Working with the Best

Working with the Best, Pt. 3: Steve Haas

Working with the Best, Pt. 3: Steve Haas

Mention acoustics, and most people think of concert halls. Some, but not a lot, might also think of home theaters and listening rooms. The number of people who realize the importance for proper acoustics in domestic spaces beyond entertainment rooms is so small it barely exists.

 

But the number who are aware of noise, both inside and outside the home, is of course huge. Most people would love to tame those disturbances if they could, but don’t realize they can. That’s where Steve Haas comes in.

 

Top designers, architects, builders, and integrators, and wealthy individuals turn to his company SH Acoustics to make both performance and everyday spaces sound great and keep irritating noises at bay. Steve’s work includes well-known museums, concert halls, and other commercial spaces around the world, and he has designed the acoustics for some of Theo Kalomirakis’s most famous private theaters.

 

In the interview that follows, Steve discusses how he brought his early experiences in the commercial world to bear on his work in luxury residential environments, how high-end home-entertainment spaces have expanded beyond private theaters to live performance and jamming, and the importance of proper acoustics and noise mitigation throughout the home. 

—M.G.

(The text below is an abridged version of the podcast,
which you can hear using the player above.)

Would you consider your official title “acoustic designer”?

Depends on what day of the week it is. “Acoustic designer,” “acoustical consultant,” “acoustician”—it’s interchangeable.

 

While you began your residential career working on home theaters and other entertainment spaces, you actually operate under a much broader umbrella, right?

That is true. We’re brought into so many different types of spaces, inside and outside the home, that home theaters are obviously very important for us but we don’t just focus on them exclusively by any means.

 

Talk a little about how you evolved beyond those traditional entertainment spaces.

Well, it goes a little farther back than my residential experience because for 14 years I was part of an organization that did major commercial spaces—everything from concert halls to opera houses to Broadway theaters to houses of worship. Museums, especially. 

 

I fell into the world of residential by accident. A contractor simply called my office and said they were putting a home theater for I think it was the producer of Barbara Walters in an old historic barn—in the town I now live in, in Weston, Connecticut, ironically. So I just took it on on my own, in the outside hours, and found all these interesting challenges in the world of residential that I had no idea about. 

 

Even with everything I was doing in the commercial world, I quickly saw that dealing with this type of construction, and especially these types of clients—homeowners who wanted to spend a lot of time in this particular type of environment, an entertainment space, a home theater—very different from dealing with a symphony orchestra or the leaders of a big church or a museum director. I had to quickly decide if this was something that interested me and then realize what I had to do to change my mentality coming into this world if I wanted to continue with it, which I did.

 

It wasn’t long before homeowners started asking me, “OK, what can you do in my bedroom to quiet noise?” or “I have a lot of street noise coming into my house even though I live in a suburban environment. There are landscape trucks running up and down at 7 a.m. I don’t want to hear all that.” So, utilizing the skills and experiences I had in all these commercial environments, I realized there’s a lot more to addressing sound quality, sound control, than just in the home theaters.

Working with the Best, Pt. 3: Steve Haas
How much of this was a natural evolution from your commercial work?

To name-drop a bit, I had over-the-top experiences working on Carnegie Hall’s Zankel Hall [shown above] and Jazz at Lincoln Center’s new facility, where we had to isolate entire buildings on giant rubber blocks to keep subway vibrations from going up into the major performance spaces. That’s a tall task that we conquered, but it shows that bringing this type of experience to very challenging residential environments was a natural course of evolution beyond just thinking about the sound of a home theater or a media room inside the space. We were able to take those broad experiences in the commercial world with isolation or HVAC or electrical or plumbing noise and bring them to the level they needed to be in home environments.

 

The infrastructure in homes is evolving more in the direction of commercial spaces, with the increased sophistication of technology and with more people working from home, so I would imagine that’s another opportunity to tap into your early career.

It absolutely is. We have two major projects right now, one in Texas and one in Long Island, where the clients own commercial contracting companies that are building their homes out of concrete, steel beams, and all-metal framing. Having that commercial background, we’re no stranger to what we need to think about differently than your typical wood-frame, wood-joist construction. It’s a plus to not have to be concerned at all about the different mentalities and to be able to instruct my team of engineers on how to flip the switch on their thinking for these types of homes.

 

What impact did your background in live performance have on your interest in acoustics and how you approach your work?

Thanks to my grandfather, who was both a concert pianist and a violinist in some major orchestras both in Europe and the U.S., including the Cleveland Orchestra, I got a good start at age 7 playing piano. I took that as far as I could into a lot of different types of music such as musical theater and other types of groups and clubs. And then when I got to college, I was in 

bands and had a lot of fun. Even though I didn’t play out for many years as I was focusing on my career in the beginning, I always had the opportunity to go to a job site, whether it was a concert hall, school of music, or any other type of place where they had a piano, and just be able to play in some amazing spaces—when no one was around, of course. These days, I’ve really gotten back into performing live for people and doing live sound as well.

 

Having these talents and passions has been instrumental in advocating having spaces for live music in people’s homes, whether it’s for CEOs by day and closet guitarists by night jamming in a pretty awesome room or their kids learning to play their instruments and wanting the best-sounding environments. Or maybe bringing in Elton John or Lady Gaga for a million dollars to do their daughter’s bat mitzvah or wedding anniversary or something. It’s been so much joy and excitement to be part of creating these live music spaces throughout homes all around the world.

 

How did you cross paths with Theo Kalomirakis?

By accident. The first time I tried to cross paths was at a CEDIA book signing, but I stood in a long line and he ran out of books before I got to the front of the line, so I didn’t get to meet him. But I had been following all the great work he was doing and was fascinated by it, so I reached out, being local in the New York City area, and just made the call. And it was a fortuitous one because we’ve been working together very closely ever since.

 

I just had the right mentality coming into it from having worked with signature architects and designers on concert halls and theaters. I knew how to respect everything they were doing and how to get them to respect our side of the equation as well. You cannot tell someone like a Hugh Hardy how to design a Broadway theater aesthetically, because they would never bring you back. So I learned at a very early part of my career how to play that relationship very strongly. And it just worked with Theo. He was very open to that kind of approach, and it’s just been a great relationship all these years.

 

When I interviewed both of you about the Paradiso about a year ago, we talked about how the home theater had a live performance aspect as well. But you were brought in after everything was originally designed, right?

Yes. We changed a number of things to make it more optimized not just for cinematic use but for live music. We 

installed my Concertino system, which is basically electronic architecture to recreate sounds of different acoustic spaces. You press a button and it sounds like you’re in Carnegie Hall, but when you turn it off, you’re in a very dry, calm space.

 

But live music can happen in various ways, and that’s just one way to create a live space for jamming. For the big Texas project, we have about three or four different music performance and jamming areas—like a guitar jam room—right in the room, and it’s going to be awesome what they want to do with it.

 

Most home theaters aren’t very conducive to live performance. You can have people stand in there and play but it’s going to be far from optimal.

Most home theaters are on the drier side, acoustically—hopefully not too dead. Not too live, either, but you can have a good conversation in there. And so for certain types of music—amplified, for instance—it works OK. But you need a very different method of playback. You can’t use a home theater audio system, which would essentially be behind the performer, and if you had microphones, they would feed back tremendously. You need to think about what you need to augment the cinematic experience for live music.

 

And that goes beyond the sound to things like lighting. People don’t think about the fact that you have a screen producing a lot of light from the projector but you don’t have any light for a performer up there. We’re not lighting designers, but I know enough to be dangerous, as they say, so we know the basics of what you need to get good front and overhead lighting for even kids performing karaoke at the front of the room.

Steve’s residential work has included the acoustical engineering for many of Theo Kalomirakis’s theaters

It’s really about thinking through the aspects that make or break the multi-use function of these rooms. Again, I take that from my experiences with big multi-use theaters in the commercial world, about what we had to do to completely transform rooms from live acoustic symphonic music to Broadway-style shows in a few hours or a day, with the technical crew moving orchestral shells in and out, and so forth. You obviously scale that down for somebody’s private theater but it’s the same kind of thing. 

 

You want to make it simple, and the Paradiso was a great example of that. You could go to the iPad, press Concert mode—or Concertino mode, in our case—and so many things happened in the background to turn off the cinema system and turn on the live-music system and put the lights in the right positions and so on. You don’t want the client to worry about everything that’s happening in the background. You just want them to press that button and go from one mode to the other.

 

Given the diverse number of things you do, is there a typical project you’re brought in for on the domestic side or does it tend to be various different things?

Absolutely various things. Certainly theaters are always a lead-in because the AV integrators have those on the forefront of their minds to bring us into the projects, but it quickly expands beyond there. It’s everything from the theater to maybe a jam room to isolating a bedroom from street noise or outdoor equipment noise or a neighbor who has a barking dog or a band that the kids are playing in. It’s amazing, during COVID especially, the amount of awareness people have now of outdoor sound environments and how they impact their homes, especially when they’re working from home. 

 

Because what you do is somewhat specialized, do clients approach you directly or are you primarily brought in through another party like an integrator?

All of the above. We get our fair share from integrators but we have a lot of great architect and interior-designer relationships, mechanical engineer relationships, contractors, and then of course the clients. We’ve built a good network over as many years as I’ve been doing this, and so one client talks to the other, and that’s how it happens.

 

How much of your first meeting with a client is education? Does the groundwork tend to be laid by whoever brought you in or do you have to explain exactly what you do and what you can do for them?

It depends on the client—and I’m sure our integrator friends can relate to this. Some clients want to know every detail; others say, “Give me the best, and call me when it’s done, and I’ll write you the checks.”

Working with the Best, Pt. 3: Steve Haas

right: workmen apply fabric acoustic treatments to the
ceiling of the private
ballroom shown above.

Working with the Best, Pt. 3: Steve Haas

We love educating our clients—especially because so much of sound is subjective. Two people don’t think about sound in the home in the same way, including married couples. We’ve had husbands and wives get very heated with each other when talking about what does and doesn’t concern them when it comes to sound. 

 

We had one home in Park City, Utah where the architect was pretty much done with the design, and things were getting built and duct work was being fabricated, and we discovered that the mechanical systems—all 31 of them—were being built like jet engines because of special filtration needs. The house would have sounded like a factory. And the wife literally stood up and shouted, “We are so sensitive to noise, and my three kids are too!” and the husband was just shaking his head, like “Why didn’t I know?” We barely got in, put the project on hold, and quickly rectified all that so they could continue the process, and we managed to create a very quiet home. But just by the skin of our teeth because another month and it would have been way too late. It would have been an ugly situation because nobody paid attention to noise in a home where the wife and the three children were extremely sensitive, because nobody asked the question.

 

Who drops the ball in a situation like that? Who has to have that initial conversation and educate them about the need for this?

Yeah, well—who’s listening to this? In some respect, the clients need to do their own research. If they are sensitive to noise, they need to bring that to their architect and designers first and foremost. But even if they don’t, we often educate the architects in how to ask in how to ask the right questions. And sometimes we even prepare an assessment of the early design of a new home or renovation that brings out all the potential issues, from a containment and quality of sound perspective,

and then let the client decide what’s important to them and to what degree.

 

It’s important to have this up front so the whole team goes into it knowing, “Here are the things we’re going to address, and here are the things we just don’t care about,” so it doesn’t come back to bite anyone. The clients don’t want to move into a beautiful new home and all of a sudden they’re saying, “We’re hearing the kids running upstairs and every time they drop a toy or something, it sounds like a boulder.” Then we have to come in and say, “Would you rather rip up your beautiful wood floors or your ornate plaster ceiling—pick one.”

 

These are real problems homeowners have all the time

Working with the Best, Pt. 3: Steve Haas

where we get brought in after the fact—to the point where they literally are crying because they can’t sleep because of noise and vibration issues. Acoustic wellness is part of the other wellness movements because of its impact on people’s health and stress levels. And the pandemic brought this out in so many ways with kids schooling from home, and multiple partners, spouses, working from home. People are recognizing, “Wait, our home doesn’t always sound that great,” and we can do something about it.

 

I would assume most integrators’ knowledge of acoustics is related to entertainment spaces. Given the diversity of things you can address, do you consider yourself unique in the universe of people who deal with residential acoustics?

We’re certainly diverse. It’s not often you find someone from the design and consulting and calibration standpoint who will do bedrooms, do living rooms, mechanical noise, and so on. We like being able to come into projects in various ways. And I think that does make us fairly unique—not to mention all the commercial work we are still doing, flipping our brains several times a day to go back and forth between the high-end residential and the commercial.

 

How much of your work is commercial?

The percentages vary from month to month or year to year. Usually, we’re 50/50, but with the pandemic bringing out so many domestic opportunities, I would say we’re currently 60 to 65 percent residential. I’ve really trained my consultant team—I have such a great team now at all levels—to flip their mentalities, because you just cannot bring a commercial mentality wholeheartedly to the residential world without thinking about what’s practical. We’ve been brought on to high-end residential projects where they had a commercial consultant on board who got fired because they brought things to the home builders as solutions that just had no place even in the highest-end home because they were keeping myopically in the commercial mentality without saying, “Wait, how do we bring these two worlds together and determine what is still practical within the realm of what a high-end home builder could and would do.” That’s important.

 

And the same thing with the AV integrators. They’re resi-mercial, right? They always have to think about what’s appropriate as they go from one end to the other.

Working with the Best, Pt. 3: Steve Haas
It’s inevitable that anyone who does much traveling has come across your work at some point. They obviously haven’t been aware of it, but they’ve probably encountered it.

Hopefully they have, and hopefully they have some good things to say about it.

 

For instance, you did the Statue of Liberty museum, right?

That’s right. That finished about two or three years ago—with COVID, I’ve lost track of time. And we’re about to work on the Ellis Island re-do as well. 

 

Would either of those be the highest traffic-volume venue you’ve done?

Probably the biggest traffic one would be the Smithsonian National Museum of African-American History and Culture. That stayed packed for at least three years beyond its opening in 2016. We just could not believe how long it lasted. But it was phenomenal to see that, and phenomenal to think about how audio and acoustics hold up with that kind of visitation. You don’t have to worry about that in homes. 

Michael GaughnThe Absolute Sound, The Perfect Vision, Wideband, Stereo Review, Sound & Vision, The Rayva Roundtablemarketing, product design, some theater designs, a couple TV shows, some commercials, and now this.

PODCAST EP. 21
QUICK GUIDE

 

  0:55  How his work extends well beyond

           providing the proper acoustics for home

           theaters

  1:21  His early experiences working on

           commercial spaces

  1:41  How a random phone call led to his initial

           involvement in home theaters & residential

           acoustics

  4:40  How his experiences working on major

           performance spaces helped him to expand

           his residential work beyond home theater 

  6:12  How homes are becoming more like

           commercial spaces

  7:21  The influence of his and his family’s

           experiences as musicians on his work 

  9:47  How he met and began working with Theo

           Kalomirakis

11:47  The Paradiso home theater as an example of

           a space that can handle both movies and

           live performance

13:30  What needs to be done with a home theater

           to make it conducive for live performance

16:49  How he’s typically approached to address a

           number of residential acoustic issues

           beyond home theaters

17:45  How the pandemic raised people’s

           awareness of the amount of noise in

           and around their domestic environments

18:24  How he is typically retained for a project

19:12  What the initial conversation is like with a

           client, and how much of it involves

           educating them about what he has to offer

21:48  The importance of the client researching

           the benefits of proper acoustics in the

           home

24:59  He offers a broader ranges of services

           than a typical AV integrator

26:21  How much of his work is commercial vs.

           residential

28:32  He has worked on so many landmark

           cultural institutions that most people have

           likely encountered his efforts at some point 

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Those Who Wish Me Dead (2021)
The Martian (2015)

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Working With the Best, Pt. 2: Gideon Perry

Working with the Best, Pt. 2: Gideon Perry

Our second profile of the elite group of professionals who define luxury home entertainment features Gideon Perry, president of the L.A.-based Fantastic Theaters. Offering design, engineering, and construction services under one roof, his company is (to use his own words) “the closest thing there is to a turnkey cinema solution.”

 

In the conversation that follows, Gideon stresses the need for architects, designers, and clients to bring the trades involved in the actual construction of entertainment spaces into the planning process as early as possible so the complex needs of these rooms can be anticipated. He also discusses the dramatic changes in luxury entertainment over the past 20 years, from increased awareness of the importance of good acoustics to the emergence of video walls as a front-projection alternative to the desire for more flexible home theater spaces. 

—M.G.

(The text below is an abridged version of the podcast,
which you can hear using the player above.)

You provide a lot of different services but do have a typical approach to a job, or is it more about the being nimble enough to customize your process to each project?

I love car analogies. If you think of a Rolls Royce, every car is hand-built yet there’s an underlying core approach in place. We have a process we stick to pretty rigidly regardless of whether we’re doing something that’s small-scope or big-scope, small-budget or big-budget.

 

And it starts with our client questionnaire, because whether we’re doing the design or someone else is doing it and we’re just doing the build, it’s difficult to meet or exceed the client’s expectations if you don’t know what they are. Many people don’t realize what’s possible with a home cinema, so we have to gauge where the client’s at before we know what level we’re going to build to.

 

What are you typically approached for?

The one thing we don’t do is integration. We do have a handful of really good integration companies we work with, so if there is a desire for a project to be truly turnkey, we have those abilities. The design, engineering, and construction—we do all of that in-house. We have a unique facility with C&C machining capabilities, and a door factory, and a lot of different things that help us to achieve those goals. 

 

Our scope depends on who approaches us, whether it’s the client direct, a client rep, money manager, builder, designer, or whoever. Integration firms will often get the jobs and then reach out to us to help out. We work with a lot of design firms, so if

they come up with the theater design and the acoustic engineering and all that, we just build according to those plans.

 

But it’s about 50/50 as far as what our scope ends up being, whether we’re doing design, engineer, and build, or just build. We rarely do the design and someone else builds it. We also offer consulting services, so we have projects abroad in different states and countries where we will coach them along the process to make sure they’re doing it right. It’s kind of an insurance policy for the engineering you’ve paid for.

 

Is there an umbrella description for what you offer?

In the industry, we have to be the closest thing there is to a turnkey cinema solution. Many other companies do just design, and there are obviously a lot of integrators, acousticians, and engineers out there. But there isn’t one company that does it all in-house.

 

So, at your level, you would consider yourself unique?

Yeah, for sure. I don’t know of anyone else that is as inclusive as we are.

 

The fact that we do GC work gives us a unique perspective. A lot of people who design theaters have never built anything. Just like an architect, they draw this beautiful thing and apply all the local codes and all this stuff, but when the builder goes to build it, there are many changes that need to be made. For us, having worked for practically 

every theater designer in the industry, we have broad experience with what the principles are and what they’re going for, which allows us to know where we can take liberties to accommodate the field conditions.

 

Was construction your entry point to the industry?

Yes. I worked in a high-end custom cabinetry shop, and then I was an electrician, four-year journeyman, and then I got into GC work, building houses and doing remodels. And that’s when I discovered Theo Kalomirakis and home cinema at a very high level with dedicated rooms.

 

You worked on the Paradiso and were in there early on, right? 

Yeah. We were there from start to finish. What made the Paradiso unique was that there were so many different aspects. It wasn’t just a cinema—there was an arcade and a nightclub—all these different things. That was a first for us, to be that involved in the whole house—the acoustics in the arcade and creating all the soffit shapes in the bar. We were doing things that a typical builder would do.

 

How do you compare your approach to that of other people offering similar services at this level?

The biggest thing for us is the room itself, so that starts early on with architects and designers to make sure the footprint is correct, that the HVAC has not been overlooked, and we’re looking at very low noise-floors, which requires a lot of space to get the volume you want at a very low velocity. 

 

Treating the process as a whole instead of as individual bits and pieces is also unique. But that’s not anyone else’s fault. Just to take the AV guys, oftentimes they don’t come into a project until the shell is built, so there’s very little they can do to fix it or create a high-level room. At that point, it’s basically pick some gear, throw a little bit of acoustics on the wall, and call it a day.

Creating the structure (and concealing the speakers and other electronics) for
the legendary Paradiso theater (photo of completed theater by Randall Michelson) 

They may not have any authority at that point because there’s probably already an interior designer who’s taken over or the architect or whoever.

 

Our approach is different because we’re at the ground level, sitting down with architects before the plans are finished, going through the math and science of it in the very beginning. Nobody wants to talk about fluid dynamics and things like that, but when the room doesn’t function for its dedicated purpose, now you want to go back and talk about that. It’s kind of pennies on the dollar if you get in early enough to dig down dirt or whatever you need to to create the size, whereas once concrete’s poured it gets expensive to try to get the room to the correct size.

 

Has that changed over time? Do you now find yourself consistently getting in early enough or is there still a lot of regrouping that has to go on?

There’s still a lot of regrouping. When I first started, we probably got 90% of our projects from integrators, and now it’s probably 20%. We’ve done a good job of getting to architects and other designers early but we have a long way to go and we can’t do it alone. That’s why I want to bring awareness to the industry, so we can all work together. It benefits everybody. You end up with a far superior product. And it doesn’t have to be for that much bigger of a budget. It’s just planning and the sequence of events.

 

Now that high-end entertainment is spreading into more rooms and the demand to have entertainment-related infrastructure throughout the house is increasing, are you being called in earlier to talk about how entertainment relates to the entire home as opposed to that one dedicated room?

We are. The issue in the LA market is that there is a tremendous number of spec homes being built, and they’re just checking boxes of what the house needs to have—a cinema, a wine cellar, a sport court, or whatever—and then selling it. What’s happening is we’re then getting calls from the new owners to come back and make the house livable, because it’s all hard surfaces—glass and stone and tile—and everything is so reverberant and echoey, it’s just a nightmare.

 

And we’re seeing awareness of the quality of life in other rooms. Wellness is a big deal, and just by default we basically already build everything to wellness standards, as far as the noise level in the room, the air changes, using green materials, lighting—things like that.

 

People now look at even something like a big grand foyer in the house and all of a sudden they care about the acoustics, when it used to be you would walk in and it would just be this massive wall of marble or a staircase or whatever. Now we can

Installing acoustically transparent fabric
in the foyer of the Paradiso

incorporate acoustical plaster or different things that don’t change the aesthetic whatsoever but add tremendous value to the quality of life.

 

How aware are architects, developers, and clients of the level of experience that’s possible in an entertainment space?

There are very few who are that privy to what’s out there. If you look at cars, especially in LA, you’ll see Lamborghinis and Ferraris driving all over the place. So they buy what are basically race cars and they’re just going to get coffee or meet someone for lunch, right? Very few of those people have a racetrack in their backyard.

 

So that’s what we’re doing. You can have the theater to just impress your friends or you can really be a connoisseur and appreciate the immersive experience you can have. And we’ve seen it bring families closer together. We have a client that got married in their cinema. Especially now with videoconferencing, there are so many different ways the 

rooms can be used. People have band practice in there or whatever. So when you build it with the right foundation, the room can be used for so many different things.

 

There used to be a purist notion that home theaters could only be for movie watching, but the technology and construction have evolved to the point where they can now be multi-use spaces with few compromises. When you’re talking to a client, how do you educate them on what their options are?

It starts with the client questionnaire. Just by asking the right questions, you can find out what they know. Nobody wants to come across as uneducated, so you present it in a way to bring awareness of the options and the level that they can have. Most people think a commercial theater like an AMC or Dolby Cinema is the benchmark. They don’t realize we can blow that out of the water in their own home, no problem. 

 

But when you get into the private level of home cinema, you can really experience things the way the director intended. We have had directors sit in our rooms and say, “I didn’t even realize that was in the mix.” You can hear levels you can’t otherwise experience. So we want people to know that that’s possible. And it’s possible on a variety of different budgets and room sizes. You don’t have to put an IMAX in your house to have that experience. We can take a spare bedroom of your house and a make a three-seat cinema that just blows you away, and you’re completely immersed and lost for a few hours.

 

Are people skeptical when you tell them that?

More so at the beginning. One of the hardest things used to be convincing people to spend “X” amount of dollars behind drywall. The HVAC systems we design can be a couple hundred thousand dollars. Nobody wants to think about allocating that much budget to air. But if you want a good experience, it’s important not to feel fatigue, not to feel distracted—there are so many different elements that back up why we do what we do.

 

People are always skeptical, but we’ve found ways to relate it to them in real-world experiences and analogies. We can do virtual walk-throughs, so we can design the room and have them walk around and see it before we even think about building 

it. People convince themselves once they experience it.

 

Design-wise, what kinds of rooms do people tend to be looking for?

It’s geared less toward movie palaces and more toward the modern look at the moment—which is very difficult, because they want either just drapes or everything just hard surfaces, so finding that balance is tricky. A lot of people want rooms lighter now, which poses some imaging issues. You’ve got a big reflector in the front of the room, so if the 

Working with the Best, Pt. 2: Gideon Perry

room is too light and scenes change, it lights up the room. And that can really mess with the human psyche as to what you’re supposed to be seeing, triggering a fight-or-flight response that takes you out of the moment. You don’t have to have a black room, but those are some of the challenges we’re facing.

 

Is that a reaction to the man cave? They don’t want a room that looks like it’s a retreat but want something that’s more a part of the flow of the house instead.

I think so. As theaters have become a bigger focal point of the home and not just a man cave in the corner, they want it to be a little more beautiful, more for entertainment, an extension of the home. In the ‘90s and early 2000s, if you weren’t building a room that was extremely dark, you were messing up big-time. But now people realize it doesn’t have to be black. We still care about how bright the room is, but there are other things you can do. We can create sort of a chasm in the front that really lets you be immersed in the screen, and then we can kind of liven up the rest of the room. We can also have some fun with the rear wall and the ceiling and things like that. Things have progressed for sure.

 

People used to spend a fortune on a home theater but because only one family member knew how to operate it, the room often fell into disuse.

We have seen that scenario many times, and it’s usually because the interface is clumsy. We want our rooms to be the most used rooms in the house. We have clients that get their morning coffee and go sit in their cinema to watch the news. It’s not mainly about the cinema experience—it’s just the most comfortable room to be in and it obviously has a nice, large screen. But we can put all the work we want into it, if it’s not easy to use, it will not get used. As much money as you have, there’s nothing more embarrassing than not knowing how to turn something on. We can make sure the room performs well but if the client can’t turn it on, they’ll never know.

 

What else do you think people need to know about what you do and what needs to happen at this level in general?

Starting early is the biggest thing for sure, so what we actually end up building is specialized. The key thing is to get a good theater designer—and not just an interior designer. The aesthetics are important for sure, but if the room doesn’t perform to a high level, it’s a big wasted piece of real estate.

 

If I could just say one sentence to educate clients, architects, whoever, it would be to engage a theater designer. If we can design this from the beginning, you can basically have whatever you want. You’re doing it to get the shell, because while the electronics and technology are constantly evolving, and there’s always a new version of something, the math and science don’t change. You can change out the aesthetics or the AV equipment or whatever you want, but if you get the bones right, you’re going to be happy with that for the life of the house.

Michael GaughnThe Absolute Sound, The Perfect Vision, Wideband, Stereo Review, Sound & Vision, The Rayva Roundtablemarketing, product design, some theater designs, a couple TV shows, some commercials, and now this.

PODCAST EP. 19
QUICK GUIDE

 

0:38    How his company approaches a project,

           regardless of its budget or size

2:34    A description of Fantastic Theaters’ services

4:19    “We have to be the closest thing there is to

           a turnkey cinema solution”

6:06    The impact of his construction background

           on his company’s approach to entertainment

           spaces

6:21    His experiences working on the Paradiso

           theater

8:20    The importance of focusing on the room’s

           construction

10:25  The need for proper planning and being

            brought into a project as early as possible

11:30   Being asked to make spec homes livable

            because entertainment needs weren’t taken

            into consideration

12:21   The increasing awareness of the need for

            proper acoustics throughout the home

13:40   Making clients aware of the level of

            performance achievable by a home cinema

16:50   Getting clients to realize the impact of

            things like HVAC on their movie-watching

            experience

18:14   The problem with relying too much on

            digital room correction

19:17   Tuning a room’s acoustics for various

            entertainment uses

21:00   The increasing use of video walls in

            home cinemas

23:03   The importance of finding a good theater

            designer

24:20   The current preference for modern spaces

             over movie palaces for home cinemas

26:47   How to avoid having a theater fall into

            disuse because it’s difficult to operate

REVIEWS

Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989)
Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom
Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)
The Mitchells vs. The Machines (2021)
Those Who Wish Me Dead (2021)
The Martian (2015)

ALSO ON CINELUXE

HBO Atones For Its Streaming Sins
The 75-Inch Revolution
Atmos Music: A World Beyond Movies
The Cineluxe Hour

Working with the Best, Pt. 1: Theo Kalomirakis

Working with the Best, Pt. 1: Theo Kalomirakis

Only a handful of people have the creativity, taste, knowledge, and experience to create a luxury home entertainment space. This new series of podcasts and features offers a unique look at the artisans who represent the pinnacle of each profession that goes into crafting these ultimate systems and rooms.

 

We focus on the collaboration with the homeowner, and what it’s like to retain and work with the best in the field. There’s no shop talk here, no inside baseball, no speeds and feeds. This is the closest you can come to engaging with one of these experts without sitting down with them in your home.

 

It would have been wrong to begin the series with anyone other than Theo Kalomirakis, who not only created the whole idea of home theater but showed its promise through his best-selling coffeetable books and continues to create the most innovative, opulent, and stunning private theaters in the world.

—M.G.

(The text below is a slightly abridged version of the podcast, which you can listen to using the player at the top of the page. Podcast listeners will find photos and graphics illustrating some of Theo’s examples by scrolling down the page.)

How do you typically approach designing a theater?

I usually get a project either directly from a client that read about us in a magazine or whatever or from an audio/video integrator. Getting it from the client is usually the most satisfying because either they’ve done their homework or they realize we are the ones that do it professionally. And they’re usually more amenable to do it the way I suggest we do it.

 

But even if the job comes from a custom installer, I like to have direct feedback from the client. You need to have that kind of access, otherwise you design in absentia. You don’t know what they want. You have to be able to interview them.

 

The first meeting with the client

The first meeting starts with sitting down with them and communicating my enthusiasm for the space, and with helping them to feel that I’m not selling them something. I’m just bringing them into my world, because I’m immersed in home theater architecture and I want them to be part of my excitement about it. I want to be able to communicate my ideas to them and make them relax so they can listen to me. I usually start the design process after I feel like I’ve connected with the client, after

he and I are on the same page.

 

Integrating the theater design into the rest of the house

Once our visions align, I start the work. Early in my career, the client would say, “Hey, I want an Art Deco theater because I’ve seen your theaters, and I like that style—it’s cinematic.” And I would usually say, “Yes, I love that style too. Let’s do an Art Deco theater.” But after I saw Deco theaters happening in very traditional environments, I started to feel embarrassed. It’s like when you go to Epcot Center and you go into the French pavilion or the Spanish pavilion—it had that kind of phoniness.

 

So I started putting my foot down, in a gentle way. I directed the client’s attention to the fact that the theater should echo the identity of the rest of the house—but without imitating it. You don’t want the theater to look like a living room or a dining room or whatever. You want it to look like a theater—but within the same language.

 

Earning the client’s trust

One of the key elements of bonding with the client is getting them to trust me so that if I have to steer them someplace other than what they think they want, they realize it’s not because I’m trying to play the prima donna but because I have their best interest in mind. I’ll tell them, “I don’t want to give you a theater where some of your guests will go ‘ooh’ and ‘aah’ but the more sophisticated guests will say, ‘What the hell is this theater doing in this house?’” I always seek approval—not only from the client but from the guests who might be more sophisticated than the client. I protect my ass from being accused of being a gimmicky guy.

 

Learning & assimilating the client’s taste

You have to know who the clients are as people. The first step is to learn what their tastes are. The next step is to make sure you guide them to things they may not have thought of. They may know what they like, and what they like may be perfectly legitimate, and you go with it. But if I sense that I can guide them to something they might

like just as much, I protect my integrity by also protecting the client from something that would be a liability.

 

The woman who wanted “gaudy”

I was doing a theater for a well-known baseball player, and I met with his wife somewhere in Georgia. The lady came in made up in a way that made Tammy Faye Bakker’s makeup look demure—huge eyelashes, painted lips, big bouffant hairdo. She was a caricature of a nouveau riche wife.

 

So I interviewed her to find out what exactly she liked, and it turned out she wanted something very, very ornate—all the kind of stuff ladies of the South associate with an expression that they’ve made it, they’ve arrived. “I want the theater with a lot of gold,” she said. “A lot of gold.” I took a step back because I was surprised and said, “You mean you want an opulent theater.” She said, “No, honey. I want it gaudy!”

 

Good for her. She knew what she was looking for. You can’t fight that kind of person. You can’t persuade someone with a gaudy house to do something more understated. You listen to them, and 90% of the time they make sense.

 

The client who wanted the Acropolis

There were two or three times when I really hit a wall and didn’t know what to do, like at another house in Jupiter Island. It was fairly traditional—not particularly gaudy—with a typical Floridian richness.

 

When I saw the space for the theater, I asked the wife, “Do you have a particular style you want?” “Yes!” she said. “We want the Acropolis!” I almost swallowed my tongue. I said, “What do you mean?”  She said, “You know—like the Versillis.” She didn’t even know how to say “Versailles.” Now, what the Acropolis had to do with Versailles, your guess is as good as mine. I decided there was no way I could do anything there, that I would be responsible by association.

 

How do you translate the client’s idea into a theater?

I usually crank up the volume. They come with some kind of concept that’s in the right direction but it’s not full-fledged. My role is to start from their concept and improve it, enhance it, and make it more exciting.

 

The importance of a proper theater environment

If I react negatively to a client, it’s usually because they say they want a comfortable seating layout. “We don’t want anything structured—we want a sofa here and an armchair there, an ottoman there.” I try to be very restrained in my response because it’s their choice—that’s how they watch movies. I make an effort to educate them that if they do that, they’re getting a living room in the guise of a theater. You have all the accoutrements of a theater but it’s literally a living room.

Theo originally designed the space above to accommodate traditional theater seating but
modified the design to honor the client’s preference for living-room-like seating arrangements

The classic example of that was the house in Vegas [shown above], where I couldn’t persuade them to do something that was more theatrical. That was a very well-defined theater that focused on the screen, the stage, and everything, but the wife put sofas in it like in a living room.

 

This is a typical contradiction I have with the client. They want a theater but they also want comfortable seating. I’ll tell them, “By doing that, you have one foot in your living room and the other foot in my theater language.” I can’t reconcile the two.

 

My clients usually have a living room and a media room, so I try to tell them, “We can do that in the media room, where it makes sense. But let the theater be a theater, with comfy seats spread apart with big arm rests, and you can kick up your legs because of the recliner. You still have the comfort of a living room.” 

 

When I go down to my theater and I recline, it’s ideal. You see the movie. You have good sight lines. You don’t lose that luxury of a theater, where you’re meant to be able to watch a movie with people in front of you and behind you. You shouldn’t be facing each other in a position that’s meant for chit-chatting, not for watching a movie. 

 

Casual seating is meant to accommodate unruly owners who want to talk to each other while the movie’s playing. When someone comes into my theater and starts talking, I stop them, as polite as I can. “Don’t talk. Let’s watch a movie.” So when my clients want something casual, I try to persuade them to do theater seating. Do I always win? 90% of the time.

 

Have you seen a big shift from movie palaces to more contemporary designs?

There are people who want to have the movie experience without reference to the grandeur of the old movie palaces. Figuring out how to create that same kind of excitement in a room that is expressed using contemporary architecture has 

Working with the Best, Pt. 1: Theo Kalomirakis

been my Holy Grail. It’s very difficult because our minds are filled with images of ornate palaces with chandeliers and everything, which creates the ambience of wanting to see a movie. Creating that ambience using a more contemporary language is very difficult because it’s, by its nature, more stripped down.

 

But I’ve found out that you can achieve that mostly through lighting, which creates that excitement. 

Just add lighting to a room—not sconces on the wall but strip lighting or columns with backlighting—and it brings the architecture to the level of a theater.

 

Who assembles & supervises the team to create one of your theaters?

For the big projects, I usually bring the people, like acoustic designers and lighting designers—not interior designers because I usually do that myself. It’s like making a movie—you get specialists to do the various tasks. You get a crew that works together synergistically to divide the elements of the theater into their various expertises.

 

For lighting, I usually work with Howard Werner, who is a lighting designer on Broadway. He did Spider-man with Julie Taymor. For acoustics, I’ve worked very extensively with Steve Haas because he knows my ways. And he’s compromising in the same way that I’m compromising, to accommodate the acoustics. When you work with experts like that, you have to respect each other’s trades.

 

How do you accommodate the client’s or integrator’s equipment requirements?

If the job comes from an audio/video integrator, I ask immediately to get the list of equipment and the placement of the speakers. I design around what they want and where they’re going to  position the speakers on the wall. I totally respect the science of someone who has to put the speaker in exactly the right location to the left or the right of the subwoofer. So I’m very accommodating.

 

What happens when the equipment gets in the way of the design?

Sometimes you have to go back to the integrator and say, “That wasn’t what I proposed”—like a recent project in Texas. The manufacturer put the subwoofers all the way to the floor but I specified a 6-inch baseboard there. I said, “Come on, guys. Lift the woofer off the floor 6 inches. Will that create havoc? Is it going to ruin the room acoustics? I gave you a room that’s 90% transparent to put the speakers wherever you want.” The whole room is stretched fabric, so they could put the speakers pretty much anywhere, but I wanted a baseboard so people wouldn’t kick the fabric, or especially the subwoofer, when they went down down the steps.

 

Does the screen choice sometimes compromise your design?

It’s usually easy to get a client to go with the right screen. If it’s a low-ceiling room, I tell them to avoid using a 16:9 screen because it will need to go all the way to floor, so you won’t be able to see the bottom of the image from some of the seats. I tell them to use a wide screen because it will fill the room width-wise but it doesn’t need to go all the way down.

 

If they get a wide screen, they can watch epic movies like Lawrence of Arabia without bars at the top and bottom, and they’ll be able to move the image inside the screen if they want to watch 16:9 content. If they say, “We don’t watch movies—we watch sports,” then they’re meant for a 16:9 screen. But if I have my way, I push for the wide screen because you get a bigger screen in a smaller space.

 

Have you seen video walls being used more frequently in home theaters?

Not yet because they’re very expensive, around $300,000 to $400,000. But a nicely calibrated set will give you the same performance as a projector—and probably an advantage, because you’re going to produce a brighter picture. When I watch 

3D movies in my theater, they suffer. Even though I have a bright projector, the level goes down. You don’t have that problem with a display.

 

You like to create a sense of anticipation before people enter one of your theaters. Have clients ever objected to that?

Nobody has rejected that because I usually remind them of what it’s like to go to a movie theater. When you go there, you don’t expect to open the door from the sidewalk and find yourself in the middle of the theater. Why? Because going to a movie is like riding a submarine. As you go up in the water, you have to go through various compartments of decompression before you get to the very top.

 

So you need to go from a small space to a larger space to an even larger space—and I usually bring up the example of the Roxy Theater in New York. The Roxy had an incredible corridor with movie posters right on 50th St. and 7th Ave. that was like 10 

Working with the Best, Pt. 1: Theo Kalomirakis

Theo’s design for the Ritz Theater in Texas takes visitors down a long hallway and through a series of lobbies before they arrive at the theater proper, which is placed right next to where they first entered

feet high. From that you would get to the ticket lobby, which was grander—like 15 feet high. Once you were past that, you went down into a tunnel that was 8 feet or 9 feet high that led to the grand rotunda, which zoomed up to 70 feet.

 

It’s like an orchestral piece. You orchestrate the crescendos and the pianissimos to create variation and a sense of anticipation and a sense of excitement for when something big happens. You can’t have a symphony that starts with a big crescendo and just stays there.

 

I explain to the client that, even if they have the smallest space in the world, they should let me subdivide it. I’m not taking away from the space—I’m giving them a more nuanced approach to the theater. I haven’t met anybody who’s said “No,” unless they just don’t have the space.

 

I did a theater called The Ritz in Texas [shown above]. It’s in my book Great Escapes [page 136]. The client gave me the attic, which was a big space—2,000 square feet—and he said, “How many seats can we fit in here? I have a big space and a big 

Working with the Best, Pt. 1: Theo Kalomiraks

Max Fleischer’s 1934 cartoon tour of the ultimate movie palace

family.”  I said, “Wrong question. It’s not how many seats. It’s how do you create a home theater environment?”

 

So I created a layout that was like a maze that was opening up. The theater ended up right next to the left of the entry, but you had to go all the way to the back and snake around and go through inner lobbies—a big lobby and a grand foyer—and then a smoking room, and then two corridors. And finally, breathlessly, you arrived at the theater.

It’s just like what Disney does with the theme rides where they have you waiting in line for two hours and you watch different things on TV or you go from one room to another before you get onto the ride. They prepare you. That is not done to showcase the architecture of the various rooms; it’s to create a sense of anticipation, which is what I do by capturing the grandeur of arriving at the Roxy in a simple theater—which is what that Max Fleischer cartoon accomplishes so well.

 

Working with the client’s interior designer

I usually don’t talk to the client while I’m working with the architect and contractor. But when the construction is underway, I meet with them to select things. That’s a very important part of the job because usually there’s a designer in attendance, and they don’t want the theater to be too far away from what they’re doing in the rest of the house. I tell them not to use bright colors in the theater, and that they can’t use a carpet design that jumps out of the floor because it makes the seats prominent.

 

Scaling the seating to the rest of the theater

The seats are probably the most damaging element in a theater because they’re large. Everything else I do is kind of miniaturized to create a sense of scale, so the wrong seats can throw my work out of proportion. The most typical example 

of that is the theater I did that was a recreation of Ocean Drive in Miami Beach. But when you see the seats, which are as big as the buildings, you say right away, “That’s fake.” Your sense of disbelief is eliminated and you suddenly see the artifact, that it’s all miniatures to create an effect.

 

I was watching the Netflix documentary Martin Scorsese did with Fran Leibowitz, and there’s a scene where she sits in

Working with the Best, Pt. 1: Theo Kalomirakis

the miniature of Manhattan that’s in Queens. And then she steps into the set, and her shoes are as high as some of the shorter buildings. She becomes like Gulliver among the Lilliputians.

 

How does your approach differ from other theater designers?

I don’t really know because I haven’t really worked with them. All I know—and this is a very generic observation—is theater designers with a technical background tend to start from the technology. And that is Sam Cavitt, and that’s Keith Yates. They’re very protective of technology, and they should be. Traditional designers are the opposite. They start with the interior design, and they tend to be technology adverse. I see myself as sitting in the middle, between acoustical or technical designers and those who decorate. If I were to put a label on my principal contribution to home theater design, it’s that I became a bridge between technology and design by respecting both.

 

How did you learn to balance technology & design?

When technical or acoustic designers like Steve Haas began to get involved, I had to start listening to them. I didn’t want to because I wanted to decorate, but slowly I realized it’s not just decoration. They would pressure me—“We can’t put that speaker too far behind the seats. We want it here.” So you have to work with the integrator, or with clients who are sound-savvy.

 

And I learned to pay attention to materials. You can’t make a theater using all wood. It looks fantastic, but wood is very reflective. So I learned to use materials that aren’t reflective—not only in terms of material but of color. If you have a white surface, it reflects too much color off the screen and makes you aware you’re in the room. You want the room to disappear.

 

The extreme case of wanting the room to disappear is [video-calibration expert] Joe Kane. He doesn’t want to have anything other than a black room, which is going to the one extreme. Having a room that’s very bright and colorful would be the other. There’s got to be a middle ground, where the room can look attractive when the lights are on but disappears when you watch a movie, like in my theater downstairs.

 

I can change the color of the walls to give the room a different personality because I have LEDs, but when the movie begins, the room disappears. So, everything can be done if you know the tricks of the trade, and I developed them by making mistakes and figuring out what works and what doesn’t.

Michael GaughnThe Absolute Sound, The Perfect Vision, Wideband, Stereo Review, Sound & Vision, The Rayva Roundtablemarketing, product design, some theater designs, a couple TV shows, some commercials, and now this.

PODCAST EP. 17
QUICK GUIDE

 

0:32   How do you typically approach designing a

          theater?

1:55   The first meeting with the client

3:00   Integrating the theater design into the rest of

          the house

4:42   Earning the client’s trust

6:00   Learning & assimilating the client’s taste

6:57   The woman who wanted “gaudy”

8:39   The client who wanted the Acropolis

10:20  How do you translate the client’s idea into

           a theater?

10:58  The importance of a proper theater

           environment

15:12  Have you seen a shift from movie palaces to

           more contemporary designs?

16:53  Who assembles & supervises the team to

           create one of your theaters?

19:33  How do you accommodate the client’s or

           integrator’s equipment requirements?

20:51  What happens when the equipment gets

           in the way of the design?

21:20  Does the screen choice sometimes

           compromise your design?

23:23  Have you seen video walls being used more

           frequently in home theaters?

24:42  You like to create a sense of anticipation

           before people enter one of your theaters.

           Have clients ever objected to that?

30:14  Working with the client’s interior designer

30:51  Scaling the seating to the rest of the theater

33:04  How does your approach differ from other

           theater designers?

34:51  How did you learn to balance technology &

           design?

REVIEWS

Nashville (1975)
Hannah and Her Sisters (1986)
Nomadland (2020)
Gattaca (1997)
The Ten Commandments (1956)
The Long Goodbye (1973)

ALSO ON CINELUXE

Learning When to Let a Good Thing Die
Oscar-Nominated Films 2021
John Sciacca's 4K HDR Wish List
The Cineluxe Hour