Michael Rumpeltin: Founder of Brick & West Design

Michael Rumpeltin, founder of Brick & West Design, photographed at Postino Annex in Tempe, by Nicki Escudero

Michael Rumpeltin, founder of Brick & West Design, photographed at Postino Annex in Tempe, by Nicki Escudero

Michael Rumpeltin

If you’re a foodie, you’ve probably enjoyed a tasty meal in a project Michael Rumpeltin has designed. As founder of Brick & West Design in 2013, Rumpeltin has helped create welcoming social spaces in the Valley including Postino Annex, Joyride Taco House Central, Taco Guild, Culinary Dropout, The Yard, Dakota, Comoncy, and Little Cleo’s. The 44-year-old Phoenix resident has more than a dozen projects currently in the works, including The Crown on 7th, a 20,000-square foot mixed-use space including three major local restaurants, set to open in September at 7th Street and Palo Verde Drive in Phoenix.

Read on for more of what he’s working on, as well as to learn advice he has for aspiring designers, and to hear him name his five favorite reasons for loving living in the Valley in a video.

What brought you to Arizona?

I didn’t really have a plan; I was sort of picking it out on a map. I went to school for architecture for a year at Ball State University in Muncie, Indiana. One day after about a semester-and-a-half there, I got tired of the weather. It was very rainy, and I wanted a place with sunshine.

ASU had a great architecture program, so I got on a plane sight unseen, and moved here. My cousin is an archaeologist here and loves Arizona, and I thought it’d be great. I’ve been here ever since.

I’m originally from Ramsey, New Jersey.

What’s your earliest memory of being interested in architecture?

The earliest recurring memory I can claim as my own, and not as what my parents told me I did, was playing with Legos. When I was really young, I would also draw the layouts of television show buildings and houses, whatever it was then — Mork & Mindy, Happy Days. I would draw where the kitchen, the living room, etc. were just based on seeing it on TV.

It’s the way my brain is wired. I didn’t have anybody growing up in my extended family that was in architecture or anything like that. I don’t know why I was drawn to it. I’m lucky that way – -I got to know what I wanted to do at such at a young age.

Did you get a degree in architecture from ASU?

I actually never graduated. I was there for nine years studying architecture, design and art history, including most summers, and I have 356 credit hours or something like that.

I never have a plan in my life. I’m one credit hour of a physics lab short of a degree, and I walked in the ceremony, but I don’t crave that formality – I don’t need that external validation. I kind of like that in a way. I had a great internship and didn’t have any time to finish that physics lab. Things just kind of snowballed, and here I am 20 years later.

What has the evolution of your career been like?

It’s been random. I think so many people have a plan of where they want to go in life — I know generally where I’m going, but I never know exactly how I’m going to get there. I think when people focus on a goal and a route to getting to that goal, and are checking off all these boxes, they’re going to miss opportunities when they come up because it’s not in their plan.

I am ADD and find it very hard to hold just one thought in my mind for too long. I’ve learned to leverage this to my advantage in my work, being able to multitask intensively or switch scales or tasks on a dime while maintaining laser focus. When you don’t have that concrete plan, whether for a career or for a project, you’re far more apt to recognize incredible opportunities when they arise. My career path has kind of followed that. I’ve just sort of gone wherever it felt right to me, and then pursued each opportunity with passion.

That being said, I worked for one architect, Joe Tyndall, as I transitioned from different companies for almost 20 years. We eventually found ourselves together at RSP Architects in Tempe, which wound up being my last stop before founding Brick & West.

I had done some bar and nightclub design work and then some large-scale and international projects with RSP. It was fun, but after awhile, I felt a little bit detached from the international work because it’s thousands of miles away in a foreign country. It seemed the bigger the project, the less personally connected to the work I felt.

At a point, I thought restaurant projects were really where my heart was at, because I really love the experience and culture around food. I love to cook and eat out and be around people. I thought, “This is my path — why not just go out on my own?” It felt like the right time, so I started Brick & West to focus more intensely on that passion.

How would you describe the philosophy of Brick & West Design?

We’ve really tried to focus on making the places we work on an experience centered on some intense social aspect. We did the headquarters for LifeLock, which I struggled with a bit at first because it wasn’t adaptive reuse. It was an office/interiors job, but it turned out to be a great project to put together because we had to create a space where magic happened, a setting where the employees felt relaxed enough to come together to be creative and exchange ideas. It ended up being right up our alley as a people place.

We focus on restaurants, hospitality and anything adaptive reuse. Creating places for people to gather and connect is really at the core of what we do.

Why are adaptive reuse-themed projects a passion for you?

If we can repurpose old buildings, rather than tear them down and build new buildings — which is sometimes what you need to do — keeping them intact is, for me, the most profoundly sustainable thing you can do. I once heard sustainability expert Randy Croxton say that something like 85 percent of the world’s energy is involved in the construction, habitation, operation, maintenance and renovation of buildings. If you think about that as a designer who works primarily in the medium of architecture, you have an amazing responsibility related to the consumption of energy alone, setting aside all of the other value.

If we build a new building, we like to build them not out of a light frame and stucco to be bulldozed in 10 years. We prefer to build them out of heavier materials, so in 20 or 50 years, designers can come to our buildings we built today and say, “Hey, we can reuse this. It can be adapted to the current culture because it has stood the test of time.”

Also, the history of the buildings kind of speaks for itself. Growing up, as a kid, I would go to New York City all the time. There you can see the layers of history going back centuries in buildings. It’s this profoundly beautiful juxtaposition that tells a story of habitation of spaces over an extended period of time that I find fascinating. I think it feeds our souls, because we all have this connection to our collective past.

What goes into designing a building from the ground-up versus an interior of an existing building?

When we do a new shell building versus an interior, we approach it the exactly same way in terms of process. We don’t look at it in isolation as someone approaching it with an architect’s toolkit. My partner, Eric Duncan, comes from a digital background and approaches the work from a completely different angle that leads naturally to this methodology.

We’re very interdisciplinary in the way we approach design, so we think about it simultaneously on every level, from what it’s going to look like from a marketing standpoint or in terms of its social media presence, to the name, land use and identity of the place, and in terms of interiors and architecture, whether or not we’re just doing one aspect of the work. We think about it holistically to make sure when you do come to a place like this, it’s not just one aspect, but it’s every aspect that works to form a cohesive experience.

It’s because when you go somewhere, you don’t experience it purely based on the architecture. It’s the food, the landscape, the music, the colors and everything you see — the whole vibe. We approach it that way, and with a shell building, the charge is to create a place that’s suitable for whatever the program use of the project is, and everything has to speak to that and has to be designed around that.

We also focus on how everything is going to function and its ease of use over time, tailoring the building to its future use and users.

What’s your typical week like?

The typical week is divided up pretty evenly probably among design functions, where you’re thinking about what you want to design, and then productivity functions, where you’re producing what you’ve designed. Then there’s the management of the practice itself, making sure the business is sustainable, which is the fascinating part. I’ve often heard people say architects don’t make the best businesspeople, just because of the way they’re wired, so I’m very mindful of making sure that aspect of it is taken care of.

The rest of it is the miscellaneous work that needs to be addressed, which makes for a very frenetic week. A lot of people go into work and sit at a desk, and for me, I’m darting all over the place, which is what fuels me.

What are the benefits and challenges to owning your own business?

For now, it’s all upside. When I was in senior management at my previous firm, a lot of people would ask me, “Do you own the firm?” or say something like, “You work so hard — you should start your own thing.” I think it’s another one of those ways you’re wired. I worked just as hard when I worked for someone else as I do now. Now there are no more mind-numbing leadership retreats, and I get a kick out of being able to make a decision about what kind of software or computing platform we’re going to be on. Whereas before I had to arm-wrestle the IT department, now I can just make a blanket statement, “We’re doing this because it actually makes the most sense.”

There are really no drawbacks, only upsides, but it is truly terrifying on a daily basis to realize what you’re responsible for. At any given time, we have a dozen projects going, and we go out of our way to climb mountains to make sure our clients are successful, which is something we take very seriously.

How would you describe Brick & West’s aesthetic?

When you build things, the means and methods available to you as a designer at the time dictate a lot of what gets built. For the most part, the buildings we get to work on are largely a product of the context in which they were used over time — the way in which the designer at the time produced something as a reaction to or commentary on the cultural context at that time. Our work is the next chapter in the story of that building (and hopefully not the last), adding another layer to its narrative.

What we like to do when we come to a building is to take away what has inevitably happened to the poor building over time, because various people have had ideas and make changes to get something done – and so often ignore what they’re working with in the first place. For example, they put stucco over the brick, which is a terrible crime.

Our working process is never to come with a predetermined aesthetic or idea about what should happen. We come to the building, we see what we’re dealing with, and we scrape away as much as we can without scraping away too much — just enough to get to a meaningful starting point. Then, we start gradually putting things back to address the new context. It’s a very organic process.

I find ground-up buildings to be much more difficult, because you can really do anything with a ground-up building. We’re now doing a new restaurant on 7th Street, directly across from The Yard, which will be around 5,000 square feet that should be open around fall. It’s a new Italian restaurant for the owner of Pomo Pizzeria. We did the design of the building, and now we’re doing the design for the interior. The building is a reaction to the context of what has been happening along 7th Street.

We are also working on a stunning new 12,000 square-foot building at SkySong that will house four new local restaurants and have a working garden on site. That project is an entirely different kind of building by necessity, as it is responding to a whole different set of contextual cues and circumstances.

What kind of atmosphere do you hope to create with your designs?

I think with the adaptive reuse projects, and with all of the work, really, we hope people feel somehow connected to their culture through a collective history and yet understand it in terms of the present day. In places where so much is new and built from scratch, we typically miss out on that connection you feel when you visit places that are in much, much older cities. I think that’s a human thing that is built into us somehow. We all have a need to connect with out past though the present, and so the projects all need to tap into our cultural and societal collective consciousness.

We hope they feel a connection to the past, but with some new, vibrant, relevant, contemporary use. Plus, I think you feel somehow calmed being in or eating in some place that has been there a long time or acknowledges that past in a meaningful way. It’s soothing. Ultimately, we do everything we do to create places that foster the social connections between people and give us all places to come together.

For the new stuff, Phoenix inspires me, because nobody is plagued by the notion that something can’t be done. It’s very Wild West in a way — let’s get it done and make it happen. That’s part of the environment and the appeal of Phoenix in general – I think its roots are in the awe-inspiring desert environment. With new buildings, it’s about creating a sense of wonder where you go, “Wow. What’s happening here?” We want not just to shock people, but also get them to really think about the environment.

I’ve designed buildings like the Starbucks at the 202 and Scottsdale Road that do this. The drive-through is covered by a soaring, perforated metal canopy that shades the cars below. As you’re waiting in line, you’re not baked in the hot sun. It was about thinking through the experience at the drive-through and making people go, “Why isn’t every drive-through like this? Why do I have to sit in hot the sun in my convertible when I’m getting a latte?”

It’s about making people say, “I wonder why they did this,” so they can see architecture in a different way than maybe they have before. Retail and restaurant buildings don’t often do this.

What are your goals?

My goal is to continue to make great gathering spaces for as long as I can, but I’m not wedded to only one aspect of the work. I find it all equally satisfying. I may just give it all up one day and manage a restaurant. Who knows? For now, I’m fully committed to designing new experiences for people, as we have been, for as long as the work is there. We’re unbelievably fortunate to have visionary clients who push the envelope right along with us.

As far as Brick & West, pushing the envelope with what we can do with older buildings, and what’s possible with newer buildings, is exciting. I like to travel as much as I can, and when you look at other cities, there are some cities that are so much farther ahead in terms of architecture and design. For a long time, Phoenix has been behind in so many ways. Together with a lot of other brilliant people in Phoenix who are doing incredible things with architecture, interiors and design in general, if we can advance that to make Phoenix even more spectacular than it is, then that’s what we want to be a part of.

How would you characterize the Phoenix architecture scene?

The raw material in Phoenix is better than almost any other city I can think of. It’s the people and that spirit of not being mired down in what’s not possible. People are obviously so important to making the place, and Phoenix is full of great people with vision.

A place I hope we’re going, and maybe we’re at the tipping point of right now, is where we can be in this spot where Phoenix is seen as a primary city for design and architecture, like Los Angeles or San Francisco or New York. When you think of great architecture, you think of these cities first. We’re a major city, but you don’t necessarily think of that when you think of Phoenix. That’s where we’re at, but it could go there, and I think it’s headed in that direction.

All of these things are lining up that could make it just right. The more people want to be closer to the city and drive less, and the more they demand these amenities and demand better design, the more we can focus the resources we have rather than scatter them. Where I’d like to see it go is where we’re creating buildings that are responsive to the environment we’re in, as far as the social context, as well as the climatic context, that inform the national or even international design dialogue.

What advice do you have for aspiring designers?

You always have to follow your intuition. You always have to follow your instincts and hone those instincts. You can do all the math and science you want, but the way you feel in your gut about something is the way other people are going to feel in their gut about something. It’s hard to rationalize emotion, so at the end of the day, design is about making an emotional connection with people on a human level.

Also, you need to be mindful about utility as a designer, since you’re working with buildings and not sculptures. If its doesn’t work, then it’s no good.

What’s the most memorable project you’ve worked on?

I always believe the next one is going to be the best one, but I’ll also say the first one. The first real project I ever tackled on my own was a mixed-use building in Tempe called Studios 5c, which was my first project in the medium of architecture as a designer. It was for Grady Gammage, Jr. As a young designer, it was such a thrilling experience, and it was a very complicated building to design and build. It had that climactic response built into it and has also proven to be a great social catalyst for the people who have worked and played there.

That was a very rewarding project to do. It may have foreshadowed my love of history in Arizona and everything we are doing now. Because of Gammage’s family and their role in Arizona’s history, I knew we had to make something that connected with its context and somehow lived up to that heritage and would stand the test of time.

Why should someone hire Brick & West for a project?

I’m almost an outsider in a lot of ways, because I’m not an architect, interior designer or industrial designer — I’m just a designer, in this very specific hospitality space. This is one of our strongest assets, because we don’t come with any preconceived ideas of what needs to happen.

I think the process we have is really our advantage. We go through this regimented analysis at the beginning of any design project that is really thorough and detailed, to try to figure out what we’re going after, and we’ll distill the design project down to a few key words that serve as the mantra for the project. Everything you do has to revolve around that core.

I think it’s the way we approach projects, and the fact we’re so collaborative, and that we look at things differently than a typical designer, architect or interior designer does. We surround ourselves with the best and brightest from so many other disciplines and we are practiced at listening to them and integrating ideas into a cohesive product that, hopefully, fires across all aspects of the work and not just one.

Learn more about Postino owner Craig DeMarco here on Phoenix People.

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