Herman Miller - Lifework February 27 2013

Q+A: Architect Eugene Stoltzfus

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Here Eugene Stoltzfus talks about his worklife –  from his experience as chairman of the Rosetta Stone, a language software company, to his return to practicing architecture.

Your architecture firm was founded in 2006 after you left your job as Chairman and President of Rosetta Stone – the language software company. What spurred that change? I had joined my brother and brother-in-law to start Rosetta Stone because they had invented a language-learning system that was very impressive and seemed to have the potential to change language learning, as it has! This was in 1992, in another recession, and I was ready to leave working for someone else as an architect. Actually, working for Rosetta Stone had a lot in common with architecture because we were all about generating the unknown. I always knew I would return to architecture so when a change-of-control opportunity presented itself for Rosetta Stone in 2006, I was happy to sell most of my interest.

Above: The Singer’s Glen Schoolhouse.

 

You buy older buildings and give them a new life but you also work for clients remodeling and building from the ground up. What kind of project do you prefer? My first choice is building from the ground up. Sundial House (below) was an opportunity to put together a lot of my ideas. I think of it as a manifestation of the nexus where function, material, form, site, ecology, engineering and construction come together.

I do also like working with existing buildings, particularly old ones like the Singer’s Glen School (above), where structural forces and materials give form in a natural integration. Doing a modern contrasting intervention based on the values of simple revealed brick and timber construction is very appealing to me. We got into buying, and giving new life, as you say, because right after I left Rosetta Stone, the recession hit, and it wasn’t a good time to start an architecture business.

Above: The Sundial House.

You are also a furniture designer. I came across your work at the Dwell conference this year – the cork pieces seemed to really strike a cord. What drew you to that particular material? We love cork because we can use it as structure and finish, it can be shaped three dimensionally, and because cork has that subtle give that makes it so accommodating to the touch. The response to the Euclid Series was very gratifying. People loved touching it, sitting on it, and playing with arrangements of the squares, rectangles and cylinders. We like being a part of the chain of invention and seeing the ideas that other people come up with.

Above: Inside the Sundial House. The coffee and side table were designed by Stoltzfus using cork.

Does your work life spill over into your home space? How do you strike a balance between your architecture practice and the rest of your life? Balance? Who said anything about balance? Actually, while I have to admit I am somewhat consumed by my work, it feels integrated into my life. The furniture line was started because I was designing furniture and objects for Sundial House. The meditation hut came because I wanted a solitary place where I could meditate, a protected place that could be left out in the weather. Something like the design of the meditation hut has brought me so much satisfaction, I don’t really think of it as work. Of course, the practice of meditation, in itself, brings tremendous balance into one’s life.

What inspires you in your work? I am inspired by the idea of openness to the new. I see it in so much of the architecture, art, and music that is around us in our communicative world, but also in the most unexpected places.

For instance, sometimes I see something and my eye misinterprets it for something else and that is the beginning of a new object. I had glanced at a picture of fireplace logs on andirons but I caught a quick moment where my eye interpreted the logs as a bench, so our Andiron Bench was born.

One of the things that inspires me the most is when we get a simple idea and immediately see that something about it does not work. That is an opportunity to look at it in a new way or let it evolve into something we had never thought of. Designing is as much about letting go as it is about finding the new.

Learning to generate options, plowing new ground, and letting go are extremely good exercises for human beings. I say sometimes that while we are contributing by building structures and designing objects, what is for sure being made is us, as human beings.