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Shimoda Design Group Pushes the Boundaries of Design and its Clients

June 19, 2019

Los Angeles-based Shimoda Design Group founders Joey Shimoda and Susan Chang help clients reach the best results by asking the right questions.

At its essence, design is about improvement. It’s fashioning a better product, interior, building, idea or even the world. To succeed, someone has to push the envelope — not just for the sake of experimentation or progress, but for the benefit of others.

This vision of design as a catalyst for positive change for clients is at the heart of what Los Angeles-based Shimoda Design Group (SDG) is about. “I really want to communicate the notion that we really do believe that ideas want to exist to make things better; that the concepts that we’re trying to bring [to fruition], the ideas that we’re testing, the artists we work with, or the methods with which we build something, we want them to make a big difference,” says Joey Shimoda, FAIA, FIIDA, co-founder of SDG.

To be clear, the award-winning architect isn’t talking about creating the next piece of “starchitecture,” either. On the contrary, he and his business partner and co-founder, Susan Chang, AIA, approach each project — regardless of size — with both passion and care.

“They’re all gestures that are at the scale that our clients are willing to go to, but we’re always striving to push them farther than they thought they would go. And I think for us, things are not too small; everything has some value if we care about it,” he says.

interiors+sources recently spoke with Shimoda and Chang about their small, but celebrated, firm’s work, their design philosophy, and some of their landmark projects, both past and present.

interiors+sources: Tell us about your career paths and how they led to Shimoda Design Group.

Joey Shimoda: In terms of how Shimoda Design Group got started, both of us, we met while we were working at a firm called Keating, Mann, Jernigan, Rottet, which was Lauren Rottet’s firm before she became DMJM Rottet. That was in the early ’90s, and that firm lasted about five years before it was sold to DMJM. So, we started at KMJR and then migrated to DMJM and were with that group for about nine years.

At that time, we were doing a lot of work in Texas. The developer who I was working with had determined that pretty much I was doing all the work, and he said, “Why don’t we figure out how to do this [together]? Because I don’t need to have a big company — I just want to work with you.”

So, he was sort of the starting point for us, and he was doing pretty large-scale work. And I think that’s one of the things that has continued to be a part of what we do — that we’re a small group, but we can do very large projects. We continue to do high-rise projects even though we were only two or three people working with other architects.

We still continue that practice now where the projects are really large, we team up with other firms. So, the collaborative aspect of the way we do work is a very important part of it. Since then, it’s just grown, and almost all of our clients we had when we started are still working with us in some capacity today.

Susan Chang: I think what was exciting about when Joey really sealed that relationship with Harwood in Dallas and started to do more work on his own, and he started to get other similar Class A office work, at that time there was there was still a lot of the work available. So, a bunch of us that were friends, we were helping him out at night.

JS: There was a lot of moonlighting going on.

SC: A lot of moonlighting! I was part of Studio Luna, is what we called it where we’d work on Sundays. We were able to obviously really help him solidify that work and then you continue to grow. What was also exciting to me when I joined them full time was the idea that we’re not limited to that work.

Of course, we knew that [the majority of our] work came from these developers that understand that we can provide that service, but then, it also opened up opportunities to do single family homes. And we actually did a lot of proposals in the early days for a lot of house additions.

Then we got to do a retail project, and one of our early ones was with Mikimoto, and that has been something we’ve been proud of. And then with Rolex, we continue to do work constantly, so that’s been really wonderful for us to be able to do as a small firm.

i+s: How would you characterize your firm’s design philosophy, and how does that manifest itself in each project?

JS: Our design philosophy is about asking the right question. Once we have a sense that we understand the why of the project we can begin to develop the right solutions. This question is always centered around the client that we are speaking with. 

The other two aspects that we layer over this is in the ideas of ‘vision’ coupled with ‘virtuosity.’ We always strive to make or do something that we haven’t done before. In that sense the outcomes are not always known at the onset of the project. Regardless of the unknowns of the project, there is also an expectation that we deliver that idea with a high degree skill or technical excellence. Vision coupled with virtuosity.

SC: I think what we are really trying to do is find the best in all our clients. And I remember there was one particular bank client that was very straightforward. We didn’t push them that hard, but I remember pushing them to where they were uncomfortable, and they really had a hard time with us after that first design meeting. But then they came around and that clicked it for me — what we wanted to do was really explore the possibilities for what they wanted.

Many times they might not know what it is, but we always strive to push them there and they may have to come back a little bit to a little bit more middle ground. But I think what Joey is summarizing for me is what we constantly try to do, and that’s what we’re striving for.

i+s: SDG has worked with some notable clients, including Mikimoto, Rolex and Steelcase, just to name a few. Can you tell us about some notable projects in your portfolio that make you both proud?

JS: We are very fortunate in that our clients are very involved and know how to work with creative people. I think that each project has something special that makes us proud. There are a couple of standouts. I think it is also worth noting that we have several clients that have been in business for over 100 years. When one has been around for that long a time, the expectations of how their spaces and workplaces work comes from a more confidant point of view.  

One of the ones you mentioned is Steelcase. That has been a particularly important relationship for me and Susan because of our close relationship with the leadership and the leadership goals of Steelcase. 

From the very beginning, we were always viewed as a strategic partner in bringing their “front-of-house” to the design public. The showroom projects each have a unique point of view and they were the product of many hours of discussion and design development. We have been working with them for more than 17 years. That is really almost the same amount of time we have had our studio. We have done four showrooms in Los Angeles and Chicago, and we’ve also worked on their headquarters campus in Grand Rapids [MI] to develop their Work Café and Innovation Center. 

In each of these projects, we were challenged with amplifying the current and future state of the workplace. In each of these spaces we were also asked to create environments that blurred the boundaries of work, play, social, private and lifestyle. These were also supported by the creation of architecture that was not only technically robust but also artistically sculptural. Working with [Steelcase leaders] James Ludwig and Cherie Johnson pushed our ideas of how architecture frames and influences a positive environment. Each project builds upon the ideas of the last one. 

We are particularly proud of the work we did in the 2018 NeoCon launch of the Chicago showroom. The ideas we used 12 years ago were still largely valid. That meant that the design thinking and the making were still a part of the conversation and reflected a sense of design that could last over time. We felt further challenged by the ideas of “the now” that was moving workplace so much away from any sense of corporate identity. 

So, the conversations of how we related to space and how we related to our environment allowed us to have more multidimensional conversations and not a single point of view. The showroom footprint doubled, and there were added brands that would now occupy spaces adjacent to each other. So, we were able to tell more stories about how technology and surface were influencing the future, but we also took the opportunity to make areas that were about tactility and something poetic and manmade. 

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Another notable project was the realization of the National Typewriter Company which is the home of Bad Robot Productions. We have been involved in that project for close to 15 years now and through three distinct building phases. The project was done in collaboration with Andy Waisler, a friend and designer who we have been collaborating with since 2000. The space is the ultimate creative workshop for J.J. Abrams. 

What makes the project particularly rewarding is that we got to influence both the interiors and exteriors of the project. The other standout was that many of the spaces in the existing buildings were not optimal in the traditional entertainment sense of the word. Because J.J. was interested in creating a great feeling space; lots of light, air and natural materials; he instinctively knew that creating that kind of place would overcome any technical shortcomings of the physical space. 

The big realization for us was that design and space making can make people feel creative or enable serendipitous moments that become breakthroughs in their craft. The idea of storytelling is deeply embedded in this work, and it’s something that we try and imbue in every project.

i+s: In terms of current projects, how did you get involved with The Wheeler in Brooklyn, and what is the vision for the landmark project? When is it expected to open?

JS: The Wheeler in Brooklyn is with Tishman Speyer, which is another client that has given us tremendous opportunity. […]

The canvas we started with is the Abraham Straus department store, and the first part of the building was built before the Brooklyn Bridge was completed. It’s a building that was built in three major phases of construction. While the building is not historically protected, it is clearly an important building in terms of its contribution to the history of department stores and of Brooklyn. The branding team had come up with a clever tag line “Built on Brooklyn,” and it describes the way that the building has evolved and what our intervention is. 

It is the most complex project we have ever worked on. Our experience working on other projects of similar nature has taught us to keep the charm and patina that you find. The project has a renovation component, a preservation component and an addition, so each of these elements retains its own identity, and we let the collisions between each part become special. 

The idea is that the spaces have different personalities to allow for more varied design interpretations. The project has floor plates that vary from 70,000 square feet to 25,000 square feet, and there is more than an acre of open space over 15 floors. 

We had a lot of fun with creating a project that was a bridge between a vintage industrial Brooklyn and the current hipster co-working crowd. The project should be completed by January of 2020.

i+s: What’s next for SDG?

JS: We have a couple of really interesting projects in the studio at the moment, one is the renovation and addition to the Morgan Post Office Annex next to Hudson Yards. It is another historic property with a great history and great potential to transform into a renewed life as a creative office project. The current green roof is the largest green roof in Manhattan that no one knows about or uses. 

The second project is a set of recording studios for Warner Music Group in the artist district of downtown Los Angeles. It’s the first major set of studios designed just for a major record label, and it’s an interiors project within an old Ford Model T factory. Our portion of the building was a loading dock and storage building with no windows and no personality. The project will have 10 writers’ rooms, two live studios and a sound stage. We want the vibe of the arts district to inspire the project. Both of these projects continue on with the theme of celebrating the past while creating a sense of renewal.

SC: I would just echo exactly what Joey is saying. As we talked about earlier, we always try to push the boundaries in a way that could be uncomfortable [for clients] at some time. But I think we always have the vision that, it’s not just a brand idea or the trendy thing to do. We do think longer term, and I think that’s why we have the kinds of clients that are 100 years old, because we understand that longevity. So, it’s really getting our clients to be the best version of themselves they could strive for.

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About the Author

Robert Nieminen | Chief Content Director

Robert Nieminen is the Chief Content Director of Architectural Products, BUILDINGS and i+s, sister publications of Smart Buildings Technology. He is an award-winning writer with more than 20 years of experience reporting on the architecture and design industry.

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