Monday, November 14th, 2011
by Saundra Marcel
Group photos and portraits of Matthew Grzywinski by Eric Luc
Own Entity portraits by Matthew Williams
Grzywinski and Pons project photos by Floto + Warner
Own Entity project photos by Sean Karns
These four designers thought they’d become something else. All four went to traditional architecture school, and all four had grand plans to follow in the hard-worn footsteps of the many greats that had come before them. But Carrie Dessertine, Dana Jaasund, Matthew Grzywinski, and Amador Pons all ended up taking unconventional routes to their present career paths. And despite doing things a little differently—or maybe because of it—these four have all turned out just fine. More than fine. They’re building and designing, and living the dream. But is the road less traveled really the best way for these designers to become the next starchitects? Especially if they’re not really architects at all?
Dessertine and Jaasund, founders of Own Entity, don’t make big buildings or brand-new buildings. They don’t even make buildings at all. They make interiors, focusing on the minutia of much smaller spaces, and picking up where an architect’s work typically ends.
What makes Own Entity different from traditional interior design firms is not just its background, but its approach. Dessertine and Jaasund have had training in the large scale; they know building codes, structural constraints, and construction possibilities. But having practiced for more than 10 years at both large and small architecture firms, they’ve learned that interior design suits them. “There was something about the way we approached projects and materials that hinted our attention spans were better suited for a smaller scale,” Dessertine says. “When you study under famous architects, you don’t even think about what else there is in the design industry. That is, until you’re in an office and confronted with the task of designing a beautiful door handle as opposed to the façade of a building. Something fits better about it.”
Some might call Own Entity’s work “trendy,” but Dessertine and Jaasund aren’t among them. For these two, being trendy means being a follower—seeing cool and repeating it—and that’s not what they do. They humbly acknowledge the way things are supposed to be and then do it just a little bit differently. Common materials are often used in uncommon ways, like canvas walls and upside-down porcelain lampshades. Their spaces are designed to feel inclusive and accessible, and frankly, comfortable. At the Anfora Wine Bar in Manhattan’s West Village, one of their first projects together, patrons chatter unhurriedly, enveloped in an interior that kindly commands them to slow down. Relax. Their newest project is a restaurant called Super Linda, in Tribeca. Own Entity was challenged to turn an old Greek diner into a hip Latin-fusion hot spot. It was a gut renovation, and the team completely recreated the space with all new surfaces, lighting, and furniture. For Dessertine, making these kinds of special experiences are what makes designing for a smaller scale so rewarding. “We see our projects through the more intimate scale of human experience. And sometimes it’s a huge advantage to ignore constraints altogether and just see what develops organically. Then when it needs to weave its way into the realistic, built world, we can adapt.”
“When you study under famous architects, you don't even think about what else there is in the design industry.” — Carrie Dessertine, Own Entity
Seven years ago, Matthew Grzywinski and Amador Pons joined forces to design Hotel on Rivington, an unapologetic 27-story glass tower on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. They were 26 and 27 years old, respectively. And though it’s unusual for such a junior team to win such a prized project, their naiveté and nerve produced something with sass.
Confident in their combined abilities and willing to give every possible ounce of their combined effort, Grzywinski and Pons managed to convince the project’s developers that they were up to the task. “We were almost too young to know how young we were,” Grzywinski says. It might have been a risky prospect for everyone involved, but they pulled it off, proving that expertise can, indeed, precede experience. Today, they’ve done more than 20 projects together, with four more new construction buildings in New York City, making them among the youngest to alter the Manhattan skyline.
And actually, their youthfulness is awfully convenient when the project is a swank metropolitan hotel. Their latest commission is the brand-new Nolitan, a building located in another gritty-on-the-verge-of-trendy Manhattan neighborhood. Just opened this summer, the destination promises an infiltration of newer, hipper, and younger crowds to the area. And these two certainly look like they’d be right at home with that crowd, because, well, they are. “Usually, by the time you’re given license to do your own work, you’re kind of dried up, so we felt very fortunate to get an early start, compartively speaking,” Grzywinski says. So while most “traditional” architects in this age bracket are still gruelingly paying their dues at large firms with punishing hours and torturous tasks, Grzywinski and Pons have been making it—literally getting out there and realizing their visions.
Doing it Differently—Worth the Risk?
At the moment, none of these four designers can officially call themselves architects. Despite undergraduate and graduate training from accredited universities, years of internships and work experience, and passing a series of difficult exams, the long and arduous path of becoming “licensed” remains elusive.
J. David Hoglund is president of Perkins Eastman, the second-largest architecture firm in New York City, with more than 150 licensed architects. Hoglund is credentialed as a fellow of the American Institute of Architects, an honor bestowed on less than two percent of architects in the US, and is also a LEED-Accredited Professional in green building practices. He knows the licensing process well and confirms that it is “absolutely necessary as a professional standard.” But he stipulates: “I am concerned that the process has become so lengthy and expensive that it has discouraged young professionals from pursuing licensure, and therefore the ability to truly be called ‘architect.’” Among the requirements for certification: interning for up to eight years under accredited architecture professionals, keeping careful track of the hours they spend in different aspects of the field, and reporting those hours every six months to the National Council of Architectural Registration Boards. The NCARB charges fees for everything: to be an intern, to take the required exams, to apply for certification, and an annual renewal once their newly minted status is conferred. Students of architecture spend thousands of dollars to get the title, and once they have it, thousands more to maintain it.
But those who make the rules don’t think they are too demanding. Architect John Sorrenti, director of the NCARB for the New York region, says “We’ve simplified the process in this state, and the six-month rule is not a hindrance, but a benefit. It is so much easier now to keep records.” He also reports that the organization has taken steps to make the seven-part examination process easier, with more testing centers and the opportunity to begin test-taking earlier than before. The numbers back up his claim: in 2005, there were 504 licenses granted to architects in New York state, and in 2010, the number had increased to 683.
But a slightly simplified process hasn’t made a difference to the Own Entity duo, which chooses to remain in a state of suspension. “Like anything else that’s hard to complete, people ‘fall off’ along the way, and are sometimes more inspired by other aspects of the field,” Dessertine says. Adds Jaasund, “Today, there is a lot more specialization among design firms.” More possibilities. At the University of Virginia, where they completed undergraduate work together, their trajectory had been the same as everyone else, entrenched in all of the established ideals and traditions of the trade. But real-world experience proved to be a greater teacher, opening their eyes to bigger possibilities of the profession. The pair began to understand that there could, in fact, be alternate paths than just the one they were taught. “I was just doing what I was attracted to, and after a few years, I realized I wasn’t actually doing architecture anymore, not in the traditional sense. And I didn’t really care anymore about logging hours,” Dessertine recalls. After they both accepted positions at a New York-based design firm without licensed architects on staff to apprentice under, they knew that the door to getting certified had truly closed. Own Entity maintains that it was a strategic decision to abandon the pursuit, since changing scale to work on interiors meant that they no longer needed to endure the rigorous architectural certification process. But despite their claims of having calculated this decision, the truth is, they had found themselves with a logistical problem: to become licensed, you need to work with others who are licensed.
For Grzywinski and Pons, there’s nothing strategic about their current position, and it’s one that causes much angst. “Whether we like it or not, it’s a branding of legitimacy,” says Pons, who knows that becoming licensed is essential. “You have to show that you’re fully qualified to practice the art of architecture, and I understand that.” Grzywinski is on the track to receiving his license, but Pons is actually right on the finish line. Only one check mark from the prize, he is very, very close to being deemed an official architect. Although the designers are capable and talented, the logistics of being unlicensed is a nightmare. “Everything is by the book,” Pons says. Their clients know their status, every box is checked, every piece of paperwork filed, and every single plan, sketch, and idea must be reviewed and signed off on by a licensed architect for every project.
In New York City, building codes require that a true architect be held accountable for projects that involve structural changes, and without one, the building owner can incur significant fines. Grzywinski + Pons act as design architect in conjunction with a filing architect or architect of record. Own Entity has a similar process. “It can be a little nerve-wracking, actually, in the beginning with potential clients,” Jaasund says. “We have to explain to them that we cannot take the place of their architect, so they have to hire two teams.” Dessertine struggles to define this unique relationship. “It’s a collaboration of ‘designer-architects’ and ‘official-architects,’” she explains. “Except we can’t use the ‘A’ word.”
While Grzywinski and Pons may be young for their accomplishments, they are getting a bit old for this particular pursuit; most complete the requirements within 10 years post-graduation. “I didn’t drink the Kool-Aid early on,” says Pons, who adds that while his peers were interning for free during their summers, he felt the need to learn more about the building side of the industry. “I liked construction, and I got paid well for it. I would come back from the summer flush.” Grzywinski got a late start for another reason. If this tall, hunky 33-year-old looks like he should be posing on catwalks, that’s because he does. Or rather, he did. Grzywinski spent time abroad as a model before returning to his professional roots. “The opportunity was there, so I decided to take advantage of it,” he says. “It was a catalyst that afforded me the chance to travel the world and live abroad that I might not otherwise have had.” It was his graduate school, in a sense. Taking full advantage of the moment, Grzywinski traveled with an architect’s eye—seeing, studying, taking notes, and developing a style that is now reflected in his work. Despite having done it differently, both Grzywinski and Pons maintain that the purpose of the professional internship process is sound and necessary. By now they have more than paid their dues and logged their hours. And Pons admits something else: “I came out [of school] overly confident, overly cocky.”
The future for Own Entity means launching their own product lines of lighting fixtures, household accessories, and cabinet hardware. Eventually, they say they want to design furniture. They will definitely continue to push creative bounds and stay inspired. Dessertine and Jaasund describe themselves as an anomaly in the market, with a unique mission and idiosyncratic style that varies from project to project. It’s no surprise that clients love them. The duo—composed of actual best friends—is pensive and quietly confident, attuned to reading each other’s personality. Work life and personal life are as interchangeable as their sentences, friends become clients, and clients become friends.
Grzywinski and Pons are going to keep us guessing. They are continuing to work on becoming official, a step on the evolutionary path from design architect to architect. They’ll continue to design super cool buildings with the unique flair that has earned them accolades. They hope to someday return to academia. And an ultimate achievement would be to build something for the common good, like a school, civic structure, or intermodal transit hub. In retrospect, Pons admits that he might have done things just a little differently. Less attitude early-on and more concern for title-getting. But both partners are also incredibly proud of their work, and both feel lucky that doors have opened for them. “I don’t know anyone else that’s doing what we’re doing right now,” Pons says. They acknowledge easily that an alternate entrance wouldn’t have led them to the same place, and they can’t imagine being anywhere else.
These four designers share an ability to dream, and then do. Of course, 10 years ago they couldn’t have foretold these exact dreams. Own Entity wanted to run a business, so they said goodbye to their much safer jobs and made a business. Grzywinski and Pons were offered a make-or-break project at a young age, and they decided to make the most of it. Each group has had their own winds in the road, bumps along the way, and turning points where a single decision set them upon a new course. But their success is built on genuine talent, hard work, and the willingness to take risks. So it seems for now, the untraditional path to design has been worth it for them. Who knows what twists and turns may lie ahead?