Stonorov Workshop is a design and building collaborative between husband and wife team Tolya and Otto Stonorov. I first came across their work on the pages of Dwell magazine. They had renovated a 100-year old, 400 square foot shack in Oakland, California (above). It was 2006 and they had both just left their jobs at small architectural firms to go out on their own. When I contacted them to see if I could revisit the house for Lifework I found they had moved to Alaska and embarked on a whole new building project. Here they discuss the move, designing a live/work space and how they established their studio.
You established the Stonorov Workshop in 2006. What led you and your husband Otto to that point? Going back a long ways, we both grew up around the same, Philadeplphia-based, family architectural heritage: our respective grandfathers worked on large social planning and design issues together; and our parents, independently, work(ed) in the fields of development and building. We met when we were 3 and 4, narrowly missed each other for a little over 20 years, and re-met again a year prior to attending graduate school together.
We later worked at different dynamic San Francisco bay area firms, but knew that we eventually wanted to work together. We both craved to combine design, building and furniture making and to have a hands-on relation to projects from beginning to end. Starting Stonorov Workshop gave us an avenue through which we could begin this work. Though it is often a challenge to balance time between design and building, being able to do both, we believe, makes the other stronger and more valid.
You recently moved to Alaska and are building a new home. Can you tell us what drove that decision and why you chose Alaska? We like the balance of city and country. It is too easy to get caught up in the considerations specific to a place, and to start thinking and planning relative to those ideas only. If you can get away, you have both the opportunity to reflect and to be immersed in something different and equally real. Because we have family in Homer, Alaska, it is our country place by default. Which is not too bad of an arrangement, if we could just stop working on our current project to enjoy it before we try to balance ourselves out by heading to the city…
Describe your work method. As a husband and wife team do you find your work spilling over into the rest of your life? We don’t necessarily have a fixed method. Although we do have, as a typical goal, a cohesive and unified formal expression that we work towards (given a particular projects constraints). It takes a lot of labor and information to get to a well considered and humble end, so – to our detriment, our workday rarely has a finite beginning or end. We tend to eat and drink with our projects. Luckily we have our son and dog who remind us to occasionally let work go and head for the beach or build a marble roller coaster maze.
There is a clean-lined aesthetic that runs through all your projects. What drives your design decisions? Our general belief is that everything in design should be purposeful and that making and design are intrinsic to each other. The result of this thinking are projects that have very handmade sensibilities and straight forward intentions.
They are refined to a point. Assembly and method are always apparent. There is not a question of how things were done to detract from the experience of why they were done.
What inspires you in your work? We are often inspired by materials that show age and by buildings that are purpose built, like barns or airplane hangers, that have a scale and proportion that appropriately fit their use. We like the simple assembly of a barn from the 1800’s, a stone house built into a hillside, the narrow pedestrian streets of Rome.
We gain inspiration through understanding why things are made, and by whom. We also like edge conditions and the structures, like docks and bridges, that are found there. (Homer, AK is actually known as ‘where the land meets the sea‘.) We are currently working on an Adirondak lake camp, which is a really fitting project for us in that we can draw on a vernacular with a fairly well documented history that actaully has a good mix of utility buildings (boat house, ice house etc..) mixed in. There are also, of course, our favorite architects, Peter Zumthor (below), Herzog and De Meuron, Jean Nouvel, Olson Kundig.