Interview With LA’s Designer John Sofio | Impact Masses
“Impact the masses” and “Make the world a better place (through design)” have always been my abstract mottos for Built.
Mottos that John Sofio, the award-winning architect who has built a solid reputation for his work in LA, stands by as they have been inherent to his company, Built, Inc., in creating soulful and luxurious exclusive spaces that cater to the elite. It is of no surprise that he draws star-studded crowds to Built’s spaces. John Sofio has mastered his craft to perfection. He pays strict attention to detail and is adamant in being involved throughout the entire process, from designing to building – ensuring the delivery of finished products that are complex yet harmonized.
Here at The Hedonist Magazine, we believe that we can be, do, and have anything that we want – John Sofio has done just that. Meet the man behind LA’s finest hospitality spaces.
- Please introduce yourself briefly. Who, in your own words, is John Sofio?
I am an artist and a designer. I’ve lived in Los Angeles since 1990, designing and building under my firm Built, Inc., translating abstract concepts into complete spaces and experiences.
- When did you start designing spaces? How did you enter this industry?
I’ve been designing spaces since 1995. Initially, I was only working on residential projects. In 2003, I designed Magnolia, a restaurant in Hollywood, which started my shift into hospitality design. After that, Royale on Wilshire and Rampart, and then Guy’s Bar in West Hollywood. Guy’s Bar was in 2006 and was the first high profile venue I’d created, which led to my involvement with a string of venues Built is now famous for.
- How do you think Design impacts our society and ultimately the people you design for?
I make a differentiation between design that is “soulful” and design that isn’t. Soulful design requires intention, decisions, vision. Up until a shift in the mid-70s, most American design was truly soulful, created with specific intention. By the mid-90s though, the new wave was in full effect. Artistic decision was discarded in exchange for repetition and monochromatic palettes for efficiency’s sake, making way for the iconically stark track-homes, mini-malls, and gas stations to be duplicated across the country, one indistinguishable from the next, regardless of its city.
Soulful Design grants differentiation and importance. Soulful design is noticed in the experience of the design, either consciously or subconsciously. I’m constantly trying to create spaces that make you feel like you’re “somewhere” like there’s a reason to be inside that space other than just having a drink. It’s cool because I’m not designing art installations, I’m designing venues. Regular guests aren’t consciously seeking out specific design elements; this allows the space to more infectiously impact the experience in a memorable and positive way. The impact of Soulful Design is key to a repeatedly successful venue.
- What inspired you to found Built, Inc, and why did you name it as such?
The name Built references the integrity of our work. Built creates finished products, it is not a service company. Every aspect of the project is handled, from concept and branding through architecture, interior, and finishes. Anything designed by Built will also be constructed by Built. My philosophy on soulful design thrives in this environment, as it demands artistic integrity and creativity at each step of the process.
- You founded Built Inc in 1995, how has the company evolved since then?
I was first inspired by Richard Neutra and Albert Frey’s “Case Study Houses” project, specifically their emphasis on the relationship between the space and its guests. I applied these Modernist principles and philosophies to my own work, designing over 500 residential spaces in my own sort of “Case Study” project. In 2003 I shifted towards restaurant and bar design with Magnolia. Applying the tenants of Modernism I’d been working with already, I immediately recognized the restaurant’s potential to “impact the masses” with a soulful design. It was like designing a house that different people could experience every day. This realization escalated me to nightclub design, where the results of my work simultaneously affected more people and exposed our work to more clients, propelling Built to where it is now. Its current stage is in full-scale hospitality design, creating fully branded hotels. Not only are more people affected by the experience of my work, but the effect is on a deeper and extended level. From the lobby, the lounge, the food and beverage, the guest rooms, the hallways – everything is part of an intentionally designed experience.
- You have designed spaces, such as Petite Taqueria and The NICE GUY, that are popular with Hollywood’s A-listers. Kendall Jenner herself celebrated her 22nd birthday at Petite. Why do you think your designs are so well-loved by the elite celebrity crowd in LA?
John Terzian is good at developing long-term friendships within this crowd, so I really design these venues with them in mind. Seating and architecture is carefully manipulated to create a feeling of sanctuary and exclusivity, while still being able to see everyone in the venue. You’re protected from the crowd yet still a part of the scene. Lighting design and furniture arrangement manipulates the line of sight and directs attention to different spaces within the venue, stimulating the “who’s here?” effect while still providing shelter.
- You have won numerous design awards for Bootsy Bellows and The NICE GUY. How do you think these spaces differ from the rest of the spaces you have designed?
In terms of differentiating from other venues, I see these spaces being recognized more for their social status and function. Almost every venue we’ve created has repeatedly won design awards, but in regards to attracting the A-List crowd, The Nice Guy and Bootsy’s are definitely our heavy hitters. The Nice Guy serves as a protected environment, a clubhouse, a mafioso social lounge for the mob boss to host entertainment and business. The back room at The Nice Guy is a big draw for celebrity clients, creating an even more exclusive and sheltered experience within the already protected atmosphere of the bar. Bootsy Bellows also features a private back room for VIPs, which complements the high-profile, celebrity status of the venue. Like The Nice Guy, Bootsy Bellows is known for its celebrity clientele – however where The Nice Guy offers protection, Bootsy’s offers status.
- What current projects are you working on that we should keep an eye out for?
The Pendry Hotel is set to replace the historic live music venue House of Blues. A 10,000 square foot, private members club for the ‘billionaire set’ is also in the works; both spaces are on The Sunset Strip. La Cienega is also going to have a new country club style sports bar. We just finished the ground floor restaurant and basement lounge at our Chicago Found Hotel location. Ravine will soon open in Midtown Atlanta as a brand new live music and event space.
- You emphasize greatly on precision and attention to detail on the Built, Inc website. How do you think this helps the design process and outcome?
Attention to detail is obviously critical in the execution of high-end conceptual design. The nuances and subtleties of these designs demand perfection at every step of the buildout process. Focus on precision can also be a project’s downfall, eating away at the timeline, so it forces us to constantly create innovative, yet simple solutions to complex design.
- What are the ingredients for creating a luxurious space?
High-quality materials, clear intent, and high-grade design concepts are necessary for a luxurious space. Carrying those Modernist “Case Study” philosophies I mentioned, I’ve come to equate luxury with comfort in my designs. Luxury may be visually recognized in a space, but the element of comfort is critical to the luxury experience. The experience of luxury without comfort is intimidating and uninviting. I try to instill confidence in guests. The entire space is usually designed as a type of sanctuary, always providing protection. Booths serve as lookout stations to watch over the night. A sense of exclusivity and status is achieved through this seating arrangement and with lighting design.
- How would you describe your artistic style?
My philosophy of organic and soulful design kind of rejects this idea of creating with a specific style. True spontaneous creation doesn’t adhere to style, nor does it worry about its place in the history of other creations. To me, each design feels independent and organic. The technical style of my design for Blind Dragon vs Bootsy Bellows vs Delilah are closed universes, each style unique to its concept. Total control of the creative process is necessary for this to be achieved, or else the true soul of that concept will be diluted and perverted. Somebody asked me this question once and I told them, “Original ideas executed with complete control of the process is my ‘style’.” However, I, of course, have my artistic influences. I’m inspired by late 60s and mid 70s American pop art, Italian Modernism of the early 70s, Albert Frey’s Case Study architecture, Stan Bitters’ clay sculptures, and Ray Bradbury’s visualization of an ancient-modernist society in The Martian Chronicles.
- How do you define success both personally and professionally?
Professional success is when an artist is hired for their product, not for their service. Anybody can be hired for a service, to complete a task. When you need a task done you look for the most efficient, often cheapest option available. However, when you want a specific product, the creator of that product is in control. They dictate its availability, its price, while you as the consumer have already dictated the product’s high worth by seeking it. When an artist has a benefactor, somebody who could invest in whatever artist they want but chooses them specifically, that artist is successful. That artist is free to create whatever he wants. Personal success is having the freedom and time to be in a self-induced, creative mode constantly, viewing creation as a pleasure rather than a task. Spending less time working, less time commuting, less mundane activity and thought, less projects to pay the bills and more projects to satisfy the self… when you’re doing that you’re successful.
- What advice would you give to aspiring designers?
Execute as much of your work as possible. There’s an issue I’ve noticed with millennials, they talk a lot about creativity and about their creative passions, yet rarely have hard material evidence backing it. Any concepts you have now only get better with time and revisited analysis, so start putting those concepts into production so you can move on to improving them. Material work is always more impressive than conceptual in a design portfolio. Everyone has the potential to be creative, but not everyone does it.
- The spirit of The Hedonist Magazine is “The Essence of a Joyful Living.” How does Joy during the process of creation affect your own experience, and consequently the final manifestation of your actions?
Being hired for my product and not for services, I have a freedom in deciding what I create. That freedom charges my creations with an energy that propels them beyond serving the purpose at hand, and brings me a profound, existential happiness. I create work that I love and I think that’s reflected in the experience of the space.
- When you hear “You can be, do and have anything you want,” words by Abraham Hicks, what’s your take on such a statement?
I agree with that statement, but I think the concept is a little more complex than that. If you work for something, you can achieve it. If you just want something but don’t want to work for it, you don’t really want it. The reverse is true also: if you work for something but don’t want it, you probably won’t succeed. Something that’s worked for is obviously more valuable to the individual than something that’s been given to them. I’d edit the quote a bit to say, “You can be, do and have anything you really want.”