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A West Coast Firm Establishes an East Coast Base: An Interview with Primo Orpilla of Studio O+A

Do clients on the East Coast want stadium seating and wacky graphics and Airstream trailers? "Is that a satirical note I hear in your question?

By ArchNewsNow
October 20, 2016

Earlier this year, San Francisco-based firm Studio O+A received the 2016 National Design Award in Interior Design from the Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum in New York City. (Co-founders Verda Alexandra and Primo Orpilla, and Principal Perry Stephney are in Manhattan to accept the award tonight.) A few months later, O+A announced the opening of its second office, this one on Park Avenue South in New York City – the first expansion in the firm’s 25+ year history. We caught up with Orpilla to find out why and what O+A plans next.


ArchNewsNow: Why are you opening an office in New York now?


Primo Orpilla: We always felt our design aesthetic would play well in New York. We always saw New York as a ripe market for what we do. This year seemed the right time to do it.


This has been our most New York-focused period ever. Late last year, Interior Design named Verda and me to its Hall of Fame. A bit later, we were notified we had won the Cooper Hewitt National Design Award for Interior Design. Then we landed some interesting New York projects – and narrowly missed getting a few others. It just seemed a strong gravitational pull was coming from the East Coast.


I think everyone in a creative profession assumes he or she will eventually go to New York. For years, we would travel here for award ceremonies or press events or to meet with potential clients, and every time we would fall under the spell of those towers. Every time, we would start brainstorming: “What if we opened an office here? What if we made that leap?”


Well, last year we were in town working on a project, and that conversation started up again. It was exciting to contemplate, as always – but the difference was that a week or two later, Neil Bartley, one of our design studio directors, came back and said, “Are you serious about this? Because if you are, I want to do it.” And that one thing – having a key member of our team volunteer to relocate – got the ball rolling. From that point on, we started looking at it as a serious possibility.


ANN: Has your visibility in New York increased because of Cooper Hewitt National Design Award, the Interior Design Hall of Fame Award, and the Contract Designers of the Year recognition in 2011? In other words, is New York the national center of design?


Orpilla: Ha, ha! As a Bay Area native, I’m going to answer that in less geocentric terms. Great design is happening everywhere. There’s important, powerful work coming out of California and out of New York, too, and we are eager to be a part of the East Coast scene. There’s no denying that the recent attention we have received has raised our profile in the industry – and we are very grateful for it. And humbled by it. So, yes, okay, I’ll concede. New York is the national center of...the design press!


ANN: Who are your current clients in New York?


Orpilla: The ones we can talk about right now are Big Spaceship in DUMBO, Brooklyn, Kimball Office, and fuboTV. And we have some other things in the works.


ANN: Why did your clients want you to open a New York office?


Orpilla: I think they saw what we were doing on the West Coast and realized it was badly needed here – not necessarily any specific style of design, but our approach to working with a client, our philosophy of making the workplace more responsive to the user. I think they understand that the changes that are happening in work and work environments are moving into industries other than tech, and they want us here to help make the transition.


ANN: Do you have other clients outside of California?


Orpilla: We have projects currently in Oregon, Nevada, and Indiana. And we just wrapped up a flurry of pop-up installations for NeoCon 2016 in Chicago. We’re also looking with great interest at some international projects.


ANN: Do you think your approach will be different in New York City? Are people hiring you because you are in sync with high tech in San Francisco and Silicon Valley?


Orpilla: Certainly our experience with tech firms has opened doors for us. But our approach is not specific to tech, and it won’t change in New York. We will continue to base every project on a deep understanding of our clients – what their history is, what their aspirations are, how they like to work, how they expect to grow. That’s going to yield interesting designs wherever we are.


ANN: What are some differences between working on the East Coast and West Coast?


Orpilla: There’s definitely a big-league energy in New York that is different from the energy in the Bay Area. It’s a cliché, but it’s true. This is one of the greatest cities in the world, and when you’re working here, you feel you’re plugged into a socket with a lot more current moving through it. Another difference, I guess, is that we have just begun to grow our team here. We have an extensive network of associates in California – contractors, artisans, fine artists, furniture makers, printers. All of those folks contribute to our success. I think one of the most exciting aspects of this expansion for us is that we can start making those connections in New York. There’s no question that will have an impact on our design.


ANN: Do clients on the East Coast want stadium seating and wacky graphics and Airstream trailers?


Orpilla: Is that a satirical note I hear in your question? Our graphics are never wacky. Every graphic in an O+A space has a specific meaning that applies to that client and that particular space. Sure, there was a wacky period back in the 1990s, with office trampolines and that kind of stuff, but we were never part of that, and it didn’t last long in the industry. The reason these new work environments have caught on is precisely because they aren’t wacky. There are very practical benefits to these spaces – for the company and for the people who work in them. Who wouldn’t want to work in a space that is comfortable, tailored to the work, full of options for meetings and team effort, and respectful of every work style, with some nice leisure areas and yes, excuse me, beautiful graphics on the wall?


ANN: Where are you located in Manhattan?


Orpilla: We’re at 215 Park Avenue South.


ANN: Why did you pick that location?


Orpilla: We wanted to be in Manhattan in the center of the action. Our SOMA location in San Francisco was very much part of our identity in the early years – and it’s still part of our identity. We’ll always be proud of our roots. But we’re a mature company now, we’re not a start-up. For this expansion, we wanted to be on Park Avenue.


ANN: Do you think you might open more offices in other cities in the future?


Orpilla: Well, we never stop dreaming. London is still out there. Berlin is still out there.


ANN: What are your favorite examples of great New York design, or which designers most represent “New York” to you?


Orpilla: You mean besides the Brooklyn Bridge and the Chrysler Building and Grand Central and the Guggenheim? I think the fact that that list could go on and on indefinitely is an indication of what an immense treasury of design New York City is. It’s humbling to come here and try to be part of it.


ANN: How will the East Coast and West Coast offices work together?


Orpilla: In the beginning, Neil will be on hand to manage our projects in New York, but most of the design work will be done in our San Francisco office. Our Bay Area designers will be flying back and forth a lot, but if the first few weeks are any indication, we will be growing the East Coast team pretty quickly. We’ve been surprised by the level of interest.


ANN: When are you going to have a party?


Orpilla: We have a party every other week at O+A, but I assume you’re talking about a big New York bash of the sort Truman Capote threw after the publication of In Cold Blood. Like the Black and White Ball? Where everyone of note in every field was invited? We won’t be doing that right away, but soon. Soon.

(click on pictures to enlarge)

Courtesy Studio O + A


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