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Where I Work: Lisa Sauve of Synecdoche Design Studio

This month’s Where I Work lands us in Ann Arbor, Michigan, (virtually) visiting the workspace of Lisa Sauve, CEO, Principal, and Co-Founder of Synecdoche Design. Founded alongside partner Adam Smith, the award-winning firm is experienced in architecture, interiors, furniture, installations, and objects, including co-working spaces, tech offices, restaurants, breweries, retail establishments, and products. She also founded the non-profit Do Good Work with the goal of making “badass spaces” for startups and small businesses. Now, let’s dive into Sauve’s workspace + fabrication shop, as well as her work style.

Lisa Sauve

What’s your studio/work environment like?

Both messy and clean! Our office space – located in a warehouse in an old manufacturing district along the Huron River just north of downtown Ann Arbor — houses our office space, which is open and tidy, as well as a fabrication shop where we manufacture custom furniture and objects for our projects. As you can imagine, our workshop can get messy when we’re mid-project. One of the things we love most about this space, which we of course designed, is that it has room to flex depending on the use.

I’m a detail-oriented person, so when I hit a mental block or just need to clear my mind, I’ll take a loop around the studio and tidy, specifically knolling.

How is your space organized/arranged?

Moving into a warehouse is like starting with a blank slate, things were pretty raw. We designed the space to retain a sense of openness and that “anything is possible” spirit. A wall of desks in a big open room gives us each our individual zones and also allows us to be modular when it’s time to collaborate. We updated the lighting and added a kitchenette. We made almost all of our office furniture in our workshop.

How long have you been in this space? Where did you work before that?

Our office consisted of a platform above a workshop for 2 years, which was awesome and added a degree of grit to our attitudes and our projects. As we got busier, the dust and noise of the constant fabrication made it difficult to collaborate like we wanted to, so we moved here in 2017. In our start-up years, it was just me and Adam at our dining table. After that we spent a few years sharing space with a few other designers in a windowless strip mall space next to the DMV. We’ve come a long way!

If you could change something about your workspace, what would it be?

Plumbing! Moving into an expansive, “anything is possible” warehouse space meant sacrificing in-house plumbing. All the running water is in a separate building, which keeps overhead low and makes for interesting vibes, but also means you have to put a coat on to go to the bathroom for half the year.

Home office area

Have you had to make any adjustments to how you work because of the pandemic?

When we shifted to virtual/WFH mode we had daily meetings to stay connected as a team. We’ve since evolved to rotating meetings three days a week…each focusing on a different aspect of the studio: current projects, big picture, and shop review. It’s a good way for us to see each other’s work, get inspired by ideas, and it keeps us all accountable to our bigger goals.

How do you see things changing in your workplace moving forward with COVID-19 now a part of our reality?

COVID definitely gave us an opportunity to rethink status-quo and make some permanent changes that improve our work flow and quality of life at work. We now have a permanent flex option. There are always some needs to meet together, to be on-site for projects, and definitely hands-on engagement with the shop, materials, and details, but on focus days we support the team working from where they can do their best work, whether that’s a co-working space, their home, or in the studio.

Left: Habiba \\\ Right: Rose

Is there an office pet?

A couple! Rose is our shop dog, she’s Julia’s, our lead maker. We also bring in our rescue Habiba. She has a bit of anxiety from her experiences on the street, so she joins us on our lighter days.

Do you require music in the background? If so, who are some favorites?

We have a Sonos that everyone is connected to. We’re always open to having something on but sometimes we all just want quiet time. I have a difficult time writing while listening to lyrical music, but if the studio is enjoying it I’ll just pop in my AirPods with white noise.

How do you record ideas?

I use a pad of grid paper for the most casual notes. Things I want to archive as broader project ideas, or meetings I know I’ll reference in a broader context, end up in my notebook. Collaborative ideas end up on trace paper and the whiteboard.

Do you have an inspiration board? What’s on it right now?

We’ve been talking about our next five years a bit lately, including tone and brand. There are rigid felt panels that float around the office to which we pin collections of ideas and inspiration. Some things that typically show up as consistent inspiration and direction of projects include; Tom Sachs 10 Bullets, quotes from Charles Eames, photos of street art, words typically defined by the urban dictionary description rather than the Oxford dictionary definition, and sometimes photos of past projects, details, and materials we want to explore in new ways.

What is your typical work style?

I like to be able to turn off work when I’m at home and when Adam and I start to chat about a project, our daughter is quick to call us out. It’s hard to do design work on a phone, so as long as I keep my computer in my bag it’s pretty easy to prioritize family while I’m at home. A typical day of work happens between 9 am and 6 pm for scheduled meetings and working on my task list. Before COVID-19, I probably had events 3-4x a week, now I’m down to weekly Planning Commission and maybe 2-3 others each month, which is a better balance.

What is your creative process and/or creative workflow like? Does it change every project or do you keep it the same?

We ask a ton of questions. We establish overall project guidelines that look very similar to a brand discovery strategy. With each and every client, we take the time to get to know their business model, their stakeholder experiences, key revenue and culture drivers, as well as operations plans, which all help us prioritize aspects of a project scope and how we translate the larger vision into the built environment. We also have internal goals for projects, which guide our decision making; like maximizing accessibility, materials with style, AND performance, as well as an ability to adapt and flex for the future.

What kind of art/design/objects might you have scattered about the space?

You’ll find a lot of material prototypes and details we’ve explored for projects. I bought a lot of art the past couple years to support local artists while many shows were cancelled. There’s not a ton of wall space in our open-space studio but wherever there is, it’s covered in creative work by local artists.

Are there tools and/or machinery in your space?

A ton. We’re geared up with tools that are most effective for the widest extent of material and manipulation. We have a welder, grinder, table-saw, CNC machine, plus a wide range of hand tools. Rolling tables and some accessory tools allow us to set up for more interesting materials like large hot wire foam cutting, sewing textiles, and soldering for lighting/electronics.

What tool(s) do you most enjoy using in the design process?

The CNC allows us to translate a design idea into a full scale mock-up very quickly. Patterns and connection details can all be created the very same day that the idea is brought to the table. Even if in the end we draw the detail for the contractor to execute, being able to see how the light affects it and how it feels to the touch informs the design process early on. It eliminates the waiting period of samples and mockups during construction. It enables us to lean in further to those moments as core design elements, which makes them even harder to remove or “VE” from a project later on.

Let’s talk about how you’re wired. Tell us about your tech arsenal/devices.

I’m the only person in the office on a Mac. I’m in constant communication with our clients and using iMessage allows me to run spur of the moment thoughts past them without having to pick up my phone.

What design software do you use, if any, and for what?

SaaS. Its cost and annual subscription fees are hard to swallow as a small business, but the fluidity of jumping between devices with applications has been great, especially with Flexwork. Google Suite, Dropbox, Adobe, Rhino, and Quickbooks are all go-tos. I didn’t learn Revit, which keeps me from getting too buried in individual project tasks and more focused on the bigger picture.

What’s on your desk right now?

My surface is pretty clean and always knolled. Notepad, pens (Sign, fine tip – black and red), coffee, wireless charger pad, phone, iPod case. I like to put everything away and bring it out for the day.

Is there a favorite project/piece you’ve worked on?

It’s either the last one or the next one. There’s something special about seeing an idea you’ve wanted to try, be realized. There’s also something special about pushing harder and further on the next idea.

More specifically, one project that embodies a lot of our work is Nightcap. The owners were willing to delay permit approval to petition for gender-neutral bathrooms with shared sink areas. It’s the first formally approved one for the city. The project really leaned into what we see as margins in the code for us to push further and question the intention and outcomes through our design. Setting precedent can help push the code towards change, enabling multiple future projects to have the same impact, and that excites us.

Tell us about a current project you’re working on. What was the inspiration behind it?

We have a broken food truck that was donated to us by a friend who finally moved into a brick & mortar restaurant. We’re figuring out how to build-out the interior to make it a space to create together with our community. After hosting a lot of studio visits, we saw the excitement about the hands-on aspects of architecture. Our goal with the TruckTruck is to package that up and bring it out in the community to more directly share the ways design impacts our lives, particularly with those that don’t otherwise have access. We just finished raising initial funds for the project through Kickstarter and have been brainstorming the line up of partners and events.

Do you have anything in your home that you’ve designed/created?

We have a few small pieces, including my desk that Adam made from scrap material from one of our early projects. Our oak kitchen counter is the most intentional thing we specifically made for our home. It adds warmth and loving details into the space. Almost every piece we make for projects I shout “I want one!” when it’s done, but – in typical cobbler’s children have no shoes style – we put most of our effort into client projects instead of our own.

Caroline Williamson is Editorial Director of Design Milk. She has a BFA in photography from SCAD and can usually be found searching for vintage wares, doing New York Times crossword puzzles in pen, or reworking playlists on Spotify.