Designer Crush: Melissa and Seth Hanley of Blitz

1. Tell us the origin story of Blitz.

We founded Blitz on optimism and resilience the morning after the two of us were laid off from the same firm during the height of the economic meltdown—a time when many design firms were experiencing profound hardships or closing their doors altogether. We’d gone to a café to recoup and develop a plan of action, and thus Blitz was born. We decided to name our new venture “Blitz,” as an allusion to the dynamism, spirit, and energy of our work processes.

Our first major contract was a workplace interior design project for Skype. It was a crash course in managing client expectations for a growing and soon-to-be global startup. We dove in headfirst to churn out the finished project quickly and efficiently. Since those early years, our firm has grown from two employees to 22. We opened our second studio in Los Angeles this summer, adding to our existing San Francisco office, and have plans to double in size over the next three years.

In retrospect, we are grateful for having experienced the devastation of being laid off. It was after having overcome this obstacle that we were able to harness our energy to transform a major setback into an opportunity to work with some of the world’s most innovative companies, such as Google, Yahoo!, Microsoft, and Levi’s, among many others.

2. How did you each get your start in design/architecture?

MH: My father is a contractor and fine woodworker, so my interest in experimentation and creative design developed when I was young child. Growing up in such a creative environment gave me the sense of exploration and freedom to test ideas without restraint. It’s been at the core of my approach since I was a kid, and it informs my process to this day. My design epiphany came at a young age in a moment of reflection and contemplation while sitting in front of a Mark Rothko painting at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA). I was called to design in that instant, and I haven’t looked back since.

SH: My interest in architecture began as a child growing up in London, where I initially developed a strong appreciation for the built environment. Aside from being surrounded by incredible architecture and design influences, I was always building things. I had an affinity for Legos as a kid and had my first drawing board when I was 12. After spending my early career working for internationally recognized firms in London and the US, I held positions at boutique offices specializing in affordable housing. My background in healthcare, medical planning, higher education, hospitality, and civic buildings has benefited in growing a diverse portfolio of both domestic and international projects for Blitz.

3. You’ve worked with some of the world’s biggest tech giants—what are some unique challenges in creating spaces for these clients?

SH: It’s a gift and a pleasure to work with such smart and dynamic organizations. They create technologies that have transformed the world, and they expect us to challenge them with new design ideas and innovative approaches about how to work. The bar on creativity, and the expectations around quality, are set very high—a designer’s dream. Tech companies expect us to think nimbly on our feet. We like to learn quickly, and the emphasis on experimentation is refreshing. Design excellence is favored over perfection. We learned early on that our role is to help an organization be successful and that often means providing future-proof designs as organizations grow and pivot. We mirror our tech clients, by being flexible to changing gears mid-stream in order to support a new goal, and see moving project parameters as another opportunity to be creative.

MH: It’s important to address meaning and value in our work, while designing in a climate that prizes innovation and speed. It must be more than just placing employees in workspaces to be truly valuable. In our practice we are looking to move the needle on progress, creativity, culture, and invention. This forces us to engage our clients in a conversation about why a project will be meaningful. This is usually a new type of conversation for our clients and a new metric to judge their own work, which can be a rewarding challenge.

4. Who have been your biggest professional influences?

SH: There’s a celebration of structure and connection that I find very honest in the work of British high-tech architects like Richard Rogers, Norman Foster, Michael Hopkins, and Nicholas Grimshaw. Our work process begins with an exploration of the building, and then reveals the interesting parts and pieces of the structure, systems, and materials. These elements become an honest expression of how the building is connected, and in many projects, we integrate them into our client’s final design.

MH: I’m incredibly moved and inspired by the desert modernists, such as John Porter Clark, William F. Cody, Albert Frey, A. Quincy Jones, William “Bill” Krisel, John Lautner, Richard Neutra, Donald Wexler, and E. Stewart Williams. The use of glass, steel, and concrete feels of its place, and the buoyant forms have an optimism consistent with the post-war era. The implied informal but elegant architecture feels very Californian to me. Whenever I need a little inspiration, I return to my reference books in my library and can easily get lost in the details, materiality, and romance of the era.

5. Tell us about the Los Angeles expansion and how this will impact your work.

SH: Our Los Angeles expansion comes in direct response to the firm’s substantial growth, and requests from our existing clients desiring design services in the area. LA is a city that is absolutely bustling with possibilities—especially the opportunities offered by Silicon Beach and the creative set in the entertainment industry. The design pulse of the region is palpable, so moving to Los Angeles was a natural next step for the firm. The city’s rich creative culture has an unmistakably distinct voice. It’s an ideal atmosphere for our growing studio and will push our work in new directions. I look forward to leading the LA office as Studio Manager and to growing a solid design team.

6. What’s the most challenging thing about working with your spouse? The most rewarding?

SH: Having a life partner that shares your ambition and completely supports your goals in executing those ambitions is priceless. People usually look at us with incredulity when we mention that we’re in business together, and quickly add that they “could never work with their spouse.” There are far more positive aspects of working together than negatives. We value that our work spills over into our personal lives. The fact is that Blitz is our brain child, and we have dedicated our lives to the studio and its success. On the plus side we get so much done because we’re always engaged. We don’t have to schedule a meeting to get consensus on a particular issue. We’ve usually resolved an issue and figured out the way forward by the time we get into the office. There are practical benefits, and no boundaries. If something happens in the office, it comes home, and vice versa. We’ve learned to (mostly) leave the troubles of the day at the door, so much so that clients only occasionally wonder if we’re married, or just coincidentally have the same last names. I get all the support I need at home and at work that I could ever want to keep chasing the dream.

MH: Seth has put this incredibly well. What we are working towards is incredibly difficult and ambitious. If we had to overcome challenges on the home front with an unsupportive (or just ambivalent) spouse, we would never have been able to sprint as far and as hard as we have. The shared vision, language, and shorthand is everything. The most challenging thing, amusingly, is remembering to clue in the rest of our team to decisions made outside the office.

7. Describe your perfect Sunday.

Capping off a relaxing weekend together in Palm Springs. We started visiting Palm Springs about 10 years ago, and whatever the frequency is there, it’s our frequency. We consider ourselves modernists, and there is no other regional modernism that’s as calming as what’s found in Palm Springs.

Lightning round!

8. First concert?

SH: Oasis, but I’m all about the Foo Fighters now. If they’re playing I’m going.

MH: This is so embarrassing, but it was *NSYNC. Don’t judge me.

9. First celebrity crush?

SH: Elisabeth Shue in the Karate Kid.

MH: Jonathan Taylor Thomas (am I dating myself now?).

10. Favorite pizza topping?

SH: Meat - keep the greens off my pizza!

MH: Olives and ricotta (can I have two?).

11. Favorite movie?

SH: The Matrix - this is all just in our heads.

MH: Casino Royale (2006 version).