Rewind 30 years – it’s early on a Monday morning in 1988. Grant Kirkpatrick, with just over one year of work experience under his belt, patters down the hall of his LA home to begin drafting his first solo residential project. He didn’t know it then, but within that quiet morning moment, KAA Design was born. Today, the firm stands as a powerful presence in the world of residential architecture, carrying a torch that inspires modern architects worldwide.
Grant is a third generation Californian who embodies the essence of modern West Coast design. Captivated by the breadth of his knowledge and the exquisite beauty of his work, we’ve been nose deep in his latest book, California Contemporary, published by Princeton Architectural Press. This book chronicles decades of Grant’s most acclaimed designs, including a special section dedicated to his personal 30-acre lakeside ranch and vineyard. And with high-profile clients like Tom Hanks and Rita Wilson, Matt Damon, and Julia Louis-Dreyfus in his corner, you can be sure this delightful read is a feast for the eyes!
We invited Grant to join us on The Finer Points so that we could further explore what inspires his process, how he has propelled KAA Design to greatness, and how his firm has developed meaningful relationships over time. Scroll on!
Marie Flanigan: We’re happy you joined us today! I am so interested in your story and would love to share a little bit of your personal journey with our readers. What brought you to start your own firm, and what are your vision and values?
Grant Kirkpatrick: I feel lucky to be a third generation Californian. My grandfather was born in Compton in 1900, and my grandfather, my father, and myself share this love for nature that manifests itself in farming. My grandfather was a citrus farmer, and my father is an attorney who cared for our family’s property in the Palos Verdes area. He involved me and my brothers in digging up weeds, fixing irrigation systems, and mowing lawns, which means I already had an ingrained love for the land. When I was 12, my parents renovated our ranch style home into a modern house that looked similar to a Cliff May design, which was quite modern for the ’70s. The experience was fascinating, and I couldn’t believe it – the smell of the wood, the concrete being poured. I remember seeing this guy waving his hands around, and I asked my dad who he was. He replied that the man was an architect, and in that moment, I knew exactly what I wanted to do.
GK: Years went by and I never wavered. I was all about drawing and building things including Japanese style gardens, fountains, and a greenhouse for my mother. I was lucky to study architecture at USC, which offers a terrific program. That was a fortuitous milestone in my development because it is the birthplace of modern architecture. Half of the homes in the case study home movement in the ’40s, ’50s, and early ’60s were built by USC architecture graduates or professors, and over the last century, USC has been a hotbed for what we now call “mid-century modern” ideals. They championed the use of modern materials and placed focus on connecting to a healthy indoor/outdoor lifestyle. I already had a love for nature, so my education at USC nurtured and reinforced that passion.
MF: Amazing how your childhood home has intimately impacted your career! Can you tell us more about your book, California Contemporary, and the homes shared within?
GK: Developing the book was a three year endeavor, and I had a lot of fun – I actually miss it! There are some homes that were completed more recently, but the vast majority are projects between 5-10 years old, with a smattering of homes that go back 15-20 years. We sifted through all of our work and chose the best of the best, which was an interesting process!MF: How exciting! What was it like revisiting and re-photographing your work for the book?
GK: What’s interesting is that everyone who sees your work, sees it through the lens of your photographer. So in my mind, good photographers are priceless. We are constantly looking for the best, and at this point, we’ve established relationships with those we believe are the best. We spend a lot of time on shoots because they’re giant 3 – 4 day experiments with a lot of different moving parts. For instance, the first day or two is spent learning the light and how the home looks at different times of the day. I’ve found that 50% or more of expenses associated with making a book are related to photography.
MF: Wow! Are you always on site when your work is being photographed?
GK: Absolutely, because I’ve quickly learned that there is no substitute. It’s not that I understand what the best shot will be, but once the photographer establishes the angle, quite a bit of composition and staging work happens to perfect it. It’s a wonderful marriage between the photographer’s talent and the story I’m trying to convey.
MF: Did you always have an entrepreneurial spirit?
GK: Looking back, I think so, though I didn’t realize it at the time. When I graduated from college, I worked for one of my professors who had a thriving practice in Santa Monica managing multi-family housing projects. I was there 1.5 years when a friend of my mother’s came to me with an offer to work on her substantial residential home. I brought it to my boss who didn’t have interest, so on April 11, 1988 I formed KAA Design. That Monday morning I woke up, walked down the hall of my little LA house, and started drafting. And that’s what I’ve continued to do for the past 30 years.
GK: Of course, we’ve done a lot of other things along the way, like retail work, including Hugo Boss stores across the nation, a lot of work in and around Beverly Hills, some quasi restaurant/retail projects, clubs, and museum renovations – dabbling in a lot of different things, all while still working on custom homes. Around 10 years ago, my business partner and I woke up and thought, “A lot of people want to get out of the custom home business because it’s emotional and involves a lot of hand-holding, but we enjoy those things! We enjoy being half shrink, half architect.”
GK: Beyond that, there is no greater platform or canvas for creation and exploration than California. We have clients that shoot for the moon with blank canvases and an incredible climate that allows us to create thought-provoking work, all while pushing contemporary architecture forward. I like to think of us as a current torch bearer holding the flame of modern architecture. The early California Modernists lit that flame going back as far as Frank Lloyd Wright, and then his two employees Rudolph Michael Schindler and Richard Neutra. Following that, we saw an enormous amount of talent from Irving Gill, Raphael Soriano, and Harwell Hamilton Harris, who were all fabulous modern architects crafting really warm, beautiful, domestic contemporary architecture. More recently it’s Steven Ehrlich, Marmol Radziner, and Mark Rios, who are my family in a way – we love commiserating and swapping stories when we get together! We will continue carrying the torch and and will pass it along slowly but surely to others who join us on this journey.
MF: Why do you think this style of architecture resonates so strongly in California?
GK: There’s a reason why this warm domestic architecture works well in southern California, and it’s not just because of the weather. It’s because people want to live an indoor-outdoor, nature-infused lifestyle. They also tend to think big and unencumbered. I’m hugely grateful to be practicing my craft at this stage in my career at this time – it’s truly an extraordinary time.
MF: You’re so passionate about what you do! How do you translate that passion into a successful business, and how have you managed to grow yours over the years?
GK: It takes a team – a village, quite frankly! We’re not one of those firms that does a lot of homes. We do about 10 highly crafted homes per year, serving as heirlooms in their communities. Our clients commission us to create homes that stand the test of time for generations. We incorporate clear and subtle messages by using building systems and materials that are environmentally sustainable, making each home a steward of its surroundings.
GK: Originally, the team was just me, but we quickly grew to two because I convinced a good buddy from my former office to join me about 6 months after I left. Things had gotten really busy, and he left a good job to join little ‘ole me. For the first 8 years we had 5 – 8 people, and around 1995 – 1996 we started slowly increasing. We were working on larger custom homes which meant longer hours, more fees, and each project required more people – so our team grew and remained steady at 30 – 35 people for many years. It took a long time and a slow build to find ourselves included in “the best of best.” We love exceeding people’s expectations, and we love that people’s lives are significantly improved through the processes and results we create. We eventually settled around 40 – 45 people because we also provide landscape architecture, which means that we design not only a building but the entire property. We begin many projects by conceiving the landscape and conceptualizing how the indoor/outdoor will weave together; they become almost indistinguishable.
MF: I love that! You have a number of high-profile clients. How did those relationships develop?
GK: It’s all word of mouth. Once someone in the entertainment industry (which is a small industry) sees your work, they call a friend asking who did it, and one thing leads to another through the years. So, if you’re a practicing architect doing some of the better work in town, you are inevitably going to be contacted by someone in the entertainment industry. And they all know each other so once that door opens, it’s a really fun experience!
GK: Of course, producing the level of work that we do and the way we treat people has also led to solid relationships. This city has an incredibly diverse base, and we get the opportunity to work with people who have a high level of respect for what we do. That allows us build strong relationships with them over the course of 3 to 4 years, creating one-of-a-kind homes that stand the test of time.
MF: Before we go, I’d love to hear what’s next for KAA Design! Anything new and exciting you can share?
GK: What really excites me about California is that I believe we’re living in a second Renaissance period, and I’m actually hosting a second Ted Talk about that! I believe it started in the ’60s, and that we’re living in the middle of it today. I travel around the world a lot, including trips to Japan and Australia, and I’ve found that once you say you’re from California people are amazed! Funny enough, California is actually an adjective in Australia that stands for a modern lifestyle. There’s a mystique and an interest surrounding our state – California is considered a way of life more so than a place on the map.
GK: People tend to think we’re all crazy, but there’s a lot of interesting stuff going on here that has grown beyond the entertainment industry. In fact, 22 of the 28 car companies design their cars here. And now all of the sudden, you have fashion, food, and wine that are internationally influencing other great metropolises around the world. People talk about globalization, but creative things are coming out of California that are having a huge impact.
GK: As far as what’s next, KAA isn’t going anywhere. It’s quite exciting – I’m in my mid-50’s, and I’ve watched friends retire, and I’m thinking that I’m only halfway through the fun! We are in the best place we’ve ever been. People are looking to our firm for guidance and we have a wide range of projects from wonderful little beach homes to castles. Which is funny because when someone says castle, you think of some enormous home in Scotland! You don’t realize people are still building castles, but they simply don’t look like they used to anymore. There’s plenty of royalty out there! It could be tech royalty or some other industry, but they are no less enthusiastic about building wonderful homes, and we’re thrilled to be there helping them do just that.
MF: It has been such a joy spending time getting to know you! For everyone following along – until you’re able to pick up your own copy of Grant’s recently released book, we hope you’ll take a moment to delight in more of Grant’s modern masterpieces below!
Happy California dreaming!