In a way, one might say Jessie Chapman is getting back to basics. While many architects have gotten out of the practice of sketching their designs as the use of computers becomes more prevalent (and more time-effective), she prefers to put pen to paper. She says it helps her see more carefully.
“When you draw something by hand, on-location, you start to realize how subtle plays of depth and shadow affect the whole of a composition,” says Chapman, who founded Sketchwell Architecture and Design. “Or you might find that there’s an acoustical side effect to a material or form.”
She works with international nonprofit Urban Sketchers, which promotes the practice of drawing on location, and has painted watercolors locally—of UVA’s pavilions, the Barboursville ruins—and internationally—a skyline in Rome, a castle in the Bay of Naples, Italy.
Currently she’s practicing in town with residential designer Peter LaBau. “We share an enthusiasm for American architecture that is essential to the way we work,” Chapman says.
We asked her to tell us more about sketching on-site and the important role of art in her work. “You never know what you might discover,” she says, “and that’s what design is all about.”
Honestly, I couldn’t imagine doing anything else. I’m a problem-solver by nature, and this practice allows me to apply that skill in interesting ways. Architecture shapes the way people live, how they see things and how they interact. I hope that my work helps people to live better, more simply and with more appreciation for beauty.
Why did you choose to practice in Virginia?
I moved to Charlottesville for graduate school and then fell in love with the place. It’s a sophisticated, comfortable town that’s filled with smart people who recognize good design. Virginia is rich with architectural history, and of course that’s another reason to like living here.
My first summer job in grad school was to measure Pavilion VII in preparation for restoration. We measured and drew everything, from stair treads to moulding profiles. Sitting outside sketching the rear pergola some 20 years later seemed like a fitting way to remember that summer.
What was your childhood like, and how did it lead you to design?
In retrospect, it’s no surprise that I chose this field. I grew up in Baltimore at a time when there was a lot of interest in reviving historic buildings and neighborhoods. My mom grew up in New York City, in a family of artists and engineers, so everyone drew. On my dad’s side there are a lot of psychiatrists. I read that kids of psychiatrists often go into a creative field, but that they are motivated by the idea of healing.
Residential architecture is extraordinarily intimate, which makes it fascinating and rewarding. A client has to feel complete confidence in order to convey what’s important. There’s a lot of interpreting in my work, because I need to help people see. That’s why I spend time developing my skills through sketching. It helps me translate things quickly, whether it’s for an owner, a cabinetmaker or an architectural review board.
In college, was there a standout teacher who had a lasting impact on you?
At Wellesley, I studied art history, and I became even more interested in architecture when I decided to spend my junior year in Rome. I visit whenever I have the chance, and it never fails to teach me something. So can I call Rome my standout teacher from college?
After college, I worked for a firm in New York City that specialized in historic preservation. We worked with chemists, art conservators and sculptors. My boss knew everything about the Federal style. He had restored Gracie Mansion (built in 1799), in fact. Working there provided a small window into the tremendous amount of effort and talent that goes into building and maintaining a great city.
I came to UVA to pursue a master’s degree in architectural history. I was heading in the direction of a Ph.D. when I discovered that I wanted to be a designer rather than a scholar. So I completed the Master of Architecture degree, and I suppose the combination of degrees allows me to be both. Peter and I have an affection for old buildings and a love for books about old buildings. The library is an important part of our practice. Architecture is a language and, to me, it is important to study precedent and context. For residential work, I find a certain comfort in exploring themes that have been established and adapted over the centuries.
I’ve had so many great teachers over the years. In school, you only learn a sliver of what the broad and varied field of architecture is. Once you’re out of school, you need mentors to show you how things are done. Bahlmann Abbott was one of the standout mentors in the early part of my career. He taught me patience and precision, and passed on his love of the subtleties of old farmhouses.
On process: How does it begin?
Lots of questions. And establishing a good rapport through conversations and images. I always tell clients, “What you don’t like is just as important as what you do like.” And I encourage them to share images, ideas, materials and their specific thoughts and reactions. Most important to me is that the client’s vision is realized, not mine.
What inspires you?
Our clients. I love it when they know exactly what they want to do, and I love it when they’re lost at sea, needing direction. Peter and I had a client who’s in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and his knowledge of late 18th-century American architecture was astonishing. He’s an extraordinary musician, but he’s really turned on by historic panel details and construction techniques. It’s a joy to work with someone with that level of enthusiasm and intelligence. Then there are the people who have a more abstract spatial need: a better kitchen for entertaining, or improved connection to the garden.
What are you working on now?
A family came to us recently with a child who has exceptional needs. That kind of work is extremely personal, and I absolutely love it. A thoughtfully designed addition will make a huge impact on how they live.
So much of what we do is educate people. You have to figure out how they communicate, and how they perceive things. Some people don’t understand two-dimensional drawings at all. My job is to make sure they do understand the design. For most people, building a house or renovating a kitchen might be the most expensive and stressful thing they’ll ever do. In today’s world, everyone is overwhelmed by choices and data. I try to limit the options by picking a few good things based on my understanding of who this person is and what the goals of the project are. Most days, it’s hard work and a lot of fun. On the best days, it really does change people’s lives, and someone gets to live joyfully in a space we’ve designed together. That makes me feel extraordinarily fortunate.