The G&C Questionnaire: Clay Aurell, AIA
Oliver’s restaurant, Montecito. Designed by AB Design Studio. Built by Giffin & Crane.

The seed of an idea took root in 2005 as architects Clay Aurell and Josh Blumer found themselves in conversation about how architecture and community can make a difference in the world. They decided to collaborate. A partnership was born. Today, Santa Barbara-based AB Design Studio is a multidisciplinary firm with broad expertise in architecture, interior design, and urban planning. 

For the following Q&A, we caught up with Clay to cover a range of topics, including early inspirations, a 1963 couch on wheels, and how to calmly keep the bowling pins in the air during a global pandemic.

What drew you to architecture early on? 

Aurell: When I was a kid, my father was a contractor and I would spend time reading plans and studying the blueprints. I realized I could read the plans and visualize the building in 3D. When I was about 12, I studied a set of plans before going to the job site. The home was in the rough framing stage, but I walked around and knew where every room, bathroom, and closet was located. My dad was a bit dumbfounded and asked me about it. I just told him that I read the plans before coming out to the site and it just made sense. He looked at me funny, shrugged his shoulders, and went to tell some carpenters what to do next. That started my interest in building and design for sure.

What has been your favorite architectural field trip or vacation?

Upon graduation, I spent three months touring Europe. 14 countries and countless architectural masterpieces led me to appreciate the classic styles and the modern. I was especially interested in the urban fabric of several European towns and how most of these cities were planned by architects. Today, we are faced with the downtown Santa Barbara dilemma and I believe that the architects in the community have a strong role to play in what’s next for our community and the economic vitality of downtown.

What is your favorite public building in Santa Barbara?

Meridien Studios is high on my list. Just a great collection of small scale urban paseos that weave between these quaint studios. However, I have always been fond of the building at 35 W. Haley. We looked at it years ago as a home for our office. The building has a presence on the corner and the basement windows are adorned with decorative grills. There are a few classic moves, but in general, it is a simple building. However, on the inside, the first floor, which is elevated above the sidewalk, is a very voluminous space. The first time I walked into it, I was impressed with the scale. The large windows on the west side flood the building with natural light. What impressed me the most however were the decorative steel fluted columns that support the second floor. They were delicate but sturdy and they shot out of the floor to the top of the ceiling. It seemed out of place at first, which is probably what I appreciated about it — that someone took the time and effort to design structural columns that had beauty and an aesthetic quality.

Where do you find design inspiration outside of architecture?

Photography. I have spent time behind the camera for many years and have played with 35 mm film (including in the dark room), digital art, digital composition, and black-and-white photography. I feel like the viewfinder is a magical way to see something. I do this in architecture when designing — thinking about the end result and the “shot” that will happen when the project is done. There are so many moments that get caught with the lens and freeze a moment in time. You get to see that one moment, but the past and future is left to your own imagination.

What is your current state of mind?

Well, with the pandemic happening, my state of mind is a bit like a blender. There are moments of joy, sadness, frustration, fear, and excitement. It really is a time that we all need to be calm and carry on. I have stopped watching the news and instead catch a few articles here and there. I need to be focussed for my family and for my company and team members.  

What is your idea of perfect happiness?

Years ago, we took a family trip. Sitting on a lake shore with the kids and family looking up at Mount Shasta was pretty magical. Not a care in the world. So, family and outdoors seems to get me close to that place.

What is your greatest fear?

My greatest fear is probably seeing something tragic happen to one of my kids that is life-altering. I have a strong connection to my two daughters. We are all healthy, so COVID-19 doesn’t scare me, but it is certainly something to be mindful of. I have had friends that have lost their children and it seems to be the most heartbreaking thing to go through.

What is your greatest extravagance?

Golf. I love to play and travel to different areas and play different courses. Right now, that is a good place to be — on a golf course away from others. But seriously, I simply enjoy being out on the course and walking in peace. I think of it as my therapy session each time I play.

What do you most like about your job?

I like the diversity of our work and our clients. We have some really great clients and some really great team members. I get exposed to so many different people and business ventures and that variety is very inspiring for me. The human connection is so incredibly valuable for all human beings and that is what makes this time so challenging right now. The loss of connections is palpable. Sure, there are Zoom meetings but you simply cannot fully replace the gathering around a design problem and sorting it out. The fallout from this social isolation is going to be massive in my opinion.

What do you most dislike about your job?

The pace. It seems like these days, everything has to be done yesterday. Design is an iterative process and takes considerable thought, introspection, study, research, due diligence, and sketching. HGTV has perverted the design process and turned it into simple 3D visualization with a limited palette and not a lot of creativity. Design is a process of creating from nothing.  Not regurgitating the same thing over and over. What will the new restaurant look like after Covid. Or stadiums? Nobody knows. But certainly HGTV isn’t going to solve that issue.  Architects, designers, builders are the ones who can think this way.

If you had to go back to pick another profession, what would it be?

Ford v. Ferrari. When I was 13 years old, I saved some money and borrowed $500 from my dad and purchased a 1966 Ford Mustang. It didn’t run and was missing many parts, like half of the engine, the hood, and headlights. I spent three years “remodeling” this car, and on my16th birthday, I woke up, went to take my driver’s test, and then went home and dropped in the distributor, timed the engine, and drove MY mustang to school. I have always been a fan of the Shelby brand and the ‘60s Ford motorcars. When I watched the movie in the theaters during the holidays, I felt a visceral connection to the storyline and my 16th birthday. Each time I watch it, I am moved. We even named our new boxer puppy Shelby because of it. Too much?

What do you consider the most overrated virtue? 

Patience. I have always been ambitious and a goal setter. I don’t feel like patience is something that I connect with. I can be patient, but as a guiding principle, that isn’t one for me. Right now, with COVID-19, I find myself keeping myself busy to keep my mind off of it all. I can still relax and take time for myself, but I would rather do something active. With this pandemic, my friends and I have figured out how to make hand sanitizer through my friends organic skin care company, Makes3 Organics. We are doing a “buy one, give one” program and it feels good to assist in some way to make a difference. During these uncertain times, it helps to do things that help others.

Which talent would you most like to have?

Juggling. My 12 year old daughter recently took on a challenge with her class. In about two days, she learned how to juggle and was super excited. I have always tried to do it, but simply do not have the hand coordination to get it right. It is like a weird disconnect for my brain. 

If you could change one thing about yourself?

I would like to read more books. I read a lot of code books, business books, and technical manuals. I don’t do a lot of pleasure reading. I remember about 10 years ago, I picked up the Stieg Larsson series and pounded out three books in just under two months. I absolutely could not put down “The Devil in the White City.” I start books, but if it doesn’t grab me in the first few pages, I lose interest.

What do you consider your greatest achievement?

I have had many along the way and at various stages in my life. At this point, I would have to say that I (and mostly my wife) have raised two amazing daughters. They are smart, conscientious, empathic and compassionate. They are authentic and kind to others and they are fun to be around. My wife and I commented the other night how well they have adjusted during the pandemic. Every morning, they get up, have breakfast and then go into their rooms and Zoom with their class most of the rest of the day. From time to time, they emerge for a snack, lunch (which they make) and to do other things. It feels like they have adapted quickly to this new normal and are doing well.

What is your most treasured possession?

My 1963 Lincoln Continental. It is long, gold, and convertible. Great for wine tasting or just a cruise down the beach. It literally floats down the road.

Which living person do you most admire?

Bono. I have been a huge fan of the band, but he has inspired me to think globally, locally and think about what is right and just. Recently, U2 donated 10M pounds to COVID relief. I appreciate his generosity and willingness to pay it forward and help other people who need it.  Plus, his music is pretty cool.

What do you most value in your friends?

Trust and Accountability. I love that many of my friends have an entrepreneurial spirit and though they may not own companies, they have that mindset. They are trustworthy and people I can count on. Within the past five years, I have met a few new friends and we have instantly become really close. We get together at least once per week to hang out (eight feet apart) and kick a soccer ball around on a large field. Then we share a few beers in the outdoors and share about what we are dealing with. Just the four of us — it is so incredibly valuable time together.

Who is your favorite fictional character?

Keyser Soze. The first time I saw that movie, I was amazed at how the storyline unfolded and the way in which he spun the story based on the items in his sightline. Cool story and ending.

Who are your heroes in real life?

Well, I mentioned Bono above, but next in line would be my dad. We had a bit of a tough growing up period, but at some point in my twenties, we reconciled and when I married my wife, he was the best man at my wedding. He loves to come see us and spend time with our kids and he is very helpful. As we have grown closer, I have gotten to know more about his life and his thoughts about what is happening in the world. He is extremely introspective and thoughtful of others. Inspirational.

On what occasion do you lie?

When I am trying to explain something to my kids that they are not ready or mature enough to hear. They are at that age where they are being exposed to more adult situations. There are simply some things that I don’t yet want them to know. Not yet.

What is your most marked characteristic?

Ambition. This has been part of me forever. Even at a young age, it was there on the soccer field, in the classroom, and in my part-time jobs. I am always striving to raise the bar.  I play soccer to this day and am striving to get better. Maybe this will subside at some point, but not today.

What word or phase do you most overuse?

I used to say “dude” a lot, but now I think the phrase that I overuse is probably, “Put that away!”  Now that I am nearly all day working from home, I get to experience being home all day with my family. I don’t need perfection at home, but when the kids leave dishes on the counter and shoes on the floor, I feel it is my job to teach them to clean up after themselves. Harsh, maybe, but now that we are all sharing this space more and more, we all need to do more to keep things kept.

What is your motto?

“Plan your work and work your plan.” This is very helpful in business, but now has extended into home projects, kids’ homework, etc. A good plan is a recipe for success. Think it out, write it out, and then work it and adjust as needed along the way. Just like life. Nobody knows what life is going to throw at you. Right now, during Covid, I see that making a plan makes the difference.  Even if it is just for the day, plan out what you can do and don’t worry about what you cannot do.  Stay in the positive and create what you can get done and then get it done. Stay on course. Maintain integrity in your plan. Keep moving. It certainly helps take your mind off of the current state of the world and helps give purpose to whatever it is that you’re up to.


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