Women in Architecture:

Karin Payson of Karin Payson architecture + design

Introducing Wagner Creative’s Interview Series, Women in Architecture + Construction. Today we talk with Architect, Karin Payson, of Karin Payson architecture + design, about when she decided she wanted to start her own firm, what draws her to having a bi-coastal practice, and how she continues to find inspiration for both art and architecture in daily life.

I read an article about you once that had this quote from you, which has always stayed with me. Because you knew you wanted to be an artist, but also wanted to be in control from a very young age, it was exciting to see that you can design your destiny.

“When I was young, I was a rebellious soul. My dream was to be an artist, and my mission in life was to have the freedom to own my own work, control my own schedule, and protect my creative energy. At age 15, I already knew that I wanted freedom. I had a vision of myself living an authentic life. That was my rebellion.”

When did you know you wanted to be an architect? And have your own firm?

I was aware of and mildly curious about architecture before thinking about becoming an architect. A year after I dropped out of art school and moved to California (for the first time), some friends from art school bought land in the Mohave Desert to build a house. I went down there for a few weeks to help out and came back up to the Bay Area and applied to the undergraduate architecture program at Berkeley as a transfer student. While the program offered endless sources of inspiration, there was an instructor there who really propelled me toward this career. He inspired and supported me to dream big and to pursue those dreams; most critically, he directed me toward an elite graduate school education and remained a friend and mentor for the rest of his life. I will always be grateful to him.

The thought of having my own firm came much later, and was largely a result of the times, circumstances, and personal temperament. As in that article you quoted, as a teen, I already knew that I would need to control my time but didn’t really know what that would mean. Because schmoozing never came naturally, I imagined being a principal in someone else’s firm. Still, after moving back to San Francisco in 1990 and working for a couple of years, it was clear that there just was not a lot of space for women in this field at that time. So, the “decision” to have my own firm was made on the day I quit my last job. A big fight with my boss ended in: “I quit” — “no, you can’t quit because you’re fired!”. Through that former Berkeley instructor, I knew a rising-star decorator who sent me my first few clients — very substantial ones — and that is how KPa+d started.

You grew up on the East Coast, studied at Columbia and UC Berkeley, and decided to start your firm in San Francisco while keeping a home in Rhinebeck. What draws you to both coasts and keeps you wanting both?

I am of both places, intellectually and spiritually. Growing up in Brooklyn and Long Island, my world view was that of Saul Steinberg’s famous New Yorker cartoon — a map of the world in which the foreground is Manhattan, with the rest of the world vaguely depicted and smooshed together as it recedes from view. Moving to the Bay Area the first time was barely a conscious act — it was a rebellion against my parents and a desire to go as far away as possible after dropping out of college. Back then, I still never thought I’d spend most of my life here, but this place affected me profoundly even after I went back to NY for graduate school and began my career. An invitation to teach at Berkeley brought me back to San Francisco, tentatively, and here I still am 30 years later.

The draw is the dichotomy: California is about the body; New York is about the mind.

Daily life in Northern California is pretty great. The light here is fantastic — bright and intense — and we can live outside nine months out of the year. Both of these factors are fundamental to how I think about space and form. California has three growing seasons. People take it for granted, but as a vegetarian, since college, I cannot overstate how important that kind of year-round fresh food is to living well. Finally, for all its problems, San Francisco remains a very small city, much easier to live in than any part of New York City.

As for New York, the city and region still embody the culture and ethos I am from. There is great public infrastructure like trains and decently paved roads, and, unlike the west coast, general public support for public things. The conversations are different. There is a rigor to how people talk about ideas, work, life, art, literature, and whatever; it is where I am most comfortable. The Hudson Valley is wonderful because it is NOT the city, but socially there are many of the same opportunities. It is also one of the most beautiful places on the planet.

How does working on both coasts shape your viewpoint as an architect?

When I attended Columbia, the program was heavy on “The Diagram.” We had to have an architectural idea, and the training told us that there were only five possible “parti” options. It was a precise method that underlies all my work and gives me a strategy to approach the many remodeling projects that we do. Working in California has inspired me to play with natural light, bring the outdoors in and create outdoor rooms even on tight urban sites. With the two houses in Rhinebeck — my own house and studio, and the one we are now designing for a client — I am going deeper with these “California” ideas that I’ve worked with since our first project, about tying the building to the land so that it respects the site and doesn’t dominate it. This is the best of both worlds — to work intuitively with the site and apply geometric principles to inform how structure, form, and program are organized.

Where were you working before starting your firm, and how did you decide to take the leap to start your own firm? Was there a defining moment?

My most formative job in New York was at Hardy Holzman Pfieffer, where I worked closely with Hugh Hardy on his smaller, quirky projects. At the same time, everyone else in the office was involved with the massive LA Central Library remodel and expansion and restoration of the Rainbow Room. From Hugh, I learned that an architect continues to study and be inspired. He was a genuinely erudite man and perhaps my last teacher. They had 85 employees at the time, but a strangely relaxed culture — as long as you got your work done, there was plenty of personal flexibility. On moving to San Francisco, I wanted to be in a small firm and went to work for Richard Brayton, who was just forming his practice with Stanford Hughes. The impetus toward self-employment was, as I said, a big fight with Richard. That was the defining moment!

Was or is there a life/career-changing project?

There have been a few projects along the way which have had career impacts for me as an architect, but right now, we are working on one which does feel particularly significant. Because we are only now doing pre-construction site work, I cannot say too much. However, this new house we are designing in the Hudson Valley has offered a singular opportunity to implement the ideas I’ve described already while collaborating at the outset of schematics with a terrific landscape architect and an equally great builder. This is an exciting, inspiring project, the kind that could only happen after years of professional practice — testing and proving ideas in built form. I guess that is why they call it “practice.”!

There is a real integration of art, painting, fashion, and architecture in your practice, which I find so inspiring. How do you keep your “artist self” active while you are also in charge of running your own firm and managing projects?

I prioritize my personal time. I NEED time away from professional work to have space in my brain and heart to receive new experiences and even silence. I NEED to do yoga every morning before work, so I begin when I’m ready and finish when I am done. It is challenging to come home from the office, eat dinner, and play with pastels or do the conceptual part of a clothing project. But I can do it on weekend days and now, in my studio in Rhinebeck during extended periods. I travel often, and every few years, take a significant trip to “shake myself up.” The drawings, clothing design, and other textile projects are all architecture to me. It is all part of the same practice of visual thinking and making things by hand that inspire and inform the work we do for clients.

I also insist that everyone in my office take a vacation every year. Since the early ’90s, the office has always practiced “summer schedule” at the office — a remnant of my New York days when everyone would work 80+ hours over 9 days every two weeks, closing on alternative Fridays. A few years ago, my team asked if we could do it all year, and it is really fantastic! Everyone gets a break. Even though I often work on those days, it is fewer hours, more relaxed, starting later in the day.

Your staff is all women, is that purposeful?

We have evolved into an all-female firm, and it is kind of wonderful and kind of a trap, because such a lopsided culture may discourage some qualified men from joining our team. On the other hand, this is the inverse of the architecture-world I entered in the 1980s; in an interview, at that time the famous SoHo art dealer Mary Boone said that she would happily represent women artists “if any of them were any good”, so this bit of justice makes me smile.

Do you see yourself as a mentor to women architects?

Yes. I don’t know if anyone looks back on her time with me and says, “she was my mentor,” but I do whatever I can, and whatever feels appropriate, to support the younger women architects in my office and around me in the profession. My own most important and enduring mentor was the Argentine architect Susana Torre, now mostly retired and living in southern Spain. Susana was my 3rd-year studio critic at Columbia; she was the primary reason I attended the school. I reached out to her shortly after graduation, and she was open and generous with me, eventually becoming a real friend. Throughout my career, I have asked her for guidance, for her thoughts on some situation or project, and she was always available. Likewise, making myself available to others as Susana was to me is the kind of organic mentoring that I enjoy and hope to offer effectively.

How has running a woman-owned firm changed from when you opened your own firm in 1992 to the present day?

Well, the times have changed enormously, so there is less doubt from the outside world than there used to be. Moreover, I am now a truly experienced architect, so I probably project more self-confidence than I did even a few years ago. Nonetheless, it still happens once in a while: some guy will ask me, snarkily, “who’s WE??” when I am describing our work, the architectural work we do at my office, KPa+d. It is puzzling, maddening, and nowadays strange, but yes, it still comes up.

What is your favorite part of the design process?

I love the beginning — conceptual design — and the detailing part of construction documents when we are examining the real, technical details at large scale: how to turn the corner or make two materials meet, etc. Conceptual design is very hard and scary because I usually have some kind of “writer’s block” and need a lot of time (and neighborhood walks!) to find my way in; then when I arrive at the obvious path, working through the idea is like being in a dream state. Developing large details is a similar process, and like conceptual design, I think more freely with paper and pen, then test dimensions on a computer program. And, of course, construction is impressive — when you see these things take form, a full-scale mock-up on the site. Overall, I really do love my work.

Who and what gets you inspired?

That is a hard question because it depends on the moment. Being in nature, traveling to places outside my comfort zone, looking at oil paintings that pull the light out of the canvas or depict human stories in a crisp composition, and looking at the work of architects who are building high-concept elegant buildings. All these things are inspiring.

This pandemic period is very interesting, because for those of us who are fortunate — healthy, safe and economically secure — it is a time to open your eyes and appreciate — to stop complaining and stop pining for what never came to be. It may sound like a cliché, but really, if you just look around, there is plenty to be inspired by.

To view Karin’s work and learn more about her firm, please visit: http://kpad.com/

Karin’s own home in Rhinebeck, NY



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Melissa Wagner

Founder of WAGNER CREATIVE, a boutique PR and marketing and firm specializing in the A/E/C industry. Based in San Francisco and New York City.