Q&A: Bay Area Architect Ryan Leidner Shares His Morning Ritual
Welcome to The Blue Hour, a new series where we’ll be tagging along with inspiring members of the Huckberry community as they move through their early-morning and late-night rituals.
"I want to create a space that welcomes you home in a deeper way, in a way that helps you feel centered and grounded. It’s the feeling a lot of us have when we’re outdoors in a beautiful, natural landscape. I want to bring that feeling home."
To kick off our Blue Hour series, we recently caught up with friend of Huckberry, Ryan Leidner (@ryanleidner), the architect behind our favorite homes in the Bay Area. As a lifelong lover of the outdoors, Ryan grappled early on with the idea of entering the field of architecture. He'd have to reconcile his love of nature with the fact that buildings—kind of by necessity—separate us from the outdoors.
Luckily, he stuck it out. After graduating from Harvard University’s Graduate School of Design, Ryan harnessed that internal conflict and transformed it into one of his greatest strengths as an architect—the ability to integrate elements of the outdoors into built structures.
Whether it’s through the use of natural materials or through installing skylights and massive windows, Ryan designs stunning spaces that provide the shelter we need while still offering the positive effects of being surrounded by nature.
Tag along as we explore the morning routine of Bay Area architect Ryan Leidner.
Walk us through your morning ritual.
It definitely takes some coffee to get me going in the morning — usually I'll have a cup in bed before I'm actually up. I’ll check the news, read a few emails, and flip through Instagram in bed. I used to give myself a hard time about that but lately I’ve been giving myself a break. I actually find it really inspiring to scroll through Instagram. There’s so much great design out there, all over the world, and it’s pretty amazing to be able to have a little window into it.
Once I’m up, if I don’t need to run out the door for a meeting, I like to take a few minutes to sit on the deck and work on The New York Times crossword. It comes in the Sunday paper and I chip away at it throughout the week. It’s fun and it helps me get the cobwebs out a little bit.
"There’s something reassuring about there always being a right answer to the crossword. It’s not like design where there’s an infinite amount of ways to do it. There’s something really comforting about that."
I live right next to a hidden gem of a park in San Francisco, so I make a point to get out and exercise most mornings to take advantage of it—usually either running stairs or playing tennis. Being outdoors keeps me grounded, and spending time outside during my morning is a really important way for me to set the tone for my day, and how I handle whatever gets thrown at me.
I’ve made a routine of walking to my office, it’s a little over a mile, and I usually take my time with it. It’s a chance for me to clear my head, to think about bigger-picture things that are going on in work and life. It’s so easy to get rushed in the morning, but there's something about the pace of walking to work, you notice the world a little differently. You give your brain and your body a chance to sync up.
How did you decide to become an architect?
I always liked making things. My dad is a doctor and a woodworker, so our garage was always a workshop filled with tools and projects, and our house was always a bit of a work in progress.
Once I got to college I delved into history—ancient history and the classics—and went down a completely different path from the art and building I was doing while I was growing up. I had gotten into ancient philosophy, focusing on things that were immaterial, and the idea of making buildings started to feel really foreign to me. But towards the end of college I got more reflective and thought about how I wanted to spend my time and how I could integrate my creative drive with my more analytical side. I realized that so much of studying antiquity is looking at ruins—trying to read buildings for the ideas they contain—and I think that helped me get back to architecture as a worthwhile pursuit for myself.
And then I just went for it.
Where do you draw inspiration?
I draw a lot of inspiration directly from the people whose homes I’m designing. I like to go deep on projects with people, and I really enjoy that personal aspect of the process.
"It's interesting how much memory plays a part in the design process—whether it's an association somebody has to a color, or to a smell, or to a sound, or a texture—we use that as inspiration and work with it to inform the designs."
Whether it’s a sense of nostalgia you feel when you hear your feet on a wooden boardwalk and you’re brought back to an early memory of a summer spent playing at the beach, or the way you remember your grandmother’s house smelling, or the color of the fields next to your childhood home —these memories carry a lot of weight for people, and I see it as part of my job to fold these memories into the design of a home. Personally, I really get a lot out of that process.
"It’s always been a dream of mine to design a modern, Japanese-style onsen around a natural hot springs. So yeah, if someone wants to build a hot springs retreat, call me."
I also feel really inspired by taking the more mundane parts of a home and trying to elevate those spaces. To honor them, really. Take the bathroom, for example—every home has one and it’s part of everyone’s daily routine, but it’s often an afterthought when it comes to design. I want to help people elevate these experiences. If it's bathing or showering, I just want to make the space for that to be a beautiful experience. We all need to shower, but that shower can be so much more amazing with a huge skylight over it. Or, I’ve found that even a detailed tiled pattern on the walls, that was clearly installed with incredible care, can give the experience of using the space a totally elevated feeling.
I want to create a space that welcomes you home in a deeper way, in a way that helps you feel centered and grounded. It’s the feeling a lot of us have when we’re outdoors in a beautiful, natural landscape. I want to bring that feeling home. I had a client tell me recently that they could never sell a house that we had finished because it felt like it embodied part of them. That’s what inspires me. That’s why I do this.
How do you break through creative blocks?
Yeah, tough question. Creative blocks definitely happen, and I think it’s really important to reset and do what you have to in order to work through them. Maybe there’s something deeper going on —an issue you need to pay attention to that you’re not giving yourself the space to focus on. And sometimes it’s just as simple as needing to shake things up, to get a different perspective.
One thing I’ll do to clear my head is to get in my car and drive up the coast. Something about seeing the ocean and the horizon line really resonates with me. It broadens my mindset and gives me a bigger canvas to work out ideas on. Being active helps too—going surfing, playing tennis, just being outside typically helps break it.
Ultimately I think it’s really about just shifting your perspective. If I’m facing a creative block, or have a specific problem I need to solve, thinking really hard about the problem usually isn’t the best way for me to solve it. I’ll do something more tangential—I’ll work on building a model for a totally different project, I’ll paint, I’ll do just about anything else and usually that’s when the solution hits me. There’s a lot of process and structure to architecture, inherently, and I think it’s important to make time to experiment and create without rules.
"It’s important not to be too careful—give yourself permission to make mistakes and learn and grow—having this mindset really opens up space for new ideas."
Who are you paying attention to right now in the design world?
There’s so much great design out there these days. There’s really nice contemporary work coming out of Australia right now, like Clare Cousins (@clarecousins) and Neutral Instinct (@neutralinstinct). Japanese architecture has always been inspiring to me, and I always find myself coming back to the work of offices like Saana (@sanaa.jp) and Sou Fujimoto (@sou_fujimoto). A lot of what’s happening in Japan has a playfulness to it. It’s not an austere minimalist approach — it feels more spontaneous and fresh. Then there’s Marcio Kogan (@mkogan27) in Latin America, who I like a lot for his very volumetric approach to design. I really admire two English architects, McLaren Excell (@mclarenexcell) and John Pawson (@johnpawson), whose work is really subtle and all about light. I also really like Tham & Videgård (@thamvidegard) in Sweden and Norm Architects (@normarchitects) in Denmark.
What's next for you?
If I’m lucky, it's more of the same. If I can keep going like this, working closely with people to design their homes, I would be stoked.
That said, it’s always been a dream of mine to design a modern, Japanese-style onsen around a natural hot springs. So yeah, if someone wants to build a hot springs retreat, call me.
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