As the fountainhead behind Portland architecture firm Skylab Architecture, Jeff Kovel ascended to fame when the West Hills residence he designed for a Nike executive became the fictional, modernist lair for a family of vampires in the popular film series Twilight. Listed alongside iconic architects like Frank Lloyd Wright (Blade Runner) and John Lautner (The Big Lebowski) for designing one of the top movie houses that you’d actually want to live in, the Twilight house showcased Jeff’s unconventional designs to an international audience, and punctuated his bubbling reputation as one of the hippest architects on the Portland scene.
The praise from Twilight may have landed him Facebook friend requests from teenage girls all over the world, but it’s Jeff’s innovative designs for Seattle’s W Hotel, and restaurants like Portland favorites Departure and Doug Fir that helped pave his way as one of the city’s most progressive design mavericks.
But whether Jeff spends his days pioneering Portland’s fringe neighborhoods or re-conceptualizing functional living with his modular pre-fab housing designs, his trailblazing motto “design is a form of abstract storytelling” combined with his sensibilities to “be expressive and don’t take yourself too seriously,” guarantee to make sure he’ll create a lasting impact that will forever alter the way Portland looks, and even more importantly, how it lives.
JANICE GRUBE: What made you decide to choose architecture as a career?
JEFF KOVEL:I grew up in New York, and my parents commissioned and built a custom home in 1980 when I was around seven years old. I was in awe. This was during my heavy Lego-indulgent phase, so it was amazing to see that whole process happen. It was a great example of what architecture can be, in terms of being a mediator between you and your environment, in a really positive way. I think those experiences combined got me on track at a very young age.
JG: You studied at Cornell in New York, but also in Rome. Is your work shaped at all by your travels?
JK: Yeah, I was blown away by Rome. I think one of the things that was most amazing was how young the United States is, particularly the American West. There is definitely a pioneering spirit here, in comparison to the East coast. But if you look at the East coast compared to Rome, you’re only scratching the surface. That was certainly the most influential aspect to me. Also, Rome is a great example of early cultural innovators and creatives. Even though the tools and the aesthetics and the language are completely different, there’s a tall parallel to what creatives do in today’s world to what people were doing in the Renaissance era. That was really inspiring to make that connection.
JG: You pull from many different styles and periods of architecture, but which influences you most?
JK: I’m interested in architecture in the information age. What’s different about working now is that we have every era of design and architecture to inform the work, in a very tactile way. It’s literally at our fingertips with internet research and image research. So it’s been less about any singular genre, but more about understanding how all of these genres have meaning—both positives and negatives—and we can essentially use them as ingredients and build something new and innovative.
JG: What brought you to Portland? Did you feel there was something missing and that you could contribute?
JK: Ultimately, it came down to a love of nature and the pioneering spirit. I wanted to get into the mountains, and into the West, where there was a bit more focus on lifestyle and day-to-day activity. I had some friends that moved here, and as I look back, I can’t quite figure it out, but there was a draw to this place. There was so much less infrastructure here. There wasn’t much going on. I think about how fortunate I was to be launching a company at the same time the city was growing. It all worked out, timing-wise. I came in and was able to work really hard, and build a company out of nothing. I think some of it was having a little bit of objectivity and naivety in a way. I didn’t know what I was getting into, or how hard it was to start a firm, and that’s always a good thing.
JG: And now there’s this growing creative energy with retail shops popping up everywhere, especially in the West End.
JK: Yeah, it’s been so amazing. It’s funny how you look back at life with certain events. We got evicted from our first space up in the West Hills of Portland, and we needed a new space. I didn’t want to disappear into a high rise somewhere, so we found this beat up retail space in a crappy neighborhood, and it was just by chance that the 12th and Adler building came up for sale, so we bought it. I renovated it into Skylab’s new office space and then we moved up the street. It’s like this seed was planted and the energy started spreading. It’s been over a ten-year process and this neighborhood is still expanding—a testament to the power of a creative community.
JG: In 2010 you rendered an innovative, controversial high-rise building for 13th and Burnside called Weave, yet it was scaled down due to economic conditions. Do you still have plans to build it somewhere in Portland?
JK: It’s interesting because with that building we made a series of inventive discoveries [due to the economic restraints] that I still want to apply. Most of our projects are very site- and time-specific, and while the Weave building was also very site-specific in some ways, I think it can be modified and evolve in a different space. I would love to move it somewhere deeper into the West End. I’ve actually been having a few discussions, but we’ll see.
JG: Portland has become known as one of the leading cities for sustainability. Do you think that hinders your creativity?
JK: Working with a sustainable principle gives you the tools to be responsive for a site and make architecture that’s convincing, versus applying a superficial skin to something. It’s allowing us to build out of concepts versus applying concepts to a building. We’re interested in taking the subjective or stylistic aspects of architecture away by being very strategic in terms of our response. I think that’s going to be a legacy that comes out of sustainability. Portland is pretty young. While we’ve been a progressive leader statistically, and mostly in a commercial way, we have yet to get there in an abstract, creative way. But it’s happening.