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Home & Design This architecture firm is determined to make its art accessible

Over the past nine years and under the cheeky moniker Design, Bitches, Catherine Johnson and Rebecca Rudolph have grown their portfolio from small art objects to exuberant stores and restaurants.

ALEXIS EKE/The Globe and Mail

Los Angeles-based architects Catherine Johnson and Rebecca Rudolph, speakers at this September’s IDS Vancouver, have a feeling that more people would care about architecture if it was less stuffy (cold, modern spaces presented by men in black turtlenecks), and more friendly, meaning quirky, playful structures that don’t require a design degree to “get.” Their approach seems to be working. Over the past nine years and under the cheeky moniker Design, Bitches, they have grown their portfolio from small art objects, such as a laser-cut cootie catcher and a two-hooded hoodie, to exuberant stores and restaurants, including a retail location for beauty brand Shop Good that’s a riot of pink and orange. They are now taking on their largest commissions yet, including the pedestrianizing of the Playa Vista’s Runway shopping district in Los Angeles. Here, they talk about the importance of irreverence, being inspired by car washes and how their carefree approach traces its roots to a philosophy thesis on the design of prisons.

You two started your firm in 2010 after winning an honourable mention in a competition that asked you to submit a design portfolio and to fill in the blank in the sentence “Architecture is …" You answered very irreverently with: “Design, bitches.” Tell me about that.

RR: We put together that competition entry purely as a way to explore what we thought could be light-hearted about architecture, a notoriously self-serious profession. We didn’t think we had any chance of winning and we didn’t really have the intention of starting a firm from it. We were both working elsewhere at the time.

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CJ: But the reaction that we got was so powerful that we realized we had an audience for what we were saying and it gave us a platform to establish our point of view. If we had started out with the specific intention of forming an architecture firm, I don’t know that we would have necessarily had the courage to invent ourselves in exactly the same way.

And you’ve kept that sense of irreverence. Why is that important to you?

RR: We really want to make architecture accessible to a broader swath of the humans on the planet – people who are intimidated by things that are too serious and formal and who are looking for something more approachable. Many people want to feel relaxed and comfortable. We try to make that happen in our spaces.

CJ: We’ve also learned that our irreverence attracts like-minded clients. We like working with creative, entrepreneurial people who might be looking to do something different or who themselves have a way of approaching things that’s outside of the norm. By exposing our true selves and our ideas, we have been able to find the kind of people we want to work with.

Your approach sounds like a tricky balance. Building a building is time consuming, expensive and filled with unknowns. How do you maintain the humour in such a stressful job?

RR: From the start of our studio, we had this idea to take what we are doing quite seriously but maybe not taking ourselves that seriously.

CJ: It comes down to our way of working. Especially when something is particularly long and complicated, we work extra hard to find opportunities for those unexpected, exciting materials or details that just bring a burst of joy back into the project.

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Is that why you look for ideas in unexpected places? I’ve read that you’re inspired by the nitty-gritty of Los Angeles life, everything from Vans sneakers to old car washes?

CJ: Life in L.A. is fabulous, but it’s notoriously not a beautiful city. There’s a lot of ugliness around. But then sometimes, even when something is pretty ordinary, like a car wash or a car or a sneaker, people here have customized it in an interesting way – adding a bright splash of colour or an unusual material that you catch out of the corner of your eye. And we’re always interested in how to make something standard feel special, to adapt something basic to make it feel more effectual.

You mentioned earlier how serious architects can be. Have you had any pushback because of the name of the studio?

RR: Directly to us, the reaction has been overwhelmingly positive.

CJ: However, we don’t know what people aren’t saying to us.

RR: We have no regrets about it, though. The moments that I love are when I’m depositing cheques at the bank and the teller asks about the name. Because then we can have conversations about architecture in random places. It’s been a great way to start a conversation about what architects do.

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Rebecca, I understand that before you went into architecture school you did a master's degree in philosophy, where you studied the architecture of prisons. Does any of that still stick with you today?

RR: My philosophy thesis had to do with how architecture can be used to set up a hierarchy and set groups against one another. Our studio tries to make spaces that allow for spontaneity and equity and a more level playing field. So there isn’t a direct connection, but maybe I ended up in architecture school because I was interested in doing the opposite of prisons.

This isn’t so much a question as a comment, but I love your proposal for the P.O.D. Systems Park, which has a half-pipe, pool, amphitheatre and rock climbing wall all next to one another.

CJ: That was a fun one. I love the idea of skateboarding while listening to the Philharmonic then maybe going swimming or climbing over those rocks. We like to put uncommon things together to mix them up. I mean, what would a park be like if you could make what’s considered high culture more accessible by experiencing it from a skateboard?

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