being married to one, I always feel very puzzled when that time of the year calls for christmas or birthday presents:-)

  8. Too funny. However, I will argue that many architects cook and cook well. There are many common components to cooking and architecture. Both involve basic human needs; food and shelter. Both seek to elevate the fulfillment of these basic human needs while expending considerable effort to elevate the response to something closer to art. Both require proficiency in art and science, often in near-equal proportions. Both are specifically developed to elicit the unrestrained appreciation of others.

    Yet it is the differences that appeal most to architects and the reason so many take up cooking seriously. Although the processes and outcomes are so similar, it is far, far cheaper and faster to execute a meal than even the smallest building. And, should you fall short, there is always a black plastic bag, someone willing to take it away permanently, and a second chance at redemption immediately available. Quite unlike with buildings.

    So DO give BOOKS with recipes, ingredients and authors you’ve never heard of. Or perhaps a pork belly.

    1. I agree with you! I love to explore in cooking and can see how it can be related to architecture…on the coffee/tea note… I did unfortunately break my french press 2 days ago. (BUT I used it almost everyday for 2 years..because coffee purchased at a cafe can never seem to be quite strong enough for my taste!)

      Very fun post to read, and for the most part hilariously true…interesting to see that we are our own little stereotype. I know most of my arch buddies would agree.

    2. second this… i’ve found architects more inclined to cook, and experiment with food, than most other circles. the commentary seems more appropriate for engineers.

      everything else.. more or less spot on.. in the average.

  9. Although this theme has been recurring for a long time it is always entertaining to be reminded of why we are so stereotyped. We promote the typical architect image when we wear what we wear and act the way we act. While we’re thinking along these lines, does anyone have a clue where I can read the National Lampoon “Robert Wright, AIA” article from the seventies again? I tried their web site without luck.

    The comment challenging the lack of knowledge in cooking is interesting as I have only recently taught myself to cook. That I don’t use recipes must mean something but I’m not sure what. Maybe I should ask my wife!

    I also liked Stephen’s comment about how the snowflakes’ vectors change when you move the cursor. Good observation Stephen and it proves the article’s point; architects do see more than the obvious. Was this discovered while adjusting the zoom to get the font the best size, making the text fit just right in a perfectly proportioned window and revealing just a peak of your email inbox so as not to miss the next invite to run out to Starbucks. BTW, are they snowflakes or hail?

  10. As a rather old architect and son & grandson of archiects your essay made me laugh. I immediately sent my wife the link, she will be comforted to know she is not alone. Also sent to my aunt whose father and two brothers are in the profession – she will laugh ’till she weeps.

    You forgot one thing, a dictionary – since we still like to hand write things with fancy pens that do not afford us the advantages of “spellcheck”

    Thank you so much for writing this


    1. We would love, very much, for more architects, and especially the future architects in our classrooms, to have dictionaries! Thanks for the note!

  11. its so true… hhhhhh….its like someone is talking about me, but only through reading was clear to me..
    i love pens, and books with pics tooooo ….loooool

  12. excellent post. along these lines, might I suggest as a “do give”: books with exquisite humour – on architects, of course.

  13. Excellent work! My only comment would be about sports – I know many architects (myself included) who not only were active in sports at college, but continue to avidly follow college and professional sports. Of course, it seems that their favorite teams almost always turn out to be losers . . . does that say anything about our chosen occupation?

    1. We have read a few notes about sports, and are now at work on a theory to accommodate this phenomenon. Stay tuned.

  14. This is great!! Hilarious & true!!
    But we do cook ( with fancy cookware) & like sports ( golf is “Big” within the profession & so is risky weird sports like skydiving or soccer)

    I want to add, we (both male & female) love modern looking watches & jewellery in new materials like concrete or stainless steel…. Or platinum, I’m ok with platinum too…

  15. It is comforting for a parent to know that a part of them lives on in the unique traits of their children.

  16. I am married to an architect, and truer words were never written. I laughed hysterically, and immediately called him to share this. My husband has such a deep love for black, white and everything in between, that our son is lovingly named”Grey”.

  17. Look for a book that includes at least five of the following words in the preface: hermetic, enigmatic signifier, spatial warping, transparency, antitransparency, interiority, exteriority, phenomenology, neoformation, anxiety, monadology, nihilism, biomorphism, hermeneutics, ennui, architectonic, and prozac.

    “prozac” or prosaic — either is appropriate…

    Absolutely loved the post. Even the technically oriented or specialist designers out there (like me) still channels his or her inner ‘high designer” when it comes to gifts… (Thanks, Jaylen, for the link.)

  18. It’s good to look at oneself and have a good laugh. This is how others really see us. As Pogo said, “I’ve seen the enemy, and they are us.”

  19. Too priceless – and true.

    I will never forget how I was soundly castigated in an early architecture class for – horrors! – using colors other than black and shades of grey in drawings.

    But then again, I’m an interior designer who somehow ended up studying interior architecture that was far more about architecture than interiors. Color – and curves – are more natural to me than for most architects I’ve known – and part of my rebellion against the tyranny of the black, grey, and white, and the eternal grid.

    But the education dies hard, regardless, engraved deep in my psyche by endless hours in the studio (which creates a sort of brainwashing/indoctrination effect that anyone who has been there will readily understand), and I still find myself drawn to such things in spite of my attempts to break free of their constraints.

    As a result, books such as the ones you recommend are truthfully *infinitely* more interesting than yet another pretty coffee table book about anything to do with interior design.

    Then again, I’m also now an oddity among many interior designers by virtue of this architectural background. They tend to look at me as if I’m speaking a foreign language when I mention words such as “parti” and “transparency” (the latter with respect to anything other than a plain window or sheet of glass), or inquire as to their reasons for doing whatever it is they’ve done in a design, seeking a more “reasoned” answer than “because I liked it” or “it’s pretty”. And in fact, it very much is a different language.

    I’ve learned to quit asking anyone not trained where I was questions of this nature, but I still need to feed this side of me.

    I will say, however, that the preferences for those non-colors in clothing also come from entirely practical concerns of various sorts as well, that manifest themselves in the earliest days of architecture school, which teach you quickly and brutally, especially if you happen to like nice clothing to start with. Or if you have a typical student budget of less than zero for clothing or anything else.

    1. Your welcome response makes us wonder: if escape from architecture to another design discipline is a kind of Purgatory, or Apotheosis? We feel another post coming on . . .

  20. A friend send me a link to this article, but I couldn’t read it. The blowing snow was too distracting. The author of this site is definitely NOT an architect. Form follows function, remember? 🙂

    1. We regret to inform, Mr. or Ms. Zabster, that you are definitely wrong. [emoticon] Come back for the spring thaw, when the WordPress flakes will have blown away!

  21. very well sorted, particularly the weeping over toys. i would only add that craft paper covers on moleskin notebooks, esp on the pocket-sized are also acceptable.

  22. An Insult! FROZEN Pizza, I think NOT… it’s quite fresh and I can go pick it up in 10 minutes! Other than that, 25 years out of architecture school, and (sadly) this is right on the mark! Loved it!

  23. Dude, I’m not an architect but I want the ‘Do Gives’ mentioned here!
    The worst present I ever received was a ceramic headless ballerina. I wonder how an architect would respond to that?

    1. Perhaps by disavowing the gift-giver. Unless, of course, he/she was relying on that person for assistance in paying off their college loans.

  24. Pingback: #001 « alvinlinz
  25. Great post, thanks. I saw a similar one about the way we architects eat in the San Diego Union Tribune many years ago, (wish I could find it again) carving up our mashed potatoes like building blocks while wearing our grid patterned shirts with bow ties. It’s scarily true but good to laugh at ourselves while having pity on those we live with. Thanks again!!!! (I’m definitely a punctuation person) Anyone need FLW picture books? I’ve got a bunch on the shelf….

  26. Wonderful article! Might I humbly add obscure / regional liquor to this list. New Zealand vodka (42 Below), Canadian gin (Death Head) and most single malt scotch. Even top shelf Jack Daniels is both ironic and pleasant in a pinch.
    But be careful with microbrew beers – whilst pleasant, some architects will be annoyed to be stumped when gifted an obscure selection. Australian ciders (esp. pear based) are fantastic and have high alcoholic content. 🙂

  27. I found this post delightfully accurate. My sister sent me here who was trying to find my Christmas present. I am a Student at Frank Lloyd Wright School of Architecture, thank you for pointing her in the right direction. If I receive another book on FLLW I might die.

  28. Ha Ha! Want to give a printed copy of this to our son – and architecture student! (with one or more “appropriate” presents! Is it OK to print it for said reason?

  29. Howdy! This post could not be written much better!

    Reading through this article reminds me of my previous roommate!
    He constantly kept talking about this. I will forward this article to him.
    Fairly certain he will have a great read. Many thanks for sharing!

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