Oliver’s restaurant in Montecito was designed by AB Design Studio and built by Giffin & Crane. | Credit: Courtesy

A seed of an idea took root in 2005 as architects Clay Aurell and Josh Blumer had conversations about how architecture and community could make a difference in the world. A partnership was born. Today, Santa Barbara–based AB Design Studio is a multidisciplinary firm with broad expertise in architecture, interior design, and urban planning.

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Amid the coronavirus lockdown, we caught up with Aurell to cover his early inspirations, a 1963 couch on wheels, and how he keeps calm during a global pandemic.

What drew you to architecture?   My father was a contractor. When I was 12, I studied a set of plans before going [with him] to the job site. The home was in the rough-framing stage, but I knew where every room, bathroom, and closet was located. My dad was a bit dumbfounded. He looked at me funny, shrugged his shoulders, and went to tell some carpenters what to do next.

Your favorite architectural vacation?  After [college], I spent three months touring Europe. I was especially interested in the urban fabric and how most cities were planned by architects. We are faced with the downtown Santa Barbara dilemma, and I believe that the architects in the community have a strong role to play in what’s next.

What’s your favorite public building in town?  Meridien Studios is high on my list: just a great collection of small-scale urban paseos that weave between these quaint studios. 

Where do you find design inspiration outside of architecture?  Photography. For many years, I have played with 35mm film, digital art, digital composition, and black-and-white photography. I feel like the viewfinder is a magical way to see something.

What’s your state of mind?  With the pandemic happening, it’s a bit like a blender. Moments of joy, sadness, frustration, fear, and excitement. It really is a time that we all need to be calm and carry on. I have stopped watching the news and instead catch a few articles here and there. I need to be focused for my family and for my company and team members.

What do you most like about your job?  I get exposed to so many different people and business ventures. That variety is very inspiring, and the human connection is so incredibly valuable for all human beings. That’s what makes this time so challenging right now.

What do you most dislike about your job?  The pace. It seems like these days, everything has to be done yesterday.

What is your most treasured possession?  My 1963 Lincoln Continental. It is long, gold, and convertible. Great for wine tasting or just a cruise down the beach. It literally floats down the road.

What phase do you most overuse?  “Put that away!” Presently, I’m working from home nearly all day. I don’t need perfection, but when the kids leave dishes on the counter and shoes on the floor, I feel it is my job to teach them to clean up after themselves.

What is your motto?  “Plan your work and work your plan.” This is very helpful in business, but now has extended into home projects and the kids’ homework. Even if it is just for the day, plan out what you can do, and don’t worry about what you cannot do. Stay in the positive. Stay on course. Keep moving. It certainly helps take your mind off of the current state of the world and helps give purpose to whatever it is that you’re up to.


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