DesignCraft Profile: Lundberg Design

We took it as a good sign: an architect’s website that starts out, “Architectural design is an inherently arrogant act.” That takes guts. It’s pretty bold, you might even say arrogant, but it’s also very funny. And knowing.

But then this kind of statement invites you to set the bar pretty high, doesn’t it? The work had better be pretty damned good.

And it is. Better than damned good.

Residence, Pacific Heights
Lundberg Residence, Sonoma
Heavens Dog Restaurant

Lundberg Design’s varied work (restaurants, homes, commercial spaces–even a dog boarding facility) is gorgeous: sleek but not slick. Grand but intimate. Subtle but sensuous. Witty but disciplined. Signatures? Soulful use of natural materials, many of them unexpected. Inspired use of shadow and light. Curves used like good punctuation, bringing context, structure, and surprise. A clear love of the small, the perfect moment: the little detail that makes the whole thing come together and gives you a jolt of pure pleasure.

But it’s not all about design. It’s about grit, as well.  We love that they combine designing with making (they have a metal shop integrated into the architectural studio. In fact, it’s where our good friends Norberto and Tony of the UrbanLab had begun working together.) Let’s be quite clear: this is no prissy little hobby space tucked apologetically behind slick offices. This is a full-on shop that you can see and feel from many of the main spaces in the studio. In some sense, it’s the soul of the entire enterprise.

For this team, architecture is about making, creating, craft. In their hands, architecture isn’t just pretty design, but an effort to create a living, breathing experience. It’s a genuine engagement with reality.

Firm founder Olle Lundberg sets the tone for this: the strong, convivial personality, the generous spirit, the willingness to take a poke at convention. Oh, and the wicked sense of fun.

You follow up your opening salvo on arrogance with a caveat: how it’s not only personality, but process that makes architecture arrogant. Say more. It’s all true. Ultimately, you’re telling people how to live. You’re listening, incorporating what they want, but you’re still telling them how to live. And as a client, when you hire an architect for their aesthetic vision, you have to anticipate and accept that you’re going to get their vision.

How’d you get into architecture? I was getting an undergraduate degree in literature and needed more credits, so I got a second degree in sculpture. I really liked it…working with metal, the welding, casting. After graduation, I applied to business, law and architecture school. (Ah, the very focused student. Been there.)

How’d you choose between the three? I really didn’t want to go to law school; my father wanted me to go to business school. The business school I wanted to go to said they’d take me in a year or two, after I got some experience. So in the interim, I went to architecture school at UVa, and I could have gone back to business school, but I realizing that if I went to business school I wouldn’t be an architect and I was enjoying being an architect too much.

Why the switch from literature and writing? I loved writing. But I realized that I wasn’t fast. I was one of these people who labored over every page. Architecture was a steeper learning curve, but I discovered that I could design fast. I’m still a fast designer. I’m a big believer in the initial reaction, gesture, your first thought. It was such a gift for me when I discovered that.

Was there some great moment of discovery? Not really. I don’t think I figured it out until I went out on my own. You know, when you actually start to work, you realize that it’s about your ability to balance all the things you need to do to stay in business.  Only 5% is about design. How do you create quality work when you don’t have time? You have to be fast.

So how do you tap into inspiration? At my cabin in Sonoma. (Have a long look at the images on the Lundberg Design site. I’d be seriously inspired there, too.) And in the shower.

Hmmm. Men are always saying that they get great ideas in the shower. Women generally do not. What’s that about? (Laugh.) Maybe it’s because it’s womb-like. Maybe it’s early morning. I’m definitely a morning designer. No design after lunch.

Sky Hill Ranch

What’s informed your taste? Certainly the Scandinavian heritage: the love of nature, particularly the woods. My family moved here two weeks before I was born. Also, my father was a chemical engineer at Procter and Gamble and managed paper mills. They were heroic in scale, half built into a river. Of course, they were polluting, but I didn’t know that then. Anyway that’s probably where I developed a fascination with industrial archeology–which is what it is, because that part of industry is moving away from this country. But I love the rawness of the materials, the exposure to the process. The introduction of the manmade into the natural world. You see steel, metal, and glass in my work combined with wood and nature.

Where did the idea of having a metal fabrication in your studio come from? The notion of the hand being visible in our work I figured out coherently 15 years ago. But it’s always been a part of the process. It lets us work more like sculptors, rather than as architects. We also get to use experimental materials and working things out in the shop. That’s what’s great about having this type of capability.

Do you have a favorite signature piece? Yeah, it definitely has to be the honey wall at Out the Door. (Having been there dozens of times, I’d noticed the warm, enveloping glow, but had no clue it was honey.) It’s evolving, kinetic, always changing over time. Honey doesn’t decay. It’s a good metaphor for Charles (Phan’s) food. Timeless.

Out the Door
Honey panel detail

Your work’s pretty bold. You took on all the convention of Pacific Heights to do that house on Jackson Street. You got a lot of flack for that. Whose idea was it to put a modernist house there? Well the clients definitely wanted something modern–assertively modern. And when you look carefully at the street, you’ll see that there’s almost one of every type of house style–it’s not all classic homes. We just completed the set with a modern piece. And the battle to get it through planning? None of the neighbors in those blocks agreed. But the clients were enormously patient which is absolutely what you need. Our process is really skewed toward people who object. These things become wars of attrition. But the process is changing.

What’s your favorite part of design process? Same as everyone else….coming up with the initial ideas. The rest is the hard work.

Talk about working with clients. We’ve been incredibly fortunate with the clients we’ve had. The most important lesson for me to learn was that I shouldn’t work with someone I don’t connect with. Unless there’s a connection, it’s unlikely that I’ll be able to design something they’ll like. It’s hard, but you really have to back away if the chemistry’s not there. And it’s a hard thing when you need the work, and it’s tough when you have to think about laying off people, and I do understand people who make the tough decision. I get it.


How do you find the balance between your design sense and that of your team? I’m always heavily involved with the client during the design process. There’s also a project architect who does a great deal of the design. That’s one of the reasons there’s such variety in our work…that comes from the talented staff here–we believe in giving people the ability to flex their design skills. I think of myself as an editor rather than a micromanager. Would your staff concur? Yeah, I think so.  It’s how we keep good designers. We’ve had some people for over 10 years.

What is good design? What’s the essence of it? Design is about composition. To be a good architect, you have to have an eye for that. In some sense, sculpture is all about composition too. The difference is the intellectual palette you bring to it. In sculpture, it’s at more of a visceral level. In architecture, there are many functional elements you have to bring to it.

OK, who plays you in the movie of your life? We always talk about this here.  The staff has decided that it would be Gerard Depardieu.  (Spot on.)

And what kind of movie would it be? (Big shrug.) Oh I don’t know…the end isn’t written yet. But I would like to be a smart, mannered comedy. Maybe something like Philadelphia Story. That’s my hope. My fear is Mad Men.

What things define you?

  • The Cabin defines me. It’s the most personal piece of design I’ve ever done. I’ve built most of it myself. I just like doing it. For me, it’s the act of building. On some level the act of building is more important than the act of design.
  • The workshop. What about it? Everything. The fact that I have one…the people…the equipment…what goes on there.
  • My kitchen knives. I have a serious collection.
  • Our hot sauce collection. We have over 800 hot sauces, and we collect wherever we go.

I have a ship that we live aboard, but I don’t think it defines me. Maybe as my folly!

Which do you prefer: residences or restaurants? Oh residences are more fun. But restaurants are really public. And is there a secret to restaurant design? All good restaurant design should be driven by food, not image, market, etc. If someone’s concept is not coming from the food, we won’t do the project.

Where’s your happy place? It’s the cabin. Nowhere else even comes close.

Lundberg Cabin

Can you remember a moment of transcendent joy? Oh yeah. Just this weekend. We were having our annual office party at our cabin, where we’re working on this outdoor kitchen and had just installed a pizza oven. I’d always had this vision of this outdoor kitchen, where everyone could gather and cook. And then, here we were. Everyone was standing around, making pizza, drinking wine, looking out at the amazing view. It was a great moment. I remember thinking, this is as good as it gets. Throughout human history, these are the things we’ve tried to achieve. I was really happy. So many of the great moments in life–in history–are over shared food, fire. It was great to connect at that human level. Design at its best facilitates that…you create spaces that people love to be in.

What was on your pizza? I stick with the classics. Basil, tomato sauce, cheese.

Of course. Bringing together a handful of humble elements to create pure magic. It’s what Olle and his team do best.


Lundberg Design


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2 Responses to DesignCraft Profile: Lundberg Design

  1. SDSheetMetal says:

    really like the design of the cabin!

  2. Wayne Campbell says:

    In 88 or 89 Ole assembled an enormously talented team to create the Oracle Redwood City Campus lobbies and office furniture. I was very lucky to be included on that team. Over the years and all over the country I’ve never encountered a better designer or team manager than Ole. His design sense is always both astonishing and completely right. He seems to broaden and define at the same time. Hard to describe. Best designer I’ve ever worked with.