The First SF Interior Design Firm To Win The National Design Award? Why It's Aidlin, Darling

It's about time our local boys got some attention. What makes them so great? It's plain to see (and hear, and touch, and ...)

Darling and Aidlin

Photo by Marcus Hanschen David Darling and Joshua Aidlin, both darlings of the Bay Area interior design world. 

Each year, the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum rewards designers in a bevy of categories who demonstrate an understanding of "design as a vital humanistic tool in shaping the world," recognizing "excellence, innovation and enhancement of the quality of life." This year, the Interior Design category went to Aidlin Darling, marking the first time that category went to a San Francisco firm (and only the second time it went to a non-New-York firm). Talking with the firm's two principals, Joshua Aidlin and David Darling, it becomes clear very quickly that this local company more than deserves the accolades.

"To us, San Francisco is this great cornucopia of craftsmen, artisans and builders," says Darling. "There are other cities that might have that, but here, it's balanced with science," in the form of Silicon Valley and the fast-paced techspertise of the locals. And while "we lead the world in innovation and technology," they believe this town, notoriously conservative when it comes to new buildings, "should be leading the world in architecture, too."

In fact, some of the most treasured new bits of architecture, the DeYoung Museum and the Academy of Sciences, were designed by international architects, not hometown firms. "We give credit to them for opening people's eyes," says Darling. And they'll take it from here, is the implied end to the sentence.

The two friends went to design school together at the  University of Cincinnati. Darling moved out to California in 1988, while Aidlin went on walkabout, camping and traveling and generally having Life Experiences until he also ended up in San Francisco, where they ran into each other by chance. Thus began a multi-year emotional and professional collaboration: they became the kind of BFFs who call each other at odd hours to geek out over arcane ideas, comparing and encouraging each others' projects no matter where they were working. Eventually, after working together on furniture designs and woodworking projects on nights and weekends, they opened up their business together. 

The bing-bang-boom success of Aidlin Darling is most certainly due to their core philosophy. "The thing that drives all this, and why we built the office around the shop, is our intent to design for all the senses," says Darling "A full-body experience has driven our practice since day one."

Did we not mention the shop? Their office is literally built around a wood shop where they sit and build and contemplate the physical structures they have in mind. In an age of digital rendering of infinite possibilities, their daily inspiration comes from what they can touch, smell and stick together with Elmer's glue. 

"That's how we started our business," Aidlin says. "I took my father's sculpture shop after he died, and we began by building furniture." Aidlin's father headed the sculpture department at the Cleveland Institute of Art for nearly 30 years and his mother was a painter and printmaker, so Aidlin had grown up surrounded by the sort of full-body experience of art he now imbues his architecture with. Not that they do any of the fabrication themselves - they prefer to hand that over to the experts these days - but the tactile experience and the hands-on background helps them organize and explain their ideas. 

Together, the two men "created our own vocabulary for the five senses," says Aidlin. "Culling the materials, feeling them, smelling them, learning how they reverberate sound: All of that goes into our design. A floor might have a feeling when you walk on it, of solidity, of hollowness. Cedar has a very distinct smell; reclaimed whisky barrels have their own smell." So when you walk into one of their designs, you're not just a foreign body injected into a room: You become an organic part of it, interacting with its molecules with your ears, your nose, your skin.

If it all sounds terribly esoteric, the proof is in the scads of awards they've won. One of their signature projects, Wexler's Restaurant, invokes the kind of sensuous feeling given off by a Louise Bourgeois sculpture, or like that one scene in Harold and Maude when Bud Cort becomes so overpowered by a piece of Ruth Gordon's sculpture that he tries to stick his head through it in a moment of rebirth. In other words, their concept: It works. Your lizard brain responds to the many, many stimuli telling you you're somewhere cozy, or nurturing, or soothing, or spiritual. 

Not that they care about the awards, y'understand. "It's very gratifying and an important part of the machine of marketing," says Darling, "but it's not what we revolve around. To see people in our projects, relishing experiences we've enabled, that's the greatest reward." 

Another source of pride is yet another award -- a special one given by COTE (Committee on the Environment) for a project that is not just sustainable, but also aesthetically pleasing and culturally significant.

Aidlin's current favorite project is the Windover Chapel at Stanford "unifying art, architecture and landscape in a spiritual space, all revolving around the work of sculptor  Nathan Olivera." He's also proud of an upcoming project creating a beautiful permanent for a high-performing charter school serving the children of migrant workers.

Darling's proud of his work with Scribe Winery, for whom they've started work, but "barely hit the tip of the iceberg," says Aidlin. They're creating "a new paradigm in the wine industry where instead of walking up to a tasting bar, making a pseudo-personal connection with whoever is behind it, we're working together with them to create a much more interactive experience." The new experience will be much more organic in many different senses of the word: Along several streams already on the property, they have planted "insect superhighways," organized arrangements of perennials that bloom  at different times of the year to create a circulation path for insects that keep unwanted pests at bay." Other wineries have created similar sustainable insectaries, but the concept here is to weave every aspect of the land, the history, the environment and the wine together to create an immersive experience for the visitor.

Don't you want to go? We love our hometown architects.

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