Douglas Burnham and his 10-person team at Envelope Architecture + Design enjoy a superb reputation—the result of uncompromising devotion to high creative ideals and effective client communications. Lauded for thoughtful and inspiring design solutions, Burnham's San Francisco-based firm has created a host of noteworthy residential and hospitality properties, exhibition design, and spaces for big-name companies like Facebook and Hipstamatic. Here, Burham—20-year industry veteran, nine-year adjunct professor at California College of the Arts , executive committee member of SFMOMA’s Architecture and Design Forum —offers his take on engaging the masses, listening up, and rediscovering his greatest love.
Interior Design: What is keeping you busy and engaged these days?
Douglas Burnham: We’re having a lot of fun with a project called Proxy here in San Francisco, located in a series of vacant lots in Hayes Valley. We serve as both designer and developer. A freeway once cut through the area, which was very damaged in the 1989 earthquake, and in the economic downturn of 2008 the mayor’s office asked for proposals for temporary uses of the location. We were given the opportunity to take it over, and have been able to bring in an evolving mix of food, business, art, retail, and events. Different chefs are always doing new things, and there are new art installations constantly. Some might use the term “container project,” but we see it as a “content machine.”
There’s a social need for variety and heterogeneity in cities, driven by people. I think San Francisco needs more of this, and all cities, for that matter. People are interested in having a serendipitous experience, in lovely surprises. The question we’ve been asking is, “How do you really drive that?” The answers we’ve come up with are centered around providing the appropriate level of engagement.
ID: Through what lens does your firm approach its work?
DB: We—and our clients—are interested in bringing value to the experience of engaging with a space. I think we’re rooted in the specificity of a space. I’m thinking of the 30,000-square-foot cafeteria we did on the Facebook campus… When the company took over its current property, their idea for the space was that of an urban streetscape. This cafeteria is spatially linked to their only auditorium, which is linked to this streetscape. We took the idea very seriously, completing an open trellis that really pulls people in while allowing for the function of dining. It convinces you that you’re not working.
ID: What’s the environment like within your office, in terms of both space and staff?
DB: We’re a 10-person office, and just quadrupled our space. There’s a garden, a lab room for testing out ideas, and a huge desk where everyone works. Of course, there’s much more to be done. While everybody on staff has their individual strengths, they all share the fact that they’re skilled, talented, hardworking, and focused. They run the gamut from very conceptual to super solid and detail oriented. Then there are those with really subtle, artful qualities. Many of them were students of mine at California College of the Arts… Some came up and said, “Hey, can I work for you?” and some I approached. I’d say that they were all the best in the school. I like a good personality mix of people, all of whom are sure of themselves and open to collaboration. No one is like, “Mine, mine, mine!”
ID: What about your creative process? How do you encourage your team to work with clients?
DB: Our work is based on a strong listening process, and from there we pull out what’s non-normative. I want everyone to ask, “What’s the super-cool, weird thing?” We look to respect what people want to do and they bring them beyond what they thought they could do. So many architects and designers are so self-focused and are looking to drive their own interests, yet architecture and interiors is a service industry. We all have to ask ourselves: At what point am I the savant, and at what point am I delivering what I’m paid to deliver?
ID: And what’s your personal take on that line between expressing individuality as a design and performing your “duty?”
DB: “Dutiful” is problematic, and the longer I’m practicing the more problematic it seems. A lot of architects are not bringing depth of thinking. Architecture is about being tapped into ideas, and a deep history. I worked for Bruce Tomb and John Randolph at the Interim Office of Architecture , early in my career. They had this intensive, psychological approach to listening… What makes people tick? What turns them on? How do you make them love certain architecture and design? It was an interesting and rigorous process, which I have continued in the years since.
ID: What kind of design know-how are clients bringing to the table these days?
DB: Clients know a lot these days. They’re looking at the design blogs and are very savvy. We’re interested in what people are looking at, and sometimes it’s about educating and editing. Sometimes we will get clients who say, “We love this look,” and frankly we don’t agree… So, we’ll try to steer them beyond that. We like to bring their understanding a level up.
ID: How has the increase in information changed the dynamic between architect and client?
DB: It’s not the Frank Lloyd Wright model anymore, where an architect says, “This is how everything is going to look.” The role of the designer has definitely changed. It used to be that they were the keepers of the power. They had the catalogues and access to the showrooms. Now everyone has access. What we now focus on is: How does it all add up to something amazing?
ID: What about the economics of the industry, five years after the severe economic downturn?
DB: 2008 and Lehman Brothers was, of course, a big deal. We had been doing a lot of residential work at the time and moved to more commercial and urban spaces. We were fortunate that we were ready to do that at that time. Not everyone was. Fortunately, the San Francisco Bay area is a bubble and never really slowed down. These days I will say that contractors are busy, and it’s getting faster and faster. We just did the offices for Hipstamatic. There are many second-wave dot-com companies that are funded and are making a lot of money.
ID: You had mentioned that many of your staffers were your students. You’ve been adjunct professor at California College of the Arts since 2004. How does that impact your creative life?
DB: That first year, I wasn’t sure what I was doing, but it’s become an important part of my life. I really enjoy teaching; I love engaging with students of all types and talent levels. The role includes being a thesis advisor, writing recommendations for jobs, even hiring some students. It’s wonderful to bring people up. It’s always a positive process of nurturing.
ID: How about you, early on in or even before your career. What inspired you to pursue this career and give yourself over to it so passionately?
DB: When I was a kid, my play was all about a deep, creative interior world. I designed complicated cities in the sandbox or the forest, with these overlapping narratives. At the beach, I wouldn’t make sandcastles; I would start directing streams, or building bridges that people could actually walk over. It was just in me. As a little kid I’d tell people, “I’m going to be an architect,” and then I completely forgot about it in high school. I wound up in chemical engineering at college, and one day looked around and thought, These aren’t my people! I had this epiphany and remembered, Oh yeah, I’m going to be an architect.