Grace La and James Dallman, AIA, launched La Dallman in 1999 in Milwaukee, a block away from their current studio in the city’s gentrifying Historic Third Ward. The neighborhood, once known for its wholesale grocers and light-industry warehouses, is now listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
La and Dallman—who are married—keep a small studio: between five and 12 people, depending on the project load. “At one point a few years ago, we were at 16, and it felt too large to manage,” La, 42, says. “James and I like to look at everything that goes out the door.”
Their present studio is a former produce-distribution center. “It’s interesting because in the space, the proportions are so tall, and the structure is relatively spindly,” Dallman, 48, says. “When you had an earthquake in Virginia last spring? We could feel that in our building here in Milwaukee. The building swayed back and forth. The high-bay structure is not very stiff, but it’s pleasant otherwise.”
Although La and Dallman met as graduate students at Harvard in Boston, as a firm, La Dallman has strong Wisconsin roots. Dallman was born and raised in Milwaukee.
“Many people in this practice originated as graduate students at the University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee,” La says. Some of those staffers started as students under La, who is a full-time faculty member at the university. “We have steadfast folks who’ve come through UWM,” she says. “We’ve become a quite intimate family after spending a decade together.”
Currently, La Dallman is working on the Harmony Initiative—a collaboration between the UWM Peck School of the Arts, the Milwaukee Ballet, and the Medical College of Wisconsin. The facility will serve as a performance space as well as a physical-rehabilitation center, among other uses. “Dancers are perhaps the most premiere specimens of the human body,” La says. “This is nearly like a thesis project. You couldn’t pick a more interesting cast of characters to come together.”
What about working as a married couple? “We’re partners in life as well as in the practice,” La says. “Our children joke with us, ‘Could you please not talk to us about the office for five minutes?’ ”
Dallman notes the upsides for the kids. “At the same time, they love coming in whenever they want. They love the model materials.” La and Dallman have never made much of an effort to separate their married and working lives. “The practice is always envisioned as an opportunity to collaborate with one another.”
“The city is very transparent—socially, politically, economically—despite the divisiveness you hear about in Wisconsin,” says Dallman, referring to recent partisan rancor and recall elections.
Milwaukee is different, he says. “We were able to meet the mayor within a week of moving here. It’s not dominated by Brahmins the way a city like Boston might be.”
For La Dallman’s part, the studio’s structure reflects transparency. “It’s a mission statement of our practice,” Dallman says. “It’s a very flat hierarchy. Everyone does everything. There’s no one in the office who just does one thing. Everyone is expected to help manage and design. That’s one of the reasons we haven’t grown very large.”
La says that the political temperament of the city has been critical to La Dallman’s success. “I really do attribute the transparency of the city and our practice here for giving us the foundation to take on the projects we’ve been able to do, especially the infrastructure projects and the level of complexity we’ve been able to work at,” she says. “It’s embraced us from the start. We’re very grateful for that.”
La Dallman’s work draws on the natural and economic landscape of the state. In Wisconsin, there is a closeness between industry and agriculture, La and Dallman say. “There’s a certain kind of craft industry that’s peculiar to this place,” Dallman says. “They joke that every street corner has three metal shops and a pub. And each farmstead is a factory.” Material mastery matters to the studio, La says, but their designs don’t hold to a “neo-Luddite or antiquated romanticism about craft. Milwaukee sees itself as the machine shop to the world.”
La and Dallman say that they’ve been asked to lecture about their work in different places. It always comes back to Wisconsin. “When you can combine digital fabrication technology and design tools in the office and the sensual quality of the material and the engagement of people who build things? There’s a real support you get from the community,” Dallman says. “Even the contractor starts to get excited about the project.”