As part of my series about the “How Business Leaders Plan To Rebuild In The Post COVID Economy,” I had the pleasure of interviewing Jean-Gabriel Neukomm.
*Jean-Gabriel Neukomm has designed successful and innovative projects for a range of luxury residential, institutional, hospitality, commercial, and retail projects for more than 25 years. Some of Neukomm’s early professional work began as executive partnerships with the London practice of John Pawson, including high-profile projects for clients such as Calvin Klein and hotelier Ian Schrager. Neukomm has been able to translate his keen eye for detail, cultivated in his work on luxury residential projects, to large-scale urban projects in New York, Miami, and Los Angeles for major developers such as Greenland USA, Blackstone, CIM, Ian Schrager Company, The Gotham Organization, F&T Group, The Dermot Company, and Rockrose, and to an urban-scale retail arcade on the Las Vegas strip. Current developments include a ground-up commercial building in the West village catering to the neighborhood’s residents, and several large-scale building renovations for which he is both architect and interior designer. His rich and sensitive hospitality designs include New York’s exclusive Core Club and currently a 400-key luxury hotel in lower Manhattan. Retail giants such as Calvin Klein Collection, Tiffany & Co., Pringle of Scotland, Frame Denim, and Marian Goodman Gallery have commissioned cutting-edge designs in locations ranging from New York to Shanghai to Prague. *
His fashion-oriented work has also led him to several ventures with famed creative director Fabien Baron, for whom Neukomm designed a 12,000 square foot office as well as a spectacular West Village townhouse residence (featured in WSJ Magazine). Other recent townhouse renovations include a restoration and significant addition to a Landmarked West Village federal style home for a leading figure in the arts, as well as a complete restructuring, renovation, and interior design of a 15,000 square foot mansion on Park Avenue. Neukomm serves on the board of the Design Trust for Public Space, an organization committed to equity and design excellence in the public realm. He also finds time to pursue his passion as an avid photographer, and has had numerous publications of his work.
Thank you so much for your time! I know that you are a very busy person. Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
I’ve actually had a seemingly counterintuitive career arc, interning initially with New York–based Peter Eisenman, an avant-garde thinker and founder of the “New York Five” who ushered in the idea of deconstruction among other movements; then later collaborating with John Pawson, a celebrated architect from London known for his ultra-quiet, nearly monastic spaces. Superficially, these two could not be more different, but underlying both of their practices was a drive to be conceptually rigorous and honest, and challenge underlying assumptions about people and space at their most fundamental level.
I met Eisenman in high school, who was the father of one of my friends. I remember hanging out at their house and looking at the various projects he happened to be working on and thinking to myself, ‘This is a man who reads philosophy, and his buildings look like art’. After high school, I studied philosophy at Haverford College and kept in touch with Eisenman through a series of conversations on the nature of the avant-garde, and debates about what exactly architecture could and should be. Upon graduating, Eisenman offered me a professional internship, and eventually, I attended Princeton University.
A few years following graduate school, I founded my own namesake firm, then in 2003 co-founded Span Architecture. During that time, I was fortunate to collaborate with Pawson on a number of high-profile projects. We were doing the highest-quality work for some of the most interesting people in the world, including extraordinary homes for Calvin Klein and Ian Schrager. I also led numerous retail and hospitality projects, growing the firm as we took on more significant commissions. From those early projects and the relationships I built, I was able to expand the practice to include significantly larger development works as well, notably the $1.2 billion development at Metropolis in downtown Los Angeles, for which the firm led the interior architecture and interior design for three of the four towers.
In 2017, I re-founded JG Neukomm architecture with the goal of significantly expanding our capabilities. We added new construction to our roster of projects and significantly bolstered our hospitality and townhouse portfolios, more than doubling the firm in size along the way. I believe we were able to be so successful the past few years because of a more thoughtful engagement with conceptual rigor and process, and returning to the roots of my architectural formation. Sometimes, you need to go back in order to leap forwards.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take aways’ you learned from that?
In architecture, the mistakes usually aren’t all that funny, but I recall a series of meetings that really helped shape my future as a designer. Coming out of school as a headstrong young architect, I did not really grasp the full value of collaboration or how it can be a tool for great work, it’s just not something that was really taught at the time. When Fabien Baron (founder of fashion powerhouse Baron & Baron) and I started working together, I was caught off guard by the amount of time he would take to puzzle things out, how many paths we would go on with pencil and paper, and simply how much he enjoyed the design process itself. The back and forth we had was truly pleasurable, and I would leave our collaborative meetings deeply excited with what we had worked on. The lesson was not only about taking your time, but fundamentally about taking in other people’s thoughts, desires, and even anxieties, listen to it all, and try to see through their eyes a new way of seeing the world. I’ve been fortunate in my career to spend considerable time with truly remarkable people, and I know to listen and absorb before proposing something that may not be their cup of tea. There are so many paths to creating great work, you might as well go forth collaboratively with your ears and eyes full open, it’s just more enjoyable for everyone involved.
Is there a particular book that you read, or podcast you listened to, that really helped you in your career? Can you explain?
I read constantly, often many books at once, but looking way back reminds me of an early electrifying contact with the world of built architecture. In my final year at Princeton, I was fortunate to have as my thesis critic the late Enric Miralles, a formidable thinker and architect whose monograph was on my desk always. I recall one of our conversations in particular where he described how he devised a project through the repetitive use of a few complex cast concrete forms that he would rotate around throughout the site — the result was a poetic masterpiece of incredible elegance and complexity. It looked like they had spent a sizable amount of budget, but in reality it was quite efficient. Looking back, Enric truly embodied the Rennaissance architectural critic Vitruvius’s maxim that architecture has to be the precise and careful balance of “commodity, firmness, and delight” (“firmitas, utilitas, and venustas”). That has stayed with me my entire career: yes, it’s of course wonderful to have a big budget, but it’s the sign of a truly talented designer to be able to work within prescribed means to do something incredible.
Extensive research suggests that “purpose driven businesses” are more successful in many areas. When you started your company what was your vision, your purpose?
Our work is really driven by an underlying love of visual storytelling — every project needs a compelling narrative, and for me it often starts in relation to the urban context. Too many projects are cut off from their surroundings, the results being floating fortresses or self-referential endeavors. For us, at least conceptually, we prefer to build bridges, not towers. For our 3-building project in Downtown Los Angeles, I was struck by the incredible but decaying art deco architectural history all around our site, and used my photography to study those buildings and pull out visually arresting forms from them as our starting point. From those detailed images, we developed a number of designs and motifs for the various buildings, giving each a particular identity that was nonetheless rooted in a similar visual language. These initial motifs could then be used as the basis for architectural forms, complex surfaces, and even our custom furniture pieces. Having the initial visual toolkit was an invaluable way to unify what was an incredibly vast and complex building project. More importantly, we really enjoyed hearing back from the building residents who understood the connection, and enjoyed being a part of the story.
Sometimes simply pulling from the neighborhood is not as straightforward. For a current 400-unit residential project on the Lower East side, we found there were simply too many voices, histories, cultures and art movements to distill into one idea, so we used the multiplicity itself of this densely historical neighborhood to provide the concept for the project: how could we tell multiple stories within a future-facing architectural design that was both responsive to, and respectful of, this deeply historical area? What would this scaffolding look like that supported numerous voices, and how could we remain true to making the project feel consistent throughout? This was certainly one of the biggest challenges I’ve faced as a designer. I’m glad to say the results of this months-long process were fruitful and fascinating, and opened up future ways of looking at space that we will certainly continue to explore. As I said above, creating the space for this kind of exploration was the specific point of re-founding my firm, and the team that came with me has responded with inventiveness and vigor.
Do you have a “number one principle” that guides you through the ups and downs of running a business?
Be as honest and as transparent as possible, both internally and externally. As a leader, what I do sets the tone for the rest of the studio. I am not afraid to share details on how the company is run, and am surprised at how many young designers have never been told any of that information before. We can’t get better in the architectural profession if firm leaders don’t explain the business or management side of the work to their office. I’ve also found that the more transparent you are, the more your team will be able to support your firm’s ethos overall.
For our clients, we also want to be transparent in how we structure our work, fees, and schedule. Giving them, for example, a matrix of detailed options encourages them to bring us to their side of the table as we strategize together what makes sense in supporting their goals, both financial and programmatic. I always joke that we’re happy to design either a stool or a city, but sometimes figuring out what the scale of what a client needs can be challenging without this process. And without being open, a true, significant dialogue is not possible, the result being we remain purely a service business as opposed to a strategic partner.
Thank you for all that. The Covid-19 pandemic has affected nearly every aspect of our lives today. For the benefit of empowering our readers, can you share with our readers a few of the personal and family related challenges you faced during this crisis? Can you share what you’ve done to address those challenges?
As a firm, we’ve treated our response to COVID as a research project in trying to craft a balanced and sensitive response that we could use for ourselves and our clients and partners as well. We quickly created a task force to understand technical and planning means through which we could assist our clients who had projects in development, and wrote a few short white papers on how they might consider repositioning their projects in the short term versus longer term. For our hotel project in particular, we were curious to see what spaces could pivot or be adapted to other program types more responsive to the current landscape — can a banquet space turn into a safe remote office space, or could we try different ways of enjoying larger public spaces through different ways of using furniture. We also wanted to explore various technical means of enhancing safety and wellness through retrofitting mechanical systems, or by adding UV light .
For us internally, the main priority was to make sure the staff felt safe and were taken care of as well as we could, including a stipend to defray WFH costs. We also organized a few surveys over the course of the passing months to evaluate what it would mean to return to work, and what the pressure points and anxieties were so we that could address them head-on. I feel strongly that signaling the intent to create a safe work environment or public space is very important, and that it creates a baseline of trust that someone is working towards a common goal. Even simple posters convey important information which people have a tendency to ignore otherwise. In our case, we are fortunate that we have a large office space, so we were able to have teams return to work and stay apart physically. I am also glad the design we created for our office took into account numerous non-desk seating areas so that people really could have a lot of space around them.
Can you share a few of the biggest work related challenges you are facing during this pandemic? Can you share what you’ve done to address those challenges?
The top challenges in our business became immediately apparent: we deal in bricks and mortar by definition, and need to see the physical materiality of our projects. This is both as part of the design process (eg, with our enormous and ever-evolving sample library) as well as physically being on-site to see how things look IRL, so doing that at a distance was a considerable challenge. As we’ve done projects all over the world, and many of our clients are not in the same city as us, we are very much used to working long distance, but at some point, you need to see and experience the work together. Possibly the single hardest aspect to the lockdown was for the newer projects that were at the early design stages. No remote white board can possibly replace live interaction between brainstorming designers.
For example, in starting work on a new ground-up building in the West Village this summer, it was critical that we could collaborate on complex plans and massing diagrams together as the flow of information between people is so much smoother. The difference in this project where a team was able to come in every few days, compared to the experiences of the months previous, was a strong reminder of why the office is not going away. It’s not that we can’t do this remotely from one another, but the amount of time it takes is so much longer on conference or zoom calls, and slowed by the inherent frictions of the medium. We were doing very well once lockdown started, and put together numerous drawing sets of significant size, but that really happened because we were all just working much longer hours on things that would have been simpler to do in person. I, for one, have a renewed and deep appreciation for the simplicity of in-person collaboration, at least in my line of work.
Many people have become anxious from the dramatic jolts of the news cycle. The fears related to the coronavirus pandemic have understandably heightened a sense of uncertainty, fear, and loneliness. What are a few ideas that you have used to offer support to your family and loved ones who were feeling anxious? Can you explain?
Number one was getting out of the house as it became safer to do so. On the weekends, I’ll take one of my kids and walk around the neighborhood, almost a kind of check-in to see what’s going on and listen to the rhythm of the city. You learn a lot as an architect from looking around, something I feel has become less and less valued as our work becomes overwhelmingly digitized through posts and blogs. Seeing other people also brings a renewed sense of normalcy, and takes you out of the yawning abstractness of the news cycle. Watching our neighbors struggle to re-open businesses, or builders on site working through the complex logistics of COVID-related protocols really gives you a sense of optimism that people will find a way forward regardless of the challenges. It’s easy to become discouraged by the macro view of the world we are bombarded with, so this micro understanding, experienced at the local level, gives a better sense of control, sympathy and understanding that is critical to our wellbeing.
Obviously we can’t know for certain what the Post-Covid economy will look like. But we can of course try our best to be prepared. We can reasonably assume that the Post-Covid economy will be a trying time for many people across the globe. Yet at the same time the Post-Covid growth can be a time of opportunity. Can you share a few of the opportunities that you anticipate in the Post-Covid economy?
I had a feeling early on that most of our industry was simply going to take the summer off, and this has turned out to be more or less true for new projects. Though we were very busy with ongoing work, few people were diving into large new capital planning (though the opposite was true for home renovations, for obvious reasons). But I had a feeling that would all change post-Labor day, which also turned out to be true. We’ve seen a significant uptick in clients wanting to move ahead with new works as the dust settles and opportunities arise, as they always eventually do in a downturn. The question of exactly what they will be building, however, is still the source of much speculation. A few things that are very interesting to many people is rethinking office space — what is the next generation of co-working space going to look like; how are firms “right-sizing” their operations; how has walkability to work become a more central aspect to the office; what tech-friendly or life science operations can we help support? In all of these explorations, the idea of walkability comes up regularly as a compelling theme, and has come into focus for many developers who understand its potential value in tonier neighborhoods. When we were working in Los Angeles on the Metropolis development, I kept reading about how the people moving there (Asians from the west, tech firms from the north, and north-easterners as always) prioritized proximity and density over being locked in traffic over a long commute. Similarly now, New Yorkers who can will reduce their commute as much as possible, owning a pied-a-terre to complement their Westchester home, or simply leasing a neighboring building to convert to their private office. You could see it as an urban extension of the shared work space concept where everything is provided for you nearby, but at a neighborhood scale. For now, this is a high-end and niche idea, but I don’t see why it couldn’t develop into other areas as well, and we have certainly seen the beginning of that shift in large-scale residential developments — more and more space for collaborative work environments gets devoted to this on rental and condominium projects, something I feel will only expand more in the next decade.
How do you think the COVID pandemic might permanently change the way we behave, act or live?
I think it’s still too soon to tell what the long term effects will be, and we can all be slighted for having short memories and reverting back to what we’re used to as a crisis passes. At a minimum, I would expect to see changes similar to those experienced post-9/11, such as the regularization of “enhanced” security protocols at airports or in larger commercial buildings, in this case with health screenings as an added layer. In terms of building codes, I don’t yet see a call to mandate altered facility requirements, but that could come eventually as it did post-9/11 or notably after the Sandy hurricane in 2012. I certainly hope that the renewed interest in the ideas of walkable neighborhoods, as I mention above, is something that can take hold through new zoning regulations, that would really be the silver lining coming through this challenging time. We’ve already seen big changes recently to assist with the recovery of restaurants through outdoor dining, which appear to be permanent.
Considering the potential challenges and opportunities in the Post-Covid economy, what do you personally plan to do to rebuild and grow your business or organization in the Post-Covid Economy?
As to “rebuilding,” I see it in a larger frame than simply our firm. We certainly saw quickly that the lockdown was a chance to re-calibrate people’s assumptions across the board, and we ourselves made an effort to think through how the experience could make us better. A lot of what I say in the sections above is based in the very real experiences I’ve had over the past two decades, but a lot of that thinking has accelerated and crystalized. I read a lot about the notion that this crisis has sped up already existing trends, and I feel this is true. And what I like about that is the idea of continuity between pre-Covid and now: that we are not simply tearing up the rule book, but adapting and evolving it more quickly (and hopefully for the better) than would have happened otherwise, and in a way not wholly inconsistent with our past practices.
Similarly, what would you encourage others to do?
Like any good business, it’s always critical to be able to set long term strategic goals based on the values you and your team find to be the most relevant. As awful as this experience continues to be, one of the benefits is that it is forcing us to re-evaluate a lot of issues and see how we can do better. As architects and designers, we quickly realized that we had a leadership role to play in this — our job is to think creatively and adapt to new situations all the time, and, critically, to be able to communicate those ideas in a way that is clear. I’ve noted above a lot of areas both within the company and for our existing and new clients how keen we were on seeing how we could adapt what we know to pressure-test new ideas and strategies. I would simply say that it is all the more fundamental, even for small or mid-sized firms, to create the time and space to think about what their DNA really looks like, and how it can be of benefit to their friends, collaborators, and clients.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
Not so much a quote, but simply the idea of being as respectful and collaborative as possible with anyone you work with — perhaps “doing well by doing good”?. My world often seems very small, and there is immense overlap between clients, builders, and consultants. A good example is to always be considerate to the builders and tradesmen as they are the ones putting their sweat and labor into making your vision come to life. They’re also the ones a smart client will ask to get a feel for the project and how you’re doing. It’s simply a better way to be in the world.
How can our readers further follow your work?
A lot of the usual suspects: Instagram (@jgneukomm_architecture) and Linkedin for sure, the occasional e-blast, and we also regularly update our website with projects and news items.