Like the spaces she designs, Jenny Guggenheim is thoughtful, choosing her words — and her materials — carefully. She’s the principal designer and design director at Guggenheim Architecture + Design Studio, a multidisciplinary firm she cofounded with her now-husband, Jeff Guggenheim, in 2009. We talked to her about tile, 100-year houses, and what it’s like to work with your spouse.
Written by Juno DeMelo
Bio Photography by: Mikola Accuardi
When did you know you wanted to be a designer?
Instead of writing letters from camp, I would send drawings of houses. Then in high school, I drew blueprints of Seinfeld’s apartment for my final art project. My mom was always changing up the house and testing out trends when I was growing up. I think I became more of a minimalist in reaction, but we share an appreciation for design and how a space makes you feel.
How did you get from dream to reality?
I decided I wanted to go to architecture school and landed on the University of Oregon because it was close to home and had a great architecture program. I started off thinking I would be a licensed architect, but I realized interior architecture was my true calling. The ability to work on a human scale and be detail-oriented really appealed to me.
After graduation, I got a job at a large architecture firm in the interiors department, and I loved a lot about it. I graduated in a boom time, so there were a lot of big budgets. Then the recession hit, and I was one of 100 or so people laid off. It was a reality check.
Why did you decide to start your own studio?
I feel like an accidental entrepreneur. I didn’t set out with the intention of owning half of an architect office, but I didn’t want to leave Portland. So I got creative and decided I would test-drive working on my own. I was very lucky that a small residential firm needed someone to help out with interiors. I slowly got my own projects, and it all started organically growing. I started my business in 2009.
Then my now-husband Jeff decided to get his architecture license, and we looked at each other one day and said, “Why not, let’s open a business together!” So we jumped out on our own interiors studio and architecture studio in 2012. This is our 10-year anniversary. Funnily enough, we decided to get married and start the firm in the same year.
What’s it like to work with your husband?
We knew very early on that we had complementary skills, so we cross over a lot, but we don’t do each other’s work. We’re often on the same page, and we understand each other’s thought processes really well. We also work hard at not taking our work home. That helps quite a bit.
Where do you begin the process of designing a space?
We look at a lot of precedent imagery with clients and talk through what they see. We talk a lot about our process, reiterating considered details and working through the best options for a space. The budget part is not as important; if it’s a lower-budget project, we pick and choose what the special details will be. When we have more room on a budget, we get to explore and play with new ideas and work with expert craftspeople.
When it comes time to choose materials, what does that conversation look like?
With tile, I always talk to clients about it being a surface I feel is fairly permanent. It should be something that fits the environment and the essence of the space, not just a trend or color.
We did a Manzanita project with the terracotta Ann Sacks Tiempo Field Tiles in Baku. I really enjoy working with a handmade tile, which shows great variation. No two pieces are the same. I like that there’s a very light consistency. You’re truly getting this little piece of art. Tile really makes the room, whether it’s a statement piece or it’s playing a quieter supporting role in a greater palate.
How has your firm evolved over the last 10 years?
We’ve gone from accepting every job to making sure clients are on-board with doing highly detailed, well-thought-out projects. We go through iterations, whereas when we first started, I was willing to do things more quickly. We want to make sure the projects we put out into the world stay awhile. Especially with residential: We’re really hoping these are 100-year projects, which is a way to be a sustainable designer. We want to remain boutique and focus on high-quality output.
How has Portland evolved in that same time?
Portland has a conservative side to it in terms of design, but more businesses and people are willing to try out more ideas because they’re exposed to so many more things now. People don’t necessarily believe they have to buy everything from one store anymore!
What makes a dream project?
Projects that prioritize craftsmanship are really important to us. We really enjoy working with contractors and subcontractors and furniture makers who value their craft and the final product. That comes through in the sum of the parts. When you walk into one of our spaces, there’s an essence to it, an umami or sixth sense. It feels very complete and holistic.
You obviously work in Oregon, as well as neighboring Washington—but why Hawaii?
Hawaii came about when we met a woman who wanted to move back to Maui, where her children live, and design a multi-building complex. It was the perfect marriage for us: indoor-outdoor living, views of a volcano and the ocean. We said yes immediately. That project showed that we could respond to Hawaiian culture and a humid and tropical atmosphere using simplistic forms that aren’t traditionally Hawaiian and yet fit the site.
Where do you find inspiration?
I do a lot of trade shows and trips and home tours. I’m data-collecting all the time. I’m very aware, and I’m always absorbing the environments I’m in. I’m that person pointing my camera at the floor or a little detail of a barista cash wrap. I’m always collecting and viewing and storing pictures on my phone. I make sure to keep up on all the trade publications and trends while absorbing what’s been and what’s sustaining. I also get a lot of inspiration from clients. That can do a lot for a project, if people are willing to share some of themselves.
Do you tinker with your own house?
It’s honestly the last thing we want to do at the end of the day. We have ideas, for sure, but we’re ready to settle in and enjoy time with our daughter when we get home. The steam’s a little out of the engine by that time.
What are you looking forward to?
We are so excited to start a new guest ranch project. It’s a working ranch that will be offering events and overnight stays, and we’ve been tasked with creating cabins and transforming an Arabian horse barn into a modern, clean events space. Jeff’s first job was at this ranch, stacking bales hay. He’s come a long way since then. Getting into the hospitality market is really exciting for us.
What makes your firm different?
There are not a lot of boutique-scale firms that are very 50-50 architecture and interiors, which allows us to see a project through from start to finish. I would also emphasize that our staff experience is diverse: One of our architects has a graphic design background, and one of our designers used to build public art. It’s such an asset to have all that under one roof. Clients are really looking for that streamlined approach.
We’re very contextual with our interior and exterior design. Our design is quiet in a lot of ways. We’re not super bold or pulling out crazy patterns or designs to get noticed. We’re very thoughtful, and we think that will bring longevity.