To The Edge: Kristen Becker on Being an Extrovert, Connecting with People, and Building an Interdisciplinary Practice
By Julia Gamolina, cover image by Lynnsey Phillips
Kristen Becker is a partner in Mutuus Studio, a Seattle based architecture firm co-founded in 2016 with architect Jim Friesz and artist/maker Saul Becker. The studio takes an integrated design approach, working on projects ranging from architecture to interior design and public art, such as the recently completed “Acid Ball,” a public art project for the new Waypoint Park in Bellingham, Washington. An integral part of the studio is the Mutuus Made product line that includes custom lighting, hardware and other unique objects. At Mutuus Studio Kristen leads the firm’s residential and interiors projects and draws from her background in dance, theatre, and film to create thoughtful, provocative architecture and interior environments.
Previously, Kristen was Associate at the Seattle firm Olson Kundig, as well as having founded a previous iteration of Mutuus in Brooklyn in 2008. She has collaborated with world-renowned artists on numerous art installations in such places as The High Line and Times Square in New York, Art Basel Miami Beach, and along London’s River Thames. She holds a Master of Architecture degree from Dalhousie University, a Bachelor in Environmental Design Studies from TUNS, and is a graduate of Workshop in Business Opportunities (WIBO) in New York City. In her conversation with Julia Gamolina, Kristen talks about being persistent in her love for architecture and building a non-traditional practice, advising young architects to pay attention to the things that give them joy.
JG: How did your interest in architecture first develop?
KB: I’m one of those people who was interested in architecture and design from a very early age. When I was five I was diagnosed with a rare hip disorder, Legge-Calve-Perthes Disease, which confined me to a cast on both legs from my ankles to my hips for a year and a half. Then I had braces on my legs the following two years. I spent countless hours drawing—drawing was a conduit into my imagination. I would design forts, and even though I wasn’t actually making them, I was building them in my mind and on paper. My mother still has a stack of my childhood drawings, and almost all of them were of buildings, structures, and buildings within buildings. I included one of them in my application for architecture school [laughs].
When I was 8 years old my family moved across the country from Vancouver, British Columbia to Halifax, Nova Scotia, where I was able to reinvent myself in a lot of ways. People didn’t know that I used to be in a wheelchair, and I could start fresh. I started to take dance classes. It was through dance that I felt I fully embraced what my body could do…what was possible. I was accepted into a training program that took me to the Royal Winnipeg Ballet School and the School of Toronto Dance Theatre. I continued to perform and teach at Halifax Dance while I was in architecture school.
Even though you knew you wanted to be an architect, architecture isn’t what you first studied in college. Tell me about this.
I spent the first three years at Dalhousie University and changed my major every semester [laughs]. I pursued classics, structural engineering, history of the theatre…you name it. I took every class I could take, all the while knowing that I wanted to be an architect and wanted to gain a broader understanding of the world and how I could apply that to architecture.
I then applied to architecture school and was accepted into the school’s Environmental Design Studies undergraduate program. After receiving my undergraduate degree I decided to take a year off before I pursued a Master’s degree. During my year off, I worked in political theatre, designing stage sets, and then working for a film company designing sets for a science fiction television series.
What did you learn, especially about yourself, in architecture school?
When I was in architecture school, I didn’t fit the mold of a traditional architecture student. I was teaching dance and pursued a wide range of interests, such as theater, film, and television. Even though, deep down, I wanted to be an architect, I felt a bit confused as to why I was pulled towards all of those other interests. But at the time I couldn’t process it. This crisis peaked when I had a professor tell me that I was going to be a horrible architect because I was so unfocused and extroverted. Our firm, Mutuus Studio, is a celebration of all that diversity.
What! Who says that an architect can’t be extroverted?!
Looking back it was a poignant moment. I realized that I didn’t fit this particular person’s idea of what an architect should be: male, introverted, quiet, and specialized. My extroverted interests were somehow in the way, and that’s one of the reasons why I took a year off. I wondered if I was cut out to be an architect, if that’s what I was meant to be doing for the rest of my life.
Wow. How did you come back?
That year off was transformative for me…I worked on a science fiction television series with director David Hackl. We hand drafted all of our set drawings. He became a great mentor and had a lot of confidence in me. He told me that I was really good! I had never had that sort of professional encouragement before. So when I went back to pursue my master’s degree, that support instilled in me a sense of purpose and enabled me to be confident in my own skin and as a designer.
What did you learn about yourself during graduate school?
As an undergraduate, my experience was defined by a lot of seeking and absorbing, whereas in graduate school I began to pull directly from my own life experience. I began to draw upon my background in dance, so much so that my thesis was actually on dance and architecture, and mapping space by referencing dance notation.
What was your first job out of school?
While living in Nova Scotia, I met my husband and Mutuus partner, Saul Becker, who happened to be from Seattle. After graduation, I looked for a job there and got an internship with Olson Kundig. Olson Kundig was my first experience in a traditional architecture office.
I was so fortunate to have had that opportunity. I experienced amazing projects and mentors, and it changed my life in terms of how I approached design. Attention to craft and the connection to art is celebrated there, and this really resonated with me. My husband is an artist, so art became even more important for me to learn about and understand.
What did you do next?
After four years with Olson Kundig, my husband who is an artist got a scholarship to pursue a Master of Fine Art at Virginia Commonwealth University. I left Seattle and joined a small firm in Richmond, Virginia, with a former colleague from Olson Kundig. He was just launching his practice with two other partners, and I was their first employee. That was when I got a taste of working at a start-up; I was there for two incredibly fulfilling years, after which my husband and I moved to New York.
Tell me about your time in New York.
While in New York, I worked with Matthew Baird Architects, who had split from Tod Williams and Billie Tsien’s office. Baird’s office gave me a taste of a studio environment at a scale that I responded well to; they were a firm of about twelve people. We dug in. I was working a crazy number of hours while my husband was working at MoMA, and developing his own art projects. His jobs provided him with flexibility to experience the city, while I was stuck in an office. It was at that point that I realized I needed to find a different mode of working.
What did you do?
In the middle of the recession of 2007, I took a leap. I quit Matthew Baird Architects and opened my own practice in Brooklyn. I had no idea what I was doing but I just did it, and thankfully I had a huge amount of support. I operated my office as an artist might. I explored ideas as they came to me, which invariably meant I would meet a lot of people. Interestingly, what I was doing started to coalesce into a practice that felt right. That period of exploration became really formative for me.
Tell me about your practice.
I would have conversations with artists who would talk about needing support, and I realized that I could help them. The first of these engagements was with Stephen Vitiello, who had a commission for one of the very first art installations on the High Line. It then led to collaborations with other artists…Paul Ramiro Jonas, who created a piece in Times Square, and Pae White, who designed a huge, 20,000-square-foot installation for Art Basel in Miami Beach. I started to create a role for myself as a designer who was supporting the vision of other artists, which I found incredibly fulfilling. I also stayed connected to my former employer Matthew’s Baird, who I teamed up with for The Rising Currents project with PS1 MoMA.
At the same time, I was working on residential design, and my very first client in New York City was through a connection from my time as a dancer. A friend and supporter in the dance world put me in touch with actor, Bridget Bako. I designed her East Village apartment, which then led to a project for actor Mia Sara and director Brian Henson. I designed their TriBeCa penthouse, all while working on these other art projects. I came to appreciate the interdisciplinary nature of things.
How did and does motherhood play into all of this?
When I left to start my own firm, I wasn’t pregnant, but I became pregnant shortly thereafter. That was terrifying! I was worried about how I would build a practice while raising a child. Ironically, it was great. I found tremendous support, including support from clients, such as Linda Holliday, who said to me, “You should bring your daughter to the meeting!”
What I realized was that there is an incredible connection between people, and that people really do want to support young mothers and acknowledge that motherhood can be difficult. Everything is interconnected…life, kids, work…and that’s how we run our studio in Seattle.
Tell me about the transition to Seattle.
With my second child on the way, I returned to Seattle and to Olson Kundig. It was the right decision. It’s interesting though, after running your own practice I walked into work each day with a new understanding of what it meant to be in a leadership position. I really missed making the big decisions [laughs]. I was an Associate in the firm, but I continued to have clients from New York and Los Angeles reaching out to me, wanting me to work on their projects. It was rewarding to be able to bring a lot of that work into the studio at Olson Kundig, but it hit me that the firm was growing into more of a corporate animal than what I wanted. So again, I started to rethink my vision for the future. The rekindling of Mutuus Studio was the right move for me.
Where are you in your career today?
With Mutuus Studio in Seattle, I now have two partners. In many ways, this second iteration is what I had hoped for when I first began—a collaborative union of design. My husband is a partner at the studio, whereas up until this point, we had always maintained separate work lives. Jim Friesz, a longtime friend and former colleague at Olson Kundig, is our other partner. He is a musician and an architect. Together, we design architecture and interiors, as well as lighting, hardware, and other objects that get incorporated into our buildings. Our studio fully embraces an interdisciplinary approach.
What have been some of the biggest challenges in your career?
My biggest challenge came when I was in architecture school. A professor told me that I was going to be a horrible architect because I was so extroverted. He couldn’t understand why I had such diverse interests, why I was teaching dance while going to school, and not solely focused on architecture. Thankfully, I had an incredible community around me that supported me. But that was a really challenging moment. I had to step back and accept that my personality (and interdisciplinary interests) were assets and not a hindrance to my work or to the profession. It sounds a little silly now, but I had to learn to be unapologetic about the fact that I loved meeting new people and learning about their lives. Having interdisciplinary interests and a willingness to engage with others isn’t a negative thing …design is all about the human experience [laughs]!
On the flip side, what have been the biggest highlights and what are you most proud of?
The people around me. I’ve had an incredible series of mentors over the years, from my early days in dance up to now. I’ve had wonderful clients who are ardent supporters of our work. The project dearest to my heart is my first ground-up design, a Hollywood Hills house for Mia Sara and Brian Henson. They took a chance on me as a young designer. I enjoyed every minute working with them, and it was an honor to be welcomed into their life in that way. That the house was featured in the New York Times was truly a dream come true.
What has been your general approach to your career?
There’s a nautical phrase, “Sailing full and by,” which is a term that means your sail is full, and you are as close to the edge of the wind as possible. If you push too far, everything will collapse, but sailing full and by allows you to go fast. What I love about that phrase is it reminds me to push myself…to test the limits of what I know and explore the edges. I also like that it references wind, which is invisible and powerful.
What advice do you have for young architects just starting their careers?
Draw your attention to what draws your attention [laughs]. In this age of being bombarded with ideas, images, and screens galore, it’s important to slow down and not only notice what your eye is drawn to, but also to be attuned to the kinds of experiences that pique your interest. What activities make you happy? Sometimes they may not be what you expect, but if you allow yourself to genuinely go there, it really does empower you to realize that there’s a lot more to discover.