Last week, we caught up with Katie Morgenroth, a new client working on a remodel in San Mateo. We were struck by her talent as a designer and the ease at which she was able to communicate ideas with our team, allowing the project to move smoothly and to satisfy everyone’s vision. Katie spoke with us about the intersection of her work as an industrial designer and the collaborative relationship she has developed with our design team.
How did you find Feldman Architecture and what made us the right fit?
We did a fair amount of looking at architects online and through home tours which helped inform the style and feel we wanted to pursue. Dezeen, Wallpaper, Dwell and Pinterest helped us crystallize common themes we liked. Architecture, like product design, is a form of art, with many layers and feelings that merge together. A common pattern in the homes we loved was an airy and effortless aesthetic that blended architecture and nature. Also, for us, sustainability was very important. The fact that FA can design gorgeous, sculptural looking buildings with a sustainable ethos really drew us in. We very much wanted our home to feel in harmony with the land and have a real sense of place. That is one of the things that attracted us to our home when we first bought it – the building itself is unassuming, but is very private and on a property with trees and natural landscaping. We wanted an architect that would accentuate the home’s natural setting. I also gravitated to the tone of voice that the firm used to describe the work – FA seemed approachable even before we met.
Is collaboration important in your career? How has your experience of design in your professional life crossed over to this project?
Collaboration is essential in my career, I have learned, many times over- that we cannot do anything successfully alone. As an Industrial Designer, we need the expertise of engineers, UX designers, project managers (and many more) to make a product magical and achieve the best possible outcome.
At work, the last year has required us to adapt to new ways of collaborating – allowing us to design together, apart. We use shared virtual sketchbooks to pass ideas back and forth and update each other with new information. Matt, Steven, Lindsey and I have borrowed this workflow and it’s been great. We are all able to be very visual and communicate efficiently – we can easily align on what we are hoping to achieve. If I have a circle in my head and they have a square, we can easily share what we are thinking and sync up.
In terms of our work with FA, I’ve really enjoyed walking around the property with Matt and Steven and observing as they flip between creative and technical aspects of design. That is specifically why we wanted to hire an architect like FA, I have a certain aesthetic that I really want to achieve, but without that expert intuition of how things are made, I knew we would never be able to achieve the final outcome we hoped for. Because of my background, I am able to go that layer deeper with Matt and Steven, building off their ideas and at times developing alternate concepts in CAD. It’s been a fun process. Matt and Steven have really encouraged the collaboration and I’ve personally learned so much from their perspectives.
Describe your experience working with Steven and the FA team. What stands out as successful in the process?
One thing we really appreciated was how FA was able to expedite the process by quickly assembling a team to suit the goals and needs of our project. It was clear early on that FA has strong relationships and trust built up across the industry. On our project, we were able to fold in a lighting designer, structural engineer, and landscape architect quickly and have kept the whole thing on track. We are submitting for permit now!
We were really impressed by the google slide presentation you made to introduce the project to our team. You clearly spent many hours thinking about this project before you started to look for an architect. And, we love how you have kept this live document as a way to communicate your feedback to design meetings and discussions. Describe your process when selecting your preferred schemes, finishes, etc.
When we design a product at work, we are always careful about proportions, form, materials – so I am very used to working with different layers. When working on our project, I am very conscious of the materials, light, and views in addition to the flow between spaces – if there are too many rich focal points it’s hard to appreciate anything in isolation. Choosing what to accentuate or tone down in each space has been the most challenging and interesting part of this process.
We like the exposed wood ceilings, lighting details, casework, and views – but we want to be able to see that all in the same frame, and peel back whatever is too extra and doesn’t work. We have been pretty consistent in some areas- finding a quiet material palette for the project, so that when we introduce furniture, flowers, decorations and art into the house, we are bringing in beauty and life as opposed to extra clutter. Sometimes what pulls everything together is the omission of things; simplicity can really bring harmony.
What aspect about your project excites you the most?
Because of how beautiful the property is, we want to focus on bringing the outdoors in without breaking the bank. We have been able to be creative with budget constraints – for instance, we would have loved floor-to-ceiling windows, but we are able to achieve that effect in different ways by looking at the intent and taking a few steps back. As one example, the existing entryway is dark and enclosed, but by pushing the door out a few feet and placing a large window at the end of the hallway, we are able to achieve a similar effect that a floor to ceiling window would have given us.
Working with the FA team, we identified a few choices we really liked – high asymmetric skylights, a bold spine at the center of the building and powerful indoor-outdoor moments. We also have been enjoying exploring casework concepts that give the home a muted, warm, modern feeling. The combination of the geometric elements of the house with a natural palette help accentuate the outdoors and the beautiful oaks on the property. I am also excited to be able to reuse parts of the existing structure, making the project as sustainable as possible.
As the designer of the family, how do you integrate your children and husbands needs and opinions into the design process?
It’s pretty funny – and kind of a joke between my husband and I. We always want to feel like we are collaborating, but it’s also really nice to have clear roles. My husband and I have known each other since we were 18 – he is a financial advisor, and I am a designer. I very much trust him on the money side of things, and he lets me lead design decisions, but if there are aspects of the project he cares about – he will most definitely let me know.
We also love involving our kids in the design process – I want them to be able to be messy and rambunctious, so we have been specifically selecting resilient materials, I don’t want our house to feel too precious. I like to give them tile samples and rough ideas and see how they react – let them really feel materials and interact with the process.
“He is one of the most knowledgeable clients we have ever had” commented Steven Stept, lead architect of Slot House, a sleek modern home perched among the trees of Los Altos Hills. The clients now live there full time with their daughter, soaking up the South Bay heat, and continuing to immerse themselves in the surrounding natural beauty- as well as the burgeoning Los Altos Hills design scene.
The homeowners, now involved in tech and finance worlds, are both long time modern architecture aficionados. Hailing from Minnesota, these home tour and design savants spent weekends in their early twenties attending the Twin Cities Parade of Homes. “It’s such a wonderful event, showcasing projects of every size, as well as price points; it allowed every member of the community to tour their dream home, no matter the price” she commented.
“I would ride my bike down to construction sites near my house, park across the street, eat my lunch, and watch them build a home” he remembers of his childhood, entranced by the process of creating something from a sketch, an idea. Today, the family regularly attends home tours in the area, and has featured their own home in well-attended tours and events.
I was lucky enough to get a personal tour lead by the home owners themselves, and their loving fluff of a dog, Charlie. “The name the architects chose, Slot House, was functional, but we usually refer to our home as ‘Charlie’s Place’, so many factors brought him into consideration.” The home has an abundance of outdoor yard space for the dog to play, forty foot sliding doors that open up onto a view of the surrounding hills, and tile floors to better accommodate slippery paws and claws.
“The most important part of the process, for me, was collaboration,” said the home owners, “Working with the interior designers, the landscape architects, and FA was so easy and successful because of a shared understanding, and an ease in communication and the sharing of ideas. Everyone valued our input, and we were all equals in the process.” This collaborative mindset shines through when experiencing the home, the design is a perfect blend of the homeowners design sensibilities, one favoring modern, white, and restrained palettes, and the other carving out cozy spaces for dark blue furnishings and suede.
The home, at its core, epitomizes the clients’ life dream- to one day have a self-designed house, to open it up to their community- to share and enjoy their love of architecture, and live amongst it every day.
“Don’t do what’s hip. Do what’s you,” advised one of the owners of a recently renovated SoMa loft as he stood in his new kitchen. An executive coach to early age start-ups, he and his wife, an attorney, use the loft as an urban pied-a-terre after downsizing from Silicon Valley, splitting their time between the city and their weekend wine country home.
Their new loft strikes a balance between modern minimalism and the kitsch of the accoutrements they’ve collected over years of travel. It features both the crispness of uninterrupted lines in its casework and the curves of conch shells gifted from relatives, as well as an all-white palette integrated with coins of color. These complimentary design elements are a result of extensive collaboration between the architects and the owners, and prove that strong relationships are the foundation for good design.
At the core of the collaborative design process was Steven Stept, who designed the project with his previous partner Irit Axelrod and saw it through construction at Feldman Architecture.
“Steven and I are a lot alike,” explained the start-ups coach, who situated himself at the heart of the design discussion by managing the project with the help of a superintendent in lieu of hiring a general contractor. “We are focused and unafraid to disagree. I can tell if something is off by an inch from 50 feet away. It comes down to attention to detail, and Steven is absolutely zealous about that.”
Indeed, the project’s success as a coherent whole is built from thoughtful details, from a slight lift in counter height to accommodate the stature of one of the clients, to a discreet corner designed specifically with the needs of the couple’s cat in mind.
“When you’re anticipating a vision,” explained the attorney, “you see the pieces of the design, but you can’t know the usefulness of their whole until you live in it. The design functions exactly as we had intended it.”
When the couple, first encountered the space, they were attracted to its “warehouse vibe,” reminiscent of the 1924 building’s previous stint as a printing business. The loft’s high ceilings and abundance of concrete kept it from being a “cookie-cutter space,” but its maple floor was worn and warped, and a lack of storage would leave personal belongings exposed and the space cluttered with trinkets. With an initial vision centered on simplicity, balance, and symmetry, the couple and their design team set out to bring the space to its full potential.
To do so, Axelrod + Stept Architects crafted a precise plan to integrate the concrete structure into a fluid design, where carefully orchestrated spaces behind a horizontal sliding door would offer privacy for the bedroom, master bath, and laundry. The successful execution of their design incorporated carefully selected products and materials, proving the clients’ and designers’ commitment to design excellence from design vision to reality. The end result was a striking design, based on precision and expertly executed.
The remodel pulled one of the long, narrow apartment’s walls back from its previously angled position, allowing natural light from the space’s largest window to wash down the entire length of the apartment. The new wall is covered in sleek custom casework, whose elongated lines accentuate the loft’s length and flow into the kitchen and whose bright white offers a striking contrast to the dark wood of the loft’s floor.* Across from the casework, horizontal slatted aluminum and glass sliding doors from the Italian designer Adielle hide the master suite and a powder room when closed, creating defined spaces within a coherent whole. When open, the doors allow one space to flow into another, adding a sense of agility to a home characterized by rigid lines. So, too, an Ecro-USA track fixture with LED lights running the length of the corridor, splashing spotlights onto the doors and casework, can be adjusted for both intensity and angle. Throughout the apartment, the design team devoted careful thought to the integration of the space’s interior design and lighting, tapping into the expertise of local lighting designer Tali Ariely.**
With a new laundry and utility room, a guest Murphy bed that recedes into the casework, and extensive storage, the space remains free from clutter, and its sight lines stretch uninterrupted from one end of the apartment to the other.
“The casework is a wonderful looking piece of architecture,” commented one of the clients. “But, more importantly, the space just became more usable.”
Just as the architects brought a design centered on white casework and dark floors and the clients added animation and dimension through souvenirs and select art, the character of the neighborhood had a role in shaping the loft’s design. Just a few blocks from South Park, the loft is immersed in the energy of its growing neighborhood. New office buildings stretch towards the sky, and at street level lines for hole-in-the-wall lunch destinations stretch around the block. The modern aesthetic of the design anticipated the new life the past few years has brought to the neighborhood. Yet, while it reflects the freshness of its environment visually, the loft’s thick envelope keeps the space quiet. And, just as they find the minimalism of the space as calming rather than cool, the clients find a serenity in the apartment that sets it apart from its busy surroundings.
*The corridor casework is a custom linear cabinet by Bartlett Cabinets in Oakland, CA. The kitchen cabinetry comes from Downsview Cabinets.
** The ultimate lighting design warms the modern loft with surface mounted wall washers from Kreon, recessed linear lighting from XAL, bath wall sconces and pendant fixtures from Vibia, and wall uplight sconces from Leucos.
When a venture capital firm approached Feldman Architecture in the hopes of renovating an office space in San Francisco’s Presidio Park, the architects faced a challenge: How could they design offices fit for a firm based in innovation, one that both shapes and reacts to the most striking ideas for the future? How would they create a space where the only constant is the constant advancement of the elusive cutting edge?
On a recent afternoon, the venture capital firm’s Director of Operations walked me through the architect’s solution: a light-filled office whose materials pay tribute to the surrounding Presidio Park, fostering both calm and creativity within. It was clear that, just as the design team had refused to view the space’s pre-existing concrete structural columns as obstacles and had instead embraced them as inspiration for the space’s organization, they had welcomed the challenge of the project as a chance for creativity. “What comes through about the design,” she told me, “was that elements that may have been challenges were viewed as opportunities.”
One of the office’s strengths is a profound connection to the building’s location, where ferns cluster around the trunks of Coast Redwoods and wildflowers abound in the spring and summer. As the firm traded the dark, cramped spaces of their old offices for a space with more natural light, they were determined to create and maintain a strong visual connection with their natural surroundings. In the Presidio VC Offices, visitors are greeted in a high-ceilinged lobby, where sunlight washes in from the surrounding Presidio Park, coating the ivy of the room’s living wall with the sheen of natural light. In each direction, compression corridors branch off from the reception area. Private offices line the hallways, and the large windows on their exterior walls paired with the glass doors on their inner walls allow light to flow into the offices and through them, spilling into the compression corridor at their core. The complimentary textures of wood-paneled walls and ivy in the reception area and the trunk-like columns that progress down the office halls replicate the forest outside and its dappled glades of towering trees. The office fosters a calm productivity, void of the frantic energy that so often settles over industrious offices. “I love watching the look on people’s faces as they walk through the door,” the Director of Operations said. “Our lobby is striking and vastly different from most downtown office spaces.”
While the office’s effects are immediate, she believes it takes familiarity to fully appreciate the more subtle strengths of the design: the way it captures different views from the conference rooms and private offices, or how it frames the fog hovering over and retreating from the Golden Gate Bridge in the kitchen window. Staff members have noticed and embraced the clear visual language of the design, the dark accents repeated throughout the space, and the coherence of its palette. And, slowly, they have added their own subtle embellishments to its warm, clean canvas. A few pieces of art and silly décor elements personalize the space, but largely, the Director of Operations says, they allow the design and architecture to speak for themselves.
She appreciates that the office, created for hard-working, ambitious individuals, is anything but imposing. Its simplicity invites ideas and visitors, alike, and renders the space adaptable. For a past event in the office’s cavernous library, the firm rearranged the modular furniture to accommodate easels and cocktail tables, and, recently, they transformed the space into an intimate setting for a ‘fireside chat’ discussion. It’s an agile space, both adaptable for weekly events and prepared for the possibility of bigger changes down the line, tapping into the timelessness of the trees outside its windows.
– Abigail Bliss
On the eve of the completion of the Lantern House, Feldman Architecture and Northwall Builders welcomed friends and colleagues into the Palo Alto home to celebrate the culmination of their joint efforts. The late-October evening was warm enough for guests to mingle on the patio and stroll out onto the lawn. Inside, they explored the expansive basement quarters and marveled over the master bedroom’s wide windows opening over the backyard. Among the partygoers was the home’s owner, an entrepreneur and graduate of Stanford Business School who lives and works in Southeast Asia. He had flown in for the week to see his nearly-finished home, a trip he had made only sporadically throughout the house’s design and construction.
Indeed, the distance between the client’s home and the Lantern House in Palo Alto had created a new kind of collaborative design process: one mediated by video conference calls and fourteen hours of time difference. At first, these challenges seemed daunting to the Stanford alum, who had always appreciated the proximity to the projects he’d been a part of in the past. “I actually like to crawl on the floor and look at the lines,” he explained. “The inability to do that was very tough.” In order to collaborate on a project without regular visits to the site, he had to “redo his psychological disposition.”
Soon, though, he learned that collaborating remotely still afforded him the ability to engage extensively in the design process. And, he learned to trust his team from afar; “The good thing is that I had absolutely the right team,” he says. His design team was “rockstar,” his architects were “topnotch,” and their ability to work together was their most important attribute. Feldman Architect’s Steven Stept, in particular, he says, possessed the ability to merge multiple teams into one: “Steven thinks two steps ahead. He also thinks like a builder.”
Not only did the client learn that collaborating across a great distance was both possible and rewarding, but he developed new aesthetic preferences, as well. At the start of the design process, the home’s grey color scheme was never at the top of his priorities. Now, he’s copied the Lantern House’s palette of “greys and whites mixed in with a little bit of glass” for his office in Southeast Asia. Similarly, he was unfamiliar with roof gardens before working with Feldman, and is now very much taken with the concept and intent on installing lights in his own. The most impressive feature of the new house, though? The kitchen, says the client. “I come from a place where the kitchen is tucked away and covered. In America, the architecture is built around the kitchen,” he observed, referencing the home’s great room that includes both cooking and living areas and opens onto a covered patio through sliding glass doors. As the largest room in the house that is filled with natural light during the day, it is certainly the hub of the home.
During the process of designing and constructing the Lantern House, the client learned that his work would require him to delay his move back to the Bay Area; he would have to rent the house for 2-3 years before moving in himself. This knowledge – that he was building a house for strangers in addition to himself and that his move to Palo Alto would not come on the heels of the project’s completion –- added a new challenge to the design process. “It’s been difficult to be detached emotionally from the project, knowing it’s going to people who will not love it as much as I would,” he explained. On the evening of the celebration, he was left with mixed feelings – thrilled to see the physical structure built from his ideas, disappointed that, at the end of that October evening, he would leave right alongside the rest of the party’s guests.
– Abigail Bliss
“I’m just going to sit here and enjoy the noises,” reads a quote scrawled in red marker and attributed to the family’s oldest son, one of the many funny phrases salvaged from the three boys’ childhood and preserved on the wall in Fitty Wun’s kitchen as a Christmas present to their mother. All of the quotes are goofy, both nonsensical and honest in the way that only small children can be, but this sentence in particular stands out as appropriate for the space. From the kitchen, I look up into a three-story atrium that stretches from the ground level entry-way, through the home’s open public spaces, to the bedrooms and quiet office above. Ringed with a steel staircase, this cavernous vertical space is often full of the clamor of boys bouncing off the walls, running their house through cycles of chaos and control, with their mother, Nicole, presiding over the activity from its central hub in the kitchen. “The house completely deconstructs when everyone is in it, but this is a house that my kids can’t break. We built this house to use it,” she says.
And use it, they do. On weekday nights, the family’s oldest son camps out at the corner of the table in the dining room at the front of the house, a pile of homework in front of him; his younger brother spreads his toys across the floor of the family room; and the third perches on one of the red stools at the kitchen island, close to his mother. “This is where the school bus drops off. This is my corner of the world,” Nicole says of the kitchen, where she often finds herself “flitting around, cooking, and checking on homework.” From it, she can see through the dining room out on to the quiet Cole Valley street in one direction and into the family room at the home’s rear façade in the other. She can call up through the atrium to any room in the house or downstairs to the family den, where cartoons of baseball parks across the country line the wall. From her “command station” in the kitchen, she is constantly visually and audibly connected to her family; Fitty Wun is first and foremost a family house.
The family first purchased the house in 2006, drawn to it not for the structure itself, but for the garden space behind it. At that point in time, the house was just one floor, and all three boys shared a single room. There was no way the structure could accommodate the family’s three boys, two cats, one dog, and active lifestyle; they began to develop concepts for the home’s renovation. Among them were three ‘must-haves’ that remained intact throughout the entirety of the design process, and Nicole enjoyed watching her family’s visions turn into their quotidian spaces: “The process was really fun. There was a lot of laughing. I miss that process – the word collaborative was exactly what it was.”
While the family knew that space in the city was a luxury, their first ‘must-have’ was an open, communal living area, which they preferred to packing in extra bedrooms or bathrooms. Today, the kids only sleep in their bedrooms; the family prefers to live together, in shared spaces, at the center of their home. In addition to being set on an open central space, the family was intent on putting the outdoor spaces of their home to good use. Nicole’s favorite spot in the house is its crowning green roof, and the sliding glass doors between the living room and the backyard where the boys and their friends congregate to play basketball and run barefoot are almost always open. “That whole concept of living indoors and outdoors?” she says, “We actually do it.” The third and final ‘must-have’ was a quiet office that would function as a pocket of calm in an active household. The architects responded with a floating pod that hangs above the atrium and its echoes bouncing off the walls, presiding over the activity from a quiet, removed perch. It’s where the oldest son and his father retreat to watch The Walking Dead every week; the pod has become the residence’s “man cave” as the boys grow older. Still, their mother insists that no one in the family ever does more than “pretend to be a grownup,” and if the house has weathered well under the weight of growing boys’ feet, the family’s sense of playfulness has remained equally intact. “Our idea of art is superheroes and Legos,” Nicole confides.
I visited the home on a recent Wednesday morning, when a rare sense of calm had settled over Fitty Wun. The family dog napped in the sunshine, the plastic figurines that usually lie strewn across the living room rug had been tucked away, and the home’s Hallmark swing hung still and empty. The sunlight streamed in through one side of the atrium as we climbed the stairs towards the green roof, and by the time we descended back down towards the entryway, having explored the loft spanning the boys’ bedrooms and looked out through the master bedroom’s full height windows onto the green backyard, it filtered in through a second side, bound to peek its way through each edge of the atrium’s rim before setting. No matter how many times the sun circles and sets, though, the home doesn’t lose its everyday, Lego-laden charm, says Nicole: “We love this house every single day.”
– Abigail Bliss