Architect Jeff Pelletier chats with GRAY about his start in the industry and his firm’s game-changing pivot.
By Shawn Williams
A self-proclaimed lover of superlatives, architect Jeff Pelletier, AIA, CPHC, lives for his collection of the “best, most craziest” stories.
He believes it’s these stories that have helped drive his professional ambitions and his approach to design overall. “It should take a long time to give a tour of your new space because you’re wrapped up in telling the most amazing stories behind how it came together,” he says.
Pelletier is the managing principal of Board & Vellum, a Seattle-based multi-disciplinary design firm that he founded in 2011. The studio has won several awards including being named a GRAY Awards finalist in 2021, and their work has been published in GRAY and many other publications.
We’ve been following the studio’s inspired work for years. I recently had the opportunity to catch up with Pelletier about how it all started and how it’s going.
I’ve read in many of your interviews over the years that you’ve known you wanted to be an architect since you were a small child. How did you know? What were the tell-tale signs that architecture, not to mention launching your own studio, were in your future?
I grew up in an old mill town in Massachusetts as the youngest child of five kids. I’m 26 years younger than my oldest sibling, so, effectively, I grew up as an only child with older parents. It left me plenty of time to build with LEGO bricks and dream of awesome things. My mother was also quite ill throughout my childhood, so I was very aware of time being finite. It helped fuel some of my ambition and made the decision of whether to start a firm pretty easy because I’ve always thought there’s no time like the present.
So, how did you get from building with LEGO bricks… wait, let me rephrase that since I know that LEGO bricks are still a big part of your creative life…. What happened between Massachusetts and Seattle?
After graduating from Cornell University, I moved to New York City and worked at a large firm designing corporate interiors. NYC wasn’t for me, so my husband and I made our way to Seattle in 2001 to set down roots in his hometown. I ended up working at a smaller firm designing custom residential projects, which I realized I loved. When I later shifted back to a larger firm to develop my multifamily and commercial skills, I found I loved that, too. I discovered my passion truly is to be a generalist architect.
After working for a decade or so, I developed the itch to try things my own way and decided to start a firm. I made an obsessively detailed plan and launched right into it. Through seemingly endless blogging, networking, and some good old-fashioned luck, here we are over a decade later.
Was it in your detailed plans to launch as a multidisciplinary studio or was it an evolution?
Here’s a little secret about architects: we have to know a little bit about everything, and that leads us to think that we can do a little bit of everything. As an architect designing custom residential projects, I know how to pick interior finishes and so, initially, I bristled at the idea of hiring an in-house interior designer. The reality, though, is that just because I know a good amount about interior design and landscape architecture, it isn’t what I do. People who specialize in those fields bring so much more to the table. Adding them to the mix simply makes projects so much better. I can’t say it enough. And when clients witness how the collaborative design process creates holistic, beautiful projects, they get very excited. Our integrated approach is one of the things clients love the most about us.
Have you ever experienced an aha moment or game changer?
I feel like I have a book of game changers to pull from, as each year seems to throw more fun surprises at us!
However, by far, my favorite game changer was when one of our clients fired their landscape architecture consultant and wanted Board & Vellum to be their landscape architect instead. It was wonderful in theory, but we didn’t have landscape architects on our team. That said, we’d recently mapped out a 5-year plan that included adding landscape architecture services. So instead of implementing it in five years, we leaped at the opportunity and added it in five weeks. And now that we have a fully integrated team of architects, interior designers, and landscape architects, I cannot imagine designing any other way. It has fundamentally changed how we design our projects, and it is, frankly, just so much more fun having a multidisciplinary team in-house.
We had a residential project in the office recently where the client was wondering why there were three people in the design meeting: an architect, an interior designer, and a landscape architect. After our presentation, the client was excited by some new ideas and had questions. Our team started sketching right there in the meeting and doing this whole, “Ooh, what about this?” routine that was getting really energetic and even a little silly. Half an hour later, we were all in tears laughing (we don't take ourselves too seriously here), but had a completely amazing concept melding the ideas of three distinct disciplines. The happy client repeatedly noted that this just wouldn’t have been possible were it only an architect presenting a concept or two.
Favorite example of a multidisciplinary project?
We all love the Lucille apartment project, Lucille on Roosevelt [in Seattle], as it captures everything we do as a firm. The ground floor is a wonderfully seamless indoor/outdoor experience, and all of our in-house disciplines had their hands in how it works. You can’t tell where landscape architecture, architecture, and interior design start or stop.
I’m absolutely passionate about the ground floor of mixed-use buildings and the opportunity they have to make our neighborhoods special. The space where a building meets the sidewalk is my favorite spot to design. The ground floor at the Lucille really exemplifies how wonderful that space can be when approached thoughtfully. Think about meeting a friend for brunch and waiting for a table next to a cozy fire pit, with beautiful plants nearby, some music playing, twinkling lights above, and an interesting space all around you. That’s what we created at the Lucille. Designing spaces like that is why I get up in the morning.
Have things changed for you since the pandemic?
The big surprise for us was how the pandemic sped up the integration of our projects, especially between our landscape and interior design studios. We’d all been stuck inside for two years, using our spaces more than ever, and analyzing what isn't working for us anymore. Even if you didn't need to remodel your home extensively (requiring an architect), people realized they wanted to sharpen up the interiors, or that they longed for great outdoor spaces. This is a niche our teams are primed to tackle. Our ability to work so seamlessly between indoor and outdoor spaces, and customizing our services to our clients' needs, is core to who we are at Board & Vellum.
Thank you, Jeff. We appreciate all that you and your team at Board & Vellum do to raise the standard of design and quality of living in our neighborhoods.