Designer Crush: Project M Plus


As creative director and co-founder of multi-disciplinary design and architecture firm Project M Plus, Cleo Murnane calls on two decades of industry experience to bring beauty and functionality to an array of projects. A unique Los Angeles-based studio, Project M Plus holistically tackles projects ranging from logos to high-rises in industries ranging from real estate to fashion. Learn more in our Q+A below.

How did you get your start in design?

I studied both fine art and art history and my first job out of college was at the Guggenheim Museum, which parlayed to art buying, art direction, and eventually to graphic design. I had a brief stint at Parsons before moving to London for 5 years to work for Saatchi & Saatchi and Pentland Brands. And because I’m an inherently competitive person, I took a deep dive into understanding architecture when I met my architect husband 12 years ago. I get bored easily so I love getting to work holistically across graphics, interiors, and architecture. At Project M Plus, we now have teams of experts in each discipline at the studio and luckily for me, I get to work with all of them. My role is endlessly varied and never boring – I learn something new every day! 

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

First, we send them a survey with about 20 custom questions. If the project sounds interesting, and the client is thoughtful enough to answer the questions in detail, we immediately get on the phone and chat. If the chemistry is good, we typically try to meet in person and talk about everything from our families to travel – new restaurants, hotels, movies – I try to find common interests. This helps us all to connect as people, first, and begin to build trust in the creative relationship. And like all relationships, it takes patience and a true investment of energy to get to know your clients. The more I understand their personality and vision, the more risks I can take to create something truly unique for them.

In addition to the visioning, it’s important to define programming, budgets and all of the logistics upfront. We share a presentation deck of our relevant projects and explain how we work. We’ve found that it’s critical to the success of each project to share the detailed thinking and narrative behind our design concepts. We are incredibly strategic in everything we do, so once the client understands the depth of experience ( and love ) that goes into our work, they understand the value of working with us – and the trust follows. The quality of our presentations is very important to me, so we take a lot of time and care to beautifully, and thoughtful present our work.

What are some of the unique challenges/perks to working on commercial projects vs. residential projects?

Oh wow! I could talk about this for days! All projects have advantages and disadvantages. The problem with residential is it’s a lot of hand-holding. Honestly, once you get any project you start dating your client. And it’s like any relationship – some days it’s all love, roses, and ice cream, and other days you have to work very hard towards creative alignment. Residential projects are a love affair – you are building monuments together! Every second matters, every penny counts, money is almost always tight. It’s an orchestra of players and a lot can go wrong. It’s an intense relationship and if you come out on the other side still aligned, it’s truly a friendship forged in the fire!

What was the origin story of Project M Plus and how has it evolved over the years?

We grew very organically. Twelve years ago, it was just me and my husband at the kitchen table with a crazy idea of creating an architecture and branding agency. At the time, we didn’t see a lot of studios integrating those two disciplines. We had to explain ourselves a lot. We had to also explore what it meant to create branded experiences and environments, and constantly feel our way to understand whether architecture was following branding or the other way around. Whenever one side would land a job, we would try to see if there was room to leverage and bring in the other side. We saw a lot of project expansion by doing that. We worked with a ton of talented interior design contractors along the way and added our own interiors team three years ago. Ultimately we’ve come to a place where all of our departments work fluidly together and take turns leading depending on the project. We’re a wildly talented bunch – fourteen of us now in three separate, but integrated, teams that are totally invested in our client’s happiness and success. As we continue to work on bigger and bigger projects together, we’re trying to figure out how to scale up while managing the quality of our work.

Where do you draw inspiration from?

Books mostly. Art books, design and architecture books. My life is one stack of books, magazines, and papers after another! We also travel internationally every year, which is huge. I get so restless in LA. We live in Silver Lake, and I told my husband this year I wanted to move to another part of the city. I love experiencing new things. My team also inspires me endlessly, they are so smart and motivated. I love the energy they bring to every project. Recently the feminist movement has been a source of inspiration. I think design and architecture are too masculine, so I’m trying to find ways to bring in the feminine – not just in color and materials but also in massing and objects, favoring organic shapes and curves, going for rounded materials as opposed to linear ones.

Describe your dream vacation.

I had my dream vacation about two years ago. Barcelona – Madrid – Marrakesh – Sicily – Rome. I had no idea that Marrakesh was less than an hour flight from Madrid.

Lightning round!

Tattoos: yay or nay?

Regrettably, yes.

Current celebrity crush?

Patricia Arquette. Cate Blanchett.

First album you bought with your own money?

Violent Femmes. Also my first concert.

Favorite ice cream flavor?

World Class Chocolate from 31 Flavors.

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