say hi to_ Electric Bowery
I was recently introduced to two power women architects and real estate developers based out of Los Angeles, Cayley Lambur & Lucia Bartholomew, who are managing partners behind Electric Bowery interior design and architecture studio. I was not only impressed with what these two young women have built and achieved at such a young age, but also fascinated at the process and intricacies of their role and job in a multidisciplinary design and architecture studio. Oftentimes we focus on the pieces which go into to the home, but what about the side of the business which is actually creating the home? Managing one's personal aesthetic and visual language and managing expectations of a client? I wanted to get on the other side of the fence to see how this side of the business worked and there was no one I could think of with more diverse and multifaced experience as Cayley and Lucia.
From finding interesting properties to invest in and develop to managing concept to creation down to every last detail including furniture and then sales - I wanted to know how these talented renaissance women worked. Development properties, private residences, hotels and restaurants - they have a hand and experience in it all. We sat down to chat about how they run their business, the types of projects they work on, how they got started and the details of their day-to-day workflow of their projects. Let's have a look at what it is like to run a multidisciplinary full service design and architecture studio with Electric Bowery.
| Kristen | Hi Ladies, can you please introduce yourselves and maybe start by telling us a little bit about what you guys do at Electric Bowery?
| Lucia | Kayley and I met about 8 years ago working at Frank Gherys office here in LA. We started working there on the same day, sat by each other, became friends really quickly! We both had some frustrations with the experience there - just because it's such a big organisation and we were working on tiny pieces of large buildings that were pretty divorced from the spatial experience we would end up having with our own practice. We were working on small details of a huge project like, back exist stairs and things like that….
| Kristen | Yeah that's something with architecture that is really tough, right? You imagine that you'll have the chance to work on the ‘bigger picture' spatial stuff but when I speak any of my architect friends, they tell me that they end up working a project for like two years and that during that time they end up having to focus on just one small part of it.
| Cayley | Even prior to that, Lucia and I both had experience working for bigger firms, and it's just like a dying breed… or we are just much more interested in collaboration and actually feeling ownership over the design.
| Lucia | You know just being able to work more directly with clients and do something more holistic with both the architecture and the interior together… which we didn't get any of that there. We started Electric Bowery five years ago, but we had been developing the idea from very early on after we met.
Cayley's mom has a firm in Toronto, so we initially started the business as a branch of Scott Morris Architecture out of Toronto. This was really helpful because when you have no experience, to have kind of a business backing you is great…
| Cayley | So basically both my parents are architects, my mom's company Scott Morris Architects, she has 35+ years of professional experience, so the three of us worked together to get things off of the ground here in the beginning. That was really helpful to us.
| Kristen | That must have been amazing, it was as if you had a personal consultant to guide you. That's also the hard thing when you first start a business, it doesn't come with a manual.
| Cayley | You don't learn how to run a business in architecture school haha
My mom is Deborah kind of provided a lot of mentorships the first few years which was really helpful. As of 2015, we became Electric Bowery.
| Lucia | The name is a reference to the fact that we both have history working in New York; I worked on the new World Trade Center project right out of school.
| Cayley | So that's just a coincidence that Lucia and I's roots are so in line. The name came from the first two real estate investments that I actually made with my brother. One is on Electric ave here in Venice, CA and the other is on Bowery, which is where he lives, in New York. It sort of again related back to the east coast, west coast roots for both of us. At the beginning of the business, Lucia and I did a lot of investor-driven developments… so it was kind of a means for us to build our own portfolio of work without that much professional experience of our own.
| Kristen | When you say you're working with investors, it means for instance that they have a building and you would do the interior architecture?
| Lucia | No… We would actually follow the real estate market pretty closely. So specifically in Venice, as it has kind of blown up and become very popular over the last decade really… but we would find properties here that we would then purchase with investors, demolish, new construction ground up, etc.
| Kristen | Oh so you guys do everything!
| Lucia | Yeah we do everything from creating the LLC's, the development structure and then through construction management, design, to interiors and staging and through the actual sale of the project. So it was like a really early model that we found to be successful to build our portfolio in those early years.
| Kristen | Wow, that sounds amazing… something so huge to start with especially.
“Buying these properties and flipping them and very ‘developer' style, like not a lot of actual design in them. So we thought, "Well people care about design in this community, so if we can do it better…”
Did you feel like having this type of mentorship was essential for knowing the protocol of how all of this worked? I wouldn't even really know where to start in terms of thinking, "Oh let's find investors and buy properties and do it from the ground up.". Did you already have some connections through working with the office in Toronto or how did you get that idea to do this or the relationships needed?
| Cayley | Well we did… a lot of them are personal connections, I think even like the name of Electric Bowery and the mentorship of my mom and just our experiences. We've all moved around a lot growing up… so real estate investing isn't like a new concept for us. Yeah, so the idea really came from just watching the markets and kind of looking at these areas that seemed to have a lot of potential and increasing value…
| Lucia | And there were a lot of people starting to do it around Venice but not very well, we thought. Buying these properties and flipping them and very ‘developer' style, like not a lot of actual design in them. So we thought, "Well people care about design in this community, so if we can do it better"… and it's been successful.
| Cayley | I think through gaining our own relationship trades here and really watching the market, seeing what people were doing right and a lot of what people were doing wrong - gave us that confidence to really go in. Also understanding the local community here very well. It varies block to block, so knowing the value of a property on one block versus the other - I think our local knowledge had a lot of value for people who were interested in investing in the area.
| Kristen | It's so impressive how you managed everything, I have to say I am kind of blown away right now... I can't fathom taking on all of this. So do you still do that now or has it evolved into something else or…?
| Lucia | We probably will still do it... At the moment, like today, we aren't working on any of those projects as the market ebbs and flows, and it is challenging to find good investments that are not already snatched up!
| Cayley | Something that is really great about the investor-driven projects, is that we are our own client, we can make the design decisions that seem so great and easy... But again as we have matured as a business and have gotten some really great clients for their own homes or working with hotels. We have a few hotel projects - working with people is something that Lucia and I love. Working with great people just makes every project better.
| Lucia | And we learn from them too, like we've found great resources through clients that we can bring to other clients, in terms of resources of materials or whatever else it is. Or places to buy new furniture pieces … so it's great to have those relationships to grow I think.
| Cayley | Every week we try to put some time aside and sometimes more than others depending on how busy it is, but Lucia and I both really enjoy spending trips or an afternoon at Soho house or something like that where we're really just coming up with ideas... Whether they're ideas for new areas we might want to invest in and explore or new business development ideas… That is like really a big part of our business and how we continue to grow.
I think that is also where we set ourselves apart a little bit as a design studio, as we're not really doing the kind of run of the mill stuff. We're both really entrepreneurial people and are trying to figure out ways to keep the business fresh and come up with new concepts that we can integrate into designs or different ways we can apply design to different investment ideas. So it's kind of full circle concerning ideas, design, people.
| Kristen | Yeah it sounds fascinating the approach that you have and also since you have this foundation and background to then say like what is missing? What are other people not doing? How can we step it up?
| Lucia | Yeah, for example, we are doing a lot more of the furniture selection, like full-full interiors. So like we have some houses now which are ground up construction, where we have done everything from heading the construction to the full design of the house down to like picking the furniture and the pillows and throws… but it just feels really cohesive to be able to work through every element of the home. You know, getting into some more custom pieces of furniture as well which is something we really want to develop moving forward.
| Cayley | Lots of clients I think get scared by that, they feel like a custom design like hiring someone for everything - full scope like that is going to be cost prohibitive or whatever… But that is where we also really try to set ourselves apart because at the end of the day we can design anything and it can be for a cost. We try to be really conscious of our client's investment and even those that have the budget to be able to afford whatever they want, we try to be really aware of what their return investment is - even if it is their custom home.
| Lucia | A lot of the investment properties which we worked on really trained us in that budget consciences because we were really tied to stringent budgets to make this work.
| Kristen | Yeah I can imagine that it is kind of the perfect evolution to be able to do that and then create these beautiful new buildings or new homes, with a specifically defined budget… where you know that you are able to do this kind of beautiful work without running away with the budget. Because you know if I were doing it, I would be like - Let's spend 50.000€ Guillermo Santomà dining room table and chair set. And as much as I couldn't imagine anything better, that's not always so practical do all the time. It's interesting how your background in investment properties has changed the way that you think and approach projects for private clients.
| Lucia | It has also really helped, as Cayley mentioned, that we are doing some hotel work. We're doing a new hotel in Silverlake and two new projects in the Hudson Valley in New York. With all of those again - budget becomes really critical, but again we want it to look really high design.
| Cayley | It was very much like a high low approach that we take… like there are certain places where we work with our clients or like the essential design aspects that we're not going to budge on and then we can kind of work out some details to get back to a place where we're all comfortable (laugh)
| Lucia | and there is a trust that we gain from like willing to make some compromises but not everywhere. For instance, one of the hotel properties we just got the client to agree to do these amazing steel doors at their restaurant... Which is kind of crazy with their budget to do it but we have been able to save in other places and it's just such a feature moment that they trusted us… that it is like an important place to spend.
| Kristen | So you offer 360° services in architecture interior and product design - do one of you handle more of one thing than the other? How do you guys work together kind of in this business, with all of these different elements?
| Lucia | I mean to be perfectly honest, we work best … together.
| Cayley | We do a lot of the early work together. Lucia and I, at the onset of most projects work for the most part to kind of conceptualise and come up with ideas and you know, pull in members of the team that are you know trusted, everyone on our team is awesome. So, we bring them in and kind of carry through projects with a different project manager also on board... So it is always a collaborative effort, but I think from the get-go. We're used to working exceptionally well together, and I think we have very aligned ideas from the onset so.
| Lucia | Yeah, we don't really have very distinct roles - we really do work together. Sometimes one or the other of us will take on more-so than the other just for efficiency reasons but we always just check in with each other on design questions.
| Kristen | I want to envision a day in the life of what you guys do or maybe more interestingly the process behind how you guys work when you receive a new project and how you approach it. Let's say you got a project confirmed today, which encompasses all three elements of architecture, interior, and product design. Where do you start? For instance, I was really interested in the Amoroso project I saw on your website.
| Lucia | Well the Amoroso project was one of the investor projects. For that particular project, we were walking down one of these walk streets in Venice, we were having some drinks at a friend of ours house who is actually a real estate agent that we work really closely with… Tiffany Rochelle. So we were having drinks with her, and we were like whats our next investment project going to be? And she said "Oh! You know the people who live a few doors down are selling their project to move to another house on the street." And we were like "Oh this could be perfect."
So before it even went on the market, just through local connections we talked it through with her and decided to make an offer. It ended up going through, and then we quickly got our investors together to get the funds to purchase the property.
Then for construction as well, and then we had to go through the process of getting a coastal development permit - which takes some time. A lot of meetings with the neighbourhood to demonstrate what we were proposing was compatible with the neighbourhood.
Then as we are getting going, a lot of times the interiors will develop before the construction has even started so we work really closely with the budget to make it a really light bright, warm palette that we thought would be appealing to someone who would want to live on the walk street. Just really engaging with the front yard because again these walk streets have this sort of magical quality when people are walking on them, it is really a tight-knit community.
| Cayley | So if we had been working on that property from an investors standpoint, there is more pressure to build bigger from a return standpoint, which we understand and we have to think about it in both ways. From the business standpoint as well as you know the design standpoint. But we get two very, very different products when we work with like out development type style projects versus individual clients.
| Lucia | The individual clients we get are generally pretty interesting people and to like want to go through the process of building your own custom home you obviously aren't finding what you need and what is out there on the market. So people do often times do have really interesting desires of how their homes are laid out.
| Cayley | For the clients we get, whether its for a custom home or one of these hotel projects were working on, often times the clients are interested in working with us because they trust us and their feeling is sort of that we design with our clients best interests at heart of course, but we also design for something that we love, or something we would want to live in our a hotel we'd want to stay in. So we're very much designing for ourselves as much as for our clients. That accessible nature is what draws people to want to work with us.
| Kristen | That is something that I wanted to ask about actually, how do you balance your personal aesthetic and visual language while kind of translating the vision of your client. Do you guys have a process for that, or do you kind of also choose your clients? That is something that can be quite difficult for certain people and for others, it comes naturally or easily.
| Lucia | I think to a degree we do choose our clients. We definitely want to work with people who we believe have really great taste or are really open to great taste. Some have much more of a strong you know inclination towards what they want than others. Both can be okay but you know we're always open to working in different styles.
| Cayley | Definitely we try to avoid being like ‘one-note.' There are plenty of architects out there who we really respect who have a particular style, and I think again our style is more about the warmth and creating spaces which feel clean, timeless.
We really try not to specific materials or latch onto things that in a year from now are passé. Instead, trying to really incorporate a lot of natural materials and timeless elements.
| Kristen | I guess you are familiar with my platform, it is a pretty specific visual niche which can be a bit out-in-space sometimes, but I think something that I loved when I looked through your work is that you create homes one would want to live in. There are still elements of interesting art pieces and at the same time a cozy very liveable home. It is contemporary and timeless yet does have something a little bit different.
| Kristen | So what would be an approximate timeline for one of these investment projects be?
| Lucia | Generally for about all projects it's about a year for design and planning and permitting and then a year for construction. I mean roughly … You can get the design process done more quickly, but it's really quite dependent as well.
| Cayley | The permitting is also very location dependent because in some cases, like in Los Angeles you'll have to go through a coastal development permit or you'll have to go through a review board or neighbourhood councils and in other areas you don't. So the permitting process can vary pretty drastically.
Our design process, where I would have to say we're quite efficient, so long as things are in line. You know typically we can maintain design schedules of 4-6 months depending again on the client. And that will get us to a point where you'll have a pretty fully baked design.
| Lucia | Yeah exactly, and then like some things overlap like if we're doing a full furniture selection package that will overlap with the construction.
| Kristen | So what are the different stages of a project like this? First I imagine is connecting, or..? Could you quickly break down the various steps for us?
| Lucia | Yeah so generally the beginning is really just about the concept, the general kind of ideas that the client has, like if they have any specific influences that they want to bring to the project and then quickly we get into laying out the property and the plan on the site... Figuring out open space versus interior space and just adjacencies between the different rooms and that's where we really get this really unique requirements the clients may have like whether they want a library or a yoga studio or whatever it is… and from there we really work on the massing of the building.
We do everything three-dimensionally and digitally and produce some kind of 3D views of the project as we get building permits and all of that. Then we start developing the material palette, producing renderings showing all of the materials on both the exterior and the interior and then you know as we are getting through the building permit process we work closely with the interiors - cabinetry, countertops and everything else… Which the city doesn't need to see...
So often times we use that time to refine the interiors to incorporate all of that stuff.. and then finding the right contractor is a significant part of the process. Once we have the drawings really well developed we bring in a few contractors and help them price the drawings and pick the right person and then really work with them to figure out all of the details.
| Cayley | Within all of that there is the consideration of the furniture aspect as well because as Lucia mentioned earlier in the conversation, we love to be involved in the full design process wherever possible. We're open to collaborating we just feel like it's so integrated and since there are a lot of built-in architectural components, which obviously relate to the interior design as far as furniture goes... You know, having a consistent eye specify all of that across the board is really nice, it really completes the project.
| Kristen | And when you guys do collaborate with others, what type of people do you collaborate with or what does that look like. Are you kind of like Art Directing, to an extent, if you decide to bring in some type of artisan… or. Because you had mentioned that you liked to collaborate before so I was curious, in what way?
| Lucia | Yeah, for example, the hotel project that we're doing in Silver Lake we are collaborating with Blockshop Textiles. They're doing some custom prints and we just kind of gave the all of the information and imagery, precedents and look and feel package and they came up with some custom prints or designs for the hotel room that are totally in line with the rest of the project.
| Kristen | And so how do you manage studio flow with multiple different projects? I just know for myself, like when I first started my business, at the beginning I would get over-enthusiastic, and as I am on my own, I would have to hire freelancers on a need basis. I would be excited to have all of these projects, but then I would sit back and think, okay but how do I manage five projects alone that are all moving at different speeds. So how did you figure out how to handle that flow with your business?
| Cayley | Well there is a lot of ebbs and flow so sometimes there will be like all hands on deck for a particular project deadline whereas in a permitting process there may be a period of time where there is not that much which needs to be done… so it is so specific to the project. We have a great team. There are ten of us in the studio now. So we try to get involved in every project to a certain degree. It definitely a learned process to figure out how to time manage for everything at once…
| Kristen | But now you've kind of got a great team who you can rely on to be able to spread out the work or to have different people manage different things. Everybody has a role…
| Cayley | I think communication both with the studio and with our clients is vital, we always are striving to be as efficient as possible. Often times in our business, everything wants things done immediately which we are really sensitive to. At the same time, you know with new projects coming on or new clients we would like to work with we try to set expectations very clearly in terms of, deliverables and to be again as efficient as possible but also realistic. As much as we can try to reinforce a stress-free environment, this is our goal.
| Kristen | Oh yeah, that is kind of the same for me. You know, I'm from New York originally, and I know you guys know what its like there - if somebody wants something, they wanted it yesterday and that is the opposite to the way French people work, so it has been a huge learning curve of how to manage. Here in France, the number one priority is to not be stressed.
| Both | Laughs, I think we may be opening our next studio in France.
| Lucia | I think there is even that difference between LA and New York. Both Lucia and I lived and worked there, and given we have the New Yorker work ethic - it kind of helps us here where people do take it a bit easier. People are much more understanding of life (in LA).
| Kristen | I think that's kind of the best of both worlds when you can do the school of ‘New York' work ethic boot camp (which I am so happy to have gotten out of the way growing up there)... And if you can walk away with that, the way you guys have then no matter what you are always going to be a little bit ahead of the game. Then you can choose to live somewhere where there is a little bit less of this pressure.
| Kristen | Okay, last question - How do you feel that your background in these residential spaces brings a new perspective to doing the hospitality projects?
| Cayley | Lucia and I are both privileged to have traveled to a lot of places, and we love exploring new hotels and design so with those hotel projects we are looking to design them, essentially for ourselves. Areas that we'd like to go and a lot of the hotels and experiences that we've had that we've really enjoyed have a little bit more of a residential feel. It's a bit like going home, in a cozy way.
| Kristen | Yeah, in a cleaner luxe way ha
| Lucia | Yeah and more boutique, like more unexpected finishes. Maybe more things you'd be apt to do in a house.
| Cayley | A little bit of added extra design into a hotel room, I think can go a very long way in terms of someone can see that room and the quality of the hotel. So it's the small things that I think end up making a big difference together. I mean even down to the bedding.
| Lucia | A lot of hotels these days are apart of bigger hotel groups where they have in-house designers where they really do replicate what they do in one, to the next. So we're really trying to stay away from that and do something unique.
| Kristen | I think it's really interesting what you say about making something feel like home but with these unexpected finishes and details. I think a lightbulb just went off in my head when you said that, there are certain hotels that I go to and I just think "Oh God, I just wish I could live here." Now, I live in a small apartment, and I think to myself, why can't I get my apartment to feel like this? But you know you're right - it's coming down to these little details and finishes. Kind of making these small spaces feel so home but still luxurious in a way.
| Both | Exactly