Interior motives

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June 21, 2010
By: Gregory J. Scott
Gregory J. Scott
// Heather Rose-Dunning’s 20 Below Studio raises the profile for interior architecture //

They’re architects. They’re interior designers. They’re anthropologists of office space. But Heather-Rose Dunning simply calls them “associates.”

The 10 employees that staff Northeast’s 20 Below Studio, where Rose-Dunning is a partner, all get the same title printed on their business cards. Dunning likes to cite this as evidence of egalitarianism in her work place. But it also reflects a trickier categorical concern. The expertise of her studio spills into so many areas of design and branding and engineering, most professional labels just don’t seem to fit.

So what exactly do these “associates” do?

According to Rose-Dunning, 20 Below re-thinks interior spaces. They make existing workspaces work better, from the hard re-engineering of structures and floor plans to the “softer” decisions of aesthetics and visual branding. It’s not just interior design. It’s interior-minded design.

“About 10 percent of what we do is furniture and finishes,” says Rose-Dunning. “If that’s the icing on the cake, then we’re milling the flour and doing the baking.”

20 Below Studio is one of the only firms in the Twin Cities to specialize in so-called interior architecture, a hybrid field that combines the aesthetics of interior design with the technical heft of architecture and restoration. Though the field isn’t new — over the last decade, the term “interior architecture” has begun popping up on university syllabi, and esteemed institutions like the Rhode Island School of Design offer full-fledged degree programs — it hasn’t had much of a presence locally.

But in the past few years, 20 Below has been flying the interior architecture banner in Minneapolis, completing well-received re-designs for Public Radio International, in the Textile Building, and for boutique ad agency Modern Climate, in the historic Pence Building at 9th Street and Hennepin Avenue.

The studio is currently working on the attorney offices of Barnes and Thornburg, and if all goes accordingly, 20 Below will orchestrate the interior for the new American Academy of Neurology (AAN), slated to move into an empty lot across the street from the Guthrie Theater. The AAN move is currently in the city request-for-proposals process.

“They have a unique spot in focusing on that exclusively,” said Chris Hudson, editor of Architecture Minnesota magazine. He noted that many architecture firms in the Twin Cities employ in-house interior designers. But these sub-departments are small, and oftentimes firms have to contract with outside interior design specialists.

“When you can marry those two specialties in one firm, that’s really rare,” Hudson said.

Rose-Dunning started 20 Below in 2002 with partner Joe Hamilton. The two, who had been working together at a large architecture firm, had long lamented the fact that their employer’s size prevented personal relationships with clients.

“Finally, one day we were in Joe’s car, driving back from a client meeting and said, ‘Why don’t we just start our own firm?’” Rose-Dunning remembers.

They brought on a third partner, Kevin Rolfes, and after working out of Hamilton’s basement for a year, moved into a building behind Bulldog Northeast in 2003. Two years later, 20 Below settled into its current studio, with its iconic, bright orange exterior, at 23 4th St. NE., a space previously occupied by a world market.

Rose-Dunning has a bachelor’s degree in environmental design from Ball State University, which does not qualify her to be a registered architect. And while she does carry a credential from the International Interior Design Association, she doesn’t consider herself an interior designer.

“I don’t claim either, personally,” she says.

Hamilton is the only registered licensed architect of the three and is also a certified interior decorator. Rolfes has a graduate degree in architecture but hasn’t taken any licensing tests.

“It’s a mix of credentials that I don’t see all that often,” said Jennifer Gilhoi, a spokesperson for the Minnesota chapter of the American Institute of Architects.

While the studio’s hybrid nature makes professional labels difficult, it also allows for success in multiple realms. 20 Below’s most celebrated project to date, the Wayzata offices for biotech leader Syngenta, took home last April the biggest interior design award for the region, the FAB Grand Award for the International Interior Design Association’s Northland Chapter.

But the project also won a state architecture prize, the Honor Award from the Minnesota chapter of the American Institute of Architects. And it earned a real estate honor, too, the Award of Excellence from NAIOP, the Commercial Real Estate Development Association — which in addition to heralding architectural integrity also looks for “market feasibility.”

“I love to see a high-design project like Syngenta also win a real estate award,” commented Hudson. “Because that’s a whole different set of concerns about the success of a project.”

Such a spanning of disciplines has also helped keep 20 Below afloat at a time when architecture firms everywhere are struggling in the wake of stalled development.

“It saved us, to be very frank,” Rose-Dunning said. “So much of what architecture is, you’re trained in the building of buildings. But there’s only so much you can build, particularly when there’s only so much money out there. What we do very well is finding new use for existing space.”

So for 20 Below Studio, it’s what’s inside that will continue to count.

“Architecture is not just a building in its sculptural form,” Rose-Dunning added. “It’s about how people in the building are experiencing the space.”