To say that I was looking forward to my visit with Bobby McAlpine could be the greatest understatement of the century. With a gentle heart and humble spirit, Bobby’s transcendental approach to design serves as a reminder to us all that the journey to home should be charged with equal parts emotion and self-reflection.
Bobby has spent decades evolving his craft while serving as Principal at McALPINE, a multicity architecture and design firm. He kindly offered to share his thoughts on the importance of authentic design, what breathes life into his work, and how he is revealing that life to the world through his latest masterpiece, The Poetry of Place. I am deeply honored to be sharing our conversation in today’s third installment of The Finer Points, and I pray that you walk away from this experience feeling as revived and uplifted as I did. Enjoy!
Marie Flanigan: Thank you so much for sitting down with me today. I would like to start things off by congratulating you on your beautiful new book – we just got our hands on one and our team can’t stop ooh’ing and ahh’ing over it!
Bobby McAlpine: Thank you very much! I’m so glad the book is out – it was a labor of love (they always are) and it can take awhile to get things together, but it’s such a valuable experience.
MF: Absolutely and I can’t wait to dive deeper into the inspiration behind the book, but first things first: I’m a huge fan of your work and of the business you’ve built over the past 35 years. You inspire me and so many, not only through your work, but through your design philosophy and ideals. I would love for you to share a little bit about your personal story and which key life milestones have developed you into the iconic architect and designer you are today.
BM: I think that, for most people, when they find the right work, it generally has something to do with what’s wrong with them. Your work becomes curative; so, if you’re a great psychiatrist, you’re likely insane! For me, I moved around a lot as a child and lived in a lot of different houses, so my appetite was whetted, not only for change, but also for finding a place that I could relate to. I started designing houses inadvertently, before I even knew what I was doing. We probably lived in a dozen or more houses across several towns by the time I got to high school. My mom would put me in the car seat next to her and drive in to a new town, talk to the people on Main Street, find out who had properties for rent, we’d take a look, and then we’d move in. At some point over the course of the year, my mother would start to let go and we would move from one house to a better house to a better house until, eventually, we would start over again in another new town. Finding home became really imprinted in me.
MF: What a remarkable way to grow into your passion! Fast forward to present day and the name McAlpine has become synonymous with thoughtful, spiritual, well-edited design. Why do you think your designs resonate so strongly with so many?
BM: I’ve actually thought about that a lot lately, and I think the value of going through the exercise of building a house is that you have not been able to find a place that your own heart recognizes. You’ve tried, you’ve looked, you’ve renovated…ultimately, you are relatively unsettled in that things don’t look familiar to you. When you are able to create an environment in three dimensions that has everything to do with who you are and what you know, then it intrinsically looks like you. When a house looks and feels like you, there’s no other place in the whole world where anyone can go and feel that way, and that is an evident trait. You can tell when you’re looking at the truth about someone or something and there is safety in that…when you don’t sense any fraudulence…when you sense there is integrity and that some soulful exercise or event has happened to create this place. You’re witnessing something real.
MF: So beautiful…and I think that leads us back to your book which is absolutely stunning! You mentioned in a recent interview that you’re picking up the conversation from where The Home Within Us left off. Can you tell us more about that conversation and what you’re most excited to share through this latest work?
BM: It’s been seven years since the last book came out and it’s been a great exercise to pick up the conversation again. In those seven years, there has been a great deal of evolution and refinement going on in my thinking and in my work. Whereas the first book talked about the importance of following your heart and building something that resembles you, this new book goes on to talk about the emotional truth and accuracy of things. When you’re telling the story of someone’s life and building their home for them, telling the truth is essential. To do that, the process is wrought with contradictions, wrought with begging, borrowing, whatever it takes to tell the story, and that means it’s never a Pollyanna version. There may be fusions of style, fusions of temperament, that happen within a single structure that point to the DNA of who this person or these people are.
MF: That’s so true, and yet your work remains so flawlessly you. How do you stay true and authentic to the people living in the home while also illustrating your perspective as a designer? My eyes can land on one of your houses and my heart immediately knows that it’s you.
BM: Well, I don’t try for that, really, for fear that I would build my own gilded cage and get trapped in it. Every person sitting before me is going to tap into a corner of me that has been untended because I haven’t met them before. I get to do a lot of self-study and the back-row students in me that have never been able to speak may get a voice simply because this new person just walked into my life. I think the houses differ from each other in that way tremendously, but if there is a vein running through them all in some way, it probably does have something to do with me, because it is my understanding of them.
MF: I would love to talk about your partners and the manner in which you’ve built your business. How did you find Greg and, eventually, Ray, Susan, Chris, John, and David? How do you make partnership decisions?
BM: For the most part, I just surrounded myself with people that I thought were very creative…people that I could love, that would become my family. We’ve all kind of grown up inside a generous space and everyone’s had tremendous room to develop their own talents. There are similarities between each one of us but there are great differences also, which I encourage and enjoy. I think what continues to be the common denominator between us, I hope, is empathy and a capacity to listen…a care for longevity in our work. We want to create things that, hopefully, if you pick up a publication and see architecture or interiors that are 20 or 30 years old, you will still feel as though each is pertinent and that nothing has failed the test of time.
MF: I saw how beautifully you united the brands under one, McALPINE. What inspired that decision and was it one that was a long time coming?
BM: Strangely enough, and I may never quite get over this…the idea came from the people who had lived for many years with their names on the letterhead. They believed we were looking more like a law firm with four locations and so many names. It was confusing and they decided to give up their names for the betterment of the whole…in the end, it was decided that McAlpine would become not my name, but the name of a place that represents how a problem might be solved or how one might approach something.
MF: Speaking of offices across the country, you work all over the world, and I know that you’re hunkered down today getting into the details of a project. What role do you personally play in the creation of these homes and how do you structure your office so that your voice stays consistent and that your customer service remains impeccable?
BM: We spend a lot of time in the incubator together. Each one of my partners and I have personally shared a long history of 20 years or more working together and, at this point, there are enough clients coming in now that they’re coming in on the reputation of my partners as much or more than me. We are all groomed similarly and I’ve had a client say, “It doesn’t matter who answers the phone (and it’s always someone different), I will get an answer from somebody. They don’t tell me to wait until they can find you, they answer my question and I love that.” I appreciate that kind of feedback because we are trying to be a kind organism. We are trying to remain happy in our work and keep it meaningful, because we really, really think that what we’re doing is an important endeavor. Beauty is paramount in this life, for me and for most of us, to make us feel safe and good, and close to God in some way.
MF: I would love to touch on your relationships with furniture manufacturers and how you decided to leverage your name to begin developing furnishings.
BM: The phone rang and I answered! Several different furniture companies have called me in the past and said that they would be interested in talking to me about developing a line. Designing furniture is something that I’ve always done and it was even part of my thesis in interiors. In solving the riddle for any interior, inevitably, we will be designing a piece that solves a problem the modern marketplace can’t. We have a long history of building little one-off pieces, so I thought it might be fun to design something that can actually go into production instead of investing lots of time and energy into one piece that may never be built again.
MF: Have you evolved as an architect and designer? Has your inspiration and approach changed over the years?
BM: I started my practice when I was 25 and, as a young man, I had an obligation to look and act like I knew what the hell I was doing…because I was really too young to be spending someone’s life fortune! The first house I built for myself, it was very important for me that everyone see that I knew what I was doing and that I had a very mature hand in doing it. Now, having just turned 60, I’m more interested in what I can get away with! How far can I push you before I scare you to death? What kind of strange and wonderful thing can we do that’s adventuresome architecturally but also something that will last…I think I’ve doused a little water on the conservatism.
MF: Did I hear in a recent interview that you’re currently designing a house for yourself?
BM: I am! I’m just a few months from finishing it in Atlanta, Georgia. It is going to be an architecture that, at first glance, you might not know I did. I’m tapping into a relatively brutal 1930s modern industrial kind of thing that I have always been attracted to. I first drew it as an Elizabethan cottage thinking that it’s just me and my partner and we don’t need a whole lot; we’re free to let poetry drive the bus. I could truly do the most fairy tale thing in the world, but when I started drawing it and we were looking at it together, a notion kind of struck me…I thought, what if I didn’t do all of the things that make it so easy to look at? What if I just let it be what it is? Can I solve this riddle in 5 notes and not 11? Will I still be me if I take all of those things off? The gestures that were already strong became emboldened by being kind of simple, stately, and quiet. It turned right before my eyes into this lovely, unapologetic thing.
MF: I can’t wait to see it! As a designer, from experiencing your work to hearing you speak, you’ve taught me so much about what it means to embrace the smaller space. Not all spaces need to have this expansive grandeur to them.
BM: Yes, my new house has 7’3″ ceilings…where they’re not 15 feet tall. Compressionism is a powerful tool that most people in the practicing world forget to use. We love compression so much that we walk into a restaurant and make a beeline for the booth!
MF: So, what’s on the horizon? Any big dreams you’re trying to accomplish or hurdles standing ahead of you?
BM: I want to keep scaring myself just a little bit every day and, maybe, my clients too just a tad…so that we stretch and grow a little bit. I want everything to look like the truth because I think the truth of anybody’s life is what makes it attractive. More than anything, I want to learn how to be at home and to live in my house without getting home, turning around to pack my suitcase, and leaving again because I don’t know how to stay. I want to learn how to live there.
I couldn’t have asked for a more touching interview! I am filled with gratitude for the beautiful person Bobby is and for his profound gift of inspiration. He’s touring now (full schedule here) and I hope you have the opportunity to visit with him as you pick up a copy of his new book! I can assure you that every moment spent in conversation with Bobby is a moment very well spent.
Keep scrolling for a few of our latest McALPINE faves: