Interview with an Architect: Stephen Arnn Brings Lifelong Learning to His Designs

Stephen Arnn

In our ongoing series, Interview with an Architect, we speak with leading voices in the North Texas architecture community and learn about their work, development issues in our community, and good design practices and principals (you can read the last one here).

Stephen Arnn grew up surrounded by and appreciating great architecture. From an early age, he showed talent and interest in art, especially drawing. When his mother suggested he should be an architect when he grew up, the seven-year-old agreed, and from that point forward, Arnn had his career path in mind.

Stephen Arnn

Stephen Arnn

Today, he is a Dallas residential architectural designer, owner of Stephen Arnn Design, which he established in 1976. Arnn graduated from architecture school at Washington University in St. Louis and working at other boutique firms in Nebraska and Dallas.

“I became a different person [at Washington University] and I had a wonderful group of professors who challenged me,” he said. “It was easy in Oklahoma City to be known as talented—it wasn’t easy at Washington because there were a lot of talented people and I had to learn to use my talents and not just slough around.”

Arnn moved to Dallas after a stint in Nebraska at a large firm, joining Pierce Lacey Partnership and working six years with his mentor, Neal Lacey. Lacey taught him something valuable:

“He said, ‘You are in a profession where people tend to preen around each other and you should be in this profession to create beautiful buildings, buildings that work for the client…you’re not doing this to get published in Architectural Digest or Architectural Record—that is simply showing your work to your peers, your competition,” Arnn said. “I want to design a house that is exactly what the client wants, because it’s their money, not mine, and I want them to be embraced by the house and love it.”

We sat down with Arnn and talked shop.

CandysDirt: You’ve had a special gift since childhood that plays an important part in your career. Tell us about it. 

Stephen Arnn: A gift I was given, not one I developed out of education, is two fold: the ability to draw freehand, with a simple stroke, and the gift of seeing things in my head in three dimension. That makes the design process enormously easier. As well, the warmth of hand-drawn sketches or presentation drawings is much easier to sell than is a CAD drawing at this point in technological history. Hand drawings also allow me to be thinking about every stroke. It takes longer, at the inception, but it solves lots of problems later in the design development phase because it’s all been thought through.

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CD: So you’ve always been drawing and creating art? 

SA: I’ve always enjoyed drawing. When I was five years old, I wanted to be a dress designer because I could draw anything and I would see stylish women in the newspaper and copy that. But mom put me on a different path. She said architect and it was decided. I could really focus my attention on that.

CD: You opened your own firm with projects for the Plano Title Company. How did that happen? 

SA: I was designing homes and I did a house for David Fair of Hexter Fair. He introduced me to Bill Kramer of Plano Title Company. I ended up designing 26 satellite offices of theirs in the early mid 70s. It was a lot of fun because I was given a lot of leeway to learn. They decided they wanted me to design a new corporate headquarters and I did that, too. But I’m not a big commercial architecture guy because it becomes “design by committee.”

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CD: What is your inspiration for your work?

SA: My clients inspire me. I’ve had really great clients and I’ve been really lucky. I can relate to them and talk with them and listen to them and what they want inspires me to do something interesting that they don’t expect, better then what they expect.

My other inspiration is my travels. Seeing the European sense of style, its mindset in reality, the way a 14th-century arch would resolve itself into a horizontal crown or header, and seeing that helped me enormously because I could say a given detail I had drawn can be done. And given the challenge, I could do it myself. I am trying to build the right home for my clients. They are paying for it, so I shouldn’t be building monuments to myself. It is great to be able to call upon my travels as a resource of design.

CD: What are some of your biggest challenges?

SA: The number-one challenge is getting a client to trust you and the only way to overcome that is to really listen and not try to be the one doing the talking. Ask questions and write it down. And don’t forget it. Design for them, not for you. I do this, and they see I heard them, and quickly, they trust me. Then I have the opportunity to do some unusual things in the design of their house.

Another challenge is contractors that say that can’t be done. I’ve been in this business too long and I’ve studied architecture since I was seven years old to know what can be done. I will eventually take the hammer and nail and show them how it can be done. One of my best builders, I did that to him and he tells that story to every client.

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CD: What made you decide to base your firm in Dallas after a successful time in San Francisco?

SA: I had youthful wanterlust, so I moved to California. There, I was extremely lucky to have arrived at the beginning of the Silicon Valley’s boom. Eventually, it became a city too huge, too busy, too crowded for someone trying to slow down. So I wanted to come back to Texans, to my friends, the people I understood and those that easily understood me, my sense of humor, etc.

CD: What is your favorite building in Dallas, residential or commercial, and why? 

SA: I do love the Federal Reserve Building next to Klyde Warren Park — have since it was new. While my cohorts in crime thought it was mediocre, I thought it had a sense of permanence, and sure enough, it looks better today than it did when it was new.

I also love a very modern house at 6117 Westwick, across from the Dallas Country Club golf course. It is a thoroughly modern piece, but it has the lines that will endure. I also like many period architectural pieces, both residential and commercial, but there is a plethora of that, so I’ll stay with the above.

 

If you know an architect (or are an architect!) who should be featured in this occasional column, please email Leah here.