July 1, 2012
Three emerging interior design firms have discovered the key to thriving in a challenging economy: collaboration.
If anyone has found a silver lining in the recession, which has decimated the design profession, it may be the newest class of interior designers. The downturn in new construction seen in major urban centers has fueled an upsurge in renovation and consolidation. And the young founders of Internet start-ups, bars, and restaurants—industries that run as much on optimism as they do on credit—turn increasingly to contemporaries, independents like themselves who can channel unsketched visions into tangible forms inexpensively and on time.
Metropolis selected three firms whose aesthetics—and business models—embody this next chapter in design. One principal holds a degree in painting and crafts furniture and artworks for dot-coms in a loft below her Bay Area home. Another firm operates in Brooklyn’s Williamsburg neighborhood, creating residences for clients across the water in Manhattan and television stages for clients across the country in Los Angeles. A third mastered furniture design, lighting manufacture, and welding. The three firms differ in size, language, and scope of work. But they share several fundamental characteristics, including a willingness to stretch and, more importantly, a willingness to listen. These traits, coupled with talent and hard work, have helped them thrive in arguably the toughest financial climate for design firms since the Great Depression.
Principal: Andee Hess
Andee Hess waded into her first interior design project when she was ten years old. “I was painting recycled handbags in my bedroom,” recalls the Portland, Oregon–born designer. “From that experience I learned how I could help people change their environments.” A welder, furniture designer, and lighting specialist, Hess graduated from Marylhurst University in 2003 with a degree in interior design and spent the next four years at Skylab Architecture, a Portland firm where she worked on restaurants and trade-show booths. “I don’t think I picked out one pillowcase cover my entire time there,” she says, laughing.
In 2007, Hess founded Osmose Design. The firm realizes fantasies and cloaked desires for Portland’s youngest and hippest, and draws on the talents of the city’s broad creative community. Hess has built a Mario Brothers–inspired roof-top installation for Panic Inc., a local software company, and completely designed the Commodore Hotel in Astoria, Oregon, which included a found-object installation wall. The hotel job led to the design of an installation for a private residence—a project for which Hess artfully mounted fragments of a disassembled upright piano on the walls of the owners’ den. “We started talking about the environment they wanted their children to grow up in,” she says. “After a while, the theme of music emerged. It’s not the type of thing where you say, ‘Oh, I’ve always wanted one of those.’”
When the financial crisis of 2008 hit the Portland design community hard, it actually brought Hess more work as architectural firms that had laid off their in-house designers increasingly turned to her. “It’s forced me to stretch a little,” she says, “to seek out all sorts of collaborations, with artists, engineers, sculptors—whoever had the skills a project needed.” The recession also taught Hess an important lesson about business. “Our work is about developing relationships,” she says, “about drawing people out to help them understand what they truly want. I can’t understand when a designer says that clients get in the way. How do you get work that way?”
Principal: Lauren Geremia
Lauren Geremia grew up as a California girl born into a Wallingford, Connecticut, household. “In high school I loved going into New York to visit the museums and galleries,” says the owner of Geremia Design, one of the Bay Area’s hottest interior design firms. “But I always felt overwhelmed. I knew I was meant for the other coast.” At the helm of a bustling six-person practice that creates lively interiors for Bay Area restaurants, homes, and Internet start-ups, Geremia has even more reason to feel overwhelmed today. And yet the 4,000-square-foot loft, below her Emeryville home, where she holds court exudes excitement, not panic. “There is an incredible energy in the companies we work for,” says Geremia, who has designed offices for the file-sharing company Dropbox, the photo-sharing firm Path, and Asana, an online organizational tool cofounded by Facebook pioneer Dustin Moskovitz.
Geremia started out in San Francisco working as a personal assistant to an interior designer by day and tending bar by night. She soon landed her first commissions, from club owners who knew her from both her professions. And who wanted to save money. “I did about sixteen restaurants and bars in two years,” says Geremia, who moved to the Bay Area in 2004, four days after graduating from the Rhode Island School of Design with a degree in painting. “I earned almost nothing. But I made a big footprint in this city.”
The nights as a barfly paid off in ways that Geremia might not have foreseen when the city’s twenty- and thirty-something startup CEOs started inquiring about the person responsible for the hospitable feel of their favorite watering holes. “These guys spend a lot of time in bars,” Geremia says. “They want their workplaces to provide that same social, relaxed, and sexy atmosphere. I had one CEO tell me he wanted a room in his office to look just like the bar I designed at Bloodhound, where he went for happy hour every night.”
Geremia did much of her own heavy lifting, creating furniture, demolishing walls, recovering fine wooden panels and ceilings from beneath years of ill-advised aesthetics. She still handles 80 percent of the firm’s design work and makes artwork—often original—a cornerstone of its projects. But last fall she faced a different challenge when Dropbox asked her to fit out its new 89,000-square-foot office space. “I was in meetings with lawyers. I had to meet the terms of a contract, do everything I said I was going to do on time and within budget,” says Geremia, who had completed the company’s first offices—a space of about 11,000 square feet—the previous January. “We were six people and had seven months.”
Geremia’s age and enthusiasm afford her easy access to the aesthetic that the latest generation of technocrati seeks. This look and feel are further refined by the vast pool of East Bay makers and artists whom she enlists on her projects. Geremia knows that the sector’s rapid growth should translate into even more work for her as her clients expand and begin to purchase homes. But she also looks forward to seeing their mutual tastes evolve. “Hopefully, we’ll all grow together,” she says. “Even today, it’s not just about video games and stuffed animals anymore.”
Principals: Goil Amornvivat & Tom Morbitzer
Brooklyn, New York
Tom Morbitzer and Goil Amornvivat met while studying at the Yale School of Architecture. In 2000, degrees in hand, they both took jobs at the New York firm of Robert A. M. Stern, the school’s dean. “Separately, we worked on public projects, museums, and beautiful private residences,” says Amornvivat, who left his native Bangkok for Western Massachusetts when he was 12. “At the same time, every time there was a competition, we were pulled into it.”
In 2005, Morbitzer and Amornvivat won a design competition for the International Quilt Study Center & Museum in Lincoln, Nebraska. In 2001, following the September 11 attacks, they created a site-specific installation about post-9/11 changes in immigration for the Lower East Side Tenement Museum. In 2004, the duo equipped a Florida voting booth with rearview mirrors for an exhibit at Parsons The New School for Design in Manhattan. “It was a sort of commentary,” Amornvivat says, “a way to ask people what they might do if they could do it over again.”
Five years ago, they formed TUG Studio. The Brooklyn-based interior design firm works mostly with residential and commercial clients, yet still takes on pro bono projects for local soup kitchens and activist groups. Charity work has brought the studio important clients, including Whoopi Goldberg, who hired the pair to design her office—and later, a set for a new television show she was developing—after she met them at a Design Industries Foundation Fighting AIDS benefit. The fame Amornvivat earned with his appearances on Bravo’s Top Design and TLC’s Trading Spaces also brought business to the firm.
While notoriety, volunteer work, and client referrals provide a steady stream of projects, Morbitzer acknowledges that things have changed since the bottom fell out of the economy. “We do so much more managerial work,” says the Columbus, Ohio, native. “We have to fight to keep everything we do from getting boiled down into an Excel spreadsheet.”