Brian Johnsen and Sebastian Schmaling would have been great candidates for a residential architect Rising Star award, but the trajectory of their rise was so steep that they simply got ahead of us. Founded in 2003, Johnsen Schmaling Architects (JSA) first came to our attention less than three years later, when its Parts House Pavilion, an ingeniously economical rooftop dining space, won a residential architect Design Award. In 2007, the Milwaukee-based firm’s second design awards entry, Camouflage House, walked off with Project of the Year honors from our jury. In both cases, we were struck by the assuredness of the work—which is both rigorously modern and subtly, inventively contextual—and by its narrative clarity. The projects not only showed how they were made, but also told the story of their design. Subsequent JSA projects have followed a similar path. Varied in setting, program, and response, they assemble simple forms with a reductive logic whose outcomes seem—like the best poetry—both novel and inevitable.

“Our goal throughout is to distill the design to its very essence,” says Schmaling, AIA, LEED AP. “Not as an aesthetic dogma,” he adds, but, rather, to fully resolve the matter at hand. The partners began developing their approach to practice in the mid-1990s, when they met as graduate students at the University of Wisconsin School of Architecture and Urban Planning. Johnsen, AIA, is a native of Chicago, while Schmaling grew up in Berlin, but each recognized in the other a natural ally. “We have a sort of blind trust in each other’s capabilities,” says Schmaling, who describes their collaborative method as “two ideas collide and you see what happens.”

“You have this constant critique to question all of your assumptions,” Schmaling says, “to ask, ‘Do we really need this?’ That dialogue is healthy. It’s easy to agree with yourself.” In its intellectually driven approach, the four-person firm is “almost an extension of the studio we were in 15 years ago as students,” with the partners tackling each project much as they would an academic assignment. “We are building a lot of models, we are diagramming a lot, we are analyzing site and context … for us, it’s the only way to make sense out of what we’re doing.” More than simply an instrument of design and presentation, he adds, “every one of our models is a beautiful little artifact, part of the building.”

In 2003, Milwaukee was not exactly overrun with this breed of architecture, and that presented an opportunity. “It was very fortuitous for us,” Johnsen says. “No one was doing what we had to offer: highly detailed, very clean, modern architecture.” The city was experiencing something of a post-industrial renaissance, and the firm’s intellectual approach appealed to educated urbanites. “It showed the process and the story line of how we come up with our ideas,” Johnsen says. All of those models, exploded axonometric drawings, and written rationales gave clients “a much deeper idea of where the architecture comes from.” As a result, “the fact that it looked so different wasn’t as frightening.”

Architectural League of New York program director Anne Rieselbach wasn’t frightened when she first encountered JSA’s work, but she may have been a bit shocked. “I’m also from Milwaukee,” Rieselbach says. “Seeing the work and knowing where it was built … it would still stand out in L.A., but it way stands out in Milwaukee.” The league awarded Johnsen and Schmaling a spot in its Emerging Voices lecture series in 2008, and Rieselbach plans to include their address in a 30-year anthology of the program. “There’s a kind of joy in their architecture and the way they talk about their practice,” she says, “a willingness to break the rules, not in a transgressive way, but in a way that really amplifies the work. They have a distinctive body of work, and they’re clearly developing it. In each project, there’s the intensification of an idea.”

“There’s always a set of issues that we’re interested in at the time, in materials or technology,” Schmaling explains, and each project presents the opportunity to explore one or two themes that have drawn the partners’ focus. The strength of the work lies in reducing each design problem to its simplest terms and solving it in the most direct and economical way possible. JSA’s success in doing so increasingly has drawn clients from beyond its heartland base. “We’re working for a couple from New York on a house in Montana,” Schmaling notes, and they’re also acting as the design firm on a music school in Bahrain. But JSA’s method remains as it always has been. “When we went into practice,” Schmaling says, “we kind of naively said that whatever comes to our door, that’s what will sustain us. That’s served us very well.”