Telling Stories

Wherever it crops up, cross-disciplinary design caters to a creative class of people from artists to entrepreneurs. “I think we attract certain residential clients because they see we have a broader range of ability to solve problems,” says Christopher Carr, a partner at Wiehle Carr, a 15-year-old Los Angeles firm that does architecture, graphics, interiors, and identity design. When the six-member team is designing a house, for example, the graphic designer might create the house numbers, help select the finishes, or suggest that a piece of art be formed right into the concrete. “All of a sudden, because you have the ability in-house, you use it,” says Carr, an environmental designer.

For startup business ventures, in particular, the physical building is only part of the solution. Wiehle Carr, whose work also includes historic restoration, retail, and health-care facilities, is currently helping to invent an identity for the 6-month-old MommyZone, a new concept that combines shopping and health care. It's a place where pregnant women and new moms can set up appointments with baby-care consultants, or come with friends to buy everything from clothing and baby gifts to breast pumps. Wiehle Carr designed the storefront, signage, interior, logo, and furniture, and will create packaging for the products MommyZone plans to develop.

Architects are there when business owners are changing their image, so they're in a perfect position to extend the story line. “Long ago, when we were doing exhibition work for museums and before all the branding buzzwords appeared, it became apparent that retail is about storytelling,” Carr says. “You're telling a story and sharing information. If how you're selling product can relate to the architecture in a sophisticated way, people coming in will appreciate that.”

Those stories can be rooted in all sorts of offbeat references. As Daniel Pink writes in A Whole New Mind, “It's no longer sufficient to create a product, a service, an experience, or a lifestyle that's merely functional. Today it's economically crucial and personally rewarding to create something that is also beautiful, whimsical, and emotionally engaging.” Phillip Otto, the founder of Otto Design Group and a professor of architectural practice at the University of the Arts, Philadelphia, would agree. In fact, it's a concept his clients have long understood. “When we started to get commercial and residential commissions in San Francisco in the late 1980s, people would say, ‘I hate architecture,'” he says. “Our premise was not anti-architecture at all, but we realized we were inventing something different in our approach to buildings, using art-world references and asking cultural questions about the client and the building.”

Otto majored in fine arts and cultural anthropology at Stanford University and then attended the San Francisco Art Institute, studies that prepared him for his roster of arty, subculture retail clients such as Urban Outfitters, Free People, Betsey Johnson, and Utrecht. The firm keeps a stable of about a dozen tenured people in the Philadelphia office and six in Los Angeles—architects, fine artists, and graphic designers—and uses free-lancers when there's an influx of work.

Otto says his residential clients don't care about professional design categories. “It's in the residential area in particular that the blurring of boundaries happens,” he says. “Residential clients like our company culture because there's a common thread that's evident in everything we do. It might be the extreme way in which we reflect our clients, and the end result is broader than it might be with an architectural rock-star approach.”

The firm often consults on artwork and inserts graphics components into homes it designs. A recent commission featured a giant wave-like gesture that led people from the front door into the living space. Retail spaces for the entrepreneur who started Urban Outfitters and Anthropologie led to the design of his private residence, which incorporates artifacts from all over the world. Otto Design Group is currently working on a house in L.A.'s Laurel Canyon for Joe Hahn, founder of the Grammy-Award–winning alternative music group Linkin Park. “Musically, they're in a similar place to where we are architecturally,” Otto says. “Joe didn't worry about what category his music fit into, and we don't worry about our categories.” If anything, Otto characterizes some of his work, particularly for Urban Outfitters, as a modernist handling of rustic materials. “We have an ongoing relationship with architect Dion Neutra, Richard Neutra's son,” he adds. “It made me realize we're probably not modernist—there's a purism to it that I love, but it's not us. We'd be postmodernist—willing to use anything and not in tune with any theoretical premise.”

flex mode

Architects with renaissance practices say it's not the easiest way to run a business, because the range of projects is so broad. Staff people have to stretch to solve problems that don't fall into their skill sets. On the other hand, Christopher Carr says that small firms like his have the luxury of spending less time managing departments and more time designing projects, and the team moves them through together. “I think what's so exciting is that people are broadening their skill base at every moment,” he says.

At the helm of a larger firm, Otto says that although he's become the lead salesman and bill collector, he views hiring as a huge creative act. “We work hard to have hybrid overlaps, people who are sensitive to the multidisciplinary approach,” he says. His youth-culture clients help him attract graduates from SCI-Arc, the Rhode Island School of Design, and the University of Pennsylvania, as well as people from such far-flung places as Australia and Japan.

In practice today, interdisciplinary design is an old idea with a decidedly 21st-century interpretation. Carr points out that his business partner, architect Louis Wiehle, studied with Frank Lloyd Wright for 15 years. In addition to designing buildings, the office was publishing a newsletter, making furniture, listening to music, and honing its appreciation for art and culture. The architects crossed boundaries, connecting dots that would help them solve design problems on many levels.

Cheryl Weber is a contributing writer in Severna Park, Md.