Gettin Down with Dan Brunn

Interview with local Los Angeles architect 

You are originally from Israel and moved to Los Angeles at a young age. Do you remember your first impression of the city?  What was some of the first cultural shocks that you experienced?  
There are a few things that really stick in my mind. My first impression was being surrounded by houses of so many different “styles,” and the sheer sizes of these homes. In Israel, I was generally surrounded by modernist Bauhaus designs of Tel Aviv. All of a sudden, I remember being in a very dark house with small windows and odd arches. Even at a young age, it didn’t make sense to me. I was always switching on the lights.  

As a young kid, what were the first things that introduced you to the world of architecture?
When I was around the age of six or seven, my grandpa would bring me LEGOs, and I’d build my own fantasy worlds. It was more than making houses, I was building cities. Later, I would start drawing houses, and in high school, we actually had architecture courses, which gave me a technical jump start.
Growing up in Tel Aviv inspired me the most. Architecture became second nature, as I was just surrounded by Bauhaus buildings. Even my grandparents’ apartment building, and my grandfather’s farm home, were built in that language. Open plan, sliding glass doors, and cantilevered balconies are some of the features I remember—as well as terrazzo floors. Quite literally, I have appropriated these elements into my design language.

How was your educational experience like at USC? Do you remember your first all nighters? Were there any special teachers that really motivated and inspired you?
Ha! Oh, I do! I most vividly remember doing three all-nighters in a row. I collapsed in the shower just before preparing for my final design presentation. On the shower floor, I started to question what I was doing. It was very emotional. It was really at USC School of Architecture that I started to shine. I wasn’t an exceptional student in high school, but I finally I found myself in architecture.

My first year, I was literally mesmerized by my studio instructor, John Friedman, who would later become my mentor. At the end of the school year, I approached him for an internship. At first he said there was no opening, then a few weeks later I got my shot. Admittedly, this opportunity nurtured my growth.
What were some of the architectural themes you were investigating at Harvard? Have any of these translated to your work since your graduation?

While at Harvard, I really just wanted to explore. At first, I didn’t have a true objective—it was more about spending time with the best of the best, and learning through my peers. I took a sculpture class at the Department of Visual and Environmental Studies, which was in Le Corbusier’s only built project in the US (Carpenter Center for the Visual Arts, 1962). My work has since been deeply influenced by this experience. It was magical to be able to sculpt as the seasons changed, from a snowy landscape to verdant spring. I used this time to learn about different techniques, and I picked up welding. The technical knowledge actually helps in designing now, as I can relate to the craftsmen that translate our designs from paper to metal.

I had some amazing studios, the first with Pritzker Prize wining Alejandro Aravena. He taught me more about rethinking and analysing what we accept as reality than anyone. There is always a question to be answered and we shouldn’t make assumptions. He would love to say things like “how do you make one plus one equal three?” And he was serious. My last studio with Preston Scott Cohen really pushed my design language. He was relentless, and I specifically picked his studio knowing he would really critique my choices. It ended up being one of my
best design learning experiences. All of the geometric studies I did with him led to such designs as the Hide Out staircase.

Tell us about some of the inspirations for your interior designs. Do they come from the client’s needs or is it a special formula you try to follow for each project?
There isn’t a special formula, though I attribute my approach to what I call empathetic design. With every project, my philosophy and approach is to listen attentively to our clients, but also to pick up on the silence. There’s knowledge in between the words. We then take this information and translate it into functional design. I am a real believer in form follows function. Our designs must work, otherwise they fail our clients, who won’t be happy—no matter how beautiful the design. 

I think it’s through this attentive listening that we are able to derive successful projects. If I had one, that would be my formula. The reason I call it empathetic design is that it places the problem first, and then layers on our DBA (Dan Brunn Architecture) design language. Though we have a strong aesthetic, it is secondary to the project brief.

In which type of projects do you have more freedom for design and ideas: residential or commercial?
It really comes down to the client, and can happen with anything. From the smallest design object to a huge commercial space, we rely on the trust of our clients. Our best projects have resulted in mutual respect.
What was it like to work on the renovation project of the home originally designed by Frank Gehry?  Were there any elements from the original design you wanted to keep or discard? 
Well, I have to say that this was a truly lucky opportunity. My friend, artist James Jean, was moving back to Los Angeles, and he stayed with me for a few weeks. During that time he was actively looking for a house, and we discussed designing it together. The search was futile, until one day he called me, saying he thought he found it. And it was a Frank Gehry original. I was floored. When we visited, we both realized that this was the one. The house was originally designed for the Janss family, avid art collectors and community leaders in Los Angeles during the 1970s and ’80s. Gehry designed the house as a gallery, with mini living quarters.

It’s known as his first commission, however, the clients did not realize the project according to his plans. They literally just took the floor plans and extruded up, so most of his design vision was omitted. This allowed me to really have fun with the project. James gave me his program, but also gave me leeway. So I set out to study the space, and interestingly, I brought back some of Gehry’s intentions unknowingly. Later, we were able to get Gehry’s original drawings. There are two distinct spaces that are reborn: the atrium and the tea room.

The house, as we found it, filled in the upstairs atrium space as a closet, even though Gehry had designed this as a greenhouse-like room. The other is what I call the Tea Room—the wood-wrapped room with sliding doors leading onto the Japanese-style garden. Lastly, we designed a staircase that was inspired by James’ art work, with his flow arabesque curves, along with Gehry’s own undulating geometries—all mixed together with DBA design cues.

For the “Zig Zag” house project what was the main inspiration for the internal staircase?
After finishing the neighboring house called Flip Flop, I set to create something even more minimal. But even before that, the shape was derived from a functional need within the space. I loved the notion of walking around the U-shaped stair, and pausing mid-level.  But then I dreamt up an idea of a stair that appeared to float. We worked hard with my structural engineer to make it all come together, and really strived to hide all the mechanics, which allowed us to create its mystery.

Is there a favorite material you like to work with such as wood or stone?
Probably terrazzo. I love that it is seamless, and can take on almost any shape. It is also highly resilient. At Coffee For Sasquatch, we designed flowing benches out of white terrazzo. The shapes couldn’t have really been achieved in such a seamless and comfortable manner with any other material.

Do you feel the need to expand your current office, or do you prefer to keep the size small with not too many projects?
I have been thinking about this a lot, and would love to grow to some larger projects, such as a gallery, museum, or even a chapel. But, at the same time, I love the control that we are able to give to our clients. Running projects as a high-design boutique office has immense advantages. I am able to be present throughout the process, and our clients get complete attention.  Our size also gives us more freedom to design, since we spend less time on management of staff.