Tuesday, July 17, 2018

Be Innovative, Be Clever and Let the materials guide you: Meet Olle Lundberg of Lundberg Design

Architect Olle Lundberg in the Lundberg Design offices in San Francisco's Dogpatch neighborhood.  The wall behind him is covered with Hot Sauces collected from his world travels. 

We first met Olle Lundberg as we often meet other neighbors -- at the bar in Serpentine Restaurant.  As we chatted we realized that this was the person responsible for the design of many of our favorite spots including Mourad Restaurant, Slanted Door Restaurant, the whiskey bar, Hard Water as well as many other projects around San Francisco.

Although his firm, Lundberg Design, might be known for these and many other high profile restaurant projects -- he actually has quite the diverse roster of clients including personal residences, wineries, corporate headquarters and as he told me recently, even SFMTA bus shelters.  In Dogpatch he has lent his team's design expertise to such projects as the Museum Of Craft and Design's Gift Shop and the Dutchman Flat's Dispensary.

His studio fronts Third Street and backs out onto Angel Alley.  The interesting angles of the site are thanks to Tubbs Cordage Company that occupied the site from the late 1800s to the early 1960s. You might have passed by his studio often --  it is hard to miss with the front door that looks like an airlock and the Vespa parked out front. The back of his studio boasts an old Airstream and you might spot a Labrador or two running around.

We met up recently with Olle in his studio in the Hot Sauce bunker room to talk about his current projects and how a guy born in Sweden, raised in Ohio and many other U.S. cities -- ended up in Dogpatch.

Why do you do what you do?
When I finally became an architect I felt like I had found what I had been looking for as a career -- a creative outlet that came easily to me. Not that it wasn't hard work to get to where I am today but that it felt natural to me that I should be doing this work.

I like to say I was made in Sweden but born in the U.S. I arrived two weeks after my parents immigrated to the U.S. to live in Ohio.  My dad was a PG&E chemical engineer who moved into managing paper mills. So we moved around a lot.  I went to a different school every year until high school. All that moving around made me very self-sufficient and I was exposed to a lot of different houses -- a lot of different floor plans.

After high school I went to a boarding school in Connecticut. It was a different experience for me as most of the other students were from wealthy East Coast backgrounds.  I liked the academics and I also did a lot of athletics -- mostly football.  I remember that most of the students already had their careers mapped out for them -- bankers, lawyers, etc.  That gave me a new perspective. I knew that path wasn't for me and that I wanted to shape a more creative career for myself.

I was a carpenter in high school and college and I loved the physical aspect of that type of work. And I loved being outside and the process of building something.
The metal shop at Lundberg Design in Dogpatch. Doing their own metal work produces unique results for clients.
I knew I wanted to go to a small college but didn't know what to study.  I went to Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Virginia and started as a business major.  I took Economics class and lasted one day. I switched to an English major right away. I thought maybe I would be a writer but while I loved the end product I didn't like the process of getting there. I finished my major early but I still needed coursework to graduate so I took a sculpture class.  I had a very young professor from New Orleans.  He was very inventive, very hands on. He was in to all kinds of processes including metal work which I loved.  I immersed myself into sculpture for more than a year. That's where I got my start as a fabricator.  My brother (editor's note: artist Peter Lundberg) is an amazing sculpture artist.

An interesting side note is that after my first year at school I had to live off-campus as dorms were only for the freshman students.  I found an old chapel outside of town and convinced my dad to let me buy it for $10,000. A friend partnered with me and we fixed it up and leased out three rooms to other friends to pay the mortgage.  That house ended up paying for my grad school when we sold it.

So now I'm trying to decide between law school or business school for grad school. I decided I really wanted to go to Stanford Business School.  Stanford wait-listed me and told me to go do something interesting for a year and then they would look at my application again.  So I decided to go to architecture school for a year.  I got into Yale and University of Virginia. Since I was an in-state resident Virginia was the clear choice at $5,000/year tuition vs. $25,000 for Yale. I felt like Virginia was a better fit for me given that I hadn't had any prior architecture experience. After a year I told Stanford I wanted to finish school and then when I graduated I turned them down -- I no longer wanted to go to business school.

After I graduated I worked in Charlottesville, Virginia for a former professor of mine at his architecture firm. I moved to California in 1980 on a whim.  I had been here once as a teenager and loved it.  I had cousins in Palo Alto and they took us to visit San Francisco.  We went to the Haight and some guy offered me a joint. I was 13. I didn't take it of course but I thought that was very cool! San Francisco felt like a European city to me and I liked the diversity and the tolerance of the city after having lived in the Midwest which isn't the most diverse part of the world.
I was offered a job in San Francisco in 1980 for an architecture firm which is now Perkins + Will.  I was the go to person for their residential projects.

A pivotal project for me was when I decided to design a house for my sister who lives in Connecticut. It came in at twice the budget so I did the work myself. It took two years.

After that experience I started my own firm. We market our firm differently than most architecture firms.  We market ourselves as designers.  Our work is very personal and we want to work with clients we connect with. We are always looking for projects that we haven't done before which is why we have such a diverse client list. We are always looking for the big ideas -- on ways we can be clever and innovative on a project. When I'm considering a new project I always have this gut reaction to how to approach the project. Most of our work is focused around a singular big idea and what materials we can use to execute the idea.

And we are always looking for using materials in unusual ways.  Our studio includes a metal fabrication shop which allows us to know how to put materials together.  The shop also helps us solve problems as they come up. We also use the shop to create signature pieces for our projects such as a reception desk or light fixtures. 
The Pool Room at Lundberg Design in Dogpatch. The offices used to be an auto repair shop.

Why Dogpatch?
We have been in Dogpatch since 1996. Before we found this place we leased studio space at various spots in SF.  We had a studio at Tehama and 16th but it was red tagged after the earthquake.  We then moved to a spot in SOMA on 12th Street with the goal of buying a building in SOMA so we could control our future a bit.  But this was during the first tech boom so we missed out on the opportunity by about a year. All the small buildings got snatched up first during this boom time. I had an SBA loan so I cast a wider net in my search.

We focused on the old Mission Police Station that was no longer in use at 25th Street that was going to go up for auction. Two days before the auction a homeless advocacy group got involved and wanted the city to consider that site for housing.  That got a lot of press and public outcry for the city to take action so then Mayor Willie Brown took it off the market.

That spot was never right for public housing but now everyone knew that it was available so the price went up. We lost out to another architecture firm.

I heard about our current place from one of my employees.  It was a former SAAB repair shop.  We think it was originally built in 1933 as a mattress factory but never used in that way.  It might have been used as a stable at one time -- we have found a lot of horse shoes.

We also looked at a really cool space on Yosemite Street but I had a sensed that Dogpatch was going to change faster than that neighborhood.

It was filthy as auto repairs shops are but I loved the geometry of the space. It has a dramatic central space and concrete walls and wood beams.  I used all of my SBA loan to buy the building and the last bit of my credit line to sand blast all the years of accumulated dirt from the space.

I had never been in Dogpatch before this.  Never had a reason to go to this neighborhood.  There was no Mission Bay at the time so this neighborhood seemed far from the main part of San Francisco.  It seemed like a pretty sketchy place. There were no retail shops or decent restaurants -- the space where Serpentine is now was a Chinese Restaurant. We liked that the Hell's Angels had a clubhouse next door. Not that we have interacted much over the years but it gave us a good feeling that they were nearby.

What's the deal with all this hot sauce?
My wife and I love to travel and we love hot sauce.  We always pick up two bottles when we travel -- one to consume and one to display in this room. We have been married for 28 years so that's a lot of hot sauce.

What would you be doing if you weren't doing this?
Honestly I'll be doing this until I can't do it anymore. I've worked hard to have this firm, this life style so why would I give it up.  I find building things to be very therapeutic so when I'm not doing this I'm working on a cabin I purchased with my wife in 1996. We have been using mostly recycled materials. We head there every weekend to work on it.

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