Exclusive Interview: Architect Craig Steely
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We discovered architect Craig Steely a few months ago, and even mentioned him in a post last month here on the 2Modern blog. One post just couldn’t contain all the love we have for this creative guy, though. More than just a modern architect, Craig’s designs are part of what’s amazing about the modern design movement: they’re tackling design issues in new and unique ways, and doing so quite beautifully.
His structures approach the landscape with a very interesting philosophy, and his designs are cool and fun. Versatility and the ability to marry his style with those of a client are paramount, and make for a portfolio that is bursting at the seams with all different types and styles of architecture. Make no mistake, Craig Steely is a modern architect, but his ability to listen to clients’ needs, situate structures in varied landscapes and integrate new and surprising materials makes him more like an ambassador of how modern design should be everywhere.
We sat down with Craig over Skype to discuss his background (like getting to study art and design in Florence, Italy), how he primarily designs in two very different environment types (Hawaii and California) and what his definition of modern design is.
Our podcast music is “Bad Attraction” by Brad Sucks, licensed for use under
Creative Commons license Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported
Read Craig’s interview:
2M: We’ve got architect Craig Steely talking with us today. He started his firm, which is based out of Hawaii and California, in 1995 and has been creating really clever and inspiring modern architectural designs ever since. Thank you so much for being here Craig.
CS: Thank you.
2M: At what point in your life did you know you were interested in architecture?
CS: I think I got into it…primarily I had an interest in drawing really early, and also making things. I come from a really creative family. I think when I sort of pulled it all together that I wanted to do architecture, I was Sea Ranch when I was about 14, and saw all the buildings there. It just sort of gelled; I thought it would be great. And I’ve pretty much been on that track ever since.
2M: So I’ve read that you took a trip to Florence, Italy when you were still in school, still in college. That must have been amazing; I’ve gotten to go to Italy and it was jaw-droppingly beautiful.
CS: Yeah it’s funny, there’s actually a condition. That people go to Florence after studying the art for so long, and they go to the Uffizi, and they see all these things. And they pass out. And they just get overwhelmed from all of a sudden being surrounded by such a large quantity of amazing art. They have a crazy reaction and an inferiority complex. [laughs] It’s amazing. It was almost the first time I had ever left California. I grew up in the Sierras. I went to school at Cal Poly. I got a scholarship to study there in Florence, so I went there and it was amazing. It was amazing getting to experience all these things on a daily basis: when it was hot, when it was cold. When I was happy or when I was sad. When I would be thinking about architecture or when I wouldn’t be thinking about architecture. And all that stuff really became the background and went in really deep I feel, for me.
2M: What else influences your work?
CS: I’m influenced by simple things. Things that have a flow to them. Like architecture wise I really like Sverre Fehn’s Nordic Pavillion in Venice. It’s just a really strong and simple building. Kind of reductive. I’m influenced by a lot of things. By what I read. By what I do. By conversations I have.
2M: What do you think you do, specifically, that sets your work apart from the rest?
CS: I find it impossible to work with people I don’t respect. I like enjoying the people you work with, and including them in the work, in the process, and really respecting their opinions, in a way that they’re the same as yours.
2M: Do you describe yourself as a modern architect?
CS: Yeah, people ask “what do you do?” and I say we do modern architecture. Because I think it’s obvious we don’t do other types of architecture. And what we do is specific. The good thing about having a lot of work behind me is I don’t seem to get clients asking me to do something I don’t identify with. I don’t get clients calling me up and asking me to do a Spanish style house. If I do, I say there’s plenty of other people who can do it better. So yeah, I say it’s modern, because I think that’s a word people can relate to. When I say that word people understand what I do. I think modern design, it’s hard to sort of define what that is. But to me, it means being able to look at a problem, and solve a problem, by personal ideas, instead of having it solely based on tradition. Not saying that tradition is bad, but I think modern design allows you to problem solve in a completely different and unique way each time, not based on style. Oftentimes style comes into it, but it’s not primarily based on that.
2M: Do you think there are any important or pressing issues facing modern architecture today, and if so, how are you tackling them?
CS: Well I think architecture is in a better place now than it has been in the last 50 years, after going through a rebirth. You know, going through deconstructivism and post modernism, architecture was really lost in a lot of ways. And I think it’s really gone back to more issues that people relate to. I feel like the most pressing issue in architecture…I’d rather see more good architects doing less work and staying really focused on doing less work, but less work that’s really good. So I feel like maybe a lot of work gets done by people whose heart’s not really in it. Or who don’t have the time to focus on a particular project.
2M: I believe your firm does work all over the country. What are the cities or urban centers that really get you excited to visit?
CS: One of the cities I got to visit recently that I really liked was Lisbon. I liked kind of everything about it, in the sense there are parts of it that are run down and parts that are really modern. The geography of it is really beautiful. I think it has a real vibrancy. I think—it’s strange—but it’s one of the most exciting places I’ve been to in a long time.
2M: Were you working on a project there or just visiting for fun?
CS: I was doing a project there in the Azores, which are these islands 3000 miles off the coast of Portugal. It’s a slow process—I think it’s going to be going on for years—but it’s a cool place. I like Hong Kong a lot as well. It’s like Lisbon in a way; it’s hilly like San Francisco. There are high spots and low spots. Vanishing points and proportional. It’s kind of confined in a way, too, as opposed to a sprawling city.
2M: What do you do when you’re not designing awesome structures? What does Craig Steely do to relax?
CS: I surf a lot. Gotten into skateboarding lately. I like to play music around camp fires.
2M: And how many people work for your firm?
CS: Three full-time, including me, and then a couple of part-time people.
2M: You’ve given lectures before, at colleges and stuff like that, what are the sort of topics that you talk about?
CS: Sometimes I get asked to speak in schools and people are really interested in how I do work in two really different places, like Hawaii and California. And so, and that’s a really interesting and easy topic to talk about it. And what’s sort of interesting about it and what’s sort of started to preoccupy my work and the stuff that I do…there are these two really different places, but there’s a sort of bridge between the two places in the work that I do. Like ideas will start in Hawaii, and they’ll kind of wither, but then they’ll sort of appear in another project in San Francisco and grow. So the other thing that is interesting about that, too, is that when I’m in San Francisco, Hawaii becomes clear and objective, and vice versa. Like when I’m in Hawaii, I’ll have a real clear insight into San Francisco. So, I talk a lot about this idea of connectedness to nature as well as emancipation from nature. Like integration with nature, but also a separation from nature. Like I feel like a lot of projects…the difficult and interesting thing about a lot of my projects that I’ve done is they’ve been in these really pristine and interesting sites. And some ways of relating to these sites is by distancing the building from it, and abstracting it, and having it be a different object that’s floating in it. In a place where there’s a lot of chaos, like the lava fields of Hawaii, there’s an amazing purity to putting a geometric shape, or a rational shape, or some sort of structural shape. I look at it as not competing with that landscape, but setting it apart from that landscape.
When I was in Florence, one of my professors and my thesis critic was Cristiano Toraldo, and he was with this group called SUPERSTUDIO, and they did these amazing drawings and collages back in the ’60s and ’70s that were a lot of pure shapes mostly found in nature. And one of collages was this sort of endless cubic wall going through Lugano and Lago Maggiore or the Grand Canyon, or the California coast line. And they were sort of a critique in that way. But I think life has sort of caught up with that, and history has sort of caught up with that, and in a way there’s a distance to nature. Looking back at that SUPERSTUDIO stuff and a lot of that stuff I feel I got in college, it’s taken me 20 years to really understand it, and understand it differently. And it’s really influenced my work, at an early age, and it keeps influencing it as I get more mature in what I do.
2M: What else is on the horizon for you, for your firm, for your future?
CS: For the future, I just want to stay focused on enjoying what I do, and not lose that excitement I have for it. We have a lot of great houses going on for great people. But I finally feel ready to start doing projects—I keep calling them non-private projects, as opposed to private houses—but I still…I’ve seen a lot of architects mess up from that leap to doing good houses to doing really mediocre bigger jobs, so I want to be really careful, and make that leap into doing non-private stuff that still has the level of detail that I can achieve in a house. Yeah, I think the most important thing is to just keep enjoying what I do and growing that way.
2M: Well thank you so much for talking with us today Craig; we had a great time.
2M: To learn more about Craig and his architecture, visit craigsteely.com. This has been a 2modern designer interview. We’ve got more podcasts and design posts on our blog, so please visit 2modern.com
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