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Dirty Collabs: Dan Brunn, Architectural Designer
Born in Tel Aviv and raised in Los Angeles, Israli-American architect Dan Brunn has won awards for his form-follows-function, sustainable approach to design. He studied architecture as an undergrad at USC, and after a few years working for a design firm, went on to attend grad school at Harvard School of Design. Since founding his firm, Dan Brunn Architecture at the age of 29, he’s created many uniquely innovative works of art — from his NetZero Los Angeles home, to residential beach houses, to decade-long projects that are coming into realization today. Pulling inspiration from the projects sites or existing structures, and with a key creative approach he calls “empathetic design,” he’s made long-lasting design his focus. Sustainability, he says, is a no-brainer. He applies it in his approach to design by working not on what is in style, but instead on creating work that will stand the test of time. “If somebody asks me what’s trending today, I say the sun,” he reflects. “We always think about materiality that’s super minimal and long-lasting and functional. Those things never go out of style.”
Where did you grow up? What were you into as a kid?
I was born in 1978 in Tel Aviv. Then I moved to LA. When I came to the States, I was really shocked with the quality — or lack thereof — of houses in Los Angeles compared to what I had as a kid growing up in Tel Aviv. If you’re not familiar, Tel Aviv is actually a UNESCO World Heritage City, in that it’s called the White City and it has the most amount of Bauhaus architecture. I grew up around this modernist ideal. I moved to the States and it was taken away — all these dark houses and no windows. I found my calling in architecture school at USC and started to really understand what it is I love.
What was your childhood home like?
That’s a good question. My childhood home in Israel was modernist. Open plan, sliding glass doors, terrazzo floors. It was normal. My childhood home in LA was the opposite. It was in an enclosed mission style. It was awful. The windows were like 1 foot by 2 feet. I wondered what’s going on, why is everything so dark? I was confused by that. I think I was drawn to design because I was questioning design. Maybe if I’d stayed in Israel I would have just been complacent. Design, handled — I don’t need to handle it.
Are there defining features that make a place feel like home to you?
It relates to the scale of the human body. That’s something else that’s been lost. People think they need big tall spaces. I think you really need to question your human size and how we need to get to certain dimensions. One of the things I think is lost on residential architecture is the size of bedrooms. They’ve grown exponentially. I question that versus communal spaces. So I’m tackling that and trying to educate people. From a bigger perspective it’s the fact that for some reason American homes are valued at dollars per square foot instead of quality. We are literally valuing residences on quantity. If you have an iPhone, you know the screen size and the battery life and the amount of storage. That’s what I would equate it to — you need a 3-bedroom home, a garage or two, you know that. But you have no idea what Apple put in there to make that happen. So why should you care if your house is 4,000 square feet or 5,000 square feet if you’re able to make it work for you? That’s something we really need to hone in on and stop this insanity.
When did you know you wanted to be a designer?
It all started with Legos. My grandfather would travel to Germany and bring back these Lego toys and I’d always go to town, go crazy building things. That and music were my two callings — I told my mom when I was eight years old that I would be a singer when I grew up, but in English. My mom had these old Beatles records I’d listen to and that was kind of how I learned to speak English.
I love that you learned to speak English from the Beatles lyrics.
What’s your favorite Beatles album?
Oh my god it’s so hard. I don’t know, right now I’m listening to lots of Revolver. It’s that transitional moment, you know?
Did your childhood experience with Legos play any role in your current design process?
Legos are inherently designed in a super efficient manner, and they yield a result based on that. I’m very much focused on maintaining and restraining — less is more. I don’t believe in making crazy shapes for the sake of making crazy shapes.
Can you tell us a little bit about your current creative process?
One of the things I’ve realized is that what I really excel at is responding to things. I coined a term which I call “empathetic design.” By that I mean we really listen — we take in all the information and synthesize and respond in a way to present a fully figured-out design. It’s been very successful for us working this way. It’s really about listening and layering. So we make sure that the project is actually functional and not just aesthetic — and we really believe in that form-follows-function ethos. If you make sure everything really works well, you don’t end up having conversations about minutiae. That’s how we start every type of project. We do anything from small-scale furniture to a 25,000 square foot commercial building. We’ve done retail, residential, renovation, ground-up, you name it, we have fun with it.
Can you pinpoint a favorite project?
It has to be with a client who is pushing you toward something. While I might have favorites at the moment — it’s kind of like the Beatles albums — they do change. We just completed this house in Venice Beach. It’s a 3-story, concrete structure. It’s the first time we’ve done anything like that. This was for a client that we’ve worked with in the past. We did another beach house for her. She’s definitely one of my favorite clients because she gave me my first opportunity to build on the beach. I was only 29, so having faith in me, through the years that’s been unbelievable.
That’s so cool. Did she come to you with an idea?
This is crazy, I’ll tell you how it all happened. This is one of the things I always tell people, which is that I don’t prescribe to a design “hero.” When people ask “what is the path,” and “what should I do,” those things are really variable. Everybody has their own path, and you’ve just got to listen to yourself and what you want to do and be open to that. You might be inspired by somebody, but you’ll have your own story.
I was working at an architecture firm and we had completed a project. We did a showroom up in the Bay Area. After the company hired me, they really wanted to do this crazy PR push and didn’t want to invest in a photographer. Now, in my undergrad at USC I took architectural photography and learned how to shoot with what’s called a 4x5 film camera. It’s insane, when you see old photos of people putting a tarp over their head to shoot the photo, literally, that’s how I learned how to shoot. I ended up going to the local store here in LA to rent lighting equipment to do the shoot. While I’m standing at the counter, I’m showing the clerk some 35mm photo that I took, and he’s like “wow this is a really cool project.” As this is happening, this woman walks up to the counter and starts chatting with the clerk. And he’s like “Hedy, Hedy, you need to meet Dan, he’s an architect.” Lo and behold, it was Hedy and Samy Kamienowicz of Samy’s Camera. So Hedy is now like my second mother, she’s the sweetest lady. And she says “Oh, we just bought this piece of land on the beach. It’s a virgin property, are you interested in this project?” So, that is the woman who really put DBA on the map. Everybody said “you’re crazy, you’re hiring a 29-year-old to design your beach house,” and here we are. We just completed our second project for her and we’re talking about a third. You never know where you’re going to be, just always be open.
That’s such an amazing chance encounter. Did you ever ask her why she chose you?
So I just saw her — they own a house in Ojai, and we’re talking about doing the barn renovation over there. And I just asked her the same question, and she said “you have to give young people a chance sometimes.” She entrusted me with millions upon millions with the construction and the property. It was incredibly risky.
Sounds like you did an OK job.
The house ended up winning a ton of awards, and she loves living there. She gave me two criteria in the beginning. She said, “I want wraparound balconies with a beach view, and I want to be able to have a shower that overlooks the beach but has privacy.” So we designed this really cool shower that does just that.
That’s awesome. She sounds like someone who is naturally inclined to trust her instincts.
She’s a visionary. When she did this, people weren’t investing this amount of money into Venice Beach. People thought she was crazy, the bank thought she was crazy. But she redefined it. That project really did that. And you know what’s crazy — we defined some critical DBA signatures on that project. Ever since then we've been expanding on those.
Can you give an example?
So the name of the house is Flip Flop House. I like puns and wordplay, and that probably extends from the Beatles too. But it happened around the same time Obama was running for president and people were calling him a flip flopper. That’s NOT why I chose the name, but I thought it was funny. Interestingly the idea for the name came from the idea of doing a big mural on the inside of the house that opens up to the outside and you’re able to get in touch with Venice Beach’s bohemian heritage. So that’s where the idea came about. And then it was this string of words — house of flip flop, people wear flip flops to the beach, and then everyone was like “oh my god Obama’s a flip-flopper.” [Laughs]
It seems like you really enjoy seeing the interconnectedness of your designs with what's going on culturally.
A lot of designers and architects are really pretentious, in their own world. I remember getting grief back in the day because we were walking through an architecture office and all you have is NPR and the same shit again and again and again. I listen to NPR, but I also listen to Britney Spears. I remember I used to get flack because it wasn’t cool enough. As an architect, if you don’t understand pop culture or anything else in the world, how are you supposed to relate to that? I find it to be very important.
Where does sustainability come in for you? Do you have any goals around sustainability in the long run?
Absolutely. For me it’s a no-question. You can’t even think about sustainability as an option. It goes back, I guess, to my heritage coming from Israel. I’ll go back to this because growing up, the idea of sustainability was just that we had limited amounts of natural resources. For example, if I needed to shower, I had a very limited amount of time to take a shower. On the roof of our building there was a big, black water tank. You’d press a button, it would open a valve and the water would flow down and get hot from the sun. However long that took was how long you had to take a shower — a finite amount. You start thinking about water usage.
For me that’s been going on from day one. It’s part of my ethos and of course, how can we not? Same thing around design. We did this house called Bridge House. It’s Net Zero, which means the energy it consumes is actually produced onsite. We have solar panels on the roof that create enough energy to power the house and recharge a car. It’s freaking awesome. And then we have drought-tolerant vegetation. I’m using fewer resources than I did in my previous home and the previous home was about a quarter of the size. The house itself is built out of 90% already pre-recycled steel which is also another great feat. I’m constantly looking for ways to do that. By and large, the biggest contribution we can make as designers is to design for a timeless nature.
What long-lasting materials do you use?
Here [in the States] we have a love of using timber for construction. We have to think about that. If we are using forests that are sustainable that’s one thing.
But for example by using steel, we could literally break apart this house and build it again, dissemble it, recycle it completely. It’s important to see the resource and how it’s produced, where it’s made. Natural materials like stone are awful because you’re quarrying out of a mountain. There are other composite materials today we can use that are a lot more sustainable. I try to think about that. How do we manage waste? No matter what you do, the biggest contributor to carbon is actually the waste we produce. To design for the long-term is probably the most sustainable thing an architect can do.
Are you seeing more innovations toward sustainability in your field?
I try to bridge the gap — literally. At this Bridge House we teamed up with a company called Bone Structure, and they use erectors made from parts that are already recycled. There is no cutting or throwing away of materials on site, it’s all done at the factory level, which means it’s all recyclable.
It seems like your reflection on sustainability, understanding that resources are limited, came at a very young age. Is that something that is part of the culture in Tel Aviv?
It’s part of the culture. It’s something you can’t not think about. Honestly [in the States] our energy is too cheap, so people don’t think about it. I saw people watering their driveways. You would never do that in Israel. I remember going to the gym and seeing men turn on the faucet, walk around as they’re shaving with their water running. I’ll excuse it for older people, but if you’re any younger than say, 40, you’re just an asshole. [Laughs] Unfortunately, it goes on to become an attitude of “it’s my right to be wasteful.”
To learn more about Dan and his work, visit www.danbrunn.com.