In 1996, Joshua Aidlin inherited a set of woodworking tools and machinery from his father, sculptor Jerome Aidlin. As a young San Francisco–based architect, Joshua would spend his evenings and weekends using the tools to craft furniture, often accompanied by his friend and fellow architect David Darling. “We’d make furniture in the shop and really get our hands dirty,” recalls Darling, AIA. In the process, they learned to think about design as a sensory art, one in which the way something feels, smells, and sounds means just as much as its visual impact.

At the time the two architects, who were born six days apart and met at the University of Cincinnati, both held day jobs at local firms. When they decided to start Aidlin Darling Design in San Francisco at the tender age of 32, their furniture pieces helped them win architectural commissions, as well as at least one employee. “One of the things that drew me here initially was that those early pieces showed the craft of making, and an exquisite materiality and attention to detail,” says Peter Larsen, now a principal at the firm. “It showed a level of design rigor that was really valuable.”

Aidlin, AIA, and Darling don’t typically fabricate furniture or details themselves anymore; instead, they devote their time to designing. Their 16-person office does have a wood shop, mostly for models and mock-ups. “We have great relationships with fabricators who can make things faster and better than we could,” Aidlin says. “There’s a happy creative divide between maker and designer. Everyone’s pushing each other, and it ends up being really exciting.”

practical poetry

Houses have long made up the backbone of Aidlin Darling’s portfolio, and over the past few years the firm also has designed award-winning restaurants and other public projects. It’s currently working on two wineries, a bookstore, an adaptive reuse arts center, and a Stanford University chapel and meditation space centered on the work of the late painter Nathan Oliveira—along with a handful of custom homes.

No matter what the project type, involving the contractor, subs, and fabricators in the design process is a crucial Aidlin Darling maneuver. Dan Pelsinger of Matarozzi Pelsinger Builders, a frequent collaborator, remembers being surprised by the firm’s willingness to solicit feedback from him the first time they worked together on a house. “They asked us what we thought of the details,” he remembers. He pointed out some unnecessary flashing, and it was removed from the plans. “I didn’t think guys who were so design-oriented would welcome that kind of input from a builder.”

Certainly Aidlin, Darling, Larsen, and their staff are obsessed with design. But they’ve also got a practical streak that keeps them grounded. They’re constantly searching for solutions that serve multiple purposes. For example, take the perforated zinc façade of 355 11th Street, a LEED-Gold remodel containing Matarozzi Pelsinger’s office, another architect’s studio, and the restaurant Bar Agricole. “It’s not just whimsical,” Aidlin says, and he’s right: the façade serves as a conductor of light and fresh air, a shading and passive cooling device, a reference to the original metal cladding, and a stylish cover for inexpensive aluminum windows.

site reading

Along with engaging outside collaborators in the design process, Aidlin and Darling have made it a point to reach out within the firm and give their staff members significant amounts of responsibility. “I was blessed with great mentorship at the firms I worked for,” says Darling, citing Richard Brayton, FAIA, and Stanley Saitowitz. “It made me want to pass that on.” Project architects at Aidlin Darling are intimately involved in both the creative and technical sides of a job. “Working there was a pretty tremendous experience,” says Michael Hennessey, AIA, LEED AP, a former employee who now has his own firm. “They’re just all-around really good architects, and they instill that culture in their office.”

Aidlin Darling’s culture also entails a rigorous effort to understand the site and the client, which typically translates into a sustainable approach. “We put a high value on site specificity, and sustainability is almost a natural outcome of that,” Larsen says. On its more bucolic sites a project team will even camp out overnight, to gain a feeling for the property’s levels of natural light, its temperature changes, and the sound of the wind or ocean at different times of day.

The firm always returns to the idea of generating a holistic sensory experience, in which aural, olfactory, tactile, and visual effects play equally important roles. “It’s not an additive process, but an extractive one,” Aidlin explains. “You’re extracting the solution that’s always been there.”

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