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A Relationship--Business and Personal--Built on a Solid Base

Entrepreneurs: The Staffs run a family and a joint architecture and development practice. While John deals with the concepts and the clients, Lori gets her hands dirty at the building sites.

July 18, 1996|LEON WHITESON | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

John Staff and Lori Appel felt a powerful attraction for each other on the day they began their master's degree courses at the Southern California Institute of Architecture in Playa Vista.

"We started with a wild quarrel over something or other, and we've been together ever since," Lori says cheerfully. Now, 13 years later, married, with three small daughters, the Staffs run a joint architecture and development practice whose work is beginning to be noticed for its innovative excellence.

The Staffs are members of the new generation of young Southern California architects who are starting to make their way in this difficult but compelling profession, a calling characterized by an uneasy mixture of high ambition and low pay.

Emerging after the long recession that shrank work opportunities for many designers in the early 1990s, the new generation--men and women in their early to mid-30s--has just begun to appear on the Los Angeles horizon.

John and Lori Staff follow on the heels of two generations of avant-garde L.A. architects. The 1970s marked the rise of Frank Gehry, who created a distinctive Southern California style now admired around the world. Gehry, now nearing 70, paved the way for the group known as the "Gehry Kids," who are in their late 40s and early 50s.

Many of this group--which includes Eric Owen Moss, Michael Rotondi, Thom Mayne, Frederick Fisher and the late Frank Israel--taught at the Southern California Institute of Architecture, known as SCI-Arc.

"At SCI-Arc we learned the lessons the previous generation could teach us, and the lessons they couldn't teach," John Staff says. "Powerful instructors such as Moss and Rotondi liberated our minds with their no-holds-barred approach to design. But they tended toward an over-intellectualization of architecture. Following Frank Gehry, they liked to take things apart in a cerebral, epic, almost abstract kind of way. We're more modest and less ambitious, I guess, and maybe more grounded in the hard realities of late '90s."

Rotondi, dean of SCI-Arc, remembers John Staff as one of the most talented students in his year.

"He is very precise and scrupulously concerned with details," Rotondi says. "I think the designs he's now producing are among the most interesting work done by the rising generation."

Both native Southern Californians, John, 35, and Lori, 36, came to architecture by very different routes. John started out as a craftsman drawn to furniture design, which he studied at San Diego State. Finding it nearly impossible to make a living as a freelance furniture maker, he switched to architecture.

"But I still tend to think of buildings as large pieces of furniture," he says, smiling.

Lori, on the other hand, grew up in a milieu of building construction. Her father and grandfather were contractors in the Sheldon Appel Co. who built tract homes in the San Fernando Valley.

"We spent most of our family time looking at and talking about buildings," she says. "Construction and real estate fascinated all of us."

They set up practice in 1989, in two separate but linked firms: John Staff Architect and Lori Appel Staff Design & Development Inc. They share offices in a new, three-story building on Federal Avenue in West Los Angeles, which John designed while Lori acted as developer and contractor. The building's strong composition of raw concrete buttresses set off by panels of stainless steel and wide expanses of glass epitomizes John Staff's muscular but meticulous design style. The effect is powerful but refined, like a Ferrari at rest.

Internally, the sky-lit space is kept simple, with rich touches of copper sheathing and an unusual floor made up of steel plates screwed to plywood.

"We like to make our design statements with materials, not paint and decoration," explains John, who is lean and rangy with intense brown eyes. Tall and slender, Lori Staff gentles her husband's intensity with her easy laugh.

*

Setting up their practice has been a risky adventure, helped by Lori's family connections. While most of their contemporaries are working in other architects' offices, they have the freedom and the responsibility of having to survive on their own merits.

"There's a lot of work out there," Lori argues, "but you have to go out and find it. It won't come to you if you just sit and wait."

Like many young practices, the Staffs' bread-and-butter portfolio is based on residential work, including houses for comedian Keenan Wayans and hotel scion Barry Hilton. Renovations, additions and interiors flesh out their resume.

In the seven years in which they've worked together, John and Lori have evolved a fruitful balance of talents. John, the designer, copes with clients and their often challenging or vexing demands. Lori prefers to be on the building site supervising construction and getting her hands dirty.

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