Design Legends ("DL") had the distinct honour to interview legendary designer Nathan Fell ("NF") for their original perspective and innovative approach to design as well as their creative lifestyle, we are very pleased to share our interview with our distinguished readers.

DL: Could you please tell us a bit about your design background and education?

NF : I have over 20 years of working experience in the profession of Architecture and a Master of Architecture from Clemson University. Clemson is a 4 year undergrad with a 2 year grad school. I worked for 4 years in between the two programs starting with single family residential projects then some smaller commercial projects. This working experience allowed me to benefit greatly from the additional 2 years of grad school. I moved to Chicago and worked for Stanley Tigerman and Margaret McCurry after grad school, then later Perkins+Will.

DL: What motivates you to design in general, why did you become a designer?

NF : Discovery. I am always motivated by the potential for an idea that I haven’t thought of before to present itself.

DL: Did you choose to become a designer, or you were forced to become one?

NF : I chose to become an Architect. It took me a few years to understand that this required a lot of rigor and discipline if I was ever to going be good at it.

DL: What do you design, what type of designs do you wish to design more of?

NF : For the last 15 years of my career I have worked on huge Institutional and Commercial Architecture projects. I like them, I just think it is important to work on smaller projects simultaneously regardless of use. It is satisfying to work on a project that can be realized quickly. Larger projects can become disorienting, because it is easy to lose the plot during the long process.

DL: What should young designers do to become a design legend like you?

NF : The Architecture profession is not always a meritocracy interested in your personal development. There is always something to learn from a professional experience, but people need to make up what is not provided on their own. The profession will quickly shift certain people to design positions and other to management or technical roles often in a clumsy, and arbitrary manner. I never understood why knowledge about Architecture is split into a left brained and a right brained set of roles, but it often that way. There are a lot of people in “design” roles who believe their positions entitle them to not have knowledge about drafting programs, details, project management, contracts and so on, but all of those things affect design. Being a good designer should mean that you are open to learning more not less. Similarly, I would not be disheartened as a designer if your professional role starts to veer away from one of those “design” roles. Allocate a certain amount of time away from work for designing. If there is not a competition, make up a specific project that has parameters and a site. The number hours you spend thinking about design are often more valuable than a projects themself. I have seen a lot of really talented people lose their passion and drive over the years when something they really wanted to happen professionally didn’t. The profession is not fair and may never be, so there is no need to rely on it.

DL: What distinguishes between a good designer and a great designer?

NF : Good designers have good ideas that they implement. Great designers have good ideas that they improve.

DL: What makes a good design a really good design, how do you evaluate good design?

NF : In Architecture a design can be elevated when it conceives of beauty and usefulness as harmonious objectives. If the two objectives are in conflict neither are likely to last.

DL: What is the value of good design? Why should everyone invest in good design?

NF : There should be a different answer to this for each project. It is crucial to understand the values of the project early on in a very honest way.

DL: What would you design and who would you design for if you had the time?

NF : An ideal project would be to design an entire urban block as a private and public space.

DL: What is the dream project you haven’t yet had time to realize?

NF : Affordable housing on a large scale

DL: What is your secret recipe of success in design, what is your secret ingredient?

NF : If I ever have success at something, it’s because I’ve worked really hard on it.

DL: Who are some other design masters and legends you get inspired from?

NF : Adolf Loos, Louis Sullivan, Louis Kahn, Jorn Utzon

DL: What are your favorite designs by other designers, why do you like them?

NF : I like the small bank buildings that Louis Sullivan designed toward the end of his career. They are a lot more thought out than most realize at first glance. They are a wonderful example of how great Architects think about what is happening behind the façade in how they articulate its artifice.

DL: What is your greatest design, which aspects of that design makes you think it is great?

NF : Bienville House is the best project that I have personally designed. I really thought about the areas of the home that were important to have a sense of visual transparency and which elements did not. I like that the design was able to think about privacy issues within a home without completely sacrificing the openness and semi-public visual connection to the areas adjacent to the property.

DL: How could people improve themselves to be better designers, what did you do?

NF : I think people should do what ever they can to always be designing or thinking about design. A lot of the projects we are working on professionally do not providing this for some reason or another. Usually because the time to design major elements for a design passes quickly relative to the other professional obligations we have to close out and deliver that design. Make up a project in your head, but then follow through sketch it, model it and more importantly refine it.

DL: If you hadn’t become a designer, what would you have done?

NF : Hard to say maybe an Artist or an Engineer.

DL: How do you define design, what is design for you?

NF : Design for me it supposed to be a harmonious resolution between utility and beauty

DL: Who helped you to reach these heights, who was your biggest supporter?

NF : There are a lot of people who care about me, but the one person who has supported me to be more ambitious is my wife.

DL: What helped you to become a great designer?

NF : I had several teachers in grad school who were tough and challenged me to think more critically and in different ways. A lot of my colleges in Chicago were great and challenged me as well.

DL: What were the obstacles you faced before becoming a design master?

NF : 20.Being an Architect takes the right balance of hubris and humility. We receive a lot of feedback, both solicited and unsolicited and it is easy to become imbalanced by listening to the wrong feedback or dismissing the right feedback. I try to reassess feedback once I am less emotionally attached to it.

DL: How do you think designers should present their work?

NF : When presenting a new design, I think they should summarize the big idea(s) in two or three sentences. Those should be the first sentences of a presentation, not the last.

DL: What’s your next design project, what should we expect from you in future?

NF : I have some residential projects I am working on. I love houses, but I hope to be working on some larger commercial or multi family projects as well.

DL: What’s your ultimate goal as a designer?

NF : I would rather be prolific than a perfectionist. I think good Architecture needs to be produced quickly as well as beautifully if it is ever going to make a meaningful contribution to improving the built environment. We have the tools to do it, we just cannot let perfection be the enemy of good.

DL: What people expect from an esteemed designer such as yourself?

NF : For those that regard me this way it is often expected that I can provide quick responses that are accurate without need to be improved. This is rarely the case most ideas need to be developed and refined.

DL: How does design help create a better society?

NF : Good design projects optimism onto society by its ambition, bad design projects cynicism.

DL: What are you currently working on that you are especially excited about?

NF : I am working on several houses and competitions. I am excited about some of the diverse work.

DL: Which design projects gave you the most satisfaction, why?

NF : I like working with people who are smart, collaborative open minded and good at what they do. It is always great for the scope of a project to be ambitious or something specific that is intriguing, but I am more confident that a project will be great when I work with great people.

DL: What would you like to see changed in design industry in the coming years?

NF : I would like to see more smaller sized firms in a given region, rather than these large practices that seem to grad the lions share of projects. Outside of massive and complex projects like Hospitals I think that smaller firms haven proven more capable of delivering high quality design projects. It will take some collaboration on the part of these smaller practices outside of their offices within regional committees or just informally. Smaller firms will need to play nice with each other to make this work, but it seems to be moving in this direction anyway.

DL: Where do you think the design field is headed next?

NF : I haven’t been invited to attend any corporate board meetings, but if I had to guess I think there will be a lot of competition between large practices to become even larger with projects that are less regional; more national and international. I suspect there will be a lot more mergers than Architects have seen in the past which will be uncomfortable. Regional practices would be better off staying small to medium size rather than expanding.

DL: How long does it take you to finalize a design project?

NF : Predicting the time it takes to complete a project is very specific to the project. It can take anywhere from 1 week to 3 years in my experience.

DL: When you have a new design project, where do you start?

NF : I always want to just start sketching, but really reading and research is where a project should start. I would start a project by asking the person or people who conceived of the project a lot of questions, I research the site, zoning etc. It always seems more boring to do a little research first, but it vastly improves the focus of a given project.

DL: What is your life motto as a designer?

NF : No input no output

DL: Do you think design sets the trends or trends set the designs?

NF : Other types of design fields are probably more concerned with trend than Architecture. From my perspective if there is a trend it should be set by good, well-reasoned design as the foundation.

DL: What is the role of technology when you design?

NF : I am agnostic when it comes to technology. I am neither a luddite nor technophile. Some projects require a low-tech approach and other a high tech.

DL: What kind of design software and equipment do you use in your work?

NF : Revit, Photoshop, Lumion, Illustrator, Bluebeam, V-Ray.

DL: What is the role of the color, materials and ambient in design?

NF : In Architecture, I think people should not be afraid to use a color with a lot of hue. I understand this requires balance and is challenging, but brightly hued colors are widespread throughout history and can be beautiful. I think sometimes we believe that a brightly hued color needs a stronger and more cerebral justification than other colors, but I disagree. They can be used as a means of sequencing spaces, providing depth in certain areas, wayfinding, and setting tone. Neutral colors are fine, but I would not dismiss brightly hued color entirely.

DL: What do you wish people to ask about your design?

NF : Practical questions about how a space is arranged. I spend a lot of time thinking about a Kitchen layout for example.

DL: When you see a new great design or product what comes into your mind?

NF : I usually focus on a detail or a clever way a designer has used a material. I try not to copy a detail verbatim or thoughtlessly, but I always add it to a palette of potential design ideas.

DL: Who is your ideal design partner? Do you believe in co-design?

NF : I do believe in co-design. Sometimes that process requires individuals to work in a vacuum for a set amount of time, but rules and values for this should be established by a team, together. A work of Architecture requires so many ideas, it is sometimes difficult for one person to generate them all. Because projects can be so time sensitive one person can only generate so many ideas. When this is the case there are often are missed opportunities.

DL: Which people you interacted had the most influence on your design?

NF : My professors in Graduate School and my work colleagues at a few firms in Chicago. I am glad that I moved to a big city like to Chicago after grad school. A lot of talented people flock there, it is really competitive, but you can find some great people to bounce ideas off of.

DL: Which books you read had the most effect on your design?

NF : “The Necessity of Artifice” by Joseph Rykwert; Any essay by Adolf Loos particularly “Ornament and Crime”; “The Seven Lamps of Architecture” by John Ruskin; “Towards a New Architecture” by Le Corbusier; “Function and Sign: Semiotics of Architecture” by Umberto Eco; “Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture” by Robert Venturi

DL: How did you develop your skills as a master designer?

NF : There is no substitute for experience, but you do not have to get experience from a professional setting alone.

DL: Irrelative of time and space, who you would want to meet, talk and discuss with?

NF : I am assuming that Jesus is not available in this scenario. If not, then I would like to have a conversation with Adolf Loos. It is probably true that Architecture was modern before him, but I consider him to be the Architect to proudly espouse it first. There were so many Artistic movements happening in Vienna during his time. It seems like he received less fanfare than some of his contemporaries, but his ideas have proven to be more accepted over time.

DL: How do you feel about all the awards and recognition you had, is it hard to be famous?

NF : I am not famous. I am happy that my wife and kids usually like me.

DL: What is your favorite color, place, food, season, thing and brand?

NF : Color- Orange; Place- Rome, Italy; Season- Autumn; Thing- a Forest; Brand- Ikea

DL: Please tell us a little memoir, a funny thing you had experienced as a designer?

NF : When I was in Grad School, I had spent several late nights gazing at a computer screen. My eyes started to get pretty blood shot and irritated. I reached up on a shelf over my drafting table for what I thought was a bottle of eye drops. It was not, it was a bottle of super glue. They look similar. Fortunately, I read the label.

DL: What makes your day great as a designer, how do you motivate yourself?

NF : I like the days where I work on a design, as opposed to the days where a design is approved or realized even though they are both great. Any day where I got great sleep the night before and there are no distractions. Good sleep is less hard to come by, than the days without distractions.

DL: When you were a little child, was it obvious that you would become a great designer?

NF : No. I was not anything close to a prodigy.

DL: What do you think about future; what do you see will happen in thousand years from now?

NF : I think there is likely to be chaos for a certain amount of time leading to a period of benevolent governance that values culture.



Bienville Duplex

Bienville Duplex by Nathan Fell

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