My interview with Clive Wilkinson of Clive Wilkinson Architects is the second in a series of interviews with highly acclaimed architects that have a specialty in interior architecture.
Clive Wilkinson is an architect, designer, writer and strategist with particular expertise in the application of urban design thinking to workplace and educational communities. He was born in South Africa and educated in the United Kingdom. His practice, Clive Wilkinson Architects, was established in Los Angeles in 1991, and is an acknowledged global leader in workplace design.
In 2005, Clive was inducted into the Interior Design ‘Hall of Fame’. In 2006, he was named as a ‘Master of Design’ by Fast Company magazine and a 2011 ‘Pioneer of Design’ by the IIDA NC. He is a former Board Director of the American Institute of Architects/Los Angeles and a member of the GSA National Peer Registry. He has served as a keynote speaker at global media, advertising and design conferences, and has contributed to radio and television shows on architecture and design affairs. Clive’s work was selected in both 2010 and 2011 as a Finalist in the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum Design Awards. Since its inception, his practice has received over 75 design awards, and is published regularly in a variety of international media.
You are known for your highly innovative office and educational interiors. Are you involved in any other project types?
The recession has been tough on everyone. How has it affected the way you do business?
We’ve had to run leaner and meaner and although that is salutary, it has meant that the ability to truly experiment has been sacrificed. There’s simply no surplus to support it. We are having to resort to Malcolm Gladwell’s ‘Blink’ condition – to run with our first instincts in designing projects. As a career trajectory, this is probably effective in increasing the speed to market of ideas, but one needs the calmer times to test ideas more thoroughly.
We are a kind of janitorial service of ideas in education and the workplace and that works well for us. We are completely open to other areas of janitorial service – particularly when it involves large complex problems. Other people may be better designers, but I think we excel in simplifying and reformulating complexity to create great user experiences.
What are you doing now that you weren’t doing 3 years ago?
We have used this time to take a gamble on building our own small office structure. Construction costs across the board are low now, and interest rates are very low, so the timing is great. We are now well into construction of our 11,000 SF office building. Fingers crossed, we’ll finish without running out of money!
You have done some incredible projects aboard. What are the biggest challenges of doing work in other countries and how do you manage those challenges?
The biggest challenge of working abroad is jetlag! I have had periods where it is intense and you get major sleep deprivation from multiple time zones. Operationally, it’s surprisingly easy as everything is focused on collaborating with a local architect partner, an agreed trip calendar and delivery dates. So far, we’ve made it work very well. I guess it also helps that I have prior work experience in Europe and Australia.
Where do you look for inspiration?
I really think of what we do as a constant journey of discovery. Inspiration comes from multiple sources, and of course foreign places and cultures. Reading is invaluable. I have about 100 books that I need to get through, but find it hard to find the time. I find poetry all around us, in people and things, and distilling poetry into architectural concepts is a delight. I get inspiration from whomever I am talking to — a client or a co-worker. Design is a highly social activity and ideas can flow rapidly in conversation if you endeavor to be a good listener.
What do you feel is the biggest trend in interior architecture today?
Trends act like fashion: they are valuable more to build a social consensus than to have any value themselves. Probably the most interesting trend in interior architecture is the move toward openness and transparency in a powerful way. It is driven by new flatter organizations, and the desire to connect and communicate with people. It is also driven by a general need to know how things work, and how we can assess our world, which is changing so rapidly. The world has become less predictable and less stable, so transparency has become a survival necessity. At this stage in time, we are all clustering at the edge of the forest, looking out over the empty plains and trying to gauge what dangers lie ahead.
Are there any areas of the practice that you would like to be involved with but haven’t been given the opportunity?
Everyone must have a dream list. I guess mine is actually to do more ground-up building (we’re have some architectural building projects now) so that we can extend the interior to the exterior and discover how that relationship can be synergistically animated. Buildings are fundamentally inert and dumb — until they begin to embody an intelligence about their reason for being. Most trendy buildings today are really painful representations of their shallow conception. I think this is an undervalued area – the physics and sociology of architecture - that is crying out for transformation.
I know you are constantly on the go. What do you do to relax and recharge?
It’s hard. I think the trick is to adopt the view that everywhere is normal and everything is normal, so that you never leave home, whether you are in Helsinki or Los Angeles.
What advice would you give someone entering into the field of interior architecture?
Study all forms of what makes up the human settlement. You should dig deep into urban planning, architecture, interiors, furniture, products and all the other arts. And you should constantly ask yourself why you are really doing what you are doing. A culture of questioning is essential to producing great creative work. Never be satisfied with the conventional solution as it probably no longer serves a useful purpose. Fifty years ago, Marshall MacLuhan observed that “we continually use old tools to solve new problems”. And we still do.
What do you see as the next step for your firm?
I have no idea, but I also like that I have no idea. This keeps us wide open to change. When things get bad, I think of being a taxi driver in some other city, some other country. I like that idea and the social discoveries that it could entail. I think that one thing that characterizes the people in our firm is that they are really fascinated with the human condition.