Profile: Aidlin Darling Design

Accuracy…Sensuality. Precision…Richness. Just like design and craft, these are concepts all-too-frequently separated, considered to be mutually exclusive.

Oh ye of little faith. San Francisco-based architecture firm Aidlin Darling Design proves that nothing could be farther from the truth.

Joshua Aidlin and David Darling work in a very hands-on way (just take a look at all of their amazing models) to create breathtaking architectural spaces that have meaning, resonance, and staying power. In a world of cookie-cutter architecture, design for the sake of design, and structures that brute-force themselves into their environments, Joshua and David create poetry out of structure and some very smart engineering.

In addition to hot San Francisco restaurants Bar Agricole, Wexler’s and Bar Bambino, our poets have designed wineries (Paso Robles and Scribe Wineries), offices (Boyd Lighting and law firm Pillsbury, Madison and Sutro), and homes (lucky homeowners!) from San Francisco to Wine Country to Hong Kong, Aidlin Darling also creates custom furniture that’s as lyrical, thought-out, and precise as their structures.

Bar Agricole, Image Courtesy of Aidlin Darling Design

Boyd Lighting, Image Courtesy of Aidlin Darling Design

Hearing you talk about your projects, we get the sense you’re pretty passionate about a lot of them. (DD) We do tend to be get very involved with the projects we work on…it’s such a blessing to have projects directly inline with our passions. We’re particularly passionate about food and love those projects. (In addition to the breathtaking Bar Agricole, they are currently working on a project with Alice Waters on Potrero Hill.)  (JA) We’ve had a long relationship with Alice Waters, particularly on our project on Potrero Hill, an edible school yard and organic farmers market. Why’d you get interested in that? I live in the neighborhood and would watch children go to the corner store and get Coke and Cheetos…and I thought, “How do we expect them to perform, and become contributing, healthy members of society?”

How’d you start working together? (JA) Went to school together at the University of Cincinnati. Dave started with Stanley Saitowitz in 1988. I ran into Dave again in SF…I’d been traveling around the world and the US. Eventually, we realized we should start working together. We started the firm in 1998.

You’ve been working together for well over a decade now. What’s the secret? (JA) In any creative venue, there are certain people you team up with and they take your ideas and leap forward with them (as opposed to sideways and backwards). Dave and I had that from the start. It’s what we like to call the rubberband effect.

Your office has a different vibe, very tactile, lots of awesome models. And we love that there’s a woodshop in the back.
(JA) My Father was a sculptor and my Mother was a painter. When my father passed away, I inherited his studio. I brought out his woodshop and built the office around the it.

So, what was it like when you started? (DD) In 1998, we decided to start a multi-disciplinary design firm….Josh had a strong interiors background, and I did as well. The emphasis was on design as a comprehensive whole. We were interested in landscape architecture as well. (JA) We’re even interested in product design. We’re interested in design and art on numerous scales. Do you think of yourselves as designers or architects? Both!

How did your furniture line start? (JA) We actually started out making furniture. We didn’t have a client (for architecture) at that time, so finding our voice was tremendously important and we did that through furniture. Our potential clients could then have a window into our creative vision

(JA) At this point, though, our furniture design work is typically custom and one-off. For example, we’re designing a 17 ft dining table, exterior benches and side tables for a client of cours…of course that’s not with every client….

Craft is clearly important to you. How often do you get to get your hands dirty? (DD) We get to exercise our craft in our architectural projects. And we do get to design furniture.

I take it that while you can and do actually MAKE, you also work with collaborators? (DD) Collaboration is tremendously important to us. There’s such phenomenal talent out here, great metal work, Concreteworks and Nik Weinstein. (Joshua) We are obsessed with accuracy and precision and are humbled as craftspeople by the work we see.

Bar Agricole, Image Courtesy of Aidlin Darling Design

Do you have a style? (DD) We’re designing in response to the context. We want to design for all the senses…(JA) but we don’t have a singluar style. Wexler’s and Bar Agricole are radically different. (DD) I think there is a consistency around material, it is the craft that connects the user in a unique way. (JA) So much work is site specific. It’s about laying out all the contributing influences and extracting the most potent and timeless result.

Talk about working with context, how you work with the environment. (JA) We don’t think about our work adding to the environment. We think about our work as extracting what’s already there, or has been there waiting to be realized. It’s a more patient way of approaching a project. So, do you have a special process? Our teams will immerse themselves in the environment, including camping out on a given site…it’s about nuance…the human body is incredibly complex in the way it absorbs stimuli…if you truly slow down to acknowledge it, a wide range of ideas start to realize themselves. Sometimes the ideas compete and then editing is required…but once you start to identify the generators…a concept begins to emerge.

Sonoma Spa Retreat, Image Courtesy of Aidlin Darling Design

(DD) Sometimes it’s distinctly un-romantic. Sometimes it’s about smelling the horse stables, or camping in the central valley and hearing the clang of equipment at 10pm…that’s something we wouldn’t have known by looking at a site plan…fast forward to the end of the project…it’s seeing the reflection of water on the ceiling and hearing the sound of the water….so you don’t hear the farm equipment.

On a project in Sonoma in the Valley of the Moon, the client had interest in cartography. The name of the area, Valley of the Moons came from the legend of the 7 moons…As the Miwok would travel through the valley, the undulations of the site lines would hide the moons. This was the springboard for the project: it became about layering and cartography. The result is very cinematic…you lose sight of how large the house is…it’s all about how the house is revealed to the viewer based on the geography and topography.

Vineyard Estate, Image Courtesy of Aidlin Darling Design

Besides the nuances of particular sites, what influences your designs? (JA) Our work is based on the sensuality of human beings: auditory, food, smell, etc. Designers get wrapped up in design strategy….but we are sensual beings and we’re always asking and pushing ourselves to tap into that. (DD) And it’s not just us. It’s a very democratic studio. Everyone contributes to the ideas….it’s about debate and discussion.

What’s going on in architecture that you’re excited about? (JA) Architecture has become extremely scientific particularly in the area of efficiency: materials, systems, and processes have to be efficient. If you take that to the nth degree, it’s not architecture: it’s science. There’s a difference between composing and understanding your medium so well that you’re inventing, but not in a self conscious manner…simply problem solving creatively. Materials science will inform new forms of architecture. Floorplates out of carbon fiber, glass skins that collect energy….what we know as a building form is changing radically.

(DD) Architecture’s now very information driven and we find ourselves digging beneath the surface a lot more than we used to. Example? We worked on a winery project and one of the first things you learn is that wineries use a lot of water. The water issue is a fundamental part of the design problems, both on the agricultural and the production side of it. The solution can manifest itself in different ways, like a winery with a water roof. A water roof is a living roof that moves waste water through it, and seasonally uses the biomass from the roof as a fuel. Because of this, 90% of water is re-introduced into the production cycle. We worked with Roger Bolton, from UC Davis, picking his brain on water use in viticulture…it’s a perfect example of what we do. When you start merging technology and form, that’s when things get interesting.

But we don’t want technology to be gratuitous. Is it technoloy that drives a solution or vice versa? We want that line to disappear.

Paso Robles Winery, Image Courtesy of Aidlin Darling Design

Talk about your influences. (DD) I’m inspired by watching how people engage different spaces. It can be as simple as watching an event, like watching people participate in the foraging and the prep of food. Or an old movie projecting against the side of the old building…Anything can feed into the design process.

Does that work into your furniture design? (JA) Absolutely. It’s about how to design to the human body again. You wouldn’t believe how long it took to get the banquette angle right for Agricole…

Any favorite furniture pieces? (DD) The Eames chairs we’re sitting on…enduring design….accessibility from a market perspective, and utility…

Aidlin Darling Design Studios, Image Courtesy of Aidlin Darling Design

I was thinking about furniture that you’ve designed, actually (so self-effacing, these two…) (DD) We like to use the materials at our fingertips, like a fallen tree….we did a lovely piece of furniture with it.

(JA) But we also love to create furniture that’s really meaningful to people, that’s inspired by their stories. For example, a client of ours had survived WWII in Hungary. Effectively, she lost her childhood and as a result, she’d become a hoarder of beautiful things. We created a table around the idea of collecting objects….The desk was designed around collection glasses, watches, lighters. It was a beautiful specimen that’s going to get handed down from generation to generation.

Image Courtesy of Aidlin Darling Design

So, how do you get to those stories? (JA) We ask our own questions…like what are your favorite books, movies, artworks…tangential questions that wouldn’t seem meaningful to the project but communicate everything about the spirit of the individual (DD) And we ask a lot of questions about privacy. Some people want the enclave; some people want to be on the perch. There’s a psychology about those issues. What have you learned? (DD) That our clients have surprisingly few issues with nakedness…

OK, now for our obnoxious question. Who plays you in the movie of your life? (JA) My wife has said Kevin Spacey. And the movie of your life? I love movies that screw with time, like “Memento”.

(DD) Huh. Spacey…that’s interesting. Is that a visual or a personality thing?

And you, David? (JA) I think it’s Brad Pitt. (DD) Yeah, I’ve heard that, but I have no idea where that comes from. But I don’t want to say that. OK then what kind of movie? A Peter Greenaway movie, though you can take it in different ways. I love the baroque feel of them. The sensual aspects of it…but I don’t know why it applies to me. But then I also love that 70’s movie Breaking Away, about those bikers? I’m a huge biker.

Eclectic. Sensual. Thoughtful. Subtle. And quite wonderful.


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