14 September 2023
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Talented, passionate, forthright and clear in his ideals, Jonathan Feldman is an inspiration. I’m inspired by not only his work, but his approach to his practice, his candor, and his kind spirit. He manages to balance rigor and grace in a way that is unfailingly beautiful. Talking with Jonathan about restraint and minimalism in design – and how they enhance the environments we create – was one of the highlights of this year of conversations. I hope you enjoy the discussion as much as I did.

As the founding partner and CEO of Feldman Architecture, Jonathan leads a practice that is committed to improving the way his clients live and interact with the planet. His studio is widely recognized for creating warm, light-filled spaces with an understated modern aesthetic that is at once contemporary and timeless. It’s an approach driven less by an aesthetic devotion to minimalism than by the core values of living thoughtfully, intentionally and sustainably.

Architecture is inherently about optimism. It’s a belief that ideas can manifest themselves to solve problems and create beauty that we can all experience.

Interestingly, Jonathan’s initial career plans did not include architecture at all.

I was interested in so many things — product design, photography, film — but the visual element was the link. I’ve always been good at visuals.

A liberal arts major in college, Jonathan moved to California to pursue filmmaking, but discovered that it lacked the depth he was looking for. After a few years, a spiritual epiphany in the mountains — a life-challenging adventure in the wilderness followed by an encounter with architects practicing in the small mountain town of Telluride — solidified his decision to switch gears and pursue a graduate degree in architecture. As an undergraduate, he remembered briefly dipping his toe into architecture and finding that he loved the creativity and community of the studio — an early indication of the intentionally collaborative, egalitarian studio he now heads.

Your design solutions always feel so authentic — restrained but never overly so.

I believe a ‘less-is-more’ aesthetic approach sets you up for the more universal core values of living more intentionally with less, designing sustainably, and so on.

I love filtering out the noise, and coming to the essence — the ‘parti’ — of the design.

The connection between an intentional approach to living, a minimalist approach to design and a sustainable approach to architecture and construction feels so natural.

Honestly, I haven’t thought about it framed in exactly that way, but they are indeed linked. Sustainability is probably the quintessential problem of our time, as well as the increasing divide between haves and have-nots in our society. When you think about the fact that the construction and operation of buildings makes up about 30 to 40 percent of our collective carbon footprint, the connection between restraint in design and sustainability becomes obvious.

For you, the awareness about our responsibility for the environment has always been there.

Yes. I’ve always been concerned about what humans are doing to our planet, far pre-dating my career as an architect. I’m drawn to the outdoors, to the mountains, and I want my work to have a positive impact on the planet.

How do you have this conversation with your clients?

When we think about it, there is an element of self-filtering that happens. Since we make our commitment to sustainability very clear, I believe the clients who come to us tend to be those who truly care about the environmental impact of their project.

Do you naturally tend toward a restrained approach?

I do gravitate toward restraint. I try to search for and weed out things that are trendy, that will not hold on or age well.

I’m really searching for a timeless design, and that does tend to be more restrained.

What does timelessness mean to you?

It’s having a simple design thesis that permeates every element of a design solution. It becomes something you can use as a filter for design decisions. It cannot be arbitrary, but has to be appropriate to the context and the program. There is a point where the context and the client’s needs come together, and that forms the basis for the design solution. It’s the simplicity of this single thesis that helps make sure you don’t end up with a project that is a ‘Frankenstein of beautiful things.’

How do you convey that concept to your team?

It’s an awareness I have, and I communicate that to the project teams. Our practice is very collaborative, but over the years I’ve learned a lot. One thing I’ve learned is that we tend to hold onto options longer than we should, rather than having the confidence to pare down. My gut knows when it’s the right scheme. So I have conversations with my teams, reinforcing that options can be good, but we also need to be able to let them go, and we need to trust our instincts. When a member of our team is designing a detail, they have to earn it. Every detail has to be justified. Every element of the design solution exists for a reason. Fundamentally, a less-in-more philosophy helps define that hierarchy of needs.

There is a rigor that comes with restraint.

Do you discuss this with your clients?

We do. It starts in the interview. We ask them for the ‘why’ behind their project, and challenge them on it. We are looking for ‘What is the deeper desire here? If we can get to that, it allows us to form the central design thesis.

You are taking a stand for intentional living, for restraint, for sustainability.

We are taking a stand. We, as designers, can address climate change. We are forwarding the idea of a carbon budget for every project, measuring and capping the carbon embedded in the making and operation of the project. Since carbon emissions are the largest element of climate change, this approach distills our approach to sustainability into a single thesis we can wrap our arms around.

The homes we design for our clients are often larger than average, so the potential for limiting emissions is bigger — the lever we are pulling is bigger.

Your Atherton Pavilions project is such a beautiful example of restraint.

We have conversations with our clients about the benefits of building multiple homes versus designing a single home that is perfect for them, or making an existing home better. We talk about their ‘happiness budget.’ Our client for the Atherton Pavilions project was enhancing her existing home, rather than building a new one. Initially, she wanted three pavilions, but we ended up with two, because it was really all she needed. There is a specialness to having just the two pavilions and fitting the needs to what the site wanted to hold. There was simply no need to build more than what was needed.

Now for a few fun questions…

What’s the one thing you love most about what you do?

I love working with super talented and committed people in a deeply collaborative way. The work is complex and subtle, and demands so many different skills: deep listening, complex analysis and problem-solving, creativity and visualization, and, most importantly, skilled communication.

Who — or what — inspires you?

Inspiration is everywhere: people, art, music, literature and, yes, lots of architecture. But I don’t think anything can compete with the beauty of the natural world in terms of its infinite complexity and beauty and, most importantly, how it makes me feel.

What’s the single best business or creative advice you’ve ever received?

I’ll stick with Meis’s ‘less is more’. It can be applied to so many aspects of design and life.

If you weren’t doing this, what would you be doing?

It’s very hard to imagine finding another job that could hold my interest and bring me the joy that architecture does. I explored a career in film-making before going into architecture and while I did get pretty disillusioned with the Hollywood industry and the studio process, I could see myself being very happy with a career as a documentary film-maker, where I could travel and dive deep into different topics and tell stories or ask tough questions.

How do you love spending time outside of work?

I have been on a bit of a reading tear, which is a bit unusual for me. I recently finished The Lincoln Highway, Cloud Coo-Coo Land, The Sea of Tranquility and Killers of the Flower Moon.