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Life After Arch 101

Four graduates take their skills elsewhere

Why must an architect be defined as a designer of buildings? Where is it written that a talent to visualize the three- dimensional must be limited to the creation of structures?

Any number of trained architects have taken their skills into related fields and triumphed. Robert Wilson, the avant- garde director and playwright, earned his architecture degree from Pratt Institute. Tom Ford moved into fashion design after studying architecture at Parsons School of Design. Before he invented the artificial heart, Robert Jarvik studied architecture at Syracuse University.

Yes, architecture has been thoroughly flattened by the explosion of the housing bubble. But a less-recognized development is the growth of related careers for those with a talent for design. Even as the profession has contracted, the value of a good architecture education is never wasted. Here are four designers who took their triangles into other fields.

Kevin Cunningham

Spirare Surfboards
RISD ’05

Growing up in Baltimore, Kevin Cunningham had two passions: making art and surfing. He was the kind of kid who drew in his notebooks during high school lectures and surfed on the Maryland shore all summer.

Cunningham, now 30, was drawn to study architecture at Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) in Providence precisely because of its emphasis on design. “That whole first year, we never designed a building,” he says. Instead, students focused on design basics: “how you approach a problem and find a solution.”

During his junior year at RISD, Cunningham—still very much a surfer— decided to design his own surfboard. “A good surfboard costs around $600, and I didn’t have the money.” Cunningham was also turned off by the toxicity of most manufactured boards, which are made from polyurethane foam and Fiberglas resins. He set out to design an eco-friendly board that was also beautiful to behold.

Board shaping remained an avocation for Cunningham—something he did on a small scale for friends and fellow surfers— even as he graduated and found work with a Connecticut architectural firm. Eighteen months later, the economy sagged and Cunningham was out of a job. He worked in construction management for the next three years but soon found he could earn just as well by designing surfboards.

Today, as CEO and sole employee of Spirare Surfboards, based in Providence, Cunningham turns out 150 to 200 boards a year. Each board must perform well, be environmentally sustainable, and be a work of art. Cunningham’s boards have been featured in gallery shows throughout New England. He’s twice been awarded grants from the Rhode Island State Council on the Arts and recently raised $3,500 on Kickstarter to help him design boards from marine debris—using driftwood, torn nets, and other ocean flotsam.

Cunningham believes his RISD education had everything to do with his success. “Our challenge was, ‘How do you make good design?’ I just took that and applied it to another discipline.”

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Brad Crane

Environmental Designer, IDEO
Harvard GSD ’11

Brad Crane has hardly had the typical career in architecture. For starters, his architect dad gave the boy an AutoCAD program for his computer when he was 12 years old. Even when Crane was studying electrical engineering at Kansas State, he spent summers and weekends turning out three- dimensional drawings for the family firm.

“I sort of felt architecture was what I did before I went to college,” says Crane, who spent eight years working as an electrical engineer for companies as diverse as Harley-Davidson and United Technologies before enrolling in Harvard’s Graduate School of Design at age 28.

“I realized I was much more interested in exploring the space around me than I was in designing electrical circuits,” says Crane, who graduated last year.

From the start, Crane believed that architecture offered him the most robust and systematic way of viewing the world in terms of design. “Architects like to think big,” Crane explains. “They are used to thinking through the extended effects of the complex systems they’ve designed.” He wanted to take that talent and apply it in a parallel universe.

Perhaps it’s not surprising that Crane quickly found his way to the Boston offices of IDEO, the award-winning global design firm that promotes human-centered design. Working with business and the private sector, IDEO is most famous for creating the first ergonomically designed computer mouse.

As an environmental designer at IDEO, Crane enjoys being part of a design team that digs deep into a single project. “How do you design a medicine bottle that a person with arthritis can open?” asks Crane. “How do you design a better gas pump? These are small things, but the solutions have an impact on how we live.”

Crane brings his architecture training to every design challenge. “There’s a pragmatism to architecture,” he explains. “You have to design multiple systems that work together, and it’s exactly that perspective I rely on most.”

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Teman and Teran Evans

Harvard GSD ’04

Teman and Teran Evans spent their Friday afternoons this fall turning a class of Harvard architecture students into brand strategists. Their seminar, “Paper or Plastic: Reinventing Shelf Life in the Supermarket Landscape,” asked participants to rethink the branding of peanut butter, mouthwash, and other basic consumer products. Such nonarchitectural challenges reflect the broad definition these identical twins apply to their own diverse design practice.

“The challenge of architecture is to solve a three-dimensional problem,” says Teman (pictured, sitting). “Some days that problem is the scale of a building, some days it’s the scale of a city, and some days it’s just something you can hold in your hand.”

The twins, 33, developed their design perspective while interning at the Rotterdam offices of architect Rem Koolhaas. Instead of putting his interns to work on building projects, Koolhaas had them design catwalks for a Milan fashion show and help with a competition for the Beijing Olympics.

“Rem used to say to us, ‘I don’t know why you architecture students all want to pass through the same narrow door,’ ” says Teman. “There are so many other ways of working in design.”

After graduating from Harvard, the brothers took the advice of their mentor by launching Dioscuri, a design firm that addresses a multitude of interests. First, the pair tried furniture design and then switched to textiles, finally scoring with a design for colorful wooden bracelets that caught the eye of Oprah Winfrey. “We taught ourselves everything, from manufacturing to marketing,” says Teman, who claims the experience was better than a graduate degree from Harvard Business School.

Their success, combined with an appearance on HGTV’s popular series Design Star, has helped the brothers expand into product design, brand consulting, and interior design. Teran runs day-to-day operations in New York City, Teman teaches at the University of Michigan’s Taubman College of Architecture, and both have lectured at Harvard’s GSD.

The brothers view their practice as a raspberry to anyone who claims architecture is a dying profession. “If you’re talking about brick-and-mortar buildings, sure,” says Teman, “but that skill set has such a wide array of applications.”

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Natasha Case

UCLA ’08

Think ice cream. Think famous architects. Think ice cream flavors named for famous architects: Frank Behry, Mies Vanilla Rohe, Richard Meyer Lemon, I.M. Peinut Butter, Louis Kahnteloupe, Norman Bananas Foster. Now throw in a “floor” and “roof” of chocolate chip or oatmeal cookies and what have you got? Coolhaus, a designer ice cream sandwich company that has 50 employees, revenues of $3 million last year, and a fleet of pink and white food trucks selling to eager customers in New York, Los Angeles, and Dallas.

No one is more surprised at the success of this “farchitecture” (food+architecture) start-up than Natasha Case, Coolhaus CEO. “It was just a hobby, an art project,” explains Case, 28, who produced her first batch of ice cream sandwiches as a treat for colleagues at Disney Imagineering, where she worked after graduation as an intern in hotel design and master planning. “Everybody was so down about the recession and afraid of losing their jobs. I added the funny names for comic relief.”

When Case made more ice cream sandwiches to sell at a crafts fair, her friend Freya Estreller—now Case’s Coolhaus partner and wife—immediately saw the business potential. The two women bought a 20-year-old postal van on Craigslist, had it retrofitted and painted silver and bubblegum pink, and began selling their ice cream sandwiches at music festivals and museum openings. Word spread and the business blossomed, growing at a rate of 300 percent a year.

Case doesn’t feel she’s left architecture behind; she’s just expanding its footprint. Having written her master’s thesis on mobile food, the architect sees her Coolhaus trucks as a way of breaking down the geographic confines of fixed, traditional retail locations. She even presented her ideas on the subject at an AIA conference in Los Angeles last year.

Case also sees her ice cream “houses” as a way of making architecture more fun and accessible. “Architecture has a way of being so esoteric that we forget that it’s a public profession,” says Case, whose trucks invite customers to read about well-known architects while they wait for their orders. There are even plans to make popsicles from molds shaped like famous buildings.

In the meantime, you can’t keep the architect in Case down. She’s used her skills to design a retail store, the company’s website, and all its (edible) packaging. Her most cherished business moment? Seeing the real Frank Gehry stand in line at a Coolhaus truck, waiting to sample her wares.