Inside Rapt Studio with Sam Farhang
To call Rapt Studio architects would be limiting – their holistic approach to design has seen them reimagine the headquarters of Dropbox and Linkedin, as well as an assortment of more intimate projects. Key to their ethos is that a company’s physical space should reflect its online one, whether that means collaborative spaces or offices that work, and play, round the clock. We talked to Sam Farhang about how the firm envisions the future, the magic of LA architecture, and redeveloping the water front.
Getting Personal with Sam Farhang
WORDS BY: JACK SUNNUCKS | IMAGES COURTESY OF RAPT STUDIO
You go to an architecture studio for one thing, you go to a marketing firm for another, you go to a branding studio for something else.” Sam Farhang, President and Creative Director of Rapt Studio, is talking about how the firm made the leap from 3-D to something more all encompassing. “We saw an opportunity to say, hey, look, in a world where everything is connected, that has to be a different way to go about servicing our clients. It’s out of that conversation that Rapt was born.”
With this holistic ethos, over the past seven years Rapt have become the go to studio for a diverse portfolio of clients both corporate and not. For Dropbox, they created a vast space encouraging collaboration; for Salt Surf, a store that reflected both the brand’s Brooklyn origins and a love of the ocean; and in Napa, creating a bar that was actually fun as well as being chic, leaving behind the perhaps more dry connotations of a wine tasting. These are just a few of their varied projects, which span the country and an ever expanding array of industries.
We caught Sam in between trips to New York and San Francisco, in the company’s remarkably calm Culver City offices. Here, he reflects on why everyone wants to build a “campus,” redeveloping the San Pedro waterfront, and what he learned in the Swedish military.
How did you end up in LA, because if I’m correct you’re Swedish?
I am yes. I lived in Sweden most of my adult life–for most of my life actually, since I was five [Sam was born in Iran]. And then my military service in Sweden. When I got out of high school, I was so unsure of what I wanted to do with my life, and my parents were moving to the US.
As a teenager that had come out of high school, I really didn’t want to come to the US. I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life. The obvious thing that I thought of, in that moment, was, “I’m just going to enlist.” So that’s what I did. I did the military service for two years, and then when I finished–during that time, I had gotten to mature and figure stuff out–I decided to visit my parents. I still didn’t know what I wanted to do. But, I figured, doesn’t hurt to come to LA, visit for a few months, figure out what I want to do, and then go from there.
I think a lot of people that come to LA never leave. So that’s kind of what happened to me.
How did you find architecture?
While I was visiting my parents, my dad said, “Well, if you’re going to be hanging out here all summer long, do something interesting. Go take a class. Whatever.”
Out of curiosity, I took some history classes, because I’ve always been into history. I accidentally enrolled in an architectural history class. I had no idea what the fuck I was doing. Ended up in this class and was completely blown away. It was so fascinating. So I was like, “I’m going to study architecture.”
A lot of people think LA is really fake. I think it’s the exact opposite. I think there’s a lot of authenticity to the city. You just have to find the right pocket.
How long has Rapt been in existence?
So Rapt, under the Rapt name, is going on seven years. It started out under a very different name, as Pollack Architecture, which is probably 35 years old now. Pollack Architecture existed for a very long time in San Francisco. In the process of David [Galullo] stepping in and taking over as the CEO, we started really reimagining what we wanted to do. What do we see as hole in the market.
The really interesting thing for me is that, a lot of the companies you work with, operate in a digital realm. Is that considered when you’re building a vision for them? Do they know how to communicate what they want?
What’s interesting, between LA, New York, and San Francisco, we have a pretty wide range of client types. San Francisco, as you can expect, is mostly all tech. LA, we get a lot of new entertainment, companies like Fullscreen. We also get a lot of lifestyle brands. New York is less entertainment, we get some tech, some professional services.
One thing that’s common through all of them is that there’s no company that’s not a digital company now. There’s not a single industry that’s not a tech company at the basis. TBSTNT, which is a Turner Company, a television company, they’re online as much as they’re on television. Everybody’s on some level of tech. One thing that’s interesting, as much as they live and operate in a virtual platform, they more so than anybody else, care about the physical spaces they create.
There's no company that’s not a digital company now. There’s not a single industry that’s not a tech company at the basis.
Can you talk about the rise of the “campus”–this emphasis on the office as lifestyle hub, especially for tech companies.
Right. Technology has allowed us to unfetter ourselves from our desks. And that comes with a lot of positives and a lot of negatives. Nobody really has a 9-6 job anymore, especially in that industry. People will come in when they want, work until when they want. A lot of our clients don’t have vacation or PTO policies. It’s like, “Take as much vacation as you want. Just make sure you get your work done.”
So in an environment like that, the workplace becomes more important to provide choice. And I think that’s probably where the ‘campus’ terminology comes from. Thinking back to when you were in school and university, you lived on campus, you had a lot of amenities that came with that. The workplace is starting to take on that same identity of being able to provide you services that you would usually not get at your office.
Technology has allowed us to unfetter ourselves from our desks. And that comes with a lot of positives and a lot of negatives.
What’s a project at Rapt that’s meant a lot to you?
The one project that comes to mind is one of the smallest projects we’ve done. Tim Davis is a well-known orthopedic pain specialist. He’s got a practice in LA. He works with celebrities, athletes, and regular Joes like you and I, that would have whatever joint issues we might have. He’s built his entire practice around alternative medicine, in the sense that, he doesn’t do surgeries. Everything is based on pain management, physical therapy, injections. He wants to figure out how he can help you before anybody cuts you open and goes in there with a needle.
So they came to us, and they wanted us to build a clinic for them. I was like, “I’ve not done medical before.” That was a good thing to them. We got talking. What does this look like? What are you calling it? And all of the sudden, the conversation became, “What is your brand? What do you believe in? What is the essence of what you’re trying to do? Why are you trying to do it?” And the reason I use that as probably my favorite case is because it was one of the projects where the Rapt promise really came to bear, where we spent the first three months just talking about their brand and what they were trying to do. We helped them create their mission statement and understand the ideology behind the brand.
So everything related to that, from the why they’re doing what they’re doing, to how they’re going to talk about themselves, attributes, archetypes–all of it. And not until we had that done, did we start to design their space. So now, we’re doing a small surgery center and a small clinic for him, and the name of the company is Source Health Care now. And they have big plans for it…It’s a lot of fun. It’s a lot more fun than getting a project where you have to pick out paint and carpet.
When you make a space for people here, are there ecological considerations? Like the fact that it’s so hot here and it’s only going to get hotter?
The boring answer to that is yes, because the building codes require us to think about it. Outside of that, one of the things that I would emphasize here, and tying it back to Rapt, for us the thing that we constantly talk about with our clients is how do you build meaningful experiences. So if everything is about experience, we always start talking to our clients about what we call an experience map. We talk about, what was your drive like today coming here? Did you have to drive around looking for parking? What did that feel like? Once you found parking, how did you get from your car into the space? So we think about everything from pre-arrival to after-arriving to being outside to departure and post-departure, and we usually spend a lot of time with our clients up front, really dissecting all of the different audiences that might interact with the space, or a website, or whatever they might be.
If we’re doing a space for a client in DTLA and they’re on the top floor with a beautiful view, we’re going to approach that differently than a client that has a tilt up concrete structure on the beach, because those experiences are going to be different. So it ties into the location, the neighborhood, the environment. And if you’re Downtown, I bet your parking sucked and traffic sucked. So how do you turn that experience around. For somebody that drove to the beach, that might’ve been a lot easier, or a lot better. You come up and see the beautiful ocean like, “Oh wow. This is fantastic.”
Everything is about experience, we always start talking to our clients about what we call an experience map. We talk about, what was your drive like today coming here? Did you have to drive around looking for parking? What did that feel like?
I guess to round out, aside from your vision with Dr. Davis, are there any other projects that you’re particularly excited about at the moment?
There’s a couple really exciting projects that we’re working on. Similar to Dr. Davis, we’re working with a client in Austin, who’s rethinking early child-care. They looked at Montessori programs, and said, “Montessori’s great but hasn’t been changed since the beginning of Montessori. Yet, the world that we live in is dramatically different.” And they’re focusing on early childhood so from infant to kindergarten, so we’re working with them, developing their curriculum, working with their team. It’s been a lot of fun.
On the complete extreme, we’re working with a development out of DTLA called Ratkovich. They’re partnered with another company called Jericho. There’s a site in San Pedro that used to be fort property, and then a public market, and a fish market. It’s a 30-acre site with a little village environment, right on the water. It’s completely underutilized, underused, and so they’re basically tearing it all down, and we got brought on board as the lead design architect.
It’s been really fun and it’s been really challenging too, because it’s really easy for developers to say, “Copy this. Copy this. Copy this. This was successful in Chicago. Let’s do that.” But we’re not in Chicago. This isn’t the High Line. So we’re not going to do what’s in New York. One of the first challenges from the development team was to create an environment that would draw from the millenials of Silver Lake. I don’t know if that’s really going to be attainable for them to come all the way to San Pedro, but let’s talk about how we can create a really genuine and exciting environment that will draw people from all over LA, and not just thinking about hipsters in Silverlake. I think, in general, we’re fortunate enough that a lot of the work we do, we do with clients that are open-minded, to let us get in there and push. So as long as we can go in and challenge their assumptions and their needs and wants, it usually is a fun project.