Keeping It Simple

Sept. 1, 2005
By Carol Tisch • Cover and portrait photography by Gordon Beall
Embracing a “less is more” philosophy in his approach to design, Nestor Santa-Cruz has been on a search for a soul-satisfying career—and found it among the big names, firms and projects that have inspired him and brought him critical acclaim in the A&D community.

At the pinnacle of his career Nestor Santa-Cruz took a "sabbatical" and embraced the personal credo, less is more. While the pared-down philosophy characterized his body of work, his career path dichotomously led him to big name firms with big projects, bigwig clients and a mother-lode of travel. For him, 'less' became the hands-on design work he craved, while 'more' was an ever-increasing management role complete with never-ending jet lag. The trigger for this self-imposed time-out was the decision of his 10-year employer, Skidmore, Owings & Merrill to close the design service at its Washington , DC office. An associate partner at SOM Interiors, Santa-Cruz wanted to continue living in DC more than any of the myriad cities in which the giant firm maintained design offices.

"At Skidmore I was on a plane every other day and had to support studios in Washington , New York and San Francisco and sometimes another city-say Chicago or London ," he explains. "It seemed to me that I was no longer able to work on the projects I wanted to because the emphasis of my job had morphed into a role of leadership from the top. On one hand I felt good that I was counted on as a leader; but I think it was taking a toll on my personal satisfaction."

Taking stock, Santa-Cruz decided he truly wanted to be based in Washington , and that he was at the fortunate point in his career where he could pick and choose what he wanted to do. "I no longer felt the need to have to do the biggest project. As they say, 'done that, been there.' Instead, I decided to find a balance between what I wanted to do and how I could contribute to the profession."

The designer concluded he could contribute more by doing "a little bit of everything," and set out to find the studio that would make that happen. During his quote-unquote sabbatical he never stopped working, however. He did a stint at Group Goetz Architects as design director for the year 2000, returned to SOM from 2001 to 2003, all the while attempting to uncover the ideal spot to embark on a soul-satisfying less-is-more career.

Simultaneously, SKB Architecture and Design, a firm that began as a boutique design studio in Washington , DC (because its partners also missed hands-on work and client contact while at mega corporate interiors firms), was in the process of re-imaging.

"A great feature of our firm is that we manage to keep reinventing ourselves," says Mark L. Baughman, president and managing partner. "When I joined in 1987 all the partners were interior designers, and I was the only architect in the crowd. Starting from a boutique reputation, we developed a strong reputation for handling really complicated jobs that mainstream interiors firms weren't geared for. We had the base building experience-the diverse experience you see in big corporate firms, but that small, high service firms don't usually have."

Indeed, SKB developed further by adding partners like Ruth Oczkowski (whose specialty is highly technical and logistically difficult projects), Mark Guild (chief technical officer, AIA, and quality control mastermind), and Thomas Jones (a LEED-accredited AIA architect with the firm for 25 years), each bringing a skill set and experience that increased the company's appeal to an ever-broadening client base.

"As we continued to grow and reinvent ourselves, we realized we had a lot of great clients, a very strong reputation as a high service firm and a lot of technical muscle," Mark Baughman recalls. But two of the firm's founding interior design partners had since retired, and Beth Baughman (Mark's sister and a high profile design partner/ founder) passed away. "We realized we needed to reestablish ourselves as a strong design firm if we would achieve our goal of becoming a small version of the kinds of firms we worked for in the corporate world," Baughman says.

"Of course, you don't just wake up and say, 'We're going to be a great design firm'-you have to work hard at it. You build up your own staff, bring in talented people, learn how to do more complicated jobs and how to get along with tougher clients. By the time we had gone through several years of improving our own skills and reputation, we were ready for someone like Nestor.

"And that's when he called me. It was spooky, really: We had mapped this whole thing out very carefully, but didn't have him specifically in mind. We knew we were ready to get a top designer and support him. Two days later, Nester called out of the blue, and it seemed like a sign from God or something."

The firm's organizational chart shows five partners and a staff of thirty all working out of one office-small enough to fit Santa-Cruz' less is more criteria. With Jones and Oczkowski managing projects and Guild managing all things technical, Baughman was the only design partner until Santa-Cruz joined the firm.

Santa-Cruz' first project at SKB won the firm multiple awards. The redesign of the law offices of Manatt, Phelps & Phillips of Washington , DC, had been on the drawing boards before he started working at SKB, but the project was soon turned over to him to take from design to built space in six months. The fact that the project did win three awards of excellence is all the more remarkable considering its time constraints and limited budget.

"This was a project with not a lot of money per square foot for construction," Santa-Cruz explains. "The budget was $65 per square foot, which is very limited for this time and age, but since it was not the client's main office we understood why they wanted to control costs." Asked why the project was so well received by the design community, Santa-Cruz says its success was two-fold.

"First, I treated the solution not in terms of how much wood could be put into the project, or how the interiors could be embellished. There was no budget for that kind of approach. It's about the clarity of the space plan and the distribution of space; it's an L shape. Some window offices face the street, some face an atrium.

"And we felt the client could take a re-branding. They moved from a more traditional building and interiors into a space that is more timeless with a sense of classicism. More than other law firms, they do a lot of entertainment and cocktail parties, so we give them a meeting conference center that opens onto the reception area. The architecture became a sculpture through a wood element that weaves through the walls and becomes the ceiling, then reappears again.

"There's a playfulness to the design, yet a pragmatic solution to the millimeter. It's very efficient. At the end of the day, my best work is when the limitations are very clear: I make the limitation a high point of the design," Santa-Cruz says.

In Baughman's opinion, the Manatt project is flexible, elegant, and very functional on a limited budget. "Nester created a well controlled, elegant piece of work in a project that had a money constraint at a time when there's so much money and so many things available to throw around to make a beautiful space. They didn't want to spend a lot of money because this wasn't their main space. Natural light was a second constraint: they wanted to give all the natural light to the partners, but wanted the space to feel open and bright. And because they're a lobbying firm they wanted to make it a very social space," Baughman says.

According to Santa-Cruz, the project was simply another embodiment of his less is more approach to design-the quest for something he calls "exquisite sensibility," an enduring, classic, elegance of design. "I'm not interested in just an aesthetic solution," he explains, "but rather the most elegant of solutions. There is so much cliché out there. All you have to do is look at the influences from dot-coms (and I thank God I didn't touch that too much) to see how much cookiecutter design is out there today."

Instead of a cookie-cutter, Santa-Cruz' first architectural tool was a set of LEGOs. He remembers a friend of his father admiring his LEGO constructions: "I was about six or seven, and he made it very clear to me that what I was doing was an actual job for adults-architecture. I thought, 'I love to play at making buildings, so that's what I'll do when I grow up.' I never considered anything else."

With that, a lifelong passion for architecture and design began. Santa-Cruz' father, an IBM executive in Central and South America , was a frustrated architect-engineer according to his son, and an aficionado who spent weekends perusing construction sites with his wife and child. Family gatherings centered on discussions and critiques of designs for new homes of relatives and friends. "Through my father's association with IBM, I was exposed early on to Eames, Knoll and Mies van der Rohe," he explains. "IBM was a leader in corporate design and worked with top people in the field when I was growing up."

And he developed an understanding of the corporate mentality through his father's association with IBM, which he says contributed to his success with large corporate clients, and at major design firms like Swanke, Hayden Connell (his first job after receiving his Master of Architecture degree), and Skidmore, where he began as Director of Design at the Washington , DC office.

"It was interesting: everyone I respected, worked for, and the designers whose work that I was very attracted to or interested in was all about Skidmore in one way or another." He counts Stephen Apking, head of interiors at Skidmore among his most important mentors. But there were others from Skidmore whose work he admired long before he worked there: greats like David Childs, Davis Allen and Charles Pfister.

"Davis Allen was the first interior architect at SOM, and Charles Pfister was sort of the foundation at SOM Interiors. I admired these people before I knew I would be designing interiors-before I knew I would be working at Skidmore. Leaders like these, and Steve Apking who hired me, are role models. I wasn't trying to be them; I was just trying to understand their passion and take something from each of them."

But these are not the only design heroes who've made their mark on the portfolio and psyche of Santa-Cruz. An early mentor at Swanke Hayden Connell took the young designer under his wing and brought him along as he moved from that firm to Perkins & Wells and ISD, other prominent venues that shaped his career.

"As you can see, there's a dichotomy of influences: from corporate; from people who fall into the category I call utopia (big thinkers like Mies or Barragan); people who are touchy feely like Jacques Grange. And then people that represent the new sense of modernism like David Chipperfield."

All those influences converge within the recesses of Santa-Cruz' mind where they develop into something totally unique and groundbreaking: his own brand of modernism. "Nestor really knows how to design, how to think through the ABC's of a design project in a way that is not narcissistic, not the navel-gazing you see with a lot of stars," says Baughman.

"He has this incredible ability to be a decorator when he needs to be, and he can switch instantly into an architect. He can move into lots of different approaches to projects. I don't think I've ever known a designer that's so fluid. He's not stuck in a single approach."

Part of that fluidity is the inherent drive to handle different types of work. When he started at Swanke, the market of the mid-eighties dictated that the firm did more interiors work as opposed to the architectural projects for which he prepared in school. Still, he found himself liking and enjoying creating corporate interiors. "It was a career path I had not thought about," he confides. "Yet I never really did see a difference between interiors and architecture. I still don't believe there is any separation. But as with any specialty field today, architects or interior designers whose expertise is on the interiors side have a better know-how, just because they're more experienced at it.

"If I were to describe what I consider myself, without any consideration about the legal connotations, I'd say I am an interiors architect. And that is actually a schooling that they have in Europe ; you see that term in European design magazines all the time," Santa-Cruz says.

He says his tenure at Skidmore gave him the opportunity to influence architecture from the inside out, with projects that encompassed everything from high end corporate (the 2 million square foot headquarters for Goldman Sachs in New Jersey ); to financial work such as moving the chairman and executives of Citigroup from Citicorp Center to offices on Park Avenue ; to high GSA design like the 1.5 million square foot headquarters for the U.S. Census Bureau, a designbuild project that was completed in a mere six months.

While at SOM Interiors, Santa- Cruz also developed a taste for residential design. "Sometimes, after designing corporate spaces for captains of industry, they would ask us to apply the same strategies to their homes," he says. "I developed a liking for it, and an understanding of the difference between residential and commercial design."

In fact, one impetus for joining SKB was the potential for building a high end residential business for the firm, which grew from zero to five percent of total billings since Santa-Cruz came on board. Indeed he finds there are common threads between residential and commercial interiors, and is quick to point them out. "In both, the designer is educating the clients about what makes sense for them from aesthetics to ergonomics as well as budgets and schedules," he explains.

"I tend to approach residential design with what I call a 'professional approach' the way we do it commercially. It's not about decoration- it's deeper than that. By using the design process and strategies that come from my commercial experience, I've been successful in residential at SKB," he says.

"Since we don't have separate studios that only do residential or only do commercial, or only base-building, we train our young designers in a multi-faceted approach that is attractive to them. And since all the partners are so hands-on, we offer them the opportunity to experience different typologies of work that my partners and I personally edit. That's something we can offer here. Maybe not at the scale of an SOM or a Perkins & Will, but certainly at a decent scale."

And by providing a support system of mentors, champions and design heroes, Nestor Santa-Cruz hopes to nurture his young designers so they too will settle for nothing less than new heights of the 'exquisite sensibility' he also demands of himself.

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