LA Architect Combines Form & Function
by wendy schmid
Gulla Jónsdóttir brings a refreshingly unique perspective to the timeless marriage of form and function.
Only in LA do you find architects like Gulla Jónsdóttir. She's hot by design standards, having won myriad awards, and by aesthetic ones, too. In fact, the striking brunette who hails from Reykjavik, Iceland, was discovered at 16 and spent part of a year modeling in Paris for Elite. "I never talk about it, probably because I was more fascinated with eating crêpes and going to the Louvre than modeling," laughs Jónsdóttir. Modeling's loss is clearly the world of architecture's gain, with the City of Angels happily reaping the rewards of her design-imbued DNA.
Traipse about town, and you'll see Jónsdóttir's lyrical melding of elements both industrial and organic at luxury hotels, restaurants, and art venues. Past projects include the Thompson Beverly Hills, Hollywood Roosevelt, Beverly Hills's Gagosian Gallery, and The Getty center, to name a few. Her architecture and design work is at once thoughtful and dramatic, influenced by the extremes of Iceland, where white glaciers, black beaches, and bubbling hot springs create high drama naturally. "I'm attracted to opposites and contrasts—soft and solid, feminine and masculine," says Jónsdóttir. "I like natural colors from the earth, and real materials like wood and steel." She carves delicate tree motifs into massive steel screens via high-pressure water jets and brings tables to life with winding-vine "legs" that appear both rooted and able to move. But those are just two of many examples. As part of Red O Restaurant's design, which Esquire named Best Design of the Year in 2010, she wrapped the façade in steel ribbons, presenting the restaurant and its food "as a gift from Mexico to LA."
Jónsdóttir also credits the math and biology she studied in Iceland with inspiring her. "I love the human form, how there are no straight lines. And mathematics is like the structural part of what I do," she says. The daughter of a nurse and an engineer, she grew up sketching with her artist grandfather, and on a trip to Florence, Italy, at 12, she fell in love with architecture. By 20 she was stateside, lured to LA's progressive SCI-Arc school, where Frank Gehry was on the board and Neil Denari became one of her teachers.
With a one-year working visa after graduation, Jónsdóttir went for it, applying for jobs with Gehry and Richard Meier. "Yes," she laughs, "two of the most talented architects." She got both, but took the one with Meier (her first offer), which led to work on The Getty center. "I was so lucky to be under his guidance. I find his architecture beautiful and quite peaceful," she says. Jónsdóttir also spent eight years at Dodd Mitchell in LA, first as a design director and later as VP and principal designer, before opening her own firm, G+ Gulla Jónsdóttir Design, in November 2009. The G is for Gulla and the plus sign is for everything else she does: lighting, architecture, and interior and furniture design. Everything else also includes opening a second office in New York last December and juggling upcoming hotel projects from here to Beirut, not to mention restoring the iconic Grauman's Chinese Theatre. "It's a historic property, so it's about respecting the building—enhancing and bringing back its glamour," she says.
A more comprehensive G+ furniture collection, Gulla, also launches this April. Is it any wonder her first office purchase was an espresso machine? "My office is like Santa's workshop," she says of the airy West Hollywood space not far from where she lives. Amid white walls and black concrete floors, Jónsdóttir works alongside some of her favorite designs—her black cross bookshelves, her steel "tree screen," and unused samples that add to the graphic element. Art books, her own sketches, and a petrified-wood sculpture from Japan jostle for space on her desk, while various inspiration boards are at hand to give clients an idea of the general look, feel, and color palette of her vision. Keepsakes also include presentation pieces—like a sculpted acrobat picture frame with a photo of a woman in a lace mask. The former inspired a door handle, while the latter was reinterpreted as a 12-foot laser-cut steel sculpture, both for the same project. Her large oak Una table, meanwhile, works as well for conferences as it does for Tuscan-style dinner parties. "I cut samples on it and have wine and cheese on it," she says. "I do try to have a little fun, too."
Yet, as with any in-demand star, work always finds her. When she was in Beirut, she met jewelry designer Paolo Bongia, who promptly hired her to design his new boutique on Rodeo Drive. "His work is very unique. Organic but so elegant," says Jónsdóttir. "We're a good match."
photography by amy dickerson; hair by travisean at exclusive artists management
LAC celebrates the women of its May/June 2013 issue at Palihouse in West Hollywood.