Jeff King Talks With

San Francisco Architect Karen Curtiss

We are thrilled to kick off our 2020 Spotlight series with Karen Curtiss, principal of Red Dot Studio! If you follow us on Instagram, you know that we are nearing completion of a spectacular remodel of a prohibition-era home with Karen, the details of which we cannot wait to share. However, wait we must. In the meantime, let’s get to know the philosopher turned architect whose work is an expression of her cultural understanding and historical appreciation.   

Jeff King: You grew up on the East Coast, studied in Scotland, and got your first architecture job in Hungary before putting down roots in San Francisco. How have those vastly different cultural experiences shaped your viewpoint as an architect?  

Karen Curtiss: I lived abroad during my formative adult years. It helped me understand that cultural givens are not always givens. Cultures differ and ideas differ. There is a sense of respect for a place that comes from understanding the history and the ability to question when you realize that place reflects culture. In architecture practice, this means regard for history and innovation can work hand in hand. Also in everyday terms, our firm has a lot of non-U.S. passport holders.

JK: Your educational background, you have a master’s in philosophy, is not typical for architects—how do you think your career path has helped develop your firm’s ethos?

KC: When people ask where I went to architecture school I answer, “the same place as Frank Lloyd Wright,” who became an architect through apprenticeship. I am a working architect who learned in the field. Yet I also have a strong background in theory through philosophy. Those two things combined to imbue our firm with an approach that is both accessible and studied. 

JK: Where were you working prior to starting your own firm and how did that influence how your firm, Red Dot Studio, operates?

KC: I worked at a number of firms before founding Red Dot Studio, however the most formative was EHDD. Aspects of Joe Esherick’s thinking such as, “How would a farmer build it?” inform our work so much so that now we are engaged in a few actual farm and agricultural projects.

JK: What’s the significance of your studio name?

KC: What’s in a name? Red dots are ubiquitous, from a Bindi to a sold sign for artwork, each one a simple “solution” to complex requirements. Our design approach, akin to the simplicity of a red dot, looks for everyday beauty and meaning, drawing from the Bay Area Tradition, the natural world and an appreciation of craft.  

JK: You have an affinity for creating spaces that evolve and grow over time through its inhabitants. Can you explain how you design these real spaces for people and communities?

KC: The environment you live in affects your daily life and how you exist in the world and community. Being nurtured in your home allows you to engage well in the community. A home that is meant to be enjoyed and fully lived in can not be too precious. Make it right-sized to what you need and use everything in it. 

JK: How can people make their homes feel more livable?

KC: Though it sounds flippant, live in your home. 

JK: Your portfolio includes a mix of residential and boutique commercial remodels—what is it that draws you to a project? (i.e., is it the client/business, the challenge of the project itself, the design team)

KC: We work on projects where we can affect people or communities, where our expertise can add something to the mix.

JK: We are currently working on a large residential remodel together which is going into the home stretch after almost two years of construction. What are some of the most memorable aspects or special features of this project that you’re really looking forward to seeing come to life?

KC: The home is a historic residence on the Presidio Wall with a former speakeasy on the lower floor. As you can imagine this space was cut off from the rest of the house and difficult to access. We added a new stair down around a fully glass-encased wine room, with a hidden door and seemingly no way to get to the alcohol as a nod to the prohibition past. Jeff King and Company’s construction expertise really shined here. A new steel staircase, glass wine enclosure, historic stairs, and historic bar all came together in one tightly embedded space. The entire construction crew recognized the level of craft required from the get-go, from the foundation setting straight on through. For example, before the pier was dug the exact size of the sinker stone tile used for the lower section of the wine room was part of the storyboard layout. 

JK: Do you consider yourself to be more of a logical & practical person or more of a creative & dreamer? And how does that come out in your design practice?

KC: This is one of those interview questions where you answer both…but really there is a framework of large-scale conceptual thinking, then a sense of practicality when it comes to getting it built. 

JK: What’s your typical workday (assuming such a thing exists)?

KC: There isn’t one. 

JK: What does a dream project (or dream client) look like to you?

KC: We have three dream projects coming our way in 2020. In Portland, Maine, we will be renovating a historic Herb Barn that is the first of many buildings to be restored in the only remaining active Shaker Community

In Rwanda, we will be engaged in ProBono work to create middle-income housing. The project includes a chance to question infrastructure givens and design compatible with the environment. 

Closer to home, we are working with some friends on a potential home in Nicasio. Our clients approached us with a profound respect for the site in all its both quiet and grand beauty. 

JK: Those sound like very personally rewarding projects, we can’t wait to see how they turn out. When you’re not working, what do you do to unwind and recharge? 

KC: I like to hang out with horses and go to the ocean. If both things can happen at the same time, even better. 

Our heartfelt thanks to Karen for her time. We are excited to be in the final stages of our first project together — we hope it’s the first of many more to come! To learn more about Karen and Red Dot Studio, visit her website and follow her on Instagram.