BY JENNIFER WRIGHT
Surrounded by the multitude of tower cranes that currently dot the Portland landscape, it’s hard to fathom that only five years ago the architecture industry was at an all time low. Actually the world was at an all time low, hitting the bottom of a global financial recession that started with the subprime mortgage crisis in 2007. The architecture industry that had initially employed 214,000 people was imploding and wouldn’t hit bottom until four years later in 2011, when only 153,000 people remained in the field. Although the AIA’s Architecture Billings Index (ABI) showed the profession ending 2015 on a positive note pointing to a healthy year of construction ahead, this ruinous event is unfortunately not unique.
The fact is that as part of the “natural laws” of economics, downturns are cyclical. A pattern of ups and downs based on competition, uneven wealth distribution and allocation, and complex market mechanisms. Economists anticipate this most recent recession will be followed by another in 2021, give or take. Perhaps the firms that were created in the outfall of the recession and have held on through this recovery have identifiable attributes that can weather the next downturn. Based on this theory, I decided to solicit perspectives from three different design studios that opened their doors during the recession: bright designlab, Guggenheim Architecture + Design Studio and Propel Studio.
Bright designlab is located in a modern industrial brick storefront, envisioned as part retail destination and part working studio. The idea of a multifaceted approach to gaining an audience whether one is in the market for beautiful homegoods or for a full scale remodel is the strategic brainchild of partners Leela Brightenburg and Alissa Pulcrano.
Their story began late in 2009 as continuous waves of layoffs hit local firms, Brightenburg and Pulcrano found themselves both unemployed. Joining hundreds of fellow designers who were laid off in the wake of scant market demand, which had dried up projects in nearly every sector of the economy. The two interior designers had met in 2008 and had worked on several projects together while employed at the now defunct firm of Czopek & Erdenberger, Brightenburg was new to the profession and Pulcrano had been in the interior design profession for over 20 years. After being let go they committed to keeping each other busy, meeting up to go running or over coffee to commiserate about unemployment. Over time, as the two friends discussed what was trending locally in the design scene, they both recognized a gap which they saw as their opportunity to promote an alternative aesthetic. “It was a matter of survival and not wanting to work for the places hiring, which at the time amounted to one or two,” Pulcrano explains. “There were no opportunities out there, except the ones you created for yourself.”
The ability to diversify your skills and find the value in every aspect of what you can market, is the first of the survival attributes noted. Brightenburg and Pulcrano initially founded the firm providing graphics, photography and interior design. Within this broad scope, they both had years of varied experience to draw from. Brightenburg had worked in the events arena and floral design, gaining valuable training in direct sales and small business organization. Her affinity towards graphic design paired well with Pulcrano's skills in wayfinding and signage. Their collaborations gradually created a signature style, showcasing their interests and diverse skills in a myriad of ways from wedding planning, customized terrarium installations to offering full service graphic design services. “We took some classes from the Small Business Administration and they warned us that we were doing too many things, not focusing enough. But we didn’t care because we had to do something,” jokes Pulcrano.
“We knew that it was going to evolve over time. It was a matter of getting our name out there. For instance doing products, like terrariums, that then would be in cool little shops with our name attached,” Brightenburg explains, describing the connections that would prove pivotal to the success of their studio.
Recently celebrating six years in business, the partners are busy re-evaluating their business plan. They’ve met all their initial goals that served as a foundation for their business and their brand, now they look forward to decade goals. Going into 2016, a larger staff brings on more risk and opportunity. Much work has been done to create an efficient system, attention to brand consistency and a high level of customer service. Success has allowed them to fine tune their market focus to interior design, although graphic design and photography still play an important role in their process. Bright designlab’s strategy of maintaining a diversity of skills to broaden the firm’s outreach is in line with the expert’s advice of staying nimble in the face of change.
“Throughout the life of this design studio, it has been the personal relationships that have allowed us to gain the key projects that have progressed us to where we are today," says Guggenheim Architecture + Design Studio's Jenny Guggenheim. The successful partnership of Jenny and Jeff Guggenheim originally started as Fig Studio, which for the first several years was a sole proprietorship run by Jenny. Finding herself laid off early in 2009, not even three years into her professional career, Jenny leveraged her network of connections to manifest those first few crucial projects. Originally working from her apartment, it quickly became apparent that a more formal professional space was necessary to meet with clients.
Fortunately the local residential architecture firm where her husband Jeff was employed had a desk available to rent. Opportunities arose where Fig Studio was contracted to work as an interior design consultant on several of their projects and allowed the first opportunity for the Guggenheims to work collaboratively in a professional capacity. Jenny continued to pursue independent projects to broaden her portfolio and credits a referral from a local luxury modern design showroom which set her on a course towards more complex and higher budget projects. The advance of more substantial commissions via Fig Studio and the successful nature of their work partnership eventually made for a natural progression to joining forces. Although no formal planning or lengthy spreadsheets were created at the outset of their collaboration, the office has always been run intentionally lean with a cash only mentality. This fiscally conservative nature has also allowed the two to slowly grow the firm, which now has two additional employees under the now re-branded Guggenheim Architecture + Design Studio.
Being frugal with marketing dollars means that relationships have additional value as the primary way to promote their work. “Getting to know the clients and having the opportunity to be part of their daily lives, is a big plus of the job. The part of the process that involves sharing and getting to know people as individuals is the most fulfilling part of what I do” explains Jenny Guggenheim . Jeff Guggenheim agrees, adding “We interject our personal life into the business. It’s important for clients to realize you’re a normal person, not just an architect.”
This is most obvious when it comes to the firm’s Instagram account, where posts of the couple’s adorable two-year-old daughter are interspersed with those of material mock ups or cabinet installations. This departure from the traditional segregation of public and private is not by chance, it is an earnest attempt to democratize the role of design and the work of designers.
Now that the firm has a half decade behind them, they see an inspired future. Growing an organization that fosters leaders who can independently run projects but appreciate the synergy of a small collaborative team. Jenny describes a goal of finding individuals whose role is much less production and more innovation, pushing the studio towards uncharted design territory. The power of each individual’s effort is kept at the forefront, “Although there have been hard moments throughout the beginning of this business," Jenny Guggenheim says, "there are hundreds of people we need to give credit to that helped us get to where we are today.”
The egalitarian nature of the Guggenheim’s efforts play out as a distinct reaction to the establishment’s rigid organizational roles. Based on similar convictions, principal Lucas Gray formed the groundwork for Propel Studio. Gray had years of overseas experience previous to settling down in Portland and working at Opsis Architecture. Although he had much knowledge gained from working on international design competitions, many firms saw this concentration as a hurdle rather than an asset, which eventually led him to leave and start his own firm as the recession offered less opportunities for creativity.
This experience in traditional roles paved the way for the formative structure of Propel Studio, which is one that is not commodity driven and instead values design, appreciating every individual’s unique talents. Both Gray, and his business partner, Nick Mira, share an entrepreneurial spirit that was frustrated with youthful innovation being subverted in favor of production labor. “I feel like we are doing things backwards in the US. Where we have senior people designing and young people figuring out how to detail it,” explains Gray. “It’s my personal belief that that is not a great way to produce quality architecture. Allow the younger graduates to be innovative and let the more experienced staff critique, edit, curate and foster those ideas to become a built piece of architecture.” The two, as is common in successful partnerships, created a balance of skills that were stronger together than the sum of their parts. Both strong designers, Nick thrives in the complexity of construction details while Lucas sees his strength in the broader arena of marketing, social media and communication.
The future seems bright for these three firms, all having survived the ups and downs of their formative years. So what is to be learned from their progress and how does that define a remedy for an unpredictable future?
A few basic themes come to light, the first being the power of collaboration. As Pulcrano points out, “Collaboration was part of people’s survival during the recession. There was no lone pioneer!” Joining forces seemed a natural response to the hardships of a lackluster marketplace. The most obvious collaboration would have to be bright designlab, which in 2011 partnered with Hammer & Hand to open their shared retail/working showroom. Although both businesses are independent from each other, they are long time friends and hatched on the idea of a communal showroom that would allow people to see their design and craft.
“There was a conscious effort to create a space that was part retail and part working studio.” Brighten burg recounts. “We wanted it to be a space that was open to the public and made design, a connection to us and Hammer & Hand more approachable - because a lot of times people don’t know how to approach interior design & don’t know how that process works.” The brick and mortar store/working studio has succeeded in engaging people that otherwise would have never connected with an interior designer or known about Hammer & Hand’s custom craftwork. As with many experiments, after time they run their course and in the studio’s most recent iteration the store is evolving into an art gallery with bright designlab taking on full ownership.
A second theme that emerged was one of community engagement and creating synergies between other organizations. Founded on the idea of giving back to the community by providing creative building solutions, Propel Studio offered pro bono design services to a neighborhood elementary school. What started as a simple idea to create a covering for an often flooded area of the school’s playground, evolved into a grander idea of upgrading their community garden. By focusing on this underutilized space as a catalyst for an outdoor classroom, the studio’s simple offer has fostered a long term project that will teach children about gardening and sustainable building construction. These connections will certainly play a role in the studio’s long range goals which include educational, community and sustainably innovative projects.
Lastly, all three firms see slow and intentional growth in their businesses and projects. Cautious about rapid expansion in response to the improved economy, none want to risk diluting the vision they’ve been working hard to establish. “We appreciate the collaborative process pulling from people’s strengths and, though we foster individuality & independence, we respect that it all adds to our overall strength” explains Pulcrano. “Sometimes there is no master plan,” Jeff Guggenheim notes. “It’s been an evolution, eyeing bigger picture ideas but being open to opportunities that may present themselves. Evaluating as you go.”
Opportunities for projects in completely new market sectors, office expansion and even potential international commissions are all possibilities in this new year. As we start seeing more and more of their projects realized, it’s easy to get swept up in the enthusiasm that these groups share, having all been the underdog at one time and now realizing legitimate success. “In the end we routinely remind ourselves to work hard and be nice to people,” jokes Brightenburg, expanding on designer Anthony Burrill’s celebrated quote. Which is perhaps the objective that all of these creatives share as they consciously take on a new way of doing business with determined grit and a grateful understanding of the community supporting them.