Every square inch of the shiny white conference table, recently cleared of coffee and donuts, is crammed with intricate foam-core models of a new 29,000-square-foot museum for the University of California at Davis campus. Florian Idenburg, 37, looking well scrubbed in a blue dress shirt and a pair of black chinos, is leading what is much more of a charrette than a sales presentation. He’s joined by his wife and business partner, Jing Liu, 32, and most of the six-person staff from their firm Solid Objectives–Idenburg Liu (SO-IL). Also joining them on this February afternoon in the firm’s Dumbo, Brooklyn, office: an executive architect from Bohlin Cywinski Jackson of San Francisco, a contractor, and an engineer. The client, UC Davis, is represented by about a half dozen staff members led by the campus architect, Clayton Halliday.

“We took your diagram,” Idenburg says, “and came up with this.” He holds aloft a graphic that depicts the museum’s program as a cluster of bubbles. Then he shows a model that’s a compound of small buildings linked by courtyards and topped by a roof that is a latticework of steel spaghetti. As the meeting progresses, the architects field questions ranging from what it might mean for the roof to “take on a program” to how the loading dock’s hydraulic lift will work. The conversation, interrupted by a request from UC Davis officials in California—listening in via teleconference—to rotate the models (“Can we see the view from the Quad?”) is so in-depth, so much about the nuts and bolts, that you’d think that SO-IL had already won the commission.

In fact, SO-IL is one of three finalists for the project, which will be awarded in late April. The firm is competing against another young New York firm, WorkAC, and the Danish firm Henning Larsen, well established in Europe but largely unknown in the United States. According to Halliday, the finalists were selected because “we were looking for something fresh”: The university wants the living museum, which will house the university’s fine arts collection and also include classrooms and studios, to be appealing to students, and not to be “perceived as a monument.” The building will be a design/build project, meaning that each firm, from the outset of the competition, has partnered with a contractor and an engineer. Each team was given a $125,000 stipend, and all the design details will be ironed out and budgeted, from circulation patterns to sprinkler systems, before a winner is chosen. For SO-IL, it would be a breakthrough $25 million project, which for the moment remains enticingly just out of reach.

SO-IL is no stranger to precariousness. Founded in 2008, the firm has a stated business model of running lean, so Idenburg and Liu can do the work that they find most interesting rather than the most lucrative. Their aesthetic is unusual, highly tactile, and deceptively simple at a time when young architects tend to design buildings that advertise their own complexity. “There are a lot of people who try this, very lean and very humble. You’re in the bedroom taking calls and sending emails,” says Liu, recalling when she and Idenburg decided it was time to get a business license and rent desk space in Dumbo. “After a while, it’s clear that if you don’t take that leap and make a commitment …”

She doesn’t finish the thought. But the story goes like this: Liu, born in China and educated in Japan and the United States, was working on a master’s in architecture at Tulane when she landed a job as an intern at SANAA in Tokyo. Idenburg, a Dutch native, graduated from the Delft University of Technology and also pursued a job with SANAA, he says, because he was interested in “spatial and experiential qualities” and was put off by the data-driven way the so-called SuperDutch architecture firms were designing buildings.

The future partners met in 2001 and together worked on SANAA’s Glass Pavilion for the Toledo Museum of Art. Liu returned to Tulane after the project, and they lost touch until two years later, when Idenburg was in New York with SANAA partner Sejima Kazuyo during the early stages of the competition to design the New Museum in the Bowery. “We were having a coffee, and she walked by and recognized us,” Idenburg recalls. “That’s when we reconnected.”

They married in 2006. Liu, pregnant with their second child two years later, gave up a steady job directing spa design for the Starwood Hotel Group so that the couple could hang out their shingle. Arguably, the timing made sense. The partners had managed to secure a handful of clients: a Derek Lam office in SoHo (inherited from SANAA), a building for a Dutch collector who initially wanted a SANAA knock-off (they refused), and a house for famed graphic designer Ivan Chermayeff that got as far as construction drawings and a hole in the ground. Then Lehman Brothers went bankrupt in September, followed by a series of nightmarish drops in the Dow. Idenburg and Liu completed the Lam project. The Dutch collector went away. And the Chermayeff project? “Literally, the budget evaporated,” Idenburg says.

Though the timing of the firm’s launch practically ensured that it would run lean, Liu says that “if we had started five years earlier, we would have been lean and humble anyway.” Adds Idenburg: “It’s our nature.” The firm’s first name, Solid Objectives, is intended as a declaration against practicing “paper architecture.” It means, according to Idenburg: “Ideas materialized”—although the firm’s website makes no distinction between architectural concepts and completed buildings (“Everything is a project,” argues Idenburg), so there’s plenty of “paper” in the mix.

They desperately avoided the more mundane projects that fledgling firms take on to pay the bills, Liu says, especially apartment renovations. “We were lucky enough that we were able to stay afloat by teaching,” says Idenburg, a Harvard Graduate School of Design professor. Liu teaches at Columbia. The two don’t collect a salary through their firm. “And then we took on these projects that didn’t pay us, but gave us visibility,” Idenburg says.

Some of those low-paying gigs, like a show room for a friend’s green roof business, quickly vanished. Others, like a 1,500-foot-long tent for the Frieze Art Fair’s New York edition, generated endless publicity and landed them in the Guinness Book of World Records (for the largest continuous tent structure in North America). They did so many low-yield projects that Idenburg estimates that the firm donates 50 percent of its billable hours, compared to the 1 percent most firms strive for. “It’s not pro bono in the sense that we are donating the time to those projects,” Idenburg says: The jobs pay. They just don’t pay enough.

Perhaps the pivotal moment that signaled the firm’s rise came when they were invited to compete for the coveted Young Architects Program (YAP) run by PS1, the innovative Queens arts space owned by the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA). The prize is a commission, with a budget of roughly $100,000, to design and build a temporary structure for the PS1 courtyard, New York’s answer to London’s Serpentine Pavilion. If the architects do it right, it becomes the focal point of a memorable summer.

SO-IL did it exactly right. They created an installation called Pole Dance, inspired by Bauhaus artist Oskar Schlemmer’s performance by the same name. The description on MoMA’s website makes it sound quite serious: “an interconnected system of poles and bungees whose equilibrium is open to human action and environmental factors.” In fact, what Pole Dance brought to PS1 was a sense of fun. The crowds who showed up for the institution’s Saturday afternoon dance parties—adults and children—loved playing with the flexible upright 25-foot-tall poles, which supported a floppy ceiling of netting stocked with colorful exercise balls. In a dozen years of YAP installations, Pole Dance was perhaps the least overtly architectural, and the most viscerally pleasurable.

Today, when you ask Liu and Idenburg about Pole Dance, they don’t mention the idea of play or fun. They say that the project, bright and festive as it was, was intended as a metaphor for the state of society in the wake of the economic meltdown. “The notion of instability was very much the driver of the idea,” Idenburg says. The installation was “a reflection of the way we experienced that time.”

“I think that’s 20-20 rear vision,” responds Barry Bergdoll, MoMA’s Philip Johnson chief curator of architecture and design. “It’s not at all what they discussed at the time. They were interested in the relationship between being in a place and emerging social media. They talked at the time about building an occupiable video game or an occupiable iPhone game app.”

Maybe the architects have reassessed the meaning of Pole Dance, or maybe Idenburg and Liu were clever enough, when selling the project, to de-emphasize the inherent shakiness of the structure: “MoMA, when we told them we were going to make a structure above their visitors that was always on the verge of collapse, got very nervous,” Idenburg recalls. The engineering firm Buro Happold told the architects, in Idenburg’s words, that “there’s no way to calculate so much uncertainty.” They just had to make the thing stand up through trial and error. Early versions did, in fact, collapse. Eventually, SO-IL was able to build an unstable system that was strong enough to stand. Metaphoric perfection. Or, as Bergdoll says, “I think the project is a bit like their personality. They appear modest and very straightforward. It takes a while to realize that they’ve got this slightly subversive undercurrent.”

Even before winning the PS1 commission, SO-IL had started work on its first completed free-standing building, the Kukje Art Center in Seoul, South Korea. They were hired for the art center based on a model that was equally incalculable. A woman named Hyun-Sook Lee came to New York shopping for an architect to design the third building in her cluster of galleries. She found SO-IL by word of mouth and told them she wanted “the biggest box possible” for the site. The architects designed a concrete structure that had unbroken space inside, with the building’s circulation pushed to the outside edges. “But then we thought, ‘How do we deal with the soft historical fabric of the context?’ ” Idenburg says. “We said, ‘What if we wrap this thing in some sort of continuous mist or soft border?’ So we wrapped this box in a stocking. And the client said, ‘I like it. Make it.’ ”

But what material could mimic the stocking? Eventually, SO-IL decided on chain mail, the metal mesh that knights once wore, which had the requisite structural integrity but still appeared soft. The firm worked closely with the façade engineering firm Front, which generated computer models that allowed the architects to understand the material’s properties well enough to fabricate it. Their search for likely chain-mail manufacturers led them to a promising company in a Chinese town called Anping, some six hours southwest of Beijing.

It wasn’t until Liu, Idenburg, and one of their engineers, Michael Ra, journeyed there that they realized that their manufacturer didn’t exactly have a factory: “We wound up in this little courtyard where there was one person in the back welding by hand,” Idenburg recalls. “We needed a half million rings.” As it turned out, everyone in Anping could weld, and the town, working together, was able to produce 14 gigantic swaths of chain mail. They borrowed the town’s car wash to clean the expanses of metal before shipping the mesh to South Korea.

In the end, the concrete box surrounded by an amorphous cloud of silvery gray is stunning; the material does look like a stocking, with all the implied sensuality and mystery. There is a tactility to the building that is unusual in an era when most sophisticated architecture is designed, sourced, and fabricated on computers. “Material,” Liu says, “is very experiential. And light is very important to us. And the experience of space is very important to us.”

Consider the SoHo offices the firm designed for the New York production company Logan. The company mostly hires freelancers on a project basis, so the space is intended to be flexible, accommodating anywhere from a handful to dozens of workers at two 65-foot-long tables lined with computer work stations. The two tables are in rooms separated by a floor to ceiling scrim of white fabric. The same translucent fabric covers, but doesn’t totally obscure, the old cast iron building’s giant windows. The overall effect is ethereal, like the office is full of fog. It is more art than architecture, but it is also a well-thought-out, practical work environment.

It’s this ability to make artistic architecture, without being utterly impractical about it, that sets SO-IL apart. “There’s something that the Dutch and Chinese share,” Liu observes. “Pragmatism.”

That might be the real story. Not that SO-IL, born of the recession, runs lean. But that SO-IL, inspired by SANAA, makes it entirely reasonable to create architecture that reads as art. Whether or not the firm manages to land the UC Davis project, it is poised to have a breakthrough year. SO-IL was recently anointed as one of the Architectural League’s Emerging Voices of 2013. And the firm’s new Fifth Avenue flagship store for Benetton is scheduled to open in September. The Italian sweater manufacturer is “trying to refigure how they’re perceived in the world,” says Idenburg, who is otherwise close-mouthed about the project. If the store is any good, if this large, publicly accessible place in the heart of Midtown Manhattan possesses the same approach to materials, light, and space that the firm has brought to Long Island City, SoHo, and Seoul, SO-IL may never have to run lean again.