Jeff King Talks With

San Francisco Architect Benjamin McGriff

Benjamin McGriff, Owner and Principal of his eponymous firm, McGriff Architects, is a Southern soul with a dash of California modern. And his designs are clearly influenced by both regions—traditional yet approachable; contemporary yet classic. We’re crushing hard on this relatively under-the-radar gem; read on to discover why he values his early years at a firm well known for their classical design, how he approaches new projects, and how his mother helped shape his love of well-designed homes.

Photographer: Christopher Stark

Jeff King: I read that you were born & raised in Montgomery, Alabama—how does your Southern upbringing influence your design and approach?

Benjamin McGriff: I am a Southern-born designer who very intentionally picked up and moved to California in my early 20’s. Without a job, connections, or a place to live, I just packed my car and started driving west. It was as much motivated at the time by my dissatisfaction with the South as it was about wanting to surround myself with California. Now, I cherry-pick the parts of the South I miss and combine them with celebrating California. The homes we design feature generous entry narratives that deliver well-proportioned interiors and foster an easy elegance. We frame the Californian terrain through vignettes, as well as wide-arm embraces that showcase year-round outdoor living. The details and materials are forward-looking and enduring. 

Photographer: Christopher Stark

JK: How did your time at Andrew Skurman Architects help prepare you to run your own practice?

BM: A lot of architecture programs create modernists by default. My time at ASA provided a welcomed counterpoint to my earlier training and brought neoclassical and traditional principles to the foreground of how I approach each project. Classical scale and proportion are still the foundation of even our most minimal and contemporary projects. When it comes to the projects with a more traditional aesthetic, we are always looking for ways to develop modern interpretations and customizations of the classics, so that even the trim package embodies the story of the client and their home.

Aaron Leitz Photography

JK: What do you find to be the biggest challenge for an architect? 

BM: Ever since I started designing my own projects I’ve been on a journey to unlearn a lot of what I was taught in architecture school, and professionally. By that I mean, architects can lose the forest for the trees when it comes to what truly matters in design. We, architects, are great at establishing design logic and rationalized floor plans, but what often gets lost is that what really matters…the “does the space feel good” [aspect]? Listening to that question and following the answer is both the most important and the most worthwhile struggle.  

Photographer: Christopher Stark

JK: We recently had the pleasure of working with your firm and JKA Design on a Presidio Heights remodel. How do you define a successful collaboration among the design team, builder, and clients? 

BM: Yes, we did and I can’t wait to see the final photos! From our perspective, a successful collaboration is the result of an experience we would all welcome again. For most of our clients, the project at hand will not be their last. There is an opportunity to build a bonded relationship over the course of a project. While a successful project will still have its fair share of surprises and hurdles, a great collaboration will meet those challenges emboldened by trust and unified in a shared vision. It is a pleasure to curate those collaborations from year to year. 

Photographer: Christopher Stark

JK: What are you looking for when you take on a new project?

BM: First and foremost, we’re looking for a connection. We are interested in true collaboration with our clients and the other members of the project team because we know that strong collaborations create beautiful and successful projects. Especially here in the Bay Area, there are simply too many good clients, interior designers, and builders to justify pursuing a project that has a low likelihood of success. Our definition of success comes from working with clients who trust us to help them realize their vision of home. It’s about trust and communication. Of course, we love large complicated projects—but partnering with a client to help realize their most authentic version of home, tailored perfectly to their needs, their family, and their passions—that’s the best project for everyone, every time.

Aaron Leitz Photography

JK: Where do you draw your inspiration? 

BM: Growing up in Montgomery, every month or so my mother and I would drive to Bobby McAlpine’s Lutyens-inspired home to park outside and just soak it in. I always go back to that time with my mom. She recognized an aesthetic sensitivity in me, and it was something we shared. We loved Bobby’s house and all of its romanticism and tightly choreographed drama. This was our special time together. 

The memory loses some physical detail over time but what has remained is a visceral recollection of the feeling I had while looking at the home. And it is because spaces have the ability to nourish and inspire that this firm exists. It’s our central philosophy. 

Photographer: Christopher Stark

JK: You recently completed a renovation of your own home. What surprised you about your dual role as client and architect? 

BM: It confirmed my long-suspected belief that every great project must have a great interior designer on it from day one. I leaned on our interior designers more than I do for our clients. With a large enough construction budget, most architects worth their salt can design something that’s lovely, however, take that same architect and pair them with a strong interior designer and you’ll probably see that project in a magazine. Our budget was significantly smaller than that of our typical clients, so I focused solely on getting the floor plan right. We knew our interior designer, Becky Carter and her lead designer Sara Reeble [of Studio Becky Carter], would challenge us and, given their gifts, would also be able to do a lot with a little. After a quick style survey, we let go, trusted their talent, and said “yes” to almost everything. It was a fantastic design collaboration and outcome. Our home is our sanctuary and a beautiful refuge, which is more important than ever. 

It was our pleasure to talk with you, Benjamin—thanks for giving us a peek into your philosophy and inspiration. We look forward to working with you again soon! To learn more about Benjamin’s work, check out his firm’s website and follow them on Instagram.