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Austin’s Top Designers Create Thoughtful and Innovative Homes for Their Clients

Nana Kim, Winn Wittman, Jessica Smith and Abigail Hirons on trends, inspiration and building Austin’s most enviable interiors

Nana Kim, AIA

9 Square Studio

From transforming interiors of 70s-era homes to commercial projects that include rooms with panoramic views of the 360 bridge, Nana Kim’s portfolio includes a wide array of client-focused projects. With more than 20 years of design excellence and specializing in anything from ground-up construction to remodels and additions, Kim’s style is a collaborative process, with an emphasis on understanding and fulfilling clients’ needs.

What is the most notable change in Austin and how is it affecting interiors of our city?
After the recovery from the 2008 housing crash, Austin architecture and design is vibrant and thriving. One of the most notable and encouraging developments has been the continuing and growing interest in green building. I know I’m interested in sustainable building methods, and many of my clients are also. I recently worked on a five-star Austin Energy Green Building rated project where we really looked for opportunities to use low-VOC and sustainable products wherever we could. The AEGB Program is a great resource to designers and homeowners alike.

What is the most meaningful interiors project that you’ve worked on and why?
Most of my clients are working on the biggest project of their lives with me, and I love to go on those journeys with them. Each project has its own quirks and special needs. Right now I am enjoying setting up our guest house as an in-law unit for my own mom who’s in her 80s, and I’m working through new-for-me considerations like accessibility and safety with limited mobility.

What are some upcoming interiors trends that you forecast for architecture and design?
In these uncertain times, I think people want warm and rich colors and textures, particularly mixing in warm wood tones and natural stones with soothing tones such as sage green. The indoor/outdoor connection is more important than ever, especially from common areas such as the kitchen and family room. The gray trend is definitely out!

What is your favorite thing about Austin?
There is a feeling here in Austin that while still a luxury, design and architectural services are available for a wide range of project budgets and scopes. Design is not seen as the purview of a select few, and Austinites will engage designers and architects for smaller renovations and remodels, which makes practicing in this market very rewarding.

What led you toward your passion for architecture?
Not having known any architects growing up, it wasn’t until my first architectural history classes in college that I was exposed to and began to love the art of architecture. In particular, I fell in love with Palladian villas — I got to visit some of them in person two years ago in the Veneto region of Italy and it was a thrilling experience, especially Villa Rotunda.

What is your favorite piece of architecture within Central Texas?
The interiors (and exteriors) of Kimbell Art Museum by Louis Kahn continue to inspire and I think has valuable lessons to take in, even for residential projects. For instance, the careful modulation of natural light and the unwavering attention paid to even the smallest details, such as the paving pattern, can be a lesson for any type of project.

When designing a new home, what do you feel is the most important room in the house?
The kitchen has long been where family and friends gather and congregate — this room has grown to include casual dining and sitting areas and really tends to be the heart of the home. In a recent project, the kitchen was equal to the size of the separate living space and incorporated not only island seating for the three kids in the family but a cozy breakfast nook with a built-in banquette.

What would you consider to be your style?
In the last couple of years, I do find myself drawn to more traditional styles of detailing and incorporating more colors and pattern into my designs. In general, I think houses, both interior and exterior, feel good when there is respect paid to workmanship and the historical context, whether that is classic modernism or a more traditional style.

Winn Wittman, AIA

Founding Principal & Design Director at Winn Wittman Architecture

By Britni Rachal | Interior photos by Tom McConnell and Lars Fraser

Custom-tailoring and translating a home’s interior into modern reality is one of Winn Wittman’s specialties. Owner of his own Austin-based international architecture firm, the award-winning architect focuses on residential, commercial, consulting, interior design and home building. From the strategy phase to designing, building and launching, Winn Wittman Architects’ portfolio includes everything from residences and condos — to Austin’s Murcielago Tower, which means “bat” in Spanish and pays tribute to Austin’s bat colony under the Congress Avenue bridge.

Can you tell us more about your goal of achieving the highest level of creativity in actualizing people’s visions?
The goal is something that is not merely functional, but seemingly impossible, mindbending and mood-altering. An example of this is a tennis court we designed that is cantilevered 80 feet in the air over Lake Travis. It still blows my mind every time I go out there.

When you visit a new site, what are some of the things you are looking for?
The first time I visit a site, I am focused on three things: the views, the solar orientation and the client’s preferences. Typically, the interiors come later. If the volumes of the home aren’t positioned correctly, then the interiors won’t reach their full potential.

What are some of the biggest trends you are currently seeing for the interiors of Central Texans’ homes?
Although we’re based in Central Texas for three decades, most of our clients these days are based around the country, specifically Los Angeles, Miami and Houston. A large percentage of our clients and design team were born outside the U.S. and so the trends we follow are more international than local. With regard to general design trends, I sense that the “all white” aesthetic is fading, and people are gravitating toward darker palettes — something that we welcome. Earthier materials and dark, rich surfaces are the antidote to the sterile, white germophobic interiors that remind one of a hospital ward. These days we could all use a bit of texture, nature and luxury in our lives.

What sparked your passion for architecture and interiors?
I don’t think it was one thing. My mother and grandmother introduced me to creative pursuits. When I took a survey course in Art History at Tufts, that really inspired me. Reading about the lives of Michelangelo and Gaugin at a young age. Traveling in Europe and making furniture all had an influence.

What is your favorite interiors project?
The home we designed called Acquavilla comes to mind. It features a silver-leafed ceiling with monumental white chandeliers that look like cocoons. We traveled with the client to L.A. and Miami to buy vintage furniture, like the lips sofa by Carlo Molino, and combined that with pop-artwork from Warhol, and a hand-painted Steinway piano that Lady Gaga used to own.

What are your recommendations to people looking to draw inspiration on their own rebuild?
I would say that most homes built after 1960 aren’t worth rebuilding and many built before that date aren’t either. I would only encourage renovation of a home that is well-built and architecturally significant.

Building a home can be stressful. How do you lighten the stress load?
Stress often revolves around the cost of a project, which I try to be conservative in estimating. I explain to people that designing a home is a lot like buying a car: the base model may be $75,000, but by the time you add in the leather and the stereo and the blackout package, you’re at $100,000. If you can’t increase your budget by 25% to cover the things you will inevitably want, you probably shouldn’t build a custom home.

Jessica Smith

Senior Designer at Moontower

By Britni Rachal | Interior photos by Daniel Cavazos

Known for thinking outside of comfort zones, Jessica Smith uses an array of skills including patience and listening to best meet clients’ needs. With a special emphasis on interiors, she began her career with design as a student at University of Texas, where she earned a Bachelor of Science in architecture. Now with more than seven years of experience, Smith has a portfolio that includes the Bennett project, the transformation inside an Austin vintage home into a trendy urban farmhouse with black and white interior features. Much of her focus is often on eliminating waste by utilizing existing materials and infrastructure.

Jessica Smith

Austin is changing. How do you anticipate this might affect interior architecture?
With so many people moving to Austin I imagine there will be a blending of concepts and ideas from all over. I hope we can incorporate those while still maintaining the unique qualities that make Austin so special.

What are you most passionate about?
In this digital age, a building is something tangible. If designed and built well, it is something that can last hundreds of years and impact many lives, so there is a powerful drive to get it right.

What is your favorite type of project?
I love working on historic homes. The craftsmanship, charm and energy of old homes is very inspiring, and I love getting to preserve the beauty of older homes while helping to make them functional for the modern lifestyle, so they can continue to be inspirations for years to come.

Throughout your career, is there a specific interior project that has felt most impactful?
I would actually say the Bennett project. The history surrounding the original home coupled with getting to help such wonderful clients made the project very rewarding.

What is your advice to Central Texans looking for some architectural change to their homes or businesses?
I would recommend traveling around Texas a bit to get inspired. From the Hill Country to out near Big Bend, there are strong vernacular styles that can give your building real character.

What makes Austin’s architecture stand out from other cities?
I am originally from Houston where everything is flat. I love how the hills of Austin can make sites and their structures more dynamic.

What is something about your architectural philosophy that sets you apart from others?
People are often interested in open concept floor plans  and grand, expansive spaces, but I am always drawn to more delineated spaces, nooks and crannies. They provide for more intimate experiences. The intimacy, in my opinion, is what gives a space the cozy feeling of home. Long live the inglenook!

When you meet with clients, what up-front advice do you give to them?
I tell clients to share as much as they can about themselves.  I really enjoy getting to know them personally, beyond just their  architectural interests. It helps us connect in a different way and enhances the design in the end.

Building a home can be stressful. How do you lighten the stress load?
I try to be candid with the clients and have open communication. Much of the stress of building a house comes from confusion or  miscommunication, so keeping an open dialogue is key.

When designing a new home, what do you feel is the most important room in the house?
Whenever I start a project, I try to identify which space is the most important to the clients and then design the rest of the house around it. For a chef, it could be the kitchen. For an artist, perhaps their studio. For my house, it was a screened porch. My family and I love being outside as much as possible, so for us the porch was the focal point that everything could center around.

Abigail Hirons, ARA, RID

Studio Steinbomer

By Britni Rachal | Interior photos by Leonid Furmansky & Andrea Calo

A focus on design efficiencies that contribute to a better daily life is Abigail Hirons’ favorite aspect of interior creations. Originally from Indiana, Hirons moved to Austin in 2008 and joined the Steinbomer team in 2012, where she has worked on the completion of Austin schools, churches, custom homes, public and commercial projects and manufacturing projects.

Abby Hirons

How do you differentiate yourself from other designers?
The people at Studio Steinbomer are genuine, approachable and great teammates. We develop collaborative working relationships with clients, consultants and contractors, and this promotes open communication and trust. The ability to communicate openly and honestly without pretension makes the experience more enjoyable and leads to better project outcomes.

Throughout your career, is there a particular interiors project that stands out most to you?
It’s always interesting when a client has a unique and creative point of view. A project that comes to mind is a current project, the Backyard Live Oak Amphitheater. The interior spaces run the gamut from private with a home-like feeling, to public facing bars, so it’s been fun to form a cohesive design with this varied mix of functions. We’re about to start getting more detailed and refined with the design, and I’m looking forward to making it real and fulfilling the vision.

What is your forecast for upcoming trends later this decade and beyond?
Particularly for interiors. An emphasis on well-being will persist in the design of interior spaces. Interiors will continue to bring in nature through biophilic design, using colors found in nature, natural materials, plants and natural light. Creating inviting indoor/outdoor spaces where people can gather and feel comfortable will be important in the months and years to come. Promoting good health within private and public interiors with cleanable materials, improved and increased ventilation, socially distanced and partitioned furniture in offices, and flexible working environments will not be going away anytime soon.

What are you most passionate about?
Working with people to improve their lives with more efficient and enjoyable spaces is gratifying. No two projects are the same, and I enjoy learning about the people who will inhabit the space and gathering inspiration from them and other sources before translating a vision into a design.

What are some of your favorite interior features to implement in your designs and why?
The solutions to design puzzles are situational, so there really isn’t a one size fits all feature in a project. A few universal impactful features are attention to the proportion of a room to a ceiling height, choice of lighting, use of color and materials. I’m always learning, including material research and collaborating with lighting experts, because lighting is so crucial to a feeling and the way people operate. I also enjoy creating unexpected inviting moments, whether it’s in a framed view down a corridor, or a hidden reading nook.

What would you consider to be your style?
Regardless of the style, which often comes with a client’s goals, my main priority is to support the client’s interests to reach a project that can stand the test of time using quality materials and thoughtful design.

When you meet with clients, what up-front advice do you give to them?
Let’s put it all out there to start. Clients should be discussing what they want, what they need and the intention of the space. Begin with a full wish list, and if the estimate comes in over budget, be prepared to prioritize. Focusing on what’s most important keeps the project moving in a positive direction and results in a finished space that is functional and enjoyable for years to come.