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Interview with Willis Pember Architects

Home > Designer Interviews > Willis Pember Architects

Editor Frank Scott (FS) from DesignPRWire has interviewed designer Willis Pember Architects (WPA) for A’ Design Award and Competition. You can access the full profile of Willis Pember Architects by clicking here.

Interview with Willis Pember Architects at Wednesday 16th of May 2018
Willis Pember Architects
FS: Could you please tell us more about your art and design background? What made you become an artist/designer? Have you always wanted to be a designer?
WPA: I was completing a Master of Fine Arts program in color theory and came across a book by Robert Venturi called 'Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture'. It changed my life and I decided to attend graduate school in Architecture. I later starting working in the Venturi firm during graduate school and after graduation. He was my mentor.

FS: What is "design" for you?
WPA: I will answer this with another question - 'what is not design'?

FS: What kinds of works do you like designing most?
WPA: We like them all and have an intentionally diverse practice. Our region is rather small and one cannot really specialize in anything except residential design. We have worked for governmental agencies, library districts and non-profits.

FS: What is your most favorite design, could you please tell more about it?
WPA: They are all my favorites, as all of one's own children should be loved equally.

FS: What was the first thing you designed for a company?
WPA: An admission desk for the Philadephia Museum of Art while working for Robert Venturi. It is an enormous museum and this large elliptical desk took three years of design and fabrication. Nearly 30 years later this piece is still in use.

FS: What kind of emotions do you feel when you design?
WPA: It is a kind of meditative experience where nothing else matters and feelings are free to come and go as they will. It is best to allow this work to take place with as few distractions as possible and be fully present. It is not something for weekends or after hours or can be rushed. Prioritizing conceptual goals is an important first step and can be drawn out in concert with making.

FS: What kind of emotions do you feel when your designs are realized?
WPA: Nothing prepares you for the experience - it is exhilarating and is measured against all the preparation and study that has gone before. At some point during the construction the embodied presence of the work emerges and replaces all previous representations. It is a learning moment as well.

FS: What makes a design successful?
WPA: Is it beautiful? Is it functional? Does it ask more questions? What ideas does it take on? There must be something ineffable occurring beyond the written word or a simple photograph. Built architecture must be experienced. It is experiential.

FS: When judging a design as good or bad, which aspects do you consider first?
WPA: First of all Architecture is too often judged by photographs and not in the lived experience of being there. I've found some projects, which look promising as photos, to be a weak as places, while others, which photograph modestly, are real powerhouses. One needs to be discerning.

FS: From your point of view, what are the responsibilities of a designer for society and environment?
WPA: We are in a global environmental crisis. One of our core beliefs is that architectural expression derive from sound construction, sustainable environmental ethics and agreement with natural processes over time. The metrics for establishing how green is green are not always required in each and every project. We insist, as stewards of our environment, in looking through the lens of many of the programs available to the profession and have done so even before they existed, e.g. LEED, USGBC etc.

FS: How do you think the "design field" is evolving? What is the future of design?
WPA: The Architecture field is becoming more specialized. It is important for a single entity, usually the architect, to maintain a consistent and strong vision over the course of the project's development and construction. Collaboration with exceptional consultants is key.

FS: When was your last exhibition and where was it? And when do you want to hold your next exhibition?
WPA: We routinely participate in the annual AIA awards programs and as a result of winning these types of awards, our work is exhibited during the gala, and throughout the course of the year in various publications. I'm looking forward to the A'design exhibitions frankly.

FS: Where does the design inspiration for your works come from? How do you feed your creativity? What are your sources of inspirations?
WPA: Inspiration comes from a variety of sources and directions. I feed my passion for design through professional journals, travel, sketching, publishing, reading and teaching.

FS: How would you describe your design style? What made you explore more this style and what are the main characteristics of your style? What's your approach to design?
WPA: We do not have a style based design practice. We work in a contemporary language that is multivariable and able to communicate in a variety of ways.

FS: Where do you live? Do you feel the cultural heritage of your country affects your designs? What are the pros and cons during designing as a result of living in your country?
WPA: I live in Aspen, Colorado USA. It is at 8,000 Ft or 2,430 M above sea level and is surrounded everywhere by alpine beauty. The town was re-invented in the 1940's and is home to some of the finest examples of Bauhaus architecture in the US. How European modernism came to the US interested me greatly and the story of the Bauhaus masters that left Europe and emigrated to the US is fascinating. Herbert Bayer, whose was so multi-talented inspired me to want to be here.

FS: How do you work with companies?
WPA: Working with companies requires enhanced communication skills. Being aware of everyone's time is important as well and forces establishing clear work flows early on. A clear decision making structure is key to keeping the process moving forward. At the end of the day you are working with a group of individuals who are all unique, have different agendas and want to participate. It is challenging but extremely rewarding.

FS: What are your suggestions to companies for working with a designer? How can companies select a good designer?
WPA: Companies often hire based on personality and not on quality of work or professionalism. I would encourage a limited ideas competition to organizations anticipating hiring an architect. It is in their interest to leverage a small investment to better understand who they might like to work. It is a more substantive process.

FS: Can you talk a little about your design process?
WPA: Nothing exists in isolation and architects rarely, if ever are confronted with a blank page. Our architectural design process involves a close reading of the landscape and an understanding of the desires of the client. Between these important conditions, opportunities are found.

FS: What are 5 of your favorite design items at home?
WPA: 1. Swiss paring knife 2. stainless steel kitchen countertops 3. Soap dish 4. new fiberglass decking material I'm experimenting with 5. Wall mounted Artemide Tolomeo reading lamps in the master bedroom.

FS: Can you describe a day in your life?
WPA: Without getting too detailed, I generally start with a good breakfast followed by yoga. I arrive at the office between 8:00-9:00am. I lunch probably twice a week outside the office with friends or clients. I leave the office about 6:30 for a trip to the market then off to the gym for about 30 minutes of spinning. I'm home around 8:00 ready to start dinner. Throughout the week I will also schedule at least two tennis matches.

FS: Could you please share some pearls of wisdom for young designers? What are your suggestions to young, up and coming designers?
WPA: Start by working with the best people in the industry you can. Find a mentor. Learn about their work. Always keep an open mind. Pursue your dreams and things will happen.

FS: From your perspective, what would you say are some positives and negatives of being a designer?
WPA: The amount of time one spends with Architecture is not congruent with the amount of compensation, however the creative satisfaction is enormous. Many architects do not see themselves as ever retiring. Or as a colleague so aptly stated - 'you don't choose architecture, architecture chooses you'

FS: What is your "golden rule" in design?
WPA: I would never suggest that a single rule would always apply and in fact suggest that rules may have more meaning to the extent they are broken. We do ascribe to three core principles. Generally speaking the first is that the client's intentions can be satisfied. Not a big idea, but an essential one. The second is that the notion of landscape or topography has immeasurable capacity to be generative in solving design problems. And thirdly, agreement with natural processes and building sustainably also have capacity to be generative in creating exciting, ethically responsible solutions.

FS: Designing can sometimes be a really time consuming task, how do you manage your time?
WPA: My personal secret to managing time is based on the ability to rigorously schedule recharging time, or not doing design. This includes daily yoga, exercise and eating well. Without this structure all the time in the world is wasted if you don't feel mentally and physically prepared.

FS: How long does it take to design an object from beginning to end?
WPA: If we are discussing architecture, the more complex and larger the project, the more time there is involved. Generally speaking, designing and building anything takes longer than one expects.

FS: What is the most frequently asked question to you, as a designer?
WPA: What will this cost?

FS: What was your most important job experience?
WPA: The most important job experience I've had was with my mentor Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown. The value was not only in working with someone I deeply respected at that time, but also in the friendships made with other inspired young architects. It was very stimulating and much like a post graduate education.

FS: Who are some of your clients?
WPA: Private owners, developers, institutional, non-profit and governmental entities.

FS: What type of design work do you enjoy the most and why?
WPA: It's all enjoyable. perhaps I should be more discerning!

FS: Do you work as a team, or do you develop your designs yourself?
WPA: We generally work as a team, with me driving the design component of the project. With greater specialization within the field, it's important for the architect to have a clear vision that informs all the other disciplines. Having said this I enjoy immensely the collaborative process with the necessary consultants.

FS: Do you have any works-in-progress being designed that you would like to talk about?
WPA: We are working on our first ever memorial. It is taking the form of a tennis pavilion in my hometown. It has a lot of unique qualities and challenges relating to capturing the essence of a person I knew well and loved dearly.

FS: How can people contact you?
WPA: email: willispa@comcast.net phone: 001 970 920 1727


FS: Thank you for providing us with this opportunity to interview you.

A’ Design Award and Competitions grants rights to press members and bloggers to use parts of this interview. This interview is provided as it is; DesignPRWire and A' Design Award and Competitions cannot be held responsible for the answers given by participating designers.


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