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The Joy of Living

From pottery to homes, Carol Ann Zinn approaches design with purpose

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Photo by Briana Brough

As part of our series The Creatives, we speak with Carol Ann Zinn, founder and president at Zinn Design Build.


How did you get started in building?

I had been an artist/potter and had a nonprofit pottery school near Calvander. I was a visual person but I was very intrigued with building. My former husband and I had a house built and I couldn’t stay away from the jobsite. I had no idea what was behind the walls. I loved the way the workers related to one another. There was no suit and tie. It was a lot of teamwork. I was looking for something other than clay and I started to very slowly build houses. I built a good-sized business and then I started to buy land and create neighborhoods.

What home trends have you seen change over the years?

When I first started in 1978, there were no arched windows in houses. There were just very plain windows and the spaces were very compartmentalized. You didn’t have that kitchen-family room nook which pretty much every house has. Houses were very segmented, tight and darker, with not as big of windows and no mud room. The master bathrooms were not notable.

Number of houses you’ve built and designed:

400.

What’s the creative process like?

[Clients and I] do some sharing and we talk about the relationship of spaces. “Oh, I want a master with a study on the main floor” or “I love to cook” are things they might say. I try to understand what they need in a spatial way. I also ask them to go on Houzz.com and give me just a few pictures [of what they like]. I don’t need a huge amount because I can understand their taste. I hand-sketch the floor plan and the front elevation and I show it to them. [The process is] collaborative. By the time I give them a floor plan, I don’t think they are going to be very surprised because we’ve had really good communication. When I’m doing the floor plan, I’ve also had a complete understanding of details and finishes so I’m already picturing ‘this is the vanity,’ ‘this is the sink,’ ‘this is the style.’

Your inspiration is?

Travel. I’m always photographing details. One of my stair newel posts came from a former horse hitching post in Paris. I loved the shape, I took a picture of it and then I came back and I designed a newel post that was based on that. [On future trips] I’ll be going into stores and taking pictures wherever I can. Travel definitely informs my work.

The largest and smallest spaces you’ve ever designed?

6,100 square feet and I’ve done a studio apartment over a garage that was about 500 square feet. It was very much influenced by what I’ve seen in Europe: very open, a tiny kitchen but really functional, vaulted ceiling, interesting chandelier that kind of makes the space.

Do you have a preference regarding the size?

I like doing small as well as big. I think your home is so, so important. It nurtures you, it sustains you. To me, it’s a gift or a blessing that I can do that for people. That I can make a wholesome contribution to their well-being. That’s what I really think a home is about.

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Jessica is the Executive Editor for Chapel Hill Magazine. As a 2010 grad of UNC, she's happy to be back in town writing, editing and eating around the Triangle.