Second up in this Female Feature Series is Jesse Voigt. Jesse lives in Lexington, Kentucky, but she relocated from West LA (and from working with my husband)! Our paths crossed at work events, but one Uber ride to and from the company’s holiday party and we knew we were kindred spirits.
Jesse and James (with some help from their little girl of course), run Studio Jesse James. They’re bicoastal and still do a lot of projects here in LA. Deciding to leave the consistency of working at someone else’s firm to opening their own studio/firm is one that many architects and artists face. So I asked her for the downlow of her experience of opening her own company, moving across the country, and adding their little girl to their family all at once…
Jesse Voigt on Opening Her Own Design Firm: Studio Jesse James
1. What was your background before starting your own design firm? What helped you feel you could open your own firm?
I always knew I wanted to go into a design field. Truth be told I figured architecture would just fund my other art endeavors. So I went into this profession thinking I would just inevitably end up an “artist.” That sort of mindset did really set me apart from other people who were either solely focused on being an architect (and the rigidity that comes with that line of thinking), and those that were solely focused on being an artist (and the sort of creative-be-damned mindset that comes with that).
Being able to merge these two worlds really helped me develop who I was as a designer. This also weirdly made others in my profession uncomfortable. I heard a lot in my earlier years that I needed to focus on either art or on architecture, but not both. I never listened to those people because inherently they were not my truth. Being stuck in both worlds allowed me to design for some big names, the largest being Frank Gehry, and to work on some incredible projects: Louis Vuitton Moet Hennessy Museum, Guggenheim in Abu Dhabi, and Platform Complex in Culver City.
I designed my portfolio to showcase my architecture and art work in a comic-book format. This set me apart from others, and it hands down opened up any door I sent it into, which helped to reiterate that what I was saying about me, was resonating.
I also come from a German family, which instilled in me two principles: speak your mind and prove it. In other words, if I strongly believed my design worked, speak up about it. And if I need to prove that it works, then spend the time doing so. I really do believe hard work pays off, but so does being confident in what you do and ultimately following through.
2. What led you to venture off on your own firm?
To be quite honest, I began to realize that I was spending more time convincing my old firms that my designs were good versus the clients I was designing for. The clients were paying for my time, and wanted to work with me directly – not the firm I was working for.
I’ve found that a majority of architecture firms seem to be stuck in this quagmire of “the client is always right” and “the architect is always right.” They forget that ultimately designing a space is a team effort between client and architect. I do believe that the architect ultimately knows more about spatial planning. But then there have been moments of sheer genius that a client has brought to the table.
Unfortunately a lot of architecture firms (that I have worked for), would never want to admit that someone else had input on their creation. That was the biggest downer for me in the architecture profession. This is very different than in the art realm. The support just isn’t really there. You ask for advice and it’s usually filled with how you did something wrong. You end up having to “defend” your design. This sort of attitude is taught in architecture school and you carry it out into the profession. This can become detrimental when you are cultivating young designers to ultimately build and represent your firm.
When I realized that I was no longer being mentored but being held back, I knew I had to jump ship.
3. What were the early on struggles of starting your own firm (personal and professional)?
I think it’s still a struggle and will always be a struggle. Owning your own firm is no joke. You have to constantly worry about when the next job is coming; it is truly a feast or famine profession.
In the architecture profession you are not guaranteed your full contract amount. We get paid on percentage-based earnings, meaning if we finish a certain phase and the project dies we don’t get paid for any of the other phases. This leads to a lot of juggling. When you are a fresh firm, you can’t afford to hire many people. We typically hire contractors to be our on site grounds people, but we ultimately do all of the work ourselves, particularly project management.
The “how do we grow” is a constant struggle, and one either sinks or swims. It’s great to be your own boss and know that you don’t have to convince anyone about your design goals. At the same time, not having a consistent pay check or being able to shut off at 6 and have weekends, does really add a complicated layer.
4. What was the first big moment where you felt as though things were heading in the right direction?
When my latest restaurant Roberta’s in Los Angeles was featured in a couple design magazines I wanted to be in way back in college (e.g. Wallpaper, Metropolis). It really validated that I was on the right track.
5. If you could change one thing you did early on in building your business, what would it be?
Quite honestly we decided to move locations because we thought we could get a bigger office space (which we did) and expand our market (which I think we are doing). It’s at a much slower pace than I would like, however. If we had stayed in Los Angeles, I think we would have exploded more with work. Moving out of the zip code did put a damper on who we are and what we are doing…
While we have an amazing space to work out of in Lexington, we don’t have the same connections. Now we’re building the brand from the ground up versus the word of mouth phenomenon that we experienced in LA. So if I had to do it again, I would probably have stayed in one place longer. But we also were having our first kid, so outside factors played into this decision. One just has to roll with it.
Our LA clients have been really accommodating of this relocation. Luckily the world is now so connected via the computer, it makes having design meetings in another state, a lot easier.
6. Tell us about the project/client you are still most proud of?
We are most proud of Roberta’s Los Angeles because that space was from top to bottom something we envisioned that the client jived with early on. It was a really cohesive team effort on that; but I would say that we really have had a lot of luck in our client relationships. When I left my old firm, every single one of my clients tapped me to do additional work for them. They really believed in what I was doing, and that has been great.
7. Anything else to share?
We have some exciting projects coming up, so I cannot wait to share them. I wish I could be more social media savvy, but at the same time, I don’t want to ruin the surprise! Other than that, I would say, the one thing I hope that I can do as a designer, is be able to support other designers, and in return be supported. For us small guys, cultivating that relationship with people is what makes us successful. I think ultimately the way to build one’s “brand” is to ask for help and to offer help.