Jeff King Talks With

San Francisco Architect Ariel Gessler

We recently chatted with architect Ariel Gessler, principal of his eponymously named studio, about his influences, personal style, and the importance of collaboration. Ari, a Certified Green Building Professional and a LEED-accredited professional, strives to design homes that are built beautifully and responsibly. Before opening his own firm in 2012, Ari gained valuable knowledge and experience at Simpson Design Group and Robert Frear Architects.

You’re an accomplished architect with more than twenty years of experience—how did you get your start in architecture? Did you want to be an architect since you were a kid?

I’ve always had an affinity and appreciation for good design. But I feel like I sort of fell into being an architect. For many years, I wanted to be in automotive design. I had stacks of notebooks filled with custom car designs. It was in college that my interests shifted from designing objects that people use, toward creating spaces that people inhabit.

Who’s had an influence on your architectural style and philosophy?

There are so many skilled architects and artists that I admire. One of my early architectural instructors and advisors – he went by Mr. Z – helped me understand the fundamentals exceptionally well. He always promoted that creativity is the act of looking at one thing, and then seeing something else. It’s a reminder to look for what could be, beyond what you think anything currently is.

Examples of good design and beauty are all around us, and I seek inspiration from all types of people and places. For example, we recently used a chair designed by Milo Baughman as inspiration for a custom sink basin stand in one of our houses. Over time, I’ve become a fan of many architects that represent various styles: from Peter Pennoyer to Peter Marino. Architects like John Pawson, Rick Joy, and Bjarke Ingels are all producing fantastic work.

How would you describe your personal style—if you were to design your own home, would you steer more traditional or modern?

Personally, I lean toward a modern aesthetic, but you wouldn’t know just by looking at my work. I don’t approach my projects with a particular bias or idea of what it ‘should be’ before I uncover what it ‘could be.’  My goal in any project is not to put my personal stamp on it and have it recognized as a signature style. Instead, I allow my projects to evolve over time in collaboration with my clients and the given context.

As a side note, using terms like Modern and Traditional, as if they are mutually exclusive, is a misnomer. These two are not in conflict with each other nor bi-polar opposites, but instead can be extremely harmonious if brought together well. In remodel projects, for example, my team often enhances and refines the existing traditional elements of a house, while adding modern interjections to add vibrancy and to cater toward modern living. We strive for purity in both traditional and modern aspects. (That said, I despise ‘Transitional’ design – a soft blend of unidentifiable parts that can’t stand on their own – as it’s neither fish nor fowl.)

There’s a lot of emotion when building and remodeling someone’s home. How do you navigate the process in a way that educates the client, so they’re able to make more informed decisions?

At AGA, we like to dive deep with our clients and do everything we can to explore the proper solutions that address their specific needs. To this end, a candid dialog is essential. At the beginning of each project, before any design work happens, we have real conversations about lifestyle, likes/dislikes, how they entertain, how they travel. We get all sorts of information to paint a clear picture of how the house and ancillary buildings can enhance their lives.

Creating a custom home is so personal. People come with memories of where they have lived in the past and their own interpretations of how spaces function best or how rooms should be organized around one another. A large part of what we do is to challenge these notions that our clients have and to distill the essence for them and their family into a building design.

When looking at the entire process, what aspect of residential architecture do you enjoy the most?

I love the connection with my clients; several of which have become wonderful friends from the process. We are privileged to serve a varied cross-section of people, from financial wizards to tech leaders and business phenoms. We care about our clients, and we enjoy learning everything we can about them to deliver tailored designs that please and excite. All of our clients are either entrepreneurs or trailblazers in their respective fields. They are all highly successful in their ventures and serious about their passions. It’s inspiring, infectious, and fantastic to partner with them.

Architecture doesn’t happen in a vacuum, collaboration is a big part of your job… What’s essential from you as well as those you’re collaborating with to ensuring your initial design ideas result in an actual, realized product?

Like Aretha Franklin, I believe the key to positive collaboration is r-e-s-p-e-c-t.  All of our projects have handfuls of entities that need to be fully coordinated, and respect of each others’ roles and responsibilities is critical. We’re fortunate to work with top teams like Jeff King & Co. that are experts in their field. So everyone – the contractor, interior designer, landscape architect, all of the engineering consultants – everyone brings their A-Game. As the architect, we help guide the design and engineering teams toward a single coordinated vision for the contractor to build. During construction, my team is on-site every week, working with the contractor to help maintain the clarity of the design goals that we have crafted with our clients.

What’s your favorite city for architecture?

After living in San Francisco with my wife for over 20 years and raising our children here, I do love the architectural vibrancy and diversity that the City offers. But outside of SF, my favorite city is Paris: an amazing city to experience as an architect with hundreds of years of history tightly woven within an ever-changing international context. Next on my list to visit and explore are Tokyo and Mexico City!

What do you enjoy doing when not at your Studio?

In recent years, I’ve fallen in love with sailing; being on the Bay can be so relaxing sometimes, and at other times it’s such a thrill. But I’m most happy when I’m spending time with my family. In this digital age, where everyone is always connected, I strive for a balance between life inside and outside the Studio. As an entrepreneur, even when I’m not in Studio, thoughts of the business will inevitably pop up at any given time. But as much as I’d like to receive the award for Best Architect, I’m trying to win the awards for the Best Husband and Best Dad! I’ll take those any day!

Thanks, Ari! Check out his website to learn more about him and his firm.