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Interview: Architect James Meyer of Lean Arch

It's not everyday you get to jump inside the creative mind of an Architect, they see things differently.  Architects understand the engineering structure of a space, and some, like James Meyer Principal of Lean Arch, dig into every detail of how the building becomes something more.  All of this starts with a parcel of land, or an outdated existing structure.  How do they cram it all in?  The views, the materials, nature, privacy, and the large master suite.  We sat down to ask James about the past, present, and future of his trade and why he got started in the first place.

Colt Rd.

Colt Rd. View Project


KV: At what point in your life did you know you wanted to be an architect? 

JRM: I have always enjoyed making things… I like to “build” things… and I don’t like anyone telling me how to do it. I like to make up my own way for going about it, and I always have from a very young age. So, I guess that’s what attracted me to architecture in the first place. When I was in middle school, a family friend introduced me to Clelio Boccato, an Architect and associate of Ray Kappe, the Architect and Founder of the Southern California Institute of Architecture (SCI-Arc). His brother, Peter Boccato, also an Architect impressed upon me the idea of studying Architecture in college. He suggested that I attend California Polytechnic at San Luis Obispo. No one in my extended family had attended college before, but after that day, I had set my course for becoming an Architect…

James Meyer

KV: When did you move to the Southbay?

JRM: I grew up in Torrance. We moved to California from Cleveland, Ohio in 1971. I was almost two years old. Our home was a mid-century modern apartment building on Hickory Avenue near City Hall. I remember going to the annual Armed Forces Day Parade on Torrance Blvd., just down the street from our house. Eventually, we moved into a single-family residence not far from there. My parents still live in that house. I graduated from South High School in Torrance in 1988.

KV: What is your favorite part of the design process?

JRM: I love all aspects of the design process. From conceptualization through construction, I never stop designing. Often, we will defer certain aspects of the design to when the project is under construction. This helps us to better analyze our options, in terms of both aesthetics and cost.

Lean Arch Projects

KV: What is your favorite exterior house finish/material?

JRM: I am very open-minded when it comes to finish materials, but most often I defer to those which are tried and true. I strive for a timeless look with my architecture. I tend to go with classic selections such wood, steel, glass, and concrete. I love mid-century modern inspired design, as well as, the philosophies associated with the International Style and Bauhaus Movements. I also love Japanese architecture, both traditional style and modern. I believe in the “less is more” mantra and love a minimal aesthetic.

KV: How have building materials changed over the course of your career?

JRM: There is a growing number of composite materials coming on the market every year. Many of these are made of recycled materials or are laminations consisting of different materials. Most often, they are marketed in terms of superior strength and resilience. Again, I like a product to be road-tested a bit before I will try using it. We have seen a couple of instances over the last twenty years where a product has failed and has needed to be replaced. I like to try and avoid that from happening. Currently, I am loving the many concrete fiberproducts and porcelain products coming on the market.

KV: Do you have a signature aspect to your homes that you see as unique?

JRM: Because many of our projects are in Southern California, I really embrace the idea of indoor/outdoor living. Spaces are not always defined by four walls. I also like flexibility in the floor plan. Our projects tend to engage the environment on many levels… from the experience of living near nature, generally through planting and landscaping, or by understanding the effects of natural daylighting, heating, and cooling. Daylighting is especially important.

KV: How important is lighting in your projects?

JRM: The quality of light is probably the single most important aspect of designing space. The way light enters a building and illuminates a room can be the defining element of the design. In the absence of daylight, artificial lighting takes on an especially important role.

Lean Arch Projects

KV: What is your favorite architectural light?

JRM: I prefer fixtures which are more “industrial” in nature. I like hand made fixtures which feature welded or bent steel and glass with natural finishes. I like to see the wiring in some cases... or the bulb and filament. Pendants and sconces are wonderful ways to introduce artificial lighting – they can be expressions of art or craft which can enhance the architecture by their complimentary materials. I also love fabric, and in some cases, wood details in fixtures…In all cases, I gravitate toward fixtures which are more minimal in their aesthetic. Form should follow function.

KV: Do you have a favorite decorative light or manufacturer?

JRM: I like WorksteadWorley’s and Allied Maker

KV: Did you have a role model in your field or whose work do you admire?

JRM: One of my favorite Architects is Louis Kahn. His focus on materiality and natural light is legendary. Recently, I have been looking to Tom Kundig and Jim Olson (Olson Kundig) for inspiration, as well as, Studio MK27 in Brazil. Marcio Kogan is a brilliant Architect, and his philosophy regarding the arrangement of building components to make space is noteworthy.

Lean Arch Projects

KV: What is your favorite local restaurant?

JRM: I am a huge foodie, and my wife Wimberly and I like to eat out as much as we like to cook at home and entertain. Some of our local favorites include Fishing With Dynamite, Love andSalt, and Little Sister in Manhattan Beach Sosta Cucina in Hermosa Beach. We also love to explore with our children a variety of foods in neighboring South Bay communities, including Korean BBQ, Ramen, and noodle houses, izakaya, etc.

KV: What do you think the next big trend in architecture will be?

JRM: I have been advocating for a more hands-on approach to the design of architecture and the building process. For lack of a better term, I refer to this as the “artisanal” approach to the work. As the fabrication methods for consumer products continues to advance, we are witnessing many of these techniques beginning to be applied to architecture. 3D visualization has led to 3D printing, vacuum molding and lamination, CNC milling, etc. These techniques are all now being used to develop forms and facades for an architectural vocabulary which is becoming less and less defined by conventional geometric enclosures. I think we will continue to see these means and methods develop. I like to remind my clients, that, however much they are able to customize their automobiles or cellphones, there remains only one truly unique opportunity to express one’s personality – and that is with the design of their personal space, their abode, their… “home”. Why miss out on this opportunity to reflect upon and to incorporate your own preferences and daily routines into the spaces in which you live?

KV: How do you think Covid may affect the design/building process moving forward?

JRM: I have not yet begun to ponder an architectural response to the COVID-19 epidemic. Humans, by nature, rely on physical interaction to exist… my hope is that we will soon return to our normal state of being and acting like humans…

KV: Warm dim led downlights are pretty amazing, have you seen these? Worked with them?

JRM: I incorporate LED downlights into all our projects. Most all the lights are dimmable. The warm tone is attractive to me, especially in a modern setting because it helps to give character to what may be a rather minimal or austere space. I like to avoid a grid of lights in a room. My tendency is to locate small groupings of downlights in designated areas, often to light an architectural feature or to serve as functional task lighting. I also like indirect lighting whenever possible. Indirect lighting allows for the architecture to remain front and center, highlighting the subtle characteristics of surrounding materials without blinding the viewer…

KV: Thanks for all the insight James, can't wait to see what you and your team at Lean Arch does next!