The Designer Behind It All: John Sofio
We were unknowingly surrounded by John Sofio’s work long before we met him. The Los Angeles-based artist and designer is the owner of Built Inc.—a multidisciplinary design firm with over 400+ projects all over the country. He describes his aesthetic as “modern organic with a soulful design process,” and we sat down with the designer himself to explore his design process, his upbringing, and of course—the inspiration behind his noteworthy projects.
What first drew you to design?
Being an artist and creator, I’ve always been drawn to the idea of transforming spaces into art.
What are some of your first memories associated with design?
In the early ’70s, my parents moved away from the city towards the suburbs of New York. They sparked a light in me, with their newfound love of suburban modernism culture. Their modernist visions were showcased all throughout the house. My father painted a large orange, yellow, and white graphic stripe across the longest room in our house, while my mother slowly curated the rooms in Italian modern New York.
Tell us a little more about your childhood.
At seven years old, we moved to the suburbs and my parents purchased an Italian pasta shop on Long Island. My first job was mopping the floors at seven years old and wringing the mop out in the sink with my hands because they wouldn’t spend the extra money on a mop bucket. From there, I watched my parents grow a small business into a successful entrepreneurial venture. The ethic of work was instilled in me throughout these years, but the importance of art and creating never left me. Spending a few years between colleges on the Upper West Side in the mid ’80s exposed me to a growing urban art movement led by the original hip-hop graffiti writers and artists Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat. I was determined to participate in this movement and began my journey to become a commercially viable artist. Architecture as my medium, as it allowed me to use my skills of foresight, perception, and visualization that I developed as a photographer in my earlier life. Acquiring an architectural degree from the New York Institute of Technology in 1990, I emigrated west in search of New American Design.
Tell us about your latest projects with h.wood group—Poppy and Petit Taqueria. Where did you draw inspiration for those spaces?
The inspiration came from the latest Gucci ad, along with the client’s request to design a space based on “a stream of consciousness.”
You recently redesigned Blind Dragon. Tell us a little bit more about that process.
With their recent change up in menu, we wanted to make the seating more conducive to their new food. We introduced new seating and improved the circulation.
You’ve done everything from restaurants to hotels to gallery spaces to homes. Is there a space you enjoy designing the most?
Although I enjoy designing personal spaces very much, there’s something to be said about having your design seen and thoroughly enjoyed by large groups of people. Just the other day, I was in a one of the nightclubs that I designed, and I watched a group of people discuss the design concept of the space. They were pointing to details across the room. I ended up talking to them later—it was very rewarding.
What tools and mediums do you use when designing?
My philosophy for designing to create art, which lends itself to using more than one type of medium. It’s a whole process with multidisciplinary elements, and not limiting myself helps me to create exactly what I envision for each project. It’s part of our total process — taking something from concept to completion.
How do you source inspiration for your projects?
Built Inc. is a design-build company that draws inspiration from a client’s brand. I want to make sure we illuminate the brand and everything it represents. Every design decision is carefully made to flow with the integrity of the brand. We don’t just design spaces; we also design and build the furniture, fixtures, lighting — whatever we need to make it work and support the brand.
Where are your favorite places in Los Angeles and New York to source furniture and interesting pieces?
Hospitality grade requirements force us to create our own furnishings. As for lighting and vintage pieces, I go to a few special vintage antique shops in Palm Springs and Northern California.
What made you want to start your own firm?
The economic recession of the early ’90s allowed me to freelance my skills into an established structure: Built Inc. With this true design-build concept, I began to control a visualized environment from conception through execution, allowing me to create and design as I constructed.
What’s up next?
We are currently working on nightclubs in Vegas, a couple of new exclusive lounges in West Hollywood, and hotels in Chicago, Boston, and Las Vegas. I’ve also been lucky to have some of my existing clients come back with more exciting ideas and spaces that they want Built Inc. to design and execute.