Studio Visit 05: Design, Bitches

Standing at the corner of architecture culture and pop, Catherine Johnson and Rebecca Rudolph of Design, Bitches throw a little attitude towards disciplinarians who like to keep the edges of architecture nice and neat.

You can find Design, Bitches' office on a pre-war residential street in Los Angeles' Atwater Village. Out front: two motorcycles and a succulent garden. In the rear: a shed-like studio and three chickens. Founded by Catherine Johnson and Rebecca Rudolph, their workspace is just a few blocks from the Beastie Boys' former headquarters where, until recently, a small shrine adorned with a bouquet of mums placed in front of a State Farm Insurance paid tribute to MCA (Adam Yauch). Understanding where Design, Bitches is located in LA's urban fabric, that high-low mash-up of typologies, ethnicities, and palm trees, goes a long way to understanding where Design, Bitches is located philosophically. You'll find them at the corner of architecture culture and pop, throwing a little attitude towards disciplinarians who like to keep the edges of architecture nice and neat.

To that end, let's start with the name. In 2010, Rudolph, feeling the aftershocks the economic crisis and dubious of the future of the profession, and Johnson, working full-time at Bestor Architecture , decided to collaborate on a submission to the "ARCH IS _____" competition hosted by the AIA's Los Angeles chapter . The brief asked emerging designers to fill in the blank on the state of architecture in LA. The pair's submittal was a mix of earlier partnerships and over-the-top scenarios that bordered on farce — a commentary on the sinking market for architecture and the rise of high-minded formalism. "Design, Bitches", then, is not a proper firm name or even a feminist self-descriptor, it's the response to the AIA's call.

Architecture is what? It's design, bitches.

That comma is everything. It's the pivot point in Johnson and Rudolph's practice where things come together. "Design is about bringing together this and that," explains Johnson. "Who's to say that pop culture is not as inspiring as Derrida?"
Top and above: The Design, Bitches studio in Los Angeles
Top and above: The Design, Bitches studio in Los Angeles
The pair won an honourable mention and the award certificate hangs in the backyard office. The comma is missing. The AIA didn't get the joke.

Serious is the antithesis of Design, Bitches' philosophy. If they are serious about anything it is an ethos that finds humour in the everyday. Johnson and Rudolph are both SCI-Arc grads and both are licensed architects, but don't hold the discipline sacred. For the exhibition Come In! Les Femmes , staged last summer at the A + D Museum in Los Angeles, they produced Masters of Architecture in collaboration with photographer Meiko Takechi Arquillos . A series of black and white photographs that, in Cindy Sherman-like fashion, recreate the iconic poses of architectural history.
The Design, Bitches studio in Los Angeles. The chicken  coop in the backyard
The Design, Bitches studio in Los Angeles. The chicken coop in the backyard
"Since women achieved just 13% of the profession in the last 15 years, all of the classic portraits of are all men," says Rudolph. In one image she wears nothing but round black eyeglasses, a detournement of Le Corbusier painting nude at Eileen Gray's Villa E-1027. It's powerful critique of the profession, but Design, Bitches' playful wit embodies the images, modulating any strident tendency.
The studio's work is rich with references, close to what Charles Jencks calls an "ersatz eclecticism"
The Design, Bitches studio in Los Angeles
The Design, Bitches studio in Los Angeles
Design, Bitches' work is rich with references, but it's not postmodern in a sense that hinges on historic or symbolic tropes, instead their output is closer to what Charles Jencks calls an "ersatz eclecticism." They wilfully sample across time and culture. At the Superba Snack Bar in Venice, CA, Johnson and Rudolph created a mutant condition, crossing the Parisian café and Jeff Spicoli, the quintessential surfer stoner dude portrayed by Sean Penn in Fast Times at Ridgemont High . Or rather banquets covered in material reminiscent of Spicoli's trademark poncho. Swimming pool tile on the snack bar walls, complete with depth markers, submerges diners in a 70s-era narrative when Venice — aka Dogtown — was ground zero for the skate crews who hunted out backyard pools.
Catherine Johnson and Rebecca Rudolph in their studio
Catherine Johnson and Rebecca Rudolph in their studio
"The social references that we try to embed in the work serve as markers and triggers," says Rudolph. "Hopefully people will feel something particular about those cues when they bring their own memories to each place and that idea will influence the way they look at things."
The Design, Bitches studio in Los Angeles
The Design, Bitches studio in Los Angeles
This last year Johnson and Rudolph designed of two retail spaces for food truck clients ready for brick and mortar locations — Coolhaus , an ice cream vendor that names its novelty sandwiches after architects, and Grill 'Em All , a truck that serves up burgers with a side of heavy metal. Design, Bitches handled the transition from four wheels to four walls with an emphasis on the material and graphic experience of each space. Both brands, lent themselves to vibrant, pop expressions. Coolhaus' white tile interior is decidedly chill, with inflatable silver signage paying homage to the original king of pop, Andy Warhol. Grill 'Em All's headbanging burger Valhalla in Alhambra, CA mixes unpainted plywood and red vinyl with wizard murals by artist Andy Anderson. The unlikely inspiration: utilitarian garages and finished basements — the kind of spaces used for band practice, rockin'.
The Design, Bitches studio in Los Angeles
The Design, Bitches studio in Los Angeles
"It's not supposed to be deep," notes Rudolph, with a laugh. "You see things in the space that remind you of other things, so it's a fun place to hang out. If you're a "serious" architect, you might not be willing to do that."
The Design, Bitches studio in Los Angeles
The Design, Bitches studio in Los Angeles
The food truck phenomenon in LA and around the country is often hailed as an unexpectedly successful by-product of the downturn. The mobile eateries are entrepreneurial and experimental by nature. They are also a cheeky and an economical way to test ideas. The growth of Johnson and Rudolph's practice parallels and reflects greater economic and cultural trends. In a sense, Design, Bitches is an architectural food truck — a young practice with not much to lose emerging from the recession and cooking up a new design language on a modest scale. "We are interested in making places that are not precious and making spaces that people think are kind of odd," says Johnson. "There is something gratifying about smaller projects, where you make little incisions into the urban fabric rather than monumental gestures." Mimi Zeiger (@loudpaper)
The Design, Bitches studio in Los Angeles
The Design, Bitches studio in Los Angeles
The Design, Bitches studio in Los Angeles
The Design, Bitches studio in Los Angeles

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