Who Is: John Lum

Next up in our continuing series, Dana Palmer chats with resident architect for Focus Group West: John Lum.  Learn how he turned a company that made industrial size washing machines into his studio space and the ins and outs of his design philosophy:

DP: What first inspired you to become an architect?

JL: I loved playing with blocks in the first and second grades, and had a great time imagining different buildings and houses.  I thought it would be a lot of fun to be able to create buildings for a job, and I still love it!

DP:  I know that you started off designing Elementary schools. How did you go from schools to optometry offices?

JL:  The firm I worked for had a specialty in institutional work, and I landed a position as a junior designer.  Over the next 7 years, I managed to become the main designer on several elementary schools as well as head up their interiors projects.  When a couple of friends of mine, who happened to be optometrists approached me about doing a new practice, I was well positioned to design something spectacular, which happened to win a design award from  Interiors Magazine.  From there, I was contacted by other optometrists, and now I am currently designing my 19th practice.

DP: What specific challenges do optometry offices present?

JL:  There are a few things I always need to consider when designing optometry offices:  showcasing many small objects while having overall design coherence, providing enough back-of-the-house space, laying out the office so the flow works correctly, and balancing merchandise security while allowing client access. If I can balance those things, the office will be a success. The only other challenges is the fact that many of my clients are sole practitioners and starting new practices, so I often work with small spaces and tight budgets. 

DP:  Since then, what other types of businesses/spaces have you designed?

JL:  I’ve done many restaurants, night clubs, and office spaces.  Currently I just finished a plastic surgery consult office with an illuminated tunnel/ramp that leads from the lobby to the exam rooms. The idea was to create an allegory for transformation.  I’m currently working on the new welcome center for the Bayview/ Hunter’s Point Shipyard development by Lennar.  I also have a thriving residential practice mostly in the San Francisco Bay Area.

DP:  From reading about your studio, it sounds like an amazing place.  Explain the process of transforming a company that made industrial size washing machines to your studio space.

JL:  I was lucky to get the building 10 years ago and was almost in an abandoned state, with 7 people living in the building illegally.  I ended up gutting the building and created a studio space that takes advantage of the 5 large skylights in the back of the building.  For me, this was one of the most difficult projects to do, as there were too many options for me to consider.  Clearly it is much easier for me to do projects for my clients than myself.  We’ve just installed solar, and our electric meter is going backwards!

DP: Explain a little bit about the design process you take when starting a new project.

JL:  First I brain storm, and come up with ideas that are relevant and have meaning to the client. Then I try to establish what goals are necessary to accomplish the design.  For example, many of my optometric design deal with vision, and the aspects of vision.  Eye Carumba, for example, plays with the concept of light entering a tunnel, similar to how one sees, creating a rationale for the floor plan that is not only dynamic space but visually intriguing.

DP:  How do you manage to marry the client’s vision with your know-how and style? 

JL:  I listen carefully to them and bring little ego to the table.   I believe that any project must function well and also work for the client, regarding style and program, to be successful.  After solving these basics, the style of the space is much more open to interpretation and this is where the project can be fun and expressive reflecting the client’s taste.  I try to add interest in our boutiques by throwing in the unexpected, to intrigue and amuse the user.  We are architects, which means serious rigor and symmetry, after all, but I do believe that we should have levity in our lives.

DP:  Is there a project that you feel is very representative of who you are as an architect?

JL:  I love some of my residences that I have created, as they reflect a sense of elegance and serenity, and are not minimal but still modern.  I tend not to overdesign my projects, as I realize that my clients have to live in their homes, and therefore I have to design for the messiness of life.  It’s an interesting dichotomy giving a framework for my clients, while giving up control as well. 

DP:  You’ve earned numerous awards for your work, which are you most proud of and why? 

JL:  I am most proud of my first optometric boutique, Urban Eyes.  It was such a tiny space, where I actually helped install some of the finishes due to the lack of budget.  The design here was a balance between intuitive and required an immense amount of problem solving and creativity to get the functions of the space to work out (in just 450 square feet)!

DP:  When it comes to designing with a Green outlook, what particular challenges do you face?

JL:  The biggest challenge is to get the client to commit to the concept, as sometimes green materials/ techniques can have a higher initial cost but lower life cycle costs.  I don’t believe there is a compromise when it comes to incorporating green building materials into an interior, and there are many health benefits besides energy savings that are certainly immediate.

DP:  What design trends are currently popular?

JL:  More natural materials and less flash  in the expression of finishes.   The modernist philosophy of the mid-century and fascination with the expression of form is as relevant as ever.   Contrasting the refined with the found, the intentional with the unintentional is yielding surprising results.

DP:  Are there any trends that you wish would just go away?

JL:  Flocked wall paper and Hollywood regency irony.  This look is quickly dated and tired.  I don’t like to incorporate cynicism in my work as it’s not a great head space to be in.

DP:  If you could redesign any well known building with unlimited resources, which would you choose, and what would you do?

JL:  I would take the SF MOMA building, remove the brick cladding, and reclad it in white glass, which would allow the structure to ghost through.  I believe that modernity is expressed honestly and the hanging brick clad pre-cast panels are structurally illogical.  Also, I would change the interior of the lobby, as it looks like a glorified Gap store.  The interior columns inside are ridiculously spindly and I would change these so that the columns were really expressed with an elegance that they are lacking.  The staircase also is a clunker, so I would replace it with a hung stair with possibly glass treads.

DP:  How did you hook up with Focus Group West and what is your role?

JL:  I have a long relationship with Blake first working on his own house, and then working with him on display booths for eye wear conventions.  Although we have completely different backgrounds, we have a common aesthetic that combines the practical with a certain level of architectural rigor.  My role is to help with 3-d product development to full blown designs for optometric boutiques.

DP: Where do you see FGW in the future?

JL:  I see us having a multi-disciplinary consulting group that can provide full services to all of our clients.  This includes everything from market positioning to interior remodels.  Having an integrated approach will lead to a more professional and consistent presentation for our clients, which I believe is a key to their success. 

John Lum Architecture, Inc.

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