By Kate Maguire Jensen –
Tucson architect Sonya Sotinsky says she’s seen exponential change in Tucson’s design scene since the late 1990s when the city was “held hostage by kokopellis.”
Today she believes that “people are finally feeling free to love the desert and the history of this place, and are embracing a more eclectic style.”
Without much of a stretch, one could easily make the case that Sotinsky and her architect husband, Miguel Fuentevilla, are a big part of the changing design aesthetic in Tucson.
Partners in FORS architecture + interiors, the pair has been responsible for dozens of Tucson restaurants and hotels, including nine downtown restaurants and bars – The Hub, Proper, Penca, Pizzeria Bianco, Playground, Downtown Kitchen + Cocktails, Gio Taco, Diablo Burger and Good Oak Bar. They also are designing the shell for Johnny Gibson’s Downtown Market, which is scheduled to open later this year.
The two met as undergrads at the University of Arizona, at an architecture party. After graduation, Sotinsky pursued a master’s degree in architecture at the University of California, Berkeley, which is where the duo started working in tandem.
The company name was born of necessity. They had just completed their first project together – a beach house – and were submitting it to Metropolitan Home for the “home of the year” competition. It was 11p.m. and by morning they needed a name and a logo. With no time for a focus group or a graphic designer, they took the ‘F’ from Fuentevilla and the ‘S’ from Sotinsky and put ‘OR’ in the middle. It must have worked. They won the award and the name has stayed.
They married in 1997 and soon after moved back to Tucson. “We realized that we couldn’t achieve all the things we wanted – start a firm, buy a house, have babies – in the Bay Area in the time frame we wanted (immediately),” Sotinsky said. “We made a good-sized list of possible cities and Tucson ended up winning because of family, cost of living, housing costs, weather, landscape, Rio Nuevo hopes of downtown renewal, the University of Arizona and the potential ability to make an impact with our work (versus being in a major market).
“We started small for sure, working out of our home. Some of our Bay Area clients came with us, so that helped with the transition.”
Sotinsky’s background was residential, Fuentevilla’s commercial. In Tucson they began to make their mark in the hospitality industry.
“With hotels and restaurants, you often get to be part of the entire process,” Fuentevilla said. “Our design process includes controlling the spatial experience inside and out. Many times we also design the interiors, even selecting small details such as millwork. It’s very satisfying to set design principles and to see them interpreted – to take a project from the earliest design phase to seeing people move in.”
The architecture duo develops design through storytelling, including creating the brand. They create storyboards for each project, just like what you’d find in a full-service marketing firm. Covered with fabric swatches, design fragments, fashion elements, landscapes, photos of people, words and phrases – the storyboard outlines the experience they want to create and becomes their design bible, a litmus test of sorts. Each design element is weighed against the storyboard to ensure brand consistency.
To keep their design sense fresh, they travel a lot – at least five design trips a year. For Fuentevilla, there are two kinds of vacation. “We either wear out a pair of shoes – or sit on the beach and do nothing.”
When they visit a city like San Francisco, they’ll check out up to 30 projects a day – hotels, museums, neighborhoods, window displays. They try to visit New York every year, combining work with visiting family.
“The window displays in places like Soho, London, Paris, Madrid are amazing,” he said. “Travel helps us build up a mental library of images. We just used a few design elements from something that inspired us on a trip to Miami a few years ago.”
While they collaborate well, one partner is always the creative director on a project. “That reduces squabbling,” Sotinsky said. She serves as the company’s CFO, while her husband takes on more design projects and does a lot of the early client contact. “It’s a balance and we’re starting to develop more office procedures. We’re a small firm, so we wear a lot of hats.”
In addition to running a very busy architecture firm, they are also parents to two daughters, ages 12 and 14, so balancing work and family is a high priority. “Having our business has been huge for the family – it’s allowed us to spend more time together,” she said. “Our daughters do their homework here after school and, like us, they try to get it all done here, not take it home with them.
“We do really try to unplug at home,” Sotinsky said. “No phones. No cable. No Internet. And I try to create boundaries – like I never talk on the cell phone when one of my daughters is in the car – even if my mother calls.” The other thing that helps, she said, “is sheer exhaustion.”
What’s next in architectural design? “We’re seeing a massive shift from what the baby boomers want in homes to what millennials want,” Fuentevilla said. “Millennials have totally different wants and needs. They want to travel and to eat out. We are starting to design projects with multiple demographics in mind.”
They are huge proponents of downtown. In addition to their office downtown, they created a small store at the front of the office on Congress Street, selling “modern amenities” like high-design gifts, jewelry and home accessories.
The couple reports that from June 2013 to June 2014 was their busiest year ever – with more than 50 projects finished or in the queue. They are now picking up commercial office work because of their restaurant work and half of their business is coming from out of town.
When asked if they want to grow the business bigger, they collectively answer with a resounding “No.” They’re sandwiched in an office in proximity to many of the restaurants they’ve designed. They have eight full-time employees, which they say is a great size. “I’ve learned the importance of building a good team, Sotinsky said. “Our team now is the strongest it’s ever been.”
That may be why a lot of their clients are repeat clients and new client prospects are starting to say, “I’ve heard of you guys.”