We recently got together for a chat to explore her beginnings, the evolution of home office design, and lastly her incredible project in Napa that was about so much more than transforming physical space.
- Ken Tomita (co-founder and CEO)
Ken: Could you describe what has changed?
Risa: We would often get a request to have somewhere to pay bills or work on the computer but it was kind of an afterthought or not a priority.
Ken: So if I came to you and I have no idea, I have no design sense, I need a home office, I'm struggling here, how do you help me figure that out?
Risa: I want to learn a little bit about what you're doing in the space, and when you're working, and then what else is happening in your house during the day, or whenever you're working. Are there other things, are other people working, are there kids, are there dogs? Then, help figure out where it makes sense to place that space in relation to the rest of the house.
Risa: I think it really can range. I have one of these clients now, they want to have some kind of space that they're sharing, so it's going to be a larger space, it's going to have to have some flexibility, it's going to be removed from their property, removed from the house. That maybe is going to be a 300 square foot space, versus something where we're adding a room, or converting a room, in a house you can go smaller. How many monitors people have, how much stuff, do they draw, do they need room to lay things out? It's really going to be a personal thing, I think.
Risa: From a pretty young age I knew I wanted to do something related to architecture. For a while I thought it was interior design. Then my mother started to take me to architecture exhibits and showed me cool buildings. I was pretty young, I was like eight or nine. I started with Barbie doll houses, so we're talking young.
Ken: Wow! How often does that happen, where that conversation turns into reality and a very successful career? That's like a fairy tale.
I went to an art and architecture school in San Francisco (CCAC), and I chose a five-year program so that I could come out of it with a professional degree.
Risa: The first year was mostly just various classes like art history, drawing, core classes. The second year is when I got into the architecture studio. I think it was my second semester where I was like, "Oh my God, what did I do?”
Risa: I don't know if I was really ever at a complete quitting point, but there was definitely a semester that was so challenging, and hard, and people were so into it and I felt lost. But I decided I'm sticking with it, and the next semester came around, and I had a great studio, and I had a couple professors that really kind of gave me hope, and helped me through it.
All the architecture studio teachers wore black, they all had the Corbusier glasses.
Risa: I started with an internship at a firm during school. One of the principals of that firm was on a critique of mine and he tore my project to pieces. After the internship was over I was offered a job and he didn't remember that critique. He said, "Risa, I should probably sit down and actually have a real interview with you, and you should show me your portfolio," and I was like, not doing it [laughs].
Somehow I avoided actually having to be interviewed for my first job.
I turn a lot of work away if it’s not a good fit because I want to manage the quality of the work, and be involved in all of my projects.
For me, I love working with people on their homes, I enjoy getting to know them through the process, designing homes is very personal.
The fire was so hot the steel moment frame had melted down.
Ken: Yeah. It's a really spare cabin. It's a kind of minimalist's dream here. That explains it a little bit, but it's not their primary home.
Risa: No. But they still use it. They needed to have it function ... They weren't just going there to vacation, they're still going there to do their thing and that was our solution.
Ken: They needed to do good work, right? So on a project like this, what are your top challenges?
Cantilevering that roofline out with a deep overhang also helps create a sense of space beyond the house where the outdoor living space feels like an extension of the inside.
Ken: I don't know if I've seen this, or consciously at least, before, that eave looks like it's the same material and color as the interior, so it looks like the interior just keeps going, the ceiling. Makes the space look bigger. It's really cool. It looks like it's somehow on the same plane.
Ken: How much harder is it to build something like that? Because it's pretty unusual.
Risa: It's a little trickier where the beams are, when you have a double cantilever like that. The end cantilevers out and there's no dropped beams, so you have to pull beams out to the edge of the overhang. So the beams are attached in an unconventional way not how you would normally build a house.
Ken: Right. I love that sometimes, where most structures, they just have to be built in the most practical way. And there's good reasons for that, but sometimes people that are creative want a little bit more, and you push the limits, and I think you can feel it. I didn't even know that, but I can just tell, it’s different. I've never seen it. And it's harder, right? That’s why it's not done.
One photo that really caught my eyes is the one looking out the kitchen. There's this panoramic window behind the sink, and then you see this gigantic burnt redwood stump framed within it. Can you tell me about that a little bit, this particular detail?
Ken: Wow, the contrast is incredible, I can see it in the photo.
Risa: Yeah. It just made me realize how resilient nature isThey have a pretty prolific garden, and the plants re-germinated in such an intense way even though all the man made structures were obliterated.
All the flowers came back, and plants, and the redwoods were not going to give up.
Risa: Yeah, there was a lot of grieving around losing all their property, and all of her artwork. Everything.
Ken: Oh no that is so terrible...
Risa: They weren't able to take any of that with them, photographs, everything. So I think that the process of construction was hard, having to go up there, and progress was slow, the contractors were busy. But now that it's completed, Michelle is able to go up there and do artwork, and Fred goes up and gardens, and these are the things that they love to do, so I think it's helping them kind of come to terms with all the loss.
Ken: Earlier without the context ... I was looking at these photos and remarked that the black, charred stumps were so beautiful. I just didn't know the history and pain behind it. It's really stunning to hear what happened, and then what it's turned into, and that they're embracing the change and returning home. That's amazing.
Risa: Yeah. It's nice to get messages from her, "I'm sitting in the redwood grove doing art." It makes me very happy.