David Thompson, the founder of the architecture firm Assembledge+, is the quintessential Californian—he’s pissed about the Dodgers. “I’m struggling to get my head around the Houston Astros cheating scandal. I will not allow them to get away with it,” he says about the 2017 World Series, which the Dodgers lost in seven games. It was later revealed that the Astros used a trash can–banging scheme for years to tip-off pitches. “The dodgers were robbed, and I don’t think I can ever let that go.” Thompson, like any fan who bleeds blue, would probably give up anything for L.A’s baseball team to break its 22-year championship drought. In his life outside of sports fandom, he’s been perfecting a different kind of Southern California pastime: architecture that strips down the barriers between nature and built-environments. We asked Thompson about his love of California Modernism, what it’s like to work with your dad, and L.A.’s budding design scene. Oh, and of course, the prospects for this year’s Dodgers.
Assembledge+ is a member of The List, the destination for all things Surface-approved. Want to join The List? Contact our team to find out how to apply.
How did Assembledge+ come to be?
Early on in my education, I struggled to make sense of all the complexities that make up buildings and to understand how those various components were put together. I needed to break down the scale of design into something that I could hold in my hand, [which led me to] furniture design. I could design, draw, fabricate, and install these pieces at a scale that made sense.
My first job out of school was with David Hertz and his company at the time, Syndesis, which was an architecture firm that also fabricated a lightweight concrete product call Syndecrete. It was here that I was placed in the position of managing all fabrication jobs from everything from floor tiles to kitchen countertops and sculpture to custom furniture. It was critical for me in my process of understanding. I now understood the lines I drew and how to take the design process into the built world. I knew at the time that people were more likely to take a chance with a young designer on a piece of furniture before they would take a chance with an architectural design project. I was able to begin generating clients for furniture projects that later evolved into larger architectural commissions.
Assembledge was created in 1997, during a late-night charette on an early design commission. We decided at the time that no new design work could occur until a name for the future company was conceived. Assembledge+ was born.
In a sort of role reversal, your dad actually joined your firm, instead of the other way around. How did that come together and what’s the dynamic like? Does his dad status outweigh your founder status?
My dad has always been my greatest resource for everything that has to do with architecture. As my interest in architecture grew, my dad was always there to help lead me in the right direction. Even though our paths in the industry were very different, we always talked about the idea of trying to collaborate together. After a long illustrious career, Richard was looking to leave the corporate world and start a consulting practice. I suggested bringing his skills to Assembledge+ and letting our team be a resource for him as he continued to pursue his passion. It has been a sincere pleasure to have been fortunate enough to set up a scenario that allows Richard the opportunity to be around the young energetic minds of Assembledge+ and also provide our team with the wisdom and expertise that comes with a 45-year career. We love the twist on the typical father-son working relationship.
You guys have earned a reputation for designing quintessential homes in the spirit of Southern California modernist design. What is it about this style that is so appealing? How do you put your own imprint on it?
I’d like to think that the style is appealing because it is more about a lifestyle than a stylistic style. The hallmarks of California Modernism are about indoor/outdoor living, open floor plans, and extensive use of glass. This lifestyle promotes a connection with the exterior a takes full advantage of the Southern California temperate climate. At Assembledge+, we use this philosophy to create a guideline for our approach to each project. We generally look to the perimeter of the property boundary to extend the living experience into the landscape.
The studio is currently renovating the 1950 Curtis Residence by Raphael Soriano in Bel Air. What do you have planned for it? How do you approach a renovation like this where you’re dealing with a historically important structure?
It’s an incredibly exciting project for us, as it has few interesting stories within the project’s narrative.
The Curtis Residence was built in 1950 and was a part of a series of projects built by Soriano that were exploring steel construction techniques and flexibility. Unfortunately, much of the original Soriano structure is buried under several renovations and additions that have occurred over the years, including one that was built for the author Alvin Toffler who wrote Future Shock. Our approach is to strip the project back to Soriano’s original steel umbrella and treat it like an ornamental necklace that sets a datum for our project. Because of the state of the original structure and the needs of our clients, the project is not a restoration project but instead, we are treating it more like an archeological project whereby we uncover the treasure of the past and let it become a reference point for our new intervention.
You recently finished your new dream home in Studio City, which got a lot of attention for the comprehensive integration of interior spaces with the outdoors. It’s very much symbiotic with the style of Assembledge+, but I’m curious if the approach differed in any way?
The Laurel Hills residence really embodies the true ethos of Assembledge s design philosophies. As I mentioned earlier, the project exemplifies our typical strategy by which we look to the perimeter of the property boundary to extend the living experience into the landscape, truly blurring the lines between indoor and outdoor. While the approach for the Laurel Hills residence was not any different, I think because it was my house, I was not in a position of needing to sell the lifestyle, which allowed us to push those ideas even further.
As a proponent of holistic design, what are some of the central tenets guiding your approach to design that blends nature with built spaces.
Since we believe so strongly in blurring the lines between indoor and outdoor spaces, we feel that the landscape design is as important as the architecture and works in concert with the interior spaces. It is a crucial piece in assisting in making the architecture come alive.
How is your approach to hospitality projects such as the Cactus Club restaurants in Canada different from residential? How do you think hospitality design will change post-COVID and is the studio rethinking how it tackles those kinds of projects?
We really approach many of our hospitality projects as though they are residential projects.
In fact, our residential sensibility for craft, detail, and materiality absolutely informs our hospitality design. Of course, the constraints are considerably different. You might say that our residential projects are more like bespoke clothing, whereas our hospitality projects are automobiles in which the extensive functional and programmatic demands are the engine plugged into a carefully upholstered interior.
Even now, amidst the crisis, people have shown an eagerness to visit restaurants. And, compared to retail, there is no equivalent pressure from the internet. So, broadly speaking, we suspect that there will be continuity in the main aspects of hospitality design. One exception to this is that the trend toward more extensive provisions for take-out services will likely have been accelerated, even for higher-end restaurants. But we expect this will be an addition to existing features, not a replacement.
The L.A. design industry seems to be gaining momentum in recent years. Have you noticed a change and what do you think the future holds for the industry? Is there a certain characteristic or style that describes the local scene?
There is so much talent in this town doing truly exceptional work. The environment, a pioneering spirit, a kind of grit and rawness — all these things function as a catalyst for creativity, whether we are talking about high-design, planning, transportation, or housing. Los Angeles benefits from being young compared to the established cultural centers, yet over the past [few] decades it has also established confidence, a growing momentum so that it is certain to emerge as a great cultural center in the world.
I read that you take your staff to Dodgers games. As a lifelong fan myself, I want a prediction. Is this the year we break the championship drought?
As a true Dodger fan, I believe every year is our year. Unfortunately, I am not certain that this year is anyone’s year because I think the fate of the season is still up in the air due to the COVID circumstances. That being said, I believe this particular Dodger squad has what it takes, and I know that the team and the city is really hungry for a winning season and a World Series victory. I am struggling to get my head around is the Houston Astros cheating scandal. I will not allow them to get away with it and I feel like the circumstances have allowed this scandal to get sweep under the rug and I don’t think it is fair. The Dodgers were robbed, and I don’t think I can ever let that go. I suppose that might be for another interview.