For Kingston architectural model-maker, details are everything

Photo of Mike DelPriore and The Glass House by Dan Barton

Photo of Mike DelPriore and The Glass House by Dan Barton

Embarking on the plane to Los Angeles, Mike DelPriore found he couldn’t fit his building model into the overhead compartment above his seat. The flight attendant suggested it could go into cargo. DelPriore was adamant. No way. The model was too delicate for that.

Thus it came to pass that the model flew strapped in a seat belt in a first-class seat while DelPriore flew in coach. Both arrived none the worse for wear in L.A.

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The model DelPriore was delivering was a gift to Ransom Riggs, author of “Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children,” from his wife, Tahereh Mafi. In the best-selling 2011 book, working from a single faded photograph Riggs had imagined events in an abandoned mansion that he had remembered from his childhood. Mafi had hired DelPriore to make a model of that now non-existent building. When Riggs saw the model of the physical structure built by his imagination, he loved it.

On September 30, director Tim Burton’s film adaptation of Riggs’ book, featuring such actors as Samuel L. Jackson, Judi Dench and Allison Janney, is scheduled for release in this country.

As the knowledge sector that now contributes four of every ten jobs in the American economy continues to evolve, more people have built their livelihood around their skills, as Mike DelPriore has. Some of these work for large organizations, but many work for themselves or in temporary organizations that team with other skilled persons on a project-by-project basis.

DelPriore mostly works from his home studio on Florence Street in a residential neighborhood of midtown Kingston. His house doesn’t even have a business sign, and his family lives there. He and his wife Michele are the parents of two boys, Alex, a Vassar graduate who works as a source analyst for Pan Lex, a linguistics project for the Long Now Foundation headed by Stewart Brand, and Daniel, a theatre major at SUNY New Paltz.

Knowledge workers are now everywhere in our midst. With the physical separation within our lifetimes of work from traditional workplaces, it’s the schoolroom, the website and the wired coffee shop that have become the centers of change. The geography of jobs has decisively and irreversibly shifted.

Regrettably, most so-called economic development experts, including the Hudson Valley’s, seem to have little idea how their local labor markets can become winners in this complex economic and cultural game. They could do worse than study the many examples of successful entrepreneurship in their midst.

DelPriore’s motto on his Ryerson Studio website is “Architectural Models of Exceptional Quality.” Combining state-of-the-art laser technology with careful handcrafted detail, he’s been creating museum-quality scale architectural models since 1985. As technology, market demand and labor markets have changed, he’s changed, too. To stay in business, he’s again and again had to innovate.

His models require a combination of mathematics, engineering, science, and color and materials matching. “It all goes back to the details,” he says.

He concedes that 3-D printing will probably eventually make his craft obsolete, but it can’t yet do what he can. “3-D is getting there,” he concedes.

A December 2012 New York Times article about DelPriore was puckishly entitled, “An Architectural Model-Maker is Happy to Shrink Your House.”

 

DelPriore, who studied architecture at the Pratt Institute, named his business “Ryerson” after the name of the Brooklyn street across from the main building of the art school. Upon graduation, he purchased and restored a little row house in Brooklyn. He sold it for $150,000 when he moved to Kingston. It’s now on the market again, he says, listed for $1.55 million.

For every project, he assembles a team, working mostly with people he’s worked with before. Though his production director, Izzy Daing, recently relocated to Sparks, Nevada, he remains DelPriore’s closest collaborator.

When DelPriore launched his career, many architects traditionally used wood models which they worked on for extended periods of time. Project time has now been compressed. If Ryerson Studio wants the job, it must be prepared to meet the deadline. He says he always tells his clients, “My life is your deadline backwards.”

Architectural models used to be, in many cases, fundraising tools to attract well-heeled donors. DelPriore says that owners of private residences and other private clients are far more common than they used to be. Some use their models as “cocktail party centerpieces,” the modelmaker jokes. Some treasure them as exclusive and emotional family heirlooms. At the other end of the scale, colleges and healthcare and corporate clients sometimes want models of their entire campuses.

Ryerson Studio prices run the gamut from $1000 to $100,000 and up, depending on size, scale, level of detail and most importantly delivery date. Like most things in life, the faster you need it, the more effort and the more hands it takes to maintain the quality. Clients want more these days, and they want it yesterday, DelPriore says. “They want twice as much for half the money,” he grumbles.

DelPriore’s customers come from all over. New York City provides his biggest market, but over the years he’s done a lot of models for local organizations as well. His local projects have included Kingston’s Carnegie Library, the rebuilt Thomas Cole painting studio in Catskill, a Bard College dormitory, the Mills Mansion gardens, the Esopus Library, a model of the Rondout in 1820 for the Reher Center, the Woodstock Jewish Congregation, the Ram Dass Library at Omega Institute, the Flagler Memorial Chapel at the Millbrook School, the Nevele Casino, the Belleayre Resort, the Mid-Hudson Children’s Museum, the Culinary Institute of America’s Colavita Italian Food Center, and the Northern Dutchess Hospital campus.

 

Philip Johnson’s The Glass House is one of the iconic structures in world architecture. Started in 1949 on a rolling 49-acre site in New Canaan, Connecticut, it’s a national historic landmark. Though the inclusion of places of habitation has long been part of the American landscape tradition, The Glass House is different. It’s not a residence placed in nature, it’s somehow part of nature.

Johnson, a significant American proponent of the anti-ornamentation precepts of the International Style of architecture combined with the Bauhaus tradition, created in The Glass House a structure wedded to the minimalist expressionism that permeated the culture of post-World War II New York City. The one-large-room Glass House became a Mecca for the New York City arts community, hosting guests and sponsoring events of the cultural elite. These days, it’s still used for performances, meetings and social occasions where cost is a secondary consideration.

George Ducharme, a non-faculty employee of the Berklee School of Music in Boston, is a great fan of The Glass House. He commissioned Mike DelPriore to build a one-to-48 scale model of it, and late last week that model was photographed prior to delivery. The interior of the house, including the furniture, has been kept exactly as Johnson, himself a stickler for detail, left it. In the model, the Bauhaus-inspired chairs were approximately the size of an adult’s smallest fingernail.

DelPriore delivered the miniature Glass House to Ducharme last Sunday.

 

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