Firm name: DAAM
Firm leadership: Elyse Agnello, AIA, and Alex Shelly, AIA
Year founded: 2016
Education: Agnello: M.Arch, Harvard Graduate School of Design; P.G. Dip. with Distinction, The Architectural Association; B.S. in Architecture, University of Michigan. Shelly: M.Arch., Harvard Graduate School of Design; B.Arch., Lehigh University.
Firm size: Two principals and one to three designers depending on project demands.
Experience: Agnello: Platform Manager; Guild Row; Adrian Smith + Gordon Gill Architecture; Crosstree Metal Fabrication; Kuth Ranieri Architects. Shelly: Kennedy & Violich Architecture; CJS Architects; L.R. Kimball; Mitchell Construction.
How founders met: GSD studio taught by Eric Höweler, FAIA.
Firm mission: Our mission is all about an adaptive process. Each DAAM project is an adaptation—a fresh take on an existing concept, space, business model, or building—shaped by our intentionally iterative and dynamic design process that spans from idea all the way to physical reality. We aspire for each adaptation to have some tooth and be truly transformative—to valorize a neighborhood; breathe new life into an abandoned structure; create a new way of being together; or simply inspire a passerby.
First commission: Shell House renovation in Roxbury, N.Y.
Defining project and why: Guild Row in Chicago. It was our first project of medium scale and given our unique relationship [Agnello is a co-founder of Guild Row] to the client, we got to explore and test a lot of things in terms of process as well as aesthetics. It helped us define and evolve our thinking around adaption as a category of project akin to but different from adaptive reuse.
Another important project: LYTE Collective in Chicago. Both an adaptive reuse and a reinvention of transitional living programs for homeless youth, the project allowed us to think expansively with our client to develop the building’s program and then subsequently its unique organizational logic and atypical domestic spatial qualities.
What inspired you to start the firm? We both went to grad school with the intention of having our own practice someday. We both entered the GSD with a wide array of experience in the industry working at firms large and small as well as for construction and fabrication companies. We were a few years older than many of our peers. Our varied experience inspired us to dream up a practice where each project could be a hands-on prototype wherein we could challenge the way architecture comes to be. The practice itself aspires to become a critique of the “how” as much as the “what.”
How did you come up with your firm name? The name actually came before the firm’s official founding. It was something lobbed in half as a joke at the eleventh hour for a competition after not enough sleep. The letters of the acronym even had a different meaning originally. But we always knew that our firm name wanted to be something bold that would focus attention on our work process & product rather than our authorship. We wanted it to be something that would be reflective of our varied experience; deep belief that ideas work best in a cross-disciplinary collaborative culture; and frustration with the status quo. So, when it came time to officially pick a name, we came back to DAAM for Designers, Architects, Artists, and Makers. It fit the bill perfectly.
What’s one thing everyone should know about your studio? It’s pronounced “damn.”
How would you describe the personality of your practice? We roll with the motto: Work hard, do good, and be nice to people. We are very serious about quality design but try not to take ourselves too seriously in the process of making it.
The most important piece of criticism you ever received: Don’t be too precious.
Biggest challenge in running a successful practice: Balancing design aspirations with time and budgetary constraints.
Favorite rule to break: Ketchup on a Chicago Dog! Our roots are on the East Coast in the New York and Philadelphia metropolitan areas where encased meat specialties are different, but condiment rules are more liberal.
Design tool of choice: The section—most of our projects are adaptations of existing structures with incongruent conditions. We like to leverage those challenging moments to create signature design moments, be it texture transitions or unexpected spatial sequences à la Guild Row’s entry fence and front stoop. Alex’s favorite tools are his Moleskine sketchbook, 3D printer, and utility knife. Elyse would be lost without her tiny iPhone and 6-inch steel scale.
Biggest career leap: Can we say launching DAAM? Taking on large amounts of debt/investors to launch our first big project and leaving the stability of a regular paycheck was pretty epic for both of us in different ways.
What are you reading? What’s on your bookshelf? Agnello: Just started J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens (Hodder & Stoughton, 1906) with my four-month old, and in my infrequent free time Lina Bo Bardi (Yale University Press, 2013), a recent gift. Shelly: I’m jumping back and forth between How Music Works (McSweeney's, 2012) by David Byrne and The Materiality of Architecture (University of Minnesota Press, 2018) by Antoine Picon. I invariably peruse the works of Christ & Gantenbein, Aires Mateus, Lacaton & Vassal, and Louis Kahn for inspiration.
This article appeared in ARCHITECT's September 2022 issue.
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