First Person: Clay Aurell and Josh Blumer of AB Design

Posted on Sep 28 by SEASONS Magazine

Clay Aurell on the MOXI museum job site. Photo by Arianna Leopard.

Clay Aurell on the MOXI museum job site. Photo by Arianna Leopard.

Up From the Funk | By D.J. Palladino

Photographs by Arianna Leopard

Standing on the MOXI Museum rooftop, the site of the long-promised Children’s Museum, still under construction early last summer, Josh Blumer points down at lower State Street, where the Funk Zone begins, and starts enumerating the buildings that he and Clay Aurell, his 11-year partner at AB Design, had hands in developing.

“There’s the Indigo Hotel and over there The Lark and Sonos Laboratories,” he says. Up the street are two more buildings, and down the street is the white elephant formerly known as Bebop Burgers, where the youngish designers are beginning to consult. Not to mention the impressive edifice where we stood, overlooking it all. Never loving the Funk Zone title for this area’s renaissance, I jokingly suggest calling it the Clay Zone—especially since their influence here actually began by redesigning Reds restaurant and coffee house back when it was the only frequented spot in the warehouse hood.

“That’s a horrible idea,” grimaces Aurell, although the more loquacious Blumer seems mostly onboard.

The Lark alone, the Funk Zone’s anchor business, earned them acclaim down there, and Aurell seems far less shy about prizing that job.

Josh Blumer explains his thinking about the MOXI project. Photo by Arianna Leopard.

Josh Blumer explains his thinking about the MOXI project. Photo by Arianna Leopard.

“It’s the kind of work we really love best,” says the soft-spoken architect. “Adaptive reuse, taking something that is already there and bringing it along to suit the purposes of whatever business it will be. That’s really our favorite,” he says, even though they have worked a prolific and eclectic range of built-from-scratch jobs, both private and public, in their company’s tenure. In The Lark’s case, they took an abandoned (but nice) white-walled seafood combo market and eatery, tucked away but appreciated by tourists and locals, and created a wood-sided indoor-outdoor building—impressive in the evening—sunk back from the street with lights emanating around it, yet comfortable enough to feel like an East Coast urban gastro pub. The Lucky Penny next door extends and encloses the feeling of hip revelry, as do the tasting rooms around the corner, also designed by the AB team.

But their biggest hit combines all these designing modes, from repurposing to raw creation. MOXI, which stands for The Wolf Museum of Exploration + Innovation, otherwise known around town as the Children’s Museum (125 State St.), has TV mogul Dick Wolf and wife Noelle as its naming benefactors. It was first approved in 2007 and designed by a beloved architect, the late Barry Berkus. But troubles beset the project. “The biggest problems with the project had to do with vanishing redevelopment money,” explains Aurell. There were bidding battles over the property, too.

When the floodgates reopened, AB Design was called in to finish what Berkus began.

“We never met him,” says Aurell. “But we feel like we’re getting to know his mind by designing past the problems in his plans.”

The State Street entrance exemplifies AB’s use of creativity to smooth the space between vision and necessity. Berkus’s vision of the exterior was inspired by a sandcastle, according to Blumer. Except for a cool tower, it looks a lot like its red tile and white stucco neighbors. But the problem AB Design “solved” elegantly was the space inside the entrance leading back to boxlike exhibition space. Curves like waves, eddies and coves throughout wash you into the building in a dramatic and witty way. Outside, Blumer notes places where giant panes of glass will unite the white spaces. “The glass will erase the architecture,” he says. The rest of the building uses glass as water-like décor, a safety feature and for windows.

A peek at the MOXI museum's expansive window overlooking lower State Street. Photo by Arianna Leopard.

A peek at the MOXI museum’s expansive window overlooking lower State Street. Photo by Arianna Leopard.

On the other hand, the second floor features joists that have been left bare, which Blumer plans to label indicating how many pounds each bears, so that the architecture self-consciously becomes part of the museum’s mission to teach children.

Sometimes AB Design enjoys hiding architecture, although it isn’t beyond a little show-off style—Aurell recently designed the crazy Art Deco Rusty’s Pizza parlor on Calle Real in Goleta. But they say it’s the totality of the job they like. “In many ways, we don’t go looking for the perfect project,” says Aurell. “We’re looking for the perfect client.” Collaborative work is what they do, a fact underscored by their commitment to renderings, plans and other visual aids that bring the client in from the beginning.

Aurell hails from Pomona State’s progressive architecture program and Blumer, an ex-marine veteran of the first Iraq war, comes from University of Colorado. Both deny coming here at first to surf. (Blumer—who was once a barista at Tutti’s—objects less strenuously.) They met when they both worked at Shubin and Donaldson, after years of working with other well-known architecture firms like Design ARC. Neither believes strongly in an identifiable mode or a single architectural theory. “It’s a conversation, not a constant; we’re looking at our own evolution, not sitting back,” says Aurell, who hones in on the recycling theme—they are even exploring shipping containers as architectural elements at their own offices and on a future job.

Looking at the impressive MOXI from the train depot, I wonder if this project is their proudest moment, though. “You know,” says Aurell, “I think I’m proudest of all the young architects we have seen really emerging in our studio. I’m continually impressed by all the talent that is all around us.”

This story was originally published in the Fall 2016 issue of Santa Barbara Seasons Magazine.

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