Leo Marmol, managing principal of Marmol Radziner + Associates, has never been afraid of rolling up his sleeves and going to work. Marmol’s West L.A. architecture firm is known for its high-end modern style, and has designed and restored homes for celebrity clients such as Demi Moore and Ashton Kutcher, and fashion designer Tom Ford. Marmol Radziner also has become known for its leadership in the new prefabricated home movement. These are not the kind of cheap prefabs that litter the California desert, but rather high-design concepts that offer stylish “green” living at reasonable costs. Marmol first got involved with prefab homes in 2003 when his company participated in a competition. Though the company didn’t win the contest, it inspired Marmol to press on with different prefab designs. Surprisingly, the firm’s practice is informed by Marmol’s experience as a construction worker. During both high school and college, Marmol spent time in construction, first doing the heavy lifting and later as a manager. Marmol grew up in Marin County, where his parents had settled after leaving their native Cuba before the revolution. He married into a prominent architecture family; his wife, Alisa Becket, is the granddaughter of Welton Becket, who designed the Cinerama Dome, the Capitol Records building and the Theme Building at Los Angeles International Airport. The Business Journal recently sat down with Marmol in his West Los Angeles office.
Question: Working with so many celebrity clients you must have some interesting stories.
Answer: I probably have way too many funny stories. But generally our approach to this is that we work with many public people – people whose names you would recognize. At the same time, we work with them about their houses, and that's a very personal, private thing. We don't name drop.
Q: So then how can it build your business?
A: It’s great when our clients go out there and talk about their experiences with us. But we don't do that. We are talking about what do people want in their bathroom? What is in their closet? What are they really storing in their basement? These are private, personal things.
Q: Do you have to deal with the trappings of celebrity clients, like paparazzi?
A: It's not uncommon for us to have to deal with the paparazzi. They have no interest in us, which is wonderful. Rarely will celebrity clients come to our office. We are typically going to them where they have a comfortable private place to meet.
Q: How did you first get interested in architecture?
A: In high school, a friend of mine’s father was an architect and I got to go visit her home and the home just completely changed my world view.
Q: What was so great about the house?
A: It was totally nestled into the landscape. It was part of the hillside. It’s in San Rafael in Marin County. It was beautifully crafted. There were huge windows. I’d never seen this notion of this huge window with this connection to the trees. I was totally taken by it.
Q: And then?
A: It opened up a curiosity and I studied architecture a bit in high school and took drawing classes.
Q: And you pursued it in college?
A: I went to Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. I strayed a bit. I got off track – minored in philosophy – I got involved in the art program, in the theater program. I did many things outside of my department, which wasn’t necessarily seen as something positive at the time. I did it because I was just curious about many different things.
Q: How was it a struggle?
A: It was a five-year program. I started the program in 1979; I graduated in 1987. You can do the math. I took a leave of absence and worked. I worked a lot.
Q: What happened?
A: I took two years off and I was working a great deal in construction. I could make more money on the construction side than I could on the architecture side. I started off as the person that moves the lumber, digs the ditches, and eventually moved up to the position of being the superintendent responsible for what was happening on the job site.
Q: That experience must have influenced your firm’s role as a designer and builder.
A: The word of design-build is unique and challenging. There is something important about respecting the building process.
Q: Did your parents influence your career choice?
A: My father is a Presbyterian minister and psychologist. My mother died when I was 13; she was a teacher. She taught Spanish. My parents were both from Cuba. They both came here before Castro. I am the first-generation American born here. My father really let me set my own course; he let me develop my own ideas. I think he’s an amazingly wonderful, educated man.
Q: Have you visited Cuba and seen the historic architecture?
A: I have been to Cuba once. My wife and I visited on our honeymoon. It was an amazing opportunity to meet my family. Cuba is such a wonderful experience because from a historical perspective it has all been preserved. Neglect and a lack of economic opportunity are great forces for preservation. Now it is crumbling away.
Q: How was it that you and Ron Radziner decided to start a company?
A: I was working here in Los Angeles with a couple of firms. Ron was working on his own. We started working together in 1989. It was a very humble beginning. We had to make our living doing this. The initial projects were far from glamorous. They were little industrial projects; they were conversions of garages into playrooms. But we did them with enthusiasm and care and concern.
Q: That’s a long way from doing preservation work on homes built by some of the country’s most famous architects.
A: (Restoration) really was part of our practice very early on. Our first restoration was one of Richard Neutra’s projects in the Hollywood Hills. That was the first opportunity we had to redesign, repair and actually carry out that repair. And then we had the opportunity to meet Brent and Beth Harris through an introduction by a friend and they are the owners of the Kaufmann House in Palm Springs. And so we started working on the Kaufmann House as well, which has led to many other restoration projects. At this point we’ve worked with Neutras, Lautners and Schindlers, and many other historical architects’ homes.
Q: Did restoring Neutra’s Kaufmann House elevate your profile?
A: Absolutely. It was a very significant project. It was a long project; it was a five-year process to really understand that building. We completed it in 1998. We talk a great deal about the Kaufmann House as though we just finished it. For us, it’s old history. I think that speaks to the significance of that particular house. You can’t visit the house and not be inspired. Even if you are not a modernist, if the aesthetic doesn’t resonate for you, you can’t help but go there and feel the importance of the design attitude. The house is in many ways perfect.
Q: This is quite different from prefab. How did you get into that?
A: The initial curiosity began with an invitation from Dwell magazine to participate in their competition to design a prefab house. We had used prefab systems previously but on a more traditional level – for schools, a child care center. This is the first time we thought about it as a house. This was 2003. So we embraced the challenge of what we could do with it. We lost. I think most of the things you really learn from and grow from come out of failure. But it opened up a new train of thought for us that really inspired us to begin this exploration.
Q: What came next?
A: Out of that came the first prototype, which was a vacation house for me and my family right outside of Desert Hot Springs. That was our first boots-on-the-ground attempt – an experiment of trying to make something in a factory that is still functional, beautiful, simple and not stupid. I think prefab holds great possibilities. We are very excited about the mission. We’ve built about a dozen of them, all different sizes from a small, one-room, 700-square-foot modern cabin to private homes that are over 10,000 feet all made out of boxes at a factory. The prefab house that we produce is modern, sustainable and green.
Q: How has the downturn impacted the prefab business?
A: The industry was just beginning to recognize the modern possibilities and the fabrication world was just beginning to gear itself up and, of course, the rug was viciously pulled out from under us and the market disappeared overnight. But we are still very much in it. We have projects on the boards.
Q: What do you do to relax?
A: I fly-fish. I do saltwater fly-fishing. I get on a boat with friends and we go out to Catalina and we fish around Catalina with a fly. You can fish right on the beach with a fly. You can fish the Marina. We fish the Malibu shoreline.
Q: Do you tie your own flies?
A: I do not. That is a level of commitment that I wish I could support. What I love about fly-fishing is not the act of catching fish. That is great; that is exciting – I have caught a 50-plus-pound tuna in Mexico with a little fly rod and there is no more excitement and stupidity to doing that kind of thing – but wherever you are fly-fishing it is hard to do it where it is not beautiful. Generally you are going to places that get you away from the land life and put you in the water and it is a wonderful escape.
Q: Your wife has a famous architect for a grandfather.
A: My wife is Alisa Becket; she comes from a long tradition of architects. Her grandfather was Welton Becket, and her father is an architect. We have a 3-year-old daughter and will have a boy any day now. My wife is incredibly supportive and wonderful, and I couldn’t do what I am doing without her support.
Q: How did you feel when you met your wife and learned she was related to Becket?
A: I think I initially found it intriguing. To be honest, when I first met Alisa, I didn’t know a great deal about Welton Becket even though he’s very much of the modern tradition – more on the commercial side. I think he is a relatively under-recognized architect. It was only through Alisa that I got to know the work of Welton Becket. It has been a nice process to learn about someone who is related to me, literally.
TITLE: Managing Principal
COMPANY: Marmol Radziner + Associates
BORN: 1961; Pomona
EDUCATION: Bachelor’s of architecture with a minor in philosophy, California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo, 1987
CAREER TURNING POINT: In 1989, when he formed his partnership with Ron Radziner
PERSONAL: Lives in Santa Monica with wife Alisa Becket and 3-year-old daughter Emilia
HOBBY: Saltwater fly-fishing
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