Designers and Makers: How Creative Collaboration Yields the Best Work

There’s something magical that happens when designers successfully collaborate with makers on projects. I’ve been fortunate to collaborate with talented makers working in a variety of media, and the design and construction result is often better than what I could have achieved on my own.

I collaborate frequently with Andrew Becker, who was an intern in our studio early in his career. Andrew is a talented craftsman and a skilled designer in his own right. I admire his commitment to craft, his design acumen, and his fierce insistence on getting the job done right. When our team was first developing Hudson Woods, we approached Andrew to collaborate with us on a custom metal railing system for the project. We worked closely together to refine the design, engineer a system that could be repeated, and source the components. The finished design and construction of the railing system was exceptional at the level of design, craft, and the way it fit seamlessly into the aesthetic and ethos of our Hudson Woods project.

I had a similarly fruitful experience with Paul Grech of True Form Concrete. When I first met Paul, I was taken by his energy and his enthusiasm for collaborating with our team. We needed someone who could fabricate wall-mounted counters and backsplashes the master bathrooms, countertops for the kitchens, and some outdoor countertops as well. Concrete seemed right for Hudson Woods; though visually subtle, its presence is a clear sign that skilled custom fabrication has been integral to the construction of a project. “One knows just by looking at concrete that it’s been made by hand,” Paul says, adding that he knew from the outset that an “off-the-shelf” solution wouldn’t work for Hudson Woods. That Paul was able to create these elements specially for Hudson Woods meant that they were visually cohesive, deftly connecting the interior with the exterior. “The Lang team wanted to work directly with us from the very onset,” Paul notes. “This approach speaks volumes about the intimacy and trust that the Lang team sought to establish with its vendors.”
I’m apparently not alone in this. One architect I admire is Tom Kundig of the Seattle-based firm Olson Kundig Architects. Among the things I admire is his collaborative approach, and the fact that he includes artisans and makers in projects. In a recent interview with Dwell, Kundig cited this way of working as a crucial element of his practice: “Collaboration is an important ingredient in the design process, and is a significant part of what we do in our office, whether collaborating with local craftspeople, artists, fabricators, sub-consultants or the clients.” His residential projects often feature unusual and inspired design solutions that succeed because a skilled fabricator has been brought in to craft them on site; the elegant folded-steel staircase in a Kundig project known as the “Hot Rod House” in Seattle comes to mind. 
The result of a successful collaboration between an architect and an artisan is invariably something neither could produce alone, and because the process involves the sharing of knowledge and some creative problem-solving, it can also yield some delightful surprises. It can be energizing, and even cathartic. As Andrew Becker remarks, “when designers and makers truly connect in process and vision, the outcome is extraordinary.”