Alyssa Lee

Firm: CityDeskStudio
Location: St. Paul, Minn.
Year founded: 2004
Leadership: Ben Awes, AIA (principal and co-founder)
Education: B.A. and M. Arch., University of Minnesota
Experience: Loom Studio, Ralph Rapson Architects, Julie Snow Architects (now Snow Kreilich Architects)
How founders met: I formed the studio with Christian Dean and Bob Ganser, both of whom are doing other great things now. We met while in school together at the University of Minnesota. Much of the work on our website was done in this partnership.
Firm size: 4

Mission:
I like to say we are contextual modernists—modernists because we believe architecture tackles issues and ideas of today while pointing toward the future; contextual because architecture gains richness and meaning when it is grounded and when it emerges from where and when and who it’s for.

That’s what we say, but ultimately, I just want the work to be about something. I want to be moved and I want that opportunity for everyone who works on our projects. I want the ideas to fuel a passionate response in us. Otherwise, we’re just drafting.

CityDeskStudio celebrates the Mediterranean style of this 1960s home. Copper light fixtures give the remodeled kitchen a contemporary look.
Alyssa Lee CityDeskStudio celebrates the Mediterranean style of this 1960s home. Copper light fixtures give the remodeled kitchen a contemporary look.
Alyssa Lee

First commission:
I designed a desk for myself that was inspired by the cool massage table in the original Karate Kid (1984) movie and that landed me my first client. A woman (I don't remember her name!) saw it while on a residential architecture tour of my house and asked me to design one for her. That design evolved into the conference table and desks that are now in our studio.

The design of the Gathering Kitchen resulted from the owner’s desire to update their kitchen and integrate underutilized dining room space. Highlights include a six-legged Marinace granite table, cherry red cabinets, and manganese ironspot brick flooring.
Alyssa Lee The design of the Gathering Kitchen resulted from the owner’s desire to update their kitchen and integrate underutilized dining room space. Highlights include a six-legged Marinace granite table, cherry red cabinets, and manganese ironspot brick flooring.

Favorite project:
At the moment, a small project called the Gathering Kitchen in Mendota Heights, Minn., is my favorite. We were wrestling with the physical position and the relationship of eating and cooking in this remodel until we took a cleaver and split the kitchen open in the middle. We dropped the dining table into the center of the island, and something new was created that we hadn’t seen before. It is a new way to inhabit the space and a new way to support the relationships of the people who live there.

Second favorite project:
Another favorite remains a paper project at this point. There is nothing more inspiring to me than working with questions of form and meaning that emerge from our common rituals. Though our design proposal for a 10th-anniversary processional cross for a local church was shortlisted, it was ultimately not chosen, maybe because we pushed beyond their comfort zone—but it pushed me right into mine.

A glass walkway links two distinct structures of this Lake Superior cabin.
Don F. Wong A glass walkway links two distinct structures of this Lake Superior cabin.

Any design heroes?
There are so many, but I’ve always been inspired by Gustav Stickley, Eileen Gray, Pierre Chareau, Charles and Ray Eames—of course—and currently Patricia Urquiola. They are great furniture designers whose work moves into and transforms the space around them.

Our environments are never just the buildings; they are usually filled with “stuff.” A beautifully designed chair can transform a space and our experience of it. I’ve designed a chair and it is a remarkable challenge. It’s easier to design a building, I think.

Made popular in the 1950s, Nixie tubes are electronic displays that predate LED technology. Awes programmed this one to function as a clock and added a simple steel-case stand.
Made popular in the 1950s, Nixie tubes are electronic displays that predate LED technology. Awes programmed this one to function as a clock and added a simple steel-case stand.

Special item in your studio space:
Right now we have a topographically accurate, 3D digital model of the moon in remarkable detail spinning around on a 55-inch computer screen mounted on the wall. I’m seduced by it every time I walk by. The model is part of an ongoing collaboration with a diverse group of artists for a joint exhibition in anticipation of the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing [in 2019]. What I can reveal at this point is that we are interested in capturing a live experience of the moon. Exactly where that goes and what it becomes is still forming, but we have been researching and gathering data.

Design tool of choice:
I wish I could say a sketchpad and pen, but it’s the computer. Three-dimensional modeling and printing—I couldn’t live without them now. I am also amazed by open source software. There is some powerful stuff allowing folks to do some cool things, and we are trying to bring that into the studio more and more.

Designed for a graphic designer and gardener, the Graphic Nature House in Roseville, Minn., uses an exterior palette of concrete, steel, glass, and wood to highlight the surrounding landscape.
Karen Melvin Designed for a graphic designer and gardener, the Graphic Nature House in Roseville, Minn., uses an exterior palette of concrete, steel, glass, and wood to highlight the surrounding landscape.

Morning person or night owl?
Morning person, for sure. I would much rather get up at 4 a.m. than work until midnight.

Skills to master:
We just switched over to Autodesk Revit, and I’m the last one to give it a go. That needs to change!

Designed by architect Ed Baker and built in 1978, the Skyway once connected two department stores in downtown Minneapolis. CityDeskStudio envisions adapting the 280,000-pound steel-and-glass bridge into a space for living and working.
Designed by architect Ed Baker and built in 1978, the Skyway once connected two department stores in downtown Minneapolis. CityDeskStudio envisions adapting the 280,000-pound steel-and-glass bridge into a space for living and working.

Design aggravation:
Stairs without railings—no one has them, or could actually live with them, but they show up in design magazines all the time.

When I’m not working in architecture, I...
Launch rockets, raise giant tortoises, and make jewelry.