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L.A.'s 'Design, Bitches' on Building Vegan Centers, Designing Ice Cream Menus, and Why They Owe Their Name to the AIA

With a studio name like Design, Bitches Los Angeles architects Catherine Johnson and Rebecca Rudolph get an unconscionably hip set of projects: Bauhaus-inspired ice cream parlors, rehabbed auto body warehouses now serving buttermilk drop biscuits, and Venice Beach bungalows with openable glass walls, to name a few. Together, the pair do a lot—menu design, architectural gutting, and art installations are just three slices of the pie—and they love that variety of work they do, the "surprises that land at our feet," as Johnson calls their projects. LA Weekly recently described their work is "as pragmatic as it is punk," and it's true: they pack in a lot of coolness (in that aloof, unpracticed way only true coolness can be) into each design, no matter the scope or budget. It's a monster mural here, an Escher-style hand mural there. Curbed recently caught up with the pair about their origins—hint: it involves the American Institute of Architects—and their favorite projects, below.

You guys have a current, fresh aesthetic. Where does that come from?

Cathy: In general we like spaces that don't feel like they're trying exceptionally hard or feel over-designed. The spaces that we like best are very thoughtful—we think very, very hard about what we do—but they're not screaming "check me out."

We are also interested in pairing odd things together. At our most recent art installation, which we did for the Santa Barbara Contemporary Art Museum, we played with the ideas of mass and weight. We were flip-flopping things—making things that seem very light very heavy. We both love perceptual play, so any chance we get to sort of mess with people's heads and how they might see things is always really fun.

I wouldn't say that we are trying to be cool. When people are trying really hard to seem cool, you're setting it up to not work out that way.

Where did the name 'Design, Bitches' come from?

Rebecca: The AIA in Los Angeles had a competition in 2010. It was the young architects—what was it called, exactly?

Cathy: It was the "Arch is _____" contest, and you're supposed to fill in the blank. It was for young architectural talent.

Rebecca: Right, the Young Architectural Talent award. They wanted a portfolio of work and a manifesto from younger architects about what they thought architectures is about. They were going to judge based on how close the body of the work fit with the manifesto. Cathy and I at the time were working at another architect's office together on some projects, so we thought, why don't we, to have some fun, make a portfolio and submit it to this competition? A semi-fictional thing.

Our answer to the prompt, what architecture is, was simply: "design, bitches!," kind of poking fun at the whole thing, really. Just saying, you know we really don't have to take ourselves so seriously and architecture can be more than just buildings. We are interested in design in a much wider scope.

So we made a portfolio. We came up with a logo. We had some projects that we actually worked on together and some projects that we kind of invented. We submitted and thought, OK, they're just going to throw it out. It's the AIA, they're kind of buttoned up. They're very serious.

But actually they were very receptive to it, much more than we thought they would be. They ended up giving us an honorable mention. It was nice because it kind of opened a dialog we had not expected to be there. We got opportunities to do some art installations and lectures and things. So we kept working together. We liked working together and some of the projects we came up with, the fictional ones, we were able to execute.

And at first we planning for it to be something not work-for-hire, but just something we were interested in as art projects. But then the Coolhaus project came our way, a graphic façade project that turned into an interiors project. Then we kept getting more work. The name stuck.

What did the AIA have to say about your project?

Cathy: We don't really know. We heard rumors because we had known people who were the jurors and they had said they were all saying things like "Well what are we going to do about the Bitches?" People thought that was very funny. You know, like "What are we going to do about them? How are we going to deal with the Bitches?" because they wanted to give us something. They really didn't say that much when they gave it to us but I think they probably did appreciate our level of experimentation. But this is all just my assumption because they never really told us.

Rebecca: I think they got more than we thought they would. I would have to assume that they appreciated the humor in it. Also, it was right when the recession was kind of at it's worst and they wanted to encourage different modes of practice and encourage people to think about to the other ways you could stay in architecture though not necessarily be doing the traditional thing.

Cathy: Since then we have stayed in reasonable favor with the AIA. We won a restaurant design award for one of our projects, so they still know about us and what we're up to, which is nice. It changes our perception of what a traditionally buttoned-up club might be. It's kind of refreshing.

How'd you meet?

Rebecca: Barbara Bester, she's an architect in Silver Lake. Cathy worked for her for nine years and was a design director. I was working part-time. I left Barbara's office right when Cathy and I started the Design, Bitches portfolio.

Cathy: We submitted that in 2010, so it's been four years.

What's it like working together?

Rebecca: We always say we sort of came from different places. Cathy has an undergrad degree in interior architecture and has sort of been on that path for a long time. She really knew what she wanted and focused on that. She worked after undergrad for a while and then went to SCI-Arc [Southern California Institute of Architecture] for graduate school.

I did something totally different, I studied philosophy in France and I had no idea that I was going into architecture. I went to SCI-Arc thinking I was going there for school, that I wouldn't actually become an architect. But then, interestingly, through working together we found we have very similar working styles and aesthetic interests.

So we both kind of do everything. We both deal with the business, deal with the marketing, deal with the accounting. We deal with project management and the design.

Cathy: We both are creatives. In a lot of partnerships one person takes the more creative lead role, but since we both want to do the creative stuff but also have the business savvy, it's really nice to have a partner with which you can divide and conquer all of those things. We're able to fill in the blanks a lot with each other.

Rebecca: If I had to mention something that makes us different, and we'll see if Cathy agrees with me, but I'm always pushing us to experiment with things that are more outside of architecture. I am the one saying we should do more branding. Cathy focuses on the architecture.

Cathy: That's not true! Well, I am focused on the architecture, but I love the other stuff too.

Rebecca: It's really a small matter of degrees.

Cathy: I do always think of things three-dimensionally first, because that's my natural way of thinking at this point. So it's nice that Rebecca's sort of driving interest is branding and graphics. I think we both love flip-flopping between things that are spacial and things that are not.

What are some of the projects you are most proud of?

Rebecca: There's Superba Food + Bread in Venice on Lincoln (↑), a bakery/restaurant/cafe. It's very adaptive, flexible, a multi-program kind of spot. The atmosphere changes throughout the day and it was really meant to be a community gathering place. For us it was the largest architectural project to date. It's 4,000-square-foot former autobody shop that was completely overhauled and structurally upgraded—new everything, basically. We preserved the beauty of the existing trusses and structure but we had to everything to bring it up to code so it could function as a bakery and a restaurant.

It's a big project, an exciting program, and an extension of a brand we have a lot of investment in [Design, Bitches also created stationery branding for Superba]. And it just opened last Friday.

Cathy: The biggest thing about that project is that it has a lot of the different things we do in it. We opened up the building and, architecturally, created a space that was lighter—working within an existing building re-cladding and reusing lots of things. But there's also the interior design elements, the graphics, and the branding for menus and things.

Rebecca: We designed the logo. We did the illustrations that are used throughout the space.

Cathy: It was really fun to take all those little things that we do and have a place where could all come and live.

Rebecca: It's the same for the other restaurant we did, the Oinkster, a fast-casual burger place. The building was decrepit and had to be massively overhauled. We were able to really dramatically transformed the way it looked.

Cathy: Both projects are in areas that, before these places moved in, have been pretty much just a lot of autobody shops and carwashes. Slowly retailers and other types of establishments are starting to populate it and it's been cool to see what's starting to happen in those neighborhoods. Oinkster has a cult following, so people will migrate over there. That's kind of exciting to us: placing little interesting things in the city and seeing how things might shift because of their existence.

What's the coolest thing you're working on now?

Rebecca: We have a couple other things, a house in Atwater Village (↑). It's interesting because it's modest scale but we were able to play with the volumes and play with the site layout. We're also doing the landscape for that one.

In the Arts District downtown we're about to start construction on what we're calling a vegan lifestyle center (↓)—a yoga studio, wellness center, vegan/raw restaurant, wine bar, and juice bar. That one's 13,000 square feet so that's a big jump in scale. We had to be very creative with all of the systems and all of the design elements because the budget is not very high. It's probably more minimal than some of our other designs. We're building a lot of planters inside the place and working with the living things, which is an interesting change. It's a new challenge for us.

Do you have any dream clients?

Rebecca: You know the name started out as a fun thing and we realized that it helps us attract a certain kind of client that are interested in creativity, really interested in design, want to do something different and are willing to take a chance. I don't know if we'd want something else necessarily. We should have an answer to this but we don't.

Cathy: That's the thing, I'm always sort of delighted by the surprises that land at our feet. It's not that we don't actively pursue other work, but I think that we love the state where we're in. Even though we go after certain types of things, there's always a little twist—and when that unexpected thing comes our way, and it's always interesting.

· Design, Bitches [official site]
· All Curbed Interviews [Curbed National]