Designer Crush: Rockefeller Kempel Architects

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Three years after Christopher Kempel joined forces with Rocky Rockefeller in 2002, the duo became design partners and Rockefeller Kempel Architects was born. Today, Kempel oversees the design of most RKA projects, bringing a dedicated eye for detail to each unique endeavor. Learn more in our Q+A below.

How did you get your start in architecture?

My start in architecture began in 1993 at a firm located in what was then considered West Berlin. The Wall had come down only four years prior and the demarcation between East and West was still very raw. I was part of a small group of American architecture students studying at the Kunsthochschule Weissense in former East when an internship opportunity arose through a classmate and close friend. Fascinated with the opportunity I just had to take it. Plus, I think the Brazilian born Principal was intrigued to have an American on his staff. Most of my work colleagues were former East Germans and spoke Russian as a second language, so they had lots of fun with my broken “Deutsch”. I’m sure I was the brunt of many jokes in the office and didn’t even know it.

What’s your process for getting to know a client?

My process is centered on the client and their life and spending a good amount of quality time together so that I can learn the ins and outs – where they live it, how they live it, what’s important to them. Sometimes it’s conversational phone calls or a visit from them to our office to see how we work, and what they can expect from us if we were to work together. Other times it involves meeting them in their homes and seeing how they live today, which fosters a discussion on how they want to live in their future dream home.  Being present is critical. But because I genuinely love what I do, it’s not not hard to do.

My process is centered on the client and their life and spending a good amount of quality time together so that I can learn the ins and outs – where they live it, how they live it, what’s important to them. Sometimes it’s conversational phone calls or a visit from them to our office to see how we work, and what they can expect from us if we were to work together. Other times it involves meeting them in their homes and seeing how they live today, which fosters a discussion on how they want to live in their future dream home.  Being present is critical. But because I genuinely love what I do, it’s not not hard to do.

What are some of the unique challenges of residential vs. commercial projects and how are they uniquely rewarding?

Residential projects are deeply personal, and intimate. You’re getting into the nooks and crannies of a client’s life to determine how best to design that right-fit home uniquely tailored to them. I find being involved at a personal level uniquely rewarding, compared to a commercial project with say, a developer client whose sole intention is to create a return on investment. While both types of work are about creating a quality of living and the space to support that, one feels ultimately more personal.

Tell us about a particularly memorable project and describe what made it so special/rewarding/challenging.

We recently completed a “modern farmhouse” for a family in Oregon with all the classic elements of an American Farmhouse. It began with a lot of research around what design components made a “farmhouse” because authenticity at the design level was important and remains important to us as a firm. We also spent time on the 80 acre property to strategize the orientation of the home to optimize sunlight, views, nature. What made this particular assignment a challenge was that it was unlike the classic California Modernist homes we’ve designed in the past. The “style” felt special for us. But we quickly found that designing within sound design Fundamentals produced a beautiful outcome. What was most rewarding was the fact this was our second home we’ve designed for this client, so the level of trust in our abilities was high and the process of working together very smooth. We knew each other very well. The greatest challenge may have been the distance. Getting on a plane to Oregon twice a week for construction job site visits, while invigorating, was exhausting at the same time.

Who are some of your biggest professional role models and why?

My biggest professional role models were three people I worked for as an intern architect fresh out of architecture school at the College of Design at NCSU. One was a Partner, one was a Principal and the other a lead Design Architect. The Partner was a role model in the way he was able to command a room, secure big, big commissions and keep the firm fed. It takes a certain skill to do so. The Principal was a master negotiator and highly trusted in my abilities as a young architect and designer, which only drove me to want to do better and perform. He sat me down and said “Chris, I’m an architect, but I’m not a good designer. You’re good at that. I’m not. But I’m a good architect for other reasons that make this firm a success.” I had a lot of respect for someone that knew himself well, his strengths and weaknesses and wasn’t afraid to own them. Finally, the lead Design Architect had raw design talent and was a pleasure to work around. Plus we became good friends and remain so to this day. That was nearly 30 years ago.

What’s your dream vacation destination and itinerary?

My wife and I have had the pleasure and privilege of doing a lot of travel over the past 15 years. From adventure travel to rest and relaxation travel. My most dreamy vacation yet has been a week in Bora Bora at an island resort staying in an over-water hut. It was perfect in so many ways: the bluest water, remote, perfect weather. Simply, 100% relaxation and rejuvenation. At this point a dream vacation would most likely be a trip to Japan. It’s one of the few countries we’ve not been. Kyoto and Osaka in particular, places where the architecture is unique, connected to nature, and inspiring, along with the people and culture.

Lightning round!

Favorite book of all time?

And film: A novellas by Steven King named Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption with the subtitle, “Hope Springs Eternal.” Hard to believe Steven King wrote it, but he’s a brilliant writer. And the film adaptation was phenomenal. I always love a story about redemption.

Go-to easy recipe?

My famous homemade meat sauce over thin spaghetti (at least I think it could be famous). It’s easy comfort food and consistently yummy.

Tattoos: yay or nay?

Nay. I believe the body is pretty perfectly designed as is.

Beach or mountains?

Beach despite not being a fan of wet sand between my toes.


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