written by Veronica Dempsey photographed by Tim Sugden
Imagine any given rainy day in Portland, looking out over the rising skyline against a backdrop of grey while enjoying your favorite coffee. In this scene, you may find renowned Portland building designer Jeff Lamb, effortlessly blending with the multitudes of business people looking for a caffeine fix, while navigating among sleek glass fixtures and sophisticated furniture in some of Portland’s most stylish buildings.
Lamb himself is responsible for shaping the look of several of these buildings, as well as their decor elements, by imprinting his design ethos on them, adding to Portland’s reputation for hip and modern designs. In fact, Lamb just recently finished the design and construction of three Pearl District commercial spaces including the Access office, which all display Lamb’s innovative glass product line from Asia. For the past three years Lamb has been collaborating with MYODO, a custom designed glass manufacturer out of Taiwan, now located in Portland.
Lamb’s other international design connections include his large scale office and residential design work in China through BDCL of Bellevue, WA. They also have offices in Beijing in which Lamb’s design work includes two large competition wins in Jinan and Xain. In Xain, Lamb designed a condominium tower where each floor is one complete unit with a price tag of $15 million each. Lamb designed every aspect of the inside, including glass clouds, and a 100-ft. long glass mural complete with glass bridges and glass floor systems, all found right in the lobby.
Currently, Lamb is also collaborating with Vero Stone, a high-end fixture company manufactured out of Milan, soon to have a showroom in Portland. In 2012 Lamb’s design in the Escala penthouse condominium in Seattle became the visual inspiration for the Fifty Shades of Grey penthouse concept. Lamb’s designs have not only gone Hollywood, and regional, but also international. Despite his wide ranging adventures, he still considers himself an Oregonian with his roots firmly planted in Portland.
Was there an About Face moment in your life that led you to pursue architecture and design? Where did it all begin for you?
I grew up in Ashland, Oregon, a small college town with a great arts reputation. The Shakespearean theatre which I attended every summer exposed me to the visual and dramatic arts. Most importantly, it created my curiosity for color, texture, and lighting and instilled an appreciation for a sense of drama in a particular architectural scene. After a short stint playing college football I enrolled at the University of Oregon thinking I was going to be a walk-on for the Ducks. Fortunately, I discovered architecture through a friend across the hall in my freshman dorm… and I was hooked. At U of O I studied Architecture, Interior Design and Architectural History covering a lot of ground in a short time. Shortly after graduation I received the Ian Lewis Fellowship, a traveling scholarship which allowed me to study the work of Carlo Scarpa for four months at a time in Italy when I was trying to find myself as an independent designer.
Do you think that your time studying in Italy has had a big influence on your design career?
Yeah. The European tour opportunity changed everything for me, and still has an influence on me today. It resulted in my emphasis on detail, and interests in color, fabric, and lighting, construction. At a young age, sitting in the front row of a design performance – it’s a pretty powerful thing. So that has a lot to do with the direction I took with my education and my work. I’m kind of going back to that now. I want to get involved with a lot more artists. Although I am not an artist, I create things that are artful. I’m a builder.
You don’t consider your type of design an art form?
I think it’s too easy to say, “Yeah, I’m an artist,” but I’m not. There are many great artists out there, especially in Portland, but “Artful” is kind of a bad word in some design and architecture circles. Sometimes when business people say, “Oh, he’s an artist,” they’re implying that you’re moody, irresponsible, or can’t stay on budget. It’s almost too much to hire someone like that to do a building. So I’m very careful not to call myself an artist. I’m more of a craftsman and I have a vision for what I do.
What are some of the most important projects you’ve worked on as a designer?
I have primarily worked for two firms in Portland, BOORA and SIENNA, each for about eleven years. At Boora I was doing schools, movie theatres and performing arts spaces. From 2004 to 2007 I designed the Metropolitan Condominium in the Pearl District. I have been doing high-rise condominium work since 1996, and at Sienna I did high-rise work in Portland, Seattle, China, Saigon and Dubai. A lot of that work got shelved as the bubble hit, killing a lot of really great design work. Out of that came a lot more work in China, which I have been doing since 2011 on my own as a design consultant. Now I am doing work in Portland again at a faster pace and I will be collaborating again to accomplish that scale of work.
You designed a building called the Allegro, but there were problems with that getting completed.
Allegro began as a local design competition with developers and architects. I submitted a scheme with Boora. It was in Goose Hollow, which is in a tough area for design, because it’s in the base of the West Hills. So it comes with the pressures of a project there, but that one was going ahead really well. That would have been a groundbreaking design in my mind. Unfortunately, the economy folded and the developers pulled out right before construction. I had a project in Seattle where the same thing happened. And that happened kind of all over the world in 2008 —Dubai, China and Vietnam— and it all kind of stopped at the same time. That bubble hit everybody.
All the money just dried up at the same time?
Yeah. Fortunately I had other talents and skills to rely on. And now everything is getting better again. I’m fifty-five now and my best work is still ahead of me, and I’m excited about that. It’s because I keep working really hard, and I bring on great collaborators that know more than I do about certain building materials. I have a lot of great people behind me. So I’m not just one guy – I’m part of a larger team that I call on for every project.
You’re referring to your collaborators at MYODO, Elements Glass, Vero Stone and Forms and Structures.
My collaborators and fabricators are what I rely on to get the vision and quality that I need. MYODO provides a printed glass panel from Asia that I use in every project. Ian Gilula at Elements Glass provides custom glass blown light fixtures, while Daniele Esposte at Vero Stone provides custom stone fixtures from Italy in my high end projects. Mark Horvath at Forms and Structures provides all of my custom woodworking and furniture pieces on every project. I also have two design collaborators who have been instrumental members of my visual design communication: Jonathan Spencer Levy, an Emmy winning designer of the 3d Arts specializing in brand story expression, and Choi Yee Wong, a graphic artist and digital photographer. All of these collaborators have been essential to my work as a designer and we have grown together over the years. Together, we can accomplish anything. I truly believe that you cannot underestimate consistency and experience.
Has there ever been a time when you were under great pressure to get a design right, but you still nailed it?
I was invited to interview for interior design work at the Escala in Seattle. They were selecting five local designers from Seattle to each do a unit in the building that was still under construction as a promotional marketing tool. I was called at the last minute, but because I had a connection to LUX Magazine and they knew my work and liked it, so they gave me a chance. I interviewed and wanted to design the penthouse, but they had already hired a star designer from Seattle to do it. I told them I was there to design the penthouse or nothing. They liked my attitude and confidence, so I walked the barren penthouse with the owner and he told me, “You have this weekend to redesign the unit and present it. If I like your ideas I will fire the other designer and go with you.” I scanned and sent the drawing and made a phone call to describe the design. He called back and told me he just fired the other guy. Game on! I had $600k budget and had to get sponsorship for items such as furniture, lighting, rugs and art. I made some great connections by doing this. It was a real burn out and I wound up getting nearly everyone I knew involved in completing the design, but it was worth it.
You have a famous connection to the movie, Fifty Shades of Grey, which has some connection to the Escala. Can you tell me about how that came to pass?
So, it turns out the writer who was working on Fifty Shades of Grey saw the photos of the finished penthouse that the Escala was marketing, and it was that space with it’s plush and seductive design, that was an inspiration for the book. I discovered it by accident when showing one of my clients the images on line. No one contacted me about anything, it just had a life of its own. I was watching Diane Sawyer on ABC nightly news and a piece popped up on the screen with my design work on the penthouse being shown. It turned out to really help the sales of Escala as soon as the book came and the movie fervor started. So it’s now just a factoid and nothing more. It also turned out to be different than my design except for a few spaces and details. It’s kind of been my secret until now. It felt like magic at the time, but now it’s just a good light laugh.