To celebrate Valentine’s Day, we’re speaking to three design partners who are also partners in life—because who said you can’t mix work and play? Each duo here is in a completely different stage of their relationship, but all of them agree 100% that joining forces both in work and life makes their design practice stronger.
Some find balancing professional and family life easy, thanks to some very clear-cut boundaries, while others say blurring the lines between home and office makes their design work all the more intense and powerful.
Azusa Murakami and Alex Groves of Studio Swine are young and childless, UnderConsideration’s Bryony Gomez-Palacio and Armin Vit are married with young children, and Studio Thonik’s Thomas Widdershoven and Nikki Gonnissen’s kids are now all grown up, so both mother and father have returned to full-time work commitments.
Here, all three couples tell us how they make it work. Turns out romance can be beautifully designed, too.
UnderConsideration’s Bryony Gomez-Palacio + Armin Vit
Austin’s Bryony Gomez-Palacio and Armin Vit of the prolific blog network and design firm UnderConsideration actually met on Valentine’s weekend at a nightclub in 1997. They’ve been together ever since, and from 2006 onwards—the year they set up UnderConsideration and had their first baby together—they’ve been working and living under the same roof.
“Our office is in the room that used to be the main bedroom of the house, so now we take a shower in the office,” laughs Vit. “Sometimes I’ll be on the phone and Bryony has the shower going and the person on the other end of the line can hear it.” They put up no walls between home life and work life—office hours are personal hours, and vice versa.
Despite the lack of spatial boundaries, clear roles have developed over time, mostly due to circumstance. The very organized Gomez-Palacio handles more of the administration and finances, and as she’s keen to “be present every day when the school bell rings,” Vit is the one who goes out more often for meetings and events.
Still, when it comes to design “nothing leaves the office without us both approving it first.”
Gomez-Palacio and Vit are stronger working together as a couple, and their firm is all the better for it. “There is no one I trust more in being 100% honest with me at all times,” explains Gomez-Palacio. “There’s no tiptoeing around feelings. Instead of creating tension between us, it has simply made our bond stronger in all aspects of our daily lives, be it at work, at home, or in parenting.”
Studio Swine’s Azusa Murakami + Alex Groves
Azusa Murakami and Alex Groves of Studio Swine met while studying at the Royal College of Art in London. They immediately began dating and designing together, so the two areas have been inextricably linked for the entirety of their professional lives—and they can’t imagine working in any other way.
“Our office is wherever we’re living,” the couple says, which makes sense since so much of their design work and research is tied to their global travels—whether they’re on a boat in the North Atlantic gyre harvesting sea plastic for stools or in far flung Chinese villages collecting hair resin for amber colored combs and dressing tables.
“The lack of a division allows us to focus on work full-time, and that can really accelerate project development,” explains Groves. The only downside? “Without set hours, the efficiency of the hours we put in can actually drop dramatically.”
Their roles within the studio aren’t clearly defined either. If anything, Groves works slightly more on production while Murakami tends to focus on project development and research. They believe Ray and Charles Eames had it right. “As a design couple, they never had to switch between being a designer to being something else—they looked at everything through the prism of design, and this gave them a huge advantage.”
For Murakami and Groves, being a couple gives them this “unfair” advantage, too. “There is a constant discourse between us. We’re always thinking about what a project can be and where it’s going next.”
Thomas Widdershoven + Nikki Gonnissen: Studio Thonik
Thomas Widdershoven first spotted Nikki Gonnissen in 1992 when she was buying ice cream in a park in Amsterdam. As an unabashed, capital-R Romantic, he followed her, and soon struck up a conversation. What impressed Gonnissen most was when she heard Widdershoven talk about typography. As it turned out, they were both in their last year studying graphic design.
“Immediately a love relationship was born,” they wholeheartedly agree.
The couple realized how well-suited they were to working together when they both—independently—got jobs at the same magazine. They later quit at the same time to start their own graphic design agency, what has now become Amsterdam’s much sought-after Studio Thonik.
For those whose life is their work, the benefits of practicing design with your spouse abound. “Life is more work-orientated and you share everything (work, travel, experience)” both Widdeshoven and Gonnissen say as they reflect on their history together. But they, like any couple that wants to keep office hours and personal hours separate “have to work hard on keeping work out of love and family life.”
One of the ways that they’ve done this is by making sure that the spaces for work and home are very clearly defined. When their kids were born, Widdeshoven and Gonnissen converted the ground floor of their house into a studio, with clients and colleges filtering in and out daily. Widdershoven notes that “as a career woman, you really do lose about a year and a half per kid,” but she was quickly able to pick it back up again. Once their children grew older and their team expanded, Studio Thonik relocated to its own space. “We’d moved into a new period,” says Gonnissen, “and as a family, our urge for privacy had grown.”
Six different designers, three different design studios, and three unique creative practices—maybe the work-life balance thing really is a myth. In any case, it seems as if you really can have it all, no matter what your life situation is. Like any relationship—personal or business—it just takes work.