In its six years of existence, Nwankpa Design, founded by Nigerian-American architect Susan Nwankpa Gillespie, has made strides in the design and construction industry. The Los Angeles-based firm is well-regarded for its high-end residential designs, with some of its most recognized projects including Cumberland Hideaway that transformed a compact room in a multifunctional space and a remastered Los Angeles abode, landing in publications like Dezeen, Domino, and Dwell.
Completed in 2021, Cumberland Hideaway redesigned a 200-square-foot room into a space that could serve as a work retreat, sanctuary, home gym, and other functions, depending on what its owner— a busy creative director and mother of two— would need it for. Skylights filter in natural light, while vibrant colors and wallpaper bring life and warmth into the area. Bushammered porcelain floor tiles are paired with custom cabinetry in playful pale pinks, blues, and white hues for a chic finish.
The Curson Residence, completed in 2020, gave Nwankpa and her firm the opportunity to transform a full home spanning 1,850 square feet in Los Angeles.Wanting to keep the revamp true to the home’s original 1920s design while incorporating contemporary elements, Nwankpa reconfigured the home’s series of small rooms into an open-concept layout and an additional 400 square feet of interior space. The material palette was kept simple, employing a combination of oak, honed quartz soapstone, and Italian ceramic tile, and custom wood cabinetry. Similarly, the transformation of the Coeur D’Alene Residence in Venice, California also transformed a 1920s residence into a more modern space with an emphasis on natural materials and an embrace of natural light throughout.
The firm’s first commercial project, Relativity Space Headquarters, delivered a nearly 20,000-square-foot, two-story office space to an aerospace manufacturing startup in Long Beach, California, ensuring that the design inspired innovation and offered room for the company to grow into. Its design profile merges clean lines, natural materials, contemporary lighting, and biophilia for a connection to the natural environment.
One of Nwankpa’s earliest projects was HOME(less), a photo essay project that highlighted homeslessness in Los Angeles. This project, which debuted in 2016, was completed in association with Sofia Borges of COLORBLOCK Studio and features a series of images that seek to humanize the plight of a seemingly forgotten and overlooked population. The project holds sentimental value for Nwankpa and is dedicated to Sofia's brother who experienced homelessness before his untimely death.
The Los Angeles-based designer recently spoke with Design 233 about her work influences, completed projects, and her vision for architecture and urban design within the African diaspora. Here’s what she had to say.
How has your Nigerian roots influenced your work?
SNG: My mom is white American and my dad is Nigerian so coming from a diverse cultural background, I think, when you're younger, you go through the phase of questioning, “Where do I fit in?” But I think once you are comfortable with that, it just allows you to relate to a lot of different types of people. It made me comfortable in a lot of different situations and able to see value and interest in all sorts of cultures and all types of people. That makes me more open and more interested, which is reflected in my work. In my business, I'm able to be comfortable with different types of people very quickly and I'm very thankful for that.
In terms of dealing with the pandemic, how should we be thinking about architecture or residential and commercial design?
SNG: It helps learning to work with just the absolute essentials. Our Curson Residence project, where we renovated a 1920s storybook-style house in Los Angeles, had started right before the pandemic hit. The roof was off and if it wasn’t, the client probably would have paused the project. Being very organized and able to adapt helped navigate any architectural and design challenges brought on by the pandemic. We had to remain committed to completing what we started, despite logistical and supply issues and I think with Covid-19, you have to be prepared to encounter these issues.
What are the things to lookout for in a renovation project?
SNG: I think the main thing is making sure of expectations, being consistent with budget, and getting the client to understand that it is a range. Also, there is something interesting about an existing structure. If you are really going to keep it as a renovation, you can play with the contrast of the existing vernacular architecture with modernism to give it a unique character. There can also be financial benefits to renovations, as it can be less expensive for things like permits and taxes.
Tell us a bit about Relativity Space Headquarters, which was your first commercial project under your firm.
SNG: I had done similarly scaled projects with my previous firm and was used to intense scheduling. The main concern with that project was making sure the client understood what was possible and what wasn’t. The company was a startup with a strong vision and were really forward-thinking in how they approached office design. So our job was to create designs that accounted for both rapid growth and adaptability. Ultimately, we ended up contrasting intimate spaces with vast openness so that the design captured both where they were and the possibilities of where they could go.
The design accounted for both rapid growth and adaptability throughout as the space plan anticipated an additional 50+ employees and allowed flexibility in all of the lounge and breakout spaces, as well as the cafe area where all of the furniture is moveable and reconfigurable.
Who would’ve thought that anybody would be building an office during a pandemic where you can't be in an office, right? But they wanted it done and were less affected by what was happening in that moment versus their goals for the next several years.
We have seen some of your drawings, focused on homelessness and we know that homelessness is a major issue in Los Angeles. How can architecture be used as a tool for activism?
SNG: It's tough because on some level you can only do so much. Architecture is a tool, but really, it's politics that makes things happen. You can design the coolest or most cost-effective thing, but if the politicians can't get someone to agree to have land in a certain area, it's game over. So that for me has been the most eye-opening aspect of the issue. But it is important to be part of movements that look to provide the creativity for alternative solutions and help others re-imagine spaces and places. And you can make sure you’re ready when they are approved to take effect. As for the project, it was designed around perception and seeing everyone as an individual person that has their own hopes and dreams, rather than solely as a homeless person on the street, which is very dehumanizing. The friend who I did the project with, her brother actually was homeless and ended up dying in police custody, so it was a really personal topic. And unfortunately, it's still a bit frustrating because L.A. has just gotten worse.
Are you following the design happenings in Africa? What do you envision for architecture urban design over there?
SNG: I think right now it's just so full of possibility and opportunity. I mostly follow the art world and Lagos is exploding with so many things happening. I actually connected with an architect there and there seems to be a lot of opportunity for experimentation, which is exciting.
Who are your go-to collaborators?
SNG: There are a few people I’m collaborating with a lot right now. One is my friend and client, Lauren Dandridge, who is an architectural lighting designer and recently started her company, Chromatic. I’ve learned a lot from her, especially about how lighting can be really harsh and invasive in lower income neighborhoods, so her work aligns with social justice messages on the power of light and how it can shape the quality of our environment. I’m also designing her house, which has been really fun.
I’m also working with Janna Ireland, a photographer who recently published a book on Paul Williams, the most famous black architect in Los Angeles. I’m finishing up a renovation project for a Mid-Century modern home in Hollywood Hills and she’s going to do the photography for us.
We’re working on a house with Adair Curtis and Jason Bolden. They have a company together called JSN Studio. I'm really excited because they're super talented and I think it should be really fun.
What has been the highlight of your career and what is your dream project?
SNG: I think at this point, working for myself has been my biggest highlight. It has allowed me to follow my curiosity and to discover another kind of love and interest in architecture, where I can explore my vision and how I work and it is super interesting.
You also asked how my Nigerian heritage influences my work. It is fundamental to who I am. It’s how I approach space and have a boldness of vision. But on another level, projects are not entirely about you and as my projects grow, I’ve been able to develop trust with my clients that it's becoming more visible in my aesthetic choices.
For my dream project, I really want to do something on the continent. I would love to do something dramatic, like a museum or whether it's like a public art installation or somebody’s house, just something that would be really fun. Representing where we are in the world and being here is the best I can do for now, but I’m hopeful to work in Africa someday soon.