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The Art of Collaboration

By Melanie Moffett
In Bayou Artist
Sep 28th, 2016
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article by April Honaker | photography by Brad Arender

Artists and other creative types are often imagined using their talents in solitude, but designers Robert Brooks and Marla Emory of Studio Brooks + Emory have continually proven the value of collaboration. Their complementary strengths and backgrounds have allowed them to work together on projects ranging from Mardi Gras floats to turn-key residential projects that started as blank slates and ended as complete, fully furnished homes.

Emory was born and raised in Ruston, Louisiana, earning bachelor’s degrees in interior design and architecture, as well as a master’s in architecture, at Louisiana Tech University. After working for a few years exclusively as a designer, she returned to Tech as an Assistant Professor and has since become the chair of Tech’s interior design program. Brooks was born in Mobile, Alabama, but grew up traveling the world as part of a military family. He earned his bachelor’s in architecture from Auburn University and his master’s from Cranbrook Academy of Art in Michigan. According to Brooks, he has been teaching at Tech for 11 years and has lived in Ruston longer than anywhere else. He is currently an Associate Professor of Architecture in Louisiana Tech’s School of Design.

As individuals, Brooks’s and Emory’s paths to architecture and design were very different. Emory’s uncle was an interior designer, so she grew up watching him work. As a result, when she started college at 18, interior design was a natural choice, but after graduation, Emory found herself working as a designer in an architecture firm. Working so closely with architects led to her interest and further study in architecture. Brooks, on the other hand, came to architecture from the  construction side. Working as a draftsman for an engineering firm in Alabama, he fell in love with seeing the things he designed brought to life and decided to enter college at age 27 to study architecture formally.

Despite their different backgrounds, Brooks and Emory are inspired in similar ways. Emory said, “Inspiration can come from anywhere. Sometimes it can come from the first gesture on paper, it can come from iterative models or it can come from the site. I can sit down with a site plan and start drawing, and for me, going through that process of iteration is where the inspiration happens. It’s not some magical moment. It’s kind of like pushing a boulder up a hill. Sometimes you make progress, but sometimes that boulder falls down, like in the story of Sisyphus. Still, you continue to cultivate it until the momentum happens.”
Similarly, Brooks said, “Inspiration doesn’t come from an enlightened perspective. It doesn’t usually come from looking at the formations of clouds or the dew on an early morning leaf, although it can. Inspiration, for me, comes from work, especially hard work, and hard work is possible because of a passion. I wish I could look at an exhibit in a museum and feel inspired to paint or design, but for me, inspiration generally comes from work and perspiration.” Both Brooks and Emory try to instill this idea in their students as well. They want them to realize that good ideas and good designs rarely happen in a first draft. Instead, they have to be developed and revised through multiple drafts.
In addition to teaching in Tech’s School of Design, Brooks and Emory collaborate on projects outside the classroom. According to Brooks, the first creative work he and Emory collaborated on was a painting. He had started it and gotten stuck. “I absolutely hated it,” he said, “so I just threw it in the back of my truck.” When another of Brooks’s friends, a realist painter, saw the painting, she offered to take it and see if she could improve it. When she returned it, Brooks said, “She had drawn a scene that included sheep, and the sheep were involved in what you might say were ‘inappropriate activities.’” Afterward, he passed the painting to Emory, whose daughter was about five at the time. Concerned about the explicit content of the painting, Emory ran it through a table saw and folded it in such a way that the content was less obvious. Brooks said this experience is a perfect example of the level of trust they have in each other, a trust they have continued to build through other collaborations.

According to Emory, their first design-intensive collaboration happened in 2009. It was a Mardi Gras float for the Krewe of Janus in Monroe. Although neither of them had ever done anything comparable, they dove in and made it happen. The experience forced them to problem solve under extreme conditions with extreme deadlines while using materials entirely new to them. Brooks said the greatest challenge was finding a way to “still like each other” afterward.

Fortunately, the pair met that challenge and have continued to do so again and again, making four Mardi Gras floats together. In fact, according to Emory, the conditions they faced while working on the floats only strengthened their trust in each other and prepared them for more extreme projects. As a team, they are not afraid to take on difficult problems and try new things. Brooks said their motto has even become “whatever’s hardest.” He believes, “In any partnership, whether personal, professional or financial, there has to be a complete and perfect balance of ambition and trust.” Both agree that they maintain that balance, although maintaining it has not always been easy.

“In most relationships, you have a kite and a tail, and the tail anchors the kite,” Emory said, “and when we first started working together, we were both kites.” In the beginning, this dynamic made working together difficult at times, but Emory said, “Through our working together, I think we’ve both realized when to be the kite and when to be the tail.”

Because they each have different strengths, they have learned to rely on these as they take on projects together, often sending pieces of a project back and forth as needed. Their only rule in this process is that the person who has the project at the moment must do something with it. Failing to do something is not an option.

Both Emory and Brooks said that working in academia has allowed them to be more selective about the clients they work with. As a result, they look for work they find challenging, and they also try to choose clients whose needs are unique or whose style matches theirs, which, according to Brooks, is modern with a southern drawl. In general, they also look for good clients, good work and good money. To make it through their selection process, a project will ideally meet at least two of these three criteria.

Their selectivity has led them to take on some interesting projects. For example, they are currently working with a client from Texas that had them relocate an 1890s barn from upstate New York to a site on Caddo Lake. They are now in the process of building a house around the original barn frame. In this project and in their others, they practice something Brooks called contextual regionalism. In other words, they are keenly aware of the physical characteristics of a site and the culture surrounding it. They strive for designs that are unique enough to stand out but integrated enough to fit in.

One project they are particularly proud of and one that strikes this balance of unique, contemporary design and thoughtful integration is a contemporary home located at 800 W. Alabama Ave. in Ruston, across from Tech’s Baptist Collegiate Ministry (BCM). Their client for this project wanted a house for his daughter and roommates to live in while in college, and he gave Brooks and Emory some difficult, non-negotiable stipulations. Not only did the house need to have 4 bedrooms and a 4-car garage; it also had to preserve the 200-year-old oak trees on the property and had to be finished, fully furnished and ready for the girls to move in within 7 months. The client also asked that they design the home with the idea that it would be repurposed as a commercial space after his daughter graduated.

To meet the client’s tight deadline, Brooks and Emory worked on the design alongside demolition and construction. To meet the client’s need for commercial conversion, they designed the home with commercial electrical loading, and they included features that would make conversion easier, such as an elevator pit, a sprinkler riser, and bathrooms that could be readily adapted to meet standards set by the Americans with Disabilities Act. To make the spaces even more flexible, they added features such as movable walls and a large kitchen island that can roll back and forth between the indoor and outdoor kitchen.

The resulting home met all of the client’s non-negotiable expectations and is just under 8,000 sq. ft. with a 1,000 sq. ft. office suite. Although Brooks and Emory said most people think they built the home on an unlimited budget, they did so with a budget they claimed was less than most of the high-end homes around Squire Creek Country Club in Choudrant. In fact, they have been able to complete several amazing projects both professionally and in the School of Design with very small budgets. As always, they enjoy a challenge.

To ensure that the home on W. Alabama came in under budget and that it reflected the contextual regionalism they strive for, they created a contemporary design, using a variety of simple, natural materials. For example, they used ipe wood and corrugated metal siding for the exterior walls. Ipe’s extreme density and durability, as well as its beautiful natural color, eliminated the need for staining, and the metal siding was treated in a special way to maintain the sleek, modern look of the home. In addition, they found ways to repurpose some of the original home’s materials. One example is a 10 ft. dining table made from the original beams. As Emory said, they enjoy finding ways to honor the past while creating something new.

In the end, Brooks and Emory feel they created a home that not only pleased their client but also meshed well with the surrounding community. Brooks said, “You can listen to people and their desires, but you can also listen to what we call ‘the sense of place.’” And the ultimate satisfaction, according to Brooks, comes from bringing the two voices together in harmony. For Emory, that satisfaction is increased when they are able to achieve that harmony for people and a community they love and then have that community appreciate it.

Because the home on W. Alabama is in such a prominent, highly trafficked location, Brooks and Emory designed it knowing feedback would be inevitable. Emory said they never doubted that the students and younger residents would like the design, but they were a little anxious about how older residents would react. Fortunately, they have been pleasantly surprised by the older residents’ positivity. This positivity tells them that they’ve created something that spans generations, which Emory said has been an unexpected bonus.

Another unexpected bonus came when the client’s daughter graduated from Louisiana Tech. To Brooks and Emory’s  surprise, he decided to donate the home to the university. As a result, the building is slated to become Co:lab, a center under the College of Liberal Arts that will serve as a site for interdisciplinary collaboration within the university, as well as through community and corporate partnerships. The purpose of the building is especially fitting, given the fact that it was born out of Brooks and Emory’s collaboration. They will continue to play important roles at Co:lab, with Brooks serving as Director and Emory serving as an Assistant Director. Their hope for Co:lab is that it will not only enhance learning but also enhance our community and region as a whole. As part of the conversion to Co:lab, the building will also undergo some special “smart” modifications. For example, it will be equipped with a retina scanner capable of recognizing and adapting to the unique preferences of individual occupants.

As Brooks and Emory take on these new roles as directors of Co:lab, they will also continue to collaborate on outside projects for select clients. As a team, they will continue to listen to their clients and understand their needs, which, Emory said, are sometimes different than what the clients initially think they want. Through asking careful questions, Brooks and Emory are able to uncover needs that their clients didn’t realize they had. Sometimes they will even present their clients with two designs: one that includes all the things the client said they wanted and a second that includes all the things Brooks and Emory have determined that they need. In the process of working with clients, Brooks and Emory try to build trust through a collaborative designer-client relationship.
When designing and building a home for clients, Brooks said they listen especially to how their clients define home, which is unique for each one. Emory added that they also use their intuition, which has been honed through more than 25 years of experience, to create designs that evoke the feeling of home for each client. Another part of their role as service providers is to help decrease the client’s level of stress, whether it is by making some of the decisions or simply narrowing the options. According to Brooks, in a standard, custom house, there are over 40,000 individual decisions to be made, and most people don’t realize how draining that can be. Brooks and Emory not only help in this area but also further smooth the design and fabrication process by coordinating with the contractor and others involved in the project.
Emory said that one of the best parts about designing is seeing an idea from its infancy through construction, seeing it come to life and being able to use their gifts to help both the client and the community. Through this process, Brooks and Emory become intimately involved with their clients and informed about their lives. According to Brooks, “That level of trust is humbling and inspiring. The whole process is a very personal thing with us.”

Regardless of the project or client, Brooks and Emory use collaboration and experience to capture the essence of how people will interact with their space, and in that process, the project becomes architecture, rather than just a building.