You can find all sorts of things on Craigslist. Lisa Sauve, the recipient of Taubman College’s 2021 Recent Alumni Award, found her first client.
It was the last semester of her undergraduate architecture program at Lawrence Technological University. It also was 2009 — a global recession had by and large killed the job market for soon-to-be bachelor’s degree holders. So Sauve and her fellow classmate Adam Smith answered an ad on Craigslist that was seeking an interior designer for a new office space in Detroit.
The client wanted Sauve and Smith to advise on paint color and drapery. “And we said, ‘We’ve got a bigger idea for you,’” recalls Sauve.
The duo ended up fabricating a perforated plywood scheme to wrap the space, and they crafted the furniture, too. “We knew what the opportunity meant, so we put everything into creating the best project we knew how to create with the budget we had,” says Sauve, noting that they talked the client into increasing the budget to $1,500 from the initial $1,000.
The client was happy, the project won a couple of design awards, and Sauve and Smith had the all-important first real project for their portfolio.
These days, it’s easier for Sauve, M.Arch ’11, M.S. ’14, and Smith, M.Arch ’11, to find work. They still are design partners — and now life partners, too. And their studio, Synecdoche, lands projects with budgets much larger than $1,500. Sauve is the firm’s CEO and principal; Smith is director of design.
Their projects include the Ann Arbor headquarters of tech companies Llamasoft and Duo Security, as well as a Duo branch office in California and restaurants throughout southeast Michigan. Sauve jokes that the firm has opened more restaurants than their clients. Synecdoche currently is in the early design phase of a ground-up compound in west Michigan that will feature a restaurant and entertainment venue situated on 85 acres. “It’s a blank-slate project, which is new for us, and the discussions around how to approach that have been really exciting,” Sauve says.
Sauve says Synecdoche is not an architecture practice because what a traditional practice might call “fringe benefits” is integral to Synecdoche’s offerings: securing health department approvals, understanding equipment specs and resulting operations flows, and expertise in zoning ordinances thanks to Sauve’s service on the Ann Arbor Planning Commission.
“We want clients to understand that whatever they think about an architecture firm, we’re different,” she says. “And none of us are just interiors or just fabrication. We’re an interdisciplinary practice in which we each bring holistic expertise to a project.”
As the firm’s portfolio expands, so does Sauve’s profile as an up-and-coming architect and businesswoman. She was the co-recipient (with Erin Andrus, B.S. ’05, M.Arch ’07) of the 2021 Young Architect Award from the Michigan chapter of the American Institute of Architects. She was named to Crain’s Detroit’s list of notable women in design in 2020 and to Forbes’s Next 1000 list in 2021. Through the Next 1000 list, Forbes says it “showcases the ambitious sole proprietors, self-funded shops, and pre-revenue startups in every region of the country — all with under $10 million in revenue or funding and infinite drive and hustle.”
Sauve’s drive and hustle seem especially infinite in light of her journey at Taubman College and in starting her firm. While pursuing her M.Arch and then her Master of Science in Conservation at Taubman College, Sauve was trying to build Synecdoche through a project or two each year. She also was a single mom with a young child. On days after-care options fell through, Sauve would leave studio, take the bus to pick her daughter up from daycare at 5, and then return with her to finish studio. “I’d tell everyone to pick up their X-Acto blades off the floor because there was going to be a toddler crawling around. Everyone — my classmates and the faculty — was always so supportive.”
Synecoche’s Ann Arbor studio is an interdisciplinary practice in which each designer brings holistic expertise to a project.That support continued as Sauve and Smith entered the workforce. Their thesis faculty, Geoffrey Thün and Kathy Velikov, invited them to join their practice, RVTR, after graduation. Thün and Velikov didn’t blink when Sauve and Smith said they first needed to complete an installation that they had won a competition to build in Atlanta. “They knew that Synecdoche was always in the background, and they were very supportive of it,” Sauve says of Thün and Velikov. “Now that we’re the leaders of a firm, we encourage our designers to figure out their career path, and we support them. We want our industry to be more supportive and collaborative, less focused on self-interest.”
Beyond their six-person staff at Synecdoche, Sauve and Smith support the next generation in a coming-full-circle kind of way. That $1,500 budget for their very first project — the one they found on Craigslist — happens to be the same amount they award to each of the three Architecture Student Research Grant (ASRG) winners at Taubman College each year.
Initiated by the Class of 2013 and now funded annually by Sauve and Smith, ASRG calls for projects that push the boundaries and possibilities of the discipline of architecture. Projects can take many forms, such as built objects, public installations, experiments, representations, written work, and models for alternative practice. Grant recipients present their research as an exhibition and public lecture.
“With a $1,500 budget, we were able to secure built work and design on our terms to build a portfolio piece that laid the foundation for what we’ve got today,”
Sauve says. “We’ve never forgotten what that meant to us, and we’re happy to pay it forward.” Sauve says ASRG also pushes students to think about how to translate their ideas into something viable for real-world clients — which she also emphasized as the J. Robert F. Swanson Visiting Professor of Architecture at Taubman College during the winter 2022 semester. “In the end, the vast majority of them are going to leave academia and get jobs,” Sauve says of the students. “So they need to understand how to translate their ideas to people outside of their industry.”
That’s been critical for Sauve, too. “I stopped talking to architects. That was probably my best business decision,” says Sauve. “Talking to small business owners and understanding how they were pouring their life savings into their businesses made me really understand the investment they were making by hiring us. That, in turn, made me think about every detail of their project in a very real, nuanced way.”
Synecdoche also thinks about more than profit; hence their motto: Do Good Work. “When we’re trying to make a project as successful as possible in our community, instead of as profitable as possible, then our community is more successful, which then becomes an ecosystem we can be successful in. We’re taking the long view of reinvesting in and supporting our ecosystem,” Sauve says.
That played out perfectly in Synecdoche’s Nightcap project, a bar in Ann Arbor. As part of the design, Sauve successfully petitioned the building board of appeals to install gender neutral toilet rooms with a set of common sinks. When a Synecdoche staffer later joined SmithGroup and worked on LinkedIn’s Detroit office, she proposed a similar treatment. LinkedIn was so enamored with the idea, they made gender neutral facilities with common sinks global company policy.
As the mother of a child who is queer, Sauve says Nightcap and the ripple effect was especially meaningful. “Nightcap is a reflection of parenting my daughter. I try to fold into my work what I learn from them. In this case, the power of pushing individual ideas forward influenced the profession and industries beyond the profession.”
— Amy Spooner