Bradley Lincoln -- Interior Design, 5/1/2008 12:00:00 AM
Joe Valerio has chopped chum at a world-class aquarium and sent an associate undercover to spy on college students, all to make sure that Valerio Dewalt Train Associates understands exactly who its clients are. Headquartered in Chicago, Valerio and his partners have opened an office in Palo Alto, California, to devote more attention to Silicon Valley projects including an eBay campus in San Jose. Speaking with him about his work, we learned that he's passionate about history, travel, comfort, and, most of all, building.
What's with your firm's URL?
I knew I wanted to be an architect by the time I was 12 or 13—I've always gotten excited about building things. So buildordie.com represents that motivation. We came up with it for part of a mission statement. When the time came in the mid-'90's to get a Web site, we took that as the address. It means I'm prepared to do whatever it takes to meet the needs of our clients.
We're doing extensive interior renovations at Chicago's Shedd Aquarium, including customer-service areas and a series of exhibits, a whole smorgasbord of changes. To understand the Shedd experience, key team members spent three days working there, doing everything from selling tickets to hacking up fish for whale food.
Other unusual experiences your team can expect?
Take the competition we're in for a dorm at the University of California, San Diego. I'm fascinated with the challenges of designing a residence for 450 students, and we had to understand them to frame our proposal. But when we asked the facilities group about the qualitative aspects of campus life and what this dorm was meant to achieve, it was as if they didn't understand, so I decided to send someone to investigate the campus for a few days, undercover. I would have gone myself, but what would some coed think of a middle-aged guy asking a bunch of questions? Instead, I sent a young associate, Elisa Dennis, only three years out of grad school. She talked to students, did a tour, took hundreds of photos, basically figured out what's unique about the campus. As a result, I think we hit the nail on the head.
What about Sixteen restaurant in Chicago's Trump International Hotel & Tower?
It was a pleasure to work with Ivanka Trump. She was very professional, especially with budgets—obviously, she grew up in a developer's family. And she was looking for a calm, sophisticated look, not bright brass everywhere.
How much more expensive is the green approach?
Let's face it, the cheapest way to build is in a very unsustainable way, but many green approaches are inexpensive. You have to consider it on a case-by-case basis. Our headquarters for the Kresge Foundation is on a historic farmstead in Troy, Michigan, and we integrated existing buildings. Talk about sustainability—a 19th-century farm is more self-reliant than we could ever dream about. We oriented the new buildings to take advantage of sunlight. We created sunken wetland areas. We used native plants. None of that is expensive. You just have to think about it.
Walsh College, also in Troy, heard about the Kresge project and approached us to do their campus, and I didn't have to sell them on sustainability at all. We're a risk-taking firm, so I was relieved that this conservative little business school liked the forward-thinking plans for the eBay campus we're doing in California.
How was working with eBay?
We had to present multiple building options so Meg Whitman, the president and CEO at the time, could get input on them from all levels of her employees. There were a lot of meetings, and we're still working on the campus.
What keeps you going?
There's never been a space, even the simplest little drywall box, where I haven't thought about what I can do to add to its experience. With interior design, you have the opportunity to separate someone from their known world and introduce them to something unexpected, something they've never experienced before. That's exciting for me.
How has the profession changed since you started?
I joined my first firm when I was a grad student at U.C.L.A. in the 1970's. There was this whole youth-movement thing going on, and people actually gave us money to design environments and see the world. We did the movie set for Myra Breckinridge and the Pepsi pavilion at the Osaka World Expo in 1970. Some early projects, experiments for air-supported structures, were published in Progressive Architecture. It was a special time, and I was lucky enough to take advantage of it. Nowadays, you have to pay your dues. I can't imagine a client giving $1 million to a twentysomething kid who's never built anything before.