8 Designers and Architects Share the Crucial Lessons They Learned From Dad

8 Designers and Architects Share the Crucial Lessons They Learned From Dad

By Tiffany Leigh
Whether bankers or builders by trade, these dads of design have plenty of wisdom to share.

In celebration of Father’s Day, we asked eight designers and architects to share some of the advice and life lessons they’ve learned from their fathers, and how it resonates with their work today. From cultivating optimism and curiosity, to absorbing new ideas from different cultures, here’s how fatherly guidance has been translated into a lifelong love of design.

Anne-Marie Armstrong, c0-founder of AAmp Studio

Anne-Marie Armstrong and her brother pose on the laps of their mother and father, Thomas Armstrong.

Keep exploring:  "My dad loved astronomy!" says Anne-Marie. "Growing up, you could often find him tinkering on a homemade telescope in the basement. In the summer months, we’d take out the telescope and explore the starry skies together. His sense of exploration has translated to the way I approach a new design." With this in mind, her team keeps a spirit of discovery with each new project: "We do this with our clients—discuss their aspirations and project goals. This helps us tailor our approach and leads us to a design that feels uniquely created for them." 

Look for an elegant solution: "My dad was a mathematician, and he valued an ‘elegant solution’ to a complex problem. A solution to a problem is seen as mathematically elegant if it is surprisingly simple and insightful. At AAmp, we’re constantly exploring design options to find solutions to fit with project goals while engaging and inspiring others." 

Be open to change: Anne-Marie’s dad reinvented himself several times over his life. "He studied math at university but joined his family’s printing business when I was born," she says. "When I was in high school, he returned to university in his 40s to pursue a degree in computer science and worked for several years as a software developer." Later on, he became an accomplished writer, publishing a novel and a book of short stories. "His wonderful sense of flexibility and adaptability is something I find very inspiring," says Anne-Marie. "It has led me to appreciate designs that are flexible and adaptable to the needs of our clients and site constraints."

Sunnyside Residence by AAmp Studio exemplifies Anne-Marie’s ability to be open to change, which she learned from her father. This narrow, 100-year old townhouse in Toronto was completely reimagined as an open-plan space, which welcomed in more natural light and gave the client more flexibility.

Katherine Chia, co-founder of Desai Chia Architecture

A teenage Katherine Chia and her father, Pei-yuan Chia.

Design for a better life: Katherine remembers her father, Pei-yuan Chia, challenging the status quo while working in the consumer banking business. "This was in the ’70s, and banks were strictly in-person teller transactions, and if you didn’t get to the bank during their business hours, you had to return on the next business day in order to cash a check or withdraw funds," she explains. This served as the catalyst for him to rally a team and develop a product that would revolutionize the industry: the ATM. 

"I saw the first one inaugurated at the bank branch in my hometown," recalls Katherine. His group tackled design challenges such as user friendliness, size, mechanics, cost, and security. "He was driven by the core belief that a product, and its design, must always improve people’s lives—sometimes in ways that they can’t even imagine. I carry this motto forward with every project I do." 

Seek out different perspectives:  "[My dad] always encouraged modes of problem solving by looking for solutions from different, and sometimes unexpected, points of view," says Katherine. "I’ve embraced this same curiosity into my design process—appreciating the layered and complex backgrounds of people and cultures. I use that as a jumping off point for my work." Their family trips have provided her with inspiration and insight into people, places, and their respective cultures. "My father taught me that such experiences are waiting for you—you just have to be open to them."

Delight in the details:  "Growing up, we lived on a heavily wooded, four-acre property where our family ritual included the raking leaves, shoveling snow, building stone walls, planting trees, weeding the garden, and moving the lawn," says Katherine, who saw these tasks less as chores and more as opportunities to discover hidden beauty. "For instance, we once built a stone wall together, and he approached it with a masterful methodology: sorting through a pile of rocks, training our eyes to find the right pieces, then setting the larger stones at the bottom but providing enough random interlayering of smaller ones so that the wall settled in a stable way. This thoughtful approach of modulated staggering not only made the wall stable, but also contained inherent textural beauty. And our stone wall endures to this day!" 

Michigan Lake House by Desai Chia Architecture was inspired by Katherine’s dad’s belief that designs are not only aesthetically alluring, but also help improve the client’s life. This is exemplified with elements such as an outdoor living space protected by a vaulted, cantilevered roof. 

Jonathan Feldman, founding partner of Feldman Architecture

Jonathan Feldman poses with his father, Dan, and his daughter, Sasha.

Champion sustainable design: "My dad taught me a love for nature and a commitment to protect our planet’s ecology. It’s all due to my fond memories and early backpacking trips when I was a child," says Jonathan. With House Ocho, completed in 2004—his very first project, and a home that he built for his parents—he demonstrated a green initiative: "This included use of environmentally sensitive building materials (harvested lumber and insulation made from denim manufacturing waste), and a green roof. We also implemented a passive solar design strategy: large windows expose the concrete floors and retaining walls to the morning sun, thus minimizing the need for artificial heat. We also installed skylights with integrated photovoltaic cells that helped produce a soft, filtered light while also helping to power the house." 

Never stop learning:  "He always taught me to be interested and passionate about a very broad range of subjects, and to always be learning and absorbing new ideas," says Jonathan. This philosophy permeates the firm’s process in the emphasis on collaboration, culture, dialogue, creation. 

 Opt for smart storage: "Humans (especially my father) can collect and even hoard way too much stuff, so for my clients, I’ve always aimed to provide them with ample storage spaces!" 

House Ocho integrated cutting-edge, sustainable design features, much of which was inspired by Jonathan’s father, Dan.

Jean-Christophe Petillault, founder of JCPCDR Architecture

Jean-Christophe Petillault with his father, Georges.

Bring light into design:  Jean-Christophe’s father, Georges, is a music producer and sound engineer who built Studio EGP, one of the largest recording studios in Paris, in 1989; Jean-Cristophe was born in 1991. "He raised me in the midst of soundproofing and sound work," he says. "Growing up, I learned about all the techniques that my father used during the construction of the studio and put this knowledge towards building Forest House—one of my very first projects. Most French recording studios are very dark and contribute to fatigue, especially during long hours of recording." As a result, Forest House, built for a music composer, offers plenty of illumination and views to lift spirits and inspire.

Prioritize adaptability: Not only did Georges Petillault build Studio EGP almost entirely on his own, but he was always making improvements on the studio environment through furniture and acoustics. "A recording studio requires a great capacity for adaptability because the material changes regularly and the needs in the world of music, too," says Jean-Cristophe, who honors this philosophy with flexible furniture such as the innovative Flying Table that hangs via detachable straps.

Forest House, an intimate studio for a music composer, was inspired by the experiences of Jean-Cristophe’s father when he built his own music studio.

Kara Greenetz, architect at SHED Architecture & Design 

Kara Greenetz as a tiny tot with her father, Wilmot "Bill" Moore.

Reuse and repurpose: Kara’s father, Wilmot "Bill" Moore, was creative builder and engineer. "He has a particular knack for reimagining new uses for items," she says, which she experienced firsthand as a child while scouring vintage and surplus shops for one-of-a-kind pieces that could be upcycled. When she described the ideal credenza for her current apartment to her dad, he came up with a playful suggestion: "He had purchased an old bowling alley lane and some wood bleacher seats. We decided to repurpose the wood for the project—the credenza is made up of a refinished bowling alley for the table top, bleacher seats around the rim, and brass tubing for the legs. We completed it with a dark walnut stain." They didn’t end up using all the material, though. "I’m looking forward to seeing what (else) my dad dreams up for the rest!" she says.

Be efficient with space: Living in a 1,100-square-foot home with her husband and their eight-month-old, Kara is always looking for ways to reduce clutter. "Together, [my dad and I] came up with a durable, maple fold-down table with a walnut inlay detail. It’s a solution implemented by my dad’s quality craftsmanship and overall efficient design ethos," she says. 

Invest in quality: "My father had the foresight to hold onto a few items he inherited from his own father, and growing up, the midcentury teak tables he owned were both durable and very functional. The classic silhouettes stand the test of time, and I’d be happy to inherit them someday."

Kara recently purchased a new chair as an investment piece: "It’s great for naps, Netflix, or for our eight-month-old to either chew on or practice his climbing."

Casper Mork-Ulnes, founder of Mork-Ulnes Architects

Casper Mork-Ulnes with his father, Dag.

Be an optimist: "My father, Dag Mork-Ulnes, was a diplomat. In my youth, we’d travel around the world with him—living in Norway, Italy, Scotland, and the U.S. as a consequence. However, the one constant throughout this experience was his boundless optimism. Despite the fact that I consider myself more of a pessimist, this is not so when it comes to design, and I credit my father with this. Whether it’s negotiating budgets, dealing with planning authorities, etc., the same mental framework applies to solving design problems: we’re persistent, resourceful, and iterate until arriving at a solution. Therefore our practice is guided by optimism and resourcefulness, which I think helps us produce creative, innovative, and fruitful results."

Learn from travel: "I was always very excited about the beauty of each new place we moved to—whether in the form of food, humor, culture, or the natural environment. Thanks to my father, an early exposure to different cultures has in many ways informed the way I approach architecture. Such recognition made me more appreciative and inspired by the unique qualities of a place."     

Moose Road Project, executed with a limited budget, was another instance where optimism helped Casper and his team find creative ways to optimize the build with value engineering.

Tei Carpenter, founder of Agency-Agency

Tei Carpenter accompanies her father, James, on a fly fishing adventure. It's a beloved tradition that the duo enjoy to this day.

Spend time in nature: Tei’s father taught her how to fly fish at a very young age, and to this day, they try to organize a father-daughter fishing trip at least once a year. "It is always catch-and-release, but fundamentally, the experience is about being outside in nature together," says Tei. "I think it instills patience and attentiveness to the natural environment—to the subtle changes caused by sun, shadow, and wind. It requires diligent reading of a place and its atmospheric effects." In her line of work, it helps facilitate thoughtfulness in siting a building, its installation, and the creation of a harmonious dialogue between the building and its natural environment.

Forge your own path: "As an artist, my father’s medium is light, and he makes work that meditates on the ephemerality and qualities of light primarily using glass," says Tei. Since his work couldn’t easily be categorized as art or architecture, James carved out his own pathways to success. "It was because he believed in himself and his work; I've found that incredibly inspiring in my own career—in terms of being persistent, developing, and shaping my own practice as a young designer," she says. 

Appreciate craftsmanship: Tei’s father appreciates a piece from all angles, learning about the maker’s story and the artistic commitment involved in producing it. "I’ve learned about being conscientious when it comes to understanding objects and traditions of craft; and moreover, I’m dedicated to getting to know the people who put the work into bringing beautiful and thoughtful things into the world," she says.  

The Millerton Addition in upstate New York makes use of shou sugi ban wood from a family-run forester in Western Japan who demonstrates craftsmanship and environmental stewardship.

Bukola Bankole Adeyemi, founder of The Yellow Interior Design Co

Bukola Bankole Adeyemi with her father, Abel Gbolahan Ogooluwa Bankole.

Stay true to yourself: "Integrating your identity into design is a major struggle, but my dad taught me to always embrace who I am, where I’m from, and my Nigerian heritage—because that is what makes me unique. It’s always better to incorporate personal and meaningful touches to your space." 

Honor your intuition: "My dad believes that we are all born inspired. He has always taught me about the power of intuition, imagination, and inspiration, which translates as atinuda in Yoruba language," says Bukola. Due to her father’s wisdom, she believes that we are inherently wired for growth and exploration, much like how a toddler learns to crawl on her own. "I find that the process of a design—the concept, creating mood boards, and sourcing inspiration—stems with not only the external environment but also within me as well, and I feel this ultimately births the most original and creative solutions." 

The textile and furniture pieces are locally sourced from artisans from Nigeria, where The Yellow Company is based.

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