Animals + Aesthetics: A Q&A with Carlee Cardwell of Dambly Design
story by LIESEL SCHMIDT | photography courtesy of CARLEE CARDWELL
When local vet Dr. Shawn Wilson began envisioning his new clinic, he saw something more than just the sterile, serviceable spaces that often comprise veterinary hospitals. Instead, he wanted something beautiful, comfortable and soothing to the animals who were coming in for care as well as to their humans.
With more than 20 years in business and an aesthetic that matched his wish list for the new space, Carlee Cardwell and her team at Dambly Design were perfectly suited to design Mountain View Animal Hospital.
VIP: When did Mountain View approach you about their project and what was their vision?
CC: We were referred to ownership, Dr. Shawn Wilson, in 2019 by a colleague from graduate school. Dr. Wilson was in the early planning stages of construction for a new specialty animal hospital in Hagerstown, Maryland. He had a clear vision for the operational requirements of the facility, but not for design. [Mountain View's] only requirements were ease of cleaning and maintenance and [considerations for] how the animals would move through the space.
VIP: How long did the project take?
CC: We started the design process in the spring of 2019 and installed the project in the winter of 2021. Everything took slightly under two years to complete.
VIP: What made you go with such a minimalist aesthetic?
CC: We wanted something the staff would enjoy, coming to work every day. Also, customers and their pets, which are like family to so many people, needed to feel welcome. But ease of cleaning was the main concern for the client, so we designed all the seating to be cantilevered, as nothing touches the ground. This makes it easy to clean underneath. It was also important that we minimize[d] the stress of navigating the space with animals on leashes or inside their carriers.
VIP: What materials did you use (i.e., the “foliage” in the trees, the greenery wall, etc.)?
CC: The acoustical trees are made of Canadian birch trunks with wool felt leaves and a plywood birdhouse that conceals the electrical cords for the lights nestled in the trees. The window trim is [a] ¾-inch multi-layer birch material with an exposed edge as a design detail. The flooring is a luxury vinyl plank tile in a grass green color and wood-look pattern. We selected a bandana-inspired textile for the seating that is anti-microbial and can withstand with inherent wear and tear, which is key for a space of this nature also. You can also clean it with bleach. The moss used in the wall art is organically preserved and sourced from France.
VIP: What was your inspiration in designing the space?
CC: We took inspiration from the Japanese concept of shinrin-yoku or “forest bathing” in a somewhat interpretive manner, along with the vision of an indoor park. The idea of bringing nature inside with the birch trees and other wood elements and colors serves the design so well at so many levels.
VIP: What was the reasoning behind the choice in color palette?
CC: The patients coming to Mountain View are either in trauma or are having a specialized type of surgery or care. So we wanted to follow nature and use the color green because it is naturally calming and especially soothing to pet parents. Symbolically, green also represents new beginnings and renewal. In addition, when we had our initial meeting with Dr. Shawn and his staff, they mentioned how inspired they were by the custom moss artwork of animal silhouettes showcased in our studio.
VIP: Have you designed a space like this before?
CC: This is our second medical facility. In 2015, Treehouse Eyes approached us for the interior design of their eye care clinics that specialize in the treatment of myopia in children and adolescents. There are now Treehouse Eye clinics across the US that we continue to support.
We wanted to bring the beauty of our outside landscape into Mountain View. Living in this beautiful part of the country, most of our staff and clients hike, kayak and enjoy the outdoors with their pets and that is what our lobby represents. Dambly Design, took our ideas and made our lobby into something really unexpected. - Allison Carpenter, Director of Facility Operations
VIP: What makes designing a space for animals different than a space for humans?
CC: It’s funny because there’s not much difference at all. Animals are a part of our daily lives and they’re considered a main customer in this instance. Every project, whether for humans or animals, has its own special requirements like functional and operational factors, sound transmission, circulation through the space, hygiene and sight lines. These were just a few of the main driving design considerations for Mountain View.
VIP: Which clients—human or animal—do you feel are more difficult and why?
CC: Perhaps animals, due the environmental factors in a space that may impact their sense of well-being. There are so many sights, smells and sounds that could contribute to their anxiety in an already stressful situation.
VIP: What considerations were made, knowing the space was made for humans and animals?
CC: Seating, circulation and sight lines were top of the list. Controlling those factors that may trigger a scared or anxious animal was key. In the plans for this space, we offered ample seating options that provided safe distance between the patients. The orientation of seating was also varied to offer a distraction, if necessary. The cantilevered seating can also offer the animals a cozy place to retreat and cat carriers can easily be tucked underneath.
VIP: What were some of the most challenging aspects of the design?
CC: Since this was new construction, we had a quite a bit of latitude with the design. But like any design of this magnitude, there are always things that will pop up as little—or sometimes bigger—challenges. We were very fortunate to have not had to endure any major setbacks. But with over 20 years of experience, we’ve become nimble enough to address many of the unforeseen challenges and seasoned enough to anticipate many of the things that often derail a project during all of the design and construction phases. This was just one of those great projects where everything came together beautifully and the clients were very pleased with how it turned out.
VIP: What kind of feedback have you gotten about the design?
CC: The project has been well received. People have said that they absolutely love the dramatic feel of the four 15-foot trees when you walk in. It is such an unexpected and whimsical feature, especially when people start looking around and discover the birdhouses. The backlit birch cut-out feature wall is also a favorite among visitors because, as a large-scale element, it balances the trees and ties all of the elements together.
VIP: How long have you been a designer and what led you to this particular profession?
CC: In 1996, I created and operated an organic juice bar in Phoenix, Arizona that was featured in Forbes magazine for its design and originality. Subsequently, I was recruited by Vail Resorts to manage their Design Support Services department in Breckenridge, Colorado. Those two experiences were foundational to launching Dambly Design in 2000. We’ve done so many amazing projects, from luxury homes and big city flats to hotels, restaurants and other commercial spaces like Mountain View. I enjoy the challenges of each project and we love to take on new concepts. It helps keep our creativity sharp and spurs collaboration, which is one of our strong suits.