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Friday, September 23, 2005 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Northwest Living

Chic On The Cheap

John Fleming, 48, is a principal in rbf architecture (a.k.a. Rohleder Borges Fleming Architecture), a Seattle firm recognized for its high-end, detail-oriented design work. In March 2005, with his personal life in transition, Fleming moved from a house on Queen Anne into a month-to-month space in Fremont. He talked to us there about his work.

Q: This is a legal living space, right?

A: Live and studio space, yes. Nine units in the building. People rent work space in the metal foundry right behind this door by my kitchen.

Q: What is it like living here?

A: It has been kind of liberating to be in a new space, but also it is so tiny I can't take extra things on. My two boys — who live with their mother — think all of this is quite interesting. My younger son is 10 and sleeps up here in the clothes-closet loft when he visits.

Q: How does this project relate to your architecture work? Or is that a fair question?

A: This is a lot of experimentation to make a bland space interesting. It's begun by stacking things, as opposed to drawing plans. The aspect that carries into the work that we do is the idea of natural materials, wanting things to be what they are, not masking them. Recognizing that here are the characteristics of seasoned wood . . . and the feeling that some things look better with age. I love the patina, the weathering of this old wood.

Q: In a way, your layering technique reminds me of Japanese screens made from smoke-seasoned bamboo. Or tramp art, where layered pieces of wood are made into small boxes or furniture.

A: It is like that. Gravity holds them together, but they're quite stable. On the top of the wall form there is a screw to hold it to the framing wall. There's a nail at each one of the corners for support.

Q: You're talking low-budget here.

A: It's a temporary rental space, so I didn't want to put much money in it. I think I've spent — including fitting out the closet — about $500. When you think about it, the better pieces of architecture often get pared down to essentials. I think it's a hard lesson to learn for some high-end residential clients, trying to limit to one finish material instead of five materials. This is refreshing because there is no finish to it.

Q: When someone walks into one of your buildings, how can they tell it's a Fleming design?

A: One thing is the details. Sometimes, simple things — a door trim, an impression of minimalism. Leaving things more in their natural state: black steel, wood finishes. But also — and what happens here — a simple volume, and within that, rooms within a room. For example, the loft, the closet, the bathroom here don't have walls that go all the way up, so you get a sense of bigger space. The house, or in this case one room, has a family of smaller rooms. Even this wall reads as its own piece. A lot of my work, for example, is about saying this wall has a different purpose, a different reason than that wall. Therefore, it should be of a different material.

Q: What is your background?

A: My father was in the U.S. Forest Service, and I grew up on small ranger stations in New Mexico and Arizona. I studied ceramics as an undergraduate in Arizona, and in Idaho with Jim Romberg. I got a master's of architecture degree at the University of New Mexico in 1983. I went to India, taught architecture for six months, came back to Albuquerque and worked for (the architect) Antoine Predock for five years. I came to Seattle to work for George Suyama from 1989 to '93, and then briefly at a handful of other big firms here before I went off on my own.

Q: What has your firm worked on recently?

A: A mix. My partner Tim Rohleder has been working on a 100,000-square-foot hangar facility in San Jose, Calif. Last summer we finished the Bainbridge Island Heritage Museum, which has been quite well-received. The screen-wall project of steel grass blades we did down at Seattle Center — we were playing with the idea of what is art, what's architecture.

Q: Your residential projects are quite elegant. Do you sometimes have to be a strong advocate for design?

A: As an architect you have to be firm and you have to be clear, and at a certain point you have to draw the line and say, this is the way it's going, this is what I believe in. It can be very tricky when you have to tell the person paying you why you're doing something. And, you still need to keep your own mind open to allow other points of view to come in without clouding your intention.

Q: What attracts you to architecture?

A: It has an agenda, or requirements. The screen wall that we did for Seattle Center had to screen off the parking lot. That was its charge. And, it had to define an entryway. The client said, 'That's what we want you to do for us.' It wasn't just creating something pretty to look at. I really like that about architecture. It serves us; it serves people who inhabit it. It feels deceitful if the result is just standing back and saying, 'That's a pretty building.' It goes much deeper than that, and that's what I like about it.

The interviewer, Dean Stahl, is a Seattle freelance writer. He can be reached at architectsathome@mac.com. Benjamin Benschneider is a Pacific Northwest magazine staff photographer.

Copyright © 2005 The Seattle Times Company

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