Vitae executive brings art and soul to his architectural designs
Updated: May 24, 2019
By Ben van der Meer – Staff Writer, Sacramento Business Journal
Jan 24, 2019, 9:51am EST
Call it holistic architecture.
A building might look great from the outside, but feel cold inside. Or the structure might be great in and out, but is incongruous with its surroundings.
Such pitfalls are what Brendan Koon, head of Vitae Architecture’s Sacramento office, is trying to avoid when he’s tasked with a new project. With a career spanning nearly 24 years, Koon has helped design some of Sacramento's most notable office buildings as well as popular new establishments like the restaurant Camden Spit & Larder.
“We really design from the inside out,” Koon said. “It’s the kind of thing where you get work that’s more functional, but also has soul. It establishes itself in place, and you don’t have to talk about it.”
In describing how he approaches projects, Koon uses the analogy of classical music pieces that require strong technical ability, but that talented musicians still interpret it in their own ways. The music analogy is one he’s familiar with: As a child, Koon performed around the world as a violin prodigy.
But by the time he was in college, he said, he was burned out. He was taking music classes at North Texas University when, wandering through campus, he stuck his head into an architecture class in progress. Burnout solved.
Koon said famed architect Charles Moore helped him see a window as more than an opening in a wall to look outside. He recalled when someone asked Moore about where he got the inspiration for a colorful ceiling design; Moore said it came from the room’s rug.
After Koon began working for Vitae in the company's San Francisco office, he said, he started applying some of these unorthodox philosophies. Many of his early jobs were designing offices for emerging Silicon Valley firms like Netscape. Their spaces might have resembled staid office buildings from the outside, but they needed to be creatively stimulating for the tech wizards populating them and crafting the early internet.
“It was technical work, but it was also very social because you had groups working together,” he said. Koon soon began working on other types of projects: retail, hospitality, multifamily and restaurants. The firm made him a partner in 2001, four years after sending him up Interstate 80 to establish a Sacramento office.
By then, Koon said, he’d discovered he really liked the process of getting a proposal and establishing relationships with the developer and other team members. He said he especially enjoys referral and repeat work, because he can move past a feeling-out period and into the more fulfilling stage of creating something from nothing.
One of those relationships came soon after Koon established the Sacramento office, when he met Pete Thompson and Kipp Blewett, then with Spieker Properties. Spieker hired Vitae and Koon to design what became Folsom’s Parkshore Plaza office complex.
Eight years later, Blewett and Thompson, then with Rubicon Partners, thought of Koon again when they and Buzz Oates converted a historic but unimpressive office building in downtown Sacramento into the Citizen Hotel. Koon said the project allowed him to tap into his interest in adaptive reuse, but designing the boutique hotel proved challenging.
“We gutted it to the bare bones,” he said, describing how the team installed new electrical systems, HVAC and even an additional floor. “It was a wonderful history lesson. We kept learning as we went along.”
After stripping it down, Koon said, he then worked closely on the design to restore it as something new, down to custom lampshades.
During the Great Recession, when local construction and development activity slowed to a crawl, Vitae shuttered its Sacramento office for a few years. But when interest began to pick up in recent years and the office reopened, Koon said, he noticed something had changed in the local attitude toward projects.
In past booms, he said, there were proposals that seemed to veer away from what Sacramento was, he said. Now, more projects embrace and include local characteristics.
Koon said he’s been able to put some of that dynamic into more recent projects. First, again partnering with Rubicon and Buzz Oates, he was the architect for reimagining 555 Capitol Mall, a mid-century mixed-use building downtown.
Blewett at Rubicon said Koon’s approach is part scientist, part poet.
“Nobody knows the building code better,” Blewett said. “But he also brings his own dimension to the building.” Blewett said many of the touches on the Citizen, such as the pop-out on 10th Street for the Grange restaurant, were Koon’s idea.
More recently, Rubicon tapped him again for an upscale restaurant on the ground floor of 555 Capitol Mall, led by chef Oliver Ridgeway.
The logical route, Koon said, would’ve been to reflect the story of the restaurant’s food, service and environment in the space's design. But he said he was stumped at first by Ridgeway’s vision of California cuisine inspired by Ridgeway’s roots in England.
It wasn’t until Ridgeway mentioned his father had been a tailor that Koon said he got inspired for what became Camden Spit & Larder’s decor, which resembles a London haberdashery. Look inside the restaurant with the slideshow below, which is from 2018.
“We’re taking a lot of things seen in British establishments,” he said, where upscale restaurants serve both quick lunches and couples having a nice dinner. At Camden, that’s reflected in wall patterns, custom light fixtures and wing back chairs. But there’s whimsy too: formal portraits of people dressed in their finest, but with animal heads.
On the Capitol Mall side of the restaurant, Ridgeway and Koon had to figure out what to do with a wall covering the restaurant’s unglamorous back of the house areas. The solution was Winston, a boar motoring through space on a Vespa scooter. Hollywood prop designers for shows such as Westworld brought the eye-catching display to life.
“It’s really about having fun, but having a hand in every single detail,” he said. While it’s not on the same scale as many projects, it’s got impact because it’s accessible to so many people, he said.
Getting to do projects big and small — by choice — is a luxury he’s happy to have at this point in his career, Koon said “What that means is you’re not just feeding the machine. It’s working with brilliant people that have the same goal, that adds to Sacramento.”
Education: Bachelor of Architecture, University of Texas at Austin
Career: Vitae Architecture Planning Interiors (formerly TSH Architects) San Francisco and Sacramento, associate and branch manager, 1997-2001, principal, 2001-present; TSH Architects San Francisco, project manager, 1995-1997; Barnes Architects in Austin, 1994-1995, designer; Fromberg Associates in Austin, 1992-1994.
Personal/family: "The youngest of four truly brilliant siblings."
Something people would be surprised to know about you: "That I was once a concert violinist (I don’t exactly look the part, lol)."
An effective business leader: "Is open to new ideas, cares about more than their own personal path and isn’t afraid to hire people better than themself."
Hobbies: Scuba diving
Fantasy job: "I’d love to design a concert/music hall, where I can truly use all of my talents."
Toughest professional decision: "The series of decisions involved with maneuvering through the recession. I’m eternally grateful for the tenured experience of my business partner."
Biggest misunderstanding about your job: "The most underpaid in comparison to the amount of education."