Mar 27, 2024

Episode 127

Studio Collective


Partners Adam Goldstein, Leslie Kale, and Christian Schulz founded their Venice, California-based firm, Studio Collective, during the Great Recession. Though they started out to make ends meet, they soon found success with cocktail lounge the Spare Room at the Hollywood Roosevelt before diving into hotels with the Landsby in Sylvan, California.

Today, the trio leads a 20-person team, where they’ve expanded their portfolio with notable projects like Hotel Figueroa in downtown Los Angeles, Proper Hotels’ spinoff brand Hotel June on LA’s Westside, and recently, Ferraro’s Bar & Restaurant at the Four Seasons Resort Maui at Wailea. With more than two decades of experience, Studio Collective has learned how to let the client and project dictate where things are headed. “You have to trust that it will still be great,” says Schulz.


Stacy Shoemaker Rauen: Hi, I am here with Leslie Kale, Adam Goldstein, and Christian Schulz, the group that makes up Studio Collective. Thanks so much for joining me today. How are you guys?

Leslie Kale: Fantastic.

Adam Goldstein: Good. We’re good.

SSR: Good, good, good. All right. It’s been a while since we’ve done three people, but I’m excited to dive into this. Okay. Let’s break this up and start with your career path to where you got today. I’m going to start with Leslie, because I know it’s less linear than others. Leslie, talk a little bit about what you were like as a kid, and how you got drawn into the design world and where you are today.

LK: Okay. I was absolutely astonished when I was little, about clothes, super early. I think they sent me home from school in second grade because I had a [inaudible 00:01:09] ball going on. My parents were antique dealers, so we spent a lot of time going around the country in a U-Haul and going in and looking at the trunks and going through the trunks and running around while they were busy was probably the best way to grow up I can think of. So I was always into antiques and clothes, and when I moved out to California, I started working as a wardrobe stylist for editorial and film and that kind of thing.

After I moved out to LA I started working as a wardrobe stylist for a lot of publications and a lot of celebrity work, and that kind of segued into commercials videos where I got bored with wardrobe styling. So I started doing set design. Did that for about maybe five or six years before starting… I went into a restaurant business with my friend Doug Mitchell, and helped him start a project called Link and stayed on with him for a few years. And that was just a super easy transition from set design. It was like everything that I had done for music videos and commercials, it just was a faster version of interior design. So it was a pretty easy transition except where I had all the nuts and bolts I’m doing things even faster with less money, build it, tear it down. So I felt very comfortable in the shoes that we have to wear now. And that’s where I met Christian, but we’ll get to that later.

SSR: Was there one set or commercial or experience that you had that really kind of sticks out as one of your favorites?

LK: I mean, our music videos were fantastic back then. I mean, they spent real money on a million dollars, or you had to spend a million dollars in four days and work with incredible artists and elaborate sets and all that stuff. So I mean, worked a few times with Madonna, did a really cool set for Lenny Kravitz. There’s a big list, but just really cool people, good music and soundcheck is amazing.

SSR: Love it. Love it. All right. So before we get to how you all met, Adam, you’re up. What were you like as a kid and how did you end up falling into the design world?

AG: Yeah, I think it was more of a pretty traditional suburban American upbringing. I don’t think I was any more or less creative artistic than your average kid, but I did always like playing with Legos growing up, and I wrote my college essay on Legos, and that sort of got me into architecture school, and I always thought I would have a traditional architecture career trajectory. And that was the reason I came out to Los Angeles for grad school, for architecture. I went to SCI-Arc for architecture, which was where Christian and I first met. But then while I was in architecture school, I needed a job to help pay for grad school. And a friend of mine is like, “Oh, I work for this interior designer. They need some extra CAD help. Do you want to come work?” I’m like, “Yeah, I’ll do anything.” And that designer happened to be Kelly Wearstler, and this was in 1998, so her office was five people.

It was much smaller. She had just done one hotel at that point. But that obviously totally changed my sort of career trajectory. And as soon as I started working with her, just appreciated the level of detail that she was able to take projects to whereas architecture was much more sort of sculptural and sort of viewed from the outside, seeing it from the inside and just getting into all the details, everything from linens and glassware and plateware and everything was so specific that just really sort of, I don’t know, struck a chord with me. So yeah, that was my beginning.

tommie austin hotel public space texas

The tommie Austin lobby; photo by Chase Daniels

SSR: Yeah. Did it fall in love with it?

AG: Yeah, kind of instantly. And I just feel like, I don’t know, my intro to interiors, it was like the Forest Gump of sort of interior design. I was just at the right place at the right time. I wasn’t looking to get into that. I wasn’t looking to obviously find a job with Kelly or something like that. And then eventually I left Kelly’s and I was freelancing and trying to do my own projects, and then I answered a Craigslist ad, and that was for Commune when they were first starting out and they had no employees. And so I started working with them and it was just very not intentional, not planned, not strategic at all, which was also kind of how Christian, Leslie and I started as well. So I just feel like I was the benefactor of being at the right place at the right time on more than one occasion.

SSR: Let me just say you answered a Craigslist ad because that-

AG: I’m dating myself a little bit, I guess. No, Craigslist is probably not even existence anymore,

SSR: It is by the way. You can get rid of stuff on Craigslist, though. It does amazing.

AG: I feel like Facebook Marketplace took that over. But yeah, that’s how I got half my jobs. It was just responding to random Craigslist ads. And that one also sort of changed my trajectory a little bit, working with Commune and them. And again, it just sort spearhead me forward in terms of working hospitality, working on hotels. And-

Christian Schulz: Is that how you got your work with Brett Dunning too?

AG: Probably. I don’t know how else I would’ve met him. So yeah, it must’ve been something like that. It was way before any other online job posting ad. So there definitely some shady ones in there I’m sure we’re mixed in, but yeah, I found a couple of gems in there.

SSR: Oh, I love it. All right, Christian, you’re up. How did you get into Lovely World?

CS: Yeah, well, as you know, I grew up a stone’s throwaway from where you’re sitting right now on the Jersey Shore. And similar to Adam, very kind of traditional suburban neighborhood, an hour outside of New York City, used to take school trips to New York and be like, “I don’t ever want to go to that place.” I was kind of very anti New York in the beginning, and then I grew up in the eighties in the surf skate culture, and that was everything I wanted to do. I just didn’t want to do anything but surf and skate. That was my passion. And at that point in time, especially in that area, there was no… We didn’t have… It’s not Venice or Santa Monica, where in every other neighborhood there’s a beautiful skate park and it’s all funded by the city. So it was a very DIY situation before we even knew what the words DIY meant.

And so we were stealing construction site wood to build ramps in the woods. We had to clear the woods and we would build these things. And I learned how to work with power tools. And at right around the same time, I was really getting into kind of skateboarding. I had a friend of mine who let me an old crappy surfboard, and it was so bad. And luckily for me, where I went to school in Ocean Port, they had a really good industrial arts program even in middle school. And that really made an impact on me. I still remember his name, Mr. Steen, my sixth, seventh, and eighth grade woodworking teacher. And he let us kind of do anything. I mean, he gave us cool little projects, and I made all kinds of stuff selfishly for me and my family, but that’s really where I got interested in design.

And then in high school, I by chance took a drafting class, and Mr. Goddard was one of my teachers there. And it was just really interesting. I loved making things that was really the end result of all those industrial arts programs. So I was a decent student, but I wasn’t really passionate about math or history or any of that stuff. And once I was able to start working with my hands, that was really what propelled me. And so I did a few internships over the summer for engineering firm one summer and then for an architecture firm. And it was night and day. I always joke around and tell people I went and worked one summer for an engineering firm, and all I wanted to do was do the drafting. It was kind of before the computer, so I’m dating myself too. And then I went the following summer and worked for an architecture firm in Red Bank, and they had a softball team. They played the radio at the office. I would go to the site and do measurements. So then I was like, that’s really kind of where I want to go.

And then I went to… Like Adam, I had a traditional kind of five year bachelor’s of architecture on the East Coast. Did that for a few years and thought I was going to go… At that point, I was thinking I’d really like to work for Raphael Minoli or Smith-Miller + Hawkinson was another architecture firm that I was really interested in. I was obsessed with Steven Hall, and unlike, I guess Adam’s more haphazard, I was very strategic. I was like, “I need to go here to do this.” I was always very planned and just by chance, one of my architecture professors when I was in NJIT, he was living in New York and he took us to the Royalton Hotel. And when it had just opened, it was kind of like… We broke up into groups and we toured different things. And part of the tour was bars and restaurants. And I walked to the Royalton lobby and I was like, “Ah!” I was like, “That’s what I want to do.” At the time, it was like 1987 or 1988 and everything from the handrails that were custom made to the custom carpeting to the beautiful doors, I mean, like Adam was saying the interior was just so thoughtful, and that really made an impact on me, and that’s kind of what piqued my interest to get into interior design.

SSR: You went to SCI-Arc as well. What brought you out? And then you worked for Gary out in LA, right?

CS: Yeah, I think like Adam, very similar thing. We worked through college. I had a little break in between undergrad and grad. I went and did what I didn’t want to do, and I moved up into New York City and I worked. It was like, again, I had a very strategic plan. I knew I wasn’t going to stay in New York City because I was living in a double life. I had my New York friends and I had my beach friends, and I was like a ping pong ball going back on the weekends from Hoboken and then from Union Square back down to where you live or where I used to live. And so then I decided, all right, I need to go… I originally had wanted to go to SCI-Arc, but my parents, I was the oldest, were like “No, we’re not flying you across the country every break, every holiday.”

So I kind of waited. I worked for a few years and I knew I needed to go work for a reputable design firm in New York in order, in my mind, to get into SCI-Arc in their graduate program. So I went to work for one of my professors, Bob Henry, who is one of my mentors. And then about three or four years later, I applied and went to Sci Arc and that was incredible. That’s where I met Adam. And then it was a pretty small stint. It was 18 months, like three semesters. And then after that, one of my professors said, “You should go work there.” And I was like, “I’ll never get a job there. No way.” I was a decent student, but I didn’t think I had a shot. And for some reason it worked out. And I had a two year stint at Frank’s. And that was also equally as incredible as I’m sure Adam’s background or Leslie working with Madonna. It was very impactful people at a point in your life where you’re absorbing things like a sponge.

The F&B space in the tommie Austin; photo by Chase Daniels

SSR: Yeah. All right. So let’s get to how you all met because I know it’s kind of fluid. So Adam and Christian, you met at school, right?

AG: Yeah, we met at SCI-Arc. We were there at the same time. But I mean, Christian, you can tell me if I’m wrong. It’s not like we were best friends sitting in studio dreaming of opening a studio one day. It was like maybe we were in a furniture class together. I knew Christian as the surfer guy with frosted tips, who was a cool guy, and he probably thought I was the nerdy geeky kid or whatever with big glasses. And so we knew each other. We weren’t adversarial or anything, but it was definitely not scheming up plans of one day we’re going to take over the design world.

CS: Yeah, I mean, I think if he told me I would open a practice with Adam, whatever it was, 10 years later, I’d be like, “Yeah, right.” I mean, I was very friendly. We knew each other. It was a small program at SCI-Arc, so you knew kind everyone. I’m still in touch with a lot of people there, as is Adam, but we weren’t homies. And my life, I was a little bit older at the time, a couple years older. And so I went to school and then I was working three or four nights a week in the bars bartending. And so I didn’t really hang a lot with people from school. I had a different set of friends from my nightlife kind of thing, but definitely respected Adam during the thesis programs. We all kind of sat in on those. And like I said, it was a small program. We all knew each other, but we weren’t hanging out in that way.

SSR: And then when did you guys come back together or did you reconnect?

CS: It was very serendipitous. I met Leslie, as she mentioned, at Dud Mitchell’s. So that was the job I took after working at Frank’s. I loved the work there, but it was like I can’t work on a building for 10 years. I just I didn’t have that attention span. And so I saw Dud at the time was the guy in Los Angeles, around 2000. He was opening Sushi Roku and Link and all these cool hotspots, and I was working in nightlife and I was like, “I want to work for this guy.” And plus the turnover of projects were really fast. And that’s where I met Leslie. And then a couple years later, maybe five years later, I went to work for SBE and they were just starting. They started to take over Los Angeles in terms of the hospitality developer with Katsuya and all these big projects. They were working on a hotel with Fleet Stark, which I had an affinity for at the time. And Adam, I think you were already there. You had just been hired by Theresa-

AG: Not long, but three or four months. Yeah.

CS: And so I started interviewing with them because I had been at Dud’s for almost six years, and he was trying to move the whole office to Mexico, and I was like, “I’m not moving to Mexico. It’s not happening.”

SSR: Right, for that one project, right, in Cabo?

CS: Yeah. Yeah. It was a huge development. And me and one other person were the only ones that resisted and that caused a little bit of a wedge. And I could see the writing was on the wall, and I was like, “I need to start making a plan.” And I went and worked for… I luckily got a job through Theresa Patino through… One of the Stark people recommended me, and then I was like, “Oh, Adam, what’s up?” And he was there, and-

AG: I remember Theresa mentioned to me, she’s like, “Do you know this guy Christian Schultz? I think you guys went to the same school together.” And I’m like, “Oh yeah, that was the guy with the frosted tips. He seems cool.” Yeah.

CS: Keep giving me shit about that.

SSR: Did he still have the frosted tips?

AG: I think at that point they’d faded out.

CS: Think I’ve been through a few haircuts at that point. My dad was a hairdresser just to add, so I was very unafraid to do a lot of different looks. Sugar Ray at the time was very on trend. To be fair, Simon Rex was my Influence. Simon Rex was very cool and avant garde in the look, so he was my influence. Not so much anymore.

SSR: I hope not.

CS: Sorry, Simon.

SSR: All right. So you had worked with Leslie, you and Adam were together, and why kind of prompted this idea of Studio Collective?

CS: Adam, you want to take this?

AG: Yeah, sure. So this was, now we’re talking ’08, ’09, which was the big recession. And at SBE, they had just opened SLS Beverly Hills, which Christian was sort of spearheading with Theresa and opened a restaurant called XIV with Michael Mina, which I was working on as well. And I don’t know if you remember that time, but that was just like projects froze, everything stopped, everything came to a halt. And so as a developer, a lot of the in-house design department sort of got let go, myself included. I think Christian was probably one of the last people remaining in the design department. And he had started working on one project in-house, which was a conversion of four luxury boxes at the time, Staple Center into… They wanted to convert them into a lounge because they weren’t selling corporate luxury boxes anymore. And Christian and I had talked about just trying to find some work or trying to do some stuff together. And so I think they had eventually, Christian right, they let you go as well, but he had this thing, and Sam from SBE had called Christian to see if he wanted to keep on working on it. And Christian called me to see if I was interested. And at that point, I was just collecting unemployment. I’m like, “Yeah, whatever you need. I’m there.”

CS: As was I at the time. It was the first time in my life where no people with 10 or 15 years experience, there were no jobs to be had anywhere. So I was like, you know what? Let’s take a break, collect some cash, surf, visit my parents down in San Diego. And then Sam called us out of the blue in July and was like, “I need to turn this over for basketball season.” I was like, “Oh yeah, a year and a half, no problem.” And then he’s like, “No, this November.” I was like, “What?” So I was like, “I need to call some talented people.” Yeah.

AG: Christian and I, again, our backgrounds are kind of similar. Christian’s like, all right, I need to reach out to Leslie too, because whereas Christian and I are more traditional architectural background, Leslie was obviously always much more involved and furniture and finishes and FF&E and stuff like that. So I’m like, yeah, great. More the merrier. So I remember Christian was like, “All right, we’re doing this. This is the team. Let’s set up a meeting. We can all hang.” I think I maybe met Leslie once at one of Christian’s birthdays, but I didn’t really know her at all. So we’re like, “All right, let’s meet at Leslie’s at 11 a.m. Design charette, get going.” I’m like “Done.” And as you can tell from this call, Leslie and I are sort of a bit more punctual. Christian’s a little bit… Follows behind. I’m there with pumpkin donuts, coffees or whatever, 10:45, let’s get the ball going. And then I think Christian showed up around noon or 12:30.

CS: I don’t think I was that late.

SSR: It all comes out.

AG: Yeah, exactly. That was a good way for Leslie and I to sort of just get to know each other. And again, there was no plans of starting a studio at that point. It was just like, let’s work on this one project and go from there. There was no work to be had, so we weren’t even looking that far down the road.

SSR. So you had one project, so did you get it done in time for basketball season is the question?

CS: We got very lucky in that Joe Faus too was the head of development of SBE for a long time. I think now Dakota Development, they were building it in-house. They were GCing it, so the owner was GCing it, and we were doing all the design. Leslie was doing all the furniture. Adam and I were dealing all the finishes and layout. So by the skin of our teeth… I mean like every project the last two weeks, it all comes together in hospitality. And so yeah, we enjoyed the kickoff game and it was very successful. And luckily during that period, I don’t know if you guys remember, but that’s when a lot of savvy developers use these downturn markets to their advantage. And so at that time, Jason Pomeranc, who we all know and love, he was a dear friend of mine and he knew Leslie as well. I don’t think he knew Adam at the time, but he called me and said, “Hey…” We had worked previously with Jason on the Sagamore with Dud and then on the Roosevelt Hotel conversion. And he called me and said, “Hey, I had these two guys from New York. One was already here, they want to take over a space in the Roosevelt and turn it into a bar. They’re good friends of mine, Mark and Med from Call Mom Hospitality.”

And then he also had a restaurant project he wanted to do there and then a conversion of a rooftop penthouse. So he’s like, “I have three project I want to sign you guys up for. What are you guys doing?” And I told him that we had just started working together with Leslie and Adam and for Sam, and he’s like, “Great, you’re hired. Let’s do this.” And so all of a sudden we went from one project in crazy mode to four projects, and that’s within three months of starting. And then that’s when we were like, “Man, we need to hire a few people.” And I think we first hired Chris Alvarado, who is our client now, which is funny. But Chris was one of our first employees and he worked with Adam and I at SBE. And so it was great. We were off to the races at that point.

SSR: And when did you become Studio Collective and how did you come up with that name?

LK: We used to meet about, I don’t know, once every couple of weeks and try to… We would each bring a notebook and have tons and tons of names. They were so bad. I wish I had that notebook right now. Yeah, we’d meet, we’d never settle on anything. And then we were at a… Christian, was it your birthday?

CS: Yes, at the Thompson Beverly Hills.

LK: Okay. Yeah, so Christian’s big birthday party penthouse at Thompson Beverly Hills and Christian had some friends from South Africa, some dear friends, and one of them came in and walked into the room and threw his arms up in the air and was just like, “I’ve got it. Studio Collective.”

SSR: Really?

CS: Well, I think it was… We were trying to… Well, I think he was “The collective,” meaning the three of us. He knew us and he was like, he screamed “The Collective” and we’re like, oh, that’s a nice ring to it. Had we known companies would be called something collective. We might have not have… It made sense in the sense that we were always thinking about Leslie’s work in the film business of how people come together as a group, people you don’t know and you have to quickly get together and work collaboratively. And that spoke to us at the same time a lot about how we were running our business that we had the three of us and our designers, but we also had all these artesian… Because we’d all been working in LA at that time for over 15 years. And so we had a Rolodex of Finnish people and plaster workers and metal workers and furniture builders. And so we always thought of it as like, oh, we all come together as this group or as this collective. And similarly, at the time when we started and the economy was where it was, our first office was…

A good friend of mine, Anya Lehman, was a landscape designer and she was downsizing and she was basically like, “Hey, I have this studio if you guys need a place to work.” Because we were working out of Leslie’s two bedroom apartment at that point, very out of the garage so to speak. And I was like, “That would be better.” And so at that time, her fiance worked at Frank Gary’s, he was a friend of ours. So there were three different entities working under one roof and we were sharing resources and we worked on some projects together. So that also embodied that collective spirit of let’s all help each other out for the same cause of advancing our work and our careers.

An F&B concept at Susurros del Corazón, Auberge Resorts Collection in Punta de Mita, Mexico; photo courtesy of Susurros del Corazón

SSR: Yeah. What were those early days like once you get into this office or you had Chris, were you hiring other people? Were you guys just boots to the ground? What was it like?

AG: It’s just so crazy to think about it now. I mean, I think we were probably paying $800 a month for rent. And I was so stressed about it. I’m like, ah, how are we all going to pay rent? We can’t pay rent. We’re not a real company. And it was just literally with a eight foot or 10 foot long desk, and it was just the three of us next to each other, working-

CS: Elbow to elbow.

AG: Elbow to elbow. And then we had a two by four metal desk behind us, and Chris sat at that and it was four of us in a, I don’t know, it must’ve been a 15 foot by eight foot deep room. And I don’t know, it seems like so crazy to look back at that time. And again, there was… Like Christian said, there were two other offices in the same space. The whole office was what? 800 square feet for three different companies. And we were there. We ended up staying there for 10 years. We just never left. We eventually took over some of the other offices in that space that Anya sort of moved out because she was doing more design build stuff, and we took over her office. And then Colby, who was an architect that Christian worked with the Frank Gary’s, we sort of pushed him out and he took over the office.

CS: We pushed them all out. We took over the whole office.

AG: I know.

SSR: Where was this? Was this Santa Monica?

AG: This was in Santa Monica, yeah.

CS: If you look on the contact page of our website, there’s a drawing of the building. It was actually a cool building. It had a balcony, it had parking, but it was on a cool walk street. So as we started to grow, it was a good office because staff could walk and get lunch and it was like a pleasant neighborhood, but it felt a little bit too upper crust for us, even though we were there, we started expanding. We felt it was a little bit too… It was Montana Avenue. It was like the Beverly Hills of the West Side. So we felt like we had a little bit of an identity crisis, and that’s why we ended up moving a few years later. But it was funny, at one point we had two offices in the building and then we eventually took an office down the street because we were just expanding. And it didn’t happen overnight. It was a very slow burn or very gradual kind of situation, but it was hard to manage three different spaces. You have to run down the street to check on drawings or make sure people are still in the office. And it wasn’t the most efficient of spaces, but you make it work when you’re like that in that timeframe.

SSR: Yeah, I remember visiting that building actually. So when did you guys get a new office? When did you decide to move?

CS: Les, do you remember? Oh yeah. It was the perfect time. The week I got married.

SSR: When it rains, it pours, right?

CS: It was like 2018. We planned it. We were going to move a few years earlier, right Les? Remember we started looking at spaces around Santa Monica and the West Side. We wanted to be on the West Side, selfishly for me and Adam, Leslie was in Hollywood at the time, but we always just felt like a coastal… We wanted to be near the beach. We were looking in 2011, and then again, we had a little bit of an economy dip, and then we just waited a little bit. And then finally I think in around 2017, the middle, we were going through a growth spurt again, and people were just on top of each other and we were like, “We got to do this. We got to just…” At that point, I think we felt a lot more comfortable that we would be able to sustain for a while. So we moved into the November of 2018 because I remember that week. We planned it to be three months earlier. And then of course it dragged, the space wasn’t ready. And I was like, “See you guys. I’ll see you at my wedding next week. Good luck with the move.” I kind of dodged a bullet with that one. But now we’re on Lincoln in Venice, it’s great. We’re still close to the beach and we have a great loft building, lots of space. It’s three times the size and it’s just very much more us. It’s a little more rough around the edges.

SSR: That’s awesome. And how big are you guys now people wise?

LK: We have about… I think we have 20, and then we have a couple of outside freelancers that come in and out, ebb and flow as we need, but we have 20 here in the office and then us three.

SSR: Yeah. Is that kind of the sweet spot? I know it’s always that fine line, right? You don’t want to get too big, but you don’t want to be too small so you can take the right projects.

LK: I mean it feels good right now.I mean, we could always use more people, but everybody gets along. The culture’s really great. I always kind of thought that we didn’t really strive to have a huge firm, like 50 or more, but as it stands now, we’re sitting nicely with 20 and probably could use a couple more.

SSR: So going back to what do you think was your first work reality check? I know Adam, you mentioned paying the rent. What was the, holy crap, we’re doing this, we’re running a business, what was the first reality check of that?

AG: I remember, I think it was maybe our second year or so, and we started out sort guns blazing and had a few projects that we were working on, and then we finished those. And we weren’t in a place to do any marketing. We weren’t in a place to do any business development. All that stuff was foreign to us. And so projects ran dry and we had hired people at this point, we had staff and our overhead was growing, and we just hit a point where we’re like, “Oh wait.” They’re like, “There’s literally nothing in the bank. We have enough to pay our staff, but we can’t pay ourselves right now.” And it wasn’t forever, but there was a good three or four month period where we’re like, “All right, we need to get back in line and we will pay ourselves back when we can.” And then that all of a sudden was like, oh yeah, this is a business and we need to handle it accordingly. It’s not just three friends designing cool stuff. We need to really get this in line. And I just remember at that point like, “Oh wait, no money in the bank account right now.” That was definitely a reality check I think for us.

CS:  I mean to Adam’s point, a lot of it happened loosely. It was organic. We didn’t plan on opening a thing, we just wanted to work on a great project at a tough time. And it slowly built, it wasn’t overnight, but we did… As haphazard as that sounds, we were pretty strategic in terms of we need to hire a business manager. We need to hire a lawyer to draw up how our business is structured. We did that from the onset, so we did take some good steps to get things organized. But to Adam’s point, we just spent way too much time on every project, and we still do that. It’s learning that efficiency. But when it comes to the reality check, for me, I think it’s different for each of us, but one thing I can really relate to is after we were in it for a few years and we had a couple of staff members for a good amount of time that we were really happy with.

And from our experience, they felt challenged and excited to be there. We started losing people, just the natural cycle of owning a business. And to me, that was like… I was devastated. That was a reality check for me. It was like, “Wait, you’re leaving? What do you mean? We have more work to do and we have great projects. Why?” And so for me, I was very personally invested in every employee in the first five years where I was almost like in a relationship and I was hurt that people would leave. And I realized over time with maturity that people are going to come and go and you can’t control them. Even though I was very controlling and I still am at times. And I realized once I let go of that feeling, it was a lot easier. And we’ve had people that have since left and come back, and that was very rewarding. So for me, that was the biggest thing of losing great staff that make us who we are.

SSR: When you guys are putting so much into this to separate personal and professional.

CS: Oh yeah.

SSR: I know you mentioned the Roosevelt and a couple others. What do you think was the first project that really put you guys on the map, so to say? Or was like your break?

LK: I mean, for us, I think the Spare Room was probably one of our… I mean, it was one of our earliest projects. It was one of the only projects where the three of us only worked on that project. And it was just a fun… I mean, it’s a fun gig. It was a fun idea and the clients were great and it turned out great and it’s still functioning great, just the whole thing. It was just kind of a major success. And I think Chemical Brothers, I think did an album cover there. I can’t remember. I think it was CD cover. It’s just been great DJs and it’s got longevity, it’s still holding its own.

CS: Yeah, they were the first people to do kind of games and bowling vintage, that whole thing as well as really elevated cocktails. In New York at the time, Milk and Honey was the place, and that was getting a lot of exposure. And I think them, Mark and Matt and the Roosevelt, that was the first place in LA to take cocktails really seriously. And so that was also right time, right place. But Adam, what do you think? I think we have all different experiences.

AG: Yeah, I’d say the Bungalow in Santa Monica, which was after Spare Room I think was the first project that I can think of where we then got calls from people. It was like, “Oh, I want something that looks like the Bungalow.” Again, not that we have a signature aesthetic, we try intentionally not to have a signature aesthetic, but that project has been extremely successful. And I think to credit Leslie, just the layering of that project with all the accessories and knickknacks and just a very residential vibe, I think people responded well, both in terms of people who go there and enjoy it and have a good time there, but then F&B developer, people who saw it and saw that it was successful sort of wanted to try and recreate that, which obviously you can’t do. But that was the first one I think, where we got calls being like, “We want something that kind of looks like this.”

CS: And I would agree with both of those. I think definitely they got a lot of exposure very early on in the first few years. For me on the flip side, the Goodland Hotel was our first… We kind of got two hotels at the exact same time, the Landsby Inn and the Goodland, but the Goodland Ave from Kimpton, who’s still a friend and we still work with recommended us. And he had this great property, which was a holiday inn up in Santa Barbara. I had lived up in Santa Barbara when I worked for Ian on the Miramar project. And so I knew the area intimately, and that was our first hotel to open. And that one was also 15 months start to finish, 250 rooms with a spa and multiple restaurants. It was insane. But to Paul’s credit and Rebecca who was the project lead, Rebecca McBride, that was a really pivotal project. It was our first hotel. It wasn’t in Los Angeles, but it definitely opened some eyes for us in terms of being able to do bigger things at that time.

SSR: And you’ve gone on to do obviously other hotels like the Figueroa in LA, but you’ve also done some cool sister brands for other hotel companies. I know tommie for Thompson and June for Proper. What is that like for you guys to create a sister brand to something else and what is it like taking the idea and then reinventing it?

CS: I mean, I think it’s very exciting and the trust that people like Brian De Lowe or Jason initially… We initially developed the tommie brand with Jason Pomeranc for Vegas when he owned Thompson Hotels before it got sold off. And so we had a deck and a whole vision working with Jason directly on what that was. He was going to Tokyo a lot visiting the capsule hotels and seeing like, “Hey, in these urban centers you can do smaller rooms. You just got to make the public spaces amazing.” And so that was kind of the catalyst for the Tommy brand. But then it sat on the shelf for a while and then it came back around. But we were honored for Hyatt to reach out to us and take on this new thing because a risk for them, for these big hotel companies because it could be a dud.

They had to invest a lot of time and money in them. And so for us, we were doing tommie Hollywood and tommie Austin at the exact same time. They were racing up construction to finish was very exciting. And for June as well. I mean, Adam, he worked with Kelly. I mean, I’m sure Brian and Brad Corson and them, they were probably very nervous about relinquishing design to anyone but Kelly. But I just think she was developing the luxury arm of Proper so much… I think she was doing three or four hotels hall at the same time in Austin and Santa Monica and downtown that they wanted someone hyperlocal to really develop that brand. And we were right down the one, the PCH, it was perfect for us. Adam I don’t know if I missed anything there, but it was an honor for us and fun.

Hotel Figueroa in Los Angeles; photo courtesy of Studio Collective

SSR: So how do you three work together? Who does what? How do you guys… I mean, it’s been 15 years, so it’s a long time to be elbow to elbow together. So how does that work and what are each other’s strengths and weaknesses and why do they play well together?

AG: Sure. I mean, in terms of how we work, I’d say Christian and myself sort of divvy up the projects in half and not necessarily based on any strategy, more sort of who’s busy and who’s a little less busy, who can handle one more project and who can’t. And again, to your point about not wanting to get too big, we still like to stay intimately involved on these projects. We’re not at a place where we just sort of get projects, turn over to the team and then show up at the opening. We are on project calls weekly. We’re involved and throughout DDs and CDs sort of redlining drawings. So we sort of split those up. And then Leslie sort of is involved on every project. Unfortunately we can’t clone her, but we need her sort of magic on everything because again, she adds a layer and just expertise that Christian and I don’t have. And so she’ll work with the staff just making sure the creative direction sort of stays on track and figuring out all those little details that we think helps bring our projects to life.

CS: She brings the flavor.

LK: Yeah. My day-today is really just checking in with everybody that’s got their hands on FF&E. So I’m just super heavy into the FF&E and making sure that everybody just stays the course and then at the end I get the luxury of really managing all the accessorizing and all that good stuff.

CS: I would just add too, it’s like when the bigger projects first start, I think all three of us sit down with whoever the dedicated project lead is. And we spend some time, not on every single project, but we try as much as possible on the initial concept phase and schematic design phase to kind of meet together as a group and with the project lead come up with what is the narrative, how does the location play a part in how we’re going to develop the project? So we kind of meet at the very beginning as a group, which I think is still fun for us and then, to Adam’s point, then after the schematic design phase, then one of us kind of takes over and runs with it and Leslie kind of weaves in and out constantly and if we could clone her, we would, I wish there was a way but, can’t do it.

SSR: How would you describe yourselves as leaders?

CS: Leslie is very humble. She’s a cheerleader for our team and people love working with her because she definitely gives people a way to be inspired and looking at things differently in terms of a lot of our staff were trained more traditionally, whether you’re interior architecture or design, and she’s always pushing people to look at things differently, like turn that light fixture upside down and let’s use it as this. Or always just thinking of ways to challenge people to look at things differently. That’s something I see in Leslie. And also to my point that she’s a cheerleader, people just love being around her because she’s so fun and she’s so interesting and she’s so positive with the staff that it is infectious. So I don’t know if that helps a little bit.

SSR: That’s awesome.

CS: I love working with her because she’s… When we do installs together or when we work together and she’s on, it’s just like infectious.

SSR: All right. What’s Adam like then Christian? Go ahead. I like it.

CS: Adam is cool as a cucumber man, he is the opposite of me. He’s not reactive. He’s very cool, calm and collected. He’s like… I mentioned Joe Faus at SBE and we worked with him. I was always amazed at how calm, under pressure he was in these intense situations with big, huge, hotel projects. I mean, that’s Adam, he always comes with a solution. He’s very pragmatic sometimes in terms of cutting through all the BS that we have to deal with and the politics and the stress. And I mean, maybe he’s probably like a duck sometimes where he’s stressed on the inside, but you’d never notice it. And so I’m always trying to emulate Adam’s calm sensibilities under pressure. And then also I would just say he’s super talented designer. I’m always watching him draw and red line and he inspires me on a daily basis with how talented he is as a designer and as a creative and coming up with really interesting narratives for the projects. He’s always pushing me and inspiring me.

SSR: All right. Who wants to take Christian?

AG: Christian wears his heart on his sleeve. He’s all heart all the time. There’s no poker face, unlike me. There’s no trying to figure it out. He’s all what you see is what you get. And people respond to that. People are drawn to that. Yeah, I just feel like he gets into the weeds with everyone on every detail. Every little thing is thought about and considered. He mentioned we had some time working with Philippe Stark and just seeing how he took things to a certain detail and everything was sort of drawn out by hand. I think Christian has that built into him, and that’s just, again, that’s something that is inspirational to be around. And he leads by example. He leads by showing you how it’s done and then doing it, not just telling you how to do it, but actually getting in. He likes to say, when we’re on installs and the color temperature of a light isn’t right, we’re always bringing in gels with us and Christian’s the one cutting the gels, getting up on the ladder, taping it up there with two stick tape. He’s not telling an intern “Go do this.” He’s the one doing the work. And when people see that, it’s easy to follow, it’s easy to sort of get behind that. And again, similar to how people are drawn to Leslie, I feel like people are drawn to Christian that way.

LK: I would also add just that Christian’s been pretty much the backbone of Studio Collective since day one. He’s just championed the networking and he’s been the voice for a really long time.

AG: So I feel like we’re the three monkeys with our hands my hands over my mouth, maybe Leslie’s is over ears and Christian’s over his eyes. We complement each other well. Christian’s, the sort of heart of the company, Leslie’s the style and I don’t know, I’m maybe playing chess a little bit, trying to figure stuff out. But we do complement each other very well. And again, it was sort of haphazard how we started, but 15 years later, you couldn’t pick two better people to partner with the way it worked out. So I feel we’re very lucky in that way.

SSR: I love that. Quick little rapid round before we end. What’s your most favorite part of the job and most challenging part of the job? Adam, you go first.

AG: All right. Favorite part, I always like the beginning, concepting a project when you literally have a blank canvas, that to me is where the creative spark comes. You’re starting with nothing and then a few weeks in you have something to present. And that comes from us and our team and our clients. But that is to me, where I get the most creative juices out of it. And I think the most challenging is, again, 15 years in, we’re still trying to figure out the business side of things and not growing so big that we can’t pay ourselves again, but not staying so small that we don’t have enough people to work on these projects. And that we’re very cognizant of work-life balance. So we don’t want our staff to burn out. That’s happened in the previous iteration when we were much younger. And so now we’re super cognizant of that. And so it’s just walking that fine line of being able to finish these jobs that are extremely detailed in a timely fashion, but not letting our overhead grow so big that it bankrupts us.

SSR: Christian, what do you wish you had known when you were starting the firm that you know now? Or is ignorance bliss?

CS: That’s a good question. I never wanted to have my own firm. I saw my father have his three hair salons growing up, and all he did was work. He’d come home cutting hair and then he would do the money. There weren’t computers back then. And then he would sit at the counter and do the money up all night. And then he was smart enough to buy a building. So on the weekends he would go take care of the building. And I was like, “Dad, get a hobby. All you do is work. Enjoy life, man.” But he instilled that work ethic in me. And so now by some crazy zeitgeist, I now own a firm and I’m doing exactly the same thing where I have a son, I’m working too much. And so Stacy, I’m sure you can attest to this with three boys, that they all need attention. And I wish I could spend a lot more time with my wife and my kid, but luckily I’m only a mile away and we run the company so there’s flexibility in that. Ignorance is definitely bliss, but I couldn’t be happier to, as Adam mentioned, have two partners that support me and our staff. And we’re very blessed that the projects we get to work on are so fun and exciting. So I hope it gets easier, but it seems like it’s only gotten harder.

SSR: All right. Leslie, what is a your dream project?

LK: Oh, wow. I would say just something that I’ve never done, which is work on a yacht. I would love to do a really incredibly fun yacht. And I think the reason is it’s purely functionality that you need on something like that. And I love dealing with functionality. Things have to work, obviously, but that would just be super over the top.

tommie hollywood

The lobby of tommie Hollywood; photo by Michael Mundy

SSR: Yeah, I feel like you guys would design a beautiful yacht.

AG: Yeah, all you yacht owners out there, we can give you our number at the end of the podcast.

SSR: Speaking of the end of the podcast, we always end with the question that is the title of the podcast. So what has been your greatest lesson learned or lessons learned along the way? Starting back around, Leslie, I’ll go to you first.

LK: I would think that just stay the course, stay focused. The purpose of the project is the most important part of it. And just getting from the beginning to the end, it’s really all about the client and the purpose of the project.

AG: I had a previous boss who I was not happy at the job, and he clearly could tell, and he pulled me aside and he’s like, “Look, at the end of the day, you’re getting paid to design something. Someone’s paying you money to draw on paper and create something.” And I’ve always carried that in the back of my mind as bad as things get, or as hectic as some projects can become, or as aggravated as some clients can become, at the end of the day, we’re doing what we did as kids at some level and someone’s paying us to do that. And that in itself is a gift and not lose sight on that. It’s so easy to get lost in all the minutia of the day-to-day, running a business, but that’s really what we do, and we get to do that. And so just keep that in mind when you’re having not such a great day.

SSR: Love that. All right, Christian, I’m giving you the last word.

CS: We move so fast, the nature of hospitality. Even though some of these projects take five and six years, everything’s moving at Mach speed, and so it’s nice to reflect and think. And so I was giving that some thought. For me, I feel like the thing I’ve learned that really helps me now later in the process is not falling in love with everything too preciously. We were just doing staff reviews not too long ago, and we had addressed this with one of our staff members because they were really upset about something getting taken up off the project. And I’ve learned is you got to learn… Especially in hospitality with the projects we’re dealing with, you got to pick your battles. It’s like you can’t force the design and everything you fall in love with on the project. It’s never going to all come out.

And by letting go a little bit… In the end the projects always, for the most part, they turn out great. I think the thing that I’ve learned the most is to pick your battles and not fall in love with every detail and don’t treat everything so precious. You got to learn to let go a little bit and really let the client and the project dictate where things are going to go in the end and trust that it’ll still be great, if that makes sense.

SSR: It totally does. Well, thank you so much. It’s a perfect place to end for spending the last 40 so minutes with me. So it’s been such a pleasure to hear your story.