A Conversation with ShubinDonaldson partners about the Evolution of their Practice with Seth Epstein, of LosYork. Seth was also an early client.
Seth Epstein (SE): Robin, I have heard you guys saying, “Form Follows Intention.” What does it mean to you and Russell?
Robin Donaldson (RD): Russell and I founded our company, Shubin + Donaldson Architects (now ShubinDonaldson) in 1991. “Form follows intention” emerged in the course of developing our collaborative design process; grounded in our shared passion for design, inclusive dialogue and process, and the exploration of tectonic form –– what the architectural critic Kenneth Frampton dubbed, “the poetics of construction.”
SE: Robin, what do you mean when you say “tectonic form?”
RD: Back in the mid-eighties when Russell and I were educated…there was tremendous interest in form making, both in relation to functional use, and also the activity that raises “making” and the construction process to an art form. It was concerned with materiality and the intentional modeling of materials, and bringing that material into presence. Three years prior to founding our company, I worked as the project architect on Morphosis’ Crawford House with Thom Mayne, Michael Rotondi, and Kiyokazu Arai from 1987-1990. At that time, we were immersed in exploring the tension between conceptual intent and the comforts of domesticity. Although we don’t consider ourselves an “academic firm” per se, the Crawford House was a seminal project, almost like a post-graduate thesis project. It had a significant impact on the way that we still approach domestic architecture and residential design, and ultimately even our approach to commercial interiors, and now buildings. I was introduced to Russell by one of my colleagues at the Morphosis studio while giving a group of architects a tour of the house.
SE: Russell, how did you know that you two would be a good fit?
RS: We recognized an affinity in the way we could imagine “what’s possible” together — a belief that our words, when aligned with intention, could create reality, and an intuitive confidence that we could make things happen.
RD: Those were heady days, and we have continued to maintain our profound connection, and a commitment to creating the future from a place of “what’s possible.”
RS: In the design process, this conversation about “what’s possible” starts with clear intentions and manifests as a conceptual diagram. It takes a lot of discipline, or what we call “rigor,” to get to the essential DNA of a project. We constantly distill all the relevant forces and aspirations at play…into the most essential and impactful idea.
SE: We first met in 1997 in the process of designing the space for my company, Fuel. I hired you guys because the workspaces you were designing were a radical departure from “the wood-paneled boardrooms of yesteryear.” In 2002, The LA Times Sunday magazine published a cover story called “Not your Father’s Office.” How has your practice evolved?
RS: When that piece came out we had completed a half dozen or so creative workspace projects for advertising agencies that all became cover stories on a number of design magazines: projects such Ground Zero in 1999, and Ogilvy + Mather in 2000. More than a decade after our first workplace project, we published a book on our early work that also included residential projects, “Live + Work” in 2010. With offices today in Culver City, Orange County and Santa Barbara, we are about fifty architects and designers, and going strong. At least half of our staff is now women, which was not the norm even ten years ago. This kind of shift in demographics is representative of sweeping changes in the workforce that impact how we work, and also the design of the workplace. We also consider the values of the people who are going to inhabit the spaces we design.
RD: Russell and I made a conscious decision to cultivate the next generation of our firm’s leadership. In recognition of our 25th anniversary, and to recognize that we are more than just Shubin and Donaldson, we are now calling ourselves ShubinDonaldson. Since 2005, when we first coined the phrase “homing at work,” Mark Hershman made substantive contributions mainly in our approach to designing commercial interior projects. He has been relentless in his commitment to “domesticating the workplace”. Having earned the trust of our developer clients, we are all more and more engaged with mixed-use and ground up buildings.
RS: All of our projects, whether commercial or residential, have been, and continue to be, driven by supporting our clients in achieving their objectives. We all want to be relevant, and so to us, it is critically important to be responsive to how changing demographics, values, technology, as well as organizational strategies, inform workplace design strategies and the repositioning strategies that we deploy for existing buildings, as well for new buildings that are part of branded campuses.
Robin and I have always been in a parallel process of simultaneously being engaged in both residential and commercial projects. Today we both work closely with our residential studio team which is engaged in the design of several residential estates. These clients have very high standards and keep us on our toes.
SE: Mark, you joined Russell and Robin around 2000 and are now a partner. Do you have a favorite building type?
Mark Hershman (MH): It’s really an honor to be invited by Robin and Russell to join them as a partner, and to have the opportunity to continue to evolve our practice. We have some amazingly talented and committed people working with us. During my past 17 years at SD, I have honed my craft by imagining how existing buildings and spaces might serve new purposes. For me personally, the typology of commercial interiors and the workplace has been a fertile laboratory for transformation, and making a positive social impact through design. The adaptive reuse of existing buildings has become a particular favorite building type of mine because it allows for the rigorous investigation into the building’s history, and the possibility of resurrecting it’s forgotten soul. I have not forgotten my first love, commercial interiors. We’re striving to find the balance of the rigor of residential detailing and rich material selection in our commercial projects. With the right mix of eclectic appointments, it appears inevitable… effortless, undercooked, and authentic. This level of refinement and our emphasis on craft is what separates SD from much of the trendy commercial work that is ultra-smooth and slick.
SE: What do you mean by “craft,” Russell?
RS: We move from the macro to the micro: the clarity of the idea informs the clarity of the form, which in turn, informs the clarity of details, and how and where one material connects or joins with another. Regardless of whether it is a residential or commercial project, we share a passion for the disciplined expression of a material at granular level.
SE: A question for all of you. You have many repeat clients. What keeps them coming back?
MH: For many clients, we are part of the property selection team, whether they are leasing or purchasing. We help negotiate the lease or the purchase agreement. We help to create the conditions for success; to better optimize design opportunities and to eliminate unpleasant surprises.
RD: We are “design architects” that also understand value, and how the judicious allocation of resources increases the tenant client’s culture and talent pool, and ultimately, their bottom line.
RS: One of the most rewarding comments we get from our clients is that they feel that we are part of their “brain trust.” By cultivating an ongoing dialogue with our clients, we create a synergy of ideas that manifests our shared vision of “what’s possible.”