Seth and Melissa Hanley recently celebrated the 10-year anniversary of their brainchild, Blitz, an architecture and interior design firm. Surface sat down with them to learn how being laid off a decade ago served as a foundation for their ever-growing business.
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I’d love to hear about how you both got your start in the design industry.
Seth Hanley: I grew up in London and started playing with Legos at a very young age. It shaped my desire to both make things and create things. It’s funny, I was looking at an owner’s manual recently as an adult—I haven’t actually looked at one for a really long time—and it occurred to me that the way I think about how things go together is actually very much rooted in that process of learning as a child about how you put building blocks together on a basic level. As soon as I was 19, I knew that architecture was what I wanted to do. I completed all of my education in the U.K. at two different schools. I’ve always been very interested in how things go together and celebrating that. I like to think a lot of that comes out in my work.
Melissa Hanley: I didn’t have my “Aha!” moment until a little bit later.
My dad was a contractor and my mom a paralegal. I grew up on a farm, kind of in the middle of nowhere in Northern California, a very beautiful place. Not anywhere like an urban environment. So I grew up playing in my dad’s shop, driving tractors, hanging out on the farm, and just having a very hands-on connection to how things were built. We were practicing a lot of arts and really cultivated how to be creative at a young age.
When I got into college, I thought I was going to be pre-law. International relations was my major and I was working as a paralegal, and at 20 years old I was at SF MOMA and sort of had this little mini-meltdown. I was thinking, Why am I not in a creative field? So I stopped. I took a year off and transferred to Berkeley, following architecture—which I find is a really great mix of that technical, legal part of my brain that really likes figuring out an argument and making a case for something, and then the creative side. So I like to joke that I know I disappointed my parents equally.
How did you guys end up meeting and how did you really get your start with Blitz?
MH: We met in 2007 at a friend’s housewarming party about an hour and a half from San Francisco. Seth and I were drinking the same beer at the same time. I was working at a midsize firm. And then he came to work at the firm I was working at about three months later.
We were working there together at different studios for about two and a half years and didn’t really work on the same projects. Then we ended up working on a competition together, and that’s when we really discovered that we had such an alliance in design and process, in the way we view the world. We kind of started scheming at that point about what the next steps could look like. And, fortuitously, we were given a push by our former employers. About six months later, we were laid off, and the firm went from around 75 people in two offices to 22 people in one office in just one day.
MH: I mean, it was just a bad time in our profession. We had just moved to San Francisco a couple months before and didn’t know anyone. That’s when we started the company! We took all of our ideas and said, Okay, there’s a forty percent unemployment rate in architecture right now, so I’m not going to get a job, but we want to continue working in this profession, so we have to make the job for ourselves.
So within six days we built a really ugly website and had a business plan. We treated it like it was real from the very first moment, and within four months we landed a North American headquarters as our first project—which we did from our dining room.
How did you land that project?
MH: Well, Seth had worked with this team in London when he was there and knew the head of global resources. This was for Skype when they were moving off of eBay’s campus, and the client just needed tiny parts of the project completed for six months before we were awarded the 90,000-square-foot project. It was kind of like a six-month job interview, which let us get our feet underneath us. We were reading every piece of paper, talking to every person who was willing to talk to us, and just really immersing ourselves in what worked as the leading strategy.
Because the project was in Europe, we really wanted to push some things that weren’t really being done yet here. It was a really great client at a great time.
I’m curious, did that project kind of push you towards more corporate projects moving forward?
MH:We didn’t set out to create a commercial interior design firm. We didn’t even know what that was. So this project became a calling card and sort of created an identity for us without us really having a say over it. We loved the speed of the project, coming from longer, crazier timelines. Doing commercial interiors is fast, and you can experiment. Our clients really like that and typically demand that we try something new and bring that experimental quality to it.
I was also wondering: What are some of the most unique challenges that you face when you’re designing these kinds of spaces? With us, our office layout has changed so much recently, with the trend of having open office space instead of cubicles. How does that play into your design?
MH:Well, I think the one thing you kind of alluded to is that the reaction to private offices and cubicles has been a pendulum that’s swung way too far to the everybody-out-in-the-middle-of-the-floor concept. Now we’re seeing an apologetic request for privacy, which is kind of funny. People need to have their privacy, they need space to think, and so we’re seeing a return to the private-office concept and a return to a milder hierarchical design. Just being a little bit more thoughtful about people’s space. It’s been a challenge, as this is not a one-size-fits-all design.
SH: That’s exactly right. The trend in the workplace, not necessarily in design, is people. And I think, you know, it’s a shifting balance. Workplaces have utilized a sort of top-down thinking, but now it’s more of a bottom-up mindset. What do people need in order to be the most successful? What, in terms of workspace, is going keep employees happy and occupied? People are the biggest variable in the work that we do, and the more we can work out the metric, the more solutions we can provide. I think one of the things that makes our job so interesting now is the emphasis being put on the quality of the workspace. In addition to everything else that is part of somebody’s package when looking for a new job because it didn’t really have that recognition that it would have that sort of power. It actually serves as more of an investment expense for the company. And so we’re having very different conversations than we were even 10 years ago.
What are your favorite projects that you guys have worked on?
MH:That’s like asking about your favorite kid.
SH: It’s usually something that we’re working on currently. There’s a project we’re working on currently, here in Los Angeles, and it’s obviously becoming my favorite as we see it take shape. It’s under construction right now. We’re designing Saatchi & Saatchi’s headquarters here. It’s really going to be an amazing project, so for the next three months we’ll be getting everything together. What about you?
MH: I would actually agree. It’s one of those projects with a perfect marriage of an awesome client and a great space and amazing people all around. It kind of gives me the warm-and-fuzzies. We also don’t always get to work on projects together anymore. Seth is going to be running the on-site team and seeing it come out of the ground while I focus on the collaboration with the client. We’re working with a client who couldn’t be a more awesome human being—she’s such a design-focused individual. The conversations we’re having are just spectacular.
SH: All of our clients are creative, but when we work with clients whose business is to be creative, the way in which they challenge us to design is really something that pushes us and pushes our work. It’s certainly something we’re up for.
We’re excited to see that and hear more about it. On another note, you’re expanding rapidly in Los Angeles. How is that going?
SH: Thank you. It’s an exciting market. It’s a big market. There are a lot of very talented people here, a lot of very creative companies here. You know workplace change is happening everywhere, but it’s certainly happening at creative companies and agencies like the kinds of clients that we’re finding. So it’s really a great place for us to be with the skills that we have. I think that’s part of the success story: to enable us to grow at the speed that we have. There’s a lot of compatibility, I think, between the process that we bring to our design projects and our creativity. I see that growth continuing, and it’s nice to be in a place that wants what you have to offer. So far, that’s pretty good. Obviously there are a lot of great design firms and design schools here in the L.A. area. So in terms of the richness of talent that’s available to us from a creative perspective, it’s also very attractive. Very similar to San Francisco in that sense. So I think we knew we would excel in places where we have access to great people.
How many people work for you guys now?
MH:Thirty across our three offices, including the newest in Denver. We’re still pretty small! But mighty!
What one aspect of Blitz are you both the proudest of?
MH:I’m really proud of our individual design personalities that are emerging from the practice. We’ve got a senior team now, and burgeoning designers. I think we’ve been able to uncover the genius. People come in as designers, but if you start to really pick apart the personalities and see where they’re really excelling, you can always find that little “Aha!” moment of “Oh, this looks amazing and you’re really good at this thing—let’s do more of that!” We’ve cultivated this really incredible team of secret geniuses who are crushing it. I think not having our name all over the door is a big part of the ethos of this company. Allowing people to feel autonomy over their work. They can fundamentally change the future of the company and the work that we’re doing because it’s not the Seth-and-Melissa show. It’s a collection of really cool people doing really cool stuff, and I’m really proud of that. I’m particularly proud that we’ve been able to maintain that over the past 10 years, and that it actually is manifesting in some really great ownership now. I think that that’s really cool.
Other than the project you mentioned earlier, what else can we be expecting from Blitz in the near future?
MH: Again, we’ve got quite a bit of ongoing work for a large search-engine company—wink, wink. Some international work as well.
SH: We celebrated our 10-year anniversary this year and had a big party. I think it was interesting, the psychological impact that had on us, because a lot of the past 10 years had been about getting to that 10-year mark, and somehow there’s been a weight lifted since that happened. Suddenly we aren’t thinking in terms of a box of time anymore. We’re just excited about what’s next. Where do we take Blitz in the future? I think that it’s really wide open where we could go. We have a tendency to pursue our passion and to be introduced to things that randomly spark ideas, and that’s what I like the most. So we’ve always operated from a position of yes rather than no. And that’s been a big part of our success story.
There’s one more thing. What do you guys do when you’re not working?
SH: Work from home.
MH: We are work partners and life partners. We live up in the wine country. And we have a hops farm up there where we grow hops for beer on the weekends. We also like home renovations and have a hard time sitting still.
We were just in Singapore together, kicking off a new project that we’re working on. It’s amazing. Getting to spend that kind of time together, seeing something new—that’s really fun, but it also broadens our vocabulary that we’re drawing from for our projects.