Looking Forward to Monday Morning
A series of essays on business, architecture, and the business of architecture.
by Daniel Frisch
Posted June 2nd, 2018

Looking Forward to Monday Morning

One day during the fall of 2016, I was strolling along a Central Park path with a fellow dad from our kids’ school, and he said quite casually and in passing that I should write about my work.  Although I had thought about it over the years, his remark gave me that little push to go out the next week and buy my first laptop. My initial efforts were all introductions that laid out what I was going to write about and why.  At the onset, I was simply trying to explain and justify my project to myself, and looking back on the earliest pieces, it is very clear how much I didn’t know.  I also didn’t know how trying I would find writing to be, or how proud I would feel when I finally came back to re-write this “introduction.”

First, a little about myself, or as Freud might say, a little about my parents.  I was born a year after the baby boom in Manhattan, the second child of two natural science academics.  At six months, my father accepted a teaching position at Northwestern, and we moved from New York to Chicago.  Six years later it was on to Grand Rapids, Michigan for an exciting but short-lived teaching and research position, followed by an equally short-lived early retirement. After a few years of selling real estate, my parents opened an independent bookstore in Grand Rapids, and after that closed (a long family tradition of passionate but questionable entrepreneurship), they wrote and published a farmers’ market cookbook.  I still reference the volume and occasionally search the internet for used copies in good condition. My parents have been gone for a while (father 1996, mother 2008), and while I miss them very much, I think they would have enjoyed watching me start a family of my own, nurture a firm, and finally, to welcome another writer to the family.

My formal studies in architecture began in the tenth grade at East Grand Rapids Senior High School where I took both shop and mechanical drawing classes.  While I took typing, but skipped home economics, it was our mechanical drawing teacher Dan Graham who lit the fuse. And, upon the recommendation of an artist-friend of my parents, I applied to the 1982 summer Career Discovery Program at Harvard university.  The acceptance letter was the first of a number of surprisingly affirmative responses to school applications. That summer I was the youngest student in an intensive six-week program at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design (GSD), taking lecture, seminar and studio classes, exactly as I would for seven years in architecture school.

Those seven years of architecture school were spent at the University of Virginia and Columbia University, with a one-year sabbatical between.  At Virginia, I fell in love over and over again with architecture and design, demonstrably reinforcing the decision I had made to pursue my future in the field.  After graduation, I moved to Manhattan and landed an intern position at a young firm, a training that was every bit as valuable and confirming as my studies.  Graduate school at Columbia gave me useful insight into the competitiveness of the field.  Both in the academy and in the profession, stiff spines and broad shoulders are required.  I graduated in 1991 during a recessionary trough and was thrilled to get a job offer even before receiving my statement of arrears – my diploma would come ten years later.  The only problem being that the job offer wasn’t for a job, but more accurately, for an industry-norm internship.  This one was for a “Starchitect” for whom I had been a teaching assistant during my last two years of graduate school.  When I effusively thanked him for bringing me on, I also asked about some of the specifics including hours and compensation.  He seemed a bit taken aback, or possibly insulted by the question.  As for the number of hours I would be expected to ‘work,’ he referred me to his other apprentices, many of whom I knew, and who logged approximately eighty hours a week.  As for compensation, the starting base salary was zero, to be adjusted at the principal’s discretion at such time that my work product was a contribution to the firm.  Wasn’t I the fortunate one?

Six weeks after graduation, I tacked a different way and with two partners, started our firm.  I was twenty-five years old and young enough not to know better, but also certain there was a better model than the one I had otherwise considered. I could not have done this without my two partners, Edward Cabot, a friend from Columbia, and Amy Lesser, an Architect and my first cousin.  While the partnership didn’t survive, I’ll never forget the giddy enthusiasm we felt during the first years and know with the clarity of hindsight that I could not tell these stories without our shared belief and optimism.

When we founded the firm, our unwritten business plan was simple and straightforward; meet clients, design their homes, and celebrate our success. Easy. Although I recall innumerable struggles and difficult decisions, most were reactive to circumstances, not the product of our planning or, more aptly, our lack of planning.  For many years, I would start the week onerously writing, in longhand on a yellow pad, a to-do list of everything to be done.  The top of the list was dominated by items which were repeated every week yet were unlikely to be undertaken.  While the endeavor took a certain discipline and was proof, largely to self, of unwavering dedication, the exercise was much less productive than intended.  The numbing repetition was not a predictor or celebration of success, but the recording of the unaccomplished.  Without knowing it, I had created a depressing and solitary way to start the week whose only salvation was saving others from writer’s cramp.  After a dozen or so years and with a great sense of relief, I abandoned the practice of Monday morning to-do lists.

In 2016 and with our practice flourishing, we committed to a long-range growth plan.  We leased the floor above our townhouse home of twenty-two years and expanded the team to a head count in the low double digits, and fingers crossed, we keep growing.  Amongst the dust and upheaval of the expansion, we began holding Monday morning meetings.  While nothing compares to the Quaker meeting with its prolonged silence, our meetings have become my personal bully pulpit.  My Monday morning conversations with our team sometimes cover recent project developments, yet more often introduce broader concepts, addressing the ‘why’ of what we do – a running conversation seemingly without limits.  In the posts that follow, you will have a seat at our Monday morning table, enjoying a weekly discussion that always leaves me “Looking Forward to Monday Morning.”  There’s no place I’d rather be.