Mar 3, 2021

Episode 59

Jennifer Johanson


Born and raised in Texas, Jennifer Johanson started her career designing high-rise buildings in Dallas before moving to San Francisco on a whim without a job. She first landed at John Powers Associates before joining Eric Engstrom’s firm in 1989 (the firm changed its name to EDG Design in 2007 when Engstrom retired). Today, she runs the company alongside her husband, Patrick O’Hare. Together, they have spearheaded such projects as the Viceroy DC, Lulu’s Lounge, and the Andaz Scottsdale.


Stacy Shoemaker Rauen: So, hi. I’m here with Jennifer. Jennifer, thank you so much for joining me today. It’s so good to see you.

Jennifer Johanson: I’m super excited, Stacy. Great to see you too.

SSR: Awesome. So we always start at the beginning here. Where did you grow up?

JJ: Well, let’s see, I was born in Los Angeles and my dad was in medical school. Then he got drafted and we lived in North Carolina. Then we moved back to Minnesota. And then we moved to Texas. So I’ve been in all four corners. But I mostly grew up in Texas.

SSR: Where in Texas?

JJ: Both Dallas and San Antonio.

SSR: Oh, nice.

JJ: I consider San Antonio my hometown.

SSR: Okay. Got it. And did you always have a love for design or hospitality from an early age?

JJ: My mom is like Martha Stewart. She’s a big entertainer. My dad was a doctor. My mom entertained all the time, for the medical school. We moved so many times. My parents were big believers in real estate, so we moved a lot, and always to old houses, and always renovated them. And as we got older, my mom let us have more of a hand in helping with the renovation. I remember spending days at wallpaper places with her and picking out colors and things like that.

And then my mom just loved to do parties and entertain. We were involved in all that. I think I definitely grew up in a hospitality family.

SSR: Nice. And now do you like to entertain?

JJ: I love entertaining. I love cooking. I love having friends over. I’d say our house is the headquarters. We have a huge dress up… Well of course we haven’t been able to do it this last year, but we have a huge themed New Year’s party every year. We do all the holidays at our house. So we love entertaining.

SSR: Yeah.

JJ: That’s probably been the biggest problem with COVID for us.

SSR: Yeah. I know. You just want to be able to have friends at your home.

JJ: Yes. Absolutely.

SSR: Something that was so natural is now so foreign. Were there any travel memories or any other early design moments that stick out in your mind?

JJ: Totally. It’s funny, because, well, I’ve been in all 50 states now. I just started a project in Alaska, so very excited I checked that box recently. But we would do these huge driving trips every summer and spend three weeks on the road. And we’d map them out for days. This was before the internet. Criteria for us as kids for awesome stay was a swimming pool, and that’s it. Just like, hey if we could see the swimming pool from the parking lot, we were already in our bathing suits before my dad could even check in. So we didn’t have a very high bar, but my dad was the President of the American Medical Association one year and was doing an event in Boston, and our trip culminated in Boston and we stayed at the Copley Plaza Hotel.

And I remember when we drove up I was fussing with my dad like, “Where is the pool? I can’t see the pool.” And then he’s like, “Well, you’re embarrassing us, let’s just get in.” And we walked in and it was jus this gorgeous hotel with just all the antiques and just all these big staircases everywhere. My parents had to go to a big dress up party that night and we got room service in the room, and my sisters and I were hanging out in there, and running around in the hallway in our pajamas and stuff, and I just thought, hotels man, that is it. I’m done with motels, I’m into hotels now.

SSR: You upgraded.

JJ: I upgraded myself that week, and just I think that I just became fascinated and I started traveling more with parents then, and went to Europe with them and came out to San Francisco, which I how I ended up out here because I came with my parents for a business trip and got to stay always in some great places with them. We stayed down on Union Square at the St. Francis Hotel and I had my own room and I’m like, “I am going to live here, that’s what I’m going to do.” And I think it was just…I just loved that life.

SSR: Yeah. I mean, especially from a kid’s perspective it’s very glamorous, right? With room service, and the grand buildings and everything about it.

JJ: I still feel that way. I mean, even though I travel constantly and certainly before COVID, just almost tiresomely, but when I get checked into a beautiful hotel and I get to my room, and I’m like, “I love it.” No matter how many times I’ve been on the road.

SSR: Yeah, and so did you end up going to school for design or architecture?

JJ: I did, I have a degree in architecture from the University of Texas in Austin, and then I practiced architecture for a little bit, I did residential work for five or six years and then I met Eric and started doing hospitality, and then it just totally connected me with my childhood experience, everything I was into. You wanted to know how I ended up out here, but I worked for a while doing high rise design in Dallas, which is all that they were doing then in the mid 80s. I did not particularly love that at all, and then the 80s just kind of wiped out the Texas economy completely. I lost my job I think four times in one year.

I would get laid off and then I would have a job before I would even get home from another guy that had gotten laid off months earlier and started his own company, just no one had any work. And so a friend of mine called me one day and said, “Hey do you want to move somewhere?” I’m like, “Yeah, let’s go to San Francisco, I already know I want to live there.” So we came out here, she’d never even been. I got a job the next day with a guy on the waterfront that did residential work. It was the opposite, I had worked in a big 300 person firm and now I was the only employee working right on the waterfront in San Francisco, designing custom residences. It was a blast.

What was cool was that, that guys wife taught cooking classes out of her house. They had renovated, the kitchen was fabulous. And she’s this fabulous woman that had grown up in France, her father was English and her mother was from Mallorca, and she was just very elegant. She had a degree from The Cordon Bleu, and she just was this most amazing entertainer, I’m still close with her today. We spent the night there, and she asked me to go out in the garden and pick tomatoes, which I hated. And I went out in the garden and I said, “I’ve never even been in a food garden.” I grew up in Texas suburbs, I’ve never been in a food garden. And it just got me so connected with food, and just being at her house and learning really how to cook, kind of primed me and then when I started working with Eric and we were doing restaurants, I just said, “This is it for me, this is what I’m going to do.”

SSR: Was hooked. Okay going back, so did you guys just know where you were going to stay? Did you just jump in a car and drive to San Francisco?

JJ: Yeah, we just hopped in a car and drove, and we had no apartment and we had no jobs, we just got here. A friend of ours was living here and she hooked us to live with these guys that worked at a sailboard shop, these two Italians, Maoro and Roberto. And so we shared a bed, my friend and I shared a bed for three months. And it’s the kind of stuff kids just don’t do anymore I don’t think. I mean, I had 500 dollars that’s it. And my parents were not going to help me, and her parents were not going to help her.

My parents went to Japan on a business trip and I said, “Well I’m going to be living San Francisco when you get back,” and they didn’t really believe me. And then when they got back I went and met them at the airport and I said, “I live here, and I already have a job and it’s only been two weeks.” So I mean, it’s just the kind of stuff people can’t afford to do anymore, especially in San Francisco.

SSR: Exactly.

JJ: But yeah, it was low tech.

SSR: Yeah, and how did you find the job on the waterfront?

JJ: Oh it was super low tech. I was driving down The Embarcadero, which is the street on the waterfront, and the guy had a sign with his phone number on it. And I said, “I want to work on the waterfront, that’s amazing. Stop the car.” I got a thing, wrote it down, went back to my friend’s apartment and called him, and he’s just a one man guy. I finally said, “Look I don’t even have my resume or my portfolio, my mom’s going to send it to me.” I was like so unprofessional. I was 23 and I said, “Let me just at least come in and answer the phones for you.”

SSR: Yeah.

JJ: And I went in and met him, and he hired me and I worked for him for six years.

SSR: That’s amazing. And then how did you meet Eric? And we’re referencing Eric Engstrom who was the original founder of Eric Engstrom Design, which then became EDG and we can talk about that. But how did you meet Eric?

JJ: The guy that I worked for doing residential, he had a part-time accountant that would come in twice a month, and she was my age and we just became friends. The economy had started really slowing down now in California finally, after five years. And she told me one day at lunch, “You know he doesn’t have any money, he’s paying you out of his pocket, he’s not making any money.” And I said, “That’s probably not very good for him, what should I do?” And she said, “Well you could get a job with this other guy that I work for, Eric Engstrom.” Her sister worked with him. And she said, “I can set you up with an interview.”

And so I went and interviewed with Eric and I really loved him. He said, “Yeah why don’t you come and work for us part-time,” so I started working for him. I told the other guy, “I’m just going to go try it out part-time until you get more work, we’ll see how it goes.” As you can start to gather, I was not super ambitious. I was just sort of doing…I look at the 23, 24-year-olds that work for me and I can’t even believe it, how hardworking they are, and how dedicated and professional they are, and I was not. I mean I was hardworking, but hardworking for me was like staying until 6:30 or something, we just didn’t work as hard as these guys do at all. And I didn’t really wake up my competitive, sort of career planning, probably for another five years. I’d say probably until I was like 28.

SSR: Yeah. And so you started working with Eric, and what was that like? What kind of projects were you working on?

JJ: Eric was just so fun to work with, I mean it’s crazy, he’s like an old hippy. We’d sit there and he would be listening to Velvet Underground, and smoking his little cigarettes, which of course was not what he should’ve been doing. But he was drafting and drawing, just sitting kind of side by side with me. It felt very much like a studio environment again, which I loved. And we would just talk about his hippy days, and music and it was just so fun. We were doing restaurants, that’s all we did, we designed restaurants.

We worked in freestanding restaurants, restaurants in casinos, they really weren’t putting restaurants in hotels yet, that really hadn’t happened, those were kind of boring.

SSR: Yeah, which is crazy to think about.

JJ: I know, it’s changed so much. And most of what we did was freestanding restaurants, working with cool chefs and Eric was…I learned a lot from him. He’s kind of a shy person, but he was very promotional. He really did know how to work it, work the system. So, yeah I met you through Eric. All the work he did to legitimize the career of interior design with his work with IIDA. He was very much an activist, always.

SSR: He was one of my first interviews almost 20 years ago, which is crazy to say. And just his kindness, and his generosity. I had a Masters in Journalism and one previous job covering interior design, but I was learning and he’s like, “Let me help you learn. Here’s who you should talk to, and this is what you should know and this is what you should research. Let me connect you to so and so.” It was just Eric, it was amazing.

JJ: That’s exactly it, he was just that way. He was a great connector, he was very selfless in that way and we just became super close friends. And then after being there, maybe for three or four years, he’s like, “Let’s start talking about the next generation of Engstrom Design Group,” which was what it was called then and I’m like, “What are you talking about?” I mean, I’m leaving at 5:30, remember?

SSR: The day’s almost done.

JJ: Yeah, the day’s almost up, what are you talking about, more? So he made this other gal and I Vice Presidents of Engstrom Design Group, and brought in a management consultant to talk about next generation investment in the firm and all that, and we had three people. I was like, “I guess. We’ll do a retreat to Calistoga and Napa, and all this stuff and do all this planning.” And it happened, we did it and 20 years later he retired, and I took over and that was the plan, and it happened.

SSR: Yeah.

JJ: Yeah, it’s pretty amazing. I guess, I don’t know if it’s just because I’m not that ambitious or what, but I just kind of got there and was like, “Hey I’m just going to stay here.”

SSR: Or he saw something in you that maybe you didn’t see in yourself at that time.

JJ: That’s right, I think so.

SSR: And tell us about the firm now, how big are you guys? Talk to everyone listening about the cool new office space you created, and a testament to what you have created over the last five, 10 years.

JJ: Yeah, I mean I guess if you were talking to me a year plus ago, it would be different answers. So the last year has been different for all of us, so I don’t even know how big we are now, I keep losing track. We have our main office here in the hanger, and then we’ve got an office in Singapore and a little office in Dallas. I’d say overall we’re about 60 people right now. The hanger is amazing because it really gave us the ability to work they way we always wanted to work, which is collaboratively. And I think that’s something we inherited from Eric, we’re the royal we all the time. It’s definitely not me, it’s not I. I struggle with that, ever saying that, and I try to encourage my team to be very inclusive from that standpoint, it’s not about one point of view.

I think our clients like working with us because we do that, we kind of come into their circle and become part of their sort of trust ring. That’s just what we like to do, that’s how we like to be. And now we have all this space to be able to do it, so we have all these work rooms where people can kind of setup headquarters for a few weeks, and that would be the room that they would work out of. And their whole team would be there, they could leave all their stuff there, rather than having to have it hoarding around their desks. Huge volume, so we can pin up stuff. We did a presentation and we brought the entire pool deck furniture to the presentation, so the umbrellas, everything. People were just like, “Wow, we could build our model room in here.”

Yeah, so it’s just great to be…I mean we’re in Marin County, which is kind of suburban and people are always like, “Why are you in Marin, not in San Francisco?” And I’m like, “Well we’re paying 250 a foot in rent, starting with that versus 80.” So we have 18,000 square feet, we like having that kind of space, being connected to nature. We’re right on a bird preserve, right on the water, because they ripped out the runways and they flooded it back to the bay.

SSR: Oh, so cool.

JJ: It’s just really nice, you’ve got to come out and see it one of these days.

SSR: I know, I will. One of these days, when we start traveling again I will. So, how is the firm involved? I know you started off in restaurants, and now you guys do so much more than just restaurants, so how did you grow the firm? How did you decide to take it in a different direction, was it just one client after another? Was it a plan that you had? Or was it more kind of good happenstance?

JJ: I’d love to take credit for having a plan, but I think you’re starting to get the idea, I’m much more of an impetuous, impulsive person that follows the lead, that shows up and makes it happen. Despite the fact that we make our living selling strategy, I’m not that strategic in my personal career. We did a few smart things, and I think it’s just indicative of who we are and how we work, but when we did the restaurant design, we really got into doing them from a strong narrative approach.

So really coming up with a strong concept, a strong narrative for the food, for the design. And because we did that so completely, and we did it in so many arenas, freestanding, small and large, in campuses, casinos, then in hotels, we started understanding all the factors that contributed to the success of a food venue, and really started understanding food and beverage and how important it was that it worked. It’s kind of like a machine that has to work, but it has to feel like a really great customer experience. And we just went to school on that, and really learned it and we also learned the economics of it, and how to really make it work. So, I’d say that we’re like being in the restaurant business without actually having to own a restaurant, and that really helped.

And one of the pivotal projects that we did, we did a lot of work for Wolfgang Puck over the years. And one of the pivotal projects that we did was Spago in Maui at the Four Seasons. And it was one of the first times that Four Seasons had brought in an outside chef, and it was Wolfgang’s first restaurant in Hawaii, he already had a strong market obviously in Los Angeles. And the restaurant was just so successful, it was just hugely successful and I think it was the most profitable restaurant in For Seasons entire company for many years.

And it got the attention of Issy Sharp who called me to talk to me about it, like how did you do this? What do you do? And I’m like, “This is a chef, famous chef.” But they gave us the opportunity to do a renovation to their restaurant in Vancouver, which was one of the few properties that they owned. And we totally did the renovation, we strategically did a lot of moves, like closed a ballroom area, closed a fine dining restaurant, consolidated everything in one. Did all these big things and the restaurant was hugely popular, still there even though they no longer own that hotel. And the percent increase was 1000 percent profit increase the next year, which was amazing because it was the combination of labor cost reduction as well as sales increase, etc.

And then that launched us doing probably 40 something restaurants for Four Seasons over the next 10 years, and all over the world. So in 2008 and nine when the economy was in the tank, we were doing tons of projects internationally and that led to us opening up our Singapore office. So I think one thing does lead to another, I think because we started working in hotels and doing so many restaurants in hotels, that led to us eventually doing hotels because our clients were like, “Well we love working with you guys, you guys are great. You’re strategic, can you just do the whole public area?”

And finally Andaz was one of the first hotels where we were doing that for a client and he said, “Can you just do the whole hotel?” I’m like, “Sure, I mean this would be a great hotel for us to try.” And now I’d say we do 75 percent of our work is all hotels. And then because of that and because we did this strong narrative approach, we said, “We should do branding, we should do our own branding and strategy because we already do.” And we didn’t realize that we were supposed to call it branding. And so then we brought on branding people, and fattened out our team, and we brought on a whole graphics department and all that, so that we could do that as well. And so yeah, definitely one thing kind of led to another, it was not a big giant master scheme.

SSR: Right. Well going back to what you did with Four Seasons, and just remembering all those that you did, I mean you helped them redefine fine dining, or luxury dining for their brand which was exciting it think at the time. I mean you all were on the forefront of, what does it mean to be a hotel restaurant? And I think you kind of threw out the rule book a bit.

JJ: Absolutely. And they hired me to come and talk to their food and beverage people and their chefs many times, and run trainings about… I came up with a training called, think like a restaurateur, not a hotelier because we started realizing, hoteliers are awesome especially at that super luxury level, they’re just super accommodating. Anything you want, we will make it happen for you. And yet, restaurateur are entertaining. It’s like, this is our point of view, like it or not. And Wolfgang and I even did one together where he talked about, why does he play 70s rock super loud at cut, which most people consider to be an upscale experience, and yet they’ve got guys in t-shirts and loud rock music going.

He’s like, “Because I like it.” And if you don’t like it, go somewhere else. Hotels obviously don’t want to do that, but then when they carry that philosophy into the restaurant, then the restaurant really has no personality, they’re just a mirror to whatever the customer wants. And so we really had to train them, you have to hire different people, you have to do everything differently in the restaurant. It has to have a point of view or it’s nothing.

SSR: I love that. I mean I think it’s amazing that Andaz, you were talking about the Andaz Scottsdale right? For the first hotel rooms?

JJ: Yeah.

SSR: That they allowed you to do, or gave you the opportunity to do the guest rooms, because I feel like sometimes it’s hard to make that transition. I mean, yes F&B in public spaces makes sense, but to switch over. And that was such a special property, can you talk a little bit about that property in Scottsdale?

JJ: Yeah, it was a really good place for us to learn. A, the client was extremely hands on, and probably maybe too hands on for the folks at Hyatt, but he’s very hands on and we really created a friendship, and a liaison where I was learning and he didn’t mind teaching me as we went. And that was great, and it was almost I’d say a little bit like the Eric relationship. He trusted me completely and he really respected my point of view, and I just was not afraid to say, “I really don’t know the answer to that, I’ve never done this. Hope that doesn’t freak you out.” He’s like, “No I know how to do this 100 times over, but what I don’t know how to do is what you do. So I will tell you when you’re doing something wrong, and then you just do what you do.”

And it was a safe space to be able to experiment. I think the nature of that hotel, it’s not a tour, it was bungalow style, independent spaces that certainly we didn’t have to get into corridors and all the things that we would learn later to pave the way on other projects. But yeah, it was fantastic, it’s still one of my favorites. We’re working with right now on kind of rebranding and bringing a whole new kind of voice post-pandemic to the property. And it’s just sort of a property that’s kind of like in the family.

SSR: Yeah, amazing. Have there been any other projects that you would say you learned a lot from, or were challenging in a good way?

JJ: I mean every project’s like that. You guys sent me these questions, and it kept me up all night going, what is my big problem project? I don’t have one. It’s just because I just don’t see things, even if they’re problematic, I don’t view them that way, so it’s hard for me to categorize things that way because everything to me is a learning opportunity. The biggest problems we ever have are more related to personality conflicts, or certainly we learned the hard way about the pace. I mean we kind of raised ourselves on restaurants, which happen so fast, and the pace is just super, super quick and we’re all adapted to that.

And actually I think it goes along with my personality, I like moving that fast, don’t like sitting in one place for very long, I like traveling, I like doing all that kind of thing. It suits me, so projects that take like six years to realize, are very hard for us to do. We just finished the Montage in Healdsburg and it’s going to be fantastic, I can’t wait to share it with you. That’s taken six years or maybe more, and that’s hard for us just because our whole culture is more about doing things quickly, and so to try to design something that’s not going to be open for six years and kind of thing through all the steps to take, was a big learning curve for us.

So that was I think the second whole hotel that we started, and we’ve done tons of renovations now in between, that have come and gone way before that opened. So in the course of that project, between starting it and ending it, we’ve learned a lot about hospitality and it hasn’t always been easy on that job.

SSR: Well, it looks beautiful from the photos, I mean just the openness, and the natural material and that site, it looks beautiful.

JJ: It’s an amazing site, it’s a great team, the developers were really visionary on how to do that project. And when we interviewed for that project I said, “You know, we don’t have the most hotel experience, I mean we’re finishing up the Andaz, that’s our first and only hotel that we’ve done.” And he said, “That’s a good thing, we’re looking for fresh ideas.” I’m like, “Okay, well we got plenty of those.”

SSR: Yeah, see which one sticks. Oh I love it. And then is there one project then that you consider…I mean, would the Andaz be kind of your big break of trying a full hotel? Or was there a restaurant along the way? Besides Wolfgang, I guess.

JJ: I’d say the pivotal projects for me would be that Spago in Maui, because that led to so many relationships that just started a domino effect. And then the Adaz, definitely pivotal for the same reason, and more specifically with hotels. And in both cases, great client relationships that are still friends today and really helped shape me as a professional in ways that were not so project specific, but just in life, learning of this business, learning how to be a professional in this world. Things like that.

SSR: What do you think makes for a successful collaboration? Is that communication? Is that mutual respect? Is that knowing each other’s’ lanes? Is that all of the above?

JJ: Pretty much all of the above, I think you nailed them. The first thing I would say for sure is having mutual respect. I think this is one thing I try to teach my team, is that we have to honor the business goals, because these are business investments, it’s very different than when you’re doing someone’s custom home. And quite honestly, I struggled with that. So when you’re doing someone’s custom home and some people have a very tight budget, some people have none, but in the end all the decisions are personal, and there’s no reason for anything in the sense that it’s not financial. It’s just like, I like that, I don’t like that, I love this. And then I’m like, I have a hard time tagging in with that.

When I started doing hospitality I’m like, I could get behind this, this is like purposeful design that’s about a reason and a story, and I can relate to that. I have to say, I’m surprised honestly in this industry how few designers actually care about the clients budgets and business needs. I think it’s a little bit of a black eye for us, because so many times we encounter people that either don’t want to share our budgets because they don’t think we’re going to respect them. And I’m like, “Look you have to be honest with me, share that stuff with me because I can never…I will definitely exceed the budget if you don’t give to me.”

SSR: Right, if there’s no budget…

JJ: If there’s no budget, it’s going up. So if you want us to hit it, let me have it. But a lot of people have been burned, I just tell my people, we’re not going to be those people. I mean we’re going to respect the budget and do everything we can. And of course the first thing we’re going to do is make sure it’s real and possible, and I’ll be the first to tell somebody like, “This number is way too low, you’re never going to be able to do what you want to do for this money. And I’m not telling you that because I want you to spend more, I’m telling you that because you told me what you want in the end. And if you want that, you’re not going to get that with this.” And I think people trust you when you’re honest, and then they start letting you advise them more responsibly.

SSR: Right. And you said that’s one of the things you try to teach your team, I mean I think that’s so important because there’s so many creatives that don’t understand the full business aspect of the hotel business. Besides that, what else are you trying to pass on to your team? Or, pass on some of the wisdom that you’ve learned along the way.

JJ: Yeah definitely. Working, we developed a system we call the five easy pieces, where we take the budget and break it down. So we start with our fee, because that’s already been established. And then, FF&E is easier sort of to quantify. My team starts doing budgets like the first week that we start a project, it’s like, before we even get carried away, let’s just break this down so we know where we’re heading. And then we’ll have the GC cost, and then usually we have some kind of equipment cost, and then we also create a category for owner. Because some many times the owners have to come to us late in the game and they’re like, “Well we need money for OS&E.” I’m like, “Well, I just assumed you had already taken your part of the budget, we’ve spent all the rest of this money.”

So I’m always like, you’ve got a seat at the budget table, that’s your part. You can’t go past that unless we all agree that you have to, we’re in this together and everybody kind of respects that. My team likes it because it’s broken down, and now they can start compartmentalizing it. I mean if someone says, 25 million, they think, “Wow that’s a lot of money, I can do anything.” It’s like, no once you start breaking down that 25 million, your part is not that big.

SSR: Yeah, goes pretty fast.

JJ: Goes pretty fast. So I think that’s all good, and then just getting context. We’re doing a small little hotel for a really small group of investors, and everybody’s like, that’s different when its personal money and it’s someone’s personal money, versus remodeling a big Marriott when no one really cares as much personally about it, it’s just an investment. So you have to understand the context, and try to learn what’s the driving force behind here? People get frustrated, “Why can’t they care?” I’m like, “They care about a lot of things, but they’ve paid us to care about that,” so that’s your role.

SSR: It must be fun to work for some of the smaller properties run by individuals, because it kind of brings you back to what hospitality’s all about.

JJ: My favorite, totally. That Headlands project in Oregon that we did a few years back. I mean still I’m super good friends with them, we’re designing a brewery for them now, but so fun. I met them at Hospitality Design, they saw me speak and then they talked to me and said, “Oh, we need you, we’re just doing this 33 room hotel in Oregon, it’s probably way too small for you.” But I’m like, “I don’t know, show me the pictures.” We look and I’m like, “Hey we’re doing that because I want to go there.” And now it’s just been kind of life changing, learned so much about hospitality from them, just a cute little couple that’s just making it work. And I just identify with them, I’ve learned more probably on that project than I have on many other projects that I’ve done because of that personal sharing of…

And these guys like, they’re my heroes. I mean they have put themselves on the line and won big, and then lost everything. They built their dream home and then they lost it in ’09, that doesn’t stop them. They just get back up and go again. And we first started working with them I asked them, I said, “So what does this look like? If this project is successful, what does that look like for you?” And the guy looked at me and he like shook his head, and then he got tears in his eyes. And he says, “It looks like I can retire.” I’m like, awesome no pressure at all on that.

SSR: Just yeah, just a little hotel that you’re designing.

JJ: Just okay, we just got to get it so this guy can retire. And then Headlands is so successful, so much more successful than they ever thought. Now they’re doing another brew pub, they’re building another hotel, they’re doing this. I’m like, “You guys really are not good at retirement, that’s all I can say.”

SSR: Yeah, this was supposed to be for you to retire and you’re not doing that.

JJ: Exactly and he was like, “Yeah it turns out we’re not good at that.” And I have to stop them sometimes I’m like, “Don’t spend that money, that’s over your budget.” They fall in love with ideas and they’re like, “Don’t you think we should…” And I’m like, “No, no. What are you thinking?” And it’s been fun because I guess it’s probably the closest that I could come to owning something, being that close, friendly with folks, that I can really understand the challenges that they’ve been through.

SSR: That’s amazing. Speaking of relationships, you work and co-lead the firm with your husband Patrick. How did that all come about? How did you two meet? Tell us the story.

JJ: Well, I mean he was working at EDG, and both of us had been married before and were divorced, and we got along great, there was no romance or anything. And then it was a trip to New York I think for a Property Boutique or something like that. Eric was with us, the three of us had so much fun together always, and then just all of a sudden the light switched on for both of us on the same day. I think like two days later we were like together forever. It just kind of happened like that.

If you’ve ever been married before, I’m super good friends with my ex-husband and we have a 22-year-old kid together, so it’s not an acrimonious thing, but it just didn’t work. And I could never be where I am right now in my career without making this switch. To do this much, and raise a kid, and juggle, and run a company and deal with all the ups and downs in that, you got to have a partner that’s got your back and gets what you’re trying to do, and gets what you’re capable of maybe even before you know. I mean I can’t say how many times Patrick’s been like, “What are you talking about? You’ve done that 50 times, just go do it again.” And just when you have doubts, you need someone to talk you off the ledge, or remind you of what you’re capable of and he does that.

We’re together, literally I can say now after COVID, we’re together nonstop and people can’t believe it. They’re like, “You sit right next to each other at work, you’re together all the time and yet you still go to lunch together every day. I mean, we enjoy each other’s’ company.

SSR: That’s amazing. And how does it work in the office, how do you separate responsibilities? Because I’m sure that’s part of it.

JJ: Yeah. Patrick is good at doing all the boring stuff, he really is.

SSR: That’s amazing.

JJ: He’s got a journalism undergrad, and so he writes all the proposals. By nature, he’s really cautious, and he’s more like I don’t know, he’s like… What do you call it when someone always plays devil’s advocate? Because I’m always like, “Yes, let’s do it, let’s go,” impulse, impulse. And he’s like, “Well, or…” And I’m like, “Or what? No, let’s go.” And so he’s much better at looking at contracts and proposals, and developing business. I’m more leading the design charge, so I’m working with the teams… He does a lot of strategic planning, and master planning and things like that with clients also, we both share those responsibilities. But then when it comes to leading the design teams, and editing and guiding them, that falls to me.

SSR: Got it, well it seems like separation of church and state a little bit, so that probably makes it a little bit easier.

JJ: It’s ideal, it’s fantastic, yeah.

SSR: So when you’re designing a project, what do you think is your favorite part of it? Or what part of the process gets you still the most excited?

JJ: For sure, without a doubt, without even thinking twice about it, it’s the strategy. It’s the setting up the structure of the project, and I think that’s why I really was interested in adding the branding dimension too, because I was like, “I want to have fun like that too.” And I think that getting the narrative right, getting the reasons to be lined up, because it helps the design have a structure. Even when I meet with my design teams I’m like, “Let’s get back to the purpose, let’s get back to the DNA. What are we trying to do here?” And it helps solve all the little decisions that you have to make. About how to make it great is if it has a story, if it’s got a strong narrative.

People are always asking, “What would you be if you weren’t an architect?” I’m always like, who knows what I would be. Maybe a restaurant tourer, or developer or something, but I could also see myself being a lawyer because I like building a case, and I like kind of proving it. I’m not the one that goes and innovates all the great design that comes out of our studio, I lead people to those decisions and then I fan the flame when they get going, and that’s my job. So when I hire people I’m like, if you’re thinking I’m going to do all the design and you’re just going to work for me, that’s not how it’s going to work. I’m hiring you because you’re talented and you’re going to do design, but it’s going to purposeful. I’m going to get you on the right road and then I’m going to give you feedback so that we win, and the project’s great and the clients love it. That’s my job, editing, guiding.

SSR: Yep, I love that.

JJ: I certainly admire designers that are just fantastic, but my personal heroes are more people like Margaret McMann or people like that, that do the same thing, that run great firms, and lead great teams, and help other people be great. This is what I’m always looking for advice on, how to help other people be great.

SSR: How has the definition of leadership changed over the past year for you?

JJ: Wow, I mean how many Zoom calls can you have in one day is the question. How to try to elevate the mood when you’re just looking at your face on screen all day long, how can you be innovative? A lot of things have gotten better honestly, like really having face to face communication with your team, does actually make you closer. And so many times we realized we’ve all been in the same room, but we weren’t actually looking at each other.

SSR: Yeah.

JJ: And sometimes we also weren’t looking at the same piece of paper, and so really just looking on screen you’re really able to microdisect what you’re really looking at. So, I think there’s some things we’ve learned that we’ll probably keep doing. But the thing I miss the most is just the energy of being connected, and that is hard to replicate. I have a fantastic assistant who’s been with me for I think almost 20 years, and she does these weekly meetings that we have and really tries to be creative, and make them fun. And I said, she does the best job anyone could possibly do about that, but it’s hard. It’s hard to stay connected when you hang up and now you’re in your own space, and you’re not with anybody anymore.

We’re a very, very, very collegial firm, we have a fun kind of family… We have a huge kitchen in our office, and we make meals together and stuff like that. So it’s been hard to be so, so separate.

SSR: Yeah, no for sure. And how are you staying inspired through all of this? I mean I know the ups and downs, and openings and closings, I couldn’t even imagine running a business with 60 plus people and worrying about day to day. How are you staying inspired? How are you staying head above water even, with everything going on?

JJ: We promised to have, Patrick and I mean it helps that we’re a team, just because that dynamic has just stayed super strong and we’re here together. We live in a beautiful place, we can go hiking, five minute walk and I’m hiking up in the hills from our house, so that’s great. I love being in nature and hiking, it gives me perspective to be able to be like, whatever it is, we’ll get back on the ground and it’ll all be fine.

But it’s hard not traveling, because traveling was always one of my biggest inspirations. So we’re reading, watching a lot of shows about travel and doing things like that. And cooking a ton, I mean challenging ourselves to get out of the box and make things that we don’t normally make. I mean Patrick, he’s just crazy on this cooking thing.

SSR: He’s a man of many talents I feel.

JJ: He really is. He started making sourdough bread, which a lot of people did, but I have no interest in that so that’s way too many steps for me. I like winging it.

SSR: Well, we’re learning.

JJ: I can still wing it, I can look in the fridge and be like, “I know what I’m doing.” He’s like, “How can you possibly? What do you see?” And then he likes to make a recipe, so he’s like an executer. I’ll make Gordon Ramsey’s Beef Wellington and do it perfectly, whereas I will mess that up because I try to improvise, so we’re opposites. But it’s been fun cooking more experimentally.

SSR: Yeah, I love it.

JJ: Even during COVID time, this past year 2020 we had 11 projects open.

SSR: That’s crazy.

JJ: I know, it’s crazy.

SSR: All hotels? Or a mix of hotels and restaurants?

JJ: Mix of hotels, and restaurants and kind of other things. I mean we designed two Viceroys renovations that opened, a renovation to a hotel in Virginia, we did a Glamping brand for KOA. It opened…

SSR: What’s that?

JJ: It’s called Terramor, and just so many things. And so it was hard to try to figure out how to get these things open when you couldn’t do site visits, so Zoom site walks became really popular. But we did sneak to a bunch of those sites during the different breaks during COVID and saw those, it was a busy year in that regard. And then of course they open and there’s no one who can come.

SSR: Right. I feel like there’s always that layer you need to do once it opens, right? So maybe letting it live for a couple months empty, is not a terrible thing because then you can see it.

JJ: It’s true. And it’s kind all starting to happen now, especially in California here because we’ve really been so locked down, nothing really has been able to open to the public. So everything’s kind of starting now to get out of the deep freeze, so it’ll be a busy spring from that standpoint.

SSR: Yeah the light at the end of the tunnel hopefully. Okay, so you’re doing Glamping, lots of different hotels, restaurants. In terms of where the hospitality industry’s headed, what are you paying attention to? I mean everyone keeps asking like, “What’s going to change because of COVID?” And I don’t know if it’s because of COVID or the change in world, but I do think some things will stick and some things will go back to normal. But I don’t know what you’re seeing, what you’re thinking.

JJ: I mean, I guess I’m just an optimistic person and I’m also a big believer in the power and the desire for everybody to be social. I think eventually things will go back to just where they were. I think people just love restaurants, they love socializing, they love design, they love being in spaces. I just think, we saw a little bit of this .com thing, here in the Bay Area, when everyone was like, “No one’s ever going to work in an office again,” and then five years later we go through the period of the most extravagant offices ever built for tech companies. So I think it’s just a phase, I think that the thing that will change is that people now realize it’s a little less crucial to be everywhere in person.

So I think we’re certainly going to be entertaining working from home, not always, but it’s not going to be bizarre for someone to choose to work from home semi-regularly. I think conferences are going to have to change. I think there’s going to be a certain component of people that isn’t going to want to travel in the short-term. And also, a lot of people kind of got like off the addiction of the crazy travel schedules that a lot of us had, and the advantages to not have to travel like that. And so to be able to say, “I can’t be there because I literally can’t”, and now saying, “I’m choosing not to be there, I’m going to do a video or a Zoom instead.” People kind of can’t say, “What?” Now they’re going to have to say, “Yeah I mean, that’s reasonable. That’s okay.” And it will still work.

So it will be interesting to see how that plays out. I think definitely outdoor environments, I don’t think you’ll ever go back to having a meeting in a room with no windows again, if you can avoid it. So I think hotels are really going to have to reinvent those dungeon-y spaces that nobody is really ever going to want to be in. I think it’s going to be really challenging for urban hotels because of that, so I think roof tops are going to be more important and really getting creative that way. We’re working on several hybrid projects that are combination, residential and hotel, whether they’re short-term stay, or peer hospitality hotel, combined in a residential environment. I think that’s going to be big actually, especially in these urban places because there’ll be a lot of hotels that don’t ever need to go back to 400 room hotels. So, there’s going to be some hybrids that get born out of this situation.

SSR: 100 percent, especially as people learn to live, and travel and work differently. I mean I think it makes complete sense. And I think too, a lot of this was happening. You saw restaurants become one with lobbies, and you saw them bleed outside. I think a lot of this was happening before, this has just accelerated a lot of that.

JJ: I think that this just hit the gas,and is no longer optional.

SSR: Right, yep.

JJ: I’m hoping that also what becomes no longer optional, is more focus on sustainability because the hospitality industry has really been pretty bad at accepting sustainability as a mandate. It’s really been more like, if we can afford it, we’ll do that. And then of course they can’t. So I hope that they can start adopting more focus on that. Some of the biophilic aspects of what people prefer in regard to more of an outdoor space, or more fresh air, things like that, can start influencing design and bringing sustainability, and maybe more from the factor of preference, rather than kind of an eco-mandate. But however it happens, it would be great if it could happen.

SSR: Exactly, 100 percent agree. I think too just wellness in general, which goes hand in hand with sustainability. Just looking at how the pandemic has brought to life the importance of the building you’re in, and what’s around you and how much that affects your health.

JJ: Totally, I mean I can’t tell you how many people we’ve talked to that are just making big life changes because of the introspection that this situation has brought to them. I think obviously a lot of people are suffering pretty greatly during this, and those of us fortunate enough to be suffering, are still impacted. And being able to look at, what’s the positive impact of the change that I’ve been experiencing? Is something that we focus on a lot, I’d say at least every couple days on our nightly dog walks. It’s like, okay what are we going to make positive out of this experience? What do we want to retain?

Because partly, sometimes you start thinking, oh now everything’s going to start picking back up, and then I don’t want to let go of some of these things that have happened. What are those things we want to keep?

SSR: Yeah, I was saying that to my husband, like I’m almost a little sad, I mean obviously I’m not sad that we’re getting out of a pandemic, but I’m almost sad of some of these moments that won’t exist anymore, or X, Y and Z because you’ve gotten so accustomed to them. There are silver linings through all craziness, all downtrends. So exactly, what are you holding on to?

JJ: Exactly. I think it’s going to be interesting to see what collectively…

SSR: Yeah, we hold on to.

JJ: Come back with, yeah.

SSR: Oh I love this, I don’t want to end. But we always end with one question, and that’s the title of our podcast. So Jennifer, what has been your greatest lesson learned?

JJ: My greatest lesson learned, I just think for me it’s just like living kind of boldly. Really just getting out there, and putting yourself out there and being open. Open to what people say, open to what influences you hear, listening and just getting yourself out there. I think I did learn that from Eric and I’ve tried to follow that, and promote my team to do that, and just get out there and live boldly.

SSR: Yep, I love it. Well thank you for spending this time with us, it was so good to see you in person and hear your story. And we’re excited to honor you on November 12th for Platinum Circle.

JJ: I am so excited, I am super honored and really looking forward to it.

SSR: Well we can’t wait, and you’re so deserving. But thank you for the time and we’ll be in touch soon.

JJ: Sounds good, have a great weekend.

SSR: Okay, thanks. You too.

JJ: Bye.

SSR: Bye.