Chandra Moore does not fit the profile of the archetypal architect. Her clients are not your average architecture patrons either. Moore has built her Detroit-based firm, coG-studio , around designing for children. From play areas and learning spaces to multi-family housing ranging from 200-600 units, Moore brings a much-needed combination of sensitivity, understanding, and patience to create places that are innovative, educational, and fun for kids of all ages. And she has recently taken on a new type of project—updating the interiors of Mies van der Rohe’s historic Lafayette Towers in downtown Detroit.
Here, Moore talks with Interior Design about learning from children, working within a team of all women, and designing in the shadow of a master.
Interior Design: Your studio is one of very few in the world that specializes in design for children. How did you get started doing that kind of work?
Chandra Moore: I have always enjoyed working with and teaching children. My first internship was with Gensler, and I had the opportunity to work within the education studio. It was then that I knew designing for children was more involved than if I were to design for a workplace. I saw that there was an issue in every child’s environment, and I wanted to help solve it. This is my purpose on earth, to help create safe spaces for youth.
ID: You’ve designed spaces for learning and play. What have been the biggest challenges and rewards of designing for children?
CM: The biggest challenge is ensuring the space and the project expectations are in alignment. This means the functionality, structure, and design palette must support the desire to make the space new, exciting, innovative, educational, fun, and responsive to the inquisitiveness of youth—a space that makes them think, feel, create, and learn. coG does not limit play to playgrounds. As parents, we cannot always be present with our child, throughout the day. As individuals, we can’t plan the points in time when a child has a life changing moment or life lesson. The reward that we as designers enjoy is to give support to a child as he or she negotiates through life changing experiences. At coG, we are working with business entities to show how a young child can be a part of their parents’ work atmosphere. Investing in an employee’s work atmosphere is the best thing a CEO can do for their business. We have shown companies how to create a healthy, working atmosphere for working families, while improving their return on investment.
ID: What unique perspectives does your office bring to the table when designing residences for families with young children?
CM: For residences, we always interview the children first, then the parents. We sit with the entire family for the majority of the day to understand what they are like, and what they need. Designing for a child involves an understanding of psychology and perspective. It is not about putting a color on a wall or choosing certain furniture, but about understanding the real issue: the use of the space and its atmosphere. In healthcare, it’s about understanding how a child feels the moment they walk into a PET scan without a parent or how a mother feels after giving birth to a child that has to stay in the NICU. We create a partnership between the pediatrician and the child, or the working parent and the child.
A high school teacher told me I wasn’t going to be an architect, because I was a black woman and I received a B- on a calculus test. When I graduated with my Master of Architecture degree , I sent him an invite to my commencement.
ID: Your office is made up entirely of women. What is the dynamic like?
CM: As a minority women-owned business, I welcome diversity. We have male interaction and perspectives on our board and with our visiting consultants. The dynamics of an office of women can be difficult at times, but for the majority of the time it’s fun! We enjoy each other and we push each other to excel.
ID: Are women inherently better suited to working with children?
CM: No. We design for early childhood to young professionals, so our design spectrum is wide. It’s not your gender that makes you care for a child more; it’s your passion to create change and make a difference. Every child needs guidance; it helps shape them and their perceptions. With our designs, we strive to make a difference by changing the environment to one of empowerment, intrigue, commitment, and success. It is passion and dedication that makes our team suited for working with children and guiding them on the path of confidence and success.
ID: You say children teach you a lot. What has been the most surprising thing you’ve learned from them?
CM: The most surprising thing about children is that they are very honest and have very strong opinions. Many people think that children don’t listen or have an understanding of their surroundings, but if you sit and listen to them, they have very strong opinions about life, work, and their family atmosphere. Their innovativeness opens new possibilities, and their creativity and determination allow them to build upon their ideas.
ID: You are an alumna of the Detroit Creative Corridor Center’s (DC3) Creative Ventures Program, a residency program for design-based businesses in Detroit. How did that experience shape your studio and your work since ?
CM: In retrospect, my DC3 experience allowed me to stay focused and get organized. Our profession is very creative and it is very easy to forget that you are creating a business, not a hobby. DC3 gave us tools that allowed us to grow our business successfully. We had access to connected lawyers and business mentors. Many people believe that you need to take out a loan to start a business, but I disagree. You just need a good idea, skill, dedication, and a space. DC3 gave us the space, so all we had to do was bring the passion and dedication to succeed. Working alongside other successful DC3 partners, coG-studio was able to network, learn, share, and grow. We will move into our new space on Wayne State campus this fall; thus, creating new partnerships and aligning with new young talent.
ID: What are the challenges and opportunities for design professionals working in Detroit?
CM: There are a few challenges for design professionals. The main challenge is finding large businesses willing to take a risk on a small firm. I am originally from California and decided eight years ago to make my mark in the Detroit area. I have witnessed the potential for change materialize and want to further impact and enhance the city’s growth.
ID: You’ve recently taken on a very different kind of project working on the interiors of Lafayette Towers in downtown Detroit, one of Mies van der Rohe’s most successful, but lesser known projects. What is the scope of your intervention there?
CM: Lafayette Towers is a joint venture project with Quinn Evans Architects as the Lead Architect for this historic site, SmithGroup JJR as the Landscape Architect, and coG-studio designing the interior spaces. Together, we are designing space within the neighborhood; hopeful that the residents will enjoy the changes when it’s complete. I have always had the utmost respect for Mies van der Rohe; he was a very talented individual. One thing that the Lead Architect and I have in common is that we haven’t let it change the way we design or what we are doing within Lafayette Towers. We both want to create a space that respects what he has done, but with a twist for today’s environment and needs. Creating this twist is the reason why we are both so passionate about designing what truly works well in the space.
ID: If you weren’t an architect, what would you be doing?
CM: I always ask myself this question and I honestly can’t remember a time when I didn’t want to be an architect. Since I was in the 6th grade, I would have my parents buy architecture magazines every week. A high school teacher told me I wasn’t going to be an architect, because I was a black woman and I received a B- on a calculus test. I remember telling my teacher that he was crazy and that “anyone could be an architect if they really wanted it.” My parents told me, “Just let time prove him wrong.” When I graduated with my Master of Architecture degree —one of the best days of my life—I sent him an invite to my commencement.
To be in this profession, you have to have passion! It’s an interesting profession—sometimes you love it and sometimes you hate it. I told myself that when I grew tired of doing architecture I would quit. Fourteen years later, it’s still important to me and I enjoy coaching and mentoring my team to strive for their dreams as well.