One of the biggest differences between designing for a residential client and for a restaurant, says Knapp, 56, is budget. (The latter's is smaller.) She likes to maximize the money by sourcing one element that stays with people. At Rittenhouse Tavern, that's the wrought-iron and glass chandelier hand-forged in Vermont. "It's equally as handcrafted as the early 20th-century interior, but in a contemporary way," says the designer. In her own life, that one special thing is a souvenir from a family trip to Morocco that both frames her design point of view and reminds her of her childhood in North Africa.
Consumed With: An antique, carved wooden screen purchased at a gallery in the old city of Fez.
The Appeal: Knapp's father worked for the humanitarian organization CARE, so the family moved around a lot. At age 5 she was living in a traditional Libyan house, shaped like a square doughnut with a private courtyard at its center. "Windows opened widely to the courtyard, but only selectively to the outside world to catch some cross ventilation," she says. Her bedroom, designed specially for a young woman, had a single window on the external wall with carved wooden shutters. A screen near the bottom let her look out at the world without being seen.
Spatial Drift: Her family's frequent moves prompted the early discovery of a unique skill. Too new to Libya to have a trusted babysitter, her parents took Elisabeth on their house hunt. "We went through some unusual houses," she recalls. A few days later they discovered their 5-year-old still remembered all the floor plans. "From then on," she says, "they always took me along." After Libya, Knapp's family did stints in Iraq, Iran, and Lebanon.
Inside Out: The interplay between the exterior and interior in architecture and design has always interested Knapp. "If I'm designing a house, to me it's crucial to think about which views I want to capture," she says, "and to do things outside to create an extension of that space."
Working Every Surface: Traveling in Morocco reminded Knapp of the beauty of everyday things she remembered from her childhood in North Africa. "This window serves a very important function within its culture and environment - privacy from outside eyes, shade from the unrelenting sun," she says, "but it's also an elaborately designed object."
Discreet Design: "I love looking at the ways people live in different environments around the world," Knapp says, "and how it blends with their society, religion, and environment." Part of her challenge is to design 11/2- to 2-hour "journeys" that manage to be both subtle and theatrical. "I think I have a pretty good understanding of how to blend visual aspects to allude to different cultures without Disney-fying them," Knapp says.