Interview with the Directors of Edmonds + Lee

We learn the San Francisco way with architects Directors Robert Edmonds and Vivian Lee of Edmonds + Lee, who share their design insight, experience and how they’re designing for the future.

Edmonds + Lee are the architects you want to know in San Francisco. They’re as knowledgeable and dedicated to their craft as they are engaging, offering insight into how their architectural practice ticks and the fundamental principles of their work.

The notable duo create architecture that is “precise but also liveable”;  so it was inevitable Edmonds + Lee found a place on est. Making an initial impression with their Remember House by exploring the role of architecture in our memories, they went on to show us their Gable House extension inside est magazine.

We jumped at the opportunity to chat with Robert and Vivian about how they’ve transformed the design landscape in San Francisco, after a move from New York City. They also shared their favourite local design spots and told us what it was like to design their own home.

Robert Edmonds and Vivian Lee

Tell us about your path into design and how you eventually came to open a studio together.

Robert Edmonds: We met somewhat traditionally, in graduate school at Columbia’s GSAPP, and came to find we had similar sensibilities and values. I’m reminded of something I read from Thom Mayne: that starting his own office was the only possible option for him. While we did work at other firms early in our careers, I feel we’ve shared this sentiment— even with all the risks that go along with running your own office, and especially with the rewards.

Vivian Lee: We actually started our office in New York, but we saw how the tech industry was changing the world and also changing the Bay Area— and alongside that, there was this need that hadn’t been filled by the architecture. The city has always had its deep tradition of very contextual and inward-looking work, but tech opened up that view and brought in a more international demographic. We saw a niche where we could do the work we wanted to do.

What has been your biggest learning since?

Vivian Lee: We learn something new with every project. With the custom homes for families, the lessons are more client-driven, and with the multi-family projects they might be more market-driven. But there’s an overlap between those two lessons— the ultimate goal is always to create architecture that is precise but also liveable, while being smart about the budget.

Robert Edmonds: Those lessons all came to the forefront with Switchback— it’s our own home, and so we were both designer and client. So we got to see the process through those two lenses, and also through the eyes of our two young boys. They were able to be a part of the entire process, from early design renderings to on-site construction visits. They know they live in a very different kind of house than their friends, and I think they appreciate that; they often tell us how much they love the house.

How is your office structured?

Vivian Lee: Our office is structured horizontally, and we like to think of our staff as collaborators. We don’t discriminate between large project staff or small project staff; everybody is expected to be able to jump back and forth between scales, as needed. This can feel kind of schizophrenic sometimes, but it’s important because it reminds us all to consider the architecture holistically.

Robert Edmonds: Ultimately, our hope is that everyone that works for us feels a sense of ownership in the projects they work on. Vivian and I always have the final word on design related issues, but we also want the best ideas to win. Ironically, I’m actually happiest when I have a more hands-off role in designing a project, because it means our staff is fully embracing the design challenge and testing their ideas.

What is the most significant piece of advice you’ve been given in your career?

Robert Edmonds: I feel fortunate to have had the opportunity to work at some truly great offices where I’ve learned from every one of the people I’ve worked with. I couldn’t put my finger on just one piece of advice. But if I could go back and give my 25-year-old self some direction, it would be to look beyond architecture. Because architecture doesn’t exist in a vacuum; you have to connect buildings with the cultural landscape they inhabit, and with the people who will inhabit the buildings.

Vivian Lee: I agree with Robert also, that can start when you’re in school. I think architectural education needs to be more well-rounded, allowing students to take advantage of the university atmosphere as a whole. So the advice would be: if you’re a student now, look beyond your department instead of always being in studio. And if you’re not a student, we should be reshaping the educational system to allow for that. Because that context ultimately makes better architects.

What is a defining aspect of your work?

Robert Edmonds: We are constantly striving to make the work look effortless and refined. This is an impossible war to win, but we still find ourselves fighting the battles. I’ll often say to our staff in a pinup that we don’t want to be too busy or fussy. We avoid things that are “TTH” (Trying Too Hard). If we see a design move in that direction, we’ll reject the idea and start over.

Vivian Lee: Yes, and when you’re looking to reduce a design down to its essence, it has to be specific to each project, and you have to make sure you’re looking at the individual project with clear eyes. We also apply that mentality to every scale of project, and from the design as a whole down to each piece of furniture.

When you enter a space, what do you notice first and why?

Robert Edmonds: We pay attention to the details first. I used to work for Steven Holl; he’d always say if you see a nice handrail detail, you know that an architect has been there. Somewhat embarrassingly, we are always checking out bathrooms in restaurants and hotels.

Vivian Lee: I look for more of a feeling – a sense of joy and discovery. A well-designed space should be uplifting and thought-provoking. It’s a conversation, in a way, when you walk into a building. I often imagine myself as the designer of a space and I ask if I have done the best possible, given the reality of the various constraints.

What is it like working on residential projects in San Francisco?

Robert Edmonds: When we first moved our practice to San Francisco, there was this optimism that permeated the city and drew us toward it, and it’s that optimism that keeps things exciting over a decade later. That same sense of growth draws so many people to the city, so we try to design for a population that is constantly in flux. Right now, that means designing homes that work as people grow their families, so a big focus is on materials that are as beautiful as they are durable.

Vivian Lee: There’s also a lot of movement as people are currently moving here, moving away, moving between neighbourhoods; creating community within that is important to us. In our larger-scale projects, we try to bring in a sense of intimacy. We design the common spaces to feel almost like a series of living rooms so people can gather within the larger community.

How are you designing homes equipped for the future?

Robert Edmonds: At this particular moment in time, it seems like San Francisco is undergoing tectonic shifts in demographics and culture. Those shifts are bringing with them architectural challenges, such as balancing the need to create more housing while trying to maintain a certain sense of scale within an existing neighbourhood. What excites us is being able to contribute to that dialogue with the buildings we are creating— one of the things we did in Switchback, for example, was to incorporate multiple units in the same lot, to celebrate the density of the city and allow for the city’s flux to exist alongside the people who have established themselves here.

Vivian Lee: Because the area’s changing so rapidly, you get the sense that in San Francisco you’re witnessing the future unfolding in real time. You’re very aware of it. Especially with these large-scale developments in the city centre, homes are shrinking but you get so much in return for the loss in square footage. There’s a new paradigm for living in San Francisco now that brings it closer to cities in the rest of the world— cohabitation is more prevalent, and the street and night life is becoming more vibrant. When we first moved here, the streets would be empty by 8pm because everyone would just go home. That’s not the case anymore, and more and more the city is starting to remind us of New York.

Design Insider’s Guide:

Favourite local designers or studios?

MAK Studio is run by a good friend of ours and has been quietly changing the residential landscape in the Bay Area. Their homes are beautifully crafted and always inspire us. Looking outside of architecture, Munden Fry Landscape Associates does beautiful and sensitive work, and we’ve been lucky to collaborate with them on projects in the past.

Favorite design stores?

We often look to Heath Ceramics, DZINE, and Arkitektura to finish out our projects. DZINE and Arkitektura we head to for furnishings that are curated with a refined lens, and Heath Ceramics for thoughtfully crafted dinnerware steeped in the Bay Area’s craft tradition. William Stout Architectural Books is another local gem for continuous inspiration.

Favourite galleries and spaces?

San Francisco’s gallery landscape really highlights the city’s exciting balance between the uniquely local and internationally relevant; for example, the Minnesota Street Project hosts studios for local artists and also showcases larger exhibitions— right now, there’s a beautiful showcase on DeShawn Dumas’ Ballistic Testimonies.

Where do you go to look at great design?

There’s so much in the Bay Area— both because of the local/ international mix we’ve talked about, and also because the “Bay Area” is so big and comprises of so many cities. We often drive down for the Monterey Design Conference, and also look forward to San Francisco’s Home Tours and the Architecture in the City Festival. And we always look forward to Fog Art, which brings galleries from all around the world to the Bay.

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