BREAKING THE MOLD
Raised by social justice warriors, architect Michelle Linden leads with a passion for community-centric design.
By Shawn Williams
Architect Michelle Linden’s parents spent their careers in social work, so growing up she saw the impact of the housing crisis on low-income families. Years later, as she pursued her own career, these lessons shaped how she built her practice as well as her approach to design. Linden’s drive to create spaces that have a positive impact on families, businesses, and neighborhoods can be seen throughout her portfolio.
Linden is a female architect in the U.S., where only 17 percent of registered architects are women. She studied at the Illinois Institute of Technology in Chicago where she worked for a variety of firms with established roots in sustainable design and spent a term studying abroad at the Technical University of Delft, in the Netherlands. She received a BARCH in 2002 and went on to work for firms in Honolulu and Seattle. She was laid off in 2008 during the great recession, prompting her to start her own business. In 2012, she and Henry Walters merged their companies, forming Atelier Drome. With women leading the team by two-thirds, Michelle serves as a role model and mentor promoting independence and design leadership throughout the studio. Their team of nearly 20 architects and interior designers work on residential and commercial projects including the celebrated Communion restaurant, a space for Seattle chef and caterer Kristi Brown of That Brown Girl Cooks!
Wanting to get to know her better, we recently discussed what makes her tick.
Interview edited for length and clarity.
Co-Owner and Principal Architect
ATELIER DROME architecture + interior design
Hi Michelle, I’m delighted to talk with you. First, I have to ask, where does the name Atelier Drome come from?
Originally, my firm was named Atelier A+D. I began collaborating more and more on projects with my friend Henry Walters, whose own firm was named Drome Design Studio. When we merged our companies in 2012, we became Atelier Drome. Atelier is French for studio or workshop and Drome is a french root word for a specially created place (like a velodrome, aerodrome). We like to think our combined name means we’re a studio for specially created places, although we recognize we’re taking some liberties with the translation.
Tell me about your background. Where’d you grow up and how did this experience inform your sense of design?
I grew up in a small town just north of Boston (Gloucester, MA). My dad was a social worker and my mother had a variety of jobs including running social housing. I wasn’t really exposed to architects as a kid though. I really don’t know where the idea came from, maybe it was Mike Brady, maybe it was my friend who had a really cool collection of iconic building stamps. Whatever it was, I got it in my head really early, probably around fifth grade. My parents were super supportive, and in seventh grade, they found an architecture summer camp for girls through Girls Inc. After that, every decision I made was an attempt to bring me closer to becoming an architect. Of course, some moves were better than others… I’m not sure the summer job at the blueprint shop really did anything other than give me a serious aversion to ammonia. But what I really learned from my parents that informed my sense of design is the idea that real people with real problems use space. Architecture and design can solve problems just as much as it can exist purely for aesthetic enjoyment. And great design does both.
What are your earliest memories of architecture and design?
For someone who always wanted to be an architect, it is shocking how little I knew about it until I went to college. I was fortunate to be exposed to great artwork during my childhood, we frequently went to the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. I was particularly interested in the Egyptian Collections and the Modern Art exhibits though I don’t remember much about architecture beyond the New England puritan salt boxes. When I landed in Chicago for college, my mind was blown by both the architecture of the city and what we were exposed to in class. I was not at all prepared.
I’m glad you stuck with it! What led you then to establish your own firm and how did you meet cofounder Henry Walters?
I had always intended to have my own firm, but the 2008 recession gave me a little kickstart. Henry and I met when we were both working for Ben Trogdon back in 2004 or so. We kept in touch and when I started my own firm I reached out to him a lot for guidance as he had started his own a few years prior.
Your office is located in Pioneer Square in downtown Seattle. Tell us about the neighborhood, what do you like about it, why did you choose this location?
The scale of Pioneer Square is really great due in large part to its historic nature, but it also has great energy. There is just a really great camaraderie here, everyone celebrating the wins together and also understanding the struggles.
Co-Owner and Principal Architect Henry Walters (center) at Atelier Drome studio in Seattle.
Our team talks a lot about the “GRAY way” during brainstorming sessions, meaning we think through our own unique, on-brand approach to any given concept. What’s the Atelier Drome way of working?
This is an important one for our office but at the same time, it’s a hard one to fit the right words around because it’s something that just happens naturally with our team. Henry and I set up our office to feel similar to what we loved about our college design studios, where everyone is a leader of their own project but work within a collaborative atmosphere. Because we aren’t siloed, everyone can pull from the collective experience and knowledge of their peers. And just as importantly, we find that the mix of project types that we take on all help to inform and grow our collective knowledge.
How do you begin working on a project?
Every project starts with a hand sketch. Actually, that’s not completely accurate. Every project starts with an initial client meeting to better understand the project goals. Then, depending on the complexity of the site, we’ll either look at the zoning code or jump right into sketching. In fact, our first client presentations are all hand sketches, there is just something special about putting pencil to paper.
Tell us about a recent project, why you took it on, and what makes it exciting.
We recently completed Communion Restaurant and Bar in the Central District, which has been an absolute blast. The owners are amazing, talented, giving, and with an incredibly positive outlook on life. Kristi and Damon have run several successful businesses, but this is their first brick-and-mortar restaurant. We’ve been working with them from the beginning, so it's been fun to see the project evolve, all the personal touches that have been infused into the design, and how much the space will bring to the neighborhood.
How do your designs improve the lives of your clients?
This is a great question! And honestly, it’s one we touch back on frequently as an office because it’s the heart and soul of why we love what we do. We completely nerd out about things like the mundane tasks and routines people go through on a daily basis. As designers, it’s our job to listen to our clients, then go beyond what they ask for by giving them what they didn’t even realize they wanted, but now couldn’t imagine living without.
What makes a dream project?
Clients who are excited about the process and trust us. To me, a dream project is one in which neither myself nor the client had too many preconceived notions – it allows for the most creativity, biggest surprises, and the biggest successes. And to finish a project and be truly excited by it AND to have loved collaborating with the client… that’s the dream.
What are 3 things anyone can do in their home or work environment right now that would make it more livable or pleasant to be in?
Stop trying to design your home for everyone else (for resale, for the latest Pinterest trends, etc). We are all unique and our homes should be an expression of that, reflecting who we are and not who we think we should be.
Marie Kondo is right. Get rid of anything that doesn’t make you happy. We’re all surrounded by so much clutter, and now that we’re spending even more time in our homes, that clutter can be suffocating.
Add some plants!
Favorite structure? Nordic Pavilion in Venice
What architect do you most admire? Jeanne Gang
Favorite song, book, or movie? The Tour de France (not a movie, but so epic even watching from home!)
I collect…. gin
1 word that best describes you? Determined
What has been the biggest surprise of your career so far?
It's all been a surprise. When I graduated from college, I NEVER thought I’d want to work in residential design, it seemed too small and I couldn’t imagine having to talk about things like people’s closets. But when I graduated, the only job I could find was at a residential firm and surprise, I loved it! Turns out, I love talking with people about every detail of their home, and how to make it better. Then, after years of working in residential design, I never thought I’d want to do anything else but, the last decade has provided more surprises and we’re now well known for working on restaurants, corporate work, and more recently, multi-family and mixed-use buildings.
What are some of the biggest challenges you’ve experienced in your career so far?
… and how about this year during the pandemic?
I miss seeing faces! I miss the expressions that everyone makes! There is no substitute for an in-person connection. And those connections are important, we are designing for each individual, so the better we know them the better the design will be. We were so excited when we could (partially) open our office back up for our teams to meet because it just isn’t the same when you can’t put pen to paper in real-time discussion. Sure, there are apps for that, but nothing beats the in-person, old school, hands-on approach that we love as designers.