In Conversation | Kovac Design Studio

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    We had the pleasure of sitting down with Los Angeles architecture practice Kovac Design Studio founder Michael Kovac. Known for pushing the boundaries of scale, form and materiality – as exemplified by projects like Madison Desert Club and Breeze Blocks – Michael’s work pays homage to California’s landscape and history of design excellence, helping carve out the next chapter in the region’s architectural story. In this conversation, the architect shares insights into his design approach and sources of inspiration for his innovative, head-turning projects.

    Outside of your own practice, how does design have an influence on you?

    Michael Kovac: I’ve always been obsessed with design – since I was at least eight years old. From aeroplanes to bicycles to architecture – I’ve been naturally drawn to it.

    You live and practice in Los Angeles, California. How does the region’s legacy of mid-century design manifest in your work? 

    Michael Kovac: For me, mid-century design is an optimistic aesthetic. It was created in an era where preconceived notions of architecture were being challenged. It was a time of innovation. There were the sculptural concrete forms of John Lautner, the elegant wood posts and beams of Cliff May, and then there was Pierre Koenig’s iconic Stahl House. We use these architects as touchstones in our work today. 

    Breeze Blocks was probably one of the most explicitly mid-century-modern projects we’ve done and is located in an area known for that kind of style of house, Trousdale Estates. The low-slung architecture, especially, and the really warm material palette are hallmarks of the movement.

    How does California’s climate and landscapes inform your design approach?

    Michael Kovac: We’re super fortunate to have the climate that we do. We can completely erase the boundary between inside and outside with glass sliding doors; we can pull beautiful temperate breezes from the ocean; we can rely on fresh air rather than an air conditioner which can have phenomenal health and psychological benefits.

    Both Madison Desert Club and Breeze Blocks occupy an expansive site and floor plan. How do you design large-scale projects to feel inviting and approachable?

    Michael Kovac: Even though we’re afforded the luxury of working with large sites and generous floor plans, we never lose sight of the fact that we’re designing these homes for people. We consciously engage all of the senses; we use materials you’d want to touch; we think about the acoustics of a space; we even think about smells. By engaging all the senses, not just visual, you warm and humanise a project. 

    Scale is also very important. When designing these grand spaces, you must balance them with more intimate ones. When you put these spaces side by side, the small space feels smaller, and the big space feels bigger. I like creating that contrast. An example is the bar space in Madison Desert Club; you feel quite tucked in and cosy, yet you’re still looking out onto this vast double-height space and view of the landscape beyond.

    Sculptural elements like the foamed aluminium canopy in Madison Desert Club are recurring themes across your work. Where do you seek inspiration for these types of architectural features?

    Michael Kovac: Nature is a huge source of inspiration for me. In the case of Madison Desert Club, we knew we wanted to take advantage of the crisp desert light with some shadow play. The first thing that came to mind was the skeleton of a Cholla cactus; it has this beautiful fibrous trunk with large holes in it, and I thought it would be great to reference in the project.

    What are you currently working on? What can we look forward to?

    Michael Kovac: The scope of the firm and the avenues we’re exploring continue to expand and evolve, which is fantastic. We are currently working on a few residential projects. One is a small project in Wine Country in Northern California, an area known for wildfires. We aimed to make sure it can defend itself when the clients aren’t there, so it features these fire-resistant shutters that, when closed, essentially transform the building into a monopoly piece within the landscape.

    We’re also working on a pro bono project: a youth centre in LA, which includes a bicycle training centre, climbing wall, education facilities and more. It’s different from our usual work, and giving something back to the community is rewarding.

    Design Dissected:

    Where we get designers’ takes on broader topics, themes or events currently surfacing in the design world.

    A home designed by Kovac Design Studio will always be filled with spectacular art. How does art enhance architecture?

    Michael Kovac: Unequivocally, it does. We often design projects around key pieces or collections; one of the first questions we ask our clients is, “do you have an existing collection that you’d like to showcase?” Art provokes thought and conversation. It can alter the entire mood of a space. It’s one of the most human things, dating back to cave paintings. Art and architecture can so quickly become symbiotic, to a point where you can’t see one without the other.

    Rapid Fire:

    Somewhere that inspires you? Sitting on the shore in Maine, which is where I’m from.

    Someone that inspires you? James Turrell

    Favourite three materials to work with? Wood, stone, glass

    Something you want to see more of in design? More recognition that the climate is changing and design needs to be a part of the response.

    Something you want to see less of in design? Extravagance for extravagance’s sake

    est living michael kovac portrait

    Michael Kovac

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