Designers of the Year 2011: studio o+a

David Wakely

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What do you get when a practical realist meets an eternal optimist? In the case of Verda Alexander, the pragmatist, and Primo Orpilla, the idealist, the possibilities are endless. As the founders and co-principals of studio o+a, based in San Francisco, as well as husband and wife, they have committed their hearts and souls to the idea of innovative creation. For more than two decades Alexander and Orpilla have been a dynamic duo personally and professionally. They support each other’s ideas, encourage thoughtfulness and thoroughness, provide motivation, and sometimes push each other’s buttons. Their differences individually are their strengths collectively; two that are good make one that is even better. And better is what it is all about. “From the day we met in high school, we talked about starting something,” recalls Alexander. “It could have been a flower shop or a magazine; it didn’t matter. We just knew we wanted to do something in a more innovative way, and most importantly, do it better.”

Would the pair agree that being named Designers of the Year is “doing something better?” Certainly they are thrilled with the title and appreciate the recognition, though they seem to be in a perpetual mode of forward-thinking ingenuity (i.e., what is the next project, and how can they make it better than the last?). Their energy and dynamism is unparalleled, flowing from their staff to their colleagues, clients, friends, and family. They are, no doubt, a designing force to be reckoned with. So what is the secret to their success? His strengths, her strengths, and finding the perfect balance, of course.

Alexander hesitates to tell the story of how she and Orpilla met. “We always get, ‘Aw, that’s so sweet,’ or ‘Oh wow, that long ago?’” While it is a lovely story of boy meets girl, what attracted them to each other in 1983 is the basis for their success today. Alexander says that it was not exactly love at first sight, but an immediate appreciation for the mutual attraction. “It was something of ourselves that we saw in the other person. Neither of us fully recognized it in ourselves, but we saw it immediately in each other.” She believes it was their combined entrepreneurial spirit, as well as their passion to discover, learn, and create.

The first thing they created in their togetherness was a plan for the immediate future. They both enrolled at San Jose State University: Alexander pursued a bachelor’s degree in Fine Art plus a master’s degree in Landscape Architecture, while Orpilla started in the Industrial Technology department, which did not last long. “I was constantly visiting Verda in the Art Department and quickly realized that interior design was much more ‘me’ than industrial design,” says Orpilla. He appreciated the blending of fine arts like sculpture, photography, and painting, with practical arts like interior design, textile, and graphic design. He remembers discovering an awareness of how disciplines outside of art and design, like business and technology, actually could enhance the design process. “I found a sense of freedom in interior design because I could explore so many areas,” he recalls. “The possibilities were wide open and only limited by my imagination.”

In hindsight, Orpilla admits that it is a good thing he had limitless imagination and boundless optimism. He always has believed that things will work out for the best, and, in most cases, they do. Even for a partially color-blind interior designer? “Yes, even for me!” he says with a laugh. “I discovered I was somewhat color-blind during my first critique in design school. I said something was grey, and it was green. Luckily, my professor believed being a good designer was more about manipulating space and coordinating detail than it was about recognizing exact colors. I’ve taken that idea and run with it.”

primo and verda candidAlexander also chuckles when discussing Orpilla’s unique zest for colors, particularly when he bought her a sweater that he thought was yellow, to match one he had bought himself. It was actually an “interesting” shade of pea green. “Needless to say, I took it back,” she says sweetly, “but that is what I love about Primo. He is willing to try anything and take risks until he gets it right, without any hard feelings.” Fortunately, there have not been any color missteps on the professional front; rather it has been quite the contrary. Client satisfaction is goal number one for their practice, particularly since most referrals are word of mouth. And it is usually Orpilla who is leading the charismatic, color- and design-confident charge. Alexander handles the internal running of the studio, while Orpilla does the outside marketing. However, in all regards, mutuality is key. (Orpilla and Alexander shown above; photo by Jasper Sanidad.)

Since the couple decided to formally combine their talents and start studio o+a in 1991, their trajectory has been impressive. What started in Fremont, Calif., as a firm consisting of just the two of them, now has grown to a brilliant collaboration of 18 individuals based in San Francisco. The studio’s first clients were in the technology arena, and most were start-ups. Thus, establishing studio o+a in Silicon Valley was a savvy business move. One of their first Silicon Valley clients was Cunningham Communication, lead by Andy Cunningham, president and CEO, and her husband, board member Rand Siegfried. Today, Siegfried fondly looks back on their office redesign, particularly since the corporation has continued to use studio o+a for nearly two decades, as they have moved locations and created new businesses in the Bay Area. He sees Orpilla’s “funness” translating to every project, and Alexander’s warmth as an essential counterpoint to Orpilla’s industrial flair. Their style together is fluid. “You can see the Yin and Yang of the couple and the practice, but most importantly you see the design that you, as the client, wished for. You don’t just get o+a, you get o+a+you!” he concludes.

John Lieu also has been a long-time client of studio o+a. He now serves as facilities manager for Yelp, which recently hired the studio to complete a metamorphosis of its design identity in the company’s five-story San Francisco headquarters. The new look is residential, open, and collaborative. Lieu says that the studio gave their new space a “cool factor” with eye-catching corporate text on wallpaper and floor accents. Lieu notes, “Primo has a ton of ideas, but he never pushes them on you. Everything studio o+a did for Yelp was collaborative with our employees. The design team took our ideas, and we took theirs, so every challenge was resolved with a meeting of the minds. It was not about their idea or our ideas; it was about coming to agreement.”

Reflecting on the studio’s formative years and their first clients, Orpilla points to significant change in the technology industry, from the dot-com explosion to the drastic downturn of the recent past. “Times are different now. We went from overbuilt to frugal, but now we are in a stage of creating truly thoughtful environments for the next generation of workers. Studio o+a is about developing strong concepts, not slick solutions.”

As the technology industry and Silicon Valley reinvent themselves, Orpilla is discerning what today’s client wants and needs aesthetically and functionally. As for Alexander, she believes art is its own constant reinvention. Thus, it felt essential for studio o+a to be located in the heart of the most abundant art and design hub on the West Coast. “I believe inspiration happens greatly due to one’s environment,” she remarks, “and for our studio, that means new talent plus big inspiration.”

Like Alexander and Orpilla, their staff possesses distinct attributes that create balance in the practice, which ultimately adds to its success. Denise Cherry, senior designer at studio o+a, appreciates the practice’s dedication to each of its clients. She believes every day brings a new challenge to create a design that serves the client best, not what serves the studio best. “There is such a variety of work styles and clients, so there is no pigeon hole. Replication is not what we do,” she states.

Cherry also confirms Orpilla’s palpable energy and optimism, noting that he is open to any idea, meeting it in a warm and sincere way. No answer is absolutely wrong because it eventually will lead to the right answer—the solution is the key. As for Alexander, Cherry appreciates her cleverly cerebral insight and her sharp eye for finish and color. “It is exciting to work for them because they approach problems very differently,” she explains. “They play off each other’s styles beautifully. The length and strength of their relationship is evident in how they perfectly complement one another.”

Their complementary work style also is recognized in their projects. In a recent corporate office build-out for Emergence Capital Partners in San Mateo, Calif., Alexander’s art met Orpilla’s modern edge with impressive results. Jason Green, general partner for the venture capital firm, recalls how Orpilla immediately understood their need for a space that was modern but offered solidity, as to not appear trendy. The entryway/lobby was central to the project, serving as a place to greet and entertain clients. “Verda designed an amazing sculpture of the San Francisco skyline as the focal point of the lobby. It brings a sense of the cutting-edge art world into the firm, which is incredibly refreshing, and it is a perfect introduction to Primo’s sophisticated design of the interior office space,” Green notes.

To say that studio o+a has scored big-time in the world of big-name technology firms is right on the mark. In the past few years they have transformed corporate interiors for tech giants including Facebook, AOL, PayPal, and eBay. In regard to the recently completed Facebook headquarters in Palo Alto, Calif., Orpilla believes that the DNA of the company is evident in the design. “Facebook has a youthful, energetic staff, so the open design and raw aesthetic of the building reflect that. They are even encouraged to write on the walls!” he notes. The Facebook facility also was the first commercial project completed under Palo Alto’s Green Building Ordinance, making extensive use of existing architectural features, recycling millwork, and repurposing industrial components for post-industrial use. Alexander remarks, “Our clients are very interested in sustainability, so that approach is always built into our work. We believe reusing and repurposing facilitates the creative process.”

When eBay acquired PayPal in 1998, the company essentially was merged into the eBay fold and not given its own corporate brand. Kathleen Kelley, ASID, senior manager of workplace design at eBay in San Jose, Calif., had heard about studio o+a’s work in the technology industry for years and knew their approach and design aesthetic would be an ideal fit for the new corporate headquarters. “Being a designer myself, the process felt incredibly creative and fluid. Of course, because this is a large corporate setting, there were many opinions and some political components to consider, but that never daunted Primo and his team. They were fun and fearless,” Kelley says.

primo verda aolTrent Herren, vice president of strategic initiative for AOL in Palo Alto, Calif., wholeheartedly agrees with Kelley after working with Orpilla and Alexander for the past year to create a dynamic design for its recently completed 75,000-sq.-ft., three-story headquarters. Herren and six people on AOL’s design team collaborated with studio o+a to help drive a complete culture change, which was realized mainly in the evolution of their workspace. Orpilla recalls, “They wanted to hit ‘reset’ and redefine who they are now as opposed to who they were.” Openness and smooth circulation were essential, balanced by an appropriate number of intimate areas for small meetings. Herren says, “This was the first time we as a company had done anything like this, so we offered our thoughts but mainly deferred to Primo and the team at studio o+a. They’re the experts and brought a huge range of options. Their patience was extraordinary—just the like the results.” (Orpilla and Alexander shown above at AOL headquarters; photo by David Wakely.)

Herren also notes that Orpilla approached the project as a passion, not a job. Orpilla confirms this, explaining, “It’s true. I love what I do. Design is tinkering and knowing how things go together. It’s relaxing and a joy for me.” So it makes sense that when he is not working, he is building things with the couple’s seven-year-old son, Apolo. They have constructed chicken coops for six chickens at their home in Orinda, Calif., as well as numerous models. “He is also a great paper shredder,” laughs Alexander. “And he is one of our best critics.”

It seems Alexander and Orpilla are their own top critics, collaborators, colleagues, and creators. They say that they “take turns being stubborn” and that no decision is ever one-sided. “Neither of us is always right. There is no upper-hand,” says Alexander. Orpilla laughs in agreement, but concedes that it is not such a bad thing when Alexander is in charge. “I work in circles, so I’m not the most efficient person in the world. Verda is always bettering herself, so she betters me, which I completely embrace. I know I would be a very different person if we hadn’t met.”

Apparently working in circles (and being reined in) has not hindered the couple’s success personally or professionally. Studio o+a, as well as Alexander and Orpilla’s adoration for each other and the life they have created, continues to flourish. “We feel like the studio is starting to make a difference and that our ideas have influence,” Alexander says. “We wrote our own rulebook on how to build our dream, and the experience has been nothing short of amazing.”