Michaelis Boyd co-founder Alex Michaelis discusses the individuals who provided inspiration, a preference for working manually, and job satisfaction
Words by Sophie Tolhurst
How satisfied should you be in your work? 100 per cent? 80-90 per cent ? Is 20 per cent good enough from time to time? Speaking with Alex Michaelis of Michaelis Boyd, the architecture and interior design practice he runs with Tim Boyd, I am surprised to hear him report such varying and sometimes low levels of job satisfaction, especially when he follows it up with: ‘I absolutely love every second of what I do. I’m always … amazed people want to pay me to do this.’ Perhaps it is not so contradictory – a generally high level of self-conviction and satisfaction should make it easier to let some things go. Michaelis holds his values dear, but he is hardly spoiling for a fight.
I wonder if this is the tolerance of a man who has seven kids, but it might also stem from his early career when Michaelis worked for Julyan Wickham in 1991. Wickham is known for colour and curves, a ‘wild boy’ who came as a shock to the architects of the previous era, and was also someone Michaelis ‘loved, [but] who was an absolute lunatic’. Wickham had a habit of firing Michaelis and rehiring him the next working day, and once had the audacity to keep a client waiting eight hours for a meeting – and a high-profile client at that: Dickson Poon, Hong Kong businessman and owner of Harvey Nichols. ‘The richest man in the world,’ says Michaelis. He remembers that project because it was a high-pressure environment that he was in, designing and making the model of the Harvey Nichols food hall and restaurant, and all the individual items in it, right up until it was finally presented at midnight. He loved these intense times, but would not wish them on his current employees; he feels that forcing matters does not get the best results.
Arijiju in Kenya was inspired by Le Thoronet, a Cistercian monastery in France Credit: Dook
Michaelis’s father was an architect (his speciality being solar energy) but, despite now seemingly living and breathing architecture, it didn’t seem the obvious choice for the young Michaelis and it was not where he thought he would end up. After realising he didn’t have the scientific skills to pursue a career in medicine, he spent some time in southern Italy, where he discovered the works of Filippo Brunelleschi, a ‘maverick’ Florentine Renaissance architect. (Perhaps unsurprisingly, a childhood holiday with his father, where he was dragged to ‘10 churches a day’, did not inspire Michaelis in the same way. As it is, he has no expectation that his kids – a number of whom currently have their sights set on science too – will follow in his footsteps either.)
When it comes to his work Michaelis feels much more at home in Africa, where some of his favourite projects are located, such as this private residence in Kenya. Credit: Dook
Michaelis was enamoured of Brunelleschi for his belief that he could build an arch of unprecedented size in a way that was structurally sound. To his credit that arch in Florence still stands today. The present-day Michaelis is also keen to insert a curve where others wouldn’t – ‘a literal curve ball of curved walls and strange shapes,’ he says. While that approach has echoes of Wickham, it is also influenced by Le Corbusier, of whom Michaelis is an ardent admirer. He believes in the simplicity and curved forms, as well as Le Corbusier’s idea that when you have a building, you plant it. Michaelis notes, however, a little disappointedly, that Le Corbusier didn’t quite stick to his word on this front. I ask him if he sticks to his word, and he answers positively: many of his buildings do have planted roofs. Such achievements are perhaps a matter of picking your battles wisely and, coming back to those percentages, it is clear that some projects allow Michaelis more freedom than others, due to an inevitable variance in project and client.
Some of his least favourite – as they tend to be more restrictive – are those in New York. He describes the city’s attitude, a propensity for grids, glass and steel, as a ‘boring’ homogeneity that contradicts the vibrancy of the city itself. He is much more at home in Africa, where he has completed some of his favourite work. These are boutique hotels and private residences in remote locations, including Arijiju in Kenya, which has a cloistered form inspired by Le Thoronet, a Cistercian monastery in France and one of Michaelis’s architectural favourites, and Sandibe Hotel in Botswana, its form inspired by the indigenous animal the pangolin. While there are many city projects he is proud of, including the Williamsburg Hotel in New York, these are the ones Michaelis describes himself as 100% satisfied with – embodying what he wants from architecture: integration with the environment, and sustainability, through simple and natural forms.
Tactility is clearly important to Michaelis. Following on from his experience with Wickham and the Harvey Nichols food hall and restaurant, he believes his employees should have workshop space in the studio, for models and prototypes. He runs out of the interview to show me one of the objects he’s excited about: ‘the most tactile things in the world’, a shiny brown nut that washes up on the shores of Mozambique’s Benguerra Island, where Michaelis Boyd worked on the Benguerra Lodge project. The way he talks about the objects he has in his home often focuses on their feel and tactility, and his love of being barefoot is something he’d very much like to integrate into his studio, although thus far not everyone has been keen. Michaelis particularly dislikes the contrived, which means that despite the relative abundance of quirky elements in his home – that fireman’s pole, for example – he would be loathed to force something in that didn’t suit the situation.
He prefers a manual way of working – sketching on paper to CAD, the line drawn by hand to that on the computer – and is not a fan of email conversation (‘using a computer to talk to a computer’). This could be interpreted as old-fashioned, but it becomes innovative and forward-looking in his work.
A fireman’s pole is a quirky element in his own home. Credit: Tim Evan-Cook Photography
The latest house he is designing for himself, currently awaiting planning approval, is the ‘Leaf House’ in rural Oxfordshire. Taking its shape from a leaf, its round form blends into the landscape. It is highly energy-efficient with deep greenhouses on the outside of the house that will insulate the entire building, while for the first of his own homes that he designed, the desire to be energy-efficient led to an Arup engineer’s solution of heating a house by having single-glazed walls between it and the adjoining the pool.
Which brings us to Michaelis’s other passion, which he shares with his late father: solar energy. Their initiave Energy Island explores how the sun heating the sea can be a source of energy, but the project faltered after his father’s passing and having been thwarted by the gas and oil power monopolies. He would like to work on this again, and is now making a difference in terms of energy where he can: this includes in his own homes, whose eye-catching achievements promote the sustainable methods he has utilised. He aligns his interests and ambitions for energy systems more with his aptitudes, with plans such as implementing seawater air-conditioning systems in his forthcoming boutique hotels.
I think back to that 20% job satisfaction and the idea of working with varying people. Michaelis describes his working partner of 25 years, Tim Boyd, as very different to himself, but believes this might be why the relationship works so well (they’re rather satisfied with their relationship!) This positive message that extends into the office, where all staff are encouraged to voice their ideas: what is important is the idea, wherever it comes from.
In an interview for nowness.com Michaelis describes fluidity between architecture and interior design. Our conversation expands on this – we discuss the possibility of recruiting artists, jewellery designers etc., and he clearly sees the value in people with different skills. He says he would like to bring on board those who other firms ‘wouldn’t touch with a barge pole’. He has been that person too, having discovered how swiftly he could be rejected for something as seemingly superficial as dress when he once turned up to pitch in New York in an outfit of Birkenstocks, linen trousers and a T-shirt.