10 Designers and Architects Share What They’re Most Thankful for in a Turbulent Year

We asked top professionals to reflect on the silver linings and learnings from a year turned upside down by the pandemic.
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It goes without saying that Thanksgiving festivities will look different this year, with gatherings largely limited to single households and Zoom calls standing in for raucous family feasts. As we close out a brutally challenging year and enter a season of reflection, we reached out to architects and designers to share their personal experiences with the pandemic and what little joys have kept them going. From deepening connections with friends and family to a renewed appreciation of the outdoors, these notes of gratitude set the tone for a more introspective holiday. 

Tavia Forbes and Monet Masters, Forbes Masters

Founded by Monet Masters (left) and Tavia Forbes (right), Forbes Masters is a full-service interior design firm based out of Atlanta, Georgia. 

"We find ourselves having longer conversations with friends and focusing on self-care." The pandemic has prompted a reinvestment in their relationships, both with themselves and other people, and highlighted what truly matters in life.  

"We have these important gratitude sessions, and they are a form of meditation where you focus on thoughts of thankfulness." Forbes and Masters have created a morning ritual of this practice, complemented by a wood-grain oil diffuser, journaling exercise, and a short yoga class. "YouTube is a great resource, and go-tos include Yoga with Kassandra and Arianna Elizabeth," they share. They also recommend the Headspace app: "It’s so helpful on days when the mind is moving faster than one can keep up with."

"Before the pandemic, workdays were busy, and it was difficult to be present in the moment. For instance, the body would be at home physically after work, but the mind was always elsewhere." Working in isolation, however, has offered a new chance for mindfulness and presentness. "You begin to take notice of details—the beautiful, plush trees, the Atlanta skyline, the flood of natural light, the art on the wall."

Nina Cho, Nina Cho Studio

Detroit-based artist and designer Nina Cho shares a photo from a summer vacation she took to Český Krumlov, Czech Republic, with her father, Sunghwan Cho, and her mother, Eunjung Oh. 

"Due to the halt in my work at the beginning of the pandemic, I was fortunate enough to spend that time with my family in South Korea." Although the work drought was difficult for her, spending those stressful three months in the comforting community of her loved ones alleviated some of her stress, says Cho: "Those moments are precious to me; usually, I’m only able to be in Korea for a few weeks at a time."

"As a result of this, I am even more grateful for creative freedom and expression." Although COVID-19 restricted access to the facilities Cho typically uses, the adage "necessity is the mother of invention" proved true as she devised new ways to convey her ideas. "I do not want to feel limited to make objects, but aim to be more open to other creative outcomes and methods," she elaborates. "While my education and experiences are heavily based on creating three-dimensional objects, I want to expand this boundary and extend my creative practice in new ways." 

"When I was little and was faced with frustrations, I’d motivate myself out of this rut by seeking out what I deem as ‘old wisdom.’’ During the pandemic, Cho sought out films, biographies, and interviews about inspiring people across different fields, learning that "every time and era has its own difficulties, and I believe we shall make it through this one, too. It's just a matter of not losing hope, keeping a positive attitude and perceptive." This is one of the primary reasons why Nina enjoys designing mirrors: "The mirror changes its scene depending on what you reflect on. I think your thoughts and attitude can be the same way. It is how you choose to think." 

Holly Freres, JHL Design

Holly Freres, principal at Portland, Oregon–based JHL Design, poses outside her home with her husband, David, and their two children, five-year-old Ellis and three-year-old Kennedy.

"It afforded me clarity, and I was quickly reminded how grateful I am for family, health, and the ability to hunker down." For Freres, though "2020 brought more challenges than I could’ve imagined," the tumultuous year illuminated the importance of helping to propel positive social and environmental changes.

"In juggling two kids under the age of five and a busy business, I realized I needed [my morning workouts] for mental and physical health." Breaking a sweat, says Freres, "has been my therapy, my release, and a great way to keep my immune system in check."

"I found so much comfort knowing we could take care of each other." Over Zoom, Freres and her staff have taken turns leading weekly meditations, the format ranging from silent affirmation, to discussing ways of letting go, to sharing healthy coping mechanisms for stress. "It’s been an incredibly powerful way to support and spread our love in our own lives and in others," she says. 

"It’s been rewarding to get back into the kitchen and exercise my creativity." Cooking has become a fun, fulfilling family affair—and especially eye-opening for her children. "They want to know where our food comes from, so we talk to them about supporting local farms like Tabula Rasa Farms (a friend and client)—how the animals are raised and cared for, and what nutrients they provide our bodies," she says.

Jenny Wu, Oyler Wu Collaborative

Jenny Wu and Dwayne Oyler of Los Angeles–based Oyler Wu Collaborative have two boys, Ariel (front) and Emery (back), who brought their toy tools to work on their family’s studio space.

"After the past six months, we have a newfound appreciation for our own home, studio space, and backyard in the Silver Lake neighborhood of Los Angeles." Wu, her husband and professional partner, Dwayne Oyler, and their two children have spent time expanding and building out the studio, which has become an extension of their backyard. "The kids would bring their toy tools and pretend to work on the building of the guardrail like we were," says Wu, who says it’s cherished moments like these that have brought everyone closer together. 

Robin Wilson, Robin Wilson Home

Clean design author and designer Robin Wilson is pictured here at seven months old with her parents, Jo Ann and Rubin Wilson, in Austin, Texas.

Wilson has carried on the family’s strong work ethic, transforming her home into a shipping hub and workspace. Wilson grew up in a working-class family; her paternal grandfather worked as a sharecropper, and her own father harvested cotton in Texas for shoes. Her parents emphasized education as a way to achieve her dreams, and as her eponymous brand celebrates its 20th anniversary this year, she reflects on her family’s teachings about perseverance and hard work.

"Everyone is going to hit a bump in the road—sometimes it is a valley, and sometimes a canyon, but you just have to pull yourself up, take the next step, and talk to trusted individuals to gain perspective." The pandemic has prompted Wilson to take a longer view in order to keep focused on her personal and entrepreneurial dreams.  

Noz Nozawa, Noz Design

Interior designer Noz Nozawa, her husband Daniel, and their French bulldog, Vivienne, snap a pic in front of the Golden Gate Bridge.

"[Our Tahoe cabin] has been incredibly valuable for our mental and physical well-being." Rather than upsizing their home in San Francisco, Nozawa and her husband invested in a North Lake Tahoe retreat that they’d previously used for weekend and holiday getaways. "Since March, we’ve basically been living out this pandemic in a low-density area," she says. Surrounded by nature and visited by critters from squirrels to coyotes, she’s been able to flex her creative muscles in their new digs. "I’ve been able to challenge my design sensibilities and experiment with new ways to define my style in the context of more elemental architecture details," she notes. "I have learned more than I ever thought I would about antler chandeliers and snow-surviving outdoor furniture."

"An unexpected consequence of our new Zoom realities is how productively we’re working." Working remotely has actually strengthened her team and opened new doors, shares Nozawa, who says they’re getting more projects in far-flung places like New York and Aspen, Colorado: "So, despite the irony of being unable to travel, our remote abilities have brought expansive opportunities to our team—which I’m so grateful for."

A renewed relationship with time:  Noz learned to be kinder to herself and become attuned to the importance of taking breaks from work to decompress. This realization also hasn't been taken for granted: "I recognize very much that slowing down during COVID is a privilege that so many folks who've lost their employment, or who now have to homeschool their children, don't get to have. But to the extent that I had started feeling like a hostage to my own business's success, I am very grateful to have been forced to reconnect with the fact that what I do with my time is a choice, that I still choose work because design is how I breathe life into the world I get to inhabit."

Ari Bose, IBI Group Inc.

Director and buildings lead at IBI Group Ari Bose enjoys a trip to Letchworth State Park in Rochester, New York, with his wife, Minali Singh, and their son Vian Singh Bose.

"Looking back, I can’t remember the last time we had such great summer weather. It’s allowed us to get out as a family, go out for long hikes and picnics, and generally feel 'cage-free'; this quality time has been priceless." The balmy weather has also allowed him to work at his temporary office on his backyard deck at home. "With a newfound appreciation for the outdoors, I’ve carried this ethos into several design projects such as the Boca Raton Center for Arts and Innovation," he says.

"A peek into our colleagues’, clients’, and collaborators’ lives has made us all a little bit more human, a little bit more understanding, and definitely more empathetic." With Zoom calls and virtual sessions now becoming the norm, Bose has noticed an overlap of personal and professional spheres, sharing a moment during a project interview when a cat jumped onto his client’s lap, and a kid walked into a virtual meeting to as if she could have Cheerios for lunch.

"These ‘slow-down’ moments have brought a new level of well-being to my life." While work has actually picked up for Ari during the pandemic, he’s been finding time for breaks—watching his favorite soccer club play or exercising—despite the longer hours, and "these have been crucial and have helped me relax and fulfill my ‘wellbeing quotient.’ And right after that, I could pick up where I left off and work till late at night, if desired." 

Karen Curtiss, Red Dot Studio

For principal and cofounder of Red Dot Studio Karen Curtiss, backyard dinners have become an important part of the family routine. She shares a silly moment with her daughter, Karen, and her husband, Mark. 

"I am grateful for dinners in our backyard and my husband’s cooking—we were already doing this pre-pandemic, but now he’s taken things to a whole new level." Curtiss adds that he’s been whipping up a lot of plant-based, zero-waste dishes, gathering ingredients from their garden where they grow foods like peppers, arugula, and cilantro. "This kind of passion has proven to be contagious in a good way for our family," she says. "My kids and I went from watching to participating in the daily routine of cooking, and embedding this everyday joy into our lives."

"We seldom used the [backyard], and it felt a bit neglected. We now realize how lucky we are to have personal outdoor space with our home in San Francisco." During the lockdown, Curtiss’s family added home-like flourishes that capture the joyful, communal spirit of the space: "We gardened, strung lights, moved the furniture around, and created a cozy spot where we play board games, laugh, and enjoy dinner together a few nights a week."

Jason Berry and Michael Reginbogin, KNEAD Hospitality + Design

Michael Reginbogin (left) and Jason Berry (right) are co-founders and principals at Knead Hospitality + Design, based in Washington, DC. Knead is a multi-unit and multi-concept design firm which owns, operates, and designs its own restaurant establishments. 

"Time in solitude during the early days of the pandemic made us long for human contact and the relationships that we surround ourselves with during normal times." However, the experience afforded them time to reflect and recognize the importance of social contact, relationships, friendships, and family. "They are a means to our sanity and survival. We cannot take this for granted," say Reginbogin and Berry.

"At times, we forget how lucky we are to be running a successful and quickly growing hospitality/design company where we get to work alongside diverse teammates who share in the same values and passion as us." When the pandemic threatened the survival of their restaurants, they feared that they’d lost everything they’d worked for. "But when we were given the chance to reopen," they say, "we pinched ourselves and realized that we have a significant opportunity to devote ourselves to doing even more to create the company of our dreams." 

Alessandro Munge, Studio Munge

Alessandro Munge, founder and director of Toronto-based Studio Munge, is grateful for his team’s diverse perspectives, talents, and experiences. He explains that "it results in spaces reimagined through passion and vision."

"I am so incredibly grateful for the support we continue to receive from all our staff, our clients, our partners and governments, enabling us to thrive in this new environment; we are blessed."

"The silver lining in all of this is the opportunity to reconnect with people and create more meaningful bonds." Prior to the pandemic, Munge was always on the go, jet-setting from Los Angeles to Tokyo. "I used to spend so much time in the air that I had somewhat lost my spiritual connection to Canadian soil—and more importantly, with my team," says Munge, who says that the pause has genuinely helped him regain control over how, and with whom, he spends his time.

"We have a social responsibility to be thought-provoking, leveraging our expertise to influence our city and country." With the social unrest that has accompanied this year, Munge is using his platform and expertise as a designer to help others. "We have to seek out the uncomfortable, challenge the status quo, and bring positive energy to this world we coexist in," he says.

Related Reading: 17 Architects on How the Pandemic Will Change Our Homes Forever


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